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Stevens Institute of Technology

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October 15, 2012

Maritime Researchers Prepare New York City and Boston for Flooding

In New York City and Boston alone, billions of dollars of urban infrastructure lie less than 4 meters above sea level, leaving the cities and its residents susceptible to coastal flooding and storm surges. Rising sea levels caused by climate change makes the two major metropolitan cities even more vulnerable. With support by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, researchers from Stevens Institute of Technology and Columbia University are developing plans for the cities to prepare and respond to coastal disasters.

Dr. Alan Blumberg

Dr. Alan Blumberg

“Dr. Alan Blumberg and Dr. Philip Orton of the Stevens Center for Maritime Systems are collaborating with Dr. Malgosia Madajewicz and Mark Becker from Columbia in this critical initiative to protect New York City and Boston,” says Dr. Michael Bruno, Dean of the Charles V. Schaefer School of Engineering and Science. “The results of their innovative work will have far reaching impact, and could help other coastal municipalities be prepared by improving infrastructure and creating emergency plans.”

Sea level rise has steadily accelerated over the past several decades, with the global average sea level recently rising at 3.3 mm per year. By the end of this century, it could rise more than one meter, which would lead to significantly higher storm surges and heavy flooding. "Climate change enhances the likelihood of weather extremes, such as devastating drought and flooding. Climate change has led to melting glaciers and ice sheets and thermal expansion of the oceans, which in turn, causes the sea level to rise,” says Dr. Alan Blumberg. “We need to bring engineering, science, and government together to plan for the future and adapt to this impending threat.“

Rising Sea Levels in NYC

Projected Sea Level Rise for NYC (click to zoom)

Flooding has far-reaching effects, disrupting subways, ruining basements, and costing the city, businesses and residents money in damages, clean-up, and lost productivity. Tropical Storm Irene forced the New York City to evacuate low-lying neighborhoods and shut down the entire subway system, bringing the city to a standstill. Though Irene was considered a weak storm, it still cost the city and its residents approximately $6 billion in storm damage, lost sales and productivity.

Dr. Mark Becker

Mark Becker

During an emergency such as Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, government officials and decision makers require tools that allow them to analyze new data quickly and efficiently in order to implement the best approach. The experts from Stevens and Columbia will analyze the current risk and vulnerability of New York City and Boston neighborhoods and prepare them as far into the future as 2080 by using several demographic, social, and economic indicators to create neighborhood vulnerability maps. The maps will be dynamic and adaptable, allowing city decision makers to reduce uncertainty by recalculating the maps with the most up-to-date population, zoning, and other relevant data sets as they become available.

“Flooding has far-reaching effects, disrupting subways, ruining basements, and costing the city, businesses and residents money in damages, clean-up, and lost productivity.”

Hurricane Katrina is one of the most potent examples of the devastating power of storm surge flooding and its effects on vulnerable populations. When Katrina hit New Orleans, many residents did not evacuate because they lacked the financial resources or access to transportation, and were subsequently hit hardest. Almost 1,500 residents lost their lives, many who were elderly or financially insecure. Additionally, the damage from Hurricane Katrina cost Louisiana’s fishing industry an estimated $1.3 billion in revenue and absolutely devastated seafood crops. It was years before the industry returned to pre-storm revenue and profits. In this new study, the researchers will focus on neighborhoods and businesses particularly susceptible to the damages of flooding such as these.

Dr. Philip Orton

Dr. Philip Orton

The maps will use detailed urban coastal flooding models developed by Dr. Blumberg and Dr. Orton to predict storm surge flooding. Their models utilize innovative methodology which take multiple components of the coastal flood risk into account, including tides, waves, and rainfall. This method is used in the New York Harbor Observing and Prediction System (NYHOPS), which was created at Stevens. NYHOPS forecasts storm surges, water currents, water temperature, water levels, and waves throughout the region. Combining real-time and historic data with advanced understanding of ocean physics, NYHOPS predicts the impact of tides and other cyclical ocean behaviors on the potential impact of storms.

Dr. Malgosia Madajewicz

Dr. Malgosia Madajewicz

Applying the data from the essential maps, the research team will provide New York City and Boston government officials a framework for making decisions about actions that will prepare the public and build resilience to coastal floods. The framework will take each neighborhood’s characteristics into consideration to provide the best recommendations. Some neighborhoods may only need information campaigns to prepare them for storm surges, or preparation may be promoted through grants, subsidies, or taxes. In other neighborhoods, direct intervention from city agencies may be needed.

The coastal flood threat to New York City and Boston is representative of risks affecting other municipalities in the Mid-Atlantic and along the north-eastern urban corridor. Successful implementation of the initiative will lead the way for other coastal communities to develop similar emergency response plans that safeguard our coasts and communities.

Learn more about programs or research initiatives at the Center for Maritime Systems, or apply at Undergraduate or Graduate Admissions.


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