How Will Climate Change Affect Gowanus Canal Area?

January 11, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Scientific Group Warns of Increase in Storm Surges
By Mike Weiss

Special to the Brooklyn Eagle

GOWANUS — Even before the Gowanus Canal was declared a Superfund site nearly two years ago, public debate focused on the extent of the cleanup as well as the controversial future uses and development of the area.

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Now, as plans for the cleanup are being solidified, a new issue is emerging that could affect all the others. It brings together a nationwide organization, a local community group and a noted climate expert who are all trying to bring attention to it before it’s too late.

On Saturday, members of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy hosted representatives of the Washington, D.C.-based The Climate Reality Project in a tour around the canal. The representatives’ goal was to gather ideas and inspiration for an initiative called Living on Thin Ice that they hope will further its goal of bringing greater awareness to the issue of global warming.

“Seawater from glacial melt affects the Gowanus Canal,” said The Climate Reality Project spokesman Eric Young from Washington. “By visiting specific locations and neighborhoods, we’re trying to connect the world together and dispel the notion that climate change is something that happens somewhere else to someone else.”

Inspired by Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, The Climate Reality Project hopes to advance awareness of the dangers of global warming as well as the cooperative opportunities that exist to confront it. The group’s first major initiative, 24 Hours of Reality, featured live webcasts from around the globe with celebrity hosts Mark Ruffalo and Renee Zellweger.

Living on Thin Ice, the group’s second project, is a similar multimedia event, which will be released on its website in the beginning of February. It will highlight the local effects of global warming on Ecuador, France, California, Antarctica, the Canadian Arctic, Nepal, Bangladesh and the Gowanus Canal.

‘Canal Has a Lot of Stress’

One of the visitors to the canal was Dr. Klaus Jacob. A Columbia University geophysicist and advisor to numerous government agencies, Jacob had been approached by The Climate Reality Project and asked to suggest a location for the New York component of their project. By chance, Jacob had been contacted shortly before by the Gowanus Canal Conservancy on a different matter, so he needed very little time to decide.

“Climate change amplifies the existing stresses on a neighborhood,” Jacob said, “and this [the canal] has a lot of stress.”

Richard Kampf of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy was on hand to make this clear. An environmental consultant as well as a conservancy board member, Kampf was instrumental in introducing both Jacob and the Climate Reality Project to the canal, and he hopes all their efforts will bring benefits to the neighborhood.

Kampf provided a history of the canal, its toxic sediment, the reason millions of gallons of combined sewer overflow (CSO) enter it each year, and descriptions of the current plans to remediate the situation. He expressed concern that global warming be included in the designs of those plans.

“We hope that in whatever remediation plans are finally adopted for the canal, climate change will be considered,” Kampf said. “We don’t want to be locked into anything now that isn’t going to be adaptable to climate change.”

Stormy Weather

As the group of about 15 people toured the canal’s three northern bridges in the sunny, 58-degree weather — in January — it wasn’t hard to imagine global warming coming to Brooklyn.

“There are a lot of uncertainties with climate change, but the one thing we know for sure is that everything will go up,” Jacob said, “temperatures, rainfall, sea levels and storm surges.”

For the Gowanus area, Jacob predicts more street flooding of the type that surrealistically floated cars along Third and Fourth Avenues last August. Because rising temperatures will evaporate more seawater, and the warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, rainfalls are expected to increase in frequency and intensity. But storm surges will be worse.

Jacob provided maps showing the current Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood zone around the Gowanus for what is called a “100-year flood” — a statistical event expected to happen once every 100 years. During such an event, the sea level is predicted to rise 9 to 10 feet in the area with flooding extending away from the canal about a block in every direction.

But he emphasized that these maps don’t fully show the unknown multiplying effect of global warming. Based on recent analyses he conducted with the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), which took into account studies from the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), he expects these huge storms to become “four to 10 times more likely” to occur.

“Climate change urgently calls for us to look into the future and plan not just for the decade but for the century and even beyond,” Jacob said. “And if we build things, we need to do it in such a way that won’t prevent future generations from being able to adapt to their own situations. We need to build in that sensibility.”

Gowanus ‘Expedition’

Deb Greenspan works for The Climate Reality Project and was visiting the canal for the first time. Standing near the Gowanus Dredgers canoe club’s launch site in the shadow of the Third Street Bridge, she seemed eager to apply the goals of her organization to the Gowanus Canal.

“Global climate change is really hard to imagine, but if you go into communities and encourage people to explore the changes in their own neighborhoods, it makes it much more tangible,” she said.

Referring to the Living on Thin Ice project and the organization’s hope to connect eight communities through eight “expeditions” — the term the group uses to convey the process of discovery — Greenspan added, “It’s great for me to participate in this expedition, and I’m excited to see how it’ll play out in other places around the world.”

Dr. Klaus Jacob, Climate Change Expert, Talks about the Gowanus

“I am not a climatologist,” Dr. Klaus Jacob makes clear. But even so, the Columbia University geophysicist has become one of the leading experts in the growing field of climate change evaluation and the effects of global warming on New York City.

His early career focused primarily on earthquake analysis, and in the late 1990s, he was asked to participate in a study to assess the damage an earthquake might cause to the city. This report and its accompanying computer models first surprised his supervisors at both the city and state offices of emergency management with its estimates of debris produced, but this was in August. A month later, on Sept. 11, 2001, his estimates would unfortunately be confirmed.

Soon after this, he was approached by other agencies whose officials said, as he recalls, “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could also do something about hurricanes?” He’s since been a consultant to the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and numerous other government agencies that focus on policy decisions that need to be made now to prevent climate-related catastrophes in the future. He’s also traveled the world since leaving his native Germany in 1968. In May, he’s off to Bangladesh.

“In Bangladesh, 50 million people live within one meter of sea level, so as sea level rises about one meter by the end of the century, there’s going to be a lot of change and migration,” Jacob said. “The Gowanus Canal is a nice lab for this on a small scale, as opposed to having half a country being at risk.”

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