November 2, 2012
Talk about being prescient.
Not quite two months ago Mireya Navarro wrote the following in the New York Times:
“With a 520-mile-long coast lined largely by teeming roads and fragile infrastructure, New York City is gingerly facing up to the intertwined threats posed by rising seas and ever-more-severe storm flooding.”
She also noted that critics say “New York is moving too slowly to address the potential for flooding that could paralyze transportation, cripple the low-lying financial district and temporarily drive hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.”
Actually, Navarro was not quite as oracular as it might seem. Scientists at Stony Brook University, working together as the ominously-named Storm Surge Research Group, have been beating this drum for years, warning that New York City becomes more vulnerable with each passing year as ocean levels rise. And last year, a New York State report estimated that a bad coastal storm could flood the subways and cost up to $58 billion in economic damage and revenue lost.
Even the city’s Museum of Modern Art has raised the spectre of a shrinking New York, with a 2010 exhibit titled “Rising Currents.” It included one architect’s vision of a Lower Manhattan defined by “a network of walkways that allow people to walk among the marsh and tall grass.”
Don’t speak of this
The idea of building a series of sea gates along Manhattan that could be closed during a major storm has been much discussed, but so far hasn’t moved much past the talking stage. For starters, there’s the potential cost, estimated at $10 billion, probably more. Also, it hasn’t helped that climate change has become the Lord Voldemort of political issues–you know, the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named guy.
Which helps explain why New York is hardly alone among American cities when it comes to being skittish about investing heavily in climate change protection, which, by the way, is now referred to as “resiliency planning.” In fact, according to a recent study at MIT, only 59 percent of U.S. cities are engaged in such planning, as opposed to 86 percent of cities in Australia and New Zealand, 84 percent in Europe and 80 percent in Africa.
Luckily, most American cities aren’t as close to the brink as New York when it comes to the impact of extreme weather. So they’ve been able to get by with adaptation more incremental than transformative.
But at least some cities are starting to make resiliency planning a core part of their 21st century agenda. Chicago, for instance, has for several years now, been repaving its almost 2,000 miles of alleys with permeable concrete, a surface that allows storm water to seep through into the soil below instead of streaming into an overwhelmed sewer system or flowing as polluted runoff into streams and rivers. And that water in the ground beneath the concrete also keeps the aIleys cooler during the blisteringly hot summers Chicago has suffered though in recent years. Soon the city will start using the porous pavement in bike lanes.
Chicago’s also become a leader in the development of green roofs--rooftops covered with grass, flowers and decorative bushes that not only cut a building’s air conditioning costs, but also reduce the amount of rainwater that pours down gutters and into the sewers.
Other cities, such as Philadelphia, Nashville and Houston, have become much more aggressive about planting trees in environmentally sensitive areas to help them counter the impact of storms capable of unloading several inches of rain in a day.
Will that be enough? Maybe not. But one of the lessons from Sandy is that cities, in particular, no longer have the luxury of waiting for scientific certainty in linking extreme weather to climate change.
As Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton, told the Huffington Post:
“Whether or not there was a climate change component to this storm, it teaches us a lot of things, including how behind the 8-ball we are in being able to handle big events of the type that we believe — that scientists think — are going to get more frequent and intense in the future. So whether this one was 5 percent due to climate change or 1 percent or 10 percent — it’s interesting, it matters to a certain extent, but it’s not the whole story by any means.”
Jennifer Morgan, the director of the climate and energy program with the World Resources Institute, put it another way: “While it’s important to understand the scientific evidence underpinning these events, waiting for certainty that a particular storm or other event is caused by climate change is courting disaster. You don’t wait for 100 percent certainty that your house will burn down before you take out fire insurance.”
Slideshow bonus: With New York and Miami at the top of the list, here are the 17 U.S. cities most at risk from rising seas.
Video bonus: Watch time lapse video of Superstorm Sandy pummeling New York and Lower Manhattan going dark.
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October 29, 2012
I was having one of those moments of modern life disconnect. I looked down and saw on the weather map the massive nasty-looking swirl headed this way. I looked up and saw the gentle flickering of the leaves on the maple tree out back.
It was a strange feeling, sitting in the quiet while gazing at the likely path of destruction and power outage misery Hurricane Sandy will follow over the next few days. But for all the anxiety that brought, it was better to know than not. Everyone on the East Coast has had three whole days to buy batteries and toilet paper.
