Degrees of Concern - Part II

In the debate over rebuilding the World Trade Center a lot of attention is focused on how to memorialize those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Another concern is the environmental impact of the new buildings.

Many people hope to see energy efficient structures and more public transportation options that encourage commuters to leave their cars at home. These measures will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Today in our series "Degrees of Concern - Climate Change and New York City's Future" John Rudolph speaks with a Columbia University scientist who warns that reducing emissions is not enough to address the threat of global warming.

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."

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.

KJ The frequency of such flooding events could increase on an average three times, but in the worst case as much as ten times. So what is right now a fifty-year storm, which is roughly an eight-foot coastal storm surge here at this place where we stand, it could happen instead of every fifty 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.

JR 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?

KJ We have already a storm-surge problem. As I indicated, 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.

KJ So, wherever you turn, literally, you find places that could be endangered. 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 Center - it's actually all five, of course, 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/are looking forward to.

JR So again, we're standing here across from Ground Zero. We have tunnel entrances within a few blocks, both north-to-south of us, subway entrances. 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?

KJ 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 in-, into the planning.

JR 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.

KJ 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 a ---, uphill battle for us scientists to insert this kind of thinking.

JR I went out to Jamaica Bay with Vivian Gornitz and Ellen Hartig, and looked at that situation. They talk about the situation with the disappearing marshes as being the "canary in the mine shaft." The-, New York's DEP commissioner used the same terminology. 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?

KJ Well, I wish we had a canary - not out in Jamaica Bay. I wish we had the canary right here, Downtown, where it really counts, where all the money is being spent, and unfortunately - because things are relatively well-engineered for the current situation, and storm activity occurs only-, you know, every five to ten, twenty-five years, we have shoved it under the rug. So, I wish we would lose a piece of-, 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.

Klaus Jacob is a senior research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. For WNYC, I'm John Rudolph

More on the Degrees of Concern series by John Rudolph