Saturday, February 02, 2013

Planning for Climate Change requires learning from ‘fortunate occurrences’


DontDrinkThe release this week of two more Climate Change Studies (NOAA, USGS: Climate change impacts to U.S. coasts threaten public health, safety and economy and Wildlife in a Warming World) got me wondering: how many have actually read a Climate Change report instead of reading about them? Though filled with data and dry statistics, they are not boring because they are scientific observations about warming and specific plans to deal with all that. What can be more compelling reading than the probable fate of everything you hold dear, and plans to sustain that, from experts who know what they are talking about? Sure, some of the information is educated guess work; but all are based on the best available scientific information. The sum total of this information is that we (meaning everybody) need to get moving on this. Proper planning is essential.

When engineers planned the Erie Canal back in the early 1800’s, a 363-mile ditch across our region’s environment, they rigorously tried to anticipate all the environmental and engineering problems that would arise in such an ambitions enterprise. Though only forty feet wide and an average of 4 feet deep, it had to run across hundreds of small streams and rivers, around and sometimes through mountains--without losing water. But most thought it would be well worth it because it would give folks a transportation system capable of carrying 30 tons of goods up to 2 miles per hour. It doesn’t sound like much until you realize that before the canal you could only carry one ton at one mile per hour on a wagon pulled by team of horses, but only if the roads were clear and dry.

The canal’s engineers (hydrologists) got some stuff in their planning right and they got some stuff wrong. At one point they got lucky. During the early stages, the engineer’s plans were interrupted by a flood, called a ‘fortunate occurrence’ from the perspective of many decades later.

A fortunate occurrence of a severe flood in 1817 when construction began provided such clear and present evidence of the flood potentials of the Mohawk River, which the canal followed for 100 miles, as to compel putting the canal at a high level in difficult terrain. Otherwise, there can be little doubt that the Erie Canal would have been of no more use for transport than the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which was put out of service repeatedly by floods on the Potomac River. Hydrology and environmental aspects of Erie Canal (1817-99) 1976, Langbein, Walter Basil USGS Water Supply Paper: 2038 (Page 48)

In other words, without that flood the engineers wouldn’t have planned for big floods. At that time, they didn’t have a long enough time perspective on what our climate could dish out to make a sustainable canal. As soon as the flood of 1817 came along, two years after starting construction of the canal, they got the picture and adjusted accordingly.

This ‘fortunate occurrence’ offers a local lesson on how we should approach Climate Change here in the Northeast: a disaster isn’t much good if you don’t take advantage of it.

Getting an idea of what major floods in our region could do allowed the engineers to fortify the canal so that it would not be overwhelmed by a single flooding event. But what they didn’t anticipate were the thousands of cuts caused by the leakage of water through the sides of the canal. It would cost many times the canal’s original price to maintain that water loss. They worried about a lack of water due to the deforestation going on as farming took over our environment. But luckily one of the effects of deforestation was not, as they feared, water absorption by the soil, but rather the reverse, with added silt from erosion thrown in. They also thought deforestation would warm up the land and allow for more days of boat movement though the canal. But that did not happen either. In fact, a mini ice age occurred in the latter 1880’s, and in December of 1871 the “Canals suddenly closed by extreme cold; 800 boats laden with merchandise frozen in.” (Ibid. Page 54).

One of the things the engineers of the Erie Canal did not anticipate at all was the human factor. They thought that because natural, slow-moving streams were drinkable, a human-built canal would offer us an inexhaustible supply of fresh water across the state.

The quality of water had great significance to the Commissioners of 1811 who did the original planning. They saw the canal as a potential source of pure water, pointed (p. 21) to that "inexhaustible stream of limpid water which flows out of Lake Erie," and added there "is a strong temptation to use it exclusively until auxiliary supplies can be drawn from reservoirs equally pure." (Ibid. Page 57)

Obviously, that didn’t happen. It didn’t because the canal quickly became an open sewer for communities all along the canal. The public wanted a convenient toilet, not a fountain. The only reason it didn’t become septic (infected with bacteria) is that the unanticipated rate of leakage kept the canal’s water moving and oxygenated enough to prevent that. Today, while much cleaner because of strict laws against dumping garbage into the canal, it’s still not a drinking source.

Keeping this human factor in mind, all Climate Change studies fail to create plans on a scale large enough to convince a vast majority of the public about the urgency and scope of the Climate Change crisis. We are going to experience 10,000 years of warming in about 250 years. Without plans to change our media, our politics, and our economic system‘s insane idea of ‘externality’, none of the adaptive plans in any Climate Change studies are going to work. Not even close. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have offered us ‘favorable occurrences’ to plan properly for our future, but these messages are getting lost on a public disinclined to hear this very inconvenient message from leaders averse to stopping business as usual.

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