Probably some people near the ocean who were told to evacuate will say that it wasn’t necessary and will complain about the imprecision of the computer models that drove those decisions. Truth is, though, the science of weather forecasting has become remarkably precise.
As Nate Silver pointed out in the New York Times last month, weather forecasters have become the wizards of the prediction business, far more accurate than political pundits or economic analysts. In his piece, titled “The Weatherman Is Not a Moron,” Silver writes:
“Perhaps the most impressive gains have been in hurricane forecasting. Just 25 years ago, when the National Hurricane Center tried to predict where a hurricane would hit three days in advance of landfall, it missed by an average of 350 miles. If Hurricane Isaac, which made its unpredictable path through the Gulf of Mexico last month, had occurred in the late 1980s, the center might have projected landfall anywhere from Houston to Tallahassee, canceling untold thousands of business deals, flights and picnics in between — and damaging its reputation when the hurricane zeroed in hundreds of miles away. Now the average miss is only about 100 miles.”
A numbers game
So why the dramatic improvement? It comes down to numbers, basically the number of calculations today’s supercomputers are able to do. Take, for instance, a huge computer operation that came online in Wyoming a few weeks ago for the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). It’s called Yellowstone and it can run an astounding 1.5 quadrillion calculations per second.
Put another way, Yellowstone can finish in nine minutes a short-term weather forecast that would have taken its predecessor three hours to complete. It will be able to significantly narrow the focus of it analysis to a smaller geographical area, taking the typical 60-square-mile unit used in this kind of computer modeling and shrinking it down to seven square miles. That’s like cranking up the magnification of a microscope, providing a level of data detail that makes more precise prediction possible.
Here, according to NCAR, is what it will mean in tracking tornadoes and violent thunderstorms:
“Scientists will be able to simulate these small but dangerous systems in remarkable detail, zooming in on the movement of winds, raindrops, and other features at different points and times within an individual storm. By learning more about the structure and evolution of severe weather, researchers will be able to help forecasters deliver more accurate and specific predictions, such as which locations within a county are most likely to experience a tornado within the next hour.”
Breaking it down
When a supercomputer models weather, it uses millions of numbers that represent such factors as temperature, barometric pressure, wind, etc., and analyzes them through a grid system in many vertical levels, starting at the Earth’s surface and rising all the way up to the stratosphere. The more data points it can process at one time, the more accurately it can gauge how those elements interact and shape weather patterns and movement.
But Nate Silver contends that one of the things that make weather scientists better predictors than their counterparts in other fields is their recognition that neither they nor their numbers are perfect. Not only have they learned to use their personal knowledge of weather patterns to adapt to some of the limitations of computer modeling–it isn’t very good at seeing the big picture or recognizing old patterns if they’ve been even slightly manipulated–but they also have become more willing to publicly acknowledge the uncertainty of their forecasts.
The National Hurricane Center, for instance, no longer shows a single line to represent the expected track of a storm. Now it provides charts displaying a widening swath of color indicating areas at greatest risk, a symbol that’s become known as “the cone of chaos.”
By accepting the flaws in their knowledge, says Silver, weather researchers now understand that “even the most sophisticated computers, combing through seemingly limitless data, are painfully ill equipped to predict something as dynamic as weather all by themselves.”
Meanwhile, back here in the cone of chaos, it’s time to start practicing reading by flashlight.
Here are other recent developments related to technology and extreme weather:
- What we don’t need to hear: Due to mismanagement and lack of financing, the U.S. is likely to have a gap in satellite coverage in the near future, meaning it would be without one of the key tools it uses in tracking the path of storms.
- Things that go bump in the night: New smart radar systems on airplanes will make it easier for pilots to locate and avoid violent thunderstorms.
- Definitely not a place to get stuck:China has started trial runs of the world’s first high-speed, high-altitude railway line built to withstand temperatures as low as 40 below zero.
Video bonus: Here’s the latest from the Weather Channel on the track of Hurricane Sandy.
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October 9, 2012
It’s the time of year when trees refuse to be ignored. Behold our fabulous hues, ponder our falling leaves, they goad us. And many of us do pay attention for a bit, only to lose interest when the show is over.
