Degrees of Concern
Climate Change and New York City's Future
Thursday, October 09, 2003
REPORTER: John Rudolph
CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.
CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. This week we visit New York City to face some facts and address some concerns about climate change. Fact: with global warming comes rising sea levels and a new set of risks from increased tidal surges during storms. Concern: as an ocean-front mega-city, New York is ill-prepared for the global warming century.
MUNDY: This is a catastrophe waiting to happen here.
GORNITZ: I mean, if the change is slow and rather gentle, I think we can adapt fairly well. But, on the other hand, if the change is going to be much more rapid and much more extreme then we are in trouble. And we cannot rule out completely that a more drastic change might be in the offing.
CURWOOD: It's "Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City's Future" this week on Living on Earth, coming up right after this.
ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
CURWOOD: It's another rainy day in New York City. Another rainy day in what's been a very wet year.
CURWOOD: During one intense downpour in early August, New York set a record for the most rainfall in a 24-hour period. Just one year earlier, the city was in the midst of a drought. These days, we live in a time of extreme weather. The 1990's were the warmest decade of the 20th century, and, by some estimates, the warmest decade of the past 1,000 years. Many scientists say the human impact on the world's climate is promoting dramatic swings in the weather - more droughts and heat waves but also more storms and floods. Cities like New York will be affected by these events and will have to adapt to them.
But, how much and how soon? That's the central question for the next hour as Living on Earth and WNYC present a special report, "Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City's Future."
CURWOOD: New York is certainly the ultimate man-made environment. A place where weather can seem almost irrelevant. It can be raining or snowing, freezing-cold or hot and humid, but most of the city's business goes on, unimpeded by the forces of nature. If it's pouring, hop in a cab, or jump on the subway. If it's hot, turn up the AC. Everyone has a quick fix for the weather. But in the future, quick fixes may be harder to come by. Producer John Rudolph has been traveling around New York investigating how the city is responding to the early signs of global warming. He's found that in an urban environment, disruption in the climate as we've come to know it presents unique challenges.
MUNDY: Now as we approach here, if you look out into the marsh, everyplace you see water out there is where a marsh used to be.
RUDOLPH: On a hazy afternoon Dan Mundy guides his boat through Jamaica Bay, a huge salt-water estuary on the western end of Long Island. If you've ever taken off or landed at Kennedy Airport, you've probably seen Jamaica Bay from the air.
RUDOLPH: Dan Mundy has lived near the bay all his life.
MUNDY: We're right now in the middle of Jamaica Bay. If we could see ahead of us, you'd see the Empire State Building, if it was a clear day. On the other side of the - Brooklyn, there. And we're now approaching what is known as Black Wall Marsh, on a navigational chart.
RUDOLPH: Mundy is a retired New York City firefighter. Since he left the Fire Department, Mundy's been on a different kind of rescue mission. He's trying to save Jamaica Bay from an environmental disaster - the sudden disappearance of the bay's salt marshes.
MUNDY: We've lost over 50 percent of this marsh in a short period of time. Now, the ironic thing about this is that these marshes are a thousand years old. Now, you're looking at one of the oldest, largest, living organisms around the New York area! And in the last 15 to 20 years - and even less than that - it's dying. The experts tell us that by the year 2022, all of these will be gone. So, we're in a situation where we're running against time here.
RUDOLPH: Dan Mundy ties up his boat right outside the back door of his house. His home serves as unofficial headquarters for the Jamaica Bay Eco-Watchers. That's the group Mundy and some of his neighbors formed a few years ago to put pressure on government agencies to do something about the deteriorating marshes. Surrounded by navigational charts and aerial photographs, Mundy explains that if the marshes continue to disappear, hundreds of species of birds and fish in the bay will suffer. The man-made environment around the bay is also at risk. Mundy says the marshes help dampen down waves that can cause erosion and damage structures on shore.
MUNDY: Your Belt Parkway right now at high tide is from 50 to 100 feet away from the water' s edge. That infrastructure will be washed out. Your Independent subway line coming down here, the water's within 50 feet of it. There is no bulkhead, there's no wave attenuators, there's no nothing. The 1,500 feet of marsh that used to go out is gone. The MTA's gonna have to do something about shoring that up. Your three landfills, Edgemere, Pennsylvania, and Fountain, have no bulkheads. They just go down into the bay with a 30-foot hole in the bottom of them. When the wave action starts hitting and eroding the end of them, the garbage that's in there is gonna come out into Jamaica Bay. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen here.
