Illustration by Kurt Woerpel

How Do You Save the Statue of Liberty From Drowning?

Lady Liberty is a towering symbol of our national vulnerability to the changing planet.

How do you save a 225-ton statue standing on a small island in New York Harbor from rising tides? First, you call someone like Jerry Matyiko of Expert House Movers Inc. of Maryland. He won’t hesitate when faced with the question of how to save the Statue of Liberty.

Forget about a barge, he said. The monument’s massive foundation and heavy stone pedestal would make it impractical to drag the structure away from Liberty Island. “We’re not going to move her,” Matyiko suggested, “we’re just going to jack her up on stilts and put her on a rotisserie, so New Jersey can stop bitching that she doesn’t face them.”

He’s one of the few with experience in monument relocation. The National Park Service called on him to solve a similarly complicated problem in the 1990s, when erosion threatened to drop a brick lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, N.C., into the Atlantic Ocean. The 4,800-ton landmark needed to be whisked away from the shore.

Matyiko worked with Joe Jakubik, a project manager at International Chimney Corp. in Buffalo, to devise a solution. The movers dug under the lighthouse, shifting its weight from the original granite foundation to a timber shoring system. Then they jacked the lighthouse onto rollers, taking care to make sure that gravity didn’t tear the brittle beacon apart. It took 30 days to roll the lighthouse to its new foundation, located a half-mile inland.

“You don’t set land speed records with lighthouses,” said Jakubik.

There’ll be plenty of demand in the years ahead for those with experience moving or protecting vulnerable coastal structures. Sea level rise could force millions of Americans to move from seaside communities by the end of the century, washing away hundreds of billions of dollars in real estate value. Cultural landmarks are similarly unprotected. More than $40 billion in National Park assets are located along coasts deemed “high exposure” risks, according to a 2015 survey published by the agency.    

Lighthouses look easy compared with, say, a torch-bearing icon recognizable to almost everyone on the planet. So what should we do when the waters come for the Statue of Liberty?

Illustration by Kurt Woerpel

The Statue of Liberty was fabricated in the late 19th century out of copper panels, each about the thickness of two pennies, fastened together and attached to an iron skeleton. The 150-foot monument stands atop an 89-foot stone pedestal, which in turn rests on a 65-foot foundation.

In her current position, with her toes about 154 feet above the waterline, Lady Liberty is better protected than many of her human neighbors. In one extreme scenario posited by the website Climate Central, melting ice sheets in Antarctica would cause sea levels to rise roughly 12 feet by 2100. That would be enough to produce average high tides 2 feet above the flood level caused by Hurricane Sandy, which swamped Liberty Island and destroyed its electrical systems.

If rising sea levels or increasingly violent storms were to one day trouble the base of the statue, New York Harbor will be facing plenty of other problems—including how to protect Manhattan’s million-plus residents and billions in real estate value. The city’s efforts to protect itself could even produce barriers that protect the harbor, although such a sea wall would be expensive to build.

And yet it’s hard to resist the power of the symbol. Hollywood has a long history of casting the statue as a stand-in for America’s demise. She’s been decapitated in Escape From New York, frozen in The Day After Tomorrow, blasted in X-Men, drowned in Independence Day, and buried in Planet of the Apes. The emotional impact of allowing seawater to creep up to an embodiment of the nation could very well galvanize dramatic action to secure the statue.

Even though filmmakers love to pummel the statue, in real life it’s had almost a century of security. Following a 1916 incident in which German saboteurs blew up a nearby munitions plant, causing damage to the statue, the edifice enjoyed relatively good health until the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Following the storm, climate scientists picked up where Hollywood left off and turned the Statue of Liberty into a towering symbol of our national vulnerability to the changing planet. The National Park Service appraised the assets on Liberty Island and its New York Harbor neighbor Ellis Island at $1.5 billion and asserted that the islands were “high exposure” risks. The United Nations also highlighted the statue’s vulnerability in a paper on World Heritage sites in a changing climate. 

