Greater New York Urban Anxiety Jim Motavalli with Sherry Barnes

From a sea kayak floating off Pier 40 in lower Manhattan, you get a whole new perspective on New York City. The bustling metropolis falls away, and you are alone except for the sporadic barge traffic and the incongruity of students walking the high wire as part of a trapeze school in the Hudson River Park just beyond the seawall.

If the Hudson rises, it is most immediately noticeable to people like Randall Henriksen, who has led sea-kayaking expeditions here since 1994. From his perch in the front of the kayak, Hendriksen points to a green-and-white state Department of Environmental

Conservation sign on the seawall. "The algae there shows the mean high water line," he says. "It's been slowly but steadily moving up against that sign. The water has certainly been rising over the last few years, though you may not notice the change on a day-to-day basis," he says.

New York City, with more than seven million people, spills out over 378 square miles of land separated by the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers, Long Island Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean. The city, one of America's most diverse urban centers, is held together by a complex network of public works infrastructure, including roads, toll bridges, subway tunnels, water mains, gas lines, and millions of miles of telephone and television cables and electrical conduit.

It is a difficult city to run on a good day: In 1996, a "report card" prepared by the city's former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers chief gave New York's infrastructure failing grades, particularly for its aging water mains and solid waste treatment system, which dumps raw sewage into city harbors during storms.

So what happens when things get really bad? On December 11, 1992, a nor'easter storm hit the great city head-on. With wind gusts of up to 90 miles per hour and water surges 8 1/2 feet above mean sea level, New York's transportation infrastructure sputtered to a halt. Four million subway riders were stranded. The FDR Drive, the main highway along the east side of Manhattan, flooded up to 4 1/2 feet in some areas, and LaGuardia Airport, only 7 feet above sea level, grounded flights for the day. In the end, the federal disaster assistance totaled $233.6 million, according to Environmental Defense.

Was the storm a once-in-a-century fluke? Unlikely. Consider the summer of 1999, when high temperatures reigned over most of the eastern United States New York City experienced 27 days with temperatures of 90° F or more—double the number in an average year. Stores sold out of air conditioners, and 200,000 Manhattanites suffered a 19hour blackout on July 7 because of excess power demand. Water consumption broke records, and thirty-three people died of heat-related causes in the city. The heat was accompanied by the worst American drought since the Dust Bowl of the late 1930s—rainfall in New York was 8 inches below normal for the summer.

But after the drought, a deluge occurred. Heavy rains soaked the city in late August that year, once again flooding the FDR Drive and the West Side Highway, and drowning some subway tracks in 5 feet of water. The big rainstorm was followed in September by Hurricane Floyd. The worst of the hurricane just bypassed the city, but total regional property damage was estimated at $1 billion. Since global warming brings with it the certainty of rising sea level and stormier weather, the city's aging infrastructure and delicate natural balance face unheard-of challenges.

Vivien Gornitz, associate research scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, points toward a rectangular box jutting out of the Hudson in lower Manhattan, near a guarded U.S. Coast Guard booth. "That tide gauge uses an acoustic device to record the level of the sea's surface," she explains. "It takes a reading every six minutes." Gornitz and other researchers from Columbia University, New York University, and Montclair State University in New Jersey conducted an exhaustive study of the Metro East Coast (MEC) Region, which includes greater New York, Northern New Jersey, and Southern Connecticut, for the "U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change for the Nation." The MEC findings were published by the Columbia Earth Institute in 2001.

One of the things that troubles Gornitz is all the recent construction at the water's edge. "Look, you can see it's on both sides of the river," she gestures, her arm taking in both sides of the Hudson just north of the former World Trade Center site. Gornitz fears that all the luxurious waterfront condominiums and commercial businesses are taking a risk that will increase dramatically as the new century progresses.

The most conservative climate change model used for the MEC study does not allow for rising greenhouse gas emissions; it merely projects the effects of the current rate of sea-level rise. By the end of the century, it says, we will be seeing 100-year floods every 50 years. "In the worst-case scenario, it could be as often as every four to five years," Gornitz adds. "It wouldn't mean the whole city under water, just the low-lying areas, including beach communities, coastal wetlands and some of the airports." And to further exacerbate the problem, the greater New York area is still experiencing land subsidence triggered by the glacial retreat that occurred more than 10,000 years ago.

