Sea levels rising. Droughts. Higher-intensity storms. Climate change and its effects are with us. And while global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions are ongoing, scientists continue to warn us that, no matter how valiant our efforts, we are in for a certain amount of warming and a whole host of potential catastrophes. Adding to this, most climate change experts will also give the caveat that it’s quite possible we have already passed the point of no return.
As an urban coastal region, New York City is especially vulnerable to a diverse range of changes that accompany alterations in climate. How, then, do we move forward? What steps can we take? In 2007, under the Bloomberg administration, the city moved to combat climate change and revealed “PlaNYC” – a list of goals designed to make the city comfortably livable for an ever-growing population, and to make a smooth transition to a warmer climate.
Still, although having the government planning ahead is great, boards need to be aware that both public and private entities need to re-evaluate their infrastructures as well. Condominium and cooperative boards should start seriously outlining their plans for the future. Smart planning now will result in savings when costs are diverted by future hazards.
When the Rain Comes
Based on the model of probability used by New York City’s task force on climate change, extreme precipitation is expected, and in a greater frequency, intensity, and duration in coming decades. Greater downpours will put considerable strain on the combined sewage outflow system of the city.
Condos and co-ops can do their part to mitigate this by installing green roofs. These structures can absorb and capture the excess rainfall during intense precipitation events, helping to forestall sewage overflows. Additionally, rainfall can be captured and re-appropriated for use in building systems or, in some cases, toilet flushing. Doing this not only saves on water, it also hygienically preserves quality, since the increased flooding makes the water grid susceptible to dirt.
In keeping with the “multiplicity of benefits” principle so common to the eco-friendly design world, green roofs also act as natural insulators, protecting against both types of extreme weather: hot summers and cold winters. If your building’s fresh air intakes are on the roof, a green roof helps modulate temperatures and minimizes the cooling requirements for the air being pulled into the building. Thinking on larger geographies, if the whole city were to implement green roofs, this would curb the “heat island effect” that contributes to cities being a few degrees warmer during summer.
In general, the more external foliage you incorporate, the better. Trees and plants provide vital shade in urban places and they release water vapors by their leaf transpiration. Collectively, if the city were to cover itself in green, this would have a huge impact on cooling the entire metropolis in the summer, and modulating temperatures during winter. In fact, vines – so often considered a menace to the integrity of our building’s walls – may actually work to preserve them.
Over the last thousand years, sea levels have been consistently (and rapidly) rising. The current rate of increase in New York City is 0.86 to 1.5 inches per decade, caused by oceans expanding as they warm. However, it is predicted that the dominant cause of rising levels in the 21st century will be melting ice caps. Coupled with warmer oceans, this will probably hasten the rise of the sea level. With this in mind, projections that only take expanding oceans into account are liable to be very conservative. By the year 2042, expect the levels to have risen by roughly a foot or more.
Additional storm surges will probably cause more frequent flooding, which will cost billions of dollars in damages and lead to many power outages. Housing boards need to check in which city-designated flood zone they are located and reassess their emergency procedures accordingly. Ground floors should have a clear bypass strategy and basement floors a clear get-out strategy. As elevators will probably be out of commission, a comprehensive and disability-friendly exit strategy should also be in place. The inundation of water through flooding provides yet another risk. Saltwater can reach farther up the Hudson River and penetrate into estuaries, contaminating water supplies.
In New York City, transportation is very vulnerable to increased flooding. Without massive reconstruction efforts, the sight of a closed subway station because of corrosive damages of saltwater will become a common occurrence; one only has to look at two very recent incidents of heavy precipitation. Area-wide flooding in August 2007 led to a near system-wide outage of subways, and, last August, the remnants of Hurricane Irene left the subways closed for three days. Hurricane or not, we all know that New Yorkers need to get to where they’re going. Therefore, condos or co-ops would be wise to partner with a car sharing company such as Zipcar.
With climate change, the city’s energy sector will be exposed twofold. Shifts in thresholds will put new stresses on increasing peak demand loads. Specifically, the greater number of extreme hot days that are predicted will increase costs of electricity, as the systems are put to the test mostly on hot days.
The power plants themselves are on or near shorelines – because of requirements for water intake and cooling discharges – and they would not be immune to the threat of flooding. The upsurge in costs, and the frequent power outages, make backup generators a necessity. Given these many and varied challenges requiring a collective effort and quick responses to emergency, it would seem prudent for condos and co-ops to link neighbors on a network for all to send alerts and texts.
As energy costs soar, so too will transportation costs and food prices. Agriculture in New York will likely be hit hard, as already summer precipitation is insufficient to fully meet water needs of crops, and, conversely, intense downpours have detrimentally affected crops; these occurrences will only increase. A community garden (or roof) wherein to grow your own produce will become a valuable commodity.
A future full of more intense weather does open us up to more risks. There is still time now to plan and implement changes. Looking at new ideas, such as green roofs, is important, but it is equally important not to forget some of the fundamentals of a building design. It is easy to get sidetracked on wholesale changes and miss some of the “low hanging fruit” (e.g., are your building’s current ventilation and draining systems cost efficient?).
Climate change discussions are so dry that one can be forgiven for inertia or malaise, but by starting to adapt now, you can reduce the potential economic impact that changes in climate will bring.
Alice Cook is a principal at TE Green and director of sustainability for Time Equities.