“The beach grass grew by itself,” he says, as he bends to
show me the thick, matted root system, exposed at the edge
where Sandy’s storm surge gnawed away half of the primary
dune. He’d been standing in this very spot just five hours before the surge hit. The double-dune system that stretches for a
few blocks on either side of George’s street seemed to help fend
o= Sandy’s deluge: the water breached on Beach 27th Street,
where the dunes stop.
“The dunes were twice as high before the storm,” he says,
looking at the remains of the sacrificial sands. “It saved us.”
ONCE UPON A TIME, about 2 million years ago, the Pleistocene era locked up the world’s water in glaciers miles thick.
Then, it warmed. It was about ten thousand years ago when the
water of the melting glaciers was released to reshape the world
into the coastlines we now associate with modern-day maps.
By all indications, though, the shape of those coastlines is
about to change.
The archipelago of New York City’s five boroughs has almost
six hundred miles of littoral zone between solid ground and
watery sea, a place of straits and river mouths, bays and beachy
backshores. It’s also a place whose contours have been radically transformed by its citizens. A large percentage of the city’s
edges were created artificially, filled in and built upon with the
false confidence that land taken from the sea is permanently allocated for terrestrial use. But on October 29, 2012, the record-breaking storm surge that swept over New York City flooded
fifty-one square miles of that falsely allocated land—and like
a finger from a watery grave, the high-water mark traced the
coastline that once was and may soon be again. The mayor’s
o;ce says that, by the 2050s, 800,000 New Yorkers will live in
hundred-year flood plains, double the current number.
In 2008, Mayor Bloomberg convened the New York City
Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), a multidisciplinary group
comprised of academic and private-sector experts on everything
from climatology to oceanography to law and insurance risk.
Their task was to assess how climate change might a=ect the
city and make suggestions about how to mitigate those e=ects.
Sea levels vary around the globe, and models still vary wildly,
but the NPCC settled on forty-eight inches — the average height
of a seven-year-old child— as the informal figure for estimated
sea level rise in the New York City area by the 2080s. They
readily admit that this number is subject to change, especially
if the polar ice sheets get caught in a feedback loop that speeds
up the process.
Given the huge number of people who live on the world’s
coasts, how will human populations—whether in Brooklyn
or Bangladesh, Miami or Mumbai—adapt to an increasingly
aquatic world? Do we stand strong, and demonstrate our clever
technical ingenuity with multi-billion-dollar floodgates and water-
proof buildings? Or do we humbly bid a hasty retreat, scrambling
for higher ground while there’s still time, waving a white flag to
It seems increasingly clear that there may be a third way: an
approach that blends a trace of conciliation with an abundance
of creativity, using hints from the ecological past to design the
coastlines of the future— and it could be the key to surviving
in coastal communities in an age of rising seas. The way for-
ward will require an unlikely collaboration, not just between
public institutions and citizens, but also between humans and
the one player too often left outside, literally and figuratively:
WHEN IT COMES TO PROSPECTS for human life within the
increasing reach of the ocean, design answers fall into two categories, the soft and the hard, the yin and the yang. Dunes,
wetlands, and oyster reefs fall on the soft side; hard is the stu=
I know from my childhood on the Jersey Shore: tar-smeared
bulkheads and jetties jutting out at perpendicular angles in an
e=ort to staunch the natural movement of sand. A floodgate is
as hard as it gets.
Speculation about the construction of a great surge barrier
surfaced soon after Sandy. The largest proposed gate would
run parallel to the expansive Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, nearly
a mile long. Outright critics spoke of engineering cockiness,
ethical and legal conundrums, disrupted harbor ecosystems,
and a false sense of security. More cautious skeptics noted that
comparisons to countries that do employ floodgates, like the
Netherlands, fall short when one considers that the eastern
United States routinely weathers storms the Dutch can’t imagine in their mild climate.
But instead of seeking out the big fix, most adaptation efforts are opting for a multifaceted approach. After Sandy,
Mayor Bloomberg formed the Special Initiative for Rebuilding
and Resiliency, and in June 2013, it released a comprehensive
440-page report, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York.” In it,
the city proposes more than 250 di=erent initiatives that would
strengthen everything from the energy grid to communications
networks to transportation systems. A proposal for a great flood
barrier is notably absent.
The city’s response echoes what is rising up like wrack on
the high-tide line, a medley of ideas from all sectors across the
boroughs and beyond. Many seek to embrace the best of technological advances and apply them in ways that foster, instead
of resist, the fundamental laws of the natural world: Let the
wetlands be wetlands, bird-festooned sponges. Remember the