Why Humanity Is More Vulnerable to the Power of the Ocean Than Ever Before
June 10, 2013
The following is an excerpt from Brian Sagan's new book, "The Attacking Ocean." (Bloomsbury Press, 2013)
Chapter 1: Minus One Hundred Twenty-Two Meters and Climbing
On October 28, 2012, Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, came ashore in New Jersey. Sandy’s assault and sea surge brought the ocean into neighborhoods and houses, inundated parking lots and tunnels, turned parks into lakes. When it was all over and the water receded, a huge swath of the Northeast American coast looked like a battered moonscape. Only Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, was more costly. Katrina, with its gigantic sea surge, had been a wakeup call for people living on low- lying coasts, but the disaster soon receded from the public consciousness. Sandy struck in the heart of the densely populated Northeastern Corridor of the United States seven years later and impacted the lives of millions of people. The storm was an epochal demonstration of the power of an attacking ocean to destroy and kill in a world where tens of millions of people live on coastlines close to sea level. This time, people really sat up and took notice in the face of an extreme weather event of a type likely to be more commonplace in a warmer future. As this book goes to press, a serious debate about rising sea levels and the hazards they pose for humanity may have ï¬nally begun—but perhaps not.
Sandy developed out of a tropical depression south of Kingston, Jamaica, on October 22. Two days later, it passed over Jamaica, then over Cuba and Haiti, killing seventy-one people, before traversing the Bahamas. Come October 28, Sandy strengthened again, eventually makinglandfall about 8 kilometers southwest of Atlantic City, New Jersey, with winds of 150 kilometers an hour. By then, Sandy was not only an unusually large hurricane but also a hybrid storm. A strong Arctic air pattern to the north forced Sandy to take a sharp left into the heavy populated Northeast when normally it would have veered into the open Atlantic and dissipated there. The blend produced a super storm with a wind diameter of 1,850 kilometers, said to be the largest since 1888, when far fewer people lived along the coast and in New York. Unfortunately, the tempest also arrived at a full moon with its astronomical high tides. Sandy was only a Category 1 hurricane, but it triggered a major natural disaster partly because it descended on a densely populated seaboard where thousands of houses and other property lie within a few meters of sea level. Imagine the destruction a Category 5 storm would have wrought— something that could happen in the future.
The scale of destruction was mind-boggling. Sandy brought torrential downpours, heavy snowfall, and exceptionally high winds to an area of the eastern United States larger than Europe. Over one hundred people died in the affected states, forty of them in New York City. The storm cut off electricity for days for over 4.8 million customers in 15 states and the District of Columbia, 1,514,147 of them in New York alone. Most destructive of all, a powerful, record-breaking 4.26-meter sea surge swept into New York Harbor on the evening of October 29. The rising waters inundated streets, tunnels, and subways in Lower Manhattan, Staten Island, and elsewhere. Fires caused by electrical explosions and downed power wires destroyed homes and businesses, over one hundred residences in the Breezy Point area of Queens alone. Even the Ground Zero construction site was ï¬‚ooded. Fortunately, the authorities had advance warning. In advance of the storm, all public transit systems were shut down, ferry ser vices were suspended, and airports closed until it was safe to ï¬‚y. All major bridges and tunnels into the city were closed. The New York Stock Exchange shut down for two days.
Initial recovery was slow, with shortages of gasoline causing long lines. Rapid transit systems slowly restored service, but the damage caused by the storm surge in lower Manhattan delayed reopening of critical links for days. The New Jersey Shore, an iconic vacation area in the Northeast, suffered worst of all. For almost 150 years, people from hot, crowded cities have ï¬‚ocked to the Shore to lie on its beaches, families often going to the same place for generations. They eat ice cream and pizza, play in arcades once used by their grandparents, drink in bars, and go to church. The Shore could be a seedy place, fraught with racial tensions, and sometimes crime and violence, but there was always something for everybody, be they a wealthy resident of a mansion, a contestant in a Miss America pageant, a reality TV actor, a skinny-dipper, or a musician. Bruce Springsteen grew up along the Shore and his second album featured the song “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” an ode to a girl of that name and the Shore. “Sandy, the aurora is rising behind us; the pier lights our carnival life forever,” he sang. The words have taken on new meaning since the hurricane came.
