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New York City sinking under weight of its skyscrapers, report warns

The Empire State Building in New York City. (Mark Bonifacio/New York Daily News/TNS)
May 19, 2023

New geological research has raised concerns about the impact of New York City’s skyscrapers on the city’s position, causing it to sink into the surrounding bodies of water.

The weight of the city’s vast number of buildings, which exceeds 1 million and collectively weighs approximately 1.7 trillion pounds, has led to a gradual descent. The city is sinking at a rate of 1 to 2 millimeters per year, with certain areas experiencing even faster subsidence.

Although this may appear insignificant to the untrained observer, lead researcher and geologist Tom Parsons of the United States Geological Survey warns that this gradual sinking renders NYC highly susceptible to natural disasters. The study emphasizes that Lower Manhattan is particularly at risk, with concerns extending to Brooklyn and Queens as well.

“New York faces significant challenges from flood hazard; the threat of sea level rise is 3 to 4 times higher than the global average along the Atlantic coast of North America … A deeply concentrated population of 8.4 million people faces varying degrees of hazard from inundation in New York City,” he and his team wrote.

“Two recent hurricanes caused casualties and heavy damage in New York City,” the report added. “In 2012, Hurricane Sandy forced sea water into the city, whereas heavy rainfall from Hurricane Ida in 2021 overwhelmed drainage systems because of heavy runoff within the mostly paved city.”

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The study was conducted using satellite data to determine the rate of sinking for the city’s land surface. The research extended longer than previous studies, noting that the rate of sinking may be increased due to both artificial fill sediment and building weight.

New York City, with a population exceeding 8 million, is the largest city in the U.S. and one of the largest cities in the world. The rise in sea levels and sinking land could lead to future fears of parts of the city being underway.

Researchers have conducted calculations to determine the collective mass of all buildings in New York City and have created models to assess the subsidence resulting from the pressure exerted by these structures on the Earth. The study also provides detailed satellite imagery that illustrates the observed subsidence in various locations within New York City.

Geophysicist Klaus Jacob, a professor emeritus at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, claims the sinking city cannot be stopped and has suggested a radical proposal to address the issue. He has suggested making parts of Lower Manhattan a modern Venice with canal streets where people can live and work despite the water.