RUDOLPH: There's no question that if the marshes continue to disintegrate the impact on both the natural and man-made environments will be dramatic. The question is - why are the marshes disappearing? Why does a 1,000-year-old organism suddenly start to die?
RUDOLPH: Five years ago, scientists from Columbia University and NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies began searching for answers. They studied aerial photos of Jamaica Bay and measured the volume of its marsh grasses.
GORNITZ: It started as part of an investigation into climate change impacts in the New York metropolitan area.
RUDOLPH: Researcher Vivian Gornitz was a member of the scientific team.
GORNITZ: One of the things we wanted to look at was if there was any evidence or indication of sea-level rise in the wetlands of New York City.
RUDOLPH: You probably weren't aware of this but the East Coast of North America is slowly sinking. The phenomenon is called subsidence, and it's a major cause of sea-level rise along the Atlantic Coast. As the continent sank over the past 100 years the seas rose by about one foot. In the next century, subsidence will continue and global warming will magnify its impact. Scientists predict the ocean could rise by as much as three feet. Greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels are expected to increase global temperatures - glaciers will melt, the oceans will warm and expand, and coastal areas, including many parts of New York City, could end up under water. Gornitz's colleague Ellen Hartig believes Jamaica Bay's marshes have already been damaged by rising seas.
HARTIG: When we first started the study, we were thinking that we would only
make projections into the future. But having seen what was going on here we
can say that there's already been some sea-level rise that has been a contributing
factor to marsh loss in this area.
GORNITZ: While sea-level rise undoubtedly is contributing to the marsh loss, it is only part of the larger picture because the rate of sea-level rise in New York has remained fairly constant over the last 100 years or so - whereas the rates of marsh loss seems to have been accelerating in recent decades. And it's that acceleration of the loss that is hard to explain by sea-level rise alone.
RUDOLPH: Normally, marshes adapt to rising sea levels by gradually migrating inland over decades or centuries. But today, in Jamaica Bay, the marshes have nowhere to go. They're blocked by man-made structures - roads, airport runways, even a subway line. Pollution, too, could be playing a role. These factors, combined with rising seas, may be sending the marshes on a downward spiral.
GORNITZ: I mean, if the change is slow and rather gentle, I think we can adapt fairly well. But, on the other hand, if the change is going to be much more rapid and more extreme, then we are in trouble. And we cannot rule out completely that a more drastic change might be in the offing.
RUDOLPH: This summer, after several delays, the first experimental program to restore the marshes got under way.
RUDOLPH: A rickety-looking dredge sits on a barge in Jamaica Bay. The machine sucks up sediment from the bottom of a channel and shoots it into the air in a high arc. The muck lands 100 feet away on a damaged section of the marsh.
RUDOLPH: The dredge was brought up from Orlando, Florida to attempt a bit of marsh first aid. The National Park Service hired Dewayne Wingfield's company to do the job. Wingfield says the goal of the experiment is to add 16 inches of new sediment to two acres of dying marsh. The area will be replanted with marsh grasses, and then, hopefully, nature will take over.
WINGFIELD: If they don't start refurbishing it, rebuilding it, you're not gonna have your marsh for your habitat, like your fish, your birds, wildlife. And not letting all our land go to water. I mean, if it eats all this it may start eating New York, too.
RUDOLPH: It'll be at least a year before scientists know if this experiment
is a success and whether the same technique should be tried on the other 12
hundred or so acres of threatened marshland in the bay. But people who live
on Jamaica Bay aren't waiting for the results. They've already taken matters
into their own hands.
RUDOLPH: On a sunny afternoon, Ed Phillips hauls a wooden skiff out of Jamaica Bay. Phillips lives in Broad Channel, a neighborhood located on an island in the bay. Take the A train to the Broad Channel station and you're in a community that has the look and feel of a New England fishing village. Boats are everywhere, moored in the bay, stored on trailers in backyards. Many homes in Broad Channel are built on stilts over the water. In recent years, Phillips and his neighbors have had to raise their houses to keep them out of harm's way.
PHILLIPS: They'd get water on their houses in high tides and moon tides and especially in hurricanes and extreme high tides like the Nor'easters and stuff like that there.
RUDOLPH: What kind of damage were people experiencing before they raised their houses?
PHILLIPS: You were getting water right through your house. In a Nor'easter I had 18 inches through my house.
RUDOLPH: Phillips says he spent thousands of dollars to jack up his house another three feet above the water to avoid more damage. But this kind of a step to adapt to rising seas is not typical. Most of New York is unprotected, even though in the future the city will increasingly be vulnerable to flooding.
