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Posted on on November 25th, 2012
by Pincas Jawetz (


Is This the End?


Whether in 50 or 100 or 200 years, there’s a good chance that New York City will sink beneath the sea. Comment

Is This the End?…


Related in Sunday Review


By JAMES ATLAS,  Published: November 24, 2012  3 Comments
WE’D seen it before: the Piazza San Marco in Venice submerged by the acqua alta; New Orleans underwater in the aftermath of Katrina; the wreckage-strewn beaches of Indonesia left behind by the tsunami of 2004. We just hadn’t seen it here. (Last summer’s Hurricane Irene did a lot of damage on the East Coast, but New York City was spared the worst.) “Fear death by water,” T. S. Eliot intoned in “The Waste Land.” We do now.

There had been warnings. In 2009, the New York City Panel on Climate Change issued a prophetic report. “In the coming decades, our coastal city will most likely face more rapidly rising sea levels and warmer temperatures, as well as potentially more droughts and floods, which will all have impacts on New York City’s critical infrastructure,” said William Solecki, a geographer at Hunter College and a member of the panel. But what good are warnings? Intelligence agents received advance word that terrorists were hoping to hijack commercial jets. Who listened? (Not George W. Bush.) If we can’t imagine our own deaths, as Freud insisted, how can we be expected to imagine the death of a city?

History is a series of random events organized in a seemingly sensible order. We experience it as chronology, with ourselves as the end point — not the end point, but as the culmination of events that leads to the very moment in which we happen to live. “Historical events might be unique, and given pattern by an end,” the critic Frank Kermode proposed in “The Sense of an Ending,” his classic work on literary narrative, “yet there are perpetuities which defy both the uniqueness and the end.” What he’s saying (I think) is that there is no pattern. Flux is all.

Last month’s “weather event” should have taught us that. Whether in 50 or 100 or 200 years, there’s a good chance that New York City will sink beneath the sea. But if there are no patterns, it means that nothing is inevitable either. History offers less dire scenarios: the city could move to another island, the way Torcello was moved to Venice, stone by stone, after the lagoon turned into a swamp and its citizens succumbed to a plague of malaria. The city managed to survive, if not where it had begun. Perhaps the day will come when skyscrapers rise out of downtown Scarsdale.

Humans are ingenious. Our species tends to see nature as something of a nuisance, a phenomenon to be outwitted. Consider efforts to save Venice: planners have hatched one scheme after another to prevent the city from sinking. Industrial development has been curtailed. Buildings dating from the Renaissance have been “relocated.”

The most ambitious project, begun a decade ago, is the installation of mobile gates in the lagoons. Known by the acronym MOSE — the Italian name for Moses, who mythically parted the Red Sea — it’s an intricate engineering feat: whenever the tide rises, metal barriers that lie in concrete bunkers on the sea floor are lifted by compressed air pressure and pivoted into place on hinges.

Is the Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico — the project’s official name — some engineer’s fantasy? It was scheduled for completion this year, but that has been put off until 2014. Even if, by some miracle, the gates materialize, they will be only a stay against the inevitable. Look at the unfortunate Easter Islanders, who left behind as evidence of their existence a mountainside of huge blank-faced busts, or the Polynesians of Pitcairn Island, who didn’t leave behind much more than a few burial sites and a bunch of stone tools. Every civilization must go.

Yet each goes in its own way. In “Collapse,” Jared Diamond showed how the disappearance of a civilization has multiple causes. A cascade of events with unforeseen consequences invariably brings it to a close. The Norse of Greenland cut down their trees (for firewood and other purposes) until there were no more trees, which made it a challenge to build houses or boats. There were other causes, too: violent clashes with the Inuit, bad weather, ice pileups in the fjords blocking trade routes. But deforestation was the prime factor. By the end, no tree fell in the forest, as there was none; and there would have been no one to hear it if it had.

“Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice,” declared Robert Frost. Another alternative would be lava. Pliny the Younger’s letters to Tacitus described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius: A plume of dirt and ash rose in the sky; rocks pelted Pompeii; and then darkness arrived. “It was not like a moonless or cloudy night, but like being in an enclosed place where the light has been doused.” Who did this? It must have been the gods. “Many were raising their hands to implore the gods, but more took the view that no gods now existed anywhere, and that this was an eternal and final darkness hanging over the world.” But of course it wasn’t the end of the world: it was just the end of them.

Contemplating our ephemerality can be a profound experience. To wander the once magnificent Roman cities strung along the Lycian coast of Turkey — now largely reduced to rubble, much still unexcavated — is to realize how extensive, how magisterial this civilization was. Whole cities are underwater; you can snorkel over them and read inscriptions carved into ancient monoliths. Ephesus, pop. 300,000 in the second century A.D., is a vast necropolis. The amphitheater that accommodated nearly 25,000 people sits empty. The Temple of Artemis, said to have been four times larger than the Parthenon, is a handful of slender columns.

YET we return home from our travels intoxicated by beauty, not truth. It doesn’t occur to us that we, too, will one day be described in a guidebook (Fodor’s North America 2212?) as metropolitans who resided in 60-story towers and traveled beneath the waves in metal-sheathed trains.

It’s this willed ignorance, I suspect, that explains why it’s difficult to process the implications of climate change for New York, even in the face of explicit warnings from politicians, not the most future-oriented people. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has been courageous to make global warming a subject of public debate, but will taxpayers support his proposal to build a levee in New York Harbor? Wouldn’t it be easier to think of Sandy as a “once in a lifetime” storm? Even as Lower Manhattan continues to bail itself out — this time in the literal sense — One World Trade Center rises, floor by floor. The governor notes that “we have a 100-year flood every two years now,” which doesn’t stop rents from going up in Battery Park City.

Walking on New York’s Upper East Side, I was reminded by the gargantuan white box atop a busy construction site that the Second Avenue line, first proposed in 1929, remains very much in the works. And why not? Should images of water pouring into the subway tunnels that occupied our newspapers a few weeks back be sufficient to stay us from progress? “I must live till I die,” says the hero of a Joseph Conrad novel. The same could be said of cities.

When, on my way home at night, I climb the steps from the subway by the American Museum of Natural History — itself a monument to transience, with its dinosaurs and its mammoth and its skeleton of a dodo bird, that doomed species whose name has become an idiom for extinction — I feel more keenly than ever the miraculousness, the improbability of New York.

Looking down Central Park West, I’m thrilled by the necklace of green-and-red traffic lights extending toward Columbus Circle and the glittering tower of One57, that vertical paradise for billionaires. And as I walk past the splashing fountain in front of the museum’s south entrance on West 77th Street, I recall a sentence from Edward Gibbon’s ode to evanescence, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” in which “the learned Poggius” gazes down at the remains of the city from the Capitoline hill: “The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.”

This is our fate. All the more reason to appreciate what we have while we have it.

James Atlas is a contributing opinion writer and the author of a forthcoming book about biography.

Interactive Graphic

What Could Disappear

Coastal and low-lying areas that would be permanently flooded in three levels of higher seas.


Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines

Hurricane Sandy offered a preview of the dangers to come as the planet warms.

Rising Seas, Vanishing Coastlines.

Published: November 24, 2012

Now we are in a new warming phase, and the oceans are rising again after thousands of years of stability. As scientists who study sea level change and storm surge, we fear that Hurricane Sandy gave only a modest preview of the dangers to come, as we continue to power our global economy by burning fuels that pollute the air with heat-trapping gases.

This past summer, a disconcerting new scientific study by the climate scientist Michiel Schaeffer and colleagues — published in the journal Nature Climate Change — suggested that no matter how quickly we cut this pollution, we are unlikely to keep the seas from climbing less than five feet.

