Hub of Universe meets change of climate

swirlsmall (2)Boston often sits under rather large swirls of clouds, some considerably less peaceful than this.

Hurricane Joaquin was a surprisingly narrow miss last week. Experts may worry even more about northeasters like those that pounded Boston last winter. In a truly major storm, hundreds of thousands of people may wait too late to evacuate and be stuck without power or other services for weeks. In the long run, Boston’s inner harbor will need to look a lot more like the future New Orleans, with the waterfront turned into parks and wetlands, and Logan Airport and residential areas barricaded behind high levies.

That’s some of what we heard on Wednesday about how Boston is readying (or not) for climate change. Here are 10 highlights from a Hubweek session’s speakers and videos, held at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.

1. Sitting in between the Canadian Arctic and the Gulf Stream, the northeastern U.S. has “one of the most significant temperature gradients on the planet,” commented Kerry Emanuel, MIT professor of atmospheric sciences.

2. Joaquin was “the most intense extratropical storm ever to reach this high in latitude this late in the season,” said James McCarthy, Harvard professor of biological oceanography. “That was really eye-opening.” The storm packed winds up to 155 mph as it veered off into the mid-Atlantic.

3. Alan Berger, MIT professor of landscape architecture and urban design, proposed reimagining Boston’s waterfront with open areas backed by lines of defense against rising sea levels and storms. This approach would create a “new urban fabric, with eight or nine pockets of high density,” Berger said. And yes, “so much for living on the waterfront!”

4. Hurricane Katrina “was the most predictable of surprises,” commented Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard’s Center for the Environment. “We made a conscious decision not to prepare; we’re lucky it wasn’t worse.” Fortunately, the storm didn’t hit New Orleans directly, or there might have been tens of thousands of deaths. “The surprise was not that we didn’t get everybody out, but that we couldn’t cope with people who didn’t get out,” added Robert Young, director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. “We need to ensure we have a plan to get services to people where they are.”

5. People in Boston “think they are tough and want to sit home and wait it out,” said Jennifer Leaning, professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. But by the time residents realize they really need to leave, it may be too late, and they may lose power for weeks. Atyia Martin, Boston’s chief resilience officer, pointed out that emergencies like Katrina have shown that many people don’t get clear word in time, or simply can’t leave. “We assume people are not educated about these issues, but they are,” Martin said. In planning for emergencies, it’s key to remember that “the community is the expert on the community,” she emphasized.

6. Last week’s astonishing South Carolina rainstorm often was called a thousand-year storm. That description is meaningless, because “there’s no precedent for a storm like this,” Schrag said flatly.

7. Unsurprisingly, much of the South Carolina flooding was in areas of recent development, “in places where water would like to be,” as Young put it. That’s a theme all along the coast: Some new Gulf coast communities just should never have been built, he remarked.

8. Carl Spector, Boston’s director of climate and environmental planning, outlined regional planning initiatives  to address vulnerable supplies such as the Chelsea Food Market and other threats such as extreme high heat days. Young applauded those efforts, but added that “the trick is taking all that high-level, long-term planning and putting that thinking into the minutiae of how we run our government.”

9. “Money seems to flow after a disaster,” Schrag noted, but not always in the best directions. We’ve done a “terrible job” recovering from Hurricane Sandy, in Young’s opinion. To actually create change, he declared, governments and all their partners must move very quickly after storms before business as usual resumes. Owners in floodplains, for instance, may be ready to buy out a few weeks after the storm, but not a few years after.

10. “Every storm is an argument to change the vulnerability of our community,” Young said. “Storms tell you where the problems are.”

7.5-foot_flood_Boston_Harbor_AssociationBoston under a hypothetical-but-expected flood (from Boston Harbor Associates data).

Deepsea change

Alvin

When the deepsea research submersible Alvin was commissioned in 1964, undersea exploration carried a strong flavor of direct human exploration. That summer as Alvin made its first dives, the U.S. Navy also launched its Sealab I underwater habit, a successful pioneer in saturation diving.

Sealab I has long been a museum piece. But Alvin, still owned by the Navy and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), keeps going.

The first half of its career, which received the most public attention, is nicely summarized in Water Baby by Victoria Kaharl (a classmate of mine at journalism school).

In 1966, the sub made the world a tad less worrying by finding a hydrogen bomb that had sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean, and helping in the bomb’s recovery.

Alvin had another widely memorable moment in 1968 when it sank, sans crew. When it was recovered in 1969, “lunches left on board were soggy but edible,” a WHOI history notes. “Discovery that near-freezing temperatures and the lack of decaying oxygen at depth aided preservation opened up new areas of biological and chemical research.”

But the sub’s greatest scientific contribution arguably came with its 1977 dives to warm-water seafloor vents more than 8,000 feet down off the Galapagos Islands. Scientists onboard watched clams living, well, as happily as clams, in an ecosystem built on chemosynthesis rather than photosynthesis.

In 1986, the sub enjoyed its highest moment of popular fame in the first human visits to the wreck of the Titanic.

Since then Alvin has mostly quietly plugged away, to a total of more than 4,600 dives. And it has become like an ax that has had two heads and seven handles. It has no original parts. Its most recent overhaul was a $41 million job completed last year, with a larger titanium sphere for the crew, better imaging equipment and other goodies.

Over all these decades, oceanography has seen even more stunning advances in undersea unmanned research equipment, going beyond simple towed devices into highly sophisticated remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), undersea gliders and a colorful collection of other specialized undersea beasts. These vehicles can not only go where no man has gone before, but where no manned submersible will ever go, for reasons of logistics and safety.

Alvin is the last manned deepsea submersible in the U.S. fleet, and today’s tight National Science Foundation research budgets ensure that its role is under debate—most recently in a report released yesterday by the National Research Council.

An expert group that included Don Walsh (who piloted the bathyscape Trieste to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 1960) found that Alvin remains highly useful but not critical to the highest priorities for U.S. ocean science in the next decade. “This is due to the greatly increased capabilities and availability of ROVs, AUVs, and gliders,” the report says.

Probably more importantly, the NRC report adds, Alvin’s dedicated support ship Atlantis, one of the last big research vessels left in the fleet, might be employed more profitably in other scientific projects.

When Alvin eventually retires, probably quite a few years from now, the scientific and budget reasons will be solid.

But we’ll regret the loss of opportunities of direct human witnessing to the unknown, like the one on that sunny day off the Galapagos in February 1977.

We can picture Alvin’s original support ship Lulu (a funky catamaran built on two surplus minesweeping pontoons) trudging over to an area where a towed camera vehicle had reported a spike in water temperature and brought up photos of clam and mussel shells near the spike.

Near daybreak, pilot Jack Donnelly joined geochemist Jack Corliss and geologist Tjeerd van Andel (there were no biologists on the cruise) and Alvin headed down. The three men could see that living clams surrounded the shimmering water where hot water poured up from the seafloor. And they could confirm the discovery that would change our understanding of life on earth.