By Alyssa Starmer, Soichiro Tanaka, and Anushya Nedunuri
Image Courtesy of FOX Weather.
The New York Floods that occurred on September 29, 2023, led to many negative impacts on the community and surrounding ecosystems. More than four inches of rain fell through the region, with the maximum rainfall being 9.8 inches in Park Slope, New York. Due to this, highways and subways were closed, flights were canceled, and severe damage occurred to New York’s infrastructure.
As a result of climate change, heavy rainfall events and flooding have become more frequent. Flooding can be devastating on built and natural landscapes. 60% of New York’s drainage systems combine sewage and storm runoff. When pipes overflow, a combination of runoff and sewage is transported to the community’s basements as well as local waterways.
Pollution has two main categories: point and nonpoint sources. Point sources include direct contamination of waterways, for example, industrial waste dumping into rivers. Nonpoint sources, the pollution corresponding to flooding events, could consist of motor oil leaked from roads, grocery bags, fertilizers, detergents, and chemical sediments. These contaminants can infiltrate groundwater and eventually travel to the ocean. This can lead to consequences in marine systems, such as the creation of dead aphotic zones depleted of oxygen, which is critical for marine life survival and cellular respiration.
Flooding can have severe consequences on wildlife and ecosystems. Wildlife can drown, be displaced, experience increased disease, and have their habitats destroyed during a flooding event. Flooding can also cause sedimentation and erosion. Floodwater carries material from eroded banks into water, decreasing water quality and increasing harmful algae bloom occurrences. Sedimentation, which is where particles settle to the bottom of an area, can clog riverbeds and streams. Sedimentation can also harm wildlife by destroying habitat.
Floods are among the most common natural disasters, known to cause industrial accidents. They damage landfills and other types of waste facilities, releasing microplastics to rivers and lakes nearby. Larger floods can result in the release of 5 million tons of microplastics per day. Pluvial floods, caused by rain, tend to have more significant microplastic emissions compared to fluvial floods, which occur when rivers overflow.
Despite all the destructive consequences of severe floods, flooding can have a positive impact on the environment by recharging groundwater. Flooded water can be absorbed through soil and rock into underground aquifers. These aquifers supply freshwater to springs, lakes, wells, and rivers. This can increase soil health and plant growth in these areas. However, extreme flooding events generally lead to a decline in ecosystems. As these events become more frequent, they leave inadequate time for ecosystem recovery.
To prevent the consequences of climate change and severe flooding, various strategies can be implemented. On a large scale, combining different types of infrastructure can help minimize the effects of flooding events. Gray infrastructure, such as drains, pipes, roads, and tanks, represents traditional stormwater infrastructure. In contrast, green infrastructure approaches water management by aiming to protect the water cycle. This involves activities like planting trees, restoring wetlands, implementing green roofs, using permeable pavement, and creating rain gardens. This also helps to slow down and filter pollutants, rather than draining right into the ocean. Green infrastructure is highly cost-effective and serves as a valuable addition to gray infrastructure. Additionally, sediment control measures could be taken to prevent pollutants from construction sites from traveling into waterways. Locating high-risk toxic activities away from water sources is also a good measure.
At a small and local scale, educating the public on the proper use of toxic materials can be valuable in reducing pollution resulting from floods. Planting more trees and increasing green spaces in your community can help increase green infrastructure. During flooding events, people can help reduce the magnitude of the flood by unclogging nearby drains. Whether you are just a concerned citizen or have the power to make a difference at a large scale, you can make a positive impact on preventing the effects of major flooding events such as the New York floods in September 2023.
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