In Praise of the Lowly Sponge

The battering by Hurricane Sandy of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut is the Beta test of what is coming our way.  Sea level has risen about one foot in the last century.  It is projected to rise by ten times that amount in the next century.  As the storm taught us, it’s not the inch  here or there lapping at a boardwalk or a rocky shore that matters; it’s the sheer volume of water pushed by tide and hurricane force winds over miles of ocean up over the land and up rivers penned in by urban America that brings the devastation.

The sliver lining of the damage is that the silence about such matters has been broken.  Led by Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg “climate change” is now being spoken of on the front pages,  or, as Cuomo has it, extreme weather events.  Bloomberg’s surprise endorsement of Obama says it squarely.

Not that many haven’t been aware of the problem for decades.  Jim Dwyer reports in his October 30th column in the NY Times:

 In the summer of 1991, I watched a kind of horror movie. Federal emergency planners ran a slide show of pictures of familiar New York sites that had been doctored to show the effects of a Category 4 hurricane on the city. The entrance to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, nine feet underwater. Nathan’s in Coney Island, fully submerged. Diapers floating off the shelves at the Toys “R” Us on the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn. Kennedy International Airport, 24 feet underwater. It seemed far-fetched.

He also says that on Monday night, at Pearl Street & Greenwich, which was once the Hudson River shore and is now four blocks inland, he stood ankle deep in the storm risen river.

Wetland Designs NYC

Which leads us to a key  and indisputable issue: the man-made re-purposing of marshland, wetlands, bogs for human use. These great nature-made sponges have been filled, diked, asphalted and built upon for two hundred years and are no longer there to protect us.

[For a nice demonstration of this click on this schematic of lower Manhattan’s shore line since 1660]

Dwyer points this out in his November 2 column, in praise of the return of Climate Change to the public discourse:

About 300,000 acres of tidal wetlands around New York City have been filled in by human development in the 19th and 20th centuries. All that remains are 15,500 acres, according to a 2009 report prepared by the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Those wetlands, on the margins of the islands and the coastline, act like sponges, slowing and baffling tidal forces. The 2009 report proposed restoring or creating 18,000 acres.

Over time, these natural sponges were replaced — in New York and in many port cities — by hundreds of miles of sea walls, hardened edges. They allowed the land closest to the water to be developed, but the hard edges are in a losing war with rising sea levels and strong storms. This week, the ruins are everywhere: dozens killed, billions in property destroyed, transportation shut down, blackouts for millions.

On the same page as Dwyer’s column is a tragic write up of what Staten Island has endured — the epicenter of storm related deaths.  The same issue comes up.

Dr. William Fritz [interim president of CUNY College of Staten Island] said Staten Island no longer had “what I like to call sponges, that absorb the energy of hurricanes.”

“Jamaica Bay is a natural sponge with dunes and marshes that can do that,” he said. “Barrier islands in North Carolina did that. What have we done on Staten Island? We’ve hardscaped our sponge. We’ve made roads and parking lots and houses and paved over the sponge. We’ve created an urban area, and you no longer have a sponge.”

Dr. Fritz said the development was “one of the reasons we have that much property destruction, and I think some of the deaths.”

As the conversation surges forward many proposals will be put forward, many aimed at improving construction company bottom lines rather than being the best solution for the specific purpose.  A good place to start is the Room for Debate section of the Times today, led by the co-chairs of the New York City Panel on Climate Change.

Now that New York has experienced devastating coastal flooding, how can we recover and rebuild in a way that will enable infrastructural resilience to inevitable future storms, while minimizing a loss of life and livelihoods? Both “hard” engineering interventions – like sea walls and innovative subway and tunnel closings – and “soft” approaches – like reconstructed wetlands and smart designs for coastal communities – are needed.

Interestingly, MOMA in NYC, has just taken down a jump-out exhibit called Rising Tides: Projects for New York’s Waterfront in which architects, urban designers, engineers looked at options to deal with precisely what has just happened.  Although it’s down, video are still available, here.

If you want to get really down and dirty here is the Metropolitan East Coast Assessment site.


