As the Rivers Rise, 3 Ways Harlem Needs to Prepare for a Wet Future

harlem flood hurricane irene sea level rise

The sea level around New York City has risen by 12″ in the past century. By 2050, it will rise another 7″ to 12″; by 2080, 12″ to 23″ more. With 520 miles of shoreline in five boroughs, these numbers translate to an approaching disaster. Factor in the flooding subways, tunnels, sewage systems and electrical networks, and things get even worse.

If Harlem and Harlemites are to be ready for this future, there are three steps to take.

Battle Climate Change

Rising seas are the result of global climate change. Higher temperatures are melting glaciers and ice caps, leading to more water in the oceans. They also meanmajor storms will occur more frequently*, compounding the chance of flooding.

Everything Harlem can do to reduce its carbon footprint will help. Fortunately, it’s ahead of the game. Cities are green. Residents share resources and infrastructure, so each person’s impact is lessened.

With 55,760 people per square mile, Harlem is twice as dense as New York City as a whole. It’s pedestrian-friendly: WalkScore.com gives it a ranking of 95/100, a “Walker’s Paradise.” The typical household’s transportation is responsible for .31 metric tons of CO2 per month- one third the national average, according to transportation costs Web site Abogo.

These are good figures; they can be better. Individuals should ditch private cars for public transportation, recycle, and take all the other everyday steps that reduce carbon emissions. The government and neighborhood organizations must make those steps as easy as possible: more and better subway and bus networks, more recycling bins, etc.

harlem sea level rise climate change

Waterfront Parks, Not Condos

PlaNYC 2030, Mayor Bloomberg’s sustainability agenda, includes plans to clean the rivers and reconnect New Yorkers to the waterfront. It’s a laudable effort; the once great beauty of New York’s rivers is now a largely foreign concept.

While New Yorkers will benefit from having access to the water, they don’t need to live there. Riverfront construction increases the potential damage of flooding and reduces the land’s natural ability to combat it. Parks encourage exercise and improve quality of life, and can absorb rising water.

Buy Goggles

Reduced carbon emissions or no, the water is coming for Harlem. Best case scenario predictions* from the Copenhagen Climate Congress peg global sea level rise at 20″ by 2100. Acknowledging this as a reality, not a possibility, will make the first two steps manageable. If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s also the mother of adaptation.

It’s time to get ready. -Alex Davies

Alex is the communications coordinator at the Colin Powell Center. Find out more about him and other contributing writers here

*These links point to TreeHugger, where Alex is a contributing writer.

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