Sinking City: A Race Against Time
Startling geological research reveals that the weight of over a million buildings, equivalent to a staggering 1.7 trillion pounds, is causing New York City to sink further into the surrounding bodies of water, creating a looming crisis.
According to lead researcher Tom Parsons, a geologist from the United States Geological Survey, the city experiences an annual subsidence of 1 to 2 millimeters, with certain areas sinking at an even faster rate. While this may seem insignificant at first glance, the gradual decline puts NYC at heightened risk of natural disasters.
The study highlights Lower Manhattan as the most vulnerable area, but Brooklyn and Queens also warrant concern. The subsidence of New York City poses a particular threat of flooding in Lower Manhattan, amplifying the potential for catastrophe.
New York City finds itself grappling with significant challenges due to its position on the highly vulnerable Atlantic coast of North America, which is three to four times more susceptible to the impacts of rising sea levels than the rest of the world. The city is home to 8.4 million people who face varying degrees of hazard from inundation, as outlined in the recent paper by Parsons and his colleagues.
Over a decade ago, the city began experiencing the severe consequences of this predicament. Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, brought fatalities and extensive damage as it flooded the city with saltwater. More recently, in 2021, Hurricane Ida’s torrential rains overwhelmed the drainage systems, causing widespread flooding due to excessive runoff in the primarily asphalt-laden metropolis.
Parsons expresses concern about the potential risk to the city’s buildings in the face of future hurricanes like Sandy and Ida, which have already forced residents to abandon their vehicles on major routes across the city. The combination of tectonic and human-induced subsidence, rising sea levels, and increasingly intense hurricanes indicates a problem that is gaining momentum. Repeated exposure to saltwater can lead to corrosion of steel reinforcements and chemical weakening of concrete, ultimately compromising the structural integrity of buildings.
Furthermore, Parsons warns that the likelihood of severe storms is on the rise. Greenhouse gas emissions have reduced the natural wind shear barrier along the US East Coast, paving the way for more frequent and intense hurricanes in the coming decades.
Alarmingly, many of the new real estate developments in New York City following Hurricane Sandy’s devastation fail to address this pressing issue adequately. Shockingly, 90% of the 67,400 structures in the extended flood-risk areas post-Sandy have not been built to meet floodplain standards. Consequently, New York City ranks third globally in terms of future assets exposed to coastal flooding.
As Parsons emphasizes, New York City serves as a microcosm of coastal cities worldwide facing similar subsidence challenges. Mitigating the growing inundation hazard is a shared global imperative, and urgent action is required to safeguard these vulnerable areas from the mounting threat they face.