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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Change, part 2

Air Date: Week of

Our special on climate change continues with part 2.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: The rebuilding of the World Trade Center site is well underway. And a lot of attention is focused on designing a fitting memorial to those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. But another concern is the environmental impact of the buildings going up. Many people hope to see energy-efficient structures and more public-transportation options. These measures will help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that promote climate change. Our special report “Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City’s Future” continues with a visit to the World Trade Center site where producer John Rudolph spoke with a scientist who warns that reducing emissions is not enough.

JACOB: I am Klaus Jacob. I’m a senior research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and we are standing here right now overlooking the World Trade Center site, also known as Ground Zero, or "the bathtub."

RUDOLPH: Professor Klaus Jacob looks out over the World Trade Center site and sees a potential disaster in the making. It’s not the threat of more terrorism. Jacob worries that in the coming decades whatever is built on the site will be vulnerable to the combination of rising seas and more intense storms aggravated by climate change.

JACOB: The frequency of such flooding events could increase on an average three times, but in the worst case as much as 10 times. So, what is right now a 50 year storm – which is roughly an eight-foot coastal storm surge here at this place where we stand – it could happen, instead of every 50 years, it could happen every five years. And that’s not good for a city that claims to be the world financial capital to see its financial infrastructure flooded every five years, and business interrupted, and all the things that go with it.

RUDOLPH: Now, as you said, there is a range of possibilities. There’s the best-case scenario. There’s the worst-case scenario. Does it really matter in terms of which of these scenarios you choose, in terms of the increased vulnerability of Ground Zero, of the subway entrances downtown, of the tunnel entrances downtown, and so forth?

JACOB: We have already a storm-surge problem. The Holland Tunnel is always on the verge of flooding during Nor’easters, and the PATH tunnel already has flooded, so we know what the current risk is. What’s so bad is that it will become more frequent, and so it’s actually more cost beneficial to do it now. Because the longer we wait, the less benefit we get because we may incur some losses before we do the measures, so why not do them now when we are all building this infrastructure anyhow, you know.

Now, specifically here, for Ground Zero, we are looking down here into what has become known as “the bathtub,” which is the excavation for the foundation of the former Two World Trade Centers – actually all five, so World Trade "Centers." And, it has, obviously, a reconstruction plan, a master plan by Daniel Libeskind. And looking at this, what worries me that unless we do some very conscientious engineering of this -- which I’m not aware of is currently taking place -- this bathtub, with its memorial, with its museum and several other structures inside it and adjacent to it, could very well be flooded. Now, to pump out a whole bathtub with all those things – I think is not what we were looking forward to.

RUDOLPH: What kinds of specific measures are you suggesting should be taken now to protect this infrastructure from the kinds of storm surges that you’ve been talking about?

JACOB: Well, one good thing is that we already have created, again, some buffer zones on the waterfront towards the Hudson. Much of what was formerly industrial or harbor facilities have been turned into parkland, so that’s great. That’s a good measure. That’s a step in the right direction. What has to be done for protecting both the infrastructure, but also buildings that are going up here is, we simply have to be aware that all critical entrances have to be at a certain level that exceeds the projected flooding levels. And we can discuss the details how to achieve it, and engineers will do a, probably, a very good job in doing this but it has to be brought into the planning.

RUDOLPH: Now, we spoke to the Port Authority and asked them specifically about the rebuilding of Ground Zero, and they said they’re doing absolutely nothing about raising the level of the infrastructure. They said their priority is to get this site rebuilt as fast as possible and they don’t have time to think about these things.

RUDOLPH: Well, that is where a geologist like me thinks on different time terms than politically pressured decision makers, and that is the very, very shortsightedness that is culturally ingrained in our system, and it’s clearly an uphill battle for us scientists to insert this kind of thinking.

RUDOLPH: When you look at the situation out in Jamaica Bay and then you stand here in front of Ground Zero, what’s the connection between the disappearing marshes in Jamaica Bay and the threat that Ground Zero and the Holland and Midtown tunnels face?

JACOB: Well, I wish we would lose a piece of Manhattan just like we do out in Jamaica Bay every year, and then we would see it better. Okay? So far, we have engineered over it cosmetically but we really haven’t addressed the fundamental issues.