RUDOLPH: The problems in Jamaica Bay and their implications for the city-at-large are just starting to get attention at City Hall.
GENNARO: Good Morning. My name is Jim Gennaro, chairman of the NYC Council Committee on Environmental Protection. I'd like to welcome you to this hearing. Today, the committee will hear testimony on a very important matter: the future of Jamaica Bay.
RUDOLPH: Among those concerned about Jamaica Bay is Commissioner Christopher Ward, of the city's Department of Environmental Protection. He calls Jamaica Bay, "the canary in the mineshaft," warning of changes that may affect the entire city in coming years.
WARD: We know, as a reality, climate change and sea-level change are upon us. So we should build that into our thinking when we think about ecological solutions. We really need to understand, are we spending our money for the next 30 years, let's say in the best way, given these changes?
RUDOLPH: Sea-level rise is the number-one climate-related threat facing New York. And it's not just Jamaica Bay and the surrounding area that's at risk. In the coming decades many parts of the city will be increasingly vulnerable to flooding - the financial district, the subway system, tunnels under the rivers, and any building near the water's edge. Despite efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gasses that cause global warming, many scientists now say that some change in the climate is inevitable and may already be taking place. The question for New York is whether the warning signs from Jamaica Bay, and the concerns of many citizens about global warming, will lead to concrete measures to protect the city in the future.
CURWOOD: When we return, how rising seas can swamp Ground Zero. You're listening to "Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City's Future," a special report from WNYC and Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Ry Cooder & Manuel Galban "Bolero Sonambulo" MAMBO SINUENDO ( Nonesuch - 2003) ]
CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.
CURWOOD: The rebuilding of the World Trade Center site is well underway. And a lot of attention is focused on designing a fitting memorial to those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. But another concern is the environmental impact of the buildings going up. Many people hope to see energy-efficient structures and more public-transportation options. These measures will help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that promote climate change. Our special report "Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City's Future" continues with a visit to the World Trade Center site where producer John Rudolph spoke with a scientist who warns that reducing emissions is not enough.
JACOB: I am Klaus Jacob. I'm a senior research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and we are standing here right now overlooking the World Trade Center site, also known as Ground Zero, or 'the bathtub.'
RUDOLPH: Professor Klaus Jacob looks out over the World Trade Center site and sees a potential disaster in the making. It's not the threat of more terrorism. Jacob worries that in the coming decades whatever is built on the site will be vulnerable to the combination of rising seas and more intense storms aggravated by climate change.
JACOB: The frequency of such flooding events could increase on an average three times, but in the worst case as much as 10 times. So, what is right now a 50 year storm - which is roughly an eight-foot coastal storm surge here at this place where we stand - it could happen, instead of every 50 years, it could happen every five years. And that's not good for a city that claims to be the world financial capital to see its financial infrastructure flooded every five years, and business interrupted, and all the things that go with it.
RUDOLPH: Now, as you said, there is a range of possibilities. There's the best-case scenario. There's the worst-case scenario. Does it really matter in terms of which of these scenarios you choose, in terms of the increased vulnerability of Ground Zero, of the subway entrances downtown, of the tunnel entrances downtown, and so forth?
JACOB: We have already a storm-surge problem. The Holland Tunnel is always on the verge of flooding during Nor'easters, and the PATH tunnel already has flooded, so we know what the current risk is. What's so bad is that it will become more frequent, and so it's actually more cost beneficial to do it now. Because the longer we wait, the less benefit we get because we may incur some losses before we do the measures, so why not do them now when we are all building this infrastructure anyhow, you know.
Now, specifically here, for Ground Zero, we are looking down here into what has become known as "the bathtub," which is the excavation for the foundation of the former Two World Trade Centers - actually all five, so World Trade "Centers." And, it has, obviously, a reconstruction plan, a master plan by Daniel Libeskind. And looking at this, what worries me that unless we do some very conscientious engineering of this -- which I'm not aware of is currently taking place -- this bathtub, with its memorial, with its museum and several other structures inside it and adjacent to it, could very well be flooded. Now, to pump out a whole bathtub with all those things - I think is not what we were looking forward to.
RUDOLPH: What kinds of specific measures are you suggesting should be taken now to protect this infrastructure from the kinds of storm surges that you've been talking about?
