New York City’s Plan to Combat Extreme Weather

By Roger Caiazza

On September 27, 2021 New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio releasedThe New Normal: Combatting Storm-Related Extreme Weather in New York City,” billed as a “landmark report that provides New York City with a new blueprint to prepare for and respond to extreme weather”. I wholeheartedly support many of the initiatives proposed in the document but I disagree with the report’s arguments suggesting that absent climate change, initiatives to increase resiliency would not be appropriate.  Furthermore, given the enormous sums of money needed to address these issues I question whether it is appropriate to continue to spend any money on emissions reductions to ameliorate the alleged effects of climate change.

The report starts off claiming the devastation associated with the remnants of Hurricane Ida on September 1, 2021 was unprecedented: “it was a frightening lesson in our new reality: one in which even so-called “remnants” of storms, traveling from thousands of miles away, can be as ferocious and dangerous as those aimed directly at our city”.  The report goes on to say: “Increasingly, these extreme weather events are the new normal: part of an undeniable climate crisis that stretches across our entire nation, from droughts in the Southwest to raging wildfires on the West Coast. Climate change isn’t a far-off threat. It is here, it is real, and it is taking lives.”

New York governments have been claiming that most every recent extreme weather event is evidence of climate change for quite a while.  For example, before the most recent Climate Act implementation meeting I wrote a post predicting that Hurricane Ida impacts would be highlighted at the meeting and, surprising no one, that is exactly what happened at the meeting.  I have documented other instances where New Yorkers have confused climate change impacts with weather events here.

In my prediction post I noted that on August 22, 2021 tropical depression Henri made landfall in Rhode Island.  Although it had weakened from a hurricane and skirted New York, it dumped heavy rains from New Jersey to New England.   The region had a wet summer so the ground was already saturated.  As a result, the main impact was flooding.  Hurricane Ida struck the Louisiana coast on August 29, 2021.  I followed the forecasts of the remnants of Ida as it slogged north and the east out to sea in the New York City area.  Every forecaster was warning that heavy rains were likely in the New York City area and coupled with already saturated grounds that flooding was likely. 

Cliff Mass described the weather as it hit the area and noted that New York’s Central Park had a record of 3.15 inches in an hour.  He explained that hurricane remnants, known as extratropical cyclones, combine strong upward motions with large amounts of tropical moisture.  This combination causes heavy rains and flooding.  Moreover, Paul Homewood evaluated climate data and showed that that worse precipitation has been observed in the past

Sadly, there were big impacts associated with the storm.  The New York City report states that “For the first time in history, the National Weather Service (NWS) declared a flash flood emergency in New York City. The storm shattered the record for the most single-hour rainfall in our city, set only two weeks earlier by another extreme storm, Hurricane Henri. It flooded streets, subways, and homes. Most tragically, Ida took the lives of 13 New Yorkers.”

Dr. Cliff Mass defines the Golden Rule of Climate Extremes as: The more extreme a climate or weather record is, the greater the contribution of natural variability.  For example, he did an extensive analysis of this summer’s great Northwest heat wave and found that “ global warming only contributed a small about (1-2F) of the 30-40F heatwave and that proposed global warming amplification mechanisms (e.g., droughts, enhanced ridging/high pressure) cannot explain the severe heat event.”  Although he did not do a similar analysis of the New York City flooding, the analyses described above suggest a similar conclusion here.  Note, however, his description of the weather event made the point that we could and should improve forecasting and communications for this type of event because the deaths were preventable.

In this regard, the New York City report is encouraging.  The press release explains that the following new strategies are outlined in the report:

  • Educate, train, and acclimate New Yorkers to this new reality
  • Increase planning for the worst-case scenario in every instance
  • Accelerate upgrades to storm modeling, tracking, and alert systems
  • Broaden protection for inland communities, not only our coastlines
  • Protect basement and cellar occupants
  • Prioritize investments in low-income neighborhoods, immigrant communities, and communities of color
  • Re-imagine our sewage and drainage system, and rapidly increase green infrastructure and cloudburst solutions
  • Call on support from the state and federal government in further depending our reach

I will look at these strategies in more detail below.

Educating New Yorkers to be more weatherwise is a necessary first step in the public warning process.  In my opinion, many city folks are so insulated from the real world, including the weather, that they don’t bother to follow weather forecasts.  For the most part, that only creates inconveniences.  However, there are extreme weather events that can affect safety and they have to be aware of the consequences.  Given the importance of this requirement I will not quibble that those events have always happened and, even if the magical solutions to mitigate climate change are enacted, severe weather events will continue happen.