New York City is not waiting for climate change: It is already experiencing much warmer years and reduced snowfall. Gornitz notes anecdotal effects, including the Central Park pond that people skated on in the 1970s that now often remains unfrozen all winter. "The cherry blossoms come into leaf a lot earlier now," she adds, "and the leaves stay on the trees a lot longer in the fall."

Janine Bloomfield is a senior scientist at Environmental Defense and author of the report "Hot Nights in the City: Global Warming, Sea-Level Rise and the New York Metropolitan Area." Her report, based on MEC research, makes frightening reading. By 2100, she writes, New York City will have as many 90-degree days as Miami does today. "Sea-level rise will contribute to the temporary flooding or permanent inundation of many of New York City's and the region's coastal areas. . . . A large part of lower Manhattan would be at risk from frequent flooding by the end of the [twenty-first] century. . . . The East River would flood Bellevue Medical Center, the FDR Drive and East Harlem between 96th and 114th Street," the report says. In a poignant note, the pre-9/11 report notes that the foundations of the World Trade Center would be vulnerable to nearly annual flooding at the end of the century. Droughts that now occur once in a hundred years could occur every 3 to 11 years by 2100.

"The tragedy of this is that we could do something about this now so the scenarios I wrote about won't come to pass," says Bloomfield, who now lives in Boston. "Unfortunately, we won't react until the crises become obvious."

The coming changes will do more than make people swelter or get their feet wet occasionally. "It really could become a serious economic burden for the city," says Klaus Jacob, senior research scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "The current flood insurance program doesn't account for 100 years from now, and that's no way to plan for the future, especially a sustainable one."

Coordinated planning for these eventualities has been minimal, and actual action even less. Some airport runways and seawalls have been raised. Rae Zimmerman, a New York University professor and director of the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems, complains that there is little cooperation between city agencies affected by climate change, and long-range planning is often the first thing cut from budgets that need to be slashed. Federal action has been nonexistent, with the Bush administration and Congress refusing to commit to anything more than redundant studies. But Jacob notes sardonically, "Whether Congress wants to address it or not, the sea level will rise."

Losing the Bay

According to the New York Times, "Some have said that [Jamaica Bay's marsh] islands, rich with large and varied populations of birds and other wildlife, may largely disappear by 2020 if the causes are not found and remedies not applied." Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at NASA Goddard and also a professor at Columbia University, says the MEC project confirmed for the first time that Jamaica Bay's alarming wetlands loss is in part due to global warming. "Our wetlands researchers realized that something was happening out there that went beyond the usual stresses on this highly manipulated ecosystem," Rosenzweig said. "It's very complex, because there has been an interruption of sediment to the marshes, due to dredging for boat channels. Some people think the marshes are dying for reasons other than global warming, but we have documented with aerial photographs that climate change contributes to the loss by basically inundating the wetlands."

Jamaica Bay has been losing its marshlands at a rate of 3 percent a year since 1994, according to a Columbia University study, and 38 percent of marsh vegetation has disappeared since 1974. The construction of Kennedy Airport, built on marshland beginning in the 1940s, and other development was a major blow to the wetlands, though it remains one of the largest coastal ecosystems in New York State. The Bay was protected as the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in 1972 and became part of the National Park Service's Gateway National Recreation Area (which also includes New Jersey's Sandy Hook).

Federal protection has done nothing to prevent what appears to be an inexorable loss of land, which is dramatically illustrated in a series of aerial photographs of the Refuge's Yellow Bar Hassock taken in 1959, 1976, and 1998. "It is drowning," says Rosenzweig. Considerable biodiversity has been lost as well, including all the residents of what were once high marsh ecosystems there. In the dry words of MEC's climate change assessment report, "If Yellow Bar Hassock once had high marsh areas, as was suspected upon inspection of texture of some vegetation in the 1959 photographic print, then they were no longer in evidence during field visits." Jamaica Bay's ecosystem totaled 24,000 acres in 1900; by 1970 it was down to 13,000 acres. In the summer of 2003, workers began importing sediment and spraying it on Big Egg Marsh, trying to prevent its relentless shrinkage.