Fortunately, the residents were warned in advance of the storm. They were advised to evacuate their homes as early as October 26. Two days later, the order became mandatory. New Jersey governor Chris Christie also ordered the closure of Atlantic City’s casinos, a decision that proved wise when Sandy swept ashore with brutal force, pulverizing long-established businesses, boardwalks, and homes. Atlantic City started a trend when it built its ï¬ rst boardwalk in 1870 to stop visitors from tracking sand into hotels. Boardwalk amusements are big business today, many of them faced by boardwalks that are as much as a 0.8-kilometer from the waves. Now many of the Shore’s iconic boardwalks are history. The waves and storm surge destroyed a roller coaster in Seaside Heights; it lay half submerged in the breakers. Seaside Heights itself was evacuated because of gas leaks and other dangers. Piers and carousels vanished; bars and restaurants were reduced to rubble. Bridges to barrier islands buckled, leaving residents unable to return home. The Shore may be rebuilt, but it will never be the same. A long-lived tradition has been interrupted, perhaps never to return. For all the fervent vows that the Shore will rise again, no one knows what will come back in its place along a coastline where the ocean, not humanity, is master.
As the waters of destruction receded, they left $50 billion of damage behind them, and a sobering reminder of the hazards millions of people face along the densely populated eastern coast of the United States. Like Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Irene in 2011, Sandy showed us in no uncertain terms that a higher incidence of extreme weather events with their attendant sea surges threaten low-lying communities along much of the East Coast— from Rhode Island and Delaware to the Chesapeake and parts of Washington, DC, and far south along the Carolina coasts and into Florida, which escaped the full brunt of Sandy’s fury. There, high windsand waves washed sand onto coastal roads and there was some coastal ï¬‚ooding, a warning of what would certainly occur should a major hurricane come ashore in Central or Southern Florida—and the question is not if such an event will occur, but when.
One hundred and twenty meters and climbing: that’s the amount of sea level rise since the end of the Ice Age some ï¬fteen thousand years ago. Slowly, inexorably, the ascent continues in a warming world. Today the ocean laps at millions of people’s doorsteps— crouched, ready to wreak catastrophic destruction with storm-generated sea surges and ï¬‚oods. We face a future that we are not prepared to handle, and it’s questionable just how much most of us think about it. This makes the lessons of Katrina, Irene, and Sandy, and other recent storms important to heed. Part of our understanding of the threat must come from an appreciation of the complex relationship between humanity and the rising ocean, which is why this book begins on a low land bridge between Siberia and Alaska ï¬fteen thousand years ago ...
Extreme weather events come in many forms— blanketing snowstorms, tornadoes, torrential rainfall, and long-enduring droughts, to mention only a few. However, the most dangerous are hurricanes and tropical cyclones, which generate not only powerful winds and sheets of rain, but also violent sea surges. The infamous Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, alerted us forcibly to the dangers of exceptional storms along low coasts besieged by subsidence and rising sea levels. As we describe in chapter 13, much of the damage and loss of life came not from the hurricane-force winds and rain, but from the sea surge and high tides that followed on the storm. Raging waters swept ashore and carried away entire parishes and massive artiï¬cial levees that protected low-lying parts of New Orleans.
Hurricanes like Katrina generate sea surges by the wind blowing directly toward shore and pushing water up onto the land. This is what devastated the Mississippi delta in 2005 and Galveston, Texas, in September 1900, when a hurricane-generated surge ï¬‚ooded the city streets to a depth of at least six meters, destroying thirty-ï¬ve hundred buildings and killing over six thousand people. Since the Galveston disaster, improved early warning systems, seawalls, and stronger buildings have reduced casualties in better- developed parts of the world, but rising urban populations and the complex and expensive logistics of warning, evacuation, and recovery make it increasingly difï¬ cult to avoid truly catastrophic human and material destruction.
Tropical cyclones are a major hazard in many parts of the world, notably in the western Paciï¬ c and the Bay of Bengal. Low-lying Bangladesh is basically a huge river delta at the head of the bay, where tropical cyclones breed, cover large areas, and move northward into the funnel created by the coasts on either side of the ocean.
We are already reaping a whirlwind of vicious assaults by an ocean that once lay 122 meters below today’s threatened shorelines. Billions of people are at risk from an attacking sea. Our future will be challenging, even before one factors in the ever-present threat of earthquakes and tsunamis. As history shows us, our vulnerability to an encroaching and often aggressive ocean has increased exponentially, especially since the rapid population growth of the Industrial Revolution. While as recently as eight thousand years ago, only a few tens of thousands of people lived at risk from rising waters—and they could adapt readily by upping stakes and moving—today millions of us live in imminent danger from the attacking ocean and from the savage weather events that await in a warmer future.
Published with permission from Bloomsbury Press.