RUDOLPH: The risks associated with climate change that Columbia University researcher Klaus Jacob talks about are not confined to the World Trade Center site or Jamaica Bay. Across the metropolitan area, many of the systems that support New Yorker’s lives and life-styles are increasingly vulnerable. One of the systems at greatest risk is also one of the most basic. The city’s water supply is likely to be disrupted by rising seas and changes in weather patterns caused by global warming. Over the years New York has suffered through many droughts. During a dry spell in 1949, WNYC broadcast a song urging citizens to conserve water.

RADIO BROADCAST: Save, Save, Save…

RUDOLPH: But even aggressive water conservation can’t assure an adequate supply of fresh water. Ultimately, the city's water supply depends on natural systems – rainfall, underground aquifers, lakes, and rivers. These systems could be dramatically affected by changes in the global climate. And one place where the change would be first detected is along what’s knows as the “salt front” on the Hudson River.


CRONIN: My name is John Cronin and I’m the director of the Pace Academy for the Environment at Pace University. And where we’re standing right now is – we’re standing in the midst of the Hudson Highlands which is one of the narrower sections of the Hudson River.

RUDOLPH: John Cronin has spent most of his adult life educating people about the Hudson and fighting to protect the river from various threats. These include proposals to divert huge amounts of river water for power plants, factories and drinking-water supplies. Diversions like these would have changed the Hudson's basic ecology by altering the mix of fresh and salt water. It is this mix, says Cronin, that makes the Hudson such a rich environment for wildlife.

CRONIN: Where that salt is located is key to the development of fish at certain life stages. So, when they are little hatchlings and are ready for the big, broad shallow area of the Hudson, which is the nursery, the water is of a certain salinity that they can tolerate just in time for them to be there where they’re going to be doing their feeding. So, it’s an extraordinary piece of ecological choreography.

RUDOLPH: Fresh water flows down the Hudson from the Adirondack Mountains. Salt water moves up from the mouth of New York Harbor. The place where these two forces meet is an invisible line in the river called the “salt front.” The salt front is constantly in motion. In spring when snows melt, the heavy flow of fresh water pushes the salt front down the river to a point about 30 miles north of New York City. When there's a drought, and the flow of fresh water is reduced to a relative trickle, the ocean pushes the salt front upstream, as much as 80 miles north of the city. There's even a web site where you can keep track of the Hudson River salt front.


RUDOLPH: The salt front isn't the only thing that moves on the Hudson. Trains run on tracks on both sides of the river. And there are lots of barges, tankers, and pleasure boats on this busy waterway. The movements of the salt front, however, are of special concern to John Cronin, especially the possibility of an irreversible change in the salt front’s location.

CRONIN: It would have a permanent ecological effect on the Hudson River, probably unlike any other that we’ve ever seen on the Hudson, unlike anything caused by pollution or power plants or even development. This would be a permanent alteration of how the ecosystem operates in its most fundamental way.

RUDOLPH: Rising sea levels amplified by climate change could have a lasting impact on the salt front. If high tide becomes consistently higher than it is now, the salt front will be permanently pushed up the river. In addition to changing the Hudson’s ecology, the supply of drinking water in the New York metropolitan area could also be affected. New York City's water supply system is huge and complex. Twenty-two reservoirs and lakes provide water to more than nine million residents of the city and four suburban counties, as well as the hundreds of thousands of commuters and tourists who visit the city every day.

RUDOLPH: In an emergency, such as a severe drought, the city has the ability to tap the Hudson River. The city maintains a river-water pumping station in the tiny town of Chelsea, about 65 miles upstream. The Chelsea pump station came on line in the mid-1960s during the worst drought to hit the city in the 20th century.

WAGNER: Good evening, my fellow New Yorkers. We, the people of New York City, face the danger of a serious water shortage. This shortage is due to entirely to the most prolonged drought in the history of this region.

RUDOLPH: When Mayor Robert F. Wagner delivered this address on July 22, 1965 it was clear that city officials saw the Chelsea pump station as a vital safety net.

