Scientists zoom in on climate changes in N.Y.

Project splits area into grid boxes 4 kilometers square

December 26, 2003|By Kirk Johnson | Kirk Johnson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- The New York City region has been likened to a quilt -- a stitched-together patchwork of neighborhoods and communities so different in their economic and ethnic profiles that location can sometimes seem like the only thing they have in common.

Now, for the first time, scientists are beginning to look at the future climate in the same way. Their key insight is that just like everything else in and around New York -- from school quality to crime rates and taxes, global warming and the change in climate over the coming century -- will affect people and their health differently, depending on where they live.

To test this theory, the New York Climate and Health Project has divided the 31-county region, which includes much of Connecticut, New Jersey and the nearby New York suburbs as well as the city itself, into hundreds of grid boxes, each 4 kilometers square. Vast number-crunching climate models, fed with everything now known about those communities and what might be projected in the future, are being asked to speculate what a warming planet might mean, on the ground in each square, to a person on a hot summer's day in the mid-2050s.

"Before, everything in New York was all in one big box," said Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig, a research scholar at Columbia University's Earth Institute and a leader of the climate-study group. "We're now getting the first fine-scale climate-change scenarios."

Implications of shift

The implications of that shift in perspective go much further than scientific curiosity.

Meteorologists have long known, for example, that cities can trap radiant energy and compound the complications, costs and miseries of summer -- the so-called heat-island effect. The climate project is beginning to reveal where the local heat sources are that drive that process. The New York region's heat island, it turns out, is really an archipelago of industrial areas like Paterson, Camden and the Ironbound section of Newark in New Jersey, and Long Island City in Queens. These places can trap and radiate the sun's effects.

The future of smog is also not perhaps what some people might expect. Most of the climate projections show, for instance, that the air quality across much of the New York City suburban belt is likely to deteriorate more over the coming century than in the city itself. Other parts of the country, meanwhile -- notably the Midwest and Southeast -- are likely to see air pollution problems worsen even more than in the Northeast as a whole.

But like almost everything else in the complex subject of climate change, which most scientists say is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, there are big political implications of the New York climate project as well.

Environmentalists say the conclusions so far are reinforcing the argument that local action can make at least a partial difference in a warming climate, through the adoption of things like living green roofs and urban tree belts that can absorb heat and reduce storm water runoff. At the same time, the scientists are exposing as perhaps never before the issues of social justice that environmentalists and social critics say will only become bigger and bigger over time -- specifically whether the poor will suffer more under a hotter climate than the rich.

The photochemical stew of smog, for example, is produced when heat, sunlight and pollution interact in the air. Smog, in turn, can aggravate respiratory problems like asthma, which is endemic in many urban lower-income neighborhoods. And many of the region's hottest neighborhoods in the region are also home to electricity plants that power the air-conditioners that cool the city.

Looking for impact

"You could have a negative spiral -- the more you try to cool an area, the more pollution you produce, the more that pollution gets cooked, the more ozone you have," said Edward J. Linky, a senior energy adviser at the federal Environmental Protection Agency's New York office.

But engineers in cities elsewhere around the world, notably in Japan and Germany, have been working on heat-reduction technologies for years, and that base of experience, if applied in New York, could create a powerful tool to make some neighborhoods cooler.

Alternatively, scientists say the project might ultimately conclude that local efforts on the ground won't help all that much -- a finding that they say would bolster arguments that global warming can be addressed only by large-scale government action.

"This work will help us see the likely impacts of the things we might control," said Patrick L. Kinney, an associate professor at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health and a principal investigator for the climate and health project.

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