As I have shown in my earlier science posts, sea level rise is one of the biggest challenges New York City will face due to climate change. The storm surge of Hurricane Sandy made it clear that the city was not equipped against floods caused by extreme weather events. In earlier posts two options were explained, a “soft” approach – beach nourishment – and a “hard” approach – barriers. In this post we will discuss retreat, the option left when nothing else will work.

Retreat is the act of moving away from the shoreline. Residents are encouraged to sell their land and then the government allows the land to return to its natural state. The option was discussed in Gornitz et al.’s 2002 paper Impacts of Climate Change on NYC Coasts. In Storm Surge, Sobel mentions a similar plan in the Netherlands. “Return to the River” forced residents, who were mostly farmers, to leave an area, which was then returned to a floodplain. A few negotiated to stay in the area, but the majority left.

After Hurricane Sandy, it became even clearer that retreat would be necessary. While Bloomberg said that retreat was not an option (Revkin 2013), Governor Cuomo signed off on the purchase of three neighborhoods in Staten Island, Oakwood Beach, Ocean Breeze, and Graham Beach, for retreat as part of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. These neighborhoods had almost all of the residents agreeing to sell their homes, with a few holdouts (Rush 2015a). During his State of the State address, Cuomo said, “There are some parcels that Mother Nature owns […] She may only visit once every few years, but she owns the parcel and when she comes to visit, she visits” (Homeland Security News Wire 2013). Many other neighborhoods along the east coast of the island, all of which were hit very hard by the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy, wanted to get in on the buyout, but a representative of Cuomo said the governor would not authorize the purchase of the entirety of the coast. The purchased neighborhoods have already begun to be demolished and reestablished as wetlands. The land would be planted with native grasses and retention pools would be built to capture the rainwater. The process cannot be completed until all residents leave. A large section of one neighborhood is currently owned by a developer who is holding out on selling the land, which poses a problem for the reestablishment (Rush 2015b).

A home in Oakwood Beach waiting to be demolished – Source Urban Omnibus

There are other options for homeowners who want to relocate. “Build It Back” is a program which offers to pay for repairs or elevation of homes hurt by Hurricane Sandy. An acquisition program run alongside “Build It Back” offers to purchase homes on their own instead of a neighborhood buyout. The difference between this type of purchase and a group buyout is that individual purchases do not get returned to nature, instead they are redeveloped and new structures are built. This is not as good of a plan as retreat. Most of the areas that become severely flooded during storms used to be wetlands and were backfilled to make room for buildings. More than half the people who died during Hurricane Sandy lived in areas that used to be wetlands (Rush 2015a). Rebuilding on these areas could increase the number of fatalities in the future.

Retreat, though the severest choice in the fight for the coast, is the safest option both for human life and wildlife. Beach nourishment and barriers both lead to erosion and damage the habitat of wildlife that lives in the area. They are also incredibly costly and though barriers can reduce flood levels, they still leave residents in danger from the water that makes it over the seawall. Retreat puts no one in danger and returns the land to its natural state. Wetlands will protect the coast from sea level rise and storm surges. They will serve as a buffer for nearby residents from the elements and also vice versa by stopping runoff from going directly into the ocean.

In the next, and final, science blog we will take a look at some of the invasive species I got to know during my visits to New York parks.




Gornitz, V., S. Couch, and E. K. Hartig. 2002. Impact of sea level rise in the New York City metropolitan area. Global and Planetary Changes 32: 61-88.

Homeland Security News Wire. 2013. NY to buy, demolish beachfront homes, make way for storm buffers. Homeland Security News Wire.

Revkin, A. C. 2013. Can Cities Adjust to a Retreating Coastline. The New York Times.

Rush, E. 2015a. As the Seas Rise: Managing retreat along New York City’s Coasts. New Republic.

Rush, E. 2015b. Leaving the Sea: Staten Islanders Experiment with Managed Retreat. The Architectural League’s Urban Omnibus The Culture of Citymaking.

Sobel, A. 2014. Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. HarperCollins. New York, New York, USA.

Vinnitskaya, I. 2013. NY State’s Governor Cuomo’s Solution for Ravaged Homes in NYC’s Coastal Region. Arch Daily.