WAGNER: It will provide 100 million gallons of water per day. This amount, I remind you, is less than ten per cent of our daily consumption. The use of the Hudson River water is our only practical means of increasing our supply from inland water resources…

RUDOLPH: In the mid-60s, this back-up plan seemed to make sense. The Chelsea pump station was built near a major underground aqueduct that carries water from the Catskill Mountains to the city. During a drought, all the city needed to do was turn a valve and river water would be there to help quench New York’s thirst. But today, many people argue, water from the Chelsea pump station is virtually unusable. That’s because during severe droughts the salt front is located several miles upstream from Chelsea. When it's needed most, John Cronin says, the Chelsea pump station would be adding salty water to the city's fresh water supply.

CRONIN: There's really a harsh irony. The Chelsea pumping station was built to address drought conditions and give New York City a supplemental water supply during drought. And they put it in exactly a section of the river that is guaranteed to be salty during drought conditions. So, it was a poorly thought-out plan.


RUDOLPH: New York City has only pumped Hudson River water a few times since the 1960s. But in the city of Poughkeepsie it happens every day. Poughkeepsie gets all of its water from the Hudson. Randy Alstadt manages Poughkeepsie’s water treatment plant.

ALSTADT: The pump station pumps a thousand feet out, 50 feet down, about the middle of the river. We pull off about 80 to 90 million gallons a day from the Hudson River.

RUDOLPH: The ever-changing salt front is one of several factors Alstadt monitors to ensure the quality of Poughkeepsie's water. During three separate droughts over the last decade, Poughkeepsie officials issued health advisories about high levels of salt in the city’s water supply. People on low-salt diets were advised to check with their doctor and drink bottled water. Poughkeepsie's water is filtered and treated for a wide range of impurities but salt is not one of them. Desalinization is expensive and Alstadt says, so far, it hasn’t been needed.

ALSTADT: We've been drinking this water in this area since 1872. The river is going up and down. And you can look historically that, yeah, if there is a drought, we can have it. And I guess one of the things you're looking at is maybe long term something could happen to the climate. People believe that, people don't believe that. It's hard to know what the climate's gonna do. And I think as the climate changes we’re going to have to adjust.

RUDOLPH: Today, increased salt in drinking water caused by the movements of the salt front is an occasional nuisance that affects a relatively small number of people who live in the mid-Hudson Valley. But increasingly, the Hudson River Salt Front is drawing the attention of researchers and government officials. Another salt front, on the Delaware River, is also a cause for concern. The Delaware River Watershed is a major source of drinking water for New York, Philadelphia and a number of other cities and towns.

New York’s water supply is managed by the city Department of Environmental Protection. Bob Alpern recently retired from the DEP, where he was involved in water-supply planning. In addition to the salt front, Alpern says, the city needs look at a wide range of climate-related issues that could affect water resources in the future.

ALPERN: Uncertainty about whether we’re gonna get more rain or much less rain, whether we’re gonna get rain at the right time of year, whether we’re gonna get snow melt at all, whether we’re gonna get sudden, violent, extreme events, storms, or a kind of steady input into the reservoirs -- those are the kinds of issues which are still very uncertain, by and large. But they loom large as probably the most important environmental impacts that we’ve got to deal with in the metropolitan area.


RUDOLPH: In a year such as this – when the reservoirs are full – threats to the water supply system from rising seas, shifting salt fronts or other potential effects of global warming seem remote. Since the attack on 9/11, a more immediate concern has been guarding against terrorists who might try to sabotage the water supply. So far, there’s only one existing, tangible adaptation to climate change in New York’s water infrastructure. An outflow pipe for the third water tunnel on Roosevelt Island was built higher than had originally specified in order to accommodate sea level rise. Other than that, it seems planning for the potentially far-reaching effects of climate change on New York City's water supply will have to wait.

[MUSIC: Radiohead “Treefingers” KID A (EMI Records Ltd. – 2000)]

CURWOOD: We’ll be back in just a minute with a look at how the changing climate in New York may have allowed West Nile Virus to get a foothold in North America. You’re listening to "Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City’s Future,” a special report from WNYC and Living on Earth.

You can hear our program any time on our Web site. The address is livingonearth.org. That’s livingonearth.org. You can reach us at comments@loe.org. Once again, comments@loe.org. Our postal address is 20 Holland St., Somerville, Massachusetts 02144. CD’s, tapes and transcripts are $15.

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CURWOOD: You’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Yo La Tengo “Danelectro 2” DANELECTRO (EP) (Matador – 2000)]



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