What we’re learning about hurricanes. And how societies handle them.
I’ve lived through impressive tropical storms, twice on sailboats safe in harbor, but I can’t really imagine a hurricane with 150 mph winds like Ida. That’s the business of coastal scientists, engineers and other experts. Here’s what they’re telling me:
It might not always seem this way, but in the past few years the National Hurricane Center has notably upped its game for predicting storm tracks.
The lamentable history of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina is beautifully described in Andy Horowitz’s Katrina. Once again Hurricane Ida is highlighting society’s lack of interest in guarding the vulnerable, while maintaining systemic foulups like police focused on protecting property rather than people.
The rebuilt New Orleans levee system “is less ambitious than the one Louisianans lobbied for after Katrina, and the protection it offers grows weaker every day, as the wetlands that buffer the city from the Gulf of Mexico get wetter,” as Horowitz wrote in the New York Times. “But it kept the Gulf of Mexico out of the city, which was its job.”
That was a straightforward goal for the Army Corps of Engineer’s $15-billion New Orleans levee project. Achievable goals may be far less clear for megaprojects under consideration for other U.S. cities. Case in point, Miami just turned thumbs down on a Corps plan built on a massive seawall.
Miami is among the urban areas hoping to adopt “nature-based systems” (oyster reefs, salt marshes, sea grass meadows, mangroves… ) as part of their resiliency efforts. NBS is a big theme in the Texas coastal spine proposal, centered not just on enormous sea gates but on miles of sand dunes. As with traditional gray engineering, NBS measures have strengths and weaknesses; salt marshes retain no magic if they’re buried under a surge of seawater.
Traditional benefit/cost analyses for such projects that consider only financial factors “might lead a government to protect only the parts of a city that contain high-value properties while dismissing parts of a community where less advantaged people live,” notes a National Academies report on localized climate action.
There’s much talk about “managed retreat” from endangered coastal sites but so far this radical step is taken only when there is no choice at all. “There are reasons people live where they live,” as one prominent engineer pointed out to me.
Hurricanes can rip away the accoutrements of civilization over surprisingly huge areas–for instance, Ida killed more people in the Big Apple than the Big Easy. But with the huge exception of rainfall, the worst structural damage is usually highly localized. Properly designed and constructed buildings often survive hurricanes surprisingly well, and the big problem for their occupants becomes waiting for restored power, water, roads and other lifelines.
As Boston plans for resilient waterfronts, there’s still a case for a barrier in the outer harbor.
Along Boston Harbor, the big worries from climate change are sea-level rise and storms—but not in that order, William Golden remarked in a Environmental Business Council (EBC) of New England session on December 10.
Currently in Boston, sea-level rise is “a nuisance issue that can be addressed for another 30 or 40 years with a couple of feet of seawall,” said Golden, an attorney and environmental activist best known for filing the lawsuit that led to the cleanup of Boston Harbor. “The real issue is storm surge.”
That is, when the sea climbs to scary heights—say, the 14-foot-above-high-tide wall of water that swamped lower Manhattan in Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Much of the Boston waterfront was originally tidal flats and its edges remain highly vulnerable to ocean storms, which are growing more numerous and often more terrifying. In this record-breaking year, 12 named Atlantic storms hit the U.S., one clobbering Louisiana with winds over 150 mph and a storm surge of 17 feet.
Now leading the Boston Harbor Regional Storm Surge Working Group, Golden renewed his call for a harbor barrier stretching from Hull to Deer Island in outer Boston Harbor, guarding against storms for 15 cities and towns with 175 miles of coastline. (Such a barrier wouldn’t do anything about sea-level rise, which instead would be addressed by relatively modest structures onshore.)
Boston turned down this concept in 2018 after a preliminary feasibility study argued that the sea-gate system would be less cost-effective than onshore measures, take decades to build and pose uncertain technical risks. Golden and his allies, however, remained unconvinced.
Sanjay Seth, Boston’s climate resilience program manager, didn’t comment on the harbor barrier proposal at the EDC meeting but did outline the city’s active program to defend itself onshore.
“There are several areas of Boston that can serve as entry points for significantly damaging floods,” Seth noted. “We do have a real but very narrow window to achieve a unified network of protection in the city. .. Climate change really isn’t waiting.”