The borough of Brooklyn, now home to more than two million people, was once largely marshland, but the redesigning of this landscape for exclusive human use has resulted in the loss of valuable, natural protection in times of flood. "If you could imagine just putting a big sponge in front of lower Manhattan, that's what it would be like if there was a wetland there," explains Alex Kolker, a graduate student studying ecology and evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

One way to limit the loss of these flood barriers is to give coastal areas room to migrate inland. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (under the Clean Water Act) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation oversee current waterfront development. But according to Ellen Kracauer Hartig, a former research associate at Columbia's Center for Climate Systems Research, applicants can apply to bypass federal and state wetlands regulations, and permission is frequently granted. "At this time, the state gives out permits for development projects easily," she says.

That is an understatement. In 1998, the Corps rejected only 3.2 percent of major wetlands projects. Rejections are likely to become even more unlikely under Bush administration revisions that "streamline" the wetlands development process and relax Army Corps scrutiny in flood plains.

Global warming has also begun to affect the health of the city's residents. "In New York City, asthma rates in some neighborhoods are among the highest in the nation," explains Pat Kinney, an environ mental health scientist at Columbia's Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health. Kinney points out the well-established connection between air pollution, temperature, and rates of hospitalization and death. "What is new, is seeing how it all relates to climate change," he says, adding that raising the temperature in urban areas like New York, where there is limited vegetation to reflect heat and lots of concrete to absorb it, exacerbates health problems.

According to a 1996 American Meteorological Society report, an average of three hundred people a year die of heat stress in New York City. And there's a socioeconomic factor, too, explains Kinney: "Poor people, and especially elderly poor people, are most vulnerable to heat stress."

The Virus Specter

Heat stress is probably the most obvious thing people think of when the subject of global warming comes up. Other effects are more subtle, but no less deadly. Higher rates of ground-level ozone are a major respiratory irritant, and vector-borne diseases thrive in warmer temperatures. And that is the problem that is keeping the city's public health officials up nights.

New York City had never had a case of West Nile encephalitis before 1999, but that hot summer—the hottest and driest in a century—sixty-two cases were reported in the region, and seven people died.

Tests at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and Fort Collins, Colorado, revealed that the illness was close to the St. Louis strain of encephalitis, which had never been previously reported in New York City. By September 6, there were five confirmed victims of the new virus and thirty-four suspected cases. By September 9, exotic birds began dying in the Bronx Zoo. A general health warning was issued, and city residents began to get used to helicopters overhead spraying clouds of malathion and pyrethriod pesticides. By September 21, scientists had isolated and identified the specific virus, not St. Louis encephalitis but West Nile.

West Nile is spread by a mosquito, Culex pipens, which breeds in stagnant pools of water. According to several prominent scientists, drought is the key factor in spreading West Nile virus. Outbreaks require an unfortunate series of events, they say. According to Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, the mosquitoes' favorite prey is birds, but periods of high heat and drought send such common urban-dwelling species as crows, blue jays, and robins out of the city in search of freshwater. City bird populations are further reduced as unlucky individuals are bitten and killed by West Nile infection.

"By reproductive imperative the mosquitoes are forced to feed on humans, and that's what triggered the 1999 epidemic," Dr. Despommier says. "Higher temperatures also trigger increased mosquito biting frequency. The first big rains after the drought created new breeding sites." It took Hurricane Floyd, which passed through New York on September 16, to break the weather cycle that led to the outbreak.

Dr. Despommier says this same pattern is also discernible in recent West Nile outbreaks in Israel, South Africa, and Romania. In Bucharest, Dr. Despommier's investigation turned up abandoned buildings whose basements were full of water, a perfect culex breeding ground.