We know the cycle will begin again next spring and peak again in the fall, trees being one of the truer things in modern life. I mean, what’s more reliable than an oak?
But scientists will tell you that, like the oceans, the world’s trees are going through some serious changes, and not in a good way.
A dry run
Consider the impact of the drought that’s been desiccating America’s Southwest. Two weeks ago, the Texas A&M Forest Service issued a damage report: More than 300 million trees died in Texas forests alone as a result of the 2011 drought. It killed another 5.6 million trees in Texas cities.
Then last week a study published in Nature Climate Change concluded that if current climate trends continue, forests in the Southwest will die out at an accelerating rate. And not just from rising temperatures and lack of rain, but also from invasions of tree-eating pests and more destructive forest fires, also tied to climate change.
For instance, by analyzing forest fire data from satellites for the past 30 years in parallel with data on tree ring growth over the same period, the researchers were able to see a “strong and exponential” relationship between droughts and the number of acres of forests wiped out by wildfires.
Notes A. Park Williams, a scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and lead author of the study: “This suggests that if drought intensifies, we can expect forests not only to grow more slowly, but also to die more quickly.”
Computer models suggest that for 80 percent of the years in the second half of the 21st century, America’s Southwest will suffer through what the study describes as “mega-drought.”
In the spirit of giving trees more than a seasonal glance, here are 10 other things scientists have learned about them this year.
1) Forest fires have become more intense and harder to control. One big factor is the rising frequency of what are known as “blowdowns.” With violent storms with strong winds occurring more often, whole sections of forests are toppling over, creating, in essence, giant campfires awaiting a spark.
2) And the death of forests could double the number of big floods. A study at the University of British Columbia concluded that faster snow melts due to fewer trees creating shade will not only increase the size of floods, but could also make the really big ones happen more often.
3) Sick trees could be boosting greenhouse gas levels. Scientists at Yale University found that diseased trees can carry very high levels of methane, one of the more potent greenhouse gases. Although they appear healthy, many old trees–between 80 and 100 years old–are being hollowed out by a fungal infection that slowly eats through the trunk, creating a nice home for methane-producing microorganisms.
4) On a brighter note, palm trees once grew in Antarctica. Okay, it was 53 million years ago, back when Antarctica was still connected to Australia, but researchers drilling deep beneath the sea floor off the eastern coast of the now-frozen continent, found pollen grains from palm and macadamia trees. Scientists estimate that back then, high summer temperatures there could reach the upper 70s.
5) A handful of trees can tell the rainfall history of the Amazon. Based on measurements of oxygen isotopes trapped within the rings of only eight cedar trees in Bolivia, scientists at the University of Leeds in Great Britain say they can tell how much it has rained over the entire Amazon basin during the past century.
6) NASA technology could help save trees that look risky. The space agency is using high-tech cameras to create 3-D images of trees, a process that will help experts get a better idea of where a tree is likely to crack and how it might come down. Ideally, this could help save trees that arborists now would probably cut down.
7) Will it be smarter to grow smaller trees? Scientists at Oregon State University think so. They believe it will make sense to grow genetically-modified “semi-dwarf” trees in the future to make them better suited for drier climates and as a source of bioenergy.
8) Slow down on the maple syrup. The U.S. Forest Service says that climate change is likely to diminish production of maple syrup later this century. The reason? Habitats suitable for maple trees are expected to shrink.
9) Fossilized forests could come back to life. Forests in the Canadian Arctic that last were alive more than 2.5 million years ago could be revitalized by climate change, according to a University of Montreal scientist. Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier says that, according to climate change forecasts, temperatures could rise to levels similar to when willow, pine and spruce trees thrived in now snow-covered places such as Bylot Island.
10) Good trees make good neighbors? Studies in three American cities–Baltimore, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore.–concluded that urban neighborhoods with more trees tend to have lower crime rates. While no researcher would go so far as to say that trees reduce crime, they did find a “very strong association” between more tree canopy and less crime.
Video bonus: In case you think I’ve spent way too much time talking about trees, sit back and watch a year in the life of forest go by in two minutes.
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September 10, 2012
This Wednesday, Apple, with great fanfare, will present the iPhone 5 to the world. Much will be written about its 4G speed, taller screen, longer battery life, thinner shape and two-tone look.
