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New York becomes latest city to be slowly sinking

Apparently, New York City is slowly sinking under its own weight. But given that the climate crisis is causing sea levels to rise and coastal erosion to worsen all while urban development increases, should we be surprised?

Over the weekend, news broke that New York City is sinking under the weight of its many buildings. The average rate of its descent is between 2 – 4 millimetres every year, with some areas lowering even faster.

Although this amount would be indiscernible without the most sophisticated measurement tools, it is something to be concerned about. Coastal erosion, combined with the city’s 1.68 trillion pounds of buildings, is placing immense pressure on the land beneath.

New Yorkers might be questioning the future of their beloved home, but they’re not alone. Many coastal cities are experiencing land subsidence, which has been labelled as one of the most ‘severe and overlooked’ geological hazards of our time.

When we think of the climate crisis, we often think about the Arctic melting and sea levels rising as a consequence. However, high activity of groundwater pumping can also create a change in pressure and volume within the land underground, causing it to collapse.

According to a US Geological Survey, population expansion and urbanisation are responsible for 80 percent of land subsidence around the world, as the need for water supply increases and groundwater is extracted.

Displacing earth materials – like soil, sediment, and rock – are also contributing to the subsidence of land. This kind of activity causes the rock to fall in on itself, creating a slow but sure sinking effect now documented in New York.

An underwater Venice

It may be surprising (or alarming) to hear that Venice, Italy is sinking at the same rate as New York City. We’ve only heard about Venice more because the situation there is far more obvious.

Venice’s water barriers have prevented the city from being entirely submerged so far, but they haven’t prevented buildings from ‘crumbling’ due to rising seawaters. Most ground-floor apartments here are no longer inhabitable.

Hoping to mitigate flooding caused by rising sea levels, a $6.5 billion experimental tunnel called MOSE was set underway in 2011. It’s taken so long to finish that when the floods of 2018 hit, the project did little to help.

Though its backup systems remain under construction, the tunnel is now operating in an ‘experimental’ stage.

This sounds positive, but despite continued efforts to salvage Venice, many geologists have accepted that a global temperature increase of 1.5C or more will place most of Venice underwater by 2100.


Jakarta in Indonesia

If you thought Venice and New York City have it bad, strap in.

Indonesia’s current capital city, Jakarta, is sinking at massive 6.7 inches per year due to rising sea levels and intensive groundwater pumping activity. If land subsidence in this area continues at the current rate, Jakarta will be underwater by 2050 – a date not too far in the future.

Unlike Venice, which is pulling out all the stops set to keep its historical site alive, the Indonesian government is refusing to take any risks. For that reason, local authorities have already approved a plan to move the nation’s capital 100 miles from where it currently is.

This won’t be easy or cheap, considering the new city, named Nusantara, has yet to be built. The switch will cost an anticipated $33 billion and take a decade to complete.


Dhaka in Bangladesh

As a country that produces just 0.3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, saying that it’s unfair Bangladesh has been dealing with the worst consequences of climate change is an understatement.

Its surrounding ocean is already causing heavy flooding in the region. Without intervention, at least 17 percent of Bangladesh could be flooded by 2050 – displacing 18 million citizens.

Unfortunately, this is a bite-sized look at how many coastal cities are threatened by land subsidence and rising sea levels.

There are thousands of cities in America, Egypt, Thailand, and Vietnam to mention a few, preparing for the worst of climate change in the best ways they can. However, these plans often involve millions of dollars and can’t always be completed quickly enough.

A wave of climate migration from countries and cities facing a similar reality to Bangladesh is almost inevitable in the coming decades.

The takeaway

The idea that a place as developed and economically wealthy as New York City could be sinking is shocking news, but this newfound knowledge should be taken as a wake-up call.

Scientists say that it highlights the seriousness of rising sea levels, urbanisation, and how human intervention is changing our natural landscapes. No one is scathed when we take for granted our planet’s resources and limits.

They admit that their suggested solution to ‘halt the use of fossil fuels and prevent further global heating’ is an annoying one to hear, especially when most people feel helpless against gigantic gas and oil companies.

At least they’re sympathetic.

In the end, we can only hope that because some of the world’s wealthiest – including CEOs of fossil fuel companies – own lofty apartments in the Big Apple, they’ll be motivated to make a change.

If not now, then when?