Saturday, September 30, 2017

Climate Change in the Caribbean and Other Social Problems

Puerto Rico by night, taken Sept. 25, 2017.
The severe level of devastation and suffering wrought on Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands by hurricanes Irma and Maria is not just about exposure to extreme weather or even climate change; it's about vulnerability and social injustice.

Dangerous Hurricanes are Rare but not Unheard of

Certainly this has been an unusually active hurricane season, especially coming after more than a decade of relative quiet in the Atlantic. The official hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin (i.e. the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico) runs annually from June 1 to November 1. Peak season for hurricanes is usually from mid August to late October. This is the part of the year when the ocean reaches its warmest temperatures, providing the fuel tropical cyclones need to form and grow. Maria was the 13th named tropical cyclone this year (tropical storms are named when they reach sustained wind speeds over 38mph). On average, since 1966, there have been about 7 or 8 named tropical storms by mid September. When Maria intensified into a hurricane (with sustained winds over 74mph), it became the 7th hurricane in the Atlantic this year. On average we expect about 4 by this time of the year, but very rarely of this level of intensity.

Hurricane Maria was a category 5 hurricane when it made landfall on the island of Dominica on September 19, 2017, with winds of 155mph. This was the first time in its recorded history that the tiny island had ever been hit by a storm of this magnitude. A day later, Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico as a category 4 hurricane. Winds in excess of 130mph tore off roofs and took down powerlines. Storm surges flooded coastal towns and cities. Extreme rainfall rates created destructive flash floods and landslides.  In just over 24 hours, more than two feet of rain fell on parts of the island, triggering massive flooding in the central and northern areas, many still not recovered from Hurricane Irma two weeks prior. Maria was the strongest hurricane to strike that island since 1928. Puerto Rico has been devastated by hurricanes in the recent past, albeit not of this magnitude. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 (category 3) and Hurricane Georges in 1998 (category 2) resulted in massive, widespread damage, primarily from flooding due to intense rainfall and coastal storm surge.

Puerto Rico is no stranger to severe weather. Since 1851, it has been struck by a tropical storm on average at least once every 5 years, and by hurricanes every 6 years.This is similar to the hurricane frequency faced by coastal Louisiana, southern Florida, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

The unusual frequency and intensity of hurricane activity this year is certainly worth close scrutiny. It won't be clear for some time if this year's intense hurricane activity is part of a long term trend, but the increased intensity is consistent with the science of climate change. Warmer air and ocean temperatures mean more fuel for these storms, which logically should result in either greater frequency or higher intensity.

Climate Change Connection


As in the rest of the world, the climate and physical environment in the Caribbean and the Atlantic are changing. Many of these changes are not only disruptive, but contribute directly to increased exposure to risks from severe weather.  Since the 1950s, the average air temperature in Puerto Rico has warmed by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit, while surrounding ocean waters have warmed by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit  since 1901, providing more fuel for stronger storms. Sea level in the Caribbean has risen by about 4 inches since 1960, and is continuing to rise at a rate of about 1 inch every 15 years. By the end of the century, Puerto Rico is likely to see the surrounding sea rise by at least 1 to 3 feet.  Higher sea levels mean that coastal flooding is both more frequent and more severe. The single greatest threat from hurricanes is storm surge: water pushed inland by high winds.  Higher sea levels means that the water starts from a higher position, and can reach that much farther inland, while destructive wave action can be that much more destructive.