More than six million Americans live on land less than five feet above the local high tide. (Searchable maps and analyses are available at for every low-lying coastal community in the contiguous United States.) Worse, rising seas raise the launching pad for storm surge, the thick wall of water that the wind can drive ahead of a storm. In a world with oceans that are five feet higher, our calculations show that New York City would average one flood as high as Hurricane Sandy’s about every 15 years, even without accounting for the stronger storms and bigger surges that are likely to result from warming.

Floods reaching five feet above the current high tide line will become increasingly common along the nation’s coastlines well before the seas climb by five feet. Over the last century, the nearly eight-inch rise of the world’s seas has already doubled the chance of “once in a century” floods for many seaside communities.

We hope that with enough time, most of our great coastal cities and regions will be able to prepare for a five-foot increase. Some will not. Barriers that might work in Manhattan would be futile in South Florida, where water would pass underneath them by pushing through porous bedrock.

According to Dr. Schaeffer’s study, immediate and extreme pollution cuts — measures well beyond any discussion now under way — could limit sea level rise to five feet over 300 years. If we stay on our current path, the oceans could rise five feet by the first half of next century, then continue rising even faster. If instead we make moderate shifts in energy and industry — using the kinds of targets that nations have contemplated in international talks but have failed to pursue — sea level could still climb past 12 feet just after 2300. It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase.

WE might find comfort in the fact that this is just one set of projections, and projections are notoriously tough to get right. But a second study that also came out this past summer erases any such comfort.

Led by the geochemist Andrea Dutton and published in the journal Science, the second paper uses deep history, not model projections, for clues to the future. About 125,000 years ago, before the last ice age, there was a warm period that lasted 10,000 to 15,000 years. It was perhaps a little warmer than today, but cooler than the temperatures that climate scientists expect later in this century without sharp pollution cuts. Dr. Dutton’s research strongly reinforces a prior study led by one of us, which found that the warm-period sea levels rose roughly 20 to 30 feet higher than those of today. We just don’t have a clear picture of how fast that could happen again.

Any sea level forecast must be interpreted carefully: things could be better, or worse.

The Schaeffer study uses the relationship between global temperature and sea level over the past 1,000 years — when it was cool, and the great ice sheets were generally stable — to extrapolate over the next 300 years — when it will be hot, and the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica may behave differently. Other scientific teams have tried the notoriously difficult task of forecasting ice sheet decay in physical detail, and this has tended to produce slower estimates of sea level rise than the Schaeffer team’s method. But any projection is compromised by the fact that we are sending heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere far faster than anything the planet has seen for at least 55 million years.

The Dutton study comes with caveats, too. Earth’s orbit was different during the last warm period, bringing more sunshine to the Arctic and complicating the analogy with today. But today we are on a path to a planet that will be much hotter than it was in the period Dr. Dutton studied.

There are two basic ways to protect ourselves from sea level rise: reduce it by cutting pollution, or prepare for it by defense and retreat. To do the job, we must do both. We have lost our chance for complete prevention; and preparation alone, without slowing emissions, would — sooner or later — turn our coastal cities into so many Atlantises.

Benjamin Strauss is the chief operating officer and director of the program on sea level rise at Climate Central, a research group. Robert Kopp is an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences at Rutgers University and associate director of the Rutgers Energy Institute.



Paying for Future Catastrophes

Hurricane Sandy pulled a cabana complex in Sea Bright, N.J., off its foundations. Even with subsidized premiums, many homeowners drop their flood insurance, thinking it’s a bad investment.

Paying for Future Catastrophes.

Seth Wenig/Associated PressHurricane Sandy pulled a cabana complex in Sea Bright, N.J., off its foundations.

Published: November 24, 2012

HURRICANE SANDY could cost the nation a staggering $50 billion, about a third of the cost of Hurricane Katrina — to date the most costly disaster in United States history.

But Hurricane Sandy was not an isolated event. Indeed, the incidence of extreme events is far more frequent. Twenty of the 30 most expensive insured catastrophes worldwide from 1970 to 2011 have occurred since 2001 — and 13 of them were in the United States. Aside from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all were natural disasters. The increase is most likely because of the location in high-risk areas of more people, and more valuable properties, along with a changing climate.

