Guest Column: Responding to Climate Change
America’s responses to tragedies have long been a strength, but they can also be a breeding ground for business growth.
Some of our nation’s finest accomplishments are the result of trying circumstances, including modern consumer-based banking during the 1920s Great Depression, public air travel in the 1940s during World War II, and the interstate highway system during the 1950s Cold War.
In the engineering and surveying world, especially here in New Jersey, we find ourselves in the nascent stages of an industry that is responding to unusual weather events and climate change predictions that threaten our daily life and our long-term socioeconomics.
The warning shot for our region was Hurricane Katrina.
Although we recognized the tragic and far-reaching impacts of Katrina in the Gulf, we found ourselves unprepared for similar threats. Trains were left in floodplains, transformers were located in basements and beach communities were left unprotected.
Superstorm Sandy exposed those weaknesses in New Jersey and dramatically changed our resiliency design trajectory.
The engineering and public policy communities have mostly put the argument over climate change to bed and have begun to do the hard work of resiliency design and monitoring. There is a lot of work to do.
The global climate change resiliency effort covers a wide range of environmental challenges, including clean water supply, sea level rise, weather pattern changes and air quality. In New Jersey, our most pressing challenge is flooding. With or without a sea level rise, it is our primary climate issue.
Over the first two centuries of New Jersey’s history, the climate was kind. Instances of severe weather impacts were rare, and our pattern of development reflects that fact. A large portion of our most valuable economic resources (ports, rail, tunnels, industry, residential) are located within vulnerable floodplains.
Retreat, unfortunately, is no longer an option. The engineering and surveying community has responded in-kind, and has largely focused upon mapping, means and methods that will preserve, protect and enhance the at-risk assets of the region.
We are well positioned in this regard: That is because our national competition for business opportunities has not responded with the same vigor that our governmental entities demonstrated via large public policy initiatives, regulatory controls and private initiatives. A small sampling of initiatives includes the following:
- FEMA – In 2013, FEMA began to update flood mapping. These maps have been the most impactful event upon flood resiliency design and planning in the region’s history. They affect a great number of existing and proposed assets across a broad range of marketplaces, including residential, commercial, industrial and port concerns. Surveying technology, specifically LiDAR, played a substantial role in FEMA’s efforts to more accurately delineate the floodplain.
- State of New Jersey – The state has been a major player in resiliency design and planning through the adoption of regulatory controls, such as the Flood Hazard Act, the International Building Code and revised Coastal Rules, as well as infrastructure investments. New Jersey Transit (e.g. rail resiliency) and NJDEP (shore protection) have been the lead agencies of change. In addition, the state and federal governments have partnered in two large-scale resiliency initiatives in the Meadowlands and Hoboken. These initiatives will rely heavily upon surveying and mapping, with particular emphasis upon gathering accurate bathymetric and topographic data for use in complex hydrodynamic models.
- Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – The Port owns some of the most critical, and vulnerable, transportation assets in the region. It is actively pursuing resiliency improvements at all of its rail, air, tunnel and port-related facilities.
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – The Corps is constructing storm damage prevention projects throughout New Jersey, including beach nourishments, flood control devices and wetland creation.
- Distribution and Logistics – At least two-thirds of the warehousing facilities in the state’s major ports are located in floodplains and suffered substantial product losses during Superstorm Sandy. The private marketplace has responded dramatically by recognizing the inherent risk, and valuing properties and rents accordingly. Consequently, “flood proof” warehouses have become more valuable. Owners and developers are modifying and redeveloping properties throughout the region, using a range of options that include dry flood-proofing, site raising with fill and campus-wide levees.
- Local – The City of Bayonne, for example, is one of many communities with large portions of its socio-economic base located in the floodplain. In response to the known flooding risks, the city has adopted a building code that reflects state and FEMA best practices. It has partnered with FEMA in its Community Rating System. It restored wetlands and is working with private redevelopers to transform flood-prone former industrial facilities into modern, flood-resistant communities.
The sum quantity of resiliency efforts has created a new industry within the survey, engineering and planning community. Where professionals dabbled in the technical disciplines in the past, such as coastal engineering, bathymetric surveying and flood-resistant architecture, they have now become a “must-have” discipline for any full service company. Growth in employment and revenues has similarly increased among those firms that are adequately responding to the demand.
Lastly, a note on resiliency: It is an often-misunderstood term, interpreted with an aggressive tone to convey absolute strength against adversity. In fact, it represents a principle that is much more representative of the human spirit. Resiliency is “the ability to recover quickly from misfortune,” and serves as the guiding principal for current climate change design efforts.
Matrix and other engineering firms that are experts in bathymetric surveying, floodplain delineation, coastal engineering and flood-resistant architecture have the laudable task to protect New Jersey from the future storms that are sure to come. Protective planning remains the primary objective.