JACOB: Well, one good thing is that we already have created, again, some buffer zones on the waterfront towards the Hudson. Much of what was formerly industrial or harbor facilities have been turned into parkland, so that's great. That's a good measure. That's a step in the right direction. What has to be done for protecting both the infrastructure, but also buildings that are going up here is, we simply have to be aware that all critical entrances have to be at a certain level that exceeds the projected flooding levels. And we can discuss the details how to achieve it, and engineers will do a, probably, a very good job in doing this but it has to be brought into the planning.
RUDOLPH: Now, we spoke to the Port Authority and asked them specifically about the rebuilding of Ground Zero, and they said they're doing absolutely nothing about raising the level of the infrastructure. They said their priority is to get this site rebuilt as fast as possible and they don't have time to think about these things.
RUDOLPH: Well, that is where a geologist like me thinks on different time terms than politically pressured decision makers, and that is the very, very shortsightedness that is culturally ingrained in our system, and it's clearly an uphill battle for us scientists to insert this kind of thinking.
RUDOLPH: When you look at the situation out in Jamaica Bay and then you stand here in front of Ground Zero, what's the connection between the disappearing marshes in Jamaica Bay and the threat that Ground Zero and the Holland and Midtown tunnels face?
JACOB: Well, I wish we would lose a piece of Manhattan just like we do out in Jamaica Bay every year, and then we would see it better. Okay? So far, we have engineered over it cosmetically but we really haven't addressed the fundamental issues.
RUDOLPH: The risks associated with climate change that Columbia University researcher Klaus Jacob talks about are not confined to the World Trade Center site or Jamaica Bay. Across the metropolitan area, many of the systems that support New Yorker's lives and life-styles are increasingly vulnerable. One of the systems at greatest risk is also one of the most basic. The city's water supply is likely to be disrupted by rising seas and changes in weather patterns caused by global warming. Over the years New York has suffered through many droughts. During a dry spell in 1949, WNYC broadcast a song urging citizens to conserve water.
RUDOLPH: But even aggressive water conservation can't assure an adequate supply of fresh water. Ultimately, the city's water supply depends on natural systems - rainfall, underground aquifers, lakes, and rivers. These systems could be dramatically affected by changes in the global climate. And one place where the change would be first detected is along what's knows as the "salt front" on the Hudson River.
CRONIN: My name is John Cronin and I'm the director of the Pace Academy for the Environment at Pace University. And where we're standing right now is - we're standing in the midst of the Hudson Highlands which is one of the narrower sections of the Hudson River.
RUDOLPH: John Cronin has spent most of his adult life educating people about the Hudson and fighting to protect the river from various threats. These include proposals to divert huge amounts of river water for power plants, factories and drinking-water supplies. Diversions like these would have changed the Hudson's basic ecology by altering the mix of fresh and salt water. It is this mix, says Cronin, that makes the Hudson such a rich environment for wildlife.
CRONIN: Where that salt is located is key to the development of fish
at certain life stages. So, when they are little hatchlings and are ready for
the big, broad shallow area of the Hudson, which is the nursery, the water is
of a certain salinity that they can tolerate just in time for them to be there
where they're going to be doing their feeding. So, it's an extraordinary piece
of ecological choreography.
RUDOLPH: Fresh water flows down the Hudson from the Adirondack Mountains. Salt water moves up from the mouth of New York Harbor. The place where these two forces meet is an invisible line in the river called the "salt front." The salt front is constantly in motion. In spring when snows melt, the heavy flow of fresh water pushes the salt front down the river to a point about 30 miles north of New York City. When there's a drought, and the flow of fresh water is reduced to a relative trickle, the ocean pushes the salt front upstream, as much as 80 miles north of the city. There's even a web site where you can keep track of the Hudson River salt front.
RUDOLPH: The salt front isn't the only thing that moves on the Hudson. Trains run on tracks on both sides of the river. And there are lots of barges, tankers, and pleasure boats on this busy waterway. The movements of the salt front, however, are of special concern to John Cronin, especially the possibility of an irreversible change in the salt front's location.
CRONIN: It would have a permanent ecological effect on the Hudson River, probably unlike any other that we've ever seen on the Hudson, unlike anything caused by pollution or power plants or even development. This would be a permanent alteration of how the ecosystem operates in its most fundamental way.
RUDOLPH: Rising sea levels amplified by climate change could have a lasting impact on the salt front. If high tide becomes consistently higher than it is now, the salt front will be permanently pushed up the river. In addition to changing the Hudson's ecology, the supply of drinking water in the New York metropolitan area could also be affected. New York City's water supply system is huge and complex. Twenty-two reservoirs and lakes provide water to more than nine million residents of the city and four suburban counties, as well as the hundreds of thousands of commuters and tourists who visit the city every day.
