STATEN ISLAND, NY — Earth has warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius since the middle of the 19th century, a steady rise fueled by human-caused emissions that scientists say will cause spiraling impacts in the coming decades that have already begun to make a presence .
The mechanisms that drive that increase — greenhouse gas emissions primarily borne from burning fossil fuels that then enter the atmosphere — are well understood, yet methane and carbon dioxide levels continue to increase despite widespread understanding that these trends will have to be dramatically altered to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Staten Island, a coastal community that is no stranger to impacts like extreme weather and a changing environment, will not be immune to these threats.
The Advance/SILive.com, through a multi-part series centered on the local effects of climate change and the efforts being done to change the planet’s course, explored how the borough could see transitions that fundamentally shift the lives of everyday residents.
Here are five things we learned.
Rising sea levels are among the most pronounced byproducts of a planet warming so rapidly that scientists say summer ice in the Arctic is almost certainly going to vanish by 2050.
Twenty years before that, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tidal gauge near Mariners Harbor is expected to experience between 15 and 35 high-flood days. Just seven were recorded in 2020 — more than double the total 20 years earlier.
On the East Shore, changes could be more pronounced. Forecasts predict sea-level rise in the United States over the next 30 years will equal the rise seen over the past 100.
Analyzes have found neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Sandy a decade ago could see more daily damage from high-tide flooding and greater risks to dangerous storm surge by the end of the century.
In Great Kills, for example, high-tide flooding would push past Oakwood Beach and spill over into the inland marshes that precede Mill Road by 2100, even under optimistic emission scenarios that aim to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.
Despite the sobering implications posed by climate change, scientists note that even if warming is not limited to promises outlined in the international 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, mitigating every additional tenth of a degree will make a difference.
A recent UN report found the planet is currently on pace to warm between 2.1 to 2.9 degrees by the end of the century.
Still, there’s signs of hope.
Alternative energy sources are rapidly expanding, and ambitious goals are setting sights on shrinking the impact of fossil fuels in energy systems.
While questions remain concerning how fast those goals can be reached and how quickly technology to perform actions like capturing carbon emissions can be improved, lessening the impacts of heavy-emitting sites and their role in blunting the rise of average temperatures will be significant.
Higher seas and hotter days pose a sharp threat to infrastructure vital to keeping the lights turned on, treating the Island’s sick and preventing raw sewage from seeing onto streets.
Con Edison, the city’s energy provider, currently expects around four days a year with temperatures that surpass 95 degrees. That total is predicted to reach 23 days by 2050 — putting a severe burden on the company’s grid.
Heat is currently the deadliest impact posed by climate change, causing more deaths than weather disasters annually. However, high temperatures are joined by more extreme storms and rising seas as a trio of dangers important infrastructure on the borough has to consider in the coming decades.
Con Edison alone has spent over $1 billion to secure parts of its energy system in the city, fortifying underground networks and bolstering the strength of utility poles at risk of falling during heavy winds.
The city Department of Environmental Protection’s Oakwood Beach Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility, which had to run its operations on backup generators during Sandy to keep about 80 million gallons of raw sewage from flowing back into the street, falls within the protection that will be offered by the East Shore Seawall that will run from Fort Wadsworth to Oakwood Beach.
And after Sandy’s floodwaters came within 100 yards of Staten Island University Hospital’s basement generators, city-backed efforts helped elevate mechanical and electrical infrastructure while hardening resiliency at the location.
Stronger storms that unleash torrents of rain that overwhelm New York City’s aging sewer system have already been experienced in recent years after the remnants of Hurricane Ida dropped more than three inches of rainfall in just an hour.
Detailed simulations now allow experts to see how much climate change is affecting individual storms. Recent observations show between 5% and 15% increased rainfall totals have been tied to warming seen over the past 150 years.
“If I were to take a storm today, and I were to magically put it in a time machine and send it to the year 2075, that storm will produce more rain, all other things equal, than if it was today, or if it It happened 100 years ago,” Colin Zarzycki, an assistant professor in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science at Penn State University, previously told the Advance/SILive.com.
The reason: Warmer temperatures heat up air particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, enabling them to hold more moisture than cooler particles. Storms, which are highly efficient at ringing all the water vapor from the atmosphere, release that moisture in the form of heavy precipitation.
United Nations experts said people younger than 10 years old in the year 2020 are projected to see a “nearly fourfold increase in extreme events under 1.5C of global warming, and a fivefold increase under 3C warming.”
Serious and deliberate cuts to global emissions are needed to stave off continued warming, but simpler, more local-based solutions could also prove to be useful in an environment altered by climate change.
Expanding Staten Island’s Bluebelt system, a revolutionary network of green infrastructure that uses vast natural areas to take pressure off the city’s sewer system during heavy storms, could have outsized impacts on flood reductions, for example.
And when infrastructure like roads are being created, using porous materials could help catch rainwater that otherwise would run off streets and sidewalks before entering the sewer system. The city has already started a program to use the technology.
Deer, known for their widespread presence on Staten Island, also are responsible for damaging the borough’s forests. Managing their population would help the trees stay healthy and continue to offer cooling effects at the local level, experts said.
Studies have found that tree canopy on Staten Island is uneven — leaving the North Shore with less positive benefits. Confronting that disproportionate distribution could help lessen impacts.
Bolstering transportation infrastructure on an Island known for its limited travel options would help both reduce traffic and shrink the carbon footprint of Staten Island. More consistent bus service, a bike-share program and dependable bus lanes are among the recommendations experts made.
“People will use transit when it’s more reliable, and government needs to invest to make sure that that’s an option particularly on an island like Staten Island where we’re far too car dependent and we don’t need to be,” said Daniel Zarrilli , the city’s former chief climate policy advisor and a Staten Islander.
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