Later On

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Archive for the ‘Global warming’ Category

The best books on Climate Change and Uncertainty

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Five Books interviews Kate Marvel:

‘When we talk about climate change, we sometimes assume people will be swayed by one more graph, one more coherent argument. But that’s not how people work. More facts don’t change minds, and deeply held views don’t always dictate behaviour.’ How, then, to grapple with a future that ‘might be weirder than we realise’? Kate Marvel, Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University and NASA, recommends an essential reading list for those ready to confront climate change and the uncertainties it brings.

OK, let’s start with some basics. What can we say for sure about anthropogenic climate change, and what can we not say for sure?

First, we know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. We know what its molecular structure looks like, and we know that this structure means that it absorbs infrared radiation. If we’re wrong about this, we’re wrong about the very basics of physics and chemistry.

Second, we know that burning fossil fuels increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The chemical reactions that produce energy when we burn oil, gas, or coal inevitably produce CO2 as a byproduct. And that CO2 goes into the atmosphere. We have excellent measurements of atmospheric CO2, and they clearly show a dramatic increase since the industrial revolution.

Third, we know the climate has been changing. Multiple independent datasets show the global temperature rising. But that’s not all that’s been happening. There is more water vapour in the atmosphere. Spring is coming earlier. Rainfall patterns are shifting. Glaciers and sea ice are melting. There are more and deadlier heat waves.

Fourth, we know that these changes are very, very likely to be due to human activities. We know that the climate changes due to natural factors, but we also have a fairly good understanding of what the climate would look like without us. We can model this natural variability using powerful supercomputers, and we can also study the climate of the past using things like tree rings and ice cores. The changes we’ve observed are too large and too rapid to be attributable to any known natural factors. And they’re very consistent with what we expect increased carbon dioxide to do to the planet. An alternate explanation would have to come up with a plausible natural mechanism for these changes and explain why CO2 doesn’t act the way we think it should – and that’s a very tall order.

But we don’t know everything (otherwise my job would be very boring). We don’t know exactly how hot it’s going to get. That’s largely because we don’t know what society will do in the future – will we take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or will it be business as usual? But even leaving aside this uncertainty, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the physical climate system. The planet responds to warming in ways that could either speed up or slow down that warming. A good example is ice melt: the north and south pole are covered in ice right now, and that ice is very good at reflecting sunlight. As the Earth warms, the ice melts, exposing darker ground or water. Without that reflective ice coating more sunlight gets absorbed and the planet gets even warmer, melting even more ice. It’s a vicious cycle, but one we understand fairly well. There are other effects that are much less well understood. For example, we’re pretty sure that global warming will change cloud cover, but we’re not sure exactly how, and we’re not sure if these changes will slow down or speed up the warming. This is an exciting scientific field, and we’re making considerable progress.

We also don’t know exactly how climate change will affect specific areas. Policymakers often want information about what to expect and when, and we’ll never have an exact answer. The computer models we use to project the future are improving, but we’ll always have to make decisions in an uncertain environment.

In a TED talk earlier this year you stressed the uncertainties relating to how cloud cover change – that they might help us out with global warming, but they might make it much worse. You also said in that talk that there was no observational evidence that clouds would substantially slow down global warming. Just now you told me that scientists like yourself are making considerable progress on this issue. Does that mean you and others are getting close to a significant reduction in uncertainty here?

That’s certainly the hope! Clouds are a real headache for climate scientists because we’re not sure what’s going to happen to them as the planet heats up. And that’s unfortunate, because clouds are incredibly important in regulating the climate. High clouds act a bit like a warm blanket, trapping heat from the planet below. This means that clouds have a very powerful greenhouse effect and make us much warmer. But clouds also play an opposite role. Anyone who’s ever had an outdoor party spoiled by clouds knows that they’re very effective at blocking sunlight. On a global scale, clouds block an enormous amount of sunlight that would otherwise warm the Earth, and so make it much colder. You can see right away how difficult it is to understand what’s going to happen. How will global warming change the greenhouse effect of clouds? Will it cause them to block more or less sunlight?

We’re making progress. Unfortunately, it’s mostly bad news. We’re now fairly confident that global warming will make the cloud greenhouse effect more powerful. This will, in turn, cause global warming to get worse. We’re less confident in this, but we have reasons to believe that the future may be sunnier: clouds will block less solar energy. And this also makes global warming worse. There’s still a lot to learn, but I wouldn’t place any bets on clouds saving us from ourselves.

Let’s look at your first book choice, Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006). What do you like about this book, and how does it help us think about uncertainty?

I have a shocking confession to make: I don’t enjoy reading popular books about climate science. Given what I actually do all day, it all feels a bit too much like hard work. I’d rather read something that entertains me or teaches me something I don’t know already. But I think this book is an important one: it largely gets the science right, and it helps give a sense of the scale of the problem. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2017 at 12:23 pm

Global warming starts to bite: Buyouts Won’t Be the Answer for Many Frequent Flooding Victims

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Lisa Song and Al Shaw, ProPublica, and Neena Satija, Texas Tribune and Reveal, report in ProPublica:

HOUSTON — After four sleepless days fighting to keep her home dry during Hurricane Harvey, after losing her car, after nearly getting electrocuted by a fallen electric box as she waded through brown muck in what wound up being the third flood to hit her property in three years, Maurine Howard wants out.

“I can’t go through this again,” she said. “I don’t have it in me.” The 2015 flood was minor enough she mopped it up with towels, but her house flooded badly last year when a city water pipe under her patio burst open during heavy rains. Then Harvey destroyed the entire first floor.

Howard, a longtime nonprofit director who calls herself a “mouthy person,” left a message with the mayor’s office demanding that the government buy her house.

If only it were that easy.

Experts see buyouts as a cornerstone of disaster recovery, a way to take the most chronically flooded homes and turn them into open space so they can improve drainage and lower flood risk for the surrounding area.

It’s hard to find another county in America that has accomplished more buyouts than Harris County. Since 1985, the Harris County Flood Control District — the main entity managing buyouts in the Houston area — has spent $342 million to purchase about 3,100 properties. But thanks to a decadeslong trend of increased flooding in Houston, caused by a combination of urban sprawl, lax building regulations and intense rainstorms linked to climate change, buyouts haven’t kept up with the destruction.

At the rate Harris County has been going, it would take more than three decades to acquire the 3,300 or so homes on the district’s priority buyout list — a drop in the bucket compared to the number of properties that flooded these past three years alone. Hurricane Harvey damaged at least 69,000 properties in the county, according to preliminary figures that are likely an underestimate. Devastating floods also hit the county in 2015 and 2016.

Despite the obvious need and high demand, Harris County is plagued by challenges endemic to buyout programs: limited funds, competing priorities, strict criteria that place buyouts out of reach of willing participants, and the snail’s pace of bureaucracy, which puts homeowners in limbo while creating opportunities for private developers to buy and flip flooded homes, perpetuating the problem.

When Howard talked to the flood control district, officials said her case wasn’t a priority, she said. Even though her home has flooded repeatedly, and will likely flood again, it lies outside the 100-year floodplain, the high-risk zone designated by government flood maps.

Howard, like thousands of other homeowners in similar circumstances, is likely ineligible for a buyout.

“Where am I going to go?” she asked. “What am I going to do?” Her flood insurance won’t cover the scope of needed repairs, she said, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave her just $2,200 for rent — not enough for Howard and her boyfriend to put down a deposit and get a furnished apartment for a month.

She still owes $270,000 on the house, which was appraised at $480,000 when she refinanced it two years ago, she said. A private buyer approached her in her driveway and offered her $175,000. Insulted, she turned it down.

“Now what happens to our property value?” she wondered. “It’s a flood house.”

The Harris County Flood Control District keeps a priority list of homes “hopelessly deep” within the floodplain, in areas “where we don’t think we can fix the flooding problems,” said James Wade, the district’s acquisitions manager. These are homes that “never should have been built.” Officials say the majority were constructed more than three decades ago, before Houston adopted modern floodplain maps and stricter regulations about where and how developers could build.

The district’s current $44 million buyout budget will be able to pay for only a few hundred homes — less than 10 percent of these prioritized properties.

“It’s always a funding issue,” Wade said. “We always have more volunteers than funds available.” . . .

Continue reading. Chart at the link.

I wonder whether the upsurge of terrorism and suicidal terrorists might not be ultimately driven by global warming and the losses that result—not simply money, but also one’s livelihood (see the rate of suicide among Indian farmers as the climate change is the reason they can’t go on).

Written by LeisureGuy

2 November 2017 at 3:47 pm

New science suggests the ocean could rise more — and faster — than we thought

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Chris Mooney offers some scientific substantiation for the feeling I’ve had that the effects of global warming are worsening rapidly. He writes in the Washington Post:

Climate change could lead to sea level rises that are larger, and happen more rapidly, than previously thought, according to a trio of new studies that reflect mounting concerns about the stability of polar ice.

In one case, the research suggests that previous high end projections for sea level rise by the year 2100 — a little over three feet — could be too low, substituting numbers as high as six feet at the extreme if the world continues to burn large volumes of fossil fuels throughout the century.

“We have the potential to have much more sea level rise under high emissions scenarios,” said Alexander Nauels, a researcher at the University of Melbourne in Australia who led one of the three studies. His work, co-authored with researchers at institutions in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany, was published Thursday in Environmental Research Letters.

The results comprise both novel scientific observations — based on high resolution seafloor imaging techniques that give a new window on past sea level events — and new modeling techniques based on a better understanding of Antarctic ice.

The observational results, from Texas and Antarctica, examine a similar time period — the close of the last Ice Age a little over 10,000 years ago, when seas are believed to have risen very rapidly at times, as northern hemisphere ice sheets collapsed.

Off the Texas coast, this would have inundated ancient coral reefs. Usually, these reefs can grow upward to keep pace with sea level rise, but there’s a limit — one observed by a team of scientists aboard a vessel called the Falcor in 200 foot deep waters off the coast of Corpus Christi.

These so-called drowned reefs showed features that the researchers called “terraces,” an indicator of how the corals would have tried to respond to fast rising sea levels. Because the organisms must maintain access to a certain amount of sunlight, they would have tried to grow higher to keep up with fast rising seas — but they wouldn’t have been able to do so over a very large area. And so their growth became concentrated in progressively smaller, stepped regions: . . .

Continue reading.

As you probably know, employees of the Environmental Protection Agency, including the scientists, are now forbidden to refer to or mention “climate change,” and information on climate change is being removed from the EPA web site. Perhaps the thought is that climate change will go away if it’s not mentioned, but that seems a forlorn hope.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2017 at 10:42 am

James Bradley recommends the best Climate Change Fiction

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The Five Books site notes:

James Bradley is a novelist, critic and editor of The Penguin Book of the Ocean (2010). His fourth novel, Clade (2017), follows the story of three generations in the 21st century to explore the effects of climate change.

The interview begins:

James Hansen, one of the most distinguished scientists to warn of the dangers of climate change, once said that being in his line of work is like screaming at people from behind a soundproof glass wall. You’ve written that being an author of fiction who is concerned with environmental questions often feels frighteningly similar. What, then, is the point? Is there a way to shatter the glass?

The psychology behind our responses to climate change is complex, but a big part of the problem is that we simply don’t have the cognitive tools to deal with it. It’s too big, too complex, the interplay of risk and time frame is too hard for us to hold in our heads. That means that while we understand there’s a problem we either cannot make sense of it or in those moments when we do get to grips with the enormity of what’s going on it’s so overwhelming we just shut down or give way to despair.

Finding a way of bridging that gap and making it comprehensible is vital. We need to find ways of communicating not just the scale of the problem but its ethical and philosophical dimensions, ways to think about ideas that challenge our assumptions about agency, of articulating grief, and bearing witness to what’s going on around us.

In an odd way the novel should be perfectly suited to this task. Its mutability and variousness make it enormously adaptable, and the fact it provides an interface between the interior and exterior world, and the private and public sphere means it can document the changes in both. The hybridity of the novel means it’s also able to explore more abstract ideas in the same way non-fiction can, while simultaneously using the mimetic possibilities of fiction to communicate ideas and experiences that are more resistant to non-fictional representation or discussion.

When it comes to climate change this can be as simple as helping us understand what it might be like to live in a climate-affected world. Certainly one of the things I wanted Clade to do was to take the abstract idea of climate change and give it an affective dimension, because it seemed to me that if I could give readers a way of imagining what it might be like to live in a climate-changed world it might help them think about the problem more effectively. But fiction also allows us to hold ideas in our heads about time and space and causality and connection that are difficult to articulate in other ways, and to give shape to experiences of unsettlement and dislocation that aren’t easy to communicate in abstract terms.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, fiction can open up space for change. Doing that demands we resist the seductions of the apocalyptic; as Fredric Jameson famously observed it’s always easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but it doesn’t necessarily require us to imagine alternative modes of social and economic organisation in the way somebody like Kim Stanley Robinson does. In a moment when – to borrow Mark Fisher’s phrase – “capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable”, the simple suggestion the reality we inhabit is neither inevitable nor the end of history becomes a radical act. As Ursula Le Guin observed not long ago, “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

In a series of essays gathered under the title The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh argues that ‘serious’ or literary fiction largely fails to address climate change and the Anthropocene, and he appears not to take science fiction or fantasy seriously. I take it you disagree with him. If so can you identify some of the characteristics of fiction that succeeds? Is it time to leave ‘serious’ literary fiction – whatever that may be – behind?

I’m actually an admirer of many aspects of Ghosh writing on climate change. His arguments about the historical relationships between colonialism, capitalism and climate are fascinating, as are a number of his observations about the ways in which the very privileged perspectives of those of us in the West frame the problem more generally.

Likewise he says a number of incredibly useful things about the ways in which climate change resists description and analysis in fictional form. This isn’t a new observation – many people have observed that the incremental nature of climate change, its non-human timespans, its complexity and connectedness all make it a difficult subject to write about in a conventional way. But Ghosh goes further, arguing that the social realist novel struggles with the phenomenon because the very strategies it uses to capture reality, strategies which emphasise the quotidian detail of everyday life to the exclusion of the extraordinary and inexplicable, smooth out and regularise the world in ways that make it almost impossible to adequately describe the cognitive and temporal rupture of climate change. As Ghosh puts it, “thus was the modern novel midwifed into existence around the world, through the banishment of the improbable and the insertion of the everyday.” Or, more bluntly, “the irony of the ‘realist’ novel” is that “the very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real”.

I think this analysis is broadly correct, but I take issue with Ghosh’s claim there is a dearth of serious fiction dealing with climate change. Quite aside from the fact I think his notion of ‘serious’ fiction –which in this case seems to be defined in opposition to genre fiction – is incoherent, it just isn’t true. Indeed I probably would have said the opposite: that once you start looking, anxiety about climate change and environmental change is everywhere.

Part of the problem with Ghosh argument is his excessively literal definition of “fiction about climate change”. Novels do not have to approach the subject directly or explicitly to be engaged with it: in fact the very difficulties Ghosh identifies mean writers are often more likely to approach it tangentially or metaphorically, or to simply incorporate it into the fabric of the worlds they create. I recently read Katie Kitamura’s novel A Separation, which is set in an economically ruined Greece where fires are ravaging the landscape, and while it never says anything explicit about climate change the background of economic and environmental breakdown means the novel’s portrait of psychic breakdown becomes charged by the dislocation we all feel as the future unravels around us, but the reality is there are many, many books engaged with these questions both directly and indirectly.

Ghosh’s desire to exclude the literatures of the fantastic from discussion is also deeply problematic. Discussing the literature of climate change without talking about Kim Stanley Robinson is frankly bizarre, but even setting Robinson aside it requires him to ignore the long tradition of science fiction that grapples with environmental questions and the considerable body of contemporary science fiction concerned the impacts of climate change. Sometimes the question is addressed directly, as in the work of Paolo Bacigalupi and novels such as The Water Knife. But it can also be seen in the planetary space opera of writers such as Paul McAuley and Alastair Reynolds, both of whom create worlds in which climate change and various forms of geo- and bio-engineering are simply givens. Likewise, Robert Macfarlane has argued that the resurgence of the eerie in British and Irish literature can be seen as a response to environmental disruption and the perturbations of late capitalism, meaning the increasing prominence of haunted landscapes and anti-pastorals offers a reminder of the fact “[t]he supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression.”

So Ghosh isn’t wrong about the challenges climate change presents to writers of fiction and the novel more generally. But he frames his argument in a way that deliberately ignores how much contemporary writing is engaged with the question, and as a result fails to recognise the ways in which that engagement is reconfiguring and transforming contemporary fiction. Sometimes that’s about the resurrection and revitalisation of older forms like the ghost story or the adoption of narrative strategies once confined to science fiction and the literatures of the fantastic, sometimes it’s about de-centring the human, or emphasising various forms of spatial or temporal entanglement, sometimes it’s about trying to think about deep time. But there’s no doubt it’s happening all around us.

I read your first choice, Annihilation (2014) by Jeff Vandermeer, as – among other things – a kind of ghost story. But neither it nor the other books in the Southern Reach trilogy of which it is a part are easy to label.

In the introduction to The Weird, the 2011 anthology that Jeff Vandermeer and his wife Ann edited, they suggest the weird isn’t a genre or a form so much as a technique or an affect, a thing that lurks in the interstices, and which emerges in unexpected and unsettling ways. I rather love this idea, not least because it captures something of what makes both Annihilation and its two sequels, Authority and Acceptance, so compelling, the the way reading them leaves you feeling like you’ve been colonised yourself, your brain permanently altered by your descent into the world of the books.

Read this way, Annihilation is a ghost story, albeit a ghost story of a very particular kind. But as is often the case with the sort of writing gathered together under the loose (and contested) rubric of the weird, the novel takes the tropes and techniques of a particular kind of supernatural story and empties them out so they give rise to something entirely new. Instead of the supernatural hokum of a ghost story or a horror novel, the book generates a sense of sustained dread and abjection, as the characters at its centre are killed or hollowed out and replaced by whatever it is that lurks in the mysterious Area X that lies at the heart of the three books.

In itself that would be an achievement, but what makes Annihilation and its sequels so exciting isn’t merely that they’re such extraordinary studies of the dislocation of the self. It’s Vandermeer’s decision to apply these techniques to the questions thrown up by climate change to create something that might be described as a kind of ‘ecological uncanny.’ The reader is brought face to face with the unknowability of the world, its inhuman scale and indifference to the human and the disjunction between our minds and the minds of the other presences – animal, vegetable, even mineral – that share our planet.

In the Southern Reach books this sense of nature’s immensity, complexity and ferocity are given palpable force. This is partly down to the clarity and intensity of Vandermeer’s prose. But it’s also because the books give shape to a deeply unsettling sense of disruption, of unknown forces intruding into the real, dislocating and deranging it. To the characters these forces feel like violations of the natural order, but that’s at least partly because what’s happening exceeds their powers of comprehension.

In this the trilogy echoes philosopher Timothy Morton’s notion of the hyperobject — that is, something so massively extended and distributed in time and space it transcends spatiotemporal specificity. Constituted out of the relationship between other objects, hyperobjects cannot be experienced directly, or in their totality. Instead we only ever perceive their effects, or imprints. As a result hyperobjects remain essentially ungraspable, apprehended only imperfectly and intermittently, yet simultaneously affecting us in unpredictable and often disconcerting ways.

Morton’s most important example of a hyperobject is climate change, a phenomenon generated by the interrelationship between the Sun and the Earth and atmospheric conditions under human impact, yet experienced by us in the form of rising temperatures, extreme weather events and environmental and social breakdown. But one might just as easily think about the Earth’s ecology in this way, or even evolution and consciousness.

The result is an incredibly potent way of imagining our own inability to conceive of the disaster of climate change, and the way its disruptions and convulsions unsettle our sense of the order of things. Like Area X, the effects of climate change make the world alien, even terrifying, deranging our sense of the natural order and revealing the void at the centre of things. The Southern Reach books make this process manifest, and in so doing they ask us to rethink some of our most fundamental assumptions about our centrality to the world and the meaning of our existence.

In your novel Clade some of the characters get caught up in a superstorm that hits eastern England and causes a huge flood. The scene is set in a future when, you write, people no longer deny the consequences of climate change, but – as one of your protagonists surmises – they still do not understand the scale of the transformation that is overtaking them. In light of the super-hurricanes and floods in 2017 reality seems to be catching up with fiction. But your work and Vandermeer’s are about more than climate change, aren’t they?

One of the really disturbing things about writing Clade was that even as I was working on it reality was overtaking me, meaning that a whole series of things that were still speculative when I began the book were actually happening by the time I finished it. That sense of reality outpacing fiction was unsettling, and it’s only accelerated since I finished the book.

But as you say, climate change is only the most significant of a host of environmental pressures that range from overpopulation to pollution, falling biodiversity and habitat loss, and which are altering the Earth’s climate and environment in entirely unprecedented ways. The familiar is being erased, as landscapes are razed and burned or alienated to human use, birds and animals disappear, supplanted by new and unfamiliar species, rivers die and the oceans empty out.

This transformation has been dubbed the Anthropocene. I’m a little uneasy about the term, and the way it celebrates human primacy rather than the costs of that primacy (personally I think E O Wilson’s term ‘Eremocene’, or Age of Silence might have been more appropriate), but whatever we call it the reality is, as Mckenzie Wark writes, that human and natural forces are now so entwined that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.

The immensity of this transformation is such that, like climate change, it’s essentially unthinkable at some deep level, both because its complexity exceeds our imaginative capacities, and because any genuine attempt to engage with its ethical dimension is completely overwhelming.

Part of what I find fascinating about the Southern Reach novels is that they transcend this problem by shifting our frame of reference. Humanity is hollowed out and left behind, and what we find in its place is the unknowability of nature. It’s also one of the things I wanted Cladeto do: as the novel heads toward its conclusion the time frames begin to expand, leaving the human behind and reaching out into deep time, since doing that not only reveals something of the transience and contingency of human history, but also a context within which the scale of climate change can be understood.

Your second choice is . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 October 2017 at 5:22 pm

Everyone Knew Houston’s Reservoirs Would Flood — Except for the People Who Bought Homes Inside Them

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Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune, and Al Shaw, ProPublica, report:

When Jeremy Boutor moved to a master-planned community in Houston’s booming energy corridor, he saw it as idyllic.

Lakes on Eldridge boasted waterfalls, jogging trails and a clubhouse. It was upscale, secure and close to the office. A bus even picked up his two young sons in front of their house and took them to a nearby international school.

“This neighborhood was a paradise,” said Boutor, who moved to Houston from Paris two years ago after his employer, a French-based energy company, asked him to relocate.

Then, Hurricane Harvey changed everything.

As the downpours began and Boutor studied maps flashing on his TV screen, he realized that his home wasn’t at risk of flooding just because of record rainfall; it was also located inside one of two massive reservoirs that had been built west of Houston decades ago to protect the city.

Boutor ended up with more than a foot of water in his house and was forced to wade out of his home in knee-deep water with his 10-year-old son clinging to his back.

He and his neighbors are now coming to terms with the fact that in big enough rainstorms, their neighborhoods are actually designed to flood. And nobody told them about it.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the two reservoirs known as Addicks and Barker on what was then mostly empty prairie, their chief goal was to protect the center of the city, 20 miles downstream.

The vast basins are dry most of the time, dotted with wooded parks and sports fields, and are contained on their eastern boundaries by large, earthen dams. During rainstorms, floodwater accumulates behind those dams in areas known as “flood pools” and backs up to the west; how far it goes depends on how big the rainstorm is and where it hits.

That system worked well when the reservoirs were surrounded by prairie and rice fields. But in recent decades, development has encroached from all sides. Today, about 14,000 homes are located inside them. During Harvey, when more floodwater accumulated behind the dams than ever before, 5,138 of those homes flooded.

Some local government officials, like Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, say they’ve warned residents for years about the risks of living in or around the reservoirs during town halls and other public events.

“It is very difficult to make people believe the unbelievable,” Radack said. “No one ever believed the reservoirs would fill.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county’s top elected official, said residents must know they live in the reservoirs — the dams, he said, are right there.