Water is both a threat and an extremely precious commodity to island communities.  Rising seas and the storms they bring threaten to swallow them up. But fresh water is generally in short supply, making regular precipitation and stored sources of water, such as reservoirs and aquifers, that much more important. Since 1958, rainfall during heavy storms has increased by 33 percent in Puerto Rico, and the trend toward increasingly heavy rainstorms is likely to continue, contributing to flash floods and landslides during storms. Although heavy rainstorms may become more common, total rainfall is likely to decrease in the Caribbean region, especially during spring and summer. Warmer temperatures also reduce the amount of water available because they increase the rate at which water evaporates (or transpires) into the air from soils, plants, and surface waters. With less rain and drier soils, Puerto Rico may face an increased risk of drought, which in turn can affect public water supplies, agriculture, and the economy. For example, during the 2015 drought—one of the worst in Puerto Rico’s history—hundreds of thousands of people faced water restrictions, and some people’s water was turned off for one or two days at a time.  As the sea rises, inland aquifers are also threatened by increased saltwater intrusion.

Increased Risk x Social Vulnerability = Injustice

Climate change does not generally create new threats; rather, it exacerbates existing problems and reveals systemic vulnerabilities. When it comes to the hazards of climate change, it is useful to distinguish between exposure and vulnerability. Puerto Rico is certainly exposed to tropical cyclone hazards by virtue of where it is, geographically, in the Atlantic Basin. But so are a lot of communities. In fact, every community in the Caribbean and along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of  are exposed to hurricane hazards.  But when these hurricanes hit, not everyone is affected equally, even by the exact same type of event.  Some are more vulnerable than others.

Wealth and access to resources matters. A thunderstorm with heavy rain and wind is not much of a problem for people with a sturdy roof overhead, well maintained public infrastructure to drain the water from the street and keep the power on, and adequate property insurance should there be damage. If things get more serious and evacuation is necessary, access to a car or other private transportation, money for a hotel, and trust that the government will assist in a timely fashion are essential. The absence of any of these resources can mean the difference between a temporary setback and impoverishment, between life and death. Hazards, be they 'natural' or human-caused, are only hazards in relation to social or economic vulnerability.

Well before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was economically vulnerable.  Puerto Rico's economy has been in a recession since 2006. In 2014, Prepa, the island's antiquated and under-maintained electric utility, declared itself officially insolvent. After Hurricane Maria took down nearly the entire island's electrical grid, it is still unclear how, let alone when, power will be restored.  In May 2017, Puerto Rico filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, threatening its ability to maintain infrastructure, provide basic public services or possibly even honor pension commitments to teachers and other public servants. The economic stresses extend down to households. The cost of living in Puerto Rico is 13% higher than many comparable urban areas of the mainland U.S., but its per capita income - $18,000 - is nearly half that of Mississippi, the poorest state in America. According to the 2016 American Community Survey, 44%  of Puerto Ricans on the island live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate in August was 10.1%, more than double the national average. As a result, those who can have left the island for the mainland. Since 2004, Puerto Rico's population has dropped by more than 10%, and by 8% since 2010. Although Puerto Rico's population is just over 3.4 million (still bigger than 20 U.S. states), a proportional loss of population for the rest of the US would be comparable to the entire population of Texas suddenly leaving the country! But not everyone can leave Puerto Rico even if they want to. Those with money, education, skills, and resources leave first. This only leaves the community in Puerto Rico poorer and more vulnerable. 

Different Treatment for Different Places


Of all the problems and systemic vulnerabilites that Hurricane Maria has highlighted about Puerto Rico, none seem as interesting or as discomforting as the relationship between Puerto Rico and the rest of the U.S.

Puerto Rico is an "unincorporated organized territory" of the U.S., as are Guam, the Northern Marianna Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (there are other territories in the Pacific as well).  It is neither a state nor a foreign country.  For all intents and purposes, Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S.; a political anachronism. Since 1898, after it was ceded by Spain following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. has exerted sovereignty over Puerto Rico and enjoyed the benefit of its strategic location, its economic output, and its taxes. But the relationship is not reciprocal.  A colony exists for the benefit of the colonizer, and not the other way around. Puerto Rico does not have sovereign control of its territory or its affairs, and it has no vote in Congress. People born in Puerto Rico are recognized by law as natural born American citizens, yet they are disenfranchised. As American citizens they can travel between the mainland and the island without a passport. So long as they remain resident on the island, however, they are not entitled to vote for members of Congress or the President of the United States. This is taxation without representation.