Hurricane Sandy

It’s one of the signals of summer – the weathermen announce that it’s hurricane season. To skeptics, saying that Hurricane Sandy was caused by climate change, would be considered ridiculous. But, Sandy’s consequences are a clear sign of the changing climate and it could be just the first of many severe acts of nature in the future. The consequences of storms like those could be disastrous for New York and any other areas affected.

The majority of Atlantic hurricanes head into the ocean and dissipate, but Sandy followed a different path. It took a left turn and ran straight into NYC. This is not necessarily directly caused by climate change, but global change could create increases in certain extreme weather events. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) states in their Summary for Policy Makers (2013) that there will be an increase in near-storm precipitation in the future, but there is also a low chance that overall tropical cyclone frequency would decrease. This intensification of the hydrologic cycle occurs because greenhouse gasses warm the atmosphere and make evaporation and precipitation occur more forcefully. These predications also say that there could be an increase in the number of intense hurricanes.

Even with these predictions stating that there might be a decrease in storms, future hurricanes will have an even worse effect than they used to because the seas will swell, causing an increase in storm surges. In Adam Sobel’s 2014 book Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future Sobel says that because of the increase in greenhouse gases, the planet could warm and make land ice melt more, thus swelling the ocean. This means that future hurricanes could have even worse flooding effects because of the rising sea level.

Sandy had many disastrous consequences for New York. New York is in a generally low-lying area. When New Orleans was hit with Katrina, the topography proved to be one of the biggest causes of destruction. With almost half the land below sea level, hurricane floods created standing pools of water, destroying many parts of the city. The low-lying areas in New York faced similar problems during Hurricane Sandy and will be problematic in the future as well. Subway tunnels flooded, as did all the automobile tunnels in Manhattan, except for the Lincoln tunnel. West Harlem Waterfront Park was submerged; Coney Island, Brighton Beach, most of Jamaica Bay, the barrier islands of Brooklyn and Queens, and many neighborhoods in Staten Island were all completely flooded (Sobel 2014). The rising sea levels caused by climate change could make the next storm to hit New York even worse than Sandy. The sea level around New York City has already risen a foot during the past hundred years and that number will grow as the planet continues to warm (Sobel 2014).

During the storm 3,444 trees fell into city streets. 3,403 limbs fell down and 1,577 branches were left hanging (Foderaro 2012). This reflects a great loss to the city’s green landscape, but that wasn’t the only effect. The salt water that flooded the city during the storm is believed to be the cause of 10,000 dead or declining trees all over New York (Langfield 2015). The city plans to plant more salt tolerant species to replace these trees, which will hopefully save the plants in the future.

Hurricane Sandy trees
Trees being taken down after Hurricane Sandy – Source: The New York Times

One final effect of Hurricane Sandy is how it has impacted the parks in New York City. Three years after the storm, Inwood Hill Nature Center in Manhattan, Taafle Playground in Brooklyn, and Wolfe’s Pond Park in Staten Island all remain closed due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy. As will be mentioned in my blog post about Jamaica Bay, the West Pond loop trail was rendered impassable by the storm and still remains so.

Climate change will cause storms to be even less predictable than they already are and will make them produce even more destruction than previously seen. Hurricane Sandy is a perfect example of what will happen. New York must take up measures to protect its resources from both the rising sea levels and the damage that will be caused by extreme weather events. In the next science blogs I will look at three different measures that could be taken to counteract these effects: barriers, beach nourishment, and retreat.




Brenner, M. 2015. Understanding the effects of Hurricane Sandy on Atlantic Coast tidal marshes, wildlife. Hurricane Sandy Recovery.

Environmental Defense Fund. 2013. Sandy Success Stories: New York, New Jersey June 2013. Environmental Defense Fund.

Foderaro, L. W. 2012. Storm Inflicted a Beating on City Trees. The New York Times.

IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S. K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Langfield, A. 2015. New York City still feeling the wrath of Superstorm Sandy. CBS Money Watch.

Long Island Press. 2014. Sandy 2 Years Later: Winners and Losers on Long Island. Long Island Press.

NYC Parks Department. 2016. Notices: Park and Facility closures. NYC Parks Department.

Sobel, A. 2014. Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future. HarperCollins. New York, New York, USA.