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In a World of Rising Seas, Cities Can Look to the Past in Adapting for the Future

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In 2012, the city of Hoboken, New Jersey experienced flooding in excess of 9 feet above normal levels. The city of 50,000 people, which sits just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, had sustained a nearly direct hit from a Category 3 hurricane. One source of flooding was a long-forgotten river, which had been paved over decades earlier.

Michael Bruno witnessed the destruction from Hurricane Sandy first hand. He is now the Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Hawaii, but in 2012 he was the head of the engineering department at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. As the storm was closing in on New York City, Bruno received a call from Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken.

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Credit Sonya Herbert / White House Archives
Coastal towns all along the Jersey Shore experienced heavy damage during Hurricane Sandy. Pictured here is Seaside Heights, NJ.

Zimmer asked Bruno, who has a doctorate in civil and ocean engineering from MIT, to attend an emergency meeting of city officials. At that meeting Bruno gave his best estimate of what Hoboken would likely face as the storm made landfall. He predicted flooding on the order of 9 to 10 feet above normal levels for the riverfront city.

A different city official interjected, telling the mayor she had nothing to worry about. The city’s Department of Public Works had recently installed pumps, which were in perfect working order.

Looking back, that notion seemed almost laughable to Bruno.

“I think it is very difficult for a person to comprehend the entire ocean rising something like 9 or 10 feet. That entire horizon rising.”

In response to the assertion that pumps could save Hoboken, Bruno simply responded “You can’t pump out the whole Atlantic Ocean.”

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Credit Staff Sergeant Keith Anderson / U.S. Army/25th Infantry Division
Communities in Hawaii have also experienced disasters being attributed to events related to climate change. In 2018, a so-called "rain bomb" dumped 50 inches of rain on Hanalei in 24 hours.

Although the damage in Hoboken was severe, many lives were saved as a result of preemptive action taken by city officials, who were spurred to action by Bruno's briefing before the storm. 

The city's example can serve as a lesson to other planners. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, it became clear that an old riverbed, long since paved over, had provided a conduit for much of the floodwater that rushed into Hoboken.

“I think the field needs to do more learning about what has gone on before us” Bruno said. “Very often it is only in a very large, catastrophic event…that we have the benefit of relearning that lesson.”

In Bruno’s view, those lessons can’t be learned soon enough. With the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is already impacting the planet, major cities have an ever-narrowing window to begin the costly and lengthy process of adapting.

Bruno outlined that challenge in a book he co-wrote called The Urban Ocean: The Interaction of Cities and Water. But its more than just an engineering challenge.

Climate change adaptation is what Bruno calls a “have or have not issue”, with the have-nots being the residents of less developed nations and small cities, whose governments cannot marshal the massive financial resources needed to harden existing infrastructure.

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Credit Wikimedia Commons
"Superstorm" Sandy affected much of the eastern seaboard in the 2012.

Whether or not human society can adapt to the coming paradigm shift largely hinges upon time according to Bruno. If the pace of change is slow enough to allow policymakers and people to make the necessary changes, he thinks we have a good chance.

But if the changing climate causes rapid disruption or destruction, the challenge will be much greater. Still, Bruno remained hopeful for the former outcome.

“You will find us at the equator and you will find us at the pole. As a community we are remarkably adaptable, but if the change happens in a very rapid fashion…we may not be so adaptable.”

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