“You’ve got a group that bought homes if not in, then on the very edge of reservoirs behind the dams, so that’s pretty obvious,” Emmett said.

But it’s clear after Harvey that it wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. None of the more than half a dozen residents interviewed by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica after the floods say they knew they were living inside Addicks or Barker — many of their neighborhoods are several miles away from the dams.

Several local officials — including Houston’s “flood czar” and a neighboring county executive — said they had no idea the neighborhoods had been built inside the flood pools. Several real estate agents said they didn’t realize they were selling homes inside the pools.

“When I started to rent this house, nobody told me,” Boutor said. “Even the insurance company told me that it was not a flooding area.”

But critics say those officials and developers had to know they were putting people and property at risk.

“They had full knowledge. They knew exactly what they were doing,” said Phil Bedient, a professor of engineering at Rice University who studies flooding in the Houston area. “It’s a huge geopolitical mistake. How are they going to fix it?”

The question of who’s to blame has reignited long-simmering tensions between Harris County and the city of Houston.

In recent interviews, Emmett, the county judge, claimed that the city regulates development inside the reservoirs. But the city’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, called that “outrageous” and said the county plays a role, too.

Ultimately, all of them blame Congress. For more than a decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified a number of major needs for Addicks and Barker — including a comprehensive study of how development affects the reservoirs — but hasn’t gotten enough funding to address all the issues.

No matter whose fault it is, Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert — who has a portion of Barker Reservoir in his jurisdiction — said “you can’t take all that developed property off that land. It’s there. Whether it should have been allowed to be built the way it did … that wasn’t on my watch.”

But now that the homes and streets are there — instead of the prairieland that used to absorb rainwater — scientists, along with Harris County and federal officials, say they are sending more runoff into the reservoirs during heavy storms. That means the reservoirs are getting fuller with each big rain event, threatening not just neighborhoods inside the reservoirs but the integrity of the earthen dams, too. The dams have been considered at risk of failure for years. . .

Continue reading.

There’s more, and some interesting maps and photos at the link.

This is a failure of government.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2017 at 5:07 pm

Bad news: Solar and wind won’t make much difference to carbon dioxide emissions

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Peter Rez posts at the Oxford University Press blog:

We all like the convenience of electrical energy. It lights our home and offices, and drives motors that are needed in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems that keep us comfortable no matter what the temperature is outside. It’s essential for refrigeration that secures our food supply. In short, it makes modern life with all its comfort and conveniences possible.

However, most electricity is generated from burning fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas, leading to carbon dioxide emissions that could be responsible for climate change. In many circles there is a comforting belief that renewables such as solar and wind can replace fossil fuel electrical generation and leave us free to live as we do without carbon dioxide emissions. Fundamental physics and engineering considerations show that this is not so.

Power needs fluctuate with time of the day and, to a lesser extent, day of the week. In most places, peaks occur in the evening when people come home, start cooking, and turn on lights and entertainment systems. In Arizona in summer, the peaks are even more extreme due to the air conditioners all cutting in. There are also morning peaks, as people get up and turn on lights and hair dryers. Commercial and industrial use generally doesn’t change much throughout the day. The electrical utilities call this a baseload.

The wicked capitalist-monopoly electric utilities have spoiled us; we’ve gotten used to the idea that we can turn on the lights at night and run an electrical appliance at any time we want. Since electrical energy cannot be stored in sufficient quantities, the utilities are always continuously matching supply and demand. Power generation systems that take a long time to ramp up or down, like nuclear or coal, are left running continuously and used to meet baseload demand. Fast response turbines using natural gas are typically used to match peaks.

Solar and wind present two problems. One is low power density; massive areas have to be devoted to power generation. The other, more serious problem is intermittency. If we only wanted to run electrical appliances when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, fine, but don’t expect to use solar to turn on your light at night! So solar and wind cannot manage on their own; it’s always solar or wind AND something else. It’s hard to make it all work. They need either extensive storage or to be used in combination with gas turbines.

