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3-D Maps Pictured Sandy's Devastation–Five Years Ago

Is the destruction from superstorm Sandy a preview of what's to come as sea levels continue to rise from climate change?

Nov 1, 2012
Map of a flooding scenario under a 3-meter sea level rise in New York City (fl

Five years ago, a report called "Nation Under Siege" illustrated the vulnerability of 31 U.S. coastal cities to flooding. But not just to any kind of flooding—to the flooding of a permanent kind from sea level rise.

What will happen to these cities, the report asked, as sea levels continue to increase from global warming?

The study provided answers in a series of 3-D maps constructed using data from federal science agencies and the United Nations' climate panel. The maps provide an uncanny prediction of what transpired Monday night when superstorm Sandy engulfed 1,000 miles of Atlantic coastline.

Most striking is the 3-D map of New York (pictured above), which shows what could happen to the city with a 3-meter (9.8-foot) rise in sea level: Lower Manhattan, the East Village neighborhood and the FDR Drive underwater. That's exactly what Sandy's 3-meter storm surge delivered.

Was superstorm Sandy a preview of what sea level rise will bring—permanently—to New York and other coastal cities by century's end?

"This was essentially what we thought of as the once-in-a-100-years event," said Radley Horton, a NASA scientist specializing in climate projections at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University. "As sea levels rise, we'll see these types of events more often."

The storm—which brought the nation's financial capital to its knees—showed just how unprepared New York City and other coastal cities are for flooding from weather disasters, which are expected to increase as climate change intensifies and oceans rise.

New York City's East Village underwater, credit: jesseandgreg, TumblrNew York City's East Village underwater, credit: jesseandgreg, Tumblr

According to figures from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world's oceans have risen on average by about 7 inches since 1900. The rise has been even higher along the East Coast. A report by the New York State Sea Level Rise Task Force said sea levels along New York's coast have increased between 9 and 11 inches over the past century.

It's just the beginning, scientists warn. In a June report, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) predicted the world's oceans would rise between 0.6 and 1.8 meters (2 and 5.9 feet) by 2100, plus another 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) during violent storms.

Katharine Hayhoe, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas Tech University, said it's impossible to tease out precise effects that each climate variable, such as sea level rise, storm surge and high tide, had on the size and strength of Sandy. However, she said, the sea level rise of 7 inches this century (the IPCC estimate) made the megastorm worse.

"I don't know where, and I don't know how much, but I do know that due to those 7 inches there is at least some added damage," Hayhoe said in an interview. "In some places, the coastline was high enough or the sea wall was built up enough, but in other places maybe that 7 inches did make a difference."

In a series of tweets this week, Hayhoe gave three reasons why climate change exacerbated superstorm Sandy. One, already higher sea levels made the storm surge more severe. Two, higher sea surface temperatures from warming provided more energy for Sandy—with about 15 percent of the temperature increase attributed to climate change, she said. And three, record loss of sea ice in the Arctic this year may have steered Sandy towards the coast.

Hayhoe told InsideClimate News that as sea levels continue to rise, it won't take a hurricane of Sandy's strength to cause the amount of flooding wreaking havoc on the East Coast.

Sandy has already been branded as one of the most destructive and expensive storms in U.S. history, with damages estimated as high as $20 billion. Nationwide, at least 74 people were killed in the storm—22 in New York City alone. More than 5.6 million homes and businesses are still without power, down from 8.5 million after landfall, with outages stretching as far inland as Ohio and Michigan.

Damage caused by Sandy to the New Jersey coast. Credit: U.S. Air ForceDamage caused by Sandy to the New Jersey coast. Credit: U.S. Air Force

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