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Chicago is better poised to survive climate change than New York or LA

Compared to other major American cities, Chicago is uniquely positioned to weather the ravages of global warming.

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The "Third Coast" is arguably far better situated to deal with climate change than its east- and west-coast peers. - SUN-TIMES
  • Sun-Times
  • The "Third Coast" is arguably far better situated to deal with climate change than its east- and west-coast peers.

America's coastal cities are in for a serious pounding over the course of the next 100 years, thanks to the ravages of climate change. Catastrophic flooding events along the east coast are projected to at least double by 2030, according to a 2014 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Across 76 pages and in more than 200 footnotes, the MIT-based group suggests that the mid-Atlantic region will be particularly hard hit: by 2030, Washington, D.C., will see more than 150 tidal floods annually. By 2045, the nation's capital will face one per day, or nearly 400 floods every year. Increases in monsoon, hurricane, and storm strengths will also have a substantial impact on the viability and safety of the country's coastal cities, as demonstrated in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy, which caused more than $50 billion dollars in economic losses and numerous deaths in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Mean sea level is scheduled for a drastic increase, rising between 0.4 and 1.2 meters by 2100 if current rates of carbon emissions continue. Over the next 200 years, New York could lose the East Village, West Village, Williamsburg, and Long Island City to the sea, while Boston may be forced to become a city of canals.

On the west coast, unprecedented decreases in rainfall and increases in temperature are already presenting significant economic challenges, with University of California researchers reporting that the Golden State's 2015 drought cost its economy $1.8 billion dollars and more than 10,000 jobs. Moreover, a research team composed of scientists from NASA, Columbia, and Cornell recently published a study warning of unprecedented "megadrought" conditions affecting the American southwest within as few as 35 years, exponentially worsening California's present water problems and leading to voracious, uncontrollable wildfires on scales previously unimaginable. Between 1984 and 2011, the total area consumed by wildfires in the United States increased at a rate of approximately 90,000 acres per year—or a plot the size of the city of Las Vegas—costing hundreds of millions of dollars to combat annually, and that cost is expected to compound over time. Massive displacements due to fire are already taking place—one California fire last year resulted in the evacuation of more than 23,000 residents and a governor-declared state of emergency.

Comparatively, Chicago, the "Third Coast," is arguably far better situated to deal with climate change than its peer cities on either side of the country. Its geographic location will spare it some of the more dramatic impacts of climate change—including land loss to rising tides—while its cultural, economic, historical, and architectural significance will provide it a platform for future growth. As climate change forces cities such as New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and San Francisco into crisis, Chicago may reveal itself as the most resilient American legacy city.

The principal climate-related challenge Chicago itself faces is heat. Environmental Protection Agency researchers predict that the midwest as a whole will experience significant increases in temperature throughout the 21st century, with Chicago experiencing summer temperatures akin to those of present-day Atlanta before 2100. Projected decreases in summer and fall precipitation will render this heat particularly problematic. Fortunately, Chicago needn't be as concerned about drought and dwindling water supplies compared to other major cities due to its sizable neighbor, Lake Michigan. David Archer, a climate scientist at the University of Chicago, says Lake Michigan is enormously useful in a hotter and drier world, going so far as to call the Great Lakes region "the Saudi Arabia of freshwater" owing to the vast quantities we have of the wet stuff.

"We're much better off than NYC, which has real sea level [rise] and hurricane problems," Archer says. "LA is definitely in a precarious water situation, along with much of the rest of the southwest. Chicago is the place to be, it seems."

The Great Lakes' water resources will have to be allocated sustainably, though. Joseph Atkinson, director of the Great Lakes program at SUNY Buffalo, says the recent Great Lakes Compact is especially important in this regard. The agreement between eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces prevents cities and townships outside the Great Lakes watershed from using its water. As cities outside the basin struggle to pull water from local aquifers and other groundwater resources, the compact could be tested by municipalities that want in.

However, "if this compact can stand up to legal challenges, there is a very good chance the Great Lakes water resource can be developed sustainably," Atkinson says. "There is a lot of science and engineering that is already developed to understand how to do that."

By the end of the century, Chicago can also expect precipitation increases of more than 40 percent during the winter and spring months, as well as more instances of heavy precipitation. While rainstorms frequently flood Chicago neighborhoods, the city has begun investing hundreds of millions of dollars in trees, rain barrels, permeable paving for alleyways, and other means to stem runoff in problematic areas. More importantly, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has spent decades building the "Deep Tunnel," a huge storm and wastewater system that will be able to handle 17.5 billion gallons of water overflow by 2030—a massive increase from its current 2.7 billion gallon capacity.

Beyond preparing for increased precipitation, Chicago is also remaking itself into a greener and more change-resilient metropolis in other ways. The New York Times has noted the primacy of Chicago among major American cities in its comprehensive planning and responses to a changing climate. From the initial green-roofing of City Hall in 2001 to the development of Millennium Park over rail lines and parking garages to the recent opening of the decade-in-the-making 2.7 mile 606 trailway, the last 20 years have borne witness to intensified greening and environmental conservation efforts within the city core. Regarding transit, Chicago has recently developed more than 300 miles of bikeways, with rail and subway use increasing by nearly 4 percent in 2014, reaching its highest level since Chicago first began tracking ridership in the 1960s. At the same time, numerous successful transit-oriented developments are gaining visibility across the city. The possibility for a massive reduction in automobile use is extraordinary, with 80 percent of the jobs situated within city limits accessible by public transit. Additionally, Chicago is ahead of the game when it comes to green-fitting its skyline. Illinois ranks first in the country in Leadership in Energy & Design-certified building space; Chicago has been cited for having the greatest number of LEED-certified buildings of any American city.

Changes are coming, whether we welcome them or not. Thankfully, Chicago has the natural resources, alongside the social, cultural, economic resources, to become the sort of sustainable, climate-change-resistant metropolis we will inevitably require in the future. If city officials continue to pave the way for greater resiliency, the "Second City" could be second to none in a world where Los Angeles runs dry and Manhattan is washed clean by storm surges. v


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