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Is New York Sinking because of Climate Change?

New York is sinking, but rising sea levels and climate change may not be entirely to blame. Why is New York City sinking?
Green News
2023-08-07T00:00:00.000Z
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New York City is known to be the city that never sleeps – but is it also the city that never sinks?

Across its five boroughs, New York is home to almost 9 million people – known for its whooping skyscrapers, rapid pace of life, and unparalleled energy and resilience. However, to keep up with New York’s energy and population means there needs to be a lot of buildings – some of which may be proving to have backfired on New York City, as a recent study published reveals that New York is sinking.

Why is New York sinking, and is it due to climate change itself? What could be done to protect the future vitality and viability of New York City, and to make sure that the city that never sleeps doesn’t end up a lost cause underwater?

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What are rising sea levels?

Rising sea levels are when the average global sea level rises over time, often a result of two things: the thermal expansion of water from climate change and melting ice-caps – such as ice sheets and glaciers. It may appear that rising sea levels are the least of our concerns (rising sea levels would mean more water in an already drought world, no?), but the truth is they can wreak havoc on society. 

For instance, rising sea levels can cause coastal flooding – leaving cities that lie directly on a shoreline extremely vulnerable to the aftermath of a massive storm or hurricane. This can cause damage to school systems, residential buildings, and business – all of which will put more stress on insurance industries.

👉 In addition to this, rising sea levels can displace communities, cause economic disruption, threaten ecosystems, and even infiltrate existing freshwater sources. Not to mention, rising sea levels can also aggravate agricultural systems and make storms and subsequent flooding worse than they would’ve been. 

It's crucial to realize that rising sea levels have a massive impact on our day-to-day lives, and that fighting against climate change is the most effective way to combat rising sea levels.

How do rising sea levels correlate to cities that are sinking? Is New York sinking because of rising sea levels?

Why are cities sinking because of climate change?

Cities that are sinking are due to rising sea levels, which are occurring because of climate change itself. 

👉 Examples of other U.S. cities sinking to due rising sea levels and climate change include Miami, Houston, New Orleans.

Cities going underwater isn’t breaking news, but it is becoming more alarming especially as new trends emerge – such as the revelation that nearly 40 percent of people live within 65 miles of a coastline. This is only expected to grow, with nearly 70% of people planning to reside in a city by 2050 – meaning sinking cities are a newfound cause for concern. Where will all of these people live if their desired city is already underwater? This is one of the many reasons why climate change is an urgent matter that needs to be addressed immediately.

But is climate change the reason the Big Apple is headed underwater, or did New York do something to add to the existing stressors?

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Is New York Sinking Because of Climate Change?

Given how many catastrophes that climate change has caused in the last few years, it would be easy to conclude that New York is sinking due to climate change as well. However, this isn’t the main culprit behind the newfound discovery of New York’s slow descent into the ocean. While rising sea levels and climate change do not help the situation, New York is sinking due to the weight of its own buildings – but the combination of sea level rise is what makes this massive weight alarming and a newfound threat to New York. 

Think of it this way: there’s nothing wrong per say about having an overweight bag for your flight – but it becomes a problem if it results in an additional fee or if it cannot fit in the overhead bin of the aircraft. The same is happening with New York: the weight of Manhattan’s buildings is not a problem in itself, but in combination with rising sea levels due to climate change – the problem is now making itself known.

According to the recent paper published regarding New York sinking, New York is sinking approximately two to four millimeters each year  – which is only a fraction of an inch. It may seem insignificant, but over the years and as rising sea levels increase drastically alongside climate change itself – New York could find itself submerged underwater sooner than we think.

This is because buildings in New York have a downward force, meaning the majority of the pressure is towards the ground – which is “shrinking” as sea levels rise. The combination of these two factors not only means New York could sink faster, but that the city could grow more vulnerable to other natural disasters such as flooding.

👉 All of New York City’s buildings weigh a whopping total of 1.68 trillion pounds – meaning that the weight of New York’s buildings in combination with sea level rise that the city could see up to a six feet sea level rise by 2100.