And much will be said about whether or not it is Steve Jobs’ final legacy. Was he actually weighing in on the new model until his dying day? Or is that story being floated to ensure the iPhone 5 cult classic status in the devout Apple community?
No doubt this will be the big tech innovation story of the month–although, as MIT’s Technology Review pointed out last week, we’ve reached the point with smartphones that improvements are more incremental than revolutionary. Now all the talk is about how big the screen is, not that you can control your phone simply by touching it.
Now that’s a good idea
But instead of joining the iPhone chorus, how about a little counter-programming. What follows are 10 recent inventions, none of which is likely to get much attention this week. But that doesn’t make them any less inspired.
1) All we are saying, is give bats a chance: One of the raps on wind turbines is that they kill thousands of birds and bats every year. But an 89-year-old retired engineer in California named Raymond Green has taken it upon himself to create a device that may lead to a solution. His invention, which he calls “Catching Wind Power,” is basically a large drum in which all the movable parts, including the killer blades, are contained. That would make them considerably less dangerous for flying creatures, and also, Green claims, quieter than what’s out there now.
2) Forgetting something?: As I noted in a recent post, hospitals are a bacterial war zone where one of the key weapons of the good guys is frequent hand-washing. But research suggests that health care workers wash their hands half as often as they should. Now an Israeli company named Hyginex is producing wristbands that wirelessly remind those wearing them that to scrub down. Sensors in soap dispensers track the movements of doctors and nurses, and if they approach a patient without washing their hands, their wristbands light up and vibrate.
3) The roads less traveled: Yes, there are apps out there that alert you to backups and accidents, but a group of German students has ratcheted traffic apps up a notch. Their Greenway app, now being tested by drivers in Munich, uses algorithms to predict where and how traffic will flow and gives its users directions to “traffic-optimized” routes. It also closely monitors the alternate routes and scales back its recommendations if they’re getting crowded. Greenway’s creators claim their directions, on average, get drivers to their destinations twice as fast as on their usual routes.
4) Say good-bye to helmet hair: It’s still Fashion Week in New York, so allow me to introduce the Hovding bike helmet. It’s the brainstorm of two Swedish women who have managed to do the seemingly impossible–merge fashion and bike safety. Their helmet actually looks like a collar, but if it senses impact, it inflates like an airbag around the rider’s head.
5) Go ahead, walk all over me: Scientists at the University of Manchester in the UK have developed a smart carpet. That’s right, a smart carpet. The rug’s backing contains optical fibers that distort when they’re stepped on and send a signal to a computer. That’s impressive, but to what end? First, it can, in the case of elderly person, determine if someone has fallen. It can also serve as an intruder alert if it detects unfamiliar footsteps near a window. Its inventors think it even has potential as a physical therapy aid able to predict mobility problems if it notices changes in a person’s walk.
6) Got juice?: If you drive a lot and need to keep your iPad charged, do I have a gadget for you. It’s a device that turns your standard car cup holder into a charging station, allowing you to juice up your tablet and your smartphone at the same time.
7) You’ve been drinking. I can see it in your nose: Two Greek computer scientists say that by using algorithms and thermal imaging, they’ve devised a way to spot inebriated people in public. Their method, in which they combine an infrared image with algorithms related to what happens to blood vessels in a person’s nose when they have too much to drink, would allow police to identify a drunk on more info than that they’re acting like one.
8) Flashlights are so over: You can have the biggest, shiniest belt buckle ever and it won’t help you much on a walk in the dark. But the Walker’s Path Illuminating Belt is custom-made for such occasions. It’s a hands-free LED safety light that wraps around your waist and can be adjusted to serve as either a wide-angle floodlight or a narrowly-focused spotlight.
9) Why shouldn’t bikes have growth spurts?: It’s one thing for your kids to grow out of their clothes and shoes, but you move into a whole other price range when they keep getting too big for their bikes. The Spanish bicycle designer Orbea has taken on the challenge, creating a bike that grows with a kid, appropriately called the Grow bike. The crossbar, stem and seats all can be lengthened, and since other components also are designed to last longer, Grow bikes, says Orbea, need to be replaced every five to seven years instead of every two to three.