The downtown Boston waterfront, with its almost completely private ownership and messy underpinnings, may be the hardest neighborhood to handle. “There’s no silver bullet here,” Seth said. Instead, the plan calls for a mix of four options: raising the main roads closest to the waterfront, reconfiguring parks and other open spaces, beefing up the Harborwalk, and placing structures directly in the sea.
The preferred strategy for the downtown is a line of defense along the outside edge of the waterfront. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be doable,” said Seth. He acknowledged that success will require “entirely new levels of public/private coordination, as well as new, more robust coordination among private property owners themselves.”
Golden applauded Boston’s resilience planning but pointed out the limitations of any land-based measures. “Flood walls, particularly when they’re meant to address storm surge and sea level rise, can separate the public from the water,” he noted. The walls also can leave marine uses such as cargo shipping and ferry traffic unprotected. Moreover, the structures can act as bathtubs that need pumps to clear themselves after heavy rainstorms.
Harbor barriers can minimize those problems. Truly massive barriers are quietly guarding London, Rotterdam, Saint Petersburg and other cities. Smaller ones have worked well in New Bedford and other New England cities, Golden pointed out.
The leading U.S. contender for a giant gate system is the one proposed for Galveston Bay and Houston, part of a grand scheme for the Texas coast that seems headed to Congress this spring.
William Merrell of Texas A&M in Galveston came up with the concept back in 2008 while he was trapped in an apartment building by high water of Hurricane Ike. Once known as the Ike Dike, now as the Texas coastal spine, the idea is “extremely simple,” Merrell said during the EDC meeting. “Stop the water at the coast.”
The central barrier would cross Bolivar Roads, the main entrance to Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel. It would combine a set of 300-foot-wide vertical-lift gates with massive horizontal swinging gates on the navigation channel, like those in Rotterdam. Left open in normal conditions, these entry points would allow almost-normal tidal flow. In addition to the gates, the project would bundle in defensive local measures for the city of Galveston and other sites inside the Bay, along with 43 miles of beach and dune restoration on barrier islands plus a wealth of ecosystem restoration efforts.
A far more colossal harbor barrier has been proposed for metropolitan New York, where Sandy killed more than 100 people. This humongo structure could close the Ambrose shipping channel with a five-mile barrier stretching from the Rockaways to Sandy Hook. Additionally, a one-mile barrier could close the East River.
This regional system would work together with lower onshore barriers designed to deal with sea level rise and most storms, said Robert Yaro, professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, at the EBC session.
However, New York City chose instead to pursue a number of very large onshore projects, with very little to show to date. “Nothing’s operational after eight years, and none of them are fully funded,” Yaro said.
“Every one of these onshore barriers is a lot more complicated, a lot more expensive and a lot more time-consuming than anybody anticipated at the outset,” he added. Many protective measures depend on deployable flood barriers, an operational nightmare. And it’s still not at all clear that there’s even a working concept to protect Wall Street, whose waterfront is particularly constrained.
“When you add up the cost of the various onshore barrier systems that have been proposed for the New York metropolitan area, they exceed the cost of an offshore barrier system,” Yaro said. He also declared that even projects on this enormous scale can be constructed in a few years if the will is there—for instance, the Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the New Orleans barrier system in less than five years after Hurricane Katrina.
“We believe that the surge barriers that we’re proposing will give us a hundred years or more to adapt our region to climate change,” Yaro said. “We need to have some time to plan to reinvent our cities and our civilization around the even more destructive changes that may be coming.”
“We’ve got to be more resilient, but we’ve got to be smarter about how we do it,” he summed up.
For Golden, that means a deeper study of the potential for a Boston harbor barrier, leading toward a shovel-ready coastal defense plan that could tap into the federal funding that he sees on the horizon. When and if such big bucks arrive, “we need to know what we’re going to do with that money,” he said.
Guerrilla Cartography highlights the power of maps to inform, persuade and inspire.
“Everyone believes a map. No other narrative device—not story or song or historical treatise—is so readily accepted as true. We have come to accept the map as fact.”
So writes Darin Jensen in Water: An Atlas, a remarkable collection of maps with many ways to view water that was released in 2017.