RUDOLPH: In an emergency, such as a severe drought, the city has the ability
to tap the Hudson River. The city maintains a river-water pumping station in
the tiny town of Chelsea, about 65 miles upstream. The Chelsea pump station
came on line in the mid-1960s during the worst drought to hit the city in the
WAGNER: Good evening, my fellow New Yorkers. We, the people of New York City, face the danger of a serious water shortage. This shortage is due to entirely to the most prolonged drought in the history of this region.
RUDOLPH: When Mayor Robert F. Wagner delivered this address on July 22, 1965 it was clear that city officials saw the Chelsea pump station as a vital safety net.
WAGNER: It will provide 100 million gallons of water per day. This amount,
I remind you, is less than ten per cent of our daily consumption. The use of
the Hudson River water is our only practical means of increasing our supply
from inland water resources
RUDOLPH: In the mid-60s, this back-up plan seemed to make sense. The Chelsea pump station was built near a major underground aqueduct that carries water from the Catskill Mountains to the city. During a drought, all the city needed to do was turn a valve and river water would be there to help quench New York's thirst. But today, many people argue, water from the Chelsea pump station is virtually unusable. That's because during severe droughts the salt front is located several miles upstream from Chelsea. When it's needed most, John Cronin says, the Chelsea pump station would be adding salty water to the city's fresh water supply.
CRONIN: There's really a harsh irony. The Chelsea pumping station was built to address drought conditions and give New York City a supplemental water supply during drought. And they put it in exactly a section of the river that is guaranteed to be salty during drought conditions. So, it was a poorly thought-out plan.
RUDOLPH: New York City has only pumped Hudson River water a few times since the 1960s. But in the city of Poughkeepsie it happens every day. Poughkeepsie gets all of its water from the Hudson. Randy Alstadt manages Poughkeepsie's water treatment plant.
ALSTADT: The pump station pumps a thousand feet out, 50 feet down, about the middle of the river. We pull off about 80 to 90 million gallons a day from the Hudson River.
RUDOLPH: The ever-changing salt front is one of several factors Alstadt monitors to ensure the quality of Poughkeepsie's water. During three separate droughts over the last decade, Poughkeepsie officials issued health advisories about high levels of salt in the city's water supply. People on low-salt diets were advised to check with their doctor and drink bottled water. Poughkeepsie's water is filtered and treated for a wide range of impurities but salt is not one of them. Desalinization is expensive and Alstadt says, so far, it hasn't been needed.
ALSTADT: We've been drinking this water in this area since 1872. The river is going up and down. And you can look historically that, yeah, if there is a drought, we can have it. And I guess one of the things you're looking at is maybe long term something could happen to the climate. People believe that, people don't believe that. It's hard to know what the climate's gonna do. And I think as the climate changes we're going to have to adjust.
RUDOLPH: Today, increased salt in drinking water caused by the movements of the salt front is an occasional nuisance that affects a relatively small number of people who live in the mid-Hudson Valley. But increasingly, the Hudson River Salt Front is drawing the attention of researchers and government officials. Another salt front, on the Delaware River, is also a cause for concern. The Delaware River Watershed is a major source of drinking water for New York, Philadelphia and a number of other cities and towns.
New York's water supply is managed by the city Department of Environmental Protection. Bob Alpern recently retired from the DEP, where he was involved in water-supply planning. In addition to the salt front, Alpern says, the city needs look at a wide range of climate-related issues that could affect water resources in the future.
ALPERN: Uncertainty about whether we're gonna get more rain or much less rain, whether we're gonna get rain at the right time of year, whether we're gonna get snow melt at all, whether we're gonna get sudden, violent, extreme events, storms, or a kind of steady input into the reservoirs -- those are the kinds of issues which are still very uncertain, by and large. But they loom large as probably the most important environmental impacts that we've got to deal with in the metropolitan area.
RUDOLPH: In a year such as this - when the reservoirs are full - threats to the water supply system from rising seas, shifting salt fronts or other potential effects of global warming seem remote. Since the attack on 9/11, a more immediate concern has been guarding against terrorists who might try to sabotage the water supply. So far, there's only one existing, tangible adaptation to climate change in New York's water infrastructure. An outflow pipe for the third water tunnel on Roosevelt Island was built higher than had originally specified in order to accommodate sea level rise. Other than that, it seems planning for the potentially far-reaching effects of climate change on New York City's water supply will have to wait.
