From Denial to Integrated Solutions

Learning from Sandy

Storms and hurricanes are nothing new for New York City. Some four decades after the European founding of the municipality in 1625, a severe storm was chronicled in Manhattan. Subsequently, the Great Storm of 1693 rearranged the coastline, likely creating the Fire Island Cut. Many more significant storms followed over the centuries. To underscore the lessons of super storm Sandy, there are people alive today who can remember the great hurricane of 1938. What’s new in recent decades is the relentless development of the coastline, haphazardly accelerated with apparent disregard for protective natural buffers, such as wetlands and dunes. As recently as the 1980s, development exploded in today’s storm ravaged Staten Island, even filling and building on marshland. Also new to many people is the realization of the human contributions to climate change through our modification of atmospheric gases, a warming climate, and the attendant increases in sea levels, storm frequency and severity, droughts, heat waves, and more. These meteorological changes are real and measurable. Hurricane Sandy, aside from its tragic aftermath, has done us a huge favor, providing a loud and unequivocal “I told you so!” in the nation’s densest population areas and most developed coastline. The visible devastation of New York City and the Jersey Shore brings tangible urgency to our efforts to take all possible measures to alter the lifestyle and behaviors that have brought us to this critical juncture. We need a paradigm shift in our land-use patterns and energy consumption. Most fundamentally, we must change the ways we interact with the natural systems of the earth.  Massive sea gates and walls might protect against some storm surges, but what will they do to fisheries, sediment transport, water quality—to mention but a few potential repercussions? We need an integrated approach to climate adaptation and mitigation that uses natural systems as ongoing guides.

If Sandy has taught us anything, it is that nature will always have the last word—a word that can seem unpredictable from our time-limited perspective. Nature takes the long view, repeatedly adapting to changes. Now, more than ever, we need to look to natural systems for guidance in designing habitations that are resilient in the face of unpredictable and severe weather events. The climate change problem is not just a matter of protecting against the next superstorm. It includes the effects of death-dealing heat waves; protecting the quality of drinking water reservoirs indefinitely into the future; keeping temperature-cooling parks and green space thriving in spite of flooding or drought. Climate change demands landscape-level designs that carefully target actions within an ecological framework. Our response as a society must move from denial (and ensuing panic when reality hits) to far-reaching, integrated solutions. A long-range response to climate change must involve designs in which engineering actions complement ecological strategies. Climate change adaptations must work simultaneously as climate change mitigations. For example, faced with the real and increasing threat of rising sea levels and ever more devastating storms—and certainly before we commit as a society to constructing massive barrier—we should first assess the possibility of changing our use of shore lands. Portions of Europe (Great Britain and the Netherlands, for example) lead the way on this front with their “managed retreat or realignment”—returning reclaimed land to the sea and restoring areas to functioning marshes. This approach accepts the dynamism of natural systems, rather than the traditional (and increasingly ineffectual) channeling and hardening of water courses and shorelines. It allows society to re-invest in our shorelines in a thoughtful and economical way, affording natural protection to development on the landward side. Not only do such “soft” shorelines protect the developed areas, they also function as habitat for a diversity of fauna and flora, complete with all the ecosystem services and societal wealth those represent. The role of coastal marshes as nurseries for commercially valuable fisheries is restored. Less obviously, salt marshes act as carbon sinks, creating a crucial mitigation against rising greenhouse gases.

Ultimately, from a dollars-and-cents point of view, naturalized shorelines no longer represent “sitting-duck” property and human liabilities, awaiting only the next storm and costly clean-up. Naturalized shorelines also provide wave attenuation, shoreline stabilization, and floodwater amelioration, and thus buffer developed areas against the sea. The impacts of climate change, however, are not limited to the many inhabited low-lying areas of the globe. They extend to impacts on groundwater aquifers, forest diseases, drought-plagued food crops, and more. The list is daunting, and seemingly endless. A piecemeal approach that addresses climate change effects on an as-needed basis is inadequate. We all descend from ancestors who had to work with nature just to survive. We can, in a new way, become those people again. We can use our technological expertise in concert with natural systems, repairing past mistakes and planning for an uncertain future. To provide a viable world for our descendants, our responses to climate change must be bold, and they must draw wisdom from the very origin of both adaptation and mitigation—nature itself.

Steven Apfelbaum is the founder of Applied Ecological Services, Inc., a full service environmental consulting and ecological restoration company. He is co-author of the Restoring Ecological Health to Your Land series, which provides practical step-by-step instructions to restoration ecology and the care of native plants. He is also the author of the award winning book, Natures Second Chance, which recounts the 30-year story of how he and his family restored a dairy farm to prairie, forest, trout stream and wetlands near Juda, Wisconsin. Visit

Recent Programs