New York And Other Major Cities Face More Power Outages Thanks To Climate Change

Lower Manhattan in New York City, during a power outage caused by Hurricane Sandy. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Lower Manhattan in New York City, during a power outage caused by Hurricane Sandy. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Major cities like New York and Philadelphia could see a big uptick in power outages if climate change continues unabated, a new study warns.

Climate change is likely to up the severity of future storms through a range of factors — higher precipitation, flooding, high winds, sea level rise, and the like — that pose a threat to electrical grids across the United States. So a research team at Johns Hopkins University used a series of simulations to test how a range of different global warming scenarios would affect storm behavior, and what those changes would mean for the power systems of 27 different cities. They found that cities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in particular will be at significantly higher risk of blackouts from hurricanes in future decades.

“Topping the list of cities most likely to see big increases in their power outage risk are New York; Philadelphia; Jacksonville, Florida; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Hartford, Connecticut,” reported on Monday. “Cities at the bottom of the list, whose future risk of outages is unlikely to dramatically change, include Memphis, Tennessee; Dallas; Pittsburgh; Atlanta; and Buffalo, New York.”

One of the benchmarks for the study was what’s called the 100-year storm scenario: how severe the impacts would for a storm of such power that the odds of it happening are only once a century. A 100-year storm is itself something cities need to plan for, since, while they may not occur often, when they do the damage is lasting. But how bad a 100-year storm can get is also an indication of storm severity for weaker storms all the way down the odds distribution: as the 100-year intensity goes up, so does the intensity of storms that occur more often.


The researchers found that for cities like New York and Philadelphia, climate change could drive up 100-year storm severity by 50 percent, leading to power outages for far more people much more often. For other cities like Miami and New Orleans, who already sit in the paths of significant storms, the increase is on the level of 30 percent. And for cities more protected by geography, like Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, the uptick would be around 20 percent.

“The range of results demonstrates the sensitivity of the U.S. power system to changes in storm behavior,” said Seth Guikema, an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins, and a member of the team who carried out the modeling. “Infrastructure providers and emergency managers need to plan for hurricanes in a long-term manner and that planning has to take climate change into account.”

Thanks to sea level rise, storm surges are going to become increasingly able to top Manhattan’s sea wall, for instance, threatening a possible repeat of the flooding that occurred with Hurricane Sandy. So the city of New York has already allocated several hundred million dollars to improve the resilience of its infrastructure in the face of storms and flooding, including levees and flood walls around Staten Island, and a revamp of the city’s public transit system.

The latest research suggests six feet of sea level rise is possible for 2100, and since carbon in the atmosphere is cumulative and its effects delayed, it’s not clear what amount of that rise can even be prevented at this point. With a six-foot rise, about half of southern Florida would be underwater. So the city of Miami is mapping out future sea level rise and identifying hazardous areas so developers know where not to build, and the city is working on several water conservation efforts.

Other cities with lower threat levels are places like Houston, Texas, which faces possible damage to its shipping port — one of the busiest in the world — and the city could ultimately suffer the world’s seventh-largest increase in average economic losses per year from sea level rise. After a big flood in 2012, Houston set about overhauling its drainage systems and its street infrastructure.


Then there’s Boston, another Atlantic coast city that faces new flooding in coming decades. It’s been holding symposiums to hash out plans for new canals, absorbent streets, floodable parks, and other infrastructural innovations. And the state of Massachusetts has allocated $50 million to protect its coastal communities against sea level rise.

“We provide insight into how power systems along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts may be affected by climate changes, including which areas should be most concerned and which ones are unlikely to see substantial change,” Guikema said of his team’s research.

“If I’m mayor of Miami, we know about hurricanes, we know about outages and our system has been adapted for it. But if I’m mayor of Philadelphia, I might say, ‘Whoa; we need to be doing more about this.”