The second-class political status of Puerto Rico manifests in all kinds of interesting ways, for the most part in ways that reinforce Puerto Rico's subjugation and political inferiority. Although the U.S. Census has been collecting population data on Puerto Rico and the other island territories since the early 20th century, their populations are not included in count of the total U.S. population. In other words, when the U.S. Census follows its constitutionally mandated job to report how many Americans there are, it does not include the U.S. citizens resident in Puerto Rico or other island territories.

Second-class Status is Costly


Why does Puerto Rico's second-class political status matter? How does this contribute to its vulnerability?  Certainly the perception of Puerto Rico by the rest of America seems to matter. A recent national poll found that only 54 percent of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens.  More importantly, more than 8 out of 10 Americans who know that Puerto Ricans are citizens support aid, compared to only 4 out of 10 who are not aware that they are citizens.  This overall perception of 'deservingness' based on 'Americanness' seems to manifest at all levels. The slow response by the federal government, and specifically the President, has drawn the attention by the media (albeit only after the media had exhausted its coverage of the President's Twitter war against football players kneeling during the singing of the national anthem in protest of police brutality). Texas and Florida, by comparison, suffered no such inattention or slowness of response in the aftermath of their hurricane impacts. Hurricane-affected communities in those states, already more resilient by virtue of comparatively greater wealth and resources, and better infrastructure, are likely to recover more quickly because of speedier attention. This is not to imply that all things are rosey in Texas and Florida, but ...

As Phil McKenna pointed out in Inside Climate News, the inequity of the situation is likely to be revealed by Congressional decisions on how to allocate already scarce funds for disaster recovery. This is where perception, political status, and institutional structure collide (collude?) to reinforce privilege and vulnerability. Members of Congress from Texas and Florida are among the largest voting blocs in Congress, with a combined delegation of more than 60 representatives. They will be competing for priority on these moneys. Puerto Rico, by contrast, has a single, non-voting "resident commissioner" to advocate for it.

Climate Injustice

The injustice of this situation is compounded by the fact that Puerto Rico, and other less wealthy, island communities, are significantly less responsible for climate change than wealthier societies and especially the rest of the U.S.. Puerto Ricans use one-third as much energy and emit less than half as much carbon dioxide as the rest of the United States on a per capita basis yet bear the risk of increased hurricane activity in a warming Atlantic basin. These communities are on the frontlines of the consequences of climate change. The weight of moral responsibility for action - to mitigate the problem and to protect the most vulnerable among us - falls heaviest on the shoulders of those who bear the greatest responsibility for the problem and command the greatest resources.

But action does not just mean reducing greenhouse gases and contributing to charity. It means taking a hard look at the political structures and institutions and social relationships that enhance or reduce social vulnerability. Puerto Ricans, like everyone else, need a sturdy roof, the means to protect themselves financially when things inevitably go wrong, and a government that responds when its people are in need.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Environmental Justice Benefits of Increasing Solar Energy

Most people know that how we produce and consume energy is an environmental issue. But is it a moral issue?

Recently I was invited by Salem State's MassPIRG to talk about energy and climate change at their annual Kick-Off event. This year they are launching a campaign to convince Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to commit the state to the goal of generating 20% of the state's energy from solar energy by 2025 and to also to pass a law lifting the caps on net metering (allowing excess energy produced by solar panels on residential and commercial buildings to "run the meter backward").

I decided to talk about the environmental justice benefits of solar energy.

Most of the electricity we use in Massachusetts is generated from the burning of natural gas - over 80% as of this year. This is a dramatic change in how Massachusetts used to generate most of its electricity only a decade ago. No doubt, this change is an improvement over reliance on other dirtier fuels, like coal and petroleum.

However, extracting natural gas, transporting it, and burning it all have significant environmental impacts. To the extent that we can replace natural gas with clean, renewable energies like solar energy, we can reduce or eliminate many of these environmental impacts.

But there is also a moral dimension to the issue of energy. Our reliance on natural gas is an environmental justice issue. The environmental benefits and burdens of natural gas are not distributed evenly or fairly. The benefits are simple: cheap, reliable electricity. These benefits are enjoyed by anyone who buys or sells electricity produced from natural gas. But the environmental burdens tend to be borne by other people, often people who are vulnerable and see less of the benefits: poor and marginalized communities, the very young and very old, people who are less healthy. Unlike the benefits, the burdens of natural gas fall on very specific places and very specific groups of people. So, there are environmental justice benefits to promoting cleaner forms of energy in Massachusetts, and these benefits happen at the local, regional, and even global level.

Local Scale EJ Issues

Within Massachusetts, there are about 57 large, fossil-fueled power plants throughout the state. Every year, they emit tens of thousands of tons of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides which are pollutants and components of smog and ground-level ozone, all of which are very bad for our health. They are especially bad for children, the very elderly, and people with asthma or other lung or heart diseases. But these power plants are not distributed evenly around the state. Rather, almost all of them are in or near lower income communities or communities of color - exactly the types of communities that are most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves. This is what we call a disproportionate burden or an environmental injustice. To the extent that we displace, or replace, these dirtier sources of energy with emissions-free sources, like solar energy, we reduce these disproportionate burdens.

Regional Scale EJ Issues

There are issues at the regional level as well. Although Massachusetts is very dependent on natural gas, Massachusetts produces no natural gas locally. All of our natural gas must be imported from other places. About 20% of our natural gas comes as liquefied natural gas (LNG) by ship from Algeria and Trinidad to a main terminal in Everett. The remaining 80% comes from wells in the southern US and off the coast of Nova Scotia in eastern Canada. The latter is transported by pipeline. In fact, within Massachusetts alone, there about 1,000 miles of interstate natural gas transmission pipelines. All of this natural gas infrastructure, from the wells to the pipelines to the ships and the terminals carry their own environmental risks and impacts. A lot of us are already quite aware of these impacts. The Northeast Energy Direct pipeline by Kinder Morgan, Inc. would bring in a proposed 180-mile pipeline, running from eastern New York to a transmission hub in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts. The pipeline would carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Fields across northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. There is a lot of regional opposition to this pipeline and the disruption and risk it would bring to the communities through which it would pass. However, there is even more concern nationally about the boom in fracking and the threats that this drilling technique poses for water quality and geological stability in the places where this drilling happens.

Global Scale EJ Issues

Globally our dependence on natural gas for electricity is significant as well. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, Massachusetts was the most energy efficient state in the US for the last 4 years, BUT Massachusetts residents still bear outsized responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change. At 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per capita, we are more than twice as emissions intensive as the global average (4.8 metric tons per capita; although not as bad as US as whole - more than 3x!). About one fifth of our CO2 emissions are due to electric power generation from fossil fuels in the state. This greenhouse gas (GHGs), as we know now, is the primary driver of global climate change. And we also know that the impacts of climate change fall hardest on the most vulnerable - poor and marginalized populations both here and abroad. As efficient as we are today, Americans bear a disproportionate responsibility for historic GHG emissions that are causing climate change today, and so we have larger than average moral responsibility to change our behavior and reduce our impact.

There is therefore both an environmental and a moral imperative to moving ourselves away from fossil fuels, like natural gas, and toward renewable energy sources, like solar energy.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Can a university, like a neighborhood, become gentrified?


Starting in fall 2015, Salem State will host (and rabidly patronize) a new Starbucks coffee shop on Central Campus. It will be situated in the building housing Salem State's newest residence hall, Viking Hall, which also opens its doors for the first time in fall 2015. We already had a Dunkin' Donuts on North Campus. But the contrast between the pre-existing Dunkin' Donuts and the newly arrived Starbucks seems like an uncanny parallel of larger changes.

