Skip to main content

Climate change raises stakes for coast

By Ben Orlove, Special to CNN
updated 4:25 PM EDT, Mon October 29, 2012
A man watches the waves in New York Harbor from Battery Park during the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012 in New York City. The core of Sandy's force is supposed to hit the New York area Monday night.
A man watches the waves in New York Harbor from Battery Park during the arrival of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012 in New York City. The core of Sandy's force is supposed to hit the New York area Monday night.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ben Orlove: Some people still look at hurricanes through an outdated perspective
  • He says officials have been pro-active in preparing for the storm
  • Climate change has raised sea level, he says, and storm surge endangers subways
  • He asks: Why can't we take the threat of climate change as seriously as the storm?

Editor's note: Ben Orlove, an anthropologist, is a professor in the School of International and Public Affairs and in the Earth Institute at Columbia University, director of the Master's Program in Climate and Society, and director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions.

(CNN) -- I spent much of Sunday in touch with a group of fellow researchers. Like myself, they are college professors who are interested in understanding how people respond to weather and climate.

When we recognized last week that Hurricane Sandy was likely to make landfall rather than turning out to sea, we decided to conduct a telephone survey.

On Friday, we began asking East Coast residents how likely they thought the storm was to strike, how dangerous it would be, and what steps they were taking to protect themselves from the storm.

Ben Orlove
Ben Orlove

We are curious to see how well they could sort out the multiple threats -- wind, storm surge, heavy rain. We will not know the full results of our work for weeks, when we have processed the interviews, which are still under way as I write. But our initial impressions are that a number of people still focus on the features of hurricanes that were emphasized decades in the past, particularly the specific path of the storm's eye and the speed of the winds.

They do not adequately appreciate that a storm can be violently destructive hundreds of miles from its center, and that it can bring damage from threats other than wind -- threats that are particularly serious for Sandy. The scientific understanding of hurricanes has not yet been fully translated into public understanding.

Opinion: As Sandy descends, tips from Katrina survivors

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I did have some time for breaks, though, on this Sunday of work. In the morning, I went to the gym, where television screens gave details about the evacuations in low-lying areas and alerted people to the closure of the subways that evening. After lunch, I went to pick up some additional food. The pedestrians in my neighborhood were not strolling leisurely, but rather hurrying to supermarkets and drugstores, or walking back home, with heavy bags of supplies.

In the mid-afternoon, after a round of e-mails to colleagues, my wife and I decided to take a walk through the park in our neighborhood, before the mandatory closing at 5 p.m. went into effect. We knew that we might not be able to go outside for a day or two. Here, too, there were fewer people strolling than usual. The gray sky and strong breezes might have frightened off or discouraged some of the ones who were done with their preparations. The park was occupied largely by dog walkers, who recognized that their pets would soon be confined to their apartments.

Sandy could bring 'catastrophe,' affect 60 million

People, pets evacuate ahead of hurricane
Obama: Take hurricane 'very seriously'

We paused at an overlook with a view west to the Hudson River, and saw ships heading north, seeking safe waters. In the open waters off Long Island, waves are projected to reach 40 feet or higher, and even in New York Bay they might crest at five or six feet. Conditions would be calmer further upstream. What impressed me was the large size of the wakes that the ships made as they rushed against the outgoing tide. The ships that travel upriver usually wait for an incoming tide to carry them. But these ships could afford no delay.

As we turned to leave the park, I looked back at the river, still ebbing rapidly. I knew that the tides would turn and the storm arrive in full fury. And I thought of the most vulnerable structure in Manhattan, the sea wall at the southern tip of the island. This wall, which protects the city's subways from flooding, is nine feet high, usually a firm bulwark. But it faces three forces that bring waters higher. The tides are the first, and the second is the water pushed coastward by storms. The third is climate change.

Throughout the 20th century, sea levels were rising as a result of the warming of the oceans and the melting of ice in glaciers. This rise, which varies from place to place depending on patterns of wind and ocean currents, has been about a foot in the New York harbor.

Opinion: How Sandy will test Obama, Romney

When this foot is added to the four feet of the high tides at the full moon, it reaches five feet, more than half the height of the sea wall. Sandy's relentless winds have been pushing water in front of the storm as it approaches the coast; this storm surge will be heightened by the configuration of the coast at New York. If it exceeds four feet, the subways will flood, disrupting transportation for days or weeks, and causing billions of dollars of damage.

Last year, Hurricane Irene also arrived at a time of especially high tides, and its storm surge came within inches of flooding the sea well. Storms and tides are natural, but sea level rise is not. As it continues, New York grows more vulnerable. Every coastal city does.

The ships could sail north up the Hudson to escape danger, but sea walls and the subways are fixed in space. Governments, media and communities spring into action with the immediate threat of a hurricane, taking steps to prepare and to reduce harm. They issue warnings, remind people to obtain supplies, close parks and subways, open shelters, and organize evacuations.

Will they take the larger and more difficult actions to protect themselves from the slower, and far greater, threat of climate change?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ben Orlove.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT