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The Climate Is on the Loose, Especially in Rotterdam


In Rotterdam, a city that promotes green roofs, a public version includes a cafe, above. The city was recently hit with record-high temperatures as well as record lows for July. JEROEN SPANGENBERG

ROTTERDAM, The Netherlands — Record heat waves have crippled a number of cities this summer, one most visibly the Netherlands’ second largest, Rotterdam. Experts point to climate change.

According to new data widely reported from the World Meteorological Organization and Copernicus Climate Change Program, July equaled if not surpassed the hottest month in recorded history for the world. This follows the warmest-ever June on record.

On July 25 in Rotterdam, the temperature peaked at 37.2 degrees Celsius  (98.96 Fahrenheit), a record high. At the beginning of July, two days reached a new record low as well. The weather overall has been bizarre: one moment it is sunny and warm, the next, it’s hailing. Generally, people do not have air-conditioning in Rotterdam, and during the hot streak, even tap water in homes ran warm.

Along with record heat and extreme weather, cities like Rotterdam, low-lying and close to the water, are also contending with flooding and water-management problems.

“Sea-level rise is one of the central facts of our time, as real as gravity,” the author Jeff Goodell predicted in his book, “The Water Will Come.” “It will reshape our world in ways most of us can only dimly imagine.”

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Certain cities, of course, will be more reshaped than others in the near and distant future. Manhattan, once a marshy island buffered by wetlands, is now a slab of concrete surrounded by water and kept humming by a subway system that is largely under sea level.

“For anyone living in Miami Beach or South Brooklyn or Boston’s Back Bay or any other low-lying coastal neighborhood,” Goodell writes, “the difference between three feet of sea level rise by 2100 and six feet is the difference between a wet but livable city and a submerged city.”

Climate scientists focus on cities partly because they are growing quickly; by 2050, some demographers predict, about 80 percent of the world’s population will be urban. Hence the rise of the hopeful expression “urban resilience” — a way of saying some cities could bounce back from all kinds of disasters, from flooding to high unemployment, if they laid the right groundwork.

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The United Nations is gearing up for a summit meeting on climate change at its headquarters in New York on Sept. 23. The goal is to “raise ambition and increase climate action” as countries agreed to do in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The Trump administration has walked away from the pact, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contends constantly that the US is meeting the goals in the Paris agreement without being a party to it. Yet greenhouse gas emissions in the US have recently been rising.

Cities will be a major focus of the daylong UN meeting, at which national leaders are expected to attend, concentrating on mitigation and resilience, particularly “new commitments on low-emission buildings, mass transport and urban infrastructure; and resilience for the urban poor,” the UN notes.

Below-sea-level map of Rotterdam. Credit: The New York Times

In 2013, the Rockefeller Foundation invited applications to a club it called 100 Resilient Cities. Three years later it had its list, and in July Rotterdam hosted an Urban Resilience Summit, where mayors from all over the world and other experts shared ideas and survival skills. 

The situation in the Netherlands is particularly acute. About a quarter of the country is technically below sea level, and Rotterdam, a major port of about 623,000 people, is 90 percent under sea level.

“If there is a shooting in a bar, I am asked a million questions,” Ahmed Aboutaleb, the mayor of Rotterdam, told The New York Times. “But if I say everyone should own a boat because we predict a tremendous increase in the intensity of rain, nobody questions the politics.”

As Richard Jorissen, a Dutch expert in flood protection, told Jeff Goodell, while walls, dams and levees are doing a good job, “We are beginning to realize we can’t keep building walls forever.”

Nonetheless, a giant storm-surge barrier, the Maeslantkering, began operating in 1997 not far from Rotterdam. Designed to prevent sea water from merging with river water from the Maas and flooding the city, it has closed twice and prevented the city from potential flooding.

The Maeslantkering, a storm-surge barrier near Rotterdam, is meant to keep sea water from merging with the Maas River and flooding the city, which is 90 percent below sea level. Source:

More recently, the city started looking for ways to cope with heavy rainfall. In one project, excess rainwater is collected under a parking lot called Stadsgarage Museumpark (in English, City Garage Museumpark). Another, called the Water Square, can hold up to 1.7 million liters of water (about 450,000 gallons) in three open basins. In both cases, the water is released at a controlled rate, preventing the sewage system from flooding. When empty, the Water Square basin can be used for sports, like skateboarding.

The city has also subsidized the creation of about 89 acres’ worth of green roofs, which are packed with soil and plants that can help cool homes and absorb rainwater. (To qualify for a subsidy, each square meter of the roof must be able to hold 25 liters of water, or about 7 gallons.)

Climate change affects many different aspects of a society, so “resilience” is often relative. Last summer, news got out that Dutch farmers kissed off important exports like potatoes, which can’t grow at temperatures above 25 degrees C (77 F).

A municipal parking lot in Rotterdam, where excess rainwater is collected underground to cope with heavy rainfall. The water is visible, above, in the background. JEROEN SPANGENBERG

In some cases, the problem is not too much water but too little. The utility company Vitens, which supplies the 17 million people of Netherlands with much of their drinking water, has said that at current rates the country’s water consumption is unsustainable. Water companies are asking citizens to use less water during the hot months. That means taking shorter showers and fewer car washes and garden use.

Climate change means that action is badly needed to cope with the changing circumstances. Aboutaleb, Rotterdam’s mayor, knows intimately the impact it is having on his city. Although he is not planning to attend the UN climate summit in September, he is planning to visit the C40 Mayors Summit in Copenhagen in October.

He looked back on the “Urban Resilience” conference that took place in July in Rotterdam, telling PassBlue: “Resilience leaders, together with city leaders from all around the world, gathered in Rotterdam with great energy.  We successfully committed to continuing the 100 Resilient Cities network and continue to work on holistic resilience strategies and actions against climate change and 21st century challenges.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Jeroen Spangenberg is a writer and researcher based in Rotterdam. He has a degree in international relations from Webster University in St. Louis, Mo. He speaks Dutch, English and Spanish.

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