Flexible adaptation is "a valuable approach and will be appropriate in certain situations" as Boston moves forward, said Carl Spector, executive director of the city's Air Pollution Control Commission and a member of its climate change adaptation advisory committee. "When you start doing adaptation, you have to go site by site and customize your analysis and time lines for each project. Changing sewer lines is a big project, and what you put in the ground stays in the ground for a long time."
Kirshen hopes New York City leaders will consider flexible adaptation measures as the city recovers from Sandy. A few other regions have already taken steps. The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission requires sea-level rise risk assessments for new shoreline projects around San Francisco Bay. And in south Florida, where rising sea levels are already stressing storm water systems, four counties (Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe) have formed a regional partnership and requested federal adaptation funding [pdf].
But the most advanced examples of flexible adaptation are in Europe.
In addition to the Netherlands, England has a large-scale flood control system for the lower Thames, including a 10-gate barrier system to protect London from storm surges. But planners are looking ahead. Last November the United Kingdom's Environment Agency released its Thames Estuary 2100 Plan [pdf] which anticipates at least a three-foot sea-level rise by 2100 and can be adapted for higher levels. It projects that many existing flood control structures will be raised or upgraded between 2035 and 2050, and that a new Thames Barrier may be constructed between 2050 and 2070.
U.S. officials are paying attention to adaptation models in Europe, according to Spector. "There's a lot of sharing going on," he said.
Civil engineers have always built 'demand flexibility' into systems – for example, designing a bridge so that a span can be added as traffic flow increases, said Kirshen.
"Now we need to add climate flexibility."
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.