A deeply concentrated population of 8.4 million people faces varying degrees of hazard from inundation in New York City. (Earth's Future Journal)
The softer the soil, the more compression there is from the buildings. It wasn’t a mistake to build such large buildings in New York but we’ve just got to keep in mind every time you build something there you push down the ground a little bit more. (Tom Parsons, geophysicist at the US Geological Survey)

However, as we’ve already established – New York City is just made up of Manhattan, but five other regions, otherwise known as “boroughs”. Is New York sinking across the other boroughs, or just Manhattan?

Is New York sinking at the same time across the city?

When most people think of New York, they’re mind automatically goes to New York City – or Manhattan. However, New York City is actually made up of five boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx – and all of these areas of New York are sinking at different rates. 

For instance, Manhattan, home to almost 1.1 million buildings, is settled onto bedrock instead of soil – which could leave the city vulnerable in the future to rising sea levels. Areas alongside the East River such as near Brooklyn and Queens, such as Coney Island and Jamaica Bay, are more prone to flooding and rising sea levels than inland areas of New York. 

In addition to this, Lower Manhattan (such as Battery Park and the Financial District) – could be more prone to sinking than the rest of the city. This is because of iconic Manhattan monuments, such as the One World Trade Center. Areas in Manhattan such as midtown, where the Empire State Building resides, may not be as prone to the effects of rising sea levels or a sinking New York seeing as the bedrock lies closer to the surface. Less soil to compress means it isn’t as vulnerable to extreme weight – even though midtown is infamously known for those quintessential skyscrapers we all think of when we think of New York City.

Washington Square Park at Night

What would be the negative impacts of New York sinking?

It wouldn’t just be residents of New York City that would suffer the consequences of a sinking New York – but the rest of the country could feel the effects, too.

This is because investors are likely to face trouble if New York City is to go under (literally). Rising sea levels would be likely to have an impact on the stock market, particularly with insurance firms that will subsequently suffer from an infrastructure catastrophe as New York City sinks. In addition to this, banks and property managers around the world (especially those with offices or property in New York City) will face financial difficulties. 

👉 The list on how a sinking New York could negatively affect the country and the world are endless, but a few imperative points are that a sinking New York would result in a massive loss in global tourism, difficulties for residents to acquire insurance or other services, and a general decline in the stock market.

What can be done to prevent New York from sinking?

Besides general reform for climate change, which New York has already started to take with their New York State Climate Action Scoping Plan and their Climate Leadership and Protection Act – there are a few other things that New York can do to combat the fact that it’s sinking. 

For instance, one of the best ways to combat New York sinking is to start building anything new in New York, especially in Manhattan – on higher and dryer ground. In other words, new restaurants alongside Hudson River Park may not be the brightest of moves. Lower Manhattan should also cease to plan any new buildings or developments in the area, as this is one of the most affected areas. 

However, while this seems simple – it could prove challenging. How do you tell property owners or large corporations already firmly established in Lower Manhattan to move buildings? Real estate developers and investors aren’t likely to take this plunge until more tangible evidence and consequences of New York sinking rise to the surface.

susnet at hudson river pier park

In the meantime, there are other things that New York can do to reduce the impact of New York sinking – such as by seeking to develop and renovate buildings to be up-to-date with flood risks and improve existing buildings to be built for floodplain standards in case of flooding. In addition to this, stock markets could seek climate friendly investments such as Tesla or AECOM – both of which may be able to survive a stock market crash if New York is to sink deeper and sooner than expected.

👉 While these are good measures to take to combat the effects of New York sinking, the best way to help prevent the weight of New York’s buildings from resulting in the city drowning as a whole is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the state to stall or even slow rising sea levels. 

Ultimately, all of New York’s high energy and intense upkeep (i.e. the need for large buildings to withstand its residents and worldwide corporations) have resulted in the city starting to sink – ironically due to the weight on its own shoulders.

New York is known to be resilient, but it will also take a close eye and active effort to prevent the question, “is New York sinking” from becoming a reality rather than a mere investigation.

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What about Greenly? 

If reading this article about New York sinking has made you interested in reducing your carbon emissions to further fight against climate change – Greenly can help you!

New York City is one of the many cities in the U.S. and the world to be impacted by rising sea levels, and the number of affected areas keeps growing. This can be alarming for your business, but don’t worry – Greenly is here to help. Book a demo with one of our specialists to learn more. 

Greenly can help you make an environmental change for the better, starting with a carbon footprint assessment to know how much carbon emissions your company produces.

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