John Colson: Thoughts on Ida and our planet’s future

John Colson
Hit & Run

Remember Hurricane Ida?

C’mon, it wasn’t that long ago, a matter of a couple of months back, in fact, and I realize that our frenetic lives make it difficult to recall anything that happened more than a couple of hours ago.

But Ida, according to the experts, was a game-changer thanks to the intensifying effects of climate change.

Not only was it, according to online sources, the second-most damaging hurricane to make landfall on the southern Gulf Coast of the U.S. (Hurricane Katrina in 2005 edged Ida out of the top spot), but after blasting through the southern states it retained sufficient strength to batter the Northeastern states, as well.

According to Wikipedia, the online compendium of knowledge, Ida caused more than $50 billion in damages overall in the U.S., of which perhaps $18 billion occurred in the Northeast. The storm was credited, as of September, with killing 95 people in the U.S., including 33 in Louisiana, 30 in New Jersey, 18 in New York, five in Pennsylvania, three in Mississippi, two in Alabama, two in Maryland and one each in Virginia and Connecticut.

In New York and its surrounding metro area, with a loss of life almost equal to Louisiana, the storm flooded Central Park, killed some victims in flooded basements around the city, some in a flash flood in a subway station, and the list does not stop there.

In an opinion piece in last week’s New York Times, conservation ecologist Eric Sanderson reports that much of the damage was done along old waterways, in former wetlands areas and in other spots where water once flowed freely but where human engineering has filled in the old wet spots and built on the resulting ground.

All of this, according to Sanderson, is a reminder that we are in the midst of a variety of catastrophic changes caused by climate change, and that we must begin to accept that the storms are getting worse and our future is looking less and less certain than it did, say, half a century ago.

And, odd as it may seem, for me it recalls a book I read recently that outlines what our world might look like after a century or so of rising seas and temperatures.

The book, “New York 2140,” by sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson, is a hoot of a read that imagines a world where climate change has happened the way scientists say it will, as opposed to the fantastical denialist thinking of certain portions of our body politick.

In Robinson’s imagining, most of the world’s coastlines are submerged, cities are completely underwater or half-drowned, the global animal kingdom is being killed off with startling rapidity, and humanity finds itself hard-pressed and often overwhelmed as it tries to figure out how to manage in the new circumstances.

The book concentrates on New York City, but the author includes a few detours to other parts of the globe just to let you know that bad things are happening everywhere.

In his opinion piece, “Let The Streams Run Free,” Sanderson catalogs some of the waterways, wetlands and other water-absorbing features of the natural landscape that once acted as conduits to sluice water toward the ocean, but are now clogged with all kinds of fill material that prevents the water from draining away easily, if at all.

His prescription for solving this watery problem, at least in New York City, is to find ways to move people out of the way of historic water courses and wetlands, re-engineer the city’s drainage systems with an eye toward moving vastly increased amounts of water to the ocean and generally pay more attention to “nature-based solutions” to the problems that will be caused by rising waters in the coming years.

In reading through some of the comments about Robinson’s book, keeping in mind that 2040 is less than two decades from now, I noted with amusement that some reviewers characterized the author as “optimistic” and the book as “surprisingly utopian,” rather than a bleak assessment of a civilization killing its own home planet.

And Sanderson, though I’m not sure he is optimistic about humanity’s future here on Earth, also tries to put a pleasing face on the facts and feelings he is recounting.

For instance, he cites a recent report by Mayor Bill deBlasio’s administration, titled “The New Normal,” that “warns that climate change ‘poses a grave threat to our people and our city, and its costs will not be born equally.'”

Almost sounds as though he, too, read Robinson’s book, and is, perhaps a little belatedly, getting worried about the future and beginning to make plans to deal with it by restructuring the city’s water-drainage systems.

“This work is encouraging news,” Sanderson remarks toward the end of his piece, and he is correct.

And right now, any encouraging news is very welcome, indeed.

Email at