The planning for worst-case scenarios basically consists of setting up a “new senior position at City Hall, the Extreme Weather Coordinator”.  Hopefully they will work closely with the National Weather Service experts in the area of severe weather communications.  If the warnings are not credible then they will be ignored.

I am sure Dr. Mass would endorse the plan to “build state-of-the-art storm modeling, a new tiered alert system tailored to at-risk areas, and a modern tracking system that will monitor dangerous weather throughout the tri-state area and beyond”.   I agree that this is necessary and would be the first to support diverting some of the money poured into climate change research into a better warning system for weather events associated with the “new normal”.  This certainly is a “no regrets” option.

Three of the strategies are related.  Inland communities and basement occupants are threatened mostly because the sewage and drainage system is inadequate.  The report notes that “Completely recalibrating our sewers for storms like Ida would require a decades-long, potentially $100-billion investment dependent on federal funding”. However, it would reduce the severity of inland flooding, help prevent basement flooding, and reduce the health impacts associated with sewage overflows.

It seems that all environmental infrastructure projects proposed today have to include environmental justice commitments.  I doubt that anyone would object to requirements that mandate equitable investments.  However, given the amount of money needed to address all the resiliency problems it would be inappropriate to try to over-compensate low-income neighborhoods for past injustices.

Clearly it is beyond the capability of the city to fund everything that could be done.  Not surprisingly, the final strategy is to get more money from “our partners at the State and Federal level”.   In my opinion New York City is missing the obvious solution.

Even if greenhouse gas emissions affect global warming as alleged, there are problems with New York City’s support of greenhouse gas emission reduction mitigation projects.  In the first place, New York emissions reductions cannot possibly measurably affect global warming.  Paul Knappenberger’s Analysis of US and State-By-State Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Potential “Savings” In Future Global Temperature and Global Sea Level Rise used the Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse-gas Induced Climate Change which projects changes based in expected global warming based on admittedly old Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates.  I simply pro-rated his estimates of United States impacts by the ratio of New York greenhouse gas emissions divided by United States emissions to determine the effects of a complete cessation of all New York State’s emissions.  I found that there would be a reduction, or a “savings,” of between 0.0097°C and 0.0081°C by the year 2100.  To give you an idea of how small these temperature changes are consider changes with elevation and latitude.  Generally, temperature decreases three (3) degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000-foot increase in elevation above sea level.  The projected temperature difference for all the greenhouse gases is the same as a 39-inch change.  The general rule is that temperature changes three (3) degrees Fahrenheit for every 300-mile change in latitude at sea level.  The projected temperature change is the same as a change in latitude of less than a mile. Given these small changes I believe that there could not possibly be an effect on extreme weather events from New York emission reductions.

In addition, New York’s potential emission reductions should be considered relative to the rest of the world.  According to the China Electricity Council, about 29.9 gigawatts of new coal power capacity was added in 2019 and a further 46 GW of coal-fired power plants are under construction.  If you assume that the new coal plants are super-critical units with an efficiency of 44% and have a capacity factor of 80%, eliminating all New York’s greenhouse gas emissions will be replaced by the added 2019 Chinese capacity in less than two years.

I think that the New York City New Normal report outlines useful strategies to address the problems of extreme weather.  I disagree that there is any “new” normal but the fact is that extreme weather always has happened and will always happen whatever mankind tries to do, makes planning a system to address these events a no regrets solution.  The biggest impediment to implementation is the enormous funding needed and I believe it is obvious that taking the money presently being thrown away on greenhouse gas emission reduction projects would be better served funding these strategies.  New York emissions cannot possibly be reduced enough to affect global warming and the alleged new normals of extreme weather even if there is a link between the two.  Given that it is a moral imperative that everyone should have access to abundant, reliable energy that can only be provided affordably with fossil fuels means that emission increases elsewhere are going to be greater than any possible New York emission reductions.  Finally, New York’s emphasis on wind and solar zero emissions resources for future emission reductions depends on technology that does not exist.  As a result, catastrophic blackouts with impacts equivalent to the extreme weather events are likely as a result of the mitigation efforts of New York.  It would be logical and safer to use emission reduction funds for the proposed strategies.

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Roger Caiazza blogs on New York energy and environmental issues at Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York.  This represents his opinion and not the opinion of any of his previous employers or any other company with which he has been associated.

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September 30, 2021 at 08:11AM

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