January 23, 2013
During his inaugural speech Monday, President Barack Obama uttered a phrase that during last year’s presidential campaign were The-Words-That-Shall-Not-Be-Spoken.
He mentioned climate change.
In fact, President Obama didn’t just mention it, he declared that a failure to deal with climate change “would betray our children and future generations.”
But ask any Washington pundit if Congress will do anything meaningful on the subject and they’ll tell you that that’s as likely as D.C. freezing over in July.
Also this week, as it turns out, a study was released outlining the latest geoengineering idea for saving the planet in the event of an unstoppable downward spiral of the Earth’s climate.
This one would involve dumping billions of tons of dust of the mineral olivine into the oceans, a process that, in theory at least, could significantly reduce carbon dioxide levels and also slow the increasing acidification of the oceans.
But there’s a catch. Actually, there are many. For starters, the German scientists who did the study estimate that it would require an undertaking as large as the entire world’s coal industry to mine enough olivine, and then it would take at least 100 large ships working 24/7 for a year to spread enough of the mineral dust around to have an impact. Plus, all that olivine dust would undoubtedly change the biology of the oceans in ways no one can really predict.
Back to nature
Okay, back to reality. The only response to climate change that’s truly moving forward is what’s known as adaptation. Or, put more simply, preparing for the worst.
It’s not likely that there will be another Hurricane Sandy this year. Maybe not next year either. But no one running a city, particularly along a coastline, can dare to think that the next devastating superstorm won’t come along for another 50 years.
So their focus is on minimizing the damage when it does hit. And, perhaps not surprisingly, they’re increasingly looking to nature’s resiliency to help them deal with nature’s wrath.
Case in point: One proposal to reduce future flooding of Lower Manhattan is built around the idea of converting part of that section of the city into wetlands and salt marshes. That’s right, the concrete jungle, or at least the lower end of it, would get very squishy.
As architect Stephen Cassell envisions the transformation, the edge of low-lying neighborhoods, such as Battery Park, would become a patchwork of parks and marshes that could sop up future storm surges. And on the more vulnerable streets, asphalt would be replaced with porous concrete that could soak up excess water like a bed of sponges.
It’s just one of several ideas that have been floated, but its mimicking of natural wetlands has a simple, rugged appeal. As Cassell told the New York Times:
““We weren’t fully going back to nature with our plan. We thought of it more as engineered ecology. But if you look at the history of Manhattan, we have pushed nature off the island and replaced it with man-made infrastructure. What we can do is start to reintegrate things and make the city more durable.”
Know your roots
But that’s almost prosaic compared to Skygrove, the concept for a skyscraper inspired by the mangrove tree. Mangroves, which often grow in swamps or along rivers, are known for their gnarly network of roots that keep their trunks above the water.
Architects at the New York firm of HWKN copied that model for a building that could sit above rising water. Instead of having a single foundation, the Skygrove would rest on a base of “roots” extending outward like fingers spread under the water.
Each root of the building–which is meant to be a vertical office park for the City of New York–would be independent of the others and self-sufficient, able to provide its own energy. And each would be designed to survive whatever extreme weather may come its way.
To believe the designers, the Skygrove is a model for the kinds of buildings we may see more often in what they call the “newly nebulous coastal zone.”
It’s nature’s way
Here are other new inventions based on mimicking nature:
- But do not try this on trees: A London industrial designer has created a super-strong bicycle helmet by modeling it after the heads of woodpeckers.
- No word yet on how it may affect human mating: A team of researchers has found that LED lights that copy the structure of a firefly’s “lantern” are 55 percent brighter.
- Okay, let’s clear the air: A Copenhagen chemist has invented an air-cleaning device that mimics the process through which the Earth’s atmosphere cleans itself. In response to sunlight, polluting gases rising into the sky form particles when they come across compounds such as ozone. And those newly formed particles are washed out of the atmosphere by rain. The invention, which removes industrial pollutants from the air, is now being tested at a Danish plant.
- But do they ever tell dogs “You’ll just feel a little stick?”: One day we could have less painful hypodermic needles thanks to a group of scientists who studied porcupine quills. They determined that the backwards-facing barbs on a quill help it enter skin easily and then stay in place. The researchers learned this by measuring how much force it took to push in and pull out porcupine quills jabbed into pig skin and raw chicken meat.
