Columbia Ignores Peril

When Klaus Jacob talks, important people take action. Except the important people paying him.

Columbia geophysicist Klaus Jacob is such a highly regarded expert on urban environmental disasters related to climate change that governments and scientists all over the world take him seriously, revising building codes and altering the construction of dams as a result of his warnings.

When Jacob talks, important people take action.

Except, it turns out, at his own place of employment, where he's spent almost 40 years as a research scientist.

Jacob tells the Voice that he's repeatedly been given the brush-off by Columbia officials regarding his specific and detailed warnings that their ambitious development plans in Harlem could lead to a wide-scale disaster.

Much has been written about the university's plans to spread northward across 17 acres of developed land—but Jacob is concerned less about the school's move outward than he is about something that's garnered less attention: Columbia's intention to dig deep into the ground.

Expansion plans call for the largest underground complex in the city, a massive, 80-foot-deep basement that will extend only a block from the banks of the Hudson River. That's an underground space large enough to hold an eight-story building, lying only a few hundred feet from water that's susceptible to storm surge.

Imagine this scenario, based on Jacob's research: It's the year 2065, and Columbia University's 17-acre West Harlem expansion is abuzz with activity. Students hurry through rainfall along a tree-lined promenade overlooking the Hudson. In a biotechnology lab nearby, scientists are engineering lethal pathogens to respond to the next generation of infectious diseases and bioterrorist threats. Deep down below, engineering majors use the future version of Facebook to instant-message their friends.

Warnings, meanwhile, are steadily being broadcast about an oncoming storm. A Category 2 hurricane with 110-mile-an-hour winds is barreling down on the city—a more frequent occurrence than in decades past. New Yorkers have become familiar with the drill: They evacuate to local shelters set up by the city's Office of Emergency Management. Over several hours, the Hudson rises 10 feet, flooding the waterfront promenade and the rest of the campus. Many, but perhaps not all, have heeded warnings to leave the deep basement. Damage will be extensive and exorbitantly expensive. And some of the sprawling labs that contain biohazardous material may become another kind of floating threat to the city.

Sounds like the plot of some sci-fi disaster movie. But without the kinds of precautions that Jacob has been urging Columbia to take, he says, the prospect of inundation is all but inevitable.

This is how seriously officials—at least those outside of Columbia—take Klaus Jacob's research: When he was conducting the first national study on the environmental impact of climate change in major East Coast cities for the Clinton administration, he consulted with the Port Authority and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help the agencies understand how to prevent floods. In the early '90s, his research on earthquakes led the city to ask him to help rewrite its building code. That code was later adopted nationwide. Now he's working with the Transportation Research Board—a branch of the National Research Council—to issue federal guidelines on how cities can protect themselves from environmental disasters related to global warming.

"We're working with the Transportation Research Board in Washington," says Jacob. "And yet, here I'm trying to convince my own alma mater to do the right thing, and I can't. And that's bad news."

After trying for four years to get university officials to respond to his concerns, Jacob says he's now given up and is willing to talk publicly about that struggle for the first time. In a few months, New York's Empire State Development Corporation will decide whether to give Columbia the right to use eminent domain to force a few remaining business owners that stand in the way to give up their properties. That decision is the last major hurdle before the university can break ground—when West Harlem officially becomes "Manhattanville."

In 2004, when Jacob first heard that his employer was planning to expand from 125th Street to 133rd Street across two avenues, he asked to see the plans. At the time, he and his wife Isabella lived in faculty housing on 125th Street at Riverside Drive, so he went to an open house not only for professional reasons, but also as an interested neighborhood resident. (He has since moved upstate.)

He says the first thing he noticed about the building plans, as they were presented at the time, was that the effects of global warming weren't being taken seriously. In fact, they weren't being taken into account at all.

The plans didn't include floodgates, dikes, or levee systems, but Jacob knew that sea levels in New York are expected to rise between two and three feet—perhaps more—by the end of this century. That sea-level rise will shift the area expected to be flooded during a hurricane storm surge. As a result, Columbia's expansion site, Jacob believes, is located squarely in a future flood zone.

To make matters worse, the likelihood of hurricanes hitting New York will also rise with the sea level. There's a current probability of 1 in 100 that a storm will hit the city in any given year. That number could grow to 1 in 10 by the year 2100, according to a widely publicized report issued last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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