What’s next? And who will pay?

Schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, utilities and transportation services are primarily rebuilt with federal funds through the Stafford Act, with 25 percent picked up by state and local governments.

For families and businesses, insurance plays an important role in assisting financial recovery. However many people, including those in high-risk areas, don’t have coverage, either put off by its cost or by the belief that the next disaster “will not happen to me.” Ninety percent of Californians, for example, are without earthquake coverage.

Because of the quickening pace of disaster, those who want insurance or are required to buy it now face much higher costs in risky areas. Premiums for homeowners’ insurance (which covers wind damage) doubled in Florida between 2002 and 2007, tripling in some areas after the 2004-5 hurricane seasons, if insurance was available at all.

Many insurers have raised their premiums because of increased risk estimates, higher cost of reinsurance (insurers transfer part of their risk to international reinsurers), the requirement by regulators and rating agencies that insurers hold more capital in order to reduce the likelihood of insolvency, and the need to provide shareholders with an attractive return.

In response to this insurance crisis, several states developed state-run wind insurance pools intended to serve as insurers of last resort. These institutions typically offer hurricane coverage for residences in high-risk areas at a much lower premium than coverage provided by the private market. Today, the largest wind pool, Citizens, covers nearly $500 billion of assets and has the biggest market share of all homeowner insurers in Florida.

Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas also have such wind pools, although they’re much smaller.

These hybrid mechanisms are obviously popular: homeowners pay less than if they purchased private insurance, builders have an easier time selling properties in hazard-prone areas since insurance premiums are kept artificially low, and elected officials look good, having “solved” the problem.

The untold story, however, is that all insurance policyholders in the state will be forced to pay if the pool does not have enough funding to honor its claims, which is most likely when the next large-scale disaster hits.

Those who live in nonrisky areas are subsidizing the choices of others. Take residential flood insurance. Most insurers refuse to cover the risk, so the National Flood Insurance Program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was established in 1968 with subsidized rates for those then living in flood-prone areas.

Today, the program covers 5.6 million policyholders, who are paying an average of $55 per month. About one million of them are still getting flood insurance for less than half price because the house was built before the flood hazard maps were established.

So it is unsurprising that the program had to borrow $18 billion from the United States Treasury to pay for its claims after the historic 2005 and 2008 hurricane seasons, an amount it has yet to pay back. It will have to borrow even more after Hurricane Sandy.

But even with a subsidized premium, many people drop coverage. (Banks might require it, but apparently if they do, they are not always enforcing that provision.) Our research shows that half of all policyholders cancel their flood coverage after only three or four years. Why? Because they paid premiums without getting anything in return and are likely to think “Bad investment!” But insurance is a safety net, not a bet.

UNINSURED disaster victims have to rely on family, friends or donations; apply for limited federal individual assistance grants; or take on low-interest disaster loans, if they qualify. Although the number of presidential disaster declarations prompting federal relief is at a record high (99 declarations last year alone), the truth is that most of that money goes to affected states to rebuild their public assets, not to individual victims. The status quo is unacceptable: our already fragile economy cannot afford more of those huge losses from extreme events. A more coherent strategy can encourage personal responsibility and proper protection.

First, premiums should reflect risk. This makes transparent the magnitude of the hazards one faces and could limit new construction in high-risk areas. Residents would be encouraged to reduce risk by getting discounts for, say, elevating a house or strengthening the roof.

Second, we should address equity and affordability. If premiums are risk-based, those who live in hazard-prone areas and cannot afford insurance will require assistance. We propose establishing a federal disaster insurance means-tested voucher program similar to the food stamp program.

We also propose having multiyear disaster insurance contracts with rates locked in so that customers won’t capriciously abandon their contracts after a couple of years without a disaster. Currently contracts are for a single year. The multiyear contracts would be attached directly to the property, not the individual, and could be complemented by a home improvement loan for financing loss-reduction measures.