The maps for this crowd-funded publication were contributed by cartographers and other researchers around the world via Guerrilla Cartography, an open collaboration Jensen founded to “widely promote the cartographic arts.” The group’s first project was Food: An Atlas, a milestone accomplishment in 2012.
Its latest production is Atlas in a Day: Migration, a stunning response to a challenge to research and design an atlas about migration in one day last October. No fewer than 43 maps “interpret the theme of migration in diverse ways, considering the movements of people, animals, climates, physical materials and cultural artifacts over time and space. Some of them represent the culmination of years of research on a critical topic; others are quick sketches inspired by current events and concerns.”
Maps retain plenty of power in print, Jensen points out.
“Guerrilla Cartography is about letting story emerge from data and illustrating the story through the art of cartographic design,” he says. “We give voice to the talents of mapmakers who may have no other platform for a wide and printed distribution of their work and ideas.”
Built on four centuries of filled land, Boston is wildly vulnerable to the next major hurricanes or winter northeasters. These risks only accelerate as storms get worse and sea levels rise. To their credit, the city and state understood this exposure years ago and have been steadily working away on climate resilience initiatives. One project was to consider a grand Boston Harbor barrier that would close off much or all of the harbor against big ocean storms. A study led by the University of Massachusetts found, however, that such a barrier would be thoroughly impractical.
But maybe not. William Golden, famous here for kicking off the legal struggles that triggered the harbor cleanup a few decades ago, today launched an open meeting of a Boston Harbor storm surge working group. The group’s premise is straightforward: the best defense against the sea is a layered defense that combines a re-thought harbor barrier (to fend off the storms) and relatively modest local measures such as berms (to handle sea level rise).
Among points by Golden and his allies:
There are many alternative barrier routes and designs, some sketched out above by Duncan Mellor of Tighe & Bond. These might mostly follow shallow water, use dual gates for the shipping channels rather than the never-built-anywhere single gate structure examined by UMass researchers, and be considerably less massive. That might make them dramatically less expensive than the $7-12 billion pricetag UMass experts suggested.
Depending on your assumptions about how long construction takes and what you pay for money (discount rates), costs again might drop significantly. And unlike smaller projects, federal funding just might be available.
A barrier that guards the entire harbor, not just Boston, could provide benefits that no one has counted yet. Most dramatically, the savings in regional flood insurance payments might be many times the investment.
The default alternative of building high local berms/seawalls everywhere brings up seriously worrying questions. For one, what about the places that can’t afford them? For another, how will all these patchwork walls connect? And do we really know how to efficiently build a watertight 20-foot seawall all along, say, the North End waterfront, with its crazy web of buried infrastructure and weak geological underpinnings?
Our safeguards against the sea will have domino effects far beyond Boston. “This is going to affect the economy of the whole region,” Golden said. “It’s an existential threat.”
Pre-filled Boston, courtesy Leventhal Map & Education Center, Boston Public Library
As climate change deepens, we’ll need to understand entirely new marine ecosystems.
Here’s the good news: Since 1990, the catch of Maine lobsters has quintupled.
Okay, the rest of the news, as in other stories about climate change, is not so good.
The bumper crops of lobsters apparently have been driven by warming in the Gulf of Maine. Sea surface temperatures have climbed about four times as much in recent decades in the Gulf as in the global ocean average, according to Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
Warmer water in the Gulf also has knocked down populations of other marine life, including some we eat (or once ate) such as northern shrimp and cod.
For hundreds of years, cod in the northwest Atlantic was one of the world’s richest fisheries. Back in the 1970s, my older brother took a trip to Georges Bank as a whale watcher on a giant Russian factory ship. At night, the sea looked like a city, dotted with the lights of dozens of fishing vessels busily sucking up cod and everything else on the seafloor.
Cod never recovered. The U.S. soon took control of our waters out 200 miles and managed the seafood take as well as it could. But most of the cod we eat now comes from China or Iceland.
Today climate change is delivering not just disruptions in ocean temperature and circulation patterns but acidification, extreme storms, loss of mangroves and marshes… As fisheries are disrupted around the world, the familiar difficulties of managing them get worse.
