National Geographic: Rising Seas
Coastal Processes & Hazards - News

In September 2013, National Geographic placed a spotlight on climate change in its extensive feature story, "Rising Seas."

Written by Tim Folger and photographed by George Steinmetz, the article focused on a central series of concepts: As the planet warms, the sea rises. Coastlines flood. What will we protect? What will we abandon? How will we face the danger of rising seas?

As Folger reported, some 136 large coastal cities, and 40 million people, are now at risk from sea level rise. The value of assets at risk is $3 trillion dollars. In New York City, the storm, whose surge reached heights of 9 - 14 feet at the City's Battery Park, was the cause of 43 deaths and $19 billion in damages.

National Geographic: Rising Seas - Cover (animation)

“During the last ice age there was a mile or two of ice above us right here,” says Malcolm Bowman, as he and Folger pulled into his driveway in Stony Brook, New York, on Long Island’s north shore. “When the ice retreated, it left a heap of sand, which is Long Island. All these rounded stones you see—look there,” he says, pointing to some large boulders scattered among the trees near his home. “They’re glacial boulders.”

Bowman, a physical oceanographer at the Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, has been trying for years to persuade anyone who will listen that New York City needs a harbor-spanning storm-surge barrier. Bowman and his fellow Stony Brook Storm Surge Research Group investigators - whose studies have been funded by New York Sea Grant for over a decade now - have done much of the initial work on barriers for the New York City region. In 2005, Bowman, lead for the Storm Surge Group, wrote a New York Times op-ed piece in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that both advocated a system of storm barriers for New York City and predicted the future. “The question is not if a catastrophic hurricane or northeaster will hit New York, but when,” he wrote.

As Folger wrote in his NatGeo "Rising Seas" cover feature, compared with some other leading ports, New York is essentially defenseless in the face of hurricanes and floods. London, Rotterdam, St. Petersburg, New Orleans, and Shanghai have all built levees and storm barriers in the past few decades. New York paid a high price for its vulnerability last October. Sandy left 43 dead in the city, of whom 35 drowned; it cost the city some $19 billion. And it was all unnecessary, says Bowman.

“If a system of properly designed storm-surge barriers had been built—and strengthened with sand dunes at both ends along the low-lying coastal areas—there would have been no flooding damage from Sandy,” he says.

Bowman envisions two barriers: one at Throgs Neck, to keep surges from Long Island Sound out of the East River, and a second one spanning the harbor south of the city. Gates would accommodate ships and tides, closing only during storms, much like existing structures in the Netherlands and elsewhere. The southern barrier alone, stretching five miles between Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and the Rockaway Peninsula, might cost $10 billion to $15 billion, Bowman estimates. He pictures a six-lane toll highway on top that would provide a bypass route around the city and a light-rail line connecting the Newark and John F. Kennedy Airports.

“It could be an asset to the region,” says Bowman. “Eventually the city will have to face up to this, because the problem is going to get worse. It might take five years of study and another ten years to get the political will to do it. By then there might have been another disaster. We need to start planning immediately. Otherwise we’re mortgaging the future and leaving the next generation to cope as best it can.”

For more from Bowman and other researchers, as well as engineers and and policy makers, check out the following links for this "Rising Seas" feature ...

National Geographic: Rising Seas (September 2013)

  • Print - Full Version [9 pp.] (pdf)

  • Web - Full Version [45 pp.] (pdf)

Photos, Posters and Illustrations (included in either/both print/web versions)

In Manhattan, Superstorm Sandy's surging tide knocked out a Con Ed substation, darkening the city below Manhattan. Private generators provided some light, including the blue glow of the new World Trade Center, whose base is three feet above sea level. See related poster (pdf)
Photograph by Iwan Baan, Reportage by Getty Images

Sandy narrowed New Jersey's beaches by more than 30 feet on average. At Seaside Heights, it swept away the pier under the roller coaster. See related poster (pdf)
Photograph by Stephen Wilkes

The Damage Done ... By the time Sandy struck the Northeast, as a NASA computer model (pictured) had predicted four days earlier, it had killed 72 people in the Caribbean. It was no longer a hurricane - but it was a thousand miles wide, with 80-mile-an-hour winds that drove the sea onto the coast in lethal surges. The final death toll was 147. See related poster (pdf) See full gallery of photos (pdf)

The map above shows North America as it is now, with only one difference: All the ice on land here, as well as in other parts of the world, has melted and drained into the sea, raising it 216 feet and creating new shorelines for our continents and inland seas. There are more than five million cubic miles of ice on Earth, and some scientists say it would take more than 5,000 years to melt it all. If we continue adding carbon to the atmosphere, we’ll very likely create an ice-free planet, with an average temperature of perhaps 80 degrees Fahrenheit instead of the current 58.

As the world warms, it may see more storms like Sandy. It will certainly see higher seas. In the poster above, "If All the Ice Melted" [See related poster (pdf)], how the ultimate sea-level catastrophe would reshape our world is examined.

Illustrated in the poster above, "The World at Hight Water" [See related poster (pdf)], is what many parts of Earth would look like if unchecked warming melts all the ice, which would raise seas 216 feet.

The Damage Done ... After a long day of organizing relief efforts, Brandon d’Leo, a surfer and sculptor, rests in his candlelit apartment in the Rockaway Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York. Like many of his neighbors, d’Leo lost electricity for a few days—and heat and hot water for more than two months—after Sandy pounded the community. Photograph by Davina Grincevicius

The Damage Done ... Brooklyn, New York. Photograph by Kirsten Luce, New York Times/Redux

The Damage Done ... Path Station, Hoboken, New Jersey. Photograph by Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, AFP Photo

The Damage Done ... Breezy Point, Queens, New York. Photograph by JB Nicholas, Splash News/Corbis

The Damage Done ... Staten Island, New York. Photograph by John Minchillo, AP Images

The Damage Done ... Hoboken, New Jersey. Photograph by Charles Sykes, AP Images

A Superstorm in 2100 ... What would happen to New York if the storm surge hurled at it by a storm like Sandy were riding on a sea that had risen five feet higher? See related poster (pdf)

A Superstorm in 2100 ...  What is the genesis of a storm surge?

Chart: Rising Seas ... Sea level didn’t change much for nearly 2,000 years, but has been rising at an accelerated rate in the past few decades. See related poster (pdf)

Map: Uneven Impacts ... If sea level rises an average of three feet by 2100, the impacts will be felt the most in vulnerable coastal cities. See related poster (pdf)

Birthday Canyon, Greenland. It’s a small contributor now, but its surface has started melting in summer—a worrisome sign. The ice sheet contains enough water to raise sea level nearly 25 feet. Photograph by James Balog, Extreme Ice Survey

Why the Seas Rise ... Locally, sea level can rise because the land is sinking. Globally, it rises because the total volume of seawater is increasing. Global warming drives that in two basic ways: by warming the ocean and by melting ice on land, which adds more water. Since 1900 global sea level has risen about eight inches. It’s now rising at about an eighth of an inch a year—and accelerating. See the full gallery of photos (pdf)

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