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The King of the Hudson

Alan Blumberg has long been a go-to expert on New York’s waterways. He is now researching a way to blunt the force of catastrophic storms.

On a cold, rainy morning in November, Dr. Alan Blumberg, the renowned urban oceanographer, and his colleague Dr. Thomas Herrington, a soft-spoken coastal engineer who speaks mostly in numbers, took me on a tour of the Hudson River. A few minutes after taking off, Manhattan was small and distant, nothing but skyline in our wake. Our small boat was soon surrounded by black, choppy waters, gusts of wind bending the waves along their own violent meter. The Hudson moved with a gelatinous solidity, as if powered by a brute force. I asked them how deep the water was, admitting I couldn’t swim. “If you fell in, we wouldn’t find you,” Blumberg said.

Alan Blumberg, holding one of the sensors he uses to monitor the waters around New York City.
Stevens Institute of Technology

Considering the source, the response was sobering. Blumberg is perhaps best known for solving mysteries about the people who have fallen into local New York waters. There was the man who disappeared into the Hudson during a kayaking trip with his fiancé on April 19, 2015. Authorities went to Blumberg to ask if it could have been an accident. He saw they had chosen a spot that was clearly dangerous for kayaking, where the waters were especially turbulent, and he believed the kayak had capsized and she did not help him, allowing him to drown. Authorities found that Blumberg was right. The woman had tampered with the man’s paddle and the drain plug in the kayak. He was not wearing a life vest. At 46 degrees Fahrenheit, hypothermia set in quickly.

There was also the case of the missing autistic boy, Avonte Oquendo. The 14-year-old was seen walking out of his school on security footage, never to be seen alive again. The family’s lawyer called Blumberg, wanting to know if it was possible the child had been murdered, then dumped in the river. It was the kind of testimony that could support a lawsuit against the city. But Blumberg believes the boy fell and the mean currents of the East River dragged his body to where it was eventually found, which became the authorities’ official explanation, despite the disbelief expressed by the boy’s mother.   

Famously, Blumberg was involved in identifying the calmest spot on the Hudson River for Captain Chesley Sullenberger to make his emergency landing in 2009. As soon as Blumberg saw the plane on the water from his office in Hoboken, New Jersey, he contacted city officials to suggest they tow the plane to the Statue of Liberty, where currents were calmest that day. He has seen Sully, the recent Tom Hanks movie about what is now known as the Miracle on the Hudson, and he has some qualms. “My biggest disappointment was that the director did not show that the plane was moving quickly with the currents to the south along Manhattan,” he said. “The movie had the plane sitting in the same spot.” 

As we left the city behind us, we passed the Statue of Liberty. Blumberg asked me to photograph him in front of it, mimicking the torch-bearing pose. I wondered aloud about the significance of Ellis Island, hoping to elicit metaphor from my guides. But Blumberg declined. “This is what Henry Hudson saw 400 years ago,” he said, gesturing to the expanse of water before us. “There were no buildings, there were no ships. There were sharks in the water. In the 1800s, the biggest danger to swimming in these waters was sharks.”

The Hudson River is something of a liquid fossil record of the United States’s history of pollution, environmentalism, and urban development. Over the course of its 315 miles, it passes through parks and scenic banks upstate, high-rises closer to the city, even the Indian Point nuclear plant whose cooling system kills over a billion fish eggs and larvae a year. The Hudson was once so polluted that wooden boats from the Caribbean would dock at its port and stay there a while, hoping that the toxic waters would destroy any invasive living agents on their hulls. Its fame as a site of extreme pollution—floating feces and corpses washing ashore—is partly based in fact: The conservation group Riverkeeper has calculated that 27 billion gallons of a slurry of stormwater and sewage enters the city’s waterways every year. But its reputation as a cesspool is also exaggerated. Blumberg said pollution is mostly concentrated in the sediment, which means you could ostensibly fish in the river. You could even eat the fish, though Blumberg doesn’t recommend it.

Conservation efforts have been successful, resulting in cleaner water and a greater abundance of fish in the river. The efforts have been so successful, in fact, that a humpback whale was recently seen in the water off Manhattan, and another one was spotted swimming between Sandy Hook and Raritan Bay. They were seen lunge feeding, that is, swimming with their mouths wide open, ingesting thousands of gallons of water. This is not ideal for the whales, because approaching shallow bodies of water puts them in great danger, but it is a rather majestic threshold of environmental progress. Progressive legislation has had a material impact. Blumberg speaks highly of President Lyndon Johnson, who was the first American president to sign legislation ensuring air and water quality. “Everyone associates him with the Civil Rights Act,” he says, “but he saved the estuaries of New York.” 