Another prominent proponent of the West Nile global warming connection is Dr. Paul Epstein of Harvard University. "Droughts are more common and prolonged as the planet warms," he says. "Warm winters intensify drought because there's a reduced spring runoff. The cycle seems to rev up in the spring, as catch basin water dries up and what's left becomes organically rich and a perfect mosquito breeding place. The drought also reduces populations of mosquito predators."

In 2002, the West Nile spread across the country, appearing in forty-four states and the District of Columbia. Five provinces of Canada were also affected. In a growing scientific consensus, public health officials believe the next drought will give this serious virus an even wider reach. Spraying certainly has not stopped these infectious bugs. Researchers at France's University of Montpellier said in mid-2003 that a mutation in the West Nile mosquitoes' genetic code resulted in their singular resistance to pesticides.

New Jersey's Beaches: On Shifting Sands

On stormy days, the wind at the tip of Fort Hancock, a former military base that is now part of the bustling Gateway National Recreation Area at the entrance to lower New York Bay, is enough to knock you down, and it churns the Atlantic into a froth favored by surfers but anathema to the embattled homeowners on this exposed coast.

Climate scientists predict that the sea level in New Jersey could rise an additional 2 feet in the next 100 years, with predictable havoc wrought on that priceless real estate. Beach erosion is likely to accelerate dramatically, too. But despite ominous reports of sea-level rise, and horrific damage caused by ever-increasing storms, proximity to New York City has meant rapidly escalating land values for this region, and a determination to build right to the water's edge. Even Fort Hancock, which can appear eerily deserted on a winter afternoon, is about to undergo a chic makeover.

Sandy Hook, where Fort Hancock is located, is like a finger pointed into the ocean toward Brooklyn, a beacon for the great New York/New Jersey estuary. The national park is a rare respite from a landscape dominated by beach communities and chock-a-block strip development. A former officer's quarters in the park, not far from nineteenth-century coastal defense emplacements, now serves as home to two organizations that are trying to protect this prosperous region from itself. The American Littoral Society and New York/New Jersey Baykeeper work together trying to preserve what is left of a natural environment laid low by dredging, filling, and construction.

Dery Bennett, the Littoral Society's friendly and grizzled director, takes visitors on a tour of nearby Sea Bright, where relatively modest vacation homes hide behind a protective seawall built in the 1930s. There is a 100-foot-wide beach behind the wall, built not over the millennia by the workings of the tides but beginning in 1996 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a $9 billion plan to "replenish" the beaches along the 127-mile New Jersey shore. The new sand is dredged from an offshore "borrow" site.

New Jersey is the poster boy for beach replenishment, since it is the only state in the union to pay its share not out of general funds but from a dedicated $25 million purse taken from realty transfer fees. Noreen Bodman, president of the business-oriented Jersey Shore Partnership, calls replenishment "a return on investment that benefits the state in terms of tax dollars, and ultimately benefits every resident in terms of quality of life and recreational values. It also protects businesses and utilities from the impact of some of these storms."

The luncheonette in downtown Sea Bright displays some starkly revealing aerial photos. One, taken in the early 1990s, shows a town with no beach to speak of, thanks largely to the effects of that seawall. The other, from 1999, shows a wide expanse of sand. The photos appear to offer stark proof that what human folly destroys, human ingenuity can repair. But many local environmentalists, including Bennett, Baykeeper Andy Willner, and Surfers' Environmental Alliance co-regional director Brian Unger, oppose the beach replenishment work. They say the massive effort to pump in sand benefits only a few wealthy homeowners, and also encourages even more dangerous shoreline development. And, they add, it is ultimately folly because global-warming-induced storms and rising tides will likely wash it all away in the next decade.

Orrin Pilkey's classic book The Corps and the Shore, written with Katharine Dixon, details how jetties, seawalls, groins, and other desperate maneuvers offer only temporary respite from the natural effects of erosion and shifting coastline—and eventually make things worse. The same thing is true of imported sand. New Jersey's replenished beaches, the authors wrote, could expect only a 1- to 3-year lifespan, at a cost of damage to coral, water clarity, and bottom-dwellers. In actual fact they have already outlived that prediction, though the sand is receding.