It seems fitting that a Starbucks has landed where and when it has at Salem State. On Central Campus where the newest classroom buildings and dorms have been built, and indeed, in the newest building of them all - Viking Hall (go Vikings!). In addition to being the newest building, Viking Hall is also the first campus residence building to house a cafe. By contrast, Dunkin' Donuts sits within a building devoted primarily to classrooms and administrative offices - part of an older campus building and, maybe, an older orientation toward students and campus life.

Starbucks has also arrived at a curious transition point in Salem State's evolution. When Viking Hall fills with its 350 student residents, and when one adds this number to the number of students residing in other residence halls across the university, Salem State will house 40% of its full-time undergraduate student body. This number - 40% - marks a significant step in the direction of our President's stated goal of having 50% of our undergraduate students living on campus. It implies, at the very least, a significant move away from Salem State's long held identity as a commuter school (and all that implies). To be clear, Salem State is still mostly a commuter school, especially if you also count part-time students, graduate students, and non-matriculating students. But still. There is a lot of symbolism in this number, in this moment. And Starbucks is here to mark the occasion.

There is certainly a lot of class symbolism for both Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks. The former is an old staple in New England, associated with blue collar, unpretentious simplicity. The latter, a relatively recent arrival from the 'left coast,' is associated with yuppies (do people still use this word?), non-fat soy lattes, and of course, pretentiousness.

A few years back, a student in my GIS class analyzed the distribution of Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks coffee shops across the entirety of Massachusetts (over 1,000 stores in all!) and found - without much surprise - that Starbucks tended to be located in slightly wealthier communities than its native rival.



The other students nodded their heads knowingly at this revelation (somewhat smugly, I thought). What no one expected was that Starbucks also tended to be found in communities that are more racially diverse, while Dunkin' Donuts tended to be in communities that were whiter. Keep in mind that he only looked at where the stores are located, not who actually patronized them. But still. It seemed like a provocative finding. The apparent class distinction seemed to agree with their preconceptions (even though one does not discuss 'class' in polite company in America), but they did not know what to do with the race findings. Race is a confusing and uncomfortable topic for my students (as it is for most Americans).

Salem State's demographic trajectory seems to parallel that of Starbucks communities, seeming to confound easy interpretation. Since 2009, an increasing proportion of incoming students are first-time freshmen, rather than transfers (transfer students being roughly analogous to commuters). Over the same time period, the average GPA of our incoming students has gone up, from an average of 2.94 in 2009 (roughly a C+) to over 3.1 today (roughly a B-). And finally, the proportion of incoming students who identify as non-White has consistently gone up as well, from 21% in 2009 to over 30% today. Is this what gentrification looks like? I don't have data on the average wealth of incoming students, but I wonder. More importantly, gentrification implies displacement. If this is gentrification, who is being displaced?

Right before the fall 2015 semester began, I was on Central Campus for a meeting, and I bumped into a colleague I hadn't seen for a while. She now works in a different administrative department, helping students strategize on their finances so that they can afford to stay in school. As we stood in the shadow of the gleaming, new Viking Hall, and looked in through the blue-tinted windows of the soon-to-be-opened Starbucks at its base, she fumed. "What does this say to our students who are struggling to pay for school? Here I am, trying desperately to educate students about spending their money wisely, and then we put this in front of them. Imagine the pressure they're going to feel. It sends the wrong message."

After my meeting, I walked out with another colleague and we found ourselves once again in front of Viking Hall and its Starbucks. This colleague looked around admiringly, not only at Viking Hall and Starbucks, but at all the new buildings around it. "This campus is really looking beautiful now," he said. "The transformation is amazing. It's really changing the look of the school. It's like Salem State was this working class school, and now ..." "It's middle class," I finished for him. We laughed and then headed back to our offices on old North Campus.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Covering Their Assets

Let me say at the outset, before indulging in any snