Amtrak’s Vision for High Speed Rail scuppered by its own report on Climate Change

Photo: Concept Rendering of Amtrak’s NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station
Concept Rendering of NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station, Delaware. Source: AMTRAK

The only civilized and environmentally sound way to travel long distances is by rail. The roads are either clogged or dangerous. The airline operators treat their customers as self-loading freight. Cars and planes are wasteful emitters of global warming CO2. Amtrak wants to provide its customers with an enhanced high-speed service along its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington. It’s a great idea, and the company has been promoting it for the past ten years — so far without success.

The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor – 2012 Update Report, outlines the company’s dream for the high speed rail service. It calls for a 25-30 year investment program to cut travel times by half, using ‘next generation’ trains capable of 220 mph speeds. Estimated capital cost: $150 Billion ( 2011 dollars).

Map of Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment
Proposed Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment. Source: Amtrak

So what’s holding things up? Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation. Although it operates as a for-profit company, it remains dependent on federal subsidies. Getting politicians to commit funds for necessary upgrades, let alone for ‘next generation’ infrastructure, is not easy. There are priorities, like debt-ballooning tax cuts, military hardware, boarder walls, etc.

The project now faces a more serious problem. It concerns a multi-year study undertaken by Amtrak on the likely impact of climate change on the company’s operations along the Northeast Corridor. The study concludes that by mid century, rising seas and flooding associated with climate change will subject rail assets including portions of track to “continual inundation” thus rendering them unusable. Reportedly Amtrak completed the study by April 2017, but kept quiet about it until November 2018 when Bloomberg News obtained a redacted copy following a Freedom of Information request. Why the secrecy? Well, that’s easy to understand. Amtrak had said it could provide a finished product for $150 Billion. How can it now explain the need for many more billions to move its stuff out of harms way? It’s embarrassing.

According to Bloomberg, while the study provides details about the parts of the corridor at risk, it focuses on a ten mile stretch running through Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington is located close to where the Christian River joins the Delaware River (actually a tidal estuary), and much of the city is low lying. It is home to a training center for Amtrak engineers, a maintenance yard for the repair of electric locomotives, and a rail traffic control center, all of them situated in flood-prone parts of the city, as is the track itself.  For example, a three mile stretch of the track northeast of the city, lies within feet of the Delaware River shore line (see map below).

Map of Wilmington DE ans area showing section of Northeast Corridor Rail Line beside the DelawRe River
Map showing section of the Northeast Corridor lying closest to the Delaware River. Source: openstreetmap

You can see the problem for yourself next time you travel between New York and Washington by train. Take a window seat looking east, and watch for the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington. If the tide is in as you pass the three mile section, you may be shocked at how close the water is to the base of the tracks.

Alternatively, watch the following YouTube video (credit: Jersey Mike’s Rail Videos) showing the view from the back of an Amtrak train on route from Wilmington to Philadelphia. If you start the video at the 4.50 mark, you’ll see a substation to your left and the I-495 to your right. The track leaves the shore line at about the 7.15 mark.

Amtrak management knew about the potential for climate change to impact its rail assets when it released its ‘Vision for High Speed Rail’ in 2012, but made no mention of it in the proposal. A report for Amtrak dated September 2014 by Booz/Allen/Hamilton on the vulnerability of the Northeast Corridor to climate change, says (section 3.3.3) “Climate Change will directly and indirectly affect rail service in several different ways.”  Sea level rise causing long-term/permanent track flooding, is one of the ways listed in the report. Amtrak could have updated its ‘Vision’ proposal at that time, but did not do so. Now, more than four years later, the climate cat is out of the bag and as far as High-Speed Rail is concerned, Amtrak has no place to go but back to square one. Pity.

New York takes baby step towards solving its plastic trash problems

NYC litter basket overflowing with plastic bags
NYC trash basket — only for litter? NYTimes image

New York City has a plastic-waste problem. Discarded carryout bags can be found clogging drains, hanging from trees, coating vacant spaces like tide wrack. According to the city’s sanitation department, New Yorkers throw away more than 10 billion — 10,O00,000,000 — single-use plastic bags every year — one thousand bags for each man, woman, and child. That works out to about 20 billion bags discarded every year in New York State as a whole.

Confronted by the scale of the pollution, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill last April which states, “BEGINNING JANUARY FIRST, TWO THOUSAND NINETEEN, THE PROVISION OF PLASTIC CARRYOUT BAGS AT ANY POINT OF SALE TO CUSTOMERS IS PROHIBITED.”
The law is unsatisfactory because of what it leaves out. The ban does not apply to plastic bags to carry uncooked meat, fish, poultry, or food sliced to order. Bags used to contain bulk items such as fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, or candy, are exempt, as are plastic bags sold in bulk, or repackaged for sale such as trash bags or bags used for food storage. Also given a pass are plastic garment bags, bags used to carry newspapers for delivery to customers, and bags provided by restaurants and similar establishments for carryout food. And there may be other exemptions whenever the government thinks of them.

The Law isn’t going to solve the State’s plastic trash problem any time soon. But it should at least improve appearances. It’s a baby step in the right direction. The question now is, will the bill pass? As of today, the bill is held up in the NY State Senate Rules Committee. The image below shows it’s current status and the steps it must follow before it can be signed into law by Governor Cuomo. Looks like that’s not going to happen by the intended date of January 1, 2019.

Image from NY State Senate website showing status of bill S8258
Image from New York State Senate website

When Governor Cuomo introduced the bill last April, the NY State Senate had a republican majority, so there was some doubt the bill would ever get passed. Come January, the democrats will be in control which should assure the bill’s passage. But one never knows. Politicians are not known for speed or reliability. Here’s a photo of the Senate floor showing Senators at work.

Photo of NY State Senate Floor
New York State Senate Floor. nysenate.gov image

While plastic packaging is an out-and-out evil, not everything found in garbage is ugly. In fact, some of it is good-looking and interesting enough to make up the contents of a fascinating New York City musium.

Treasures in the Trash Musium

The Treasures in the Trash Musium was founded by Nelson Melina,  a Sanitation Department employee for many years. The collection consists of about fifty thousand artifacts found in New York City trash by Molina over a period of thirty years. The museum is located in East Harlem, above a NYC Sanitation Dept. Garage at 343 E 99th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues. It’s not open to the public on a regular basis. The department arranges tours from time to time. 

Musical instruments at Treasures in the Trash Musium, NYC
Musical Instruments. Treasures in the Trash Musium, NYC. Image credit : untappedcities.com

For more photos of the musium’s collection, go to Untapped Cities: Behind the Scenes at the NYC Sanitation Dept. Trash Musium on the Upper East Side.

Plastic packaging overwhelms humanity — industry looks to increase the supply

Image of plastic water bottles on production line
A few of the 50 Billion plastic water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. in one year

Since its invention in the early 20th century, plastic has been put to a multitude of valuable uses. Plastic packaging is not one of them. It’s a scourge. The stuff keeps piling up in landfills and garbage tips. It accumulates along beaches and floats in the oceans as micro particles. It slowly degrades in sunlight, releasing methane and ethylene, potent greenhouse gases. When burned with trash in the open air (as happens routinely in poor countries) it releases a range of deadly fumes, including dioxin. When burned in an incinerator as a source of energy (plastic is made from fossil fuels) it releases its carbon content into the atmosphere, thus increasing global warming.

Image of discarded flexible packaging
Discarded flexible packaging. Image: RecycleBC

Plastic trash is a highly visible form of pollution. That’s a problem for the plastics industry.  Stung by public criticism, manufacturers and users of plastic packaging have begun to react. Amcor, a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging, together with some of the big users (including, Coca-Cola, Danone, MARS, Novamont, L’Oréal, Pepsi, Unilever, and Veolia), say they have committed themselves to the New Plastics Economy, an initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is what the organization’s website says it wants to achieve:

In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Three actions are required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

If those statements sound to you like the kind of New Year resolutions a weak-willed glutton might make, you’re right. Plastic products are cheap, most of the public accepts them, and the industry wants to continue feeding the market with as much of the stuff as it will swallow. According to the industry newsletter Plastics Today, the plastic packaging market is expected to grow in value from about $200 billion in 2017 to $270 billion in 2025, a 35% increase.

Of course the industry wants something to be done about the trash. It’s an embarrassment. Look at the last statement in the committments they made about circulating all the plastic items we use. The question is, who do they think will execute that part of their commitment? Right now, municipalities handle garbage collection and recycling, provided they have a tax base to support it. Municipalities in poor countries don’t have that luxury. Does the plastics industry intend to fund the collection and recycling of plastic trash in all those places in the world where that work falls short of 100% efficiency? Of course not. What the industry is angling for is a commitment, by others — governments, municipalities, you and I — to pay for it.

Suppose, as is likely, no one wants to pay the cost of dealing with plastic pollution on a global scale, what then? In the case of plastic packaging, the obvious solution would be to switch back to non-polluting materials such as paper and glass. People lived without plastic before. We can do so again.
Industry representatives opposed to the idea raise the usual objections: impractical; ill informed; too expensive; jobs would be lost, etc. Or they imply that there is no alternative. For example, Amcor CEO Ron Delia, quoted in his company’s website, says: “Plastic packaging is vital for products used by billions of consumers around the globe. It’s highly effective and easy to adapt, so that those products are safe, nutritious and effective.”  So . . . Plastic packaging is not just useful, it is vital. Foodstuffs that are not packed in plastic are unsafe, ineffective, lack nutrition. Use plastic or billions will suffer. Those are the messages Mr. Delia’s statement implies.

We humans have a tendency to eat until we burst. Our excessive consumption of plastic is just one example.  Fortunately it’s a habit we can easily break. But to succeed, the break will have to be made despite the New Plastic Economy crowd.

The following YouTube video by Ravi Bajoria shows a primative garbage sorting line in operation. Poor countries cannot afford to buy and operate the automated, high-tech systems that are available. If we stop using plastic packaging, they won’t need them.

 

Climate Change threatens America; the U.S. Military responds; Trump feints

Cartoon. Trump with his finger in the climate dike
THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF STICKS HIS FINGER IN THE CLIMATE DIKE

The 2018 Federal Assessment for the U.S., was released on November 23rd. The report highlights likely impacts and risks from the changing climate.
An introductory statement says: “A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.” The report concludes that Climate Change threatens the “natural, built and social systems we rely on.” Disruptions expected to accompany Climate Change include: rising temperatures; extreme heat; drought; wildfire on rangelands; heavy downpours; transformed coastal regions; higher costs and lower property values from sea level rise; extreme weather events; changes to air quality; changes to the availability of food and water; and the spread of new diseases.

Here is President Trump’s initial response to the report:

During an interview with the Washington Post on November 27, the President was asked to explain his negative response to the climate report.
This is his verbatim response:

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say where does this come from. And it takes many people to start off with.”

“Number two, if you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion. There is movement in the atmosphere. There’s no question. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it — not nearly like it is.”

Despite Trump’s attempts to bury climate change, and his all-out support for fossil fuels, the U.S. Military is marching to a different tune. According to the Center for Climate & Security, since Trump assumed office in January 2017, eighteen senior officials at the U.S. Defense Department have recommended actions to address the security implications of climate change. These officials include: Secretary of Defense, James Mattis; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul J. Selva; and Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spenser.

James Mattis, a former United States Marine Corps general, has a history of supporting efforts to reduce troop dependence on petroleum. In 2003, he urged the military to develop ways to “Unleash us from the tether of fuel.” At his confirmation hearings in 2017, he said, “Climate Change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.” He also said, “I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation.”

Military War Room
Military War Room

The world is facing an existential threat. It appears the U.S. Military is ready and willing to engage the enemy. But to be truly effective, it needs a Commander-in-Chief willing or able to acknowledge the threat. The sooner it gets one, the better for all of us.

Rhode Island’s Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. Can it handle a big one?

Photo of Huge ocean wave. Image by Ray Collins
Ocean Wave. Photo by Ray Collins

Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay sits like an open mouth, ready to swallow any hurricane that makes its way up the East Coast. Usually these northward trending hurricanes lose steam when they reach the colder waters off New England. Usually but not always. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 arrived over Rhode Island with a forward speed of 50 to 60 mph and wind speeds exceeding 120 mph. It carried with it an ocean swell that filled the bay to overflowing.

Map of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island
Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Openstreetmap.org

According to the National Weather Service (NWS-Boston), “The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Connecticut coast, with 18 to 25 foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod. The destructive power of the storm surge was felt throughout the coastal community. Narragansett Bay took the worst hit, where a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, marinas and yacht clubs. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet.”

In 1954, Hurricane Carol produced a storm surge of more than 14 feet in Narragansett Bay. Downtown Providence was once again flooded, this time by 8 to 12 feet of water. All levels of government — local, State, and Federal — agreed that something had to be done to protect the low lying city center. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, completed in 1966, was the result.

Aerial photo of Downtown Providence and Providence River
Downtown Providence and the Providence River. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier is hidden behind the I-195 highway bridge. Image: providenceri.gov

All travellers on the I-195 Highway pass within feet of the Barrier as they drive across the eight-lane bridge over the Providence River. But those who want to look at the barrier and appreciate its design, leave the highway on the east side of the river, and make their way back to Bridge Street and its small riverside park (marked in yellow on the satellite view below)

Satellite view of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier
Satellite view of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier and vicinity. Google Maps Image

The barrier is located a couple of hundred yards up stream from Fox Point, and just north of the I-195 Highway Bridge. It consists of a concrete wall built across the Providence River and earthen dikes that extend flood protection about a thousand feet over the land on each side of the river. Built into the river wall are three, 40 foot wide gates, each weighing  53 tons. Under normal weather conditions, the gates remain open so as not to impede the flow of the river. The gates are located at the eastern end of the river wall. They can be seen in the satellite view above.

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Providence, RI
Fox Point Hurricane Barrier’s three flood gates, looking down stream from park on Bridge Street. I-195 Hwy bridge in background. Providence RI. Image: Brown.edu

An essential component of the barrier system is the pumping station consisting of five massive 4500 H.P pumps, each as big as a grain elevator. When the flood gates are closed to keep a storm surge out, the entire flow of the river must be continuously pumped up and over the barrier. Otherwise the river would be held back, overflow its banks, and flood the city. The pumping station is housed in a building at the western end of the river wall (its roof is plainly visible in the satellite view). The five pumps, operating together, can lift 3.1 million gallons per minute and discharge the flow to the downstream side of the barrier.

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Providence RI
View of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier from Bridge Street pocket park. Pumping Station at far right. Google Image

The barrier gates have been closed against storms several times since going into service in 1966. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the water crested at 9.5 feet. But the barrier has yet to experience a direct hit from a category 4 or 5 hurricane. As coastal flooding increases in the coming years, hurricane barriers of all kinds are going to be in the news.

North Carolina’s mobile Outer Banks and its new, immovable Bonner Bridge

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved
The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved in 1999. Image from International Chimney Corporation website

The iconic Cape Hatteras lighthouse no longer sits on the ground on which it was built in 1870. Under threat from the encroaching sea, the 210 ft., 5,000 ton masonry structure was moved in 1999 about 2800 feet southwest from its original location. Masonry buildings, when shaken (during earthquakes, for example) tend to come apart along mortar lines, or even fall completely to pieces. So it isn’t easy to move them safely.

International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo NY and Expert House Movers of MD Inc., were awarded the moving contract. The job was carried out successfully; not a single brick was dislodged during the operation. The lighthouse is now about a third of a mile from tide water, distant enough, it’s hoped, to keep it safe from the sea until at least the end of this century. In recognition of the difficulties involved in moving the structure, the two company’s jointly won the American Society of Civil Engineers 40th Annual Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award.

The following map shows the location of the lighthouse before it had to be moved:

Map showing shoreline recession at Cape Hatteras NC
History of shoreline recession at Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina (map also shows pre-1999 location of the lighthouse). Image: pubs.usgs.gov (paper 1177-B)

To visit the lighthouse up close, drive south from Bodie Island on Highway 12. The H. Bonner Bridge carries the road across Oregon Inlet, linking Hatteras Island to the northern Outer Banks. The economic life of Hatteras Island depends on it. By early next year, the new Bonner Bridge will be ready to take over from the old one.

Aerial photo ofOregon Inlet and old H.Bonner Bridge, Outer Banks NC
Oregon Inlet and the old H. Bonner Bridge. Photo taken from above Pamlico Sound looking east towards the Atlantic. Image: usgs.gov

Built in 1963 with a life expectancy of 30 years, the old Bonner bridge is in danger of falling down. The new bridge (due to open for traffic early next year) is built to last 100 years according to the designers, HDR Inc., an engineering company based in Omaha, Nebraska. The bridge is built on shifting sand, so that longevity claim is based on the company’s confidence in their engineering abilities. Domenic Coletti, HDR design manager, quoted in the company’s website, said this:

To our knowledge, no one has previously designed and built a [bridge] foundation where piles had to be jetted and driven through nearly 140 feet of soil [sand] in a way that still provided adequate capacity [stability] after 84 feet of scour occurs.” 

SCOUR is the anticipated tearing away of the sand around the support piles due to ocean currents in the inlet.

Photo of the old and the new H. Bonner Bridges, Outer Banks, North Carolina
The old and the new H. Bonner Bridges crossing the Oregon Inlet, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image from The Outer Banks Voice, 13/11/2018. Photo by Bob Moris

But consider this: although the new bridge may very well last 100 yeas, how many years will the inlet over which the bridge crosses remain in its present location?After all, storms have opened and closed numerous inlets along the Outer Banks since records began in the 16th century. A hurricane formed the Oregon Inlet in 1846. Another one could close it. The steady migration of the Outer Banks over time, may also cause problems. Here’s part of an October 16 email I sent to Pablo Hernandez, Resident Engineer, NCDOT, asking about that matter:

According to the US Geological Survey, the Outer Banks have historically migrated south at the rate of 60 to 70 feet per year, a process that sea level rise may speed up. This suggests that in 20 or 30 years, the Oregon Inlet may no longer be where it is now, thus leaving the new bridge without a function. I’m wondering what actions DOT plan to take to avoid such an outcome?” 

No answer yet. My guess is that the Army Corps of Engineers will be kept busy dredging the channel for the indefinite future. What other solution is there? Unlike a lighthouse, a bridge can’t be moved. When Mr. Hernandez gets back to me I’ll update this post.

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks
Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks showing location of Cape Hatteras lighthouse and Oregon Inlet. Image from U.S. National Parks Maps

When will North Carolina’s loathsome CAFOs be shut down?

Much of North Carolina’s eastern half lies within the continent’s coastal plain. Rivers flowing from the Appalachian foothills onto the plain, slow down and become sluggish. That makes them prone to flooding, particularly during and after the storms and hurricanes that blow in from the Atlantic carrying heavy loads of rain. The widespread flooding caused by last September’s Hurricane Florence is a good example.

D452B5AD-E438-4BF5-BF42-114631012A3F

This soggy, low-lying land is home to about 2,200 industrial pig farms. Known in the trade as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the waste (pig shit) from these factory farms is not treated in any way, rather it is flushed into open pits (called lagoons) and eventually sprayed onto surrounding land, or, in the event of flooding, distributed far from its source by way of creeks and rivers. Each year, about 18 million tons of liquid pig shit (laced with pharmaceutical residues) are released into the environment from the state’s more than nine million pigs.

Pig farm sheds and lagoons
Pig farm (CAFO) sheds and lagoons. Image: Sierra Club

Most of North Carolina’s pig farms are located in the southeastern part of the state, with the heaviest concentration centred in and around Duplin and Samson Counties. This has created a life-threatening pollution problem for the people living in the area.

Map of North Carolina showing distribution of hog farms on coastal plain
North Carolina showing distribution of CAFOs. Coastal plain lies east of the blue line. Map by Steve Wing, UNC-Chapel Hill

A recent study by J. Kravchenco and others, published in the North Carolina Medical Journal, October 2018 (vol.79 no 5 287-288), concerning health risks to humans living near pig farms, has this to say:

“North Carolina communities located near hog CAFOs had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and higher hospital admissions/ED visits of LBW infants. . . . Among North Carolina communities, including both high-income and low-income communities, the lowest life expectancy was observed in southeastern North Carolina. . . . The residents living in close proximity to hog CAFOs . . . are chronically exposed to contaminants from land-applied wastes and their overland flows, leaking lagoons, and pit-buried carcasses, as well as airborne emissions, resulting in higher risks of certain diseases. In fact, previous survey-based studies of residential communities reported significant health risks for residents, including higher risks of bacterial infections, higher frequencies of symptoms of respiratory and neurological disorders, and depression.”

To say that CAFOs stink is an under statement. Here’s Elsie Herring, who lives in Wallace, Duplin Co., speaking about what it’s like when spraying starts at the pig farm near her home:

“You stand outside and it feels like it’s raining but then you realise it isn’t rain. It’s animal waste. It takes your breath away. You start gagging, coughing, your pulse increases. All you can do is run for cover.” — quote from The Guardian, May 2018

Why do the human inhabitants of the region put up with being rained on by animal faecal matter to the point of dying prematurely? No need to look further than North Carolina’s 2018 Farm Bill recently passed into law by the Republican controlled legislature. While the bill allows pollution from pig farms to continue unabated, it, in effect, prohibits citizens from challenging the polluters in court. The focus is on protecting the $2.9 billion industry and its owners from interference by the citizens. The citizens need for protection from the industry’s filthy practices is not even considered. Yuck! Living downwind from certain politicians can really stink. North Carolina’s hog industry is run by Murphy Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, which was purchased by China’s WH Group in 2013.

Sufferers from pig farm pollution are not the only people that have it in for the industry. Animal rights groups are also out to get them. If the farm operators were discovered treating dogs the way they treat pigs, they’d be in court facing animal cruelty charges. It’s my guess, however, that the environment will prove to be the industry’s most powerful enemy. As our warming world generates larger, more violent hurricanes, industrial pig farming on a waterlogged coastal plain will become untenable. Will the industry be allowed to move its CAFOs to higher ground, where the politicians live? What do you think?

Map of the USA showing location of North Carolina
North Carolina in red

North Carolina’s valuable pile of sand

This land isn’t permanent, it moves. This whole pile of sand moves with every storm with sea level rise, and it’ll continue to move for hundreds of years. And we’ve tried to engineer it like it’s Raleigh, like it’s a rock, but it’s not. It’s sand.” — Stanley Riggs, former professor of marine and coastal geography. — Courier-Tribune, Sept. 15, 2018

The pile of sand Riggs is talking about is the Outer Banks, the 200 mile string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. His concern is the continuing development on that long sand bank, and the general lack of interest in restricting it.

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks
Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Image from U.S. National Parks Maps

Given that the Outer Banks consist of shifting sands, sit barely above sea level, and are located in a part of the world subject to violent ocean storms, why is there continuing development?

The developers know that building houses and roads on sand is asking for trouble. The difficulties associated with the stability of buildings have been researched for well over 2000 years. Matthew, a great authority on the subject, said: ”And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and Great was the fall of it.“ — The guy knew what he was talking about.

Image of fallen house on Hatteras Island, North Carolina
fallen house, Hatteras Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image: Steve Early/ Virginia Post

North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission studied the situation in 2010 and wrote a report predicting a 39 inch rise in sea level by the year 2100, enough to flood coastal towns and wash away the existing built environment on the Outer Banks. Advocates for economic development in twenty of the State’s coastal counties formed the NC-20 group to lobby against the report which, they said, was based on bad science. It would, they argued, scare away business and tourists. The Legislature agreed, passed a bill prohibiting scary predictions, and ordered the commission to write something acceptable to the economic development people. The result was a 2015 report predicting a sea level rise of 6 – 8 inches by the year 2045. What a relief

As well as the thousands of year-round residents and summer-cottage owners, the Outer Banks attract several million tourists each year. It’s a big enterprise and an important tax generator. Of course government wants to support it, and they’ll continue to do so until the environmental situation becomes untenable. In the mean time, the real estate developers, estate, agents, house builders, private insurers, road contractors, shop owners, and rental accommodation suppliers, will all get paid. And the tourists will continue to enjoy fun in the sun.

What about the property owners? Well, in real estate, timing is everything. They’ll just have to watch the market and judge when to sell — that’s if they even care; purchasing beach-front property is not a poor man’s game. And if a hurricane happens to blow their stuff away, there’s always FEMA and the Feds (the American taxpayer) to help them rebuild their houses, on taller stilts if necessary.

Beach houses on Hatteras Island, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene
Beach houses on Hatteras Island, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene. Image: Telegraph/AP

If sea level rises faster and higher than the 6 – 8 inches currently mandated by North Carolina’s law makers, who will bare the cost? Probably the people living in towns along the State’s low lying mainland coast. The houses they live in are not summer homes or holiday rentals — it’s all they’ve got.

Map of North Carolina showing physical regions
North Carolina Physical Regions. Map image from NCPedia

 

Light Rail Transit – the right choice for Norfolk VA

The Tide Light Rail vehicles at MacArthur Square, Norfolk VA
The Tide Light Rail vehicles at MacArthur Square, Norfolk VA. Image by Mega Anorak at Flickriver.com

It’s an eight minute ride on The Tide, from the Eastern Virginia Medical Center campus in Norfolk’s Ghent district to downtown Norfolk. The Tide is the city’s Light Rail Transit line. Opened in 2011, the line runs seven and a half miles from its western terminus at EVMC/Fort-Norfolk, through downtown Norfolk, to its eastern terminus at Newtown Road. From end to end, the ride takes 18 minutes, including brief stops at nine intermediate stations.
Map showing route of The Tide Light Rail Transit Line, Norfolk BA
Route of The Tide Light Rail Transit Line, Norfolk VA (termini marked in blue and circled))

The route to the east from Downtown Norfolk is far from scenic. It runs roughly parallel to Interstate-264, which means that the passing scene consists mostly of highway support structures  — underpasses, overpasses, level-crossings, and the like. Also on view are commercial buildings and parking lots. Many parking lots. Suburban residential areas along the the way appear like untamed nature by comparison. The ride is comfortable and entertaining. And it gives one an appreciation of the enormous amounts of concrete and blacktop used to sustain our automobile economy.
Interior view of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle
Interior view of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle. Image: Wikipedia Commons

The Tide is presently equipped with nine Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicles. These are double-ended cars with operating controls at both ends and doors on both sides. The same vehicles are in use or on order at nine or ten other US cities.
Diagram of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle
Diagram of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle. Image from Siemens website

According to the August 13, 2016 issue of the Virginia-Pilot, building the 7.4-mile line cost $318.5 (including $86 million in cost overruns). That year, weekday ridership had reached 4,800, and the operator, Hampton Roads Transit, declared the project a success. There’s been talk since then about extending the system into other parts of Norfolk and into Virginia Beach.
Investment in Light Rail Transit systems makes perfect sense. They are clean, quiet, safe, popular, and they do the job. But for Norfolk, the big question is this: Expand the transit system or Protect the city against the rising sea — which comes first?
The Tide Light Rail, Norfolk VA. View looking south-east from the EVMC/Fort-Norfolk Station
The Tide Light Rail, Norfolk VA. View looking south-east from the EVMC/Fort-Norfolk Station. Image by Jon Bell

 

Norfolk VA – Retreat, Dig-In, or Both?

The Coastal Plain — the land bordering the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Cape Cod — was once sea bottom. It has low topographic relief and extensive areas of wet land and drowned valleys such as the Chesapeake, the Delaware, and Long Island Sound. From the air the plain looks as flat as a pancake. The part of the plain that extends eastward into the Atlantic, forms the continental shelf. Norfolk, Virginia, is located on the eastern edge of the plain, on land the sea now wants to reclaim as its own.

Water view of Norfolk VA
Norfolk VA viewed from across the Elizabeth River. Wiki Commons image

It’s a pleasantly warm November day in downtown Norfolk. The sun is shining on the Elizabeth River and there’s nothing to suggest to the casual visitor that the city is under threat from an encroaching ocean. But the Inhabitants of the city are well aware of the threat and are constantly reminded of it.

For example, here’s part of a memorandum from the administrators of the Eastern Virginia Medical School to its students, faculty, and staff, concerning campus safety:

[The school] is located in a low lying coastal area; Norfolk’s elevation and its proximity to several rivers make it susceptible to flooding. Nearly every year, and sometimes several times throughout the year during times of heavy rain, hurricanes or nor’easter storms, the EVMS Community is threatened with the potential of precipitation, tidal and/or wind-driven flooding and/or low-land flooding.

The memo goes on to offer safety tips: If advised to evacuate your home, do so immediately; If there is any possibility of a flash flood, move to higher ground; If possible, move essential items to an upper floor; Turn off utilities at the main switches or valves; Do not walk through moving water. As little as 6 inches of moving water can make you fall; Do not drive into flooded areas. If floodwaters rise around your car, abandon the car and move to higher ground if you can do so safely.

The EVMS campus is located a mile or so north-west of Norfolk’s downtown core, in the district called Ghent. But the threat of flooding is not restricted to any one area, it is a constant concern throughout the city. 

Norfolk VA storm surge map
Norfolk VA storm surge map. Virginia Dept. of Emergency Management

What the map tells us is that, under present sea level conditions, the surge from a category three hurricane would put most of the city under several feet of sea water. However, because the level of the sea is continuing to rise, the potential for catastrophic flooding will increase with time.
The grey area on the map at the north end of the city marks the location of Navel Station Norfolk, the nations largest navel base. The base is particularly vulnerable to storm surge. When a serious storm approaches, the fleet wisely heads out to sea.

Aerial view of Naval Base Norfolk
Naval Base Norfolk. Image: Wiki Commons

So what can be done to protect the city?

The US Corps of Engineers – Norfolk District, has produced a 438-page report titled ‘Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study’ in which it proposes building — at a cost of $1.57 billion — a series of storm surge barriers and sea walls. The scheme is designed to protect the city from a 50-year storm, assuming a rise in sea level of 1.5 feet. However, since no one knows what level the sea will actually rise to, or how strong future storms will actually be, and considering the high cost of the plan, it’s unlikely the city will move on the recommendations any time soon.
The May 21, 2018 issue of Inside Climate News, quotes George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director:

“I truly believe that technology will begin to address some of our climate issues and some of our sea level rise issues, . . . There are obviously some issues, but in theory, can we live with water? Can we make it so the water comes, the water goes, and we just keep on keepin’ on?”

In the same issue, the author, Nicholas Kusnetz, writes:

“Norfolk officials say they don’t know how exactly their city will cope in the long term if seas rise quickly. They voice an understandable, but ultimately troubling faith that someone, somehow, will figure out a solution. Homewood acknowledges that, on some level, it won’t be enough.”

The light at the end of the tunnel

My last post titled, ‘Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits’, elicited this question:

Is the tunnel as straight as the map suggests?

Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC
Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC. Image from Draft Environmental Statement, June 30, 2017; Hudson Tunnel Project.

The answer is yes, it is in reality as straight as a die, at least in plan view. tunneling is a costly business; the least expensive way to dig a tunnel is to keep it absolutely straight. The following YouTube video created by Konstantin Gorakine titled, ‘Tunnel ride under Hudson River to Penn Station, NYC’, will convince you. It convinced me.

You’re a visitor and you want to experience ‘authentic’ New York City life. To the millions of people who live and/or work in the city, there’s nothing more ‘real’ than the daily commute. About one hundred thousand commuters pour into the city through the Hudson River Rail Tunnel every weekday. And that’s just one of the entry points. Get a feel for what it’s like; take the same train ride. But there’s no need to punish yourself; avoid the rush hours.

The NJ Transit train ride from Penn Station, NYC to Penn Station, Newark, NY, makes for an enjoyable excursion — about 20 minutes travel time, each way. If you leave at about 10:30 in the morning, you can be back by noon. Navigating Penn Station is an authentic New York experience in itself.

Map showing location of Penn Sta., NYC in relation to Penn Sta., Newark andNorth Bergen Tunnel portal
Map showing locations of Penn Sta.,NYC, North Bergen Tunnel portal, and Penn Sta., Newark, NJ

Help! The Hudson River Rail Tunnel is falling to bits.

A few days ago, New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, accompanied by a film crew, paid a late night visit to the Hudson River Rail Tunnel. His objective was to publicize the sorry state of the tunnel’s physical condition, and to thereby convince the Trump  administration that federal funding is urgently needed to help finance the construction of replacement tunnels. The New York Times called it a Hollywood stunt “ . . . designed solely to win over an audience of [the] one who sits in the Oval Office.” True or not, Governor Cuomo’s efforts should be applauded. It’s encouraging to see a politician up to his elbows in honest dirt rather than mucking about in the sort politician’s usually wallow in. And apart from that, he does an excellent job of pointing out the tunnels’s defeciencies. Listen to Governor Cuomo’s exposé on the following YouTube video and decide for yourself:

The tunnel (actually a pair of single-track tunnels), presently operates at or above capacity. About 450 trains pass through the tunnels each weekday (averaging one train every six minutes) carrying about 100,000 New Jersey commuters (plus Amtrack passengers) to Manhattan in the morning and back to NJ in the evening. Whenever the tunnel is shut down, those citizens have no other practical way to get to work because the tunnels and bridges for road and subway traffic are also at capacity.

Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC
Map showing route of Hudson River Rail Tunnel from North Bergen, NJ to Penn Station, NYC

The 14,575 foot tunnel has been in use for 108 years and shows it. The flooding that occurred during hurricane Sandy in 2012, entered the tunnel through the portals at its eastern (Manhattan) end. As Governor Cuomo points out in his video, the corrosion caused by salt water has intensified the deterioration within the tunnel. In view of his other comments concerning, rotted steel, crumbling cement, exposed rebar, damaged electrical gear, leaking walls, it’s fair to wonder about risk to human life. Are the tunnels in danger of collapse?

The experts say no. Here’s why:

The tunnel was driven through solid rock except were it passes under the river through accumulated silt. That’s where it proved necessary to construct the tunnel using 23 foot diameter, cast iron rings, each weighing 22 tons. The 2.5 foot wide rings were bolted together, one after the other, to form the two tubes running under the river. The seams between the rings were caulked to make the tubes watertight. The tubes were then lined with concrete. The structural integrity of the tunnel depends on the cast iron shells, not on the crumbling concrete that lines them. That said, if the deterioration inside the tunnel continues to worsen, it will eventually become impossible for trains to pass through it.

The next image shows one of the cast iron rings used to construct part of the Hudson River Rail Tunnel. It was one of the exhibits at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.

Cast Iron Tunnel Ring exhibited at 1907 Jamestown Exposition

New flood gates will keep NYC road tunnels dry next time the city’s streets are under water

New York City was struck by hurricane Sandy six years ago. Since then, while the city has updated its flood-risk maps, it hasn’t taken any concrete steps to prevent storm surges from entering the city. That’s not surprising; the city is rimmed by more than 580 miles of coastline, most of it at risk from storm surge.

Map of NYC flood-zones. Image from NYC Mayor’s Office
NYC flood-zones. Image from Mayor’s Office

Instead, city planners have focused on upgrading critical systems, such as: ‘hardening’ electrical systems; relocating backup generators; flood proofing subway openings; designating more emergency shelters for flood victims. Resilience is a word the city planners like to use these days. In other words, let the seas rise, we’ll deal with the water when it comes.

the most impressive example of this approach so far has been a $64 million project (now complete) to install flood gates on two of the city’s four road tunnels, namely: the 9,117 ft. Hugh L. Carey (Brooklyn-Battery) tunnel under the East River, and the 6,414 ft. Queens-Midtown tunnel, also under the East River. Both suffered serious damage during the Sandy flooding, the Hugh L. Carey tunnel, especially  so. The portals of both tunnels are located within zone-1 (first zone to flood).

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Map showing location of tunnel flood gates

Eight steel flood gates have been installed, two at each tunnel end. The gates were manufactured by Walz & Krenzer, Inc., of Oxford CT. (“Watertight Closures for the Marine industry since 1939”), one of about 50 U.S. companies involved in the flood-control equipment business.
Each gate weighs 44,600 pounds (about 20 tons), and measures 29 ft. wide by 14 ft. high by 22 inches thick.

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MTA Photo

The gate swings on two massive hinges. When parked in its open position, the free end rests on jacks.  Assuming  a two man crew, a machine such as a forklift is needed to help close it. In the event of a storm, the crew will first remove steel cover-plates from  a trough that stretches across the mouth of the portal. Once the gate is closed, the crew will latch it to the face of the portal and to attachments within the trough. Compression seals around the gate’s inner edge will make it watertight.

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MTA photo

The only way to see these gates up close is to drive through the tunnels. You’ll get only a second or two of observation. Considering New York’s frantic traffic, stopping to gaze at the thing is something no prudent driver should attempt.

It’s just as difficult to get a good look at the gates while on foot. Barriers of one sort or another along the streets surrounding tunnel entrances inhibit pedestrians from peering over walls. The Morris Street footbridge will eventually provide a platform from which to observe the Hugh L. Carey flood gates at the tunnel’s Manhattan end, but that bridge is being renovated and will not be available for use this year.

Why did the I-35W Highway Bridge in Minneapolis fall down?

Several readers of the post titled ‘Smart Bridge across the Mississippi River’ have asked if the cause of the collapse of the old I-35W bridge has ever been officially determined. The answer is yes.

I-35W highway bridge which collapsed November 2008
Old I-35W Highway Bridge. Image from en.wikipedia.org

The National Transportation Safety Board is mandated by Congress to investigate transporation accidents and determine the probable causes. The NTSB issued its report (HAR0803) on the I-35W bridge collapse on November 14, 2008. It’s a detailed, 162-page, engineering study.  Here’s an excerpt from the report’s conclusions (the italics are mine):

[T]he probable cause of the collapse . . . was the inadequate load capacity (bridge was not strong enough), due to a design error by Sverdrup & Parcel and Associates (the bridge designers) of the gusset plates at the U10 nodes (specific places within the bridge structure described in the report), which failed under a combination of (1) substantial increases in the weight of the bridge which resulted from previous bridge modifications, and (2) the traffic and concentrated construction loads on the bridge on the day of the collapse.

What exactly are gusset plates?

The collapsed bridge belonged to a class of bridge called truss bridges. These are bridges assembled from straight pieces of steel — girders, beams, angles, etc. — that are connected together in the form of triangles, and whose ends are tied together by gusset plates. The NTSB report defines a gusset plate as “A metal plate used to unite multiple structural members of a truss.

Gusset plates on Old I-35W highway bridge in Minniapolis, MN
One of the bridge’s ‘nodes’ where structural members were joined together by gusset plates. Image from NTSB report.

The I-35W bridge had a total of 112 nodes. The gusset plates at each node were 1/2 inch thick steel. According to the NTSB report (page 128), they should have been 1 inch thick. That was the design error. Catastrophic failure of one or more gusset plates in the central region of the bridge initiated the sudden collapse.

As noted in the report’s conclusions, there were two contributing factors:

(1) The bridge was initially constructed with 1.5 inches of concrete as the deck surface. To combat corrosion of the underlying steel, the layer of concrete was eventually increased to an average of 8.7 inches by the time the bridge collapsed. The weight of the additional concrete increased the dead load on the bridge by 13.4 percent (page 23).

(2) On the day of the collapse, deck renovations were underway. The additional weight of construction equipment as well as piles of sand and gravel for making cement were concentrated on one side of the bridge.

Smart Bridge across the Mississippi River

The new, ten-lane I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge carries the highway across the Mississippi River, just east of  downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. The bridge is modern, it’s state-of-the-art, and it’s billed as ‘smart’, and if you have time to do only one thing during your visit to the city, take a look at the bridge.

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Source: National Atlas of the US; US Dept. of Interior

If you’re not familiar with the area and you drive across the bridge, you probably won’t notice the bridge or the river. The bridge has no super structure above the deck and there’s little to differentiate the bridge deck from the highway. The transition from highway to bridge and back to highway is seamless. And whether you’re your heading north or south, you’ll be on a five lane highway and unlikely to get even a glimps of the river. To get a decent look at the structure, you must get off the highway, park your car, and walk.

Take any off-ramp leading to downtown Minneapolis. Your objective will be the West River Parkway. Several downtown cross streets connect to it. Once on the parkway, turn right and follow it to the riverside park called Bohemian Flats. There’s a pay-lot for cars within the park.

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Map shows I-35W Bridge in relation to West River Parkway and riverside parking lot.

The old eight-lane I-35W bridge collapsed suddenly on August 1, 2007 at 6:05 p.m. CDT, taking cars and trucks with it. Thirteen people were killed, many more injured.

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The 35W bridge in Minneapolis seen the day after it collapsed. Image by Mory Gash/AP

Nancy Daubenberger, bridge engineer for the state at the time (now Assistant Commissioner for Engineering Services), speaking on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ August 1, 2017, ten years after the collapse, said this: “The shock that came over me, that such a large bridge like that could collapse . . . it was devastating and tragic and shocking; a very, very sad situation.” 

Considering the importance of the I-35W river crossing to the state economy, a new bridge was designed and built in jig time. It opened September 2008, a little more than one year after the collapse of the old bridge.

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Old I-35W Bridge. Undated image from en.wikipedia.org

To see the new bridge up close, follow the footpath beside the West River Parkway, first under the No. 9 bridge (a former railway bridge, now a bike path), then under the four-lane, 10th Ave. bridge which crosses the river within 50 yards of the new St. Anthony Falls bridge. Follow the footpath a bit further and you’ll be standing directly under the I-35W and behind the bridge’s four south piers. This is where you can see that the bridge is in fact two bridges, side by side but separated by a few feet of empty space.

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Under the I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge looking north. Image by innovata/Wikimedia Commons/ CC-BY-SA

Apart from its graceful lines and modernistic look, what makes this bridge a state-of-the-art ‘smart bridge’? Here’s an excerpt from The Catalyist, a publication of the Center for Transportation Studies, University of Minnesota.

During its construction, the [St. Anthony Falls] bridge was instrumented with more than 500 sensors that monitor strain, load distribution, vibrations, temperature, potential corrosion, and the overall movement of the bridge. Other sensors were installed to monitor the bridge’s security and control automatic anti-icing and lighting systems.

Although we can’t see any of these devices, we can imagine them constantly at work, transmitting information to the engineers responsible for the bridge’s wellbeing.

St. Anthony Falls Bridge at night
St. Anthony Falls Bridge at night. Image: Center for Transportation Studies, U of MN

For side views of the New bridge, continue following the waterfront footpath to the Stone Arch Bridge, half a mile upstream. Built in 1883 as a railroad bridge and still standing firm after 135 years, the Stone Arch Bridge is now used only by pedestrians. The new I-35W bridge is designed to last 100 years.

Sea Level Rise and how you can track it in real time

Washington DC
On checking the weather, we see a day-old Coastal Flood Warning issued for the District of Columbia which says: “more than a third of Roosevelt Island will be covered by water and back water flooding of Rock Creek in Georgetown will begin.” An unusual occurrence? Not any more. Most low-lying coastal cities, including Washington DC, have begun to experience a new phenomena: High Tide Flooding during quiet weather days, the result of a gradual increase in sea level over the past one hundred and forty year.
Climate experts say that the the rate of sea level rise is speeding up and that the long-term effects could be dire. It’s a challenging subject and we’ve decided to find out more about it, starting today.

Our first stop is Washington DC’s tide-gauge station on Pier 5 near the south end of Water Street, one of the many tide-gauge stations operated by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Map of Washington DC showing location of NOAA Tide Guage
Washington DC showing location of NOAA Tide Guage

It’s a cloudy, not-too-hot September day. From Independence Avenue we walk ten blocks south on 4th Street to where it ends at P Street, then eaby a short footpath to the Washington Channel shoreline. The Titanic Memorial (a large granite statue of a man with arms outstretched as if in flight) stands at that point. Pier 5 lies a few hundred yards to the north. We approach it by the waterfront footpath. We can see the tide gauge from the shore but cannot inspect it closely. The DC Police Harbor Patrol have their headquarters on the pier and they refuse to allow unauthorized access. No matter; we’ll look into how tide gauges work later.

NOAA Tide Gauge, Washington DC
NOAA Tide Gauge, Washington DC. Image: NOAA

Knowledge about sea level is based on information generated by a global network of about 2000 tide-level stations. A British organization called the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) is responsible for the collection and publication of the data produced by the network.

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From: PSMSL website (psmsl.org > data coverage)

There are two trends that give climateologists nightmares: global warming and sea level rise, the second the result of the first. The trend line for the rise in sea level is based on the data generated by the global tide gauge network since 1880. Here’s an example, one of many available on the web.

From: EPA website published 2016

The graph shows that since 1880, sea level has risen by about 9 inches, an average of about 1/16th of an inch per year. However, since 1993, the rate of rise has speeded up to about 1/8th of an inch per year, twice the rate of the long term average. What do the experts say will happen next? Many suggest 1.5 to 3 feet higher by the year 2100. Others, pointing to increasing global warming and the potential for rapid melting of the polar ice sheets, talk about six feet and up by the year 2100, enough to put southern Florida under water and swamp most of the world’s major cities.

Predictions that imply 2100 is the year the rubber hits the road, are not useful. Why? Two reasons: (1) predictions that are safe from being proved wrong within the lifetime of the predictors, are not impressive and easily ignored; (2) the year 2100 is eighty years in the future, much too long a time frame to be of practical use to most people. We need predictions that focus on the near term. We also need a way to keep track of the situation in real time and without having to depend directly on experts for information on which to base personal decisions, such as where to live, for example.
Help is at hand in the form of a paper titled ‘Sea level rise drives increased tidal flooding frequency . . . ‘ published Feb. 3, 2017 in the ‘open access’ journal PLOS ONE. Here’s an excerpt:

“. . . because the general public often perceives climate change as a temporally distant threat, we have chosen to focus on two time frames (15 and 30 years into the future) that are easily comprehensible within a human lifetime.”

In the paper, the authors have predicted the severity of tidal flooding at 52 locations along the U.S. east and gulf coasts by the years 2030 and 2045. They did this by first establishing a correlation between tide-gauge measurements and Coastal Flood Advisories (CFAs) issued by the U.S. National Weather Service. They then show that the number and frequency of CFAs for any  given location can substitute for tide-gauge measurnts as a predictor of future flooding severity.

This is great. We, or anyone else with access to the web, can easily keep track of the number and frequency of CFAs affecting coastal property. A daily check on the Coastal Flood Advisory section of the National Weather Service takes little effort. After two or three years we can crunch our numbers and decide for ourselves whether or not sea level rise is a threat to take seriously. We won’t have to depend on media reports about climate change to be in the know.

Here’s an example from the PLOS ONE paper. By 2015, the number of tidal flood events affecting the shore area of Annapolis, Maryland, had risen to about 35 per year. Based on the CFA record for Annapolis, the authors predict that that number will rise to 145 by the year 2030 (only 11 years from now) and to 180 by the year 2045. If those predictions become fact, who is going to put up with streets and shop fronts that get swamped by sea water every second or third day of the year? The report paints a similar near-term future for the waterfront areas of Washington DC and other cities.

Since we intend to keep track of the Coastal Flood Advisories issued for Annapolis, we decide to visit the city to see for ourselves how tidal flooding has affected it so far. Annapolis lies about 30 miles from DC on a different branch of Chesapeake Bay. We retrieve our car from its parking spot and head east out of Washington, aiming to connect with Route 50.

Map of Annapolis MD waterfront area
Annapolis MD waterfront showing area affected by intermittent tidal flooding
Map showing Washington DC and Annapolis MD in relation to Chesapeake Bay
Washington DC and Annapolis MD in relation to Chesapeake Bay

The Geographic Center of the 48 States – why moving it could help

There’s a mystery here. Why wasn’t the Center monument planted in the center of Lebanon instead of out in the middle of nowhere?

One hundred years ago, someone employed by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey cut the shape of the contiguous 48 States out of a cardboard sheet and determined its center of gravity by balancing it on a point. The balance point on that cardboard map was said to represent the geographic center of the country.

Map of USA (lower 48 States) showing location of geographic center
Lower 48 States with star marking geographic center

Humans are attracted to centers no matter how they are determined. People flock to city centers, cultural centers, shopping centers, garden centers, sometimes even to detention centers. No one speaks of ‘places’ of excellence. In physics, the center of attraction is the point to which bodies tend by gravity. We, on planning a trip across the Great Plains, pick the route that passes through the center of the land.

From St. Joseph, Missouri, we head west on U.S. Route 36, cross the Missouri River, and enter Kansas. It’s early morning so the rising September sun is directly behind us. The expressway narrows to a two-lane highway and soon the country opens up. We see fewer trees and broader vistas. Before us lie the Great Plains, a vast sweep of land stretching east from the Rocky Mountains and from the Rio Grand in Texas to Alberta and Saskatchewan in the north, half a million square miles of relatively flat land, once the home of prairie grasses and bison, now largely given over to crops and cattle.

Some say there’s nothing to see on the plains except endless fields of wheat. In her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather says:

“. . . there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under ones feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud.”

Lebanon, Kansas, is a small agricultural community situated a few miles north of Route 36 in an unremarkable area of the plains. The city has suffered from rural flight and shows it: empty lots, closed schools, deadly quiet streets. Its population, once above 800 in the 1920s, is down to a couple of hundred. Its only claim to fame is its proximity to a set of map coordinates that have no cartographical or scientific relevance.

The cardboard cutout method used by the Geodetic Survey in 1918, determined the country’s geographic center to be at 39″50’N 98″35’W. Since that position lies fairly close to Lebanon, the Lebanon Hub Club, anticipating a sizeable tourist flow, arranged in 1940 for a monument to mark the spot. However, due to the spot being on private property, an alternate location on which to plant the monument had to be found. The result of the search was a piece of land two and a half miles northwest of the center of Lebanon, accessible by a turn-off from Route 281.

Map of Lebanon, Kansas and vicinity
Lebanon, Kansas and vicinity (Geographic Center in upper left corner). Map image: KDOT

There’s a mystery here. Why wasn’t the monument planted in the center of Lebanon instead of out in the middle of nowhere? After all, the cardboard cutout method used to determine the center of the country was only accurate to within ten miles at best. To put it another way, any point within a ten-mile radius of the calculated coordinates, including any point within the city of Lebanon, could have been chosen to represent the geographic center.

While the chosen site is pleasant and well maintained (the tiny chapel is a nice touch),  it has never attracted more than a trickle of visitors. A motel built to accommodate the anticipated flood of tourists closed down long ago. A monument within the city would not only give tourists a reason to visit the town, it would also enable Lebanon to advertise itself as the geographic center of the country, not just a place that happens to be near such a center. There seems to be no shortage of potential sites on which to plant a center monument within city boundaries. There are empty lots in the very center of the town. The land fronting the city’s water tower on Main Street might suit nicely.

Who would object to such a move? Certainly not the U.S. Geodetic Survey. That department is no longer interested in geographic centers. Oscar S. Adams, Senior Mathematician at the department, in his article titled Geographic Centers, says this:

“As a matter of fact, the conclusion is forced upon us that there is no such thing as the geographical center of any state, country or continent. The point determined will depend entirely upon the definition given by the one making the computation.”

After inspecting the existing center monument and then returning to Lebanon to walk about the streets, we are hungry and thirsty but find no place to eat. We head back to Route 36 and continue our journey westward. A twenty minute drive takes us to a restaurant called Paul’s Cafe and Dining Room in the city of Smith Center.

Map of Smith County, Kansas
Smith County, Kansas. Map Image: KDOT