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Top Questions in Nutrition (Part II)

2014 April 1

coauthored with Elle Alexander–

To wrap up Nutrition Awareness Month, here is the second half of this blog post, answering questions 6-10:

  1. Which sweetener is the best for human health and has minimal environmental impact?
  2. How can eating behaviors change to support health?
  3. How have prepared and packaged foods changed in the last decade to promote nutrition?
  4. Is yogurt a health food?
  5. How useful are currently serving size recommendation?
  6. Should energy drinks be marketed to kids?
  7. Where in the world does our food come from?
  8. What lessons can we learn from abroad?
  9. The other, other white meat?
  10. How have food companies shifted their products to promote healthier options?

6. Should energy drinks be marketed to kids?

The WHO has warned that marketing fast food to kids has been “disastrously effective,” and has ultimately directly contributed to the global obesity epidemic. The American Academy of Pediatric recommends that children and teenagers never consume energy drinks, citing high levels of sugar and caffeine as unhealthy for children while providing no nutritional benefits. In spite of that, Yale University Rudd Center reports that 31% of American youth (age 12-17) consume energy drinks, many of which have on average more sugar than soda and are not required to disclose information on caffeine content.

7. Where in the world does our food come from?

Tracing our food items from production to consumption helps to understand where things really come from. Sourcemap visually displays the journey of products, with some examples having no less than 16 stopovers from source to shelf.

Where Tropicana Comes From (Source: SourceMap)

8. What lessons can we learn from abroad?

Brazil has introduced new food based countrywide guidelines, now open for comment, to promote health.  The rules they propose can be applied to the US and other countries:

  • Make foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals the basis of your diet.
  • Be sure oils, fats, sugar and salt are used in moderation in culinary preparations.
  • Limit the intake of ready-to-consumer products and avoid those that are ultra-processed.

9. The other, other white meat?

Fish are a tremendous source of protein and consumption is growing; to meet the demand in the US means importing 91% of the aquaculture. NOAA address questions about healthy eating and sustainability best practices. Concerns about health, safety and global ecology all come to play when eating fish and equally important is purchasing seafood from reliable sources. Greenpeace ranks retailers based on environmental practices.

10. How have food companies shifted their products to promote healthier options?

Food companies are shifting their portfolios to address the regulatory pressure and consumer interest in healthier items. Smaller portion sizes of classic items can be seen in stores and stealth strategies include product reformulation to reduce sodium or replace refined flour with whole grains, or developing ingredients to increase satiety and flavor without the calories (read more about these trends here). Interestingly, the Hudson Institute found that food and beverage companies with more sales of healthier products were more financially successful than companies with lower sales of healthier items.

When addressing these questions it is essential to consult credible sources, investigate credentials of authors, and recognize source bias.

A few of our current favorite places for nutrition updates are below – or just check back here for future posts on the subject!

Top Questions in Nutrition (Part I)

2014 March 11

coauthored with Elle Alexander–

March kicks off national nutrition awareness month, a great opportunity to feed our curiosity. With that in mind, we curated some of the top 10 questions around nutrition, and will share five now and five at the end of the month.

  1. Which sweetener is the best for human health and has minimal environmental impact?
  2. How can eating behaviors change to support health?  
  3. How have prepared and packaged foods changed in the last decade to promote nutrition?
  4. Is yogurt a health food?
  5. How useful are currently serving size recommendation?
  6. Should energy drinks be marketed to kids?
  7. Where in the world does our food come from?
  8. What lessons can we learn from abroad?
  9. The other, other white meat?
  10. How have food companies shifted their products to promote healthier options?

1. Which sweetener is the best for human health and has minimal environmental impact?

There has been much discussion on high fructose corn syrup vs. cane sugar from health and environmental perspectives. Marion Nestle sheds some light on the debate:

“Sucrose (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) contain the same sugars—glucose and fructose—and do much the same things in the body.  I think everyone would be better off eating a lot less of either.”

2. How can eating behaviors change to support health?

When presented with numerous food choices, people tend to pile plates high with calories.   Choosing smaller plates helps to reduce calorie intake since people tend to stop eating based on visual cues rather than internal satiety cues.

See Brian Wansink’s “Bottomless Soup Bowl” Experiment:

3. How have prepared and packaged foods changed in the last decade to promote nutrition?

In November of 2013, the FDA banned trans-fat, a decision that many – including the Scientific American – considered long overdue and with an impact of saving lives at a minimal cost to industry. Decisions to eat healthier are easier for consumers when information about health and a variety of healthy options are available.

Further work is also needed to reduce sodium intake in the US population, as only 5% of intake is added during cooking and 6% at the table; 75% is from packaged foods.  Companies must take the lead to reduce sodium in packaged foods for consumers while ensuring food safety and taste.

4. Is yogurt a health food?

For hundreds of years humans have consumed yogurt across cultures. The protein rich and bacteria filled product has experienced a renaissance of sorts since the 1900s and with the mass popularization of “Greek” yogurts. A New Yorker article in November documented the growth of Chobani; the recipe is modified for consumer enjoyment, including added sweeteners in many products. The benefits of yogurt include probiotics, calcium and a hearty dose of non-animal based protein.

5. How useful are currently serving size recommendation?

According to the CDC, portion sizes have increased, impacting health. There are new devices on the market to help guide consumers toward eating ‘recommended’ quantities, including the Silo which pours 1 cup, 1/2 cup or 1 tsp. There is also a recent proposal to the FDA to make the Nutrition Facts label easier for consumers to understand, highlighting calories, recalibrating serving sizes and including added sugars:

Nutrition Label Redesign

Stay tuned for the next installment at the end of the month. Your thoughts are welcome!

– See more at:

Investing in Women: Farming for the Future

2014 March 10

Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum is an exceptional woman who advocates for connecting physical and psychological well-being as part of the global ethos for improved health.  The Vitality Institute is honored to count her as one of our Commissioners.

Rhonda’s heroic past, documented in her book, is only a shade more exciting than her work today as a farmer. Rhonda developed a love for farming early in life when she spent her summers on a family farm in Ohio. Today she grows nearly all of her own food in Paris, Kentucky, a practice she considers good for the body and environment. She believes that the closer food is to its natural state, the better it is, “if a product has more than five ingredients, it is not a real food.”

Agriculture is the single largest employer in the world. Rhonda is one of many female farmers worldwide, but in the minority of female land owners. Women farmers produce more than half of the food grown in the world, yet receive only about 5% of agriculture extension services and own about 2% of land worldwide. Closing the gender gap in agriculture will have economic benefits for world’s economic and food system. S. Ayyappan, Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, said “By failing to invest in women farmers we are handicapping ourselves in the quest for sustainable and more productive agriculture systems and more food-secure societies.” With this global sentiment and individual demonstration of resilience, we celebrate women farmers worldwide and thank them for their efforts in literally putting produce on our plates.

Rhonda considers herself privileged to have her own farm, and in her own words, she tries to be an example of how people can live.  On a final note, Rhonda offers the two rules that she lives by:

  1. The fact that you have made a mistake in the past is not a good reason to keep doing it.
  2. Don’t let other people’s expectations of you limit your own expectations of yourself.

Honoring resilience and inner strength, The Vitality Institute wishes a very happy (belated) International Women’s Day to all.

Navigating Nutrition in a Landscape of Excess

2014 February 17

Change is hard– especially behavior change in a context not designed to support it.  New Year’s resolutions, like those mentioned by Taubes in his New York Times Sunday Review piece, are usually forgotten. It isn’t just that they are ambitious. The problem is that we live in an environment where healthy choices are challenged by increasingly cheap, ubiquitous and tasty treats.

For example, twenty years ago, a typical cheeseburger contained 333 calories, compared to 590 today. According to a new FDA report pizza also accounts for 4% of all calories consumed by American adults daily. Additionally, our lifestyles are more sedentary–average Americans spend nearly nine hours in front of screens.

NavigatingNutrition Feb14 cdc-new-abnormal-infographic

Source: CDC, “Making Health Easier” (click image to enlarge)

Together, our diet and lack of physical activity put us at risk for lifestyle-related diseases, like hypertension, type-2 diabetes and obesity. Addressing these requires efforts from multiple sectors as health is affected by everything from policies set by governments, to products developed and marketed by companies, and corporate policies impacting employee health. The argument of ‘willpower’ falls away when powerful outside forces act in concert.  

We are more likely to consume more calories when we eat outside the home. According to the USDA in 2012, more than 40% of meals in America are eaten away from home and 82% of adults eat out at least once a week. Fundamentally changing the foods offered at restaurants can improve the food landscape and promote health. Efforts led by the Culinary Institute of America in partnership with Harvard’s School of Public Health are underway to develop Menus of Change. Consumers want more vegetable options, lean meats, and seafood, and Menus of Change is updating menus to give it to them.

A complementary initiative is Grow Your Family Strong, whose mission is to encourage mindful cooking at home by providing nutritious recipes, shopping lists and most importantly, support from other participants in building healthy meals for their families. Founder Monique Nadeau says “We need practical ideas that are simple to execute, automate and delegate; are value for money, nutritious and include meals our families will enjoy. I’m looking for something that makes my life easier and my family healthier.”

If making a change is hard, maintaining it is even more challenging. New technology, like Stickk can help individuals make ‘commitment contracts’ to a healthier lifestyle. Participants use the WebApp to publicize their commitments to quit smoking, eat healthier and exercise more frequently and then receive support from an online community. Building a community through health technology is an effective way to achieve personal goals.

Finally, addressing short-termism – where consumers tend to discount the future impacts of their decisions for immediate comfort or pleasure – can be built into polices and private sector commitment to health. For example, there is an opportunity to make healthier foods more affordable and accessible at point of sale. A few pilot programs, including Healthy Food Here, are making it easier (and cost effective) for retailers to provide fresh produce. Resolving to eat well and a landscape of support go together like (low-fat) milk and (wholegrain) cookies.

SNAP to Action on Health

2014 January 31

In President Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this week, he commended the First Lady’s efforts to get Americans, and particularly children, moving.  The Let’s Move campaign combines getting active with healthy eating and is a great example of partnerships between the US government, NGOs, and industry.  Additional collaborations are needed to promote healthy eating in federally supported programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The Farm Bill was omitted from Tuesday night’s address despite being a key to the future of agriculture, food and health in America.

SNAP blog post 30jan14 - farm bill graph

Graph (click to enlarge) created by Brad Plumer, The Washington Post, January 28, 2014.

The majority of spending of the Farm Bill – nearly 80%, or $756 billion – is allocated to support nutrition and food security for low income Americans (see graph), although the funding does not explicitly support healthy eating or nutrition for recipients.   Improving the SNAP programs is an occasion for the US government to codify the link between agriculture production and healthy food consumption.

Importantly, shifts in diets could reduce the burden of disease and chronic disability which now account for nearly half of the US health burden.  Improving availability of fresh fruits and vegetables can help replace high-calorie, highly processed foods with less energy intensive production.  It is also important to understand the relationship – or lack thereof – between subsidies and crop insurance support and retail costs of the healthiest foods

Land use for farming is not currently driven by health indicators. Harvard School of Public Health calculates that it required about 40 acres of farmland to produce 1,000 kilograms (approx. 2,200 pounds)  of ground beef while only 3/4 of an  acre to produce the same quantity of potatoes and even less — 1/16 of an acre to grow 1,000 kilograms of carrots.  The Farm Bill should support the production of more sustainable protein sources over energy intensive meat production. Further, by subsidizing fruits and vegetables instead of grain, corn and soy used predominantly for animal feed, the Farm Bill can be an effective lever to reduce the quantity of highly processed foods going to market and concurrently reduce the ecological footprint of the food system.

There is a tremendous opportunity to improve SNAP to help guide healthier food decisions.  Additionally, bolstering Michelle Obama’s efforts for healthier children, SNAP-Ed can complement the national Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program helping children form healthy habits early in life. The road ahead to reforming SNAP and revising the Farm Bill may by rocky, but shifts to promote health will benefit all and result from businesses, government, and local organizations supporting healthy and cost effective food choices promoting health.  Let’s get moving on this together.

No nature, no business

2013 October 4

Har­mo­niz­ing the Rules of Busi­ness with the Laws of Nature

Envi­ron­men­tal Debt: The Hid­den Costs of a Chang­ing Global Econ­omy, writ­ten by Amy Larkin and researched by Johanna Goet­zel, was released by Pal­grave Macmil­lan June 25, 2013.


The book con­nects the finan­cial and envi­ron­men­tal crises – through both causes and solu­tions. The book intro­duces the “Nature Means Busi­ness Frame­work for the 21st Cen­tury,” which pro­vides a road map for con­nect­ing the Return On Invest­ment (ROI) of busi­ness with the sur­vival of the nat­ural world.

The three pil­lars of the The Nature Means Busi­ness Frame­work aim to empower prof­itable busi­ness that, by nature, coex­ist with the envi­ron­ment. They are as follows:

(1) Pol­lu­tion can no longer be free and can no longer be subsidized

(2) The long view must guide all decision-making and accounting

(3) Gov­ern­ment plays a vital role in cat­alyz­ing clean tech­nol­ogy and growth while pre­vent­ing envi­ron­men­tal destruction.

Larkin’s “great­est hope is that Envi­ron­men­tal Debt pro­mul­gates new ideas into the cul­ture that in turn change our under­stand­ing of busi­ness.” The book reveals the com­mon ground between busi­ness, civil soci­ety, sci­ence, reli­gion, cul­ture and  pol­icy reform­ers. The ideas pre­sented in the book take on extended life through an online forum called The Tran­si­tion Agenda, hosted by RESOLVE, where indi­vid­u­als from a vari­ety of sec­tors can dis­cuss and engage with issues essen­tial to our sur­vival. No nature, no business.

Reviews of the book have been encour­ag­ing. Pub­lish­ers Weekly writes: “For any­one inter­ested in envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic pol­icy, this is a fas­ci­nat­ing, provoca­tive book. Brisk, bold, and blunt, Larkin is a dev­as­tat­ing critic of cur­rent busi­ness prac­tices, but she wants to inspire, not scold.”

A New York native, Larkin writes about local and global issues in a clear and direct way.  Her years of work with Green­peace along with her entre­pre­neur­ial expe­ri­ence present the short and long term impacts of envi­ron­men­tal debt. The tone is encouraging–action is pos­si­ble, and the time is now!

Amy Larkin blogs for the Huff­in­g­ton Post about these and other issues.

What is the future of food in New York City? Quinn, DeBlasio, Weiner weigh in

2013 August 7

coauthored with Jody Dean–

The Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion is com­ing to a close and the search for a new mayor is in full swing. In addi­tion to the usual pol­icy ques­tions typ­i­cally raised dur­ing a may­oral race, the 2013 can­di­dates were offered an unprece­dented oppor­tu­nity to out­line their plat­forms on food policy.

The need for more resilient and sus­tain­able food pol­icy and infra­struc­ture for New York is well doc­u­mented, and is the sub­ject of a num­ber of food sys­tems and anti-hunger orga­ni­za­tions. Spear­headed by the Brook­lyn Food Coali­tion, the ground­break­ing “May­oral can­di­date forum on the future of food in New York City” was con­vened to engage the can­di­dates in a dis­cus­sion about food pol­icy as an “eco­nomic, health, envi­ron­men­tal and labor ini­tia­tive.” Through this forum, the pub­lic and over 1,000 atten­dees were able to hear the posi­tion of each may­oral can­di­date on issues related to food pol­icy, food access, and the future of food in New York. These top­ics, while essen­tial to the health and sta­bil­ity of the city, are fre­quently left out of may­oral debates or tied in with other issues, such as education.

Mayoral Candidate Forum

Of the nine declared can­di­dates, six attended the forum, mod­er­ated by Mar­ion Nes­tle, Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Nutri­tion, Food Stud­ies, and Pub­lic Health at New York Uni­ver­sity. The ques­tions posed to the can­di­dates fall under three ban­ners: healthy and sus­tain­able food for schools, expand­ing access to ser­vices and aid pro­grams (SNAP and WIC) and labor issues within the indus­try. The con­ver­sa­tion included a dis­cus­sion about how best to inte­grate a food pol­icy platform.

Hunger is a com­plex prob­lem and it is essen­tial that it is addressed on mul­ti­ple lev­els. Food avail­abil­ity, one impor­tant piece of com­bat­ting hunger, is an issue that impacts the entire eco­nomic and social sys­tem. Food access and uti­liza­tions are fac­tors cen­tral to strength­en­ing the links between food, com­mu­nity, health and eco­nom­ics under the purview of the mayor. Can­di­dates must think about the under­ly­ing fac­tors includ­ing socio-economic sta­tus that limit food acces­si­bil­ity, avail­abil­ity of resources, and allo­cate more fund­ing for social safety nets.

Accord­ing to Feed­ing Amer­ica, 2011 cen­sus data shows that the State of New York is 14.7% food inse­cure. Rate of food inse­cu­rity are higher, on aver­age, in the five bor­oughs: in Queens, 14% of  the pop­u­la­tion is food inse­cure.  In Man­hat­tan (Kings county) 20.4% and in Bronx, 23.3%.

NY Food Insecurity

All par­tic­i­pat­ing can­di­dates spoke about the SNAP pro­gram and noted the over­all pos­i­tive impact for par­tic­i­pants, though can­di­date John Cas­ti­ma­tidis men­tioned that he pre­ferred the WIC pro­gram, which he believed was less prone to fraud.

Sug­ges­tions to improve SNAP in the fol­low­ing ways were discussed:

1. Des­tig­ma­tize assisted food aid programs

2. Extend free meals  through the sum­mer and max­i­mize par­tic­i­pa­tion (a posi­tion advo­cated for by the Food Bank of New York)

3. Offer more oppor­tu­ni­ties for enroll­ment (and locations)

4. Increase the num­ber of ven­dors who can process SNAP (improve tech­nol­ogy in stores and bodegas)

Another area ripe for expan­sion is increased part­ner­ships with farm­ers mar­kets and CSAs to pro­mote con­sump­tion of fresh and sea­sonal fruits and veg­eta­bles.  Fur­ther, pro­grams like the Dou­ble Up Food Bucks (DUFB) pro­gram that matches money spent by SNAP par­tic­i­pants up to $20 per trans­ac­tion for the pur­chase of state-grown pro­duce. The pro­gram, already in place in Michi­gan, could be imple­mented in New York stores and farm­ers mar­kets. Many green mar­kets already accept EBT in New York and per­haps green carts can also be out­fit­ted with the tech­nol­ogy to do so.

Sev­eral can­di­dates, includ­ing Anthony Weiner and Bill De Bla­sio, spoke of appoint­ing food czars or deputy direc­tors of food pro­grams who work cross-sectorally to develop pro­grams and then part­ner with local groups like Just­food to mon­i­tor and eval­u­ate progress.

The food ser­vice indus­try is an essen­tial piece of the food econ­omy in New York and as such, the mil­lions of par­tic­i­pants must be respected and pro­tected to ensure safety of food and work­ers and fos­ter an inclu­sive com­mu­nity where food brings us together instead of mag­ni­fies the socioe­co­nomic divide. A large por­tion of the food ser­vice pop­u­la­tion can­not cur­rently afford suf­fi­cient food for them­selves or families.


Those seek­ing to improve the wages and well­be­ing of food work­ers must also acknowl­edge that a large pro­por­tion of food-service work­ers com­mute long dis­tances to work. The Gothamist illus­trates this fact with a map with cen­sus data to show just how long com­mutes to jobs in the City are for many work­ers. They reported that in Man­hat­tan, twice as many work­ers com­mute from another county (1.6 mil­lion) as live there (830,000). Time spent in tran­sit is time lost for wage earn­ings. The eco­nom­i­cally strat­i­fied city means that there are a very few peo­ple who work where they live.

Can­di­dates spoke of real estate changes that could help reduce the pro­por­tion of sales that go toward rent (John Cat­si­ma­tidis said that in New York it is close to 10 per­cent while in New Jer­sey it is merely 1.5 per­cent). Chang­ing this by increas­ing 80–20 hous­ing and mixed use real estate could rad­i­cally change the goods and ser­vices econ­omy. Other inter­ven­tions includ­ing the fol­low­ing can help in the short term:

1. Increase the min­i­mum wage. The Gen­eral Indus­try Min­i­mum Wage Act has set a $7.25 wage in many states, includ­ing New York. Accord­ing to can­di­date Sal Albanese, that is not liv­able wage.

2. Hire locally when pos­si­ble, develop neigh­bor­hood economies to sup­port food systems.

3. Increase edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties for indus­try workers.

While a food pol­icy plat­form was osten­si­bly the focus on the forum, not all of the can­di­dates address this issue directly within their cam­paigns. Rather than answer­ing the ques­tions about hunger, school food and the food econ­omy, many instead rolled these issues into other sec­tors of their cam­paign plat­forms, such as dis­plea­sure with Mayor Bloomberg’s pol­icy ini­tia­tives or reduc­ing the amount of money spent on healthcare.

This seems to indi­cate that despite the focus on food sys­tems pro­vided by the forum, the future of food in New York City may not yet be at the fore­front of the city’s polit­i­cal con­scious­ness.  His­tor­i­cally, the work around these issues has been car­ried by non-profits and com­mu­nity groups, and that trend is likely to con­tinue until city gov­ern­ment embraces the idea of devel­op­ing a more sus­tain­able and resilient food system.

On sev­eral occa­sions the can­di­dates spoke of the need for col­lab­o­ra­tion between gov­ern­ment, busi­ness and civil soci­ety. Food sys­tem gov­er­nance effi­ciency can be increased through hav­ing an open col­lab­o­ra­tion. Some can­di­dates spoke from per­sonal expe­ri­ence, includ­ing John Cat­si­ma­tidis, who is the owner of Grist­edes,  about the advan­tages of larger stores and chains. Oth­ers advo­cated for bode­gas and fresh carts to receive greater sub­si­dies and sup​port​.In all cases, it is impor­tant to sup­port the equi­table oper­a­tions of  a com­bi­na­tion of small mar­kets (and incu­ba­tor spaces, like  La Mar­queta  men­tioned by Chris­tine Quinn) and larger chains where sup­ply chains are clearly stated (i.e. Whole Foods).

Strate­gies for build­ing a more inte­grated and resilient food sys­tems will likely emerge when can­di­dates are pushed and held account­able. Mar­ion Nes­tle noted her “aston­ish­ment” that food was a tak­ing a pri­mary focus in the race, how­ever there is still a lot of work to be done in address­ing the under­ly­ing issues of access, health­ful­ness and expand­ing SNAP and WIC. The forum was a great occa­sion for dia­logue. More oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­cus­sion about food econ­omy, ecol­ogy, and polit­i­cal sys­tems are essen­tial for New York’s sus­tained health.

Links to each candidate’s cam­paign issues are available:

Chris­tine Quinn

John Cat­si­matides

Anthony Weiner

Sal Albanese

Bill De Blasio

John Liu

Bill Thomp­son

2013 June 26

coauthored with Jody Dean–

[Over com­ing weeks, the staff of City Atlas will be pre­sent­ing sum­maries, analy­sis, and pub­lic feed­back on the city’s mon­u­men­talSIRR report about rebuild­ing and resilience, which includes lessons learned from Hur­ri­cane Sandy and plans for the city in the face of new chal­lenges from a chang­ing climate.]

SIRR Climate Photo

The cli­mate analy­sis sec­tion includes this photo, a reminder that NYC has flooded in the past. (Photo NYT)

Extreme events often prompt ques­tions that begin with “why?”  Why now? Why me? Why here? Due to the chaotic nature of the cli­mate sys­tem, there is no sim­ple answer to these ques­tions. Part of the answer, though, can be found by exam­in­ing past cli­mate trends and pro­jec­tions for the future. Extreme events like Sandy cause huge impacts, the most jar­ring being the loss of lives and the dis­place­ment of peo­ple from their homes. There are also mas­sive mon­e­tary costs asso­ci­ated with rebuild­ing. We will all bear the bur­den of these costs, through taxes and resource reallocation.

The Spe­cial Ini­tia­tive for Rebuild­ing and Resiliency (SIRR) report offers tar­geted sug­ges­tions for pol­i­cy­mak­ers regard­ing the devel­op­ment of more resilient sys­tems for New York, in order to make the impacts of extreme events and cli­mate change man­age­able rather than catastrophic.

In time and with the increased polit­i­cal grav­i­tas deliv­ered by this exten­sive report and ongo­ing dis­cus­sion around it, the con­ver­sa­tion can shift from “why did this hap­pen to us?” to “how can we adapt and rebuild respon­si­bly”? This refo­cused ques­tion allows us to move for­ward and is made pos­si­ble by under­stand­ing the chronic haz­ards faced by the city and the poten­tial impacts of extreme events, whose fre­quency and sever­ity are likely to increase with the chang­ing climate.

The full report includes a cli­mate analy­sis sec­tion (hi res pdf) that doc­u­ments the impact of his­toric extreme weather events and pro­vides a con­text for future cli­mate sce­nar­ios, along with the pro­jected costs. The SIRR uti­lizes cli­mate mod­els devel­oped for the forth­com­ing Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change Fifth Assess­ment Report (IPCC AR5). The AR5 con­cludes that “long-term changes in cli­mate mean that when extreme weather events strike, they are likely to be increas­ingly severe and dam­ag­ing.” Despite the extreme and his­toric nature of the event, Sandy was not the first storm to cause sig­nif­i­cant dam­age. The time­line below illus­trates other coastal storm events with major impacts on New York City. As with Sandy, the effects of these storms were expe­ri­enced all along the East­ern Seaboard.

Major storm events in early history

Major storm events in recent history

The vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the city to coastal storms is noth­ing new, but as pre­vi­ously noted, cli­mate change will exac­er­bate the sit­u­a­tion by wors­en­ing extreme events and chronic con­di­tions. As indi­cated in the IPCC AR5, over the past cen­tury sea lev­els in New York City have risen over a foot, while simul­ta­ne­ously tem­per­a­tures are increas­ing. The sci­en­tific con­sen­sus is that these trends will accel­er­ate and this is high­lighted in the New York City Panel on Cli­mate Change (NPCC) 2013 cli­mate pro­jec­tions, which were included in the SIRR report.

NPCC 2013 Climate Projections

Source: NPCC

In addi­tion to these chronic haz­ards, another vul­ner­a­bil­ity high­lighted in the SIRR is the city’s use of out­dated Flood Insur­ance Rate Maps (FIRM’s), which show the per­cent­age of land that lies within the so-called “100-year” and “500-year” flood­plains. At the time that Sandy hit, the FIRM’s had not been updated since 1983, though in 2007 the City for­mally requested that FEMA update the maps to include the last 30 years of data. The lack of updated maps left the city with an inac­cu­rate view of the per­cent­age of land at risk for flood­ing and the areas that flooded dur­ing Sandy were sev­eral times larger than the flood­plains out­lined in the 1983 FIRM’s. The SIRR empha­sized the impor­tance of reg­u­larly updated maps to assist with adap­ta­tion and mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies for coastal flooding.