A presidential commission tasked with redesigning our national disaster financing strategy could quantify risk in dollar terms and make it very clear who was responsible for what — whether private or public risk was involved.

Let’s act while attention is still focused on avoiding the consequences of another Hurricane Sandy.

Erwann Michel-Kerjan and Howard Kunreuther teach at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and are co-authors of “At War with the Weather.”


What Could Disappear

Maps show coastal and low-lying areas that would be permanently flooded, without engineered protection, in three levels of higher seas. Percentages are the portion of dry, habitable land within the city limits of places listed that would be permanently submerged.

  • Today’s waterways
  • Land submerged by rising oceans
Select sea level rise over current level:

Notes on sea level estimates

0 feet: Today’s sea levels and land area.
5 feet: Probable level in about 100 to 300 years.
12 feet: Potential level in about 2300 if nations make only moderate pollution cuts.
25 feet: Potential level in coming centuries, based on historical climate data.


0%1%5%12% flooded

Land around the many Patapsco River inlets is flooded. Fells Point and the city’s ports are submerged. Flooding extends over much of downtown and many waterfront communities, like Dundalk.



0%9%24%37% flooded


0%26%51%86% flooded

Logan Airport starts to disappear. Boston Harbor begins to encroach on downtown; the Charles River floods southern Cambridge. Back Bay, the South End and the airport are permanently submerged. What’s left of downtown is an island. The downtown island shrinks to mostly Beacon Hill. Many shore communities are flooded.

Charleston, S.C.

0%19%42%80% flooded

The Atlantic coast pushes several miles inland. Much of the original city and its ports are flooded. The coast moves up to 10 miles inland. The old city is submerged.



0%0%1%5% flooded


0%68%97%100% flooded

Barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico are mostly covered. Galveston Bay laps at the Johnson Space Center; Galveston is submerged. The Space Center and the vast industrial zone along the Houston Ship Channel are inundated; the sea moves inland as much as 15 miles.

Jacksonville, Fla.

0%3%17%56% flooded

Much of the region’s low-lying wetlands disappear. The Atlantic coast moves about 4 miles inland; downtown begins to flood. Most of the built-up areas in the city are submerged.

Los Angeles area

Los Angeles

0%1%2%3% flooded

Long Beach

0%7%20%45% flooded

Huntington Beach

0%27%50%72% flooded

Low coastal areas, like the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, disappear. The Port of Long Beach is permanently submerged. In much of Long Beach and Huntington Beach, the Pacific moves up to four miles inland.

Long Island

0%5%12%21% flooded

Barrier islands start to submerge; other islands in Middle and East Bays disappear. Shore of main island moves inland. Portions of North and South Forks flood, turning remaining land to islands. All barrier islands gone. The southern shore has moved one to five miles inland in most places.



0%20%73%99% flooded

Miami Beach

0%94%100%100% flooded

Much of suburban Miami and the area’s barrier islands, including Miami Beach, are submerged. Miami is reduced to small islands; the downtown district is mostly flooded. Miami Beach is gone.
The entire metropolitan area is permanently flooded.

Mobile, Ala.

0%4%19%36% flooded

The vast Mobile delta wilderness is flooded. Downtown starts to flood, as does much of southern Mobile. Downtown is inundated. Mobile Bay is several miles wider.

New Jersey

Atlantic City

0%62%97%100% flooded


0%2%35%52% flooded

Jersey City

0%20%46%62% flooded

Barrier islands start to disappear, much of Atlantic City and the Meadowlands are flooded, and the mainland shrinks a mile or more in places. Most of the Cape May peninsula is gone. Port Newark and Newark International Airport flood. Downtown Newark, downtown Jersey City, Atlantic City, most of the state’s coastal towns and the Cape May peninsula are all gone.

New Orleans

0%88%98%100% flooded

If levees breach, almost all of the city would flood. The surrounding region is also mostly flooded. Every community in the delta region is swamped. The gulf shore advances to Interstate 12.