We don’t really know how to model newly emerging marine ecosystems, Tatiana Rynearson of the University of Rhode Island remarked at the Metcalf session. We lack the years of data needed to understand the fluctuations in conditions and populations, as Jorge García Molinos and colleagues pointed out in a 2015 paper.
Our need for long-term ocean monitoring and related research couldn’t be clearer, but climate change research is under heavy attack in the U.S.
Fortunately, compared to most of the waters of the world, we do have good historical information on Gulf of Maine waters and seafood. And while lobsters are a luxury food, they offer a positive example for management.
Unlike the case in some other states, Maine fishers must toss back lobsters that are too big as well as too small. Simulations have shown that saving the big ones has helped the shellfish survive the fishing onslaught in the Gulf, where 90% of legal-size lobsters are caught each year, Pershing said.
The saga of Maine lobsters, of course, rolls on. The catch dropped significantly in the last two years, and the highest landings keep moving north.
The Thames Barrier is still prepped for decades defending London against high water.
On Tuesday, the warmest winter day ever recorded in Britain, there was not a cloud in the sky over the Thames Barrier. A tug calmly pulled its barge through one of the channels in the Barrier, which shuts off the Thames when the incoming tide will rise over sixteen feet. This offbeat superdam doesn’t look like anything else: a necklace of giant steampunk silver mussel shells stretched a third of a mile across the river. London began seriously contemplating means of protection after a major dousing in the great North Sea storm of 1953. The Barrier went into operation three decades later. It has decades of usefulness ahead; although climate change was not considered in its design, sea levels along the southern English coast aren’t inching up from geologic causes as fast as originally expected. The Barrier has been shut about 200 times, 50 of them in the 2013/2014 season, when the culprit was not super surges from the ocean but super rain surges that incoming tides would have pumped up further. “It is designed to be bomb-proof and failure-proof,” the Londonist once noted. “When a 3,000-tonne dredger hit the Barrier in 1997, the ship sank. The Barrier lost a ladder.” One of these decades, the enormous wall may be supplemented by a much more enormous dike downstream. In the meantime, “the structure is fundamental to the lives of millions of Londoners,” the London Review of Bookscommented, “which may be the reason very few of them want to look at it.”
Environmental writers tell great stories about life across our fast-changing globe.
We’re seeing a remarkable series of stories about climate change and other manmade or partly manmade threats—some even complete with hints of solutions. Here’s a fairly random baker’s dozen from this striking crop (hmm, only two of these pieces come from for-profit publications).
What does the Venice Architecture Biennale say about resilience to climate change? Not so much yet.
Now is the start of acqua alta season in Venice, when high tides occasionally flood low-lying areas like Saint Mark’s Square and sometimes sweep across neighborhoods around the city.* As we jumped on a vaporetto waterbus one warm sunny day, platforms of temporary pedestrian walkways were stacked nearby.
We were off to the Venice Architecture Biennale, the remarkable collection of exhibits from many countries. I was particularly curious about how the huge show would reflect the call for resilience to rising sea levels, scarier storms, droughts, heat waves and the other deadly baggage now arriving courtesy climate change.
Venice has been sinking into its lagoon by about a millimeter a year for hundreds of years. Three decades ago Italy launched the MOSE megaproject, building gates to close three entries to the lagoon against high tides. When and how well the gates will operate still seems uncertain. Perhaps it was unsurprising that Venice’s own pavilion said little about climate change, although it did emphasize advances in predicting tides.
Among the national pavilions, mentions of climate change were rare. This didn’t reflect any lack of brilliant conceptions and designs. Strikingly, many of the most intriguing pavilions didn’t focus on new construction. The French exhibit presents 10 abandoned buildings adopted for cultural use or aiding the homeless, for example. The Egyptian pavilion dives into how street vendors capitalize on public spaces in Cairo. Other exhibits, such as the Argentinian, do highlight natural landscapes and what’s left of them.
You could profitably spend hours in many of these intriguing spaces. I didn’t, and I probably missed a lot of serious thinking about climate resilience. I definitely although accidentally skipped the Antigua and Barbuda pavilion, which was not at the main Biennale sites but in a monastery near the center of Venice. Last year, Hurricane Irma hit Barbuda with winds over 150 miles per hour and destroyed most of the island’s buildings. All 1,800 residents were evacuated. Unsurprisingly, the pavilion’s theme centers on climate change: Environmental Justice as a Civil Right.
