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NYC flooding could be common in next century

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW YORK | August 10, 1999

NEW YORK (Aug. 10, 1999) -- Flooding in New York subways, parts of

Brooklyn under water, lack of fish in the Pacific Ocean, and

increased storm coastal storm damage, are just some of the disasters

associated with global warming, according to scientists who have been

studying its potential implications.

And that planetary temperature rise -- as much as 7.2 degrees over

the next 100 years -- could be happening faster than previously

thought. A long-predicted indicator of the acceleration of global

warming is the appearance of silver-blue, polar clouds -- already

common in polar latitudes -- in more southern latitudes. In June, one

such cloud floated over Colorado -- the furthest south one has ever

been sighted.

Global warming could increase both the frequency and intensity of

disasters, yet many long-term response plans don't yet attempt to tie

these issues. As the eastern half of the U.S. suffers from a severe

drought, Joann Hale, a disaster resource consultant for Church World

Service, said people tend to be more concerned about the effects of

global warming when they're experiencing disaster firsthand.

If global warming keeps accelerating, "we're going to be talking

about world droughts," she said.

"We're talking about more intense disasters of every kind. When you

think about the thousands of people that have been killed in flooding

alone, you realize that, without a long-term plan of some kind, major

climate changes are something we won't be able to control or respond

to," she said.

Dr. Vivien Gornitz, a researcher at Columbia University, said the

public needs to be aware not only of existing problems but potential

future ones as well. Gornitz co-authored a recent study outlining the

effects of global warming.

While it may not be possible to stop global warming altogether, it is

possible to slow the process, and to decrease the level of

disaster-related damage and deaths, she said. "There are a lot of

issues that global warming will exacerbate, and at least some of

those issues are in our control," she said. "For example, global

warming could cause more storms, and cause more flooding from

so-called average storms. But we continue to heavily develop our

beaches, building major high-rises and condominiums on land that is

already unstable."

Gornitz and other scientists maintain that carbon dioxide gas

released from the burning of fossil fuels is at least partly

responsible for planetary warming in recent years.

She added that the current drought isn't necessarily due to global

warming. "But global warming will increase the likelihood of

drought," she said.

Gornitz' report finds that sea levels in the New York metropolitan

region will rise by up to 3.5 feet in the next 100 years, even as the

land there continues to gradually sink. The result could be repeated

flooding that invades subways and turns parts of Brooklyn into

unlivable wetlands.

But right now New York City's long-term disaster response plan "has

no direct activity" related to that prediction, said Matt Furman,

spokesperson for the New York City Mayor's Office of Emergency

Management.

While disaster mitigation and response plans may not yet fully

account for the effects of global warming, the National Council of

Churches has launched a public information campaign about mitigating

global warming itself. An eco-justice working group has distributed

more than 55,000 copies of an information packet showing churches how

to slow global warming.

"There are many ways a church building can use less energy --

changing incandescent light bulbs to fluorescent bulbs, for example

-- while saving money and sending less greenhouse gases and emissions

into the air," said Richard Killmer, director environmental justice

for the National Council of Churches.

Part of the reason disaster mitigation doesn't focus on global

warming is because disaster response work is traditionally aimed at

rapid changes, said James Devine, senior advisor for science

applications at the U.S. Geological Survey. "A global climate change

has a slow onset," he said. "But the needs will be the same, even if

the urgency isn't as acute."

On a global level, planetary warming will affect not only

weather-related disasters but agricultural crises such as new insect

infestations and large-scale changes in crop production, he added.

"Disaster response managers and decision-makers need to consider that

information."

For those who have been involved in disaster response over many

years, it can be difficult to separate weather changes caused by

global warming from the natural cycles of weather -- or to pause from

answering more immediate needs in order to consider long-term plans.

"It's sometimes hard to relate what's causing disasters," said Dick

Eskes, who has been a disaster response consultant for the Christian

Reformed World Relief Committee for 17 years.

"We go through weather cycles, wet weather then drought. But I do

know that, being involved in disaster work, we seem to be awfully

busy lately. And, if the ocean is going to rise, we're going to have

a lot more coastal problems. So it seems we should start thinking

about global warming and how larger changes in weather patterns will

have an impact on how we respond -- and how we can offset that future

damage."

Posted August 10, 1999


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