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I tried to convince her as a scientist, but I’m married to her.” Jacob had taken some protective steps, raising the house’s foundation two feet above the FEMA flood line, and hoped for the best.
The latest scientific findings suggest that a child born today in this island metropolis may live to see the waters around it swell by six feet, as the previously hypothetical consequences of global warming take on an escalating — and unstoppable — force.
“I have made it my mission,” Jacob says, “to think long term.” The life span of a city is measured in centuries, and New York, which is approaching its fifth, probably doesn’t have another five to go, at least in any presently recognizable form.
He urged policymakers to “muster the courage to think the almost unthinkable” and install flood defenses while considering whether, over the long term, climate change might necessitate radical alterations to the transit system, like moving back to elevated tracks. “Nature cooperated — at first timidly, with Irene, and then a little bit more forcefully with Sandy. “One way or another, we get educated, and it’s much cheaper to listen once in a while to engineers and scientists.” Yet Jacob’s moment of vindication was accompanied by an ironic comeuppance: He had been flooded too.
In 2011, while working on a government panel, Jacob produced a study that mapped how subway tunnels would be inundated in the event of a hurricane. A few weeks after the storm, I paid a visit to the professor’s home in the village of Piermont, on the Hudson River just north of the city.
Policymakers may trumpet the Paris Agreement, signed this year, which aims to cut carbon emissions enough to hold global warming to a target of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures, but even if the accord succeeds, some change is “locked in,” because we’ve already spewed so much carbon into the atmosphere. Using a special 3-D mouse, I swooped like a drone over a familiar reference point at the corner of Canal and Varick Streets: the landmarked former industrial building that houses this magazine’s offices.
Strauss added that in Antarctica, enormous glaciers appear to be melting faster than previously estimated, making the current worst-case projections look more and more like probabilities. With one foot of sea-level rise, the map didn’t change that much.Outside, Jacob noticed a neighbor hanging up some early holiday decorations. Despite his acute awareness of risk, he had chosen to make his home on a lane that bordered a grassy marsh.Sitting in his third-floor office, with classical music playing softly in the background, Jacob recounted how he had purchased the house after his wife, an artist, fell in love with it.At three feet, though, a tide of blue covered Hudson River Park and West Street.Four feet, five feet: The blue crept east along Canal, toward the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.Like a stumbling boxer, the city will try to keep its guard up, but the sea will only gain strength.No New Yorker, of course, needs to be reminded of the ocean’s fearsome power — not since Hurricane Sandy.“When I saw it, I said, ‘Oh, God, I can’t do this, this is against all my professional ethos,’ ” Jacob said.“There are other considerations in life that enter into these decisions.We now know, without scientific question, that the Earth is warming fast, that 2016 is on pace to be the hottest year in the books, setting a record for the third year in a row. To begin to fathom what the future could hold for New York, I went to the Princeton office of a research organization called Climate Central, which has developed programs that map out sea-level projections.Climate scientist Ben Strauss set me up on the most advanced version, which uses 3-D Google Earth imagery, and apprised me of the latest gloomy research.