The reality of climate change is upon us. Weather patterns have changed, and seasons have been altered. We experience more intense heat, more frequent, destructive storms, wide-ranging wildfires, and more destructive cold. Tornadoes—the spawn of conflicting hot and cold air masses—touch down in places they were once almost unheard of. What was scientific prognostication only a few years ago has become reality. It’s also a reality that most of the structures that house our homes—particularly high-rise multifamily buildings—were not designed for these types of changing climate events. While that’s a chilling thought, today’s communities have no choice but to deal with that reality, as well as plan for what may be ahead.
The New Reality
The changing climate is already fueling disastrous weather around the world. Glaciers are melting faster, dumping huge amounts of water into the oceans and impacting weather patterns. Hurricanes are getting more frequent and ferocious; unprecedented, torrential rains have unleashed floods in China and Europe, and this summer’s flash flooding closer to home in New Jersey and New York was a stark and deadly reminder of the impact of climate extremes. Heatwaves and wildfires are scorching Siberia and the Arctic, and laying waste to swathes of the Western U.S.
Perhaps the two most pressing and dramatic ramifications of climate change facing our communities today are the rise in sea level, and the increasing intensity and frequency of severe storms. More concerningly, these two events overlap, causing even greater peril, which is particularly severe for communities built along our coasts.
“The biggest issue is along our waterfronts,” says Kevin Keating, an architect with Selldorf Architects, a global architectural firm based in New York. “For communities along our coasts in Long Island, Florida, and New England, for instance, rising sea level is the biggest issue. Combine that with bigger storms up and down the East Coast”—including New Jersey’s coastal communities—“and you must ask the question of how we will fortify the properties against the combination of these two factors.”
With regards to rising sea level, Peter Varsalona, vice president and principal of RAND Engineering, notes that by 2050 or so, flooding is going to be a major issue in low-lying areas—although he and the other professionals interviewed for this article are quick to say that predictions—even those based on current data—are tricky when it comes to something as complex and variable as climate.