Giant dikes and other grand engineering projects will help us deal with climate change, but most of the heavy lifting will come from rethinking local architecture and design. The Biennale was awash in young architects from around the world, our hope for resilience.
* Two days after I wrote this, Venice was hit by a storm bringing the worst acqua alta event in years, flooding most of the city.
In good weather, Venice is all about eye candy, not just in architecture and art.
Wind turbines go to work 16 miles off the Rhode Island coast.
Offshore wind turbines seemed a bit, well, gimmicky to me until a few years ago when I saw a farm calmly spinning its blades as I flew home from Europe. Anything that keeps working in the North Sea is entirely real. Now they have arrived in 600-foot-form off the New England coast, as I saw last month in a trip to Deepwater Wind’s installation off Block Island (thanks, Noelle Swan and the New England Association of Science Writers!). These giant beasts won’t always be easy to maintain, as we saw watching a crew struggling to jump onto one tower from a support vessel in gentle six-foot swells from Hurricane Maria. The 240-foot blades are no favor to offshore birds. But Deepwater Wind seems to have made every reasonable effort to minimize and monitor the overall environmental impact of the turbines, as attested by the National Wildlife Federation scientist onboard our fast ferry. Ocean wind turbine technology is advancing rapidly, one example being the replacement of the traditional gearbox with a GE direct-drive permanent magnet generator, noted Willett Kempton of the University of Delaware’s ocean wind power program. Wind turbines can tap steady winds at sea, where they can be built much larger than on land, and a wealth of projects are planned along the U.S. east coast. Yes, they’re designed to survive hurricanes, although maybe not a problem like Maria. And although offshore wind still can’t produce power here as cheaply as fossil-fuel plants, European wind costs are already below that mark.
On a clear hot August day you can take a ferry to Spectacle Island and walk a winding path up to its northern summit, admiring wildflowers and eating blackberries. The summit is the highest point of land on Boston Harbor, with low wooded islands scattered around.
Off to the east you can spot a windmill near the huge sludge-digesting eggs of Deer Island, and a second windmill a few miles south at the tip of the Hull peninsula. These two points of land bracket the entrance from Massachusetts Bay to the harbor’s inner archipelago.
One distant day, Deer Island and Hull also may anchor a massive sea barrier, holding off an ocean that’s now projected to climb as much as eight feet by 2100.
Today it’s hard to imagine how we might start to build such a Big Dike, given our current politics.
But you can also see hopeful signs on this Spectacle for our ability to clean up our own messes.
The first time I sailed past the island it was a garbage dump, with the remnants of a horse-rendering plant buried under many feet of still-smoldering refuse.
Now that’s all taken away and replaced by fill from the Big Dig. The island was reengineered and replanted. Rich ecosystems began to reappear. On summer days like this, children swim a stone’s throw away from the site of the old factories.
In wildness is the preservation of the world, as Thoreau said. But not just in wildness.
What should we prioritize to try to save from the flood tide of extinction?
“The world is on fire, and we have to do something about it,” said Kate Jones, an ecologist with University of College in London.
Jones was one of the speakers at two Harvard panels last month about the species extinction perils of our Anthropocene age: climate change, overfishing and overhunting, pollution, loss of habitat, invasive species, sea level rise, ocean acidification and all the ugly rest.
Extinction threats are not like a field of bullets hitting everything equally, noted Jones, speaking at a session on Human Imprints on the Tree of Life. Primates are at greater risk than most mammals. Amphibians, palms and corals are particularly vulnerable. Ditto species on islands. Animals with large body sizes, long lives and small ranges are vanishing. Along with, of course, so many other forms of life.
Facing this global storm of extinction with severely limited resources, what should conservation groups and governments prioritize?
One framework for decisions is to safeguard plants and animals with particular values to humans, as food, fuel, eye candy or just insurance for the future, the scientists said. Another framework is to consider the tree of life—protecting genetic diversity so that we can better understand biology and maybe exploit that understanding down the road. (Saving, for instance, the ginkgo tree, full of idiosyncrasies after branching off from other trees 100 million years ago.)