[MUSIC: Radiohead "Treefingers" KID A (EMI Records Ltd. - 2000)]
CURWOOD: We'll be back in just a minute with a look at how the changing climate in New York may have allowed West Nile Virus to get a foothold in North America. You're listening to "Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City's Future," a special report from WNYC and Living on Earth.
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CURWOOD: You're listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Yo La Tengo "Danelectro 2" DANELECTRO (EP) (Matador - 2000)]
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A few years ago, a group of leading researchers published a report on climate change and its impact on human health. They found that changes in rainfall, temperature, and other weather variables may affect the rate of illnesses spread by ticks, mosquitoes, and other pests - illnesses such as West Nile virus, dengue fever, Lyme disease, and malaria.
New York City was the first place in North America to experience an outbreak
of West Nile virus. By last year, it had spread to 44 states, and killed more
than 280 people.
Our special, "Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City's Future" continues now as producer John Rudolph explains how West Nile came to the city and how it has changed the way New Yorkers live.
RUDOLPH: Late on a hot summer afternoon, James Gibson stands in Staten Island's Willowbrook Park. He's thumbing through maps of the area and swatting at the occasional mosquito. Gibson is the assistant commissioner for Veterinary and Pest-control Services at New York City's Department of Health. On this day, he's overseeing a fleet of spray trucks, the latest weapons in the city's war against mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus.
GIBSON: We're using a machine called an ultra-low-volume applicator, which basically uses very low amounts of pesticide. It's in very small, tiny droplets and, basically, what happens is the droplets hit the mosquitoes in flight and it actually kills them in flight.
RUDOLPH: Gibson's convoy heads into the park. In addition to the spray trucks, the entourage also includes a three-wheeled, all-terrain vehicle. Its driver wears a hooded body suit and a gas mask. A portable loudspeaker warns people along the spray route to take cover.
VOICE ON LOUDSPEAKER: The city is applying pesticide to reduce the threat of West Nile virus. To minimize exposure to the pesticide, please go indoors immediately, until the trucks have passed
RUDOLPH: This year's mosquito-eradication campaign began in April. Thousands of bugs have been tested to see if they are infected with the virus. But the most potent defense against West Nile virus may be something more difficult to achieve: changing human behavior. Thomas Frieden is New York City's health commissioner.
FRIEDEN: People can protect themselves by wearing long-sleeved shirts and using DEET when they go out between dusk and dawn. And they can protect their neighborhoods by getting rid of standing water and calling 311 if they see a dead bird because that helps us to track the spread of the virus.
RUDOLPH: For some, the battle against West Nile and the mosquitoes that carry the virus ends here. But others go back to the original outbreak and see a connection between the sudden appearance of this new disease and unusual weather patterns that may be linked to climate change. The arrival of West Nile virus in New York can be traced to the summer of 1999 when people started showing up at hospitals in northern Queens complaining of severe headaches, confusion, nausea, fevers. By Labor Day, two elderly New Yorkers had died.
At first, health officials thought they were dealing with an outbreak of St. Louis encephalitis. It took a few weeks before investigators noticed an important clue: the illness was also killing birds. Dickson Despommier is a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
DESPOMMIER: The veterinarians became alerted to the fact that, not only were birds dying outside the zoo, but they were also dying inside the zoo, and exotic birds at that. But as it turned out, only birds that lived in the Western Hemisphere were dying. All the birds from Africa didn't seem to be affected.
RUDOLPH: Since St. Louis encephalitis doesn't kill birds in this country, health officials realized they were dealing with a different disease. But what was it? Based on DNA matching, the pathogen killing both birds and humans was correctly identified as West Nile virus. West Nile is common in Africa, West Asia, and the Middle East, where many birds have developed immunity to it. The virus had never been seen in North America.
How did it get to New York and why did it spread so quickly? Many researchers suspect West Nile virus hitched a ride on what scientists call a "vector" - in this case, probably an infected person or mosquito traveling from the Middle East. As to its rapid spread, Despommier believes the weather may have played a key role. The summer of 1999 was the hottest and driest the city had experienced in 100 years. These extreme conditions may have allowed the virus to get a foothold.
DESPOMMIER: There were six days in July over 100 degrees. From May 23 until August, there was no rain whatsoever. So, the virus multiplies like crazy inside these vectors. Now every bite has the potential for injecting lots of virus particles.
