Hurricane Sandy’s Sea Change

Now, after Hurricane Sandy, some of our political leaders are finally speaking up more clearly about the impact of climate change.

The conversation is not just about restoring all that was damaged along the shores of New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island, and in lower Manhattan and in the surrounding boroughs.

It is also about preparing for more storms like Sandy, adapting to the new reality of higher sea levels, warmer sea surface temperatures, bigger storms, and more frequent ones. Finally.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said more than a year ago that he recognized that climate change is real and that human activity plays a role in these changes.

This week he said “I don’t believe in a state like ours, where the Jersey Shore is such a part of life, that you just pick up and walk away.” But then he still raised the possibility that homeowners in hard-hit coastal areas could decide to sell their property to the state for conservation.

Surfers Point, Ventura, CA is now protected by ‘managed retreat'(

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, in response to Sandy said “…I think part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality. Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.”

And Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of NYC, wrote concerning Sandy: “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”

Sea walls, levees and beach sand replenishment are temporary solutions at best, and building offshore walls and storm gates are hugely expensive.

Drawing of possible sea gates to protect Staten Island – intriguing but so very expensive (

Bloomberg again: “I don’t think there’s any practical way to build barriers in the oceans. Even if you spent a fortune, it’s not clear to me that you would get much value for it.”

There are many possibilities besides building levees, sea gates and walls. Constructing buffering oyster beds, sand dunes and wetlands are real options instead. Managed retreat – moving homes, businesses and roads out of the harms way is now as well an essential consideration.

Imagine a grassy network of parks and wetlands extending around lower Manhattan, with tidal marshes to absorb waves. (

Or imagine oyster beds growing on reefs of rock and shell, buffering and absorbing storm surges (

No one thinks that climate warming necessarily caused Hurricane Sandy – but it likely influenced its size and its path. The melting and warming Arctic has modified the flow of the Jet Stream which in turn influenced the path the hurricane took veering into the east of North America instead of out to sea.

Now it appears that the Arctic melt is proceeding even more quickly than any of the models have predicted. The sea will continue to warm and rise, and storm surges will be ever higher.

So now we have an opportunity to face reality, not just to rebuild what has been lost but to adapt in many ways to what is coming. With strong and non-partisan leadership emerging, we can prepare ourselves.

We may need to nourish these voices.


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