Batteries are also not a solution. In principle, I could run my house in Arizona on solar energy because almost every day is sunny. However, I would need a battery as big as the one in the Tesla S, about eight times the size of the Powerwall marketed for homes, and it would have to be replaced every three years. As Elon Musk said “Batteries suck.”

On a large scale, the only practical solution is pumped hydroelectric, where water is pumped uphill when there’s sunshine or wind and runs downhill to generate electricity when the wind stops blowing or the sun doesn’t shine. In many places, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

5 October 2017 at 11:15 am

Phoenix Will Be Almost Unlivable by 2050 Thanks to Climate Change

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The future has a grim aspect. Mike Pearl writes at

Sorry to put such a fine point on this, but even without climate change, Phoenix, Arizona, is already pretty uninhabitable. Don’t get me wrong, I spend a fair amount of time there, and I love it—particularly in the fall and winter—but without air-conditioning and refrigeration, it would be unlivable as is. Even with those modern conveniences, the hottest months take their toll on my feeble Southern Californian body and brain. The historical average number of days per year in Phoenix that hit 100 degrees is a mind-bending 92. But that number is rapidly rising as climate change bears down on America’s fifth-largest city.

“It’s currently the fastest warming big city in the US,” meteorologist and former Arizonan Eric Holthaus told me in an email. A study from Climate Central last year projects that Phoenix’s summer weather will be on average three to five degrees hotter by 2050. Meanwhile, that average number of 100-degree days will have skyrocketed by almost 40, to 132, according to another 2016 Climate Central study. (For reference, over a comparable period, New York City is expected to go from two to 15 100-degree days.)

And, tragically, all that heat costs quite a few Phoenicians their lives every year. Maricopa County keeps careful records of heat deaths and issues a morbid but extremely useful annual report. In 2016, 130 people died from heat—the most since the turn of the millennium and a big spike when compared to the 85 who died in 2015.

But as is the case with so much climate–related news, we shouldn’t go rushing to blame climate change for these deaths directly. Yes, 2016 was a hot year—Phoenix’s third-hottest ever, in fact—but, crucially, “it wasn’t exceptionally warmer than many other years over the time period for which they’ve been gathering these statistics,” Arizona State University climatologist David Hondula told me. (The exact cause of the spike in deaths remains a mystery.)

But Hondula told me that mystery just means that as the city heats up over the next few decades, there are other issues that deserve urgent public attention in the interest of saving people from getting cooked alive. These include”social service programs, homeless shelters, the opioid epidemic, [and] all these other intermediating factors,” he said, adding, “If we’re not paying attention to those at the same time we’re keeping an eye on the thermometers, we might really miss some drivers and some threat magnifiers.”

As bad as the deadly heat is getting, there’s another potential horror coming: drought. “As much as 20 percent of the [Colorado] River could dry up by 2050,” Holthaus told me.

The river is of enormous consequence to the fates of Arizonans. That’s because an agreement they made in the 1960s says that among those drinking from the Colorado River (Southern Californians also guzzle from the same stream, for instance), Arizona would be the first state to ration.

But in 2012, the Department of the Interior put together a famous climate change study (“famous” among water researchers in Arizona, that is) showing a yawning chasm opening up between water supply and demand by 2060—a 3.2 million-acre-foot shortfall of water, to be precise. That’s about five times as much water as Los Angeles uses in a year, according to the Washington Post.

Ray Quay, a researcher at the Decision Center for a Desert City project in the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University, told me, “Water is taken for granted right now.” Soon enough, “a crisis will occur, and people will say, ‘Oh my goodness, we have to do something. What do we do?’ One of the problems we face is that nobody’s really focused on that.”

According to Quay, the first time the river level gets extremely low, the shortage will really only be felt by Arizona’s farmers—meaning they’ll start getting water from wells. “Going to groundwater and mining groundwater is not sustainable, because groundwater is not like some giant Lake Michigan under Arizona,” he told me. “There will be impacts within that 2050 timeframe, but it’s going to be spotty, and it’s going to be in areas where the aquifers aren’t as large. That’s rural Arizona—particularly agriculture. You’ll see some parts of rural Arizona where some people have to pick up and move.”

“When the second shortage occurs, urban areas will feel that,” Quay added. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 October 2017 at 10:38 am

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