Habitat protection initiatives don’t always follow these outlines, naturally enough. As one audience member noted, many projects in Britain aim to preserve butterflies that remain happily common elsewhere in Europe.
“Most conservation is local, which is fine,” said Ana Rodrigues of the French National Center for Scientific Research. But very few resources work at a global level, Rodrigues emphasized.
One of the few is the Evolutionarily Distinct & Globally Endangered (EDGE) program led by the Zoological Society of London. “We can take attention away from charismatic megafauna like pandas, which are cute and fluffy with big eyes,” remarked Jones. Instead, attention can be paid to offbeat creatures like the pink fairy armadillo. (“It’s another poster child but I think it’s spreading out the love.”)
“We’re in deep trouble,” said Yale botanist Michael Donoghue. “We have to act quickly. The problem is, there are too many things we value.”
Many forms of ecological damage have spread surprisingly quickly across vast areas of ocean, noted biologists at an Ocean Evolution Today seminar. Jellyfish are on the march as we vacuum up commercial finfish. Two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral died off in two years. “In the Arctic, ice algae is disappearing and the entire food web is compromised,” commented Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia.
All too often this marine damage is invisible to most of us, said Boston University’s Randi Dawn Rotjan. Even survival stories can be worrisome–for instance, the killifish that have evolved to shrug off PCB-laced harbors.
More generally, “I’m worried that my children will jump into the water and not know what they haven’t seen,” Rotjan said.
“The most important ecosystems on the planet are almost unknown,” pointed out Bruce Robison of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. One case in point: the ocean animals that migrate in “uncountable numbers” up toward the surface at night and then back down during the day, which brings carbon out of the surface waters.
Or we can think of the seafloor hot water vents discovered 40 years ago, which stream out key nutrients and may act “like the ocean’s multi-vitamins,” said Harvard’s Peter Girguis. Life throughout the sea, he added, “is linked to things that happen in the deepest darkest parts of the ocean.”
The scientists applauded the spread of marine sanctuaries, which can provide significant safeguards if established (and enforced) on sufficient scale. So far, sanctuaries have grown most notably in sparsely populated stretches of the Pacific. (The Republic of Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands Protected Area is a coral archipelago the size of California with exactly 24 people, living on one island, Rotjan said.) The High Seas Alliance aims to extend this strategy with protected areas in the no-man’s-lands of the open ocean.
Another positive sign is the rapid growth of sustainable aquaculture, to supplement and replace capture fisheries.
And we also can see payoffs of local and regional marine renewal efforts, such as the massive cleanup of Boston Harbor. Last month, out with a boatful of biologists for a conference hosted by Northeastern University, we were cheered to see harbor porpoises calmly working the clean waters of the Mystic River, in what not long ago was the dirtiest harbor in the U.S.
Top, the “life-size” version of Noah’s Ark built by Johan Huibers of the Netherlands. Bottom, clockwise from panda: Ice algae, pink fairy armadillo, ginkgo berries, mussel.
What aquaculture experts tell me about the world’s fastest-growing food source.
Nigerian catfish are bred so densely you can walk across their ponds.
“In an urban environment, why not use a rooftop to grow fish in a couple of recirculating ponds?”
China grows grass carp in quantities equal to the catch of the entire U.S. fishing fleet.
“Everyone’s working hard to reduce the use of fishmeal and fish oil in feed, and to fool the fish into thinking they are eating what they want.”
All the tilapia we eat are male, with females forced that way early in life.
“Many agricultural landscapes are becoming more saline and facing more seasonal inundation from the sea. There’s a big opportunity for aquaculture explicitly to be part of a planned transition that can not only recover but actually dramatically increase the value of these landscapes.”
Shrimp lack an immune system.
“In Africa, the sooner we move past small-scale aquaculture, the better. It’s a dead duck.”
Eight miles off Panama’s Atlantic coast, cobia destined for plates in the United States fatten up in high-tech cages.
The world needs to grow 30 million more tons of fish each year by 2050: “We mostly know how, but is there a will to do it?”