Will New York City Survive Sea-Level Rise?

09/25/2009 05:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sometimes in New York, you get surrounded by steel and glass and brick and brownstone and it's easy to forgot that you live on an island -- and not a particularly big island at that.

Then it pours for one afternoon and the subways fill with water and the streets run like rivers and the sewage drains back up and you feel like we could all just float off into the Atlantic at any moment.

And it's not just the rain falling from the sky that we've got to worry about -- it's the rivers and ocean surrounding our tightly packed little city. We're overdue for a major hurricane. Our climate's getting hotter and wetter. And we could be looking at the equivalent of a 100-year-flood every decade, according to at least one report (not to mention losing Long Island lobsters and honeycrisp apples).

Mayor Bloomberg and a special panel of science advisers warned this week that New Yorkers need to brace for the possibility of more storms, more floods, more heat waves and sea level rise that could reach a couple of feet by the end of the century.

"All of the evidence from the science community is that the seas are going to rise," Bloomberg said Tuesday as he unveiled the panel's findings.

The point isn't to scare people. It's to help make the city ready. "We're providing the science by which the City of New York can get ready and prepare," said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior NASA scientist who chaired the panel.

So what's an island city to do when the sea starts rising? Get higher. Bloomberg's panel unveiled its report at a sewage treatment plant in Queens, where pump motors and circuit breakers are being moved to 14 feet above sea level from 25 feet below sea level. The city also plans to build up seawalls and take other steps to update its aging infrastructure.

It's great to see the city where I live and hope to raise my family taking the threat of climate change so seriously and planning for the future. Still, it would be nice if we could all make the changes necessary to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. And in many ways, this city is a great example for that, as well.

New York might not look like it to outsiders, but it's actually one of the greenest places on earth. As writer David Owen explained in a 2004 New Yorker piece:

The most devastating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That's ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty-first in per-capita energy use.

Since moving to New York two years ago, I've started biking to work whenever I can, taking the train when I don't and walking almost everywhere. My wife and I sold one of our cars. The other we don't see for weeks at a time. New York makes this possible.

Not everyone wants to live like this, I know. There was a time when I didn't think that I ever would. Now, I can't imagine wanting to live anywhere else.

Which is why I don't want to see the sea come and take it back.