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NYC flooding could be common this century

BY SUSAN KIM | New York, NY | August 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."

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