The East Coast was created in a collision between two tectonic plates, the American and Atlantic. Their coming together produced the Appalachian Mountains, and also the longest stretch of thin barrier islands in the world, extending from New England to Mexico. As Cornelia Dean notes in Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches, "When these barrier islands are attacked by rising seas, their natural defense is to back out of the way." In other words, they are constantly shifting and reforming. Pilkey points out that barrier islands differ from any other topographic feature on earth because of "their ability to maintain themselves as a unit as they roll across a flooding coastal plain in response to a rise in sea level."

When this natural phenomenon meets global warming and the devastating effects of nonstop coastal development, rapid erosion is the result. "There's a natural process called littoral drift," explains Willner as he provides a pickup-based tour of Sandy Hook's windswept charms. "Sand from ancient granite mountains like the Appalachians was carried down by glacial action to create the beaches. Once here, it moves north in a predictable, inexorable fashion, reshaping the coast as it goes. What you see today is the result of millions of years of geological evolution, but people expect that process to stop when human infrastructure is introduced. They're putting homes and beach clubs on mobile land. And they're taking a crapshoot that those natural processes won't happen in their lifetimes. When it does, they're always surprised."

The speed with which the ocean reclaims its own is exacerbated by rising tides. According to Norbert Psuty, a coastal geomorphologist with the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, deeper in-shore waters means more powerful waves, which move more quickly and retain more energy. In the last 100 years, the New Jersey coast has sunk 16 inches, through a combination of tectonic plate depression and sea-level rise. "Almost everything we have along the coast is at risk sooner or later," says Psuty. "We've been fortunate not to have taken any direct hits lately." Stephen Leatherman, who directs the Hurricane Center at Florida International University, puts it another way: "The erosion rates are going to accelerate in the future, which means the cost is going to go up exponentially to maintain these beaches. And no one seems to have figured it out yet. It's like a great big secret."

Subsidized Privacy

There are no easy answers on the Jersey shore. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, property that was worth $8.7 billion in 1962 is now worth $34.3 billion when adjusted for inflation. In 1945, George

Lippincott bought a house with 1.2 acres in coastal Avalon for $500, raising the money by selling a single rare stamp. In 2000, Lippincott's descendants put the property on the market for $3.5 million. The coast is now fully developed, with the result that a "100-year storm" would be far more devastating today than it would have been 50 years ago. Taxpayers will foot much of the bill for any rebuilding, since flood insurance is federally guaranteed.

The public trust doctrine, derived from English common law, says that states hold lands under tidal and navigable waterways in trust for their citizens. The concept has been incorporated into many state constitutions, and is generally interpreted as guaranteeing public access to shorelines up to the mean high tide mark. The town of Greenwich, Connecticut, fought a long and ultimately losing battle to maintain the exclusivity of its beaches that went as far as the State Supreme Court. It began when local attorney Brenden Leyden was turned away from jogging at a Greenwich beach, and it continued for 6 years. Fortunately for citizens not lucky enough to live in one of the United States's wealthiest towns, the public trust and First Amendment (claiming that the beach is a "traditional public forum") arguments eventually prevailed.

What does global warming have to do with beach access? Quite a lot, actually. The northern New Jersey coast is now mostly in private hands, and the public has only limited access to surf and sand. The scene is set for self-interest. The property owners who benefit the most from beach replenishment use their political clout not to enrich the shoreline commons, but to protect their own land values, sometimes with the active assistance of community leaders.

The I'm-in-it-for-myself mentality dictates more privately built jetties and seawalls, which accelerate the erosion damage caused by rising sea levels. And it means security guards and high fences on what was once open shore. Meanwhile, the public, by the very fact of their exclusion, loses its interest and its stake in protecting a coastal resource it can only see through locked gates. Sixty-seven-year-old Sea Girt resident Bob Devlin told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I gave up going to the beach there a long time ago."