10) Video bonus: Sugar kills: As much practice as we get, most of us just aren’t very good at knocking flies out of the air. But soon BugASalt could change all that–when flies comes buzzin’, it’s just the weapon for the job. It’s a toy gun that acts like a shotgun firing just enough salt to bring down a fly. Seeing is believing.
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September 7, 2012
It’s been a month since Curiosity’s remarkable soft landing on the surface of Mars. (Video) Remember the massive, supersonic parachute that slowed the spacecraft’s descent from 1,000 down to 200 miles per hour, and the sky crane that lowered the rover on 20-foot long cables the rest of the way, touching down at a speed of under two miles per hour?
And who can forget the unnerving “Seven Minutes of Terror,” the time that would pass before NASA scientists here on Earth would know if they had pulled it off or trashed a $350 million vehicle.
Science and drama? Now that’s a special occasion.
But, sadly, the thrills are gone. A few days ago, the big news from Mars was that Curiosity had traveled 100 feet. Or a little more than three first downs in an NFL game. Yesterday’s press release from NASA announced that the rover had extended its arm.
I know, I know, all this is being orchestrated by scientists about 60 million miles away. That is truly amazing. And this is how science is done. It’s methodical and repetitive.
But we have become a jaded bunch here on 21st century Earth and soon enough most of us will likely lose interest in reports of a machine digging in dirt, even if it is Martian dirt.
Now Curiosity is all about the science. But we’d rather have the fiction.
Submarines in space
No need to fret, though. NASA still has plenty of imagination when it comes to exploring the universe. Or at least it’s willing to put up seed money for ideas that now seem as fanciful as lowering a rover on to the surface of Mars once did. Last month, as part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, NASA provided funding to further study 28 different concepts with just the right touch of crazy.
Here are eight of the more intriguing ones:
1) It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a wing: Flying wings aren’t new, but a star-shaped aircraft designed by a team at the University of Miami would take the concept in a new direction. Literally. Called a “Supersonic Bi-Directional Flying Wing,” it would fly sideways. It would take off in a conventional manner, then rotate 90 degrees in flight for supersonic travel. Its inventors see the wing flying from New York to Tokyo in four hours without producing a sonic boom, thanks to its unique design.
2) Sailing on Venus: Venus is one of the nastier spots in our solar system, with its average temperature of 450 degrees Centigrade and thick atmosphere of corrosive gases. But a group of NASA scientists has come up with a concept for a vehicle they say could scoot along its surface. It’s a rover powered by a sail that would take advantage of the planet’s strong winds tied to its extremely high atmospheric pressure.
3) Breaking the ice: Jupiter’s moon Europa has three times as much water as Earth, but it’s all under a thick layer of ice. That hasn’t discouraged a group of scientists at Virginia Tech who have proposed the idea of a heavy, heated torpedo that would melt the ice, then release a robotic underwater glider/submarine to explore the mysterious world beneath it.
4) Could you do that with cheese?: A big challenge to settling our moon is the need for astronauts to bring building materials with them. But a University of Southern California engineer may have developed a technology to get around that. It’s called Contour Crafting and it would allow structures to be built on the moon layer by layer using a paste made of heated-up lunar soil.
5) Pump you up: One of the risks of long space trips for astronauts is the tendency of their muscles to atrophy in zero gravity. Calves alone can lose up to 20 percent of their mass. But a scientist named Kevin Duda has created something he calls the V2 suit. It would use gyroscopes and accelerometers to track different body parts and add “viscous resistance” to mimic the sensation of gravity where it’s needed.
6) On a roll: Think tumbleweeds. That’s the basic concept behind “super ball bots,” round robots of interlocking rods and cables that would land on a planet, then be directed to roll to areas of interest. The idea is based on Buckminster Fuller’s design of round structures with no rigid connections. They’re lightweight, but amazingly stable and durable.
7) Print my ride: NASA scientists have proposed the idea of printable spacecraft--flat sheets embedded with all the electronics a robotic spacecraft needs — sensors for gathering information, data processing, data downlink and a communications system. In theory at least, multiple sheets of spacecraft could float around a planet gathering data.
8) Waste not, want not: Finally, there’s Water Walls. It’s a concept where walls filled with water would not only recycle astronauts’ waste, but would also protect them from radiation and purify the air. The walls can’t talk, at least not yet.
Video bonus: The bi-directional flying wing is so cool it comes with a soundtrack.
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