RUDOLPH: Most people think of mosquitoes as wet-weather pests. But dry conditions actually make them more of a threat. The lack of rain creates a concentrated, polluted mix in breeding pools where mosquitoes thrive. Hot temperatures speed up the mosquitoes' life cycle. These conditions have been blamed for several West Nile outbreaks, according to Paul Epstein of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School.
EPSTEIN: West Nile's largest outbreaks in the 90s in Romania, in Russia, in Israel and in New York in 1999, were all associated with severe droughts.
RUDOLPH: For Epstein, those droughts were abnormal occurrences associated with climate change.
EPSTEIN: Heat in the atmosphere, in the oceans, is changing the water cycle, affecting the intensity, duration, and geographic patterns of precipitation. These are fundamental to where mosquitoes breed. So, in addition to the warming, it's these extremes and wide oscillations from droughts, punctuated by heavy rains, that are key to destabilizing the biological systems.
GUBLER: To say that climate change has been responsible for epidemics like West Nile is really stretching it.
RUDOLPH: For the past five years Duane Gubler of the Centers for Disease Control has led that agency's response to the West Nile outbreak.
GUBLER: Climate change can influence transmission patterns, but it's a slow process. And the thing that causes epidemics is not climate change but the introduction of the right virus into the right place where there's a susceptible vertebrate population.
RUDOLPH: While Gubler agrees that climate does influence the spread of some diseases, he disagrees sharply with those who focus on climate change as the cause of the West Nile virus outbreak.
GUBLER: Climate change, per se, should have little or no impact on public health if public health officials and the communities do what they're supposed to do. And that is to develop good public health programs that will mitigate any minor changes in temperature that may occur over a period of time.
RUDOLPH: Others researchers see the West Nile outbreak that began in New York as an opportunity to begin to understand the connection between climate and the spread of disease. Kim Knowlton studies the health impacts of climate change at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.
KNOWLTON: The global climate models are predicting that in future, not only is the trend of warming going to continue, as a result of both natural and anthropogenic causes, sources of greenhouse gasses, but that the variability of weather on shorter timeframes is also going to increase. So, West Nile has been a great way to, sort of, get our legs and get our surveillance methods improved and also start this discussion. What comes next? What do we do? What is climate really doing to our weather?
RUDOLPH: One thing scientists are doing is developing a vaccine against West Nile. Human tests at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease begin later this year. An effective vaccine could go a long way toward making people feel more secure against the virus. But the appearance of West Nile in New York and across the country has already forced changes in individual behavior and government policies. And so the question some researchers continue to ask is whether West Nile will be followed by other diseases whose spread is encouraged by the warming of the world's climate, and whose appearance will force further changes in the way people live.
RUDOLPH: Most New Yorkers probably think of climate change as some force that melts polar ice caps or inundates islands in the Pacific. Its impact on an urban area like New York is harder to comprehend. Still, that doesn't mean New Yorkers aren't paying attention to climate change. Around the city, a number of efforts are underway to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gasses that are blamed for the man-made disruption of the climate. But these efforts are not likely to protect New York from the effects of climate change, such as rising seas and more powerful and more frequent storms.
JACOB: I think this is an extraordinary, commendable effort. But, it is, unfortunately, at this point, a drop in the bucket.
RUDOLPH: Climate researcher Klaus Jacob of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory stands outside one of the city's more ambitious projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's a new apartment building under construction just a few blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. Martin Dettling is the construction manager.
DETTLING: We're at the top of the building here. This is the highest
point of the building. It's twenty-seven stories, plus a mechanical bulkhead.
That contains all of our equipment.
RUDOLPH: The building is called The Solaire, a name that combines the words "solar" and "air." It's designed to be 35 percent more energy efficient than your typical Manhattan high-rise. The Solaire was built in response to a number of environmental challenges. Chief among them, says Dettling, is the need to combat global warming.
DETTLING: We have estimates of how much emissions we're going to reduce going into the air. I think it's the equivalent of 400 automobiles per year not being driven around in our streets, is what this building's design difference has made, and that is a very large factor. I mean, that's where all of this comes from.
RUDOLPH: The developers of the Solaire call it America's first environmentally sustainable, high-rise residential building. Researcher Klaus Jacob admires its energy-efficient design. But he points out that like many buildings in New York, the Solaire is vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
JACOB: There's another side to this particular building that is, sort of unfortunately,
RUDOLPH: Jacob notes the structure has no protection against rising seas and violent storms. And the Hudson River is only about 50 yards from the Solaire's elegant lobby entrance.