Russian Drought / Pakistan Floods / Atlantic Hurricanes

As the old song goes, the foot-bone is connected to the ankle-bone, the ankle-bone is connected to the shin-bone, the shin-bone is connected to the knee-bone…. This is true of just about everything in life. I’ve used it for computer trouble shooting for 30 some years. Parents use it in child rearing — How did that happen? [“It just did,” is seldom the right answer.] It’s a basic truism of human knowledge that there are no causeless events. Science is essentially a centuries long discovery of causes and effects, many of which we do not know, some of which we may never know. Religion, since the time of the neanderthal has a filler called God for any uncaused event.

Connection and cause are also true of weather systems. Problem is, our knowledge of the parts and connections is just about where knowledge of the human body was back when Leonardo smuggled corpses into his studio to study their composition. We don’t have near enough data, or interpretive schema to understand the weather-body as we now do the human one but it’s interesting when some large areas begin to be visible. For example:

Jeff Masters: In summer 2010, Pakistan got Russia’s rain

[The weather we experience is stirred in ways we don’t understand very well by the high-altitude jet streams that circle from west to east, in an undulating (snake like) pattern around the globe. The loops affect high and low pressure zones which in turn affect dryness and moisture in the air, within those zones. wbk]

Jeff Masters: The drought in Russia was caused by a jet stream pattern that took the jet stream far to the north of Russia, and kept low pressure systems that usually go over the country from dropping their rain.

At the same time, part of the jet stream veered south, he said.

The jet stream looped over Pakistan as the yearly monsoon rains were occurring. The monsoon consists of air currents rising over heated land, which lets moisture-laden air flow in from the oceans. Masters said it was hot in Pakistan this summer also. So the monsoon was unusually heavy.

Jeff Masters: When you have hot air like that, it tends to have more water vapor. So now we had an exceptionally strong flow of moist air off the oceans that had a much higher water content than usual. And that’s a recipe for heavy rainfall and heavy flooding.

Channel 4 news in England tells a similar story, though instead of a simple high and low loop as Masters describes, Tom Clark shows a bifurcating jet stream, sending the southern arm down over Pakistan and doing as Masters has it.

The stream has split in two. One arm has gone north, another south. The patch in the middle is Russia’s drought. A circulating pattern of air has been sitting over Russia for far longer than normal, causing the extreme temperatures and wildfires they’ve had there.

But what’s happening over Pakistan is even stranger. The southern arm of the Jet stream has looped down so far it has crossed over the Himalayas into north western Pakistan. Experts at the Met Office tell me this is very unusual.

And the result is that the fast moving jets stream winds high up has helped suck the warm, wet, monsoon air even faster and higher into the atmosphere – and that has caused rains like no-one can remember. It has turbo charged the monsoon if you like. They’re not sure that’s ever happened before.

And if those linkages aren’t interesting enough, how about this one? The same pattern looks like it delayed the on-set of the Atlantic hurricane season and explains why the expected high number of storms did not materialize in August.

Forecasters had predicted that warm sea-surface temperatures and the onset of the weather pattern known as La Niña would make a busy Atlantic hurricane season this year. In June, Phil Klotzbach and William Gray of Colorado State University predicted 18 tropical storms, with 10 reaching hurricane force and five becoming deadly major hurricanes. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast similar numbers.

La Niña arrived on schedule this year, and sea-surface temperatures were at record highs in July and August in the main area where Atlantic storms develop, says Klotzbach. Yet little happened there, and the Pacific was eerily quiet, with no July cyclones in its eastern half for the first time since 1966. Klotzbach attributes the calm conditions to dry air subsiding over the oceans, denying tropical storms the moisture that powers their growth.

Stalled wind

The dry air came from the blocking pattern that stalled the jet stream over Russia and Pakistan, says Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Air rose over Europe and Asia, then descended over the oceans depleted of the atmospheric moisture that fuels hurricanes.

“When the heatwave broke in Russia, that’s when hurricanes started forming,” says James Done of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Four tropical storms formed in the tropical mid-Atlantic from 21 August to 1 September. The first two, Danielle and Earl, both became powerful major hurricanes, with Earl now affecting the US east coast.

New Scientist