Accelerating Sea Level Rise Threatens Communities, Infrastructure in Tri-State Region

Regional Plan Association today released a study showing that parts of the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut metropolitan area are at risk of being permanently flooded by sea level rise. The study, Under Water: How Sea Level Rise Threatens the Tri-State Region, details the severe threats posed to the region’s bay areas, coastal urban centers, beach communities and airports and seaports by as little as one foot of sea level rise, a possibility as soon as the 2030s.

With sea level rise accelerating, scientists now predict that the region could face up to six feet of sea level rise early in the next century. Federal, state and local resilience policies have focused primarily on the effects of storm surge, and fall short of adequately addressing the long-term threat of permanent flooding, the study says.

Sea level rise already has begun to affect communities and critical infrastructure in the region, and presents tough decisions for vulnerable areas. For example, the New Jersey Meadowlands – home to over 30,000 at-risk residents, Teterboro Airport, the Secaucus rail station, Giants Stadium, the American Dream entertainment project, thousands of industrial jobs and critical roads and rail lines – could be largely inundated between three and six feet of sea level rise and requires careful planning today to determine where water can be kept out and how to adapt to permanent flooding where it cannot.

Sea level threats are also significant for parts of New York City’s outer boroughs, including the Rockaways, Jamaica Bay and Coney Island and many barrier beach and back bay communities of the Jersey Shore and Long Island’s east end and south shore, which are also among the most difficult to protect.

Beyond the challenges for residential and employment centers, some of our region’s most critical infrastructure, including its airports, are in areas that are the most threatened. As little as one foot of sea level rise has the capacity to permanently flood Teterboro Airport in the Meadowlands. With three feet of sea level rise, a possibility as early as 2080, half of LaGuardia airport could be permanently flooded. Other threatened infrastructure includes Hoboken Terminal, PATH lines and the region’s waterfront wastewater treatment and energy generation plants.

The report warns that with the first damaging consequences of sea level rise already affecting some of the region’s communities, action must be taken now to adapt the places most at risk by determining where engineered solutions can best keep water out, where we can try to live with higher seas and how we can begin to phase out new development and retreat from some places over the coming decades.

The study is a component of RPA’s fourth regional plan, A Region Transformed, which will be released in 2017 and will put forth policies and proposals to mitigate climate change and confront its effects.

Immediate actions outlined in the report include:

  • Implement the 2015 international Paris agreement to limit future greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Include planning and funding for sea level rise in federal, state and local efforts to promote resilience
  • Begin dialogue in vulnerable communities about how to best adapt to sea level rise

“In the wake of disasters like Hurricane Sandy, creating more resilient communities and planning for climate change has become synonymous with protecting our communities from severe storms. While many policies in place today will help us weather those storms, most won’t eliminate the threat of sea level rise or help our communities adapt to permanent flooding in the long run,” said Tom Wright, President, Regional Plan Association. “We hope this report is a wake-up call about the severe threat sea level rise poses to our region’s neighborhoods, our economic centers and our infrastructure.”

“Adaptation conversations for vulnerable communities are difficult, and strategies will look different in different parts of the region,” said Robert Freudenberg, director of RPA’s energy and environment programs and author of the report. “The threats and potential strategies facing the Meadowlands are very different than those that face Jamaica Bay or the Jersey Shore. At RPA, we are partnering with a number of local governments including in Mastic Beach on Long Island and in Sea Bright, New Jersey, to assist them in starting conversations about what adaptation to long-term sea level rise could look like in their communities.”