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Lights Out, New York? Bigger Storms Could Cause More Blackouts: Study

Scientists say Superstorm Sandy showed urban planners should think hard about critical infrastructure in a changing climate.

Climate change may mean bigger blackouts for cities like New York and Philadelphia, researchers say.

If models predicting an increase in hurricane intensity are right, The Big Apple and other major metropolitan areas could see as much as a 40-50 percent increase in the number of power outages, according to a study published in the journal Climatic Change.

To get a sense of how bigger and badder storms might impact the power grid, Johns Hopkins researchers created a computer model that combined historical hurricane information with possible scenarios for future storm behavior.

The model focused on 27 cities from Texas to Maine that could become more susceptible to blackouts in future monster storms.

Topping the list of cities most likely to see a big surge in power outages were New York City, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Fla., Virginia Beach, Va., and Hartford Conn. Cities least sensitive to changes in storm intensity included Memphis, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Buffalo.

This doesn’t mean that New York will have the most blackouts in a severe storm, says study coauthor Seth Guikema, an associate professor in the department of geography and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University. That honor will still probably go to cities like Miami, which already have big problems with power outages during hurricanes, he says.

Instead, the findings are highlighting cities that will see the biggest increases in blackouts if storms become more severe.

“Planning for future climate change is something that is fairly new to a lot of cities,” said the study’s lead author, Andrea Staid, a Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins. “But it is something that has to be taken into consideration since the impact could be severe.”

The researchers looked at the impact of a 100-year storm. “What that means is that in the course of 100 years you would probably see a storm this bad or worse,” Guikema explained.

For both Philadelphia and New York, the model predicted a possible 50 percent uptick in power outages for the 100-year storm.

While not definitive, the new study “shows our vulnerabilities and draws attention to them,” said Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and author of “Storm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future.”

The increased wind intensities used in the study were large, but possible, since “there is so much natural variability,” said Sobel, who was not affiliated with the research. “We could see some really big events.”

Sobel hopes the “eye opening” study will spur cities to make changes to infrastructure that will make them more resilient.

“In the U.S., we tend to be underinvesting in protecting infrastructure from environmental risks,” Sobel said. “We saw that in New York during Hurricane Sandy where there were massive blackouts and subway tunnels flooded. That all happened because we were not prepared. The infrastructure had been built as if there was no chance of anything like this happening. But the science said there was.

“Until there is a bad experience we don’t make investments in protecting infrastructure against rare events. Research like this highlights the vulnerabilities and might spur investment in making infrastructure more resilient."