“Climate change is a challenge that happens very slowly over a time frame people aren’t accustomed to grappling with,” said January Tavel, an architectural historian at ICF, who’s surveying World Heritage site managers on how they’re thinking about climate change. “Cultural resources represent a microcosm of the bigger challenge.”

Illustration by Kurt Woerpel

The task of adapting a world-famous artwork to a changing climate mirrors the challenges facing coastal communities. Until now, climate retreat in the U.S. has been limited to a handful of communities in the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and northern Alaska. As sea levels rise, governments will face tough choices about how to spend limited resources for buttressing coastlines.

“We will probably find some way to protect the Statue of Liberty at all costs against rising sea level,” Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said during a panel discussion in January.

The first part of the question to ask about any structure at risk from rising seas is relatively straightforward: Do you want to protect it, or do you want to move it?

The good news is that the Statue of Liberty was designed to be portable; the torch-bearing arm was famously displayed in a Manhattan park while the publisher Joseph Pulitzer mounted a fundraising campaign to pay for the statue’s stone pedestal. After a couple of years, the arm was disassembled and returned to Paris, where it was attached to the statue’s body and displayed for another two years.

But things have changed since Pultizer’s era. The statue underwent a major restoration in the 1980s to repair more than a century of rust, and the original iron skeleton was replaced with nonferrous material. Since the statue was already in place, nobody thought to design its new bones to enable another move, said Edward Berenson, author of The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story. Now it would be much harder to disassemble the statue into easily transportable panels, he said, meaning would-be movers would have to carry off the monument intact. It might work “if you had some mondo cranes,” Berenson said.

In many ways, getting the statue off its pedestal is just the beginning of the problem. The monument has proved to be a flexible symbol over the 150 years since it was first conceived, representing, at different times, democracy, the abolitionist spirit, friendship between French and American people, and the U.S.’s “golden door.” Would the statue have the same meaning if you floated it down the seaboard to Philadelphia or Washington? How do you decide where it goes, what it displaces, and—given limited resources—what else to save?

Protecting the statue poses its own set of challenges. Sea level rise is, for the moment at least, irreversible. Raising the statue might mean investing large sums to merely delay the inevitable, and require subsequent investments in the future. Already, the keepers of some climate-threatened landmarks have recognized they can’t save everything, said Adam Markham, deputy director of climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. That includes sites in the nearby Gateway National Recreation Area, which were also flooded during Hurricane Sandy (PDF). Communities near the Jersey Shore face a similar scenario, where homeowners are erecting sea barriers and raising their homes—rather than moving away.

A local heritage site can be a boon to a community, “because it gives people a reason to come back” after a destructive event, said Anne Siders, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Scientists. There’s also a downside. If communities insist “on rebuilding in a vulnerable area, then they may be putting people in harm’s way,” she said.

The most prudent course of action might be to put our money toward relocating people and let nature run its course on the Statue of Liberty—and if she drowns, let her serve as a monument to human hubris. The statue might be an even better symbol beneath the water than she was towering above it.

A decade ago, an art dealer named Guillaume Duhamel spotted Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s original mold of Lady Liberty in a Paris museum. After negotiating with the museum, Duhamel won the chance to make a small number of copies from the plaster form that Bartholdi used as the basis for his full-scale design. Specifically, he can make 12 copies from the mold, which is one-sixteenth the size of the monument. New York real estate developer Leonard Stern bought one for $1 million and planted it in front of a Manhattan office tower. A Chattanooga businessman named Jim Berry bought another. Those copies joined dozens of less precise replicas, scattered from Ukraine to Brazil. 

“Let’s say it was destroyed,” Duhamel said. “I’m sure it could be rebuilt. We have the plans, and we have the technology. In a worst-case scenario, you could buy a copy from me for $1 million.”

 

(Corrects the date of Hurricane Sandy in the 12th paragraph.)