- Mussels and bodybuilding: A team of researchers from Penn State and the University of Texas, Arlington believe that a version of the powerful adhesive that allows mussels to stick stubbornly to underwater surfaces can be used in operating rooms to close and heal wounds.
Video bonus: An idea whose time, sadly, has come: robot cockroaches. It will creep you out.
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November 16, 2012
While it’s still not possible to definitively predict the course a nasty storm will take, we can say with absolute certainty that once it does arrive, two things will happen.
First, we will be treated to the last remaining example of slapstick on TV–weather reporters trying to remain upright in a gale. And second, we’ll see footage of a convoy of utility vehicles headed to the scene of the storm, the cavalry as bucket trucks.
The former is always loony, the latter usually reassuring. Yet there’s something oddly low tech about waiting for help from people driving hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles. Yes, our power grid has been described as a “model of 20th century engineering,” but what has it done to impress us lately?
Sadly, not much.
In fairness, no amount of innovation could have prevented the havoc created by Superstorm Sandy, when more than than 8.5 million homes and businesses lost power. But this is an industry for which, until very recently, the only way an electric company would find out about an outage was when a customer called it in. Not quite cutting edge.
Given the likelihood that more frequent extreme weather will bring more blackouts–the number of major outages in the U.S. has already doubled in past 10 years–power companies know they need to go about their business in different ways, that they need systems that can predict problems and respond automatically.
And it’s not as simple as burying all power lines. That’s really not a very good option in many places, particularly cities, where the cost, according to the Energy Information Administration, could be more than $2 million per mile–almost six times what overhead lines cost. Plus, repair costs can be higher for underground lines and, of course, they’re more vulnerable to flooding.
So what’s the solution? Well, as they say in the relationship business, it’s complicated. But it undoubtedly will involve making power systems much smarter and also using, in a much more strategic way, the enormous amount of data becoming available on how consumers consume and how grids perform.
Here are five examples of companies and governments exploring new ways to keep the lights on.
1) Is your grid smarter than a fifth grader? With a boost of more than $100 million in federal stimulus money, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee converted its power grid into what’s known as a “self-healing network,” which uses high-speed fiber optic lines to report what’s happening on the system. About 1,200 new “smart switches” track what’s going on with the power lines and make adjustments, if necessary.
Say a falling tree takes out a line. The nearest switch would cut off power to that immediate area and reroute it around the problem. Which means fewer homes and businesses would be affected.
That’s just how it played out during a big windstorm in the city last summer. About 35,000 homes went dark, but city officials say that without the smart switches, another 45,000 houses and businesses would have joined them. The city’s utility estimates that the new system saved it $1.4 million during that one storm alone.
2) Your lights may go out. Oh, and it’s 73 degrees: To get better real-time data on how weather affects its grid, San Diego Gas & Electric Company built 140 little weather stations throughout its network.
They provide up-to-date readings on the temperature, humidity and wind speed and direction, and pay particular attention to any signs of wildfires that could bring down the network.
3) Where you go off the grid to stay on the grid: Next year, Connecticut will become the first state to help its cities and towns start building their own “microgrids.” These will be small, self-sustaining islands of power that run on state-of-the-art fuel cells.
The idea is that these systems, able to disconnect from the main grid, will be capable of providing electricity to police and fire departments, hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, college campuses, shelters and other key businesses, even if the rest of the city loses juice.
4) Welcome to Texas, where even Big Data is bigger: By the end of the year, Oncor, the utility serving most of north Texas, will have installed more than 3 million smart meters in homes and businesses. When you consider that each of them sends data to Oncor every 15 minutes–in the old days the utility took a reading just once a month–well, that’s a whole lot of data. Add in all the grid sensors along the system’s 118,000 miles of power lines and that’s more data than…well, that’s a whole lot of data.
So Oncor has partnered with IBM, the King of Big Data, to install software that will make sense of the all that information and, in the process, allow the company to detect outages much more quickly.
5) A tweet in the dark: Finally, it should probably come as no surprise that now one of the more effective ways for utility companies to track outages is through Facebook and Twitter.
So in January, GE will make available new software called Grid IQ Insight and one of its features is the ability to superimpose social media data–namely tweets and Facebook posts–over a power company’s network. So utilities won’t have to wait for customers to call in blackouts; they’ll just see their tweets pop up on a map.
Video bonus: So, what is a smart grid, any how? Scientific American lays it all out for you.
Video bonus bonus: And I ask again: What is it about hurricanes that makes people act stupid?
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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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