JACOB: So we are just probably at that level where - under the current circumstances - this building may do all right, but at the end of the century when sea level rise has fully taken effect, it may be flooded.
RUDOLPH: Professor Jacob argues that the Solaire, and other buildings that follow it, should include safeguards against the effects of climate change. For example, he says, all the electrical and mechanical systems that normally go into a building's basement should be put on higher floors where they won't be damaged by flooding. Requiring buildings to include these kinds of protections would be difficult, but not unprecedented. Jacob points out that codes already exist to protect structures from other threats such as earthquakes.
JACOB: I'm afraid it needs a very thorough, and unfortunately, scientifically
engineering-based approach on this with cost-benefit assessments built into
this. We have not yet gotten to that stage. Nobody is willing even to finance
any such assessments right now.
RUDOLPH: Last year, a United Nations conference concluded that "adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change is of high priority for all countries." Still, this notion of adapting, of finding ways to cope with the predicted effects of global warming is a concept that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, including some environmentalists. They've spent years trying to prevent global warming. To them, adaptation is a form of surrender. Ashok Gupta develops climate change strategies at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Manhattan.
GUPTA: We have the capacity as a civilization to be able to address this important problem. And adaptation is really giving up, and the harmful effects that will go with adaptation are too serious to accept. My view is that we've got to do whatever we can to stop the disaster that would take place with significant climate change.
RUDOLPH: Gupta worries that emphasizing adaptation will reduce the pressure
to eliminate man-made causes of global warming, especially greenhouse gases
produced by power plants, factories and cars. A different objection comes from
Yale University economist Robert Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn studies the regional impacts of climate change. According to his research, unless temperatures unexpectedly soar to new heights, American cities, including New York, will not be significantly hurt by climate change. And so Mendelsohn questions the need to take immediate and costly steps to prepare for future climate-related disasters.
MENDELSOHN: If you tell me that sea-level rise is going to be 90 centimeters in 100 years, you don't want to start building a 90-centimeter wall, or a two-meter wall around New York City today, because that is so far in advance of the actual risk involved. And it's just way too soon. And it turns out that acting too soon is going to waste resources.
RUDOLPH: How much money, time and effort should be spent preparing for
an uncertain future? This is the question New York faces as the impact of man-made
changes in the world's climate begins to be detected around the metropolitan
area. We know the world is getting warmer, that seas are rising, that storm
patterns are being disrupted. But no one can accurately predict how quickly
these changes will be felt, or how severe they will be.
RUDOLPH: Already-rising seas are thought to be contributing to the devastating loss of marshland in Jamaica Bay, near Kennedy Airport. Scientist Vivian Gornitz studies sea-level rise at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Looking out over New York's skyline, Gornitz worries about the cost of not adapting - especially in a city surrounded by water and constantly in the process of rebuilding its waterfront.
GORNITZ: You're sort of on a collision course between heavy development that's happening along the coast and the gradual rise in sea level but superimposed on that, the storm surges that are inevitably going to happen. So, you have the potential for a lot of damage, destruction of property and, hopefully not, but possible loss of life, too.
RUDOLPH: On a calm autumn day it's hard to visualize the potential danger. But one major study shows that in a class 3 hurricane, which is not even the most severe type of storm, lower Manhattan would become its own island. The financial district, City Hall, the World Trade Center site, all would be separated from the rest of New York by a mass of water. And so, over the long term, the city's response to climate change could be just as important as defending buildings and bridges against terrorists, or reviving the economy. Because of this, a growing number of New Yorkers are focusing on climate change and how it may impact the city. They want New York to be ready when the changes come.
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CURWOOD: You've been listening to "Degrees of Concern: Climate Change and New York City's Future", a co-production of Living On Earth and WNYC, New York Public Radio. Our program was produced by John Rudolph with help from Sharon Lerner and Chris Ballman. The editors were Karen Frillmann and Diane Toomey. Al Avery and Andy Farnsworth mixed the program with help from Dean Western. Alex Kingsbury was the researcher, Andy Lanset is WNYC's archivist.
Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation. You can find us at livingonearth.org. Alison Dean composed our themes. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes form the National Science Foundation, supporting coverage of emerging science; and Stonyfield Farm - organic yogurt, cultured soy, and smoothies. Ten percent of their profits are donated to support environmental causes and family farms. Learn more at Stonyfield.com. Support also comes from NPR member stations and the Annenberg Foundation.
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