New York City

0%7%22%39% flooded

The East River starts to eat away at La Guardia Airport. Port complexes are flooded. La Guardia and John F. Kennedy airports are permanently submerged, as are Coney Island, the Rockaways and neighborhoods along Jamaica Bay. Large portions of all five boroughs are gone, including much of Manhattan below 34th Street.

Northern California

San Francisco

0%6%11%19% flooded


0%4%27%62% flooded

Flooding in low-lying estuaries of San Francisco Bay and, if levees fail, the expansive Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta. Northern and southern sections of Sacramento flood. Nearly two-thirds of Sacramento, including downtown, is inundated.


0%1%6%21% flooded

Some flooding close to the Delaware River. Philadelphia International Airport is largely swamped. Much of the historic district and South Philadelphia are submerged, as is the vast refinery complex along the Schuylkill. The Delaware swells to five miles wide.

Portland, Me.

0%3%6%16% flooded

Prouts Neck becomes an island. Flooding of wharf areas. Water encroaches on parts of the downtown district and much of South Portland.

Portland, Ore.

0%3%8%16% flooded

The Columbia River swells and floods natural habitats like the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Portland International Airport floods. The Columbia shaves two miles off the north side of Portland.

Providence, R.I.

0%1%6%13% flooded

Flooding along Narragansett Bay inlets. Downtown Providence begins to flood. A larger section of the downtown area is under water.

San Diego

0%0%3%6% flooded

Minor flooding. San Diego International Airport is largely underwater. San Diego Bay encroaches on downtown and ports. Coronado Island is mostly gone.

Savannah, Ga.

0%8%40%87% flooded

Widespread flooding of estuaries along the Atlantic coast. Savannah is reduced to several islands. Most of the region is under water, with only small sections of Savannah spared.



0%4%9%13% flooded


0%10%13%14% flooded

River deltas in Tacoma, Everett and Seattle flood. The Duwamish Waterway in Seattle, lined with ports and industry, swells to a mile wide or more. Much of the large suburb of Kent is flooded.

Tampa Bay area


0%18%32%50% flooded

St. Petersburg

0%32%49%70% flooded

Tampa Bay pushes inland one to four miles and eats away at MacDill Air Force Base. Beach communities flood. MacDill and most of the peninsula it sits on disappear. Downtown Tampa, Tampa International Airport and Tarpon Springs are swamped. Parts of Clearwater survive on an island; St. Petersburg is reduced to a smaller island.


Virginia Beach-Norfolk



0%9%78%100% flooded

Virginia Beach

0%21%63%99% flooded

Newport News

0%8%16%39% flooded

Large areas of low coastal wetlands disappear. Downtown Norfolk and many of the area’s military installations are under water. Most of the region is permanently submerged.



0%2%7%14% flooded


Riverfront areas flood, including a portion of Bolling Air Force Base. Reagan National Airport and the National Mall begin to submerge. Much of central Washington below Constitution Avenue is inundated, as are National Airport and parts of Old Town Alexandria.


Wilmington, Del.

0%11%31%41% flooded


Flooding along the Delaware and Christina rivers. Much of eastern Wilmington and historic New Castle are under water. The Delaware is about 10 miles wide at New Castle.

Notes: These maps are based on elevation data from the U.S. Geological Survey and tidal level data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Maps show the extent of potential flooding relative to local high tide.

The 25-foot sea level rise is based on a 2012 study in the journal Science, which augmented findings from a 2009 Nature study. They found that 125,000 years ago — a period that may have been warmer than today but cooler than what scientists expect later this century without sharp pollution cuts — the seas were about 20 to 30 feet higher than today. If temperatures climb as expected in this century, scientists believe it would take centuries for seas to rise 20 to 30 feet as a result, because ice sheet decay responds slowly to warming.


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Sources: Remik Ziemlinski, Climate Central; U.S. Geological Survey; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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