Two months after Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City, Battery Park is again humming with tourists and hustlers, guys selling foam Statue of Liberty crowns, and commuters shuffling off the Staten Island Ferry. On a winter day when the bright sun takes the edge off a frigid harbor breeze, it's hard to imagine all this under water. But if you look closely, there are hints that not everything is back to normal.
Take the boarded-up entrance to the new South Ferry subway station at the end of the No. 1 line. The metal structure covering the stairwell is dotted with rust and streaked with salt, tracing the high-water mark at 13.88 feet above the low-tide line -- a level that surpassed all historical floods by nearly four feet. The saltwater submerged the station, turning it into a "large fish tank," as former Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chair Joseph Lhota put it, corroding the signals and ruining the interior. While the city reopened the old station in early April, the newer one is expected to remain closed to the public for as long as three years.
Before the storm, South Ferry was easily one of the more extravagant stations in the city, refurbished to the tune of $545 million in 2009 and praised by former MTA CEO Elliot Sander as "artistically beautiful and highly functional." Just three years later, the city is poised to spend more than that amount fixing it. Some have argued that South Ferry shouldn't be reopened at all.
The destruction in Battery Park could be seen as simple misfortune: After all, city planners couldn't have known that within a few years the beautiful new station would be submerged in the most destructive storm to ever hit New York City.
Except for one thing: They sort of did know. Back in February 2009, a month before the station was unveiled, a major report from the New York City Panel on Climate Change -- which Mayor Michael Bloomberg convened to inform the city's climate adaptation planning -- warned that global warming and sea-level rise were increasing the likelihood that New York City would be paralyzed by major flooding. "Of course it flooded," said George Deodatis, a civil engineer at Columbia University. "They spent a lot of money, but they didn't put in any floodgates or any protection."
And it wasn't just one warning. Eight years before the Panel on Climate Change's report, an assessment of global warming's impacts in New York City had also cautioned of potential flooding. "Basically pretty much everything that we projected happened," says Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, co-chair of the Panel on Climate Change, and the co-author of that 2001 report.
Scientists often refer to the "100-year flood," the highest water level expected over the course of a century. But with sea levels rising along the East Coast -- a natural phenomenon accelerated by climate change — scientists project that in our lifetimes what was once considered a 100-year flood will happen every three to 20 years. And truly catastrophic storms will do damage unimaginable today. "With the exact same Sandy 100 years from now," Deodatis says, "if you have, say, five feet of sea-level rise, it's going to be much more devastating."
Roughly 123 million of us — 39 percent of the U.S. population — dwell in coastal counties. And that spells trouble: 50 percent of the nation's shorelines, 11,200 miles in all, are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And the problem isn't so much that the surf laps a few inches higher: It's what happens to all that extra water during a storm.