The cli­mate analy­sis sec­tion also explained the fre­quently mis­un­der­stood clas­si­fi­ca­tion of a “100-year” or “500-year” event. Clas­si­fy­ing an area as part of a “100-year flood­plain”  indi­cates that there is a 1 per­cent chance of a flood occur­ring in the area in a given year and that expe­ri­enc­ing a 100-year flood does not decrease the chance of a sec­ond 100-year flood occur­ring that same year or any year that fol­lows. Fol­low­ing these cal­cu­la­tions, Klaus Jacob writes in the June issue of Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can that, “the chance of what had been a one-in-100-year storm surge occur­ring in New York City will be one in 50 dur­ing any year in the 2020s, one in 15 dur­ing the 2050s and one in two by the 2080s.” The city is now work­ing again with the NPCC to develop more accu­rate “future flood maps” to assist with the rebuild­ing, plan­ning and adap­ta­tion efforts.

The cli­mate analy­sis sec­tion con­cludes with spe­cific, forward-looking ini­tia­tives for plan­ning along New York City’s 520 miles of coast­line, includ­ing a net­work of flood­walls, lev­ees and bulk­heads to pro­tect build­ings and inhab­i­tants. More than encour­ag­ing “emer­gency pre­pared­ness,” longer-term sce­nario plan­ning will be nec­es­sary in order to ade­quately safe­guard New York and its grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. Fur­ther, cli­mate projects need to be reg­u­larly updated in order to ade­quately inform deci­sion making.

Advo­cat­ing that we “plan ambi­tiously,” the SIRR report sug­gests that mit­i­ga­tion efforts require buy-in from pol­icy mak­ers, plan­ners and insur­ers and civil soci­ety. Cyn­thia Rosen­zweig, NPCC co-chair, makes the salient point that adap­ta­tion plans can­not suc­ceed “with­out tak­ing the voices of neigh­bor­hoods into account.” In order to best address ques­tions of “why me,” vul­ner­a­bil­ity must be ana­lyzed at mul­ti­ple lev­els and the result­ing plans backed by finan­cial invest­ment for address­ing the con­tin­ued threat of cli­mate change. Above all, the SIRR report empha­sizes that build­ing capac­ity for resilience requires accu­rate data to assess the poten­tial impacts and the tools and finan­cial resources avail­able to imple­ment solutions.

The full report can be found here, and is a mar­vel of lucid expla­na­tion: it’s a self-contained, bench­mark work that inte­grates cli­mate and urban plan­ning for the most pop­u­lous city in the world’s largest economy.

Addi­tional Reading:

–Coastal sub­si­dence also plays a role in NYC coastal vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Pro­vid­ing his­tor­i­cal analy­sis and vivid maps, Mark Fischetti’s Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can arti­cle explains how North Amer­i­can glac­ier retreat began over 20,000 years ago and lit­tle by lit­tle, has resulted in the east­ern U.S. land­mass sink­ing as the crust adjusts to the unloading.

–The ques­tion of whether or not rebuild­ing after nat­ural dis­as­ter has been hotly debated since Sandy. Tom Ash­brook tack­led this ques­tion in a Feb­ru­ary 2013 On Point Pod­cast.

Our inter­view with Klaus Jacob, who also raises the ques­tion of rebuild­ing in areas that will become increas­ingly endan­gered over time.


2011 March 8

I’m excited that you’re here!

I encourage you to look around, make suggestions and by all means contribute. I plan to share my musing on how our actions effect the natural world and examine leverage points for change.

My blog is called “Johanna’s Hot Spots” and it is about climate change, your life and other things that get me hot and bothered.

Thank you.