Dam It! New York’s Barrier Prophet Speaks

Malcolm Bowman had a message for the City of New York: Prepare, because the flood is coming.

It was the morning of Tuesday, May 8, and the respected oceanographer was sitting in the Mayor’s Office of Operations, lecturing four officials on the potential plagues of global warming. He had sought out the meeting because he’d heard that the Bloomberg administration was eager to take on some of the challenges of climate change—and he had stumbled onto an enormous challenge: how to save the city from the future ravages of flooding.

It was a puzzle that he had been working on for several years, and as he scrolled through his PowerPoint presentation, he spared his audience none of the gruesome predictions—the rising sea levels, the super-powerful storms, and the flooding that would submerge some of the city in chill Atlantic brine.

And then he offered a solution.

New York, he said, should build storm barriers—a trio of them that would wall off the city’s vulnerable parts like some giant floating chastity belt. These walls, when activated, would loom as high as 35 to 40 feet above the water and stretch as much as a mile in width. They would cost between $1 and $2 billion apiece and rival the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in scope and complexity. But they would also keep the ocean at bay when a hurricane or northeaster decided to pound the city. Mr. Bowman called this creating a “circle of protection” around New York.

“This was a warning that the city is going to be flooded to an extent never seen before, and that we’d better start planning; we’d better start thinking about how we’re going to protect the city,” Mr. Bowman said of his talks with the Mayor’s office, which included representatives from the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability and the Departments of Environmental Protection, Buildings and City Planning. “The point was that we should be thinking ahead.”

Mr. Bowman, a fatherly, cheerful 64-year-old native of New Zealand, is at first glance an unlikely Cassandra.

A professor of physical oceanography at Stony Brook University, and the leader of the university’s Storm Surge Research Group, he has made it his mission over the last few years to “raise consciousness” about the feasibility—and, more importantly, the necessity—of storm-surge gates in New York City. And while he has few illusions about living to see the day when the concrete is poured and the barriers built, he does at least hope to see the era when the government starts doing “serious” storm-barrier studies.

His two-hour presentation to the city officials seemed, at the time, like a good step.

“They had tough questions,” Mr. Bowman recalled, “as they should have, because we’re proposing something that would be one of the largest engineering projects ever in the United States.

“But they were friendly,” he said. “Definitely, they were interested.”

The Bloomberg administration, for its part, seems to have come away with a more measured assessment of the meeting. While Rohit Aggarwala, the director of the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, suggested that he was open to further discussions with Mr. Bowman, he said that it was premature for the city to look at the specific idea of barriers in any formal way.

“The fact is that the overall challenges of climate change will require us to think broadly about solutions that we’ve never necessarily had to consider,” Mr. Aggarwala said. “It certainly is the kind of thing that we will take seriously as we go forward. I think what is important from our point of view is that we have to consider a range of options.”

Dam It! New York’s Barrier Prophet Speaks