Public access and beach replenishment collide head on in Long Beach Township communities such as Loveladies and North Beach. To be eligible for federal funding, the towns are nominally required to provide open beach access every quarter mile, but endless rows of closely built houses, without the "street ends" that allow parking and foot traffic, dictate that the actual distance between access points is more like a mile and a half. And even where access does exist, the scarcity of parking (in some cases by design) limits its value to out-of-towners.

One of the groups that have suffered both because of beach replenishment and lost public access is the surprisingly strong northern New Jersey surfing community. The attraction is clear: It is state-of-the-art surfing almost within sight of New York City. As points out, "Sandy Hook boasts one of the few point breaks in New Jersey." Brian Unger, a graying but fit surfer turned environmentalist and access activist, takes visiting journalists on a tour through some of the exclusive beach towns near Sandy Hook that benefit from both beach replenishment and storm insurance, but make it as difficult as possible for the taxpaying nonresident to enjoy the imported sand.

The tour began on a blustery day in Elberon, an exclusive section of Long Branch just north of Bruce Springsteen's Asbury Park. Surfers fear that a pending beach replenishment in Elberon will smooth out the beach, remove natural rock formations, and affect surf-friendly wave formation by bringing deeper water closer to shore. They are arguing for a more nuanced approach that might use offshore reefs, different sand designs, and a much more gradually sloping underwater contour than the Army Corps of Engineers and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had planned.

Elberon was once an ocean resort town for U.S. presidents and known as the Hamptons of the nineteenth century. James Garfield died there in 1881, and the spot is marked with a plaque. The Church of the Presidents, summer worship center for Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Woodrow Wilson, is now in disrepair, but it remains in a very upscale neighborhood.

It is unlikely the presidents were drawn by Elberon's great surfing, but they would have had no problem getting to the water if they wanted to try out a board. Today, it is far more difficult. In nearby Deal, sum mer home to many wealthy Sephardic Jews, huge estates have names like "Chez Fleur" and "Belle Mer." The Deal Casino Beach Club offers free parking but is restricted to residents. Meanwhile, the police are kept busy writing tickets on the nearby beach streets, where 2-hour limits are strictly enforced.

Many streets that once ended in public beach access are now offlimits, Unger says, because the municipality sold off the street ends to homeowners (a practice that was stopped only after state intervention). Despite the exclusivity, Deal is also slated for federally subsidized beach replenishment.

It is probably safe to say that wealthy property owners want to limit the invasion of young surfer kids and grizzled fishermen with their bait buckets and six packs of Budweiser. Many immigrant families from Newark or Paterson cannot afford the $5 and $8 daily fees at the lifeguard beaches, so some wait until late afternoon when the money collectors, mostly college students employed for the summer, leave for the day.

The few remaining free public access points between the milliondollar homes are hard to find and fairly forbidding. Unger led the way down a dangerous pile of construction debris that is the only public entry point to one lovely stretch at Darlington Beach. "Attention: Unprotected Beach. No Swimming," reads a sign. It was plain we were not welcome, but it was also plain that this nearly empty stretch of contested sand was worth the effort we made to reach it.

The Jersey shore town of Point Pleasant Beach developed a particularly bad reputation for harassing beach users in the 1990s: Surfers were told to get out of the water by private security guards, and people walking along the high tide line were ordered to leave the "private beach." Curbs were painted yellow to deter would-be parkers. The residents even posted signs that proclaimed: "Private Property. No Trespassing" (followed by, in tiny letters, "When Beach Is Closed").

But in 2002, spurred by the local activism of groups such as Citizens Right to Access Beaches (CRAB), the State Attorney General's office stepped in and forced a settlement that opens the entire beach "from the water to the edge of the dune" to the public. "The case law is very advanced," says Deborah A. Mans, an attorney for the New

York/New Jersey Baykeeper. "There has to be access to the mean high tide line, and as intervenors in these cases we're asking for 30 feet above that."

"The homeowners are just trying to make it as hard as possible," says Unger, who has run for the State Senate on the Green Party ticket. "But at some point you have to take a philosophical stand and say, 'No, I won't buy a beach pass because the beaches belong to the people.' But from Deal to Sandy Hook you have to really work hard to get on the beach without paying."

Continue reading here: Shifting Sand

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