Blumberg became a big city man through an act of conscience. Early in his career, he rejected the trajectories taken by doctoral colleagues, choosing to dedicate his life to New Jersey waters instead of African coastal ones because the potential for devastation would be greater in a densely populated location. His research is regularly applied to bigger waters. “In some of the tsunamis that occur in the Indian Ocean, hundreds of thousands of people die. So we try to predict that—I develop those technologies that I send to my colleagues in Bangladesh,” he said.

His prodigious knowledge of New York’s waterways is based on data pulled from 200 water-monitoring sensors spread throughout New York and New Jersey’s waters. After Hurricane Sandy, Blumberg got a $15 million grant to support his sensors, which track the moods of the water, from salinity and temperature to current speed and wave height. He created the software to track the data, and the public can access it for free online. One sensor, called a sonde, is attached to the hull of Clearwater, Pete Seeger’s boat. The boat is itself the stuff of New York legend, a fixture on the Hudson since the late 1960s, when the environmentalist folk singer built the 106-foot wooden sloop, then sailed all the way to Washington to serenade members of Congress to lobby for clean water legislation.  

The sensors are what convinced Blumberg that Governor Chris Christie got it wrong when he declared a state of emergency in southern New Jersey on September 3 at the onset of Hurricane Hermine, believing it would be our next Sandy. Blumberg said it would not be that big. Twenty-four hours later, the National Hurricane Center lifted its warning for New Jersey.

Blumberg has lived his entire life believing that catastrophe can be prevented by intelligence and preparation—“some brains,” as he calls it. In 2005, in his pursuit to find a way to blunt the force of catastrophic storms, he turned his brains toward a dream as ancient as it mythological: man’s ability to change the weather. It sounds like science fiction, but he’s hardly the first to have tried. 

“In the 1960s, the U.S. government put a lot of research funding into changing the weather,” he told me. “The most common form of weather modification was cloud seeding to increase rain or snow, usually for the purpose of increasing local water supplies.”

At the time, a famous atmospheric scientist named Joanne Simpson led a study called Project Stormfury. It was strictly academic, testing whether a hurricane’s strongest winds could be reduced in intensity by 10 percent if part of its eye could be seeded. “But to be an academic you have to get funding,” Blumberg said. “Funding comes from sources, and she got money from the U.S. Navy. So that clouded it a little bit I believe. People thought the Navy was trying to get a new weapon.” Her work ultimately fizzled in the 1970s, after she was unable to find the right kind of clouds suitable for seeding. “Since that time, the U.S. government has condoned weather modification research,” Blumberg said. 

Blumberg’s idea is to mitigate the damage done by a hurricane by reducing its force.  “My thinking is to develop a system that will deprive the hurricane’s heat engine of its basic fuel—warm water at the surface—by reducing the temperature of the sea surface.” He would send hundreds of thousands of floating tubular pumps into the path of the storm. They would then use the kinetic energy of the waves to bring cold water up from underneath the warm surface of the water to cool it. A category 3 hurricane could become a category 1, a category 5 a category 3.

In response to his request for funding, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has asked Blumberg for the kind of guarantees that politicians are prone to making but scientists cannot. “Let’s say you build it, and you put it in front of the hurricane, and it slows down the intensity,” he explained. “How do you prove that you did it? How do you know it was you, and it didn’t happen by itself?”

The Department of Homeland Security has also expressed interest in this research, because it fears that terrorism could one day potentially involve not just bombs but natural disasters as well. “There’s all kinds of way to create havoc besides bombs, and one is with the weather, if you can control it,” Blumberg said. “If we could change the path of a hurricane, then you could do war games with them.” International disaster could also be a consequence. Imagine if a hurricane meant to strike New Orleans is re-routed to Jacksonville, Florida. Imagine it goes on to devastate Cuba or Mexico instead.

The government’s current stance is that we need to understand hurricanes better before we think about modifying them. And with climate change deniers entering the White House, Blumberg fears the Trump administration will stunt research and foresees having to go to Silicon Valley for research funds. As he pointed out buildings in the Manhattan skyline, Blumberg reminded me that New York was once New Amsterdam, named for the Dutch only because the Dutch were able to fund the dreams of a British explorer whose government turned down a request for a fleet. “Hudson was a good marketer, he found a client, and he sailed to America,” he said. “It is all about funding. Nothing has ever changed.” 

As we sailed past the Statue of Liberty one more time on the return trip, Blumberg finally acknowledged my attempts to talk politics. “We’ve been a country a long time,” he said softly. “We’ll figure it out.” He explained that his mother was Jewish and was turned away from the United States after she fled Europe during World War II. She got off the boat at the Panama Canal, and raised her family there, by the water. But as we entered the dock, nothing spoke of change quite so deeply as the moody black waters that surrounded us, masterfully interpreted, perhaps one day even tamed, by a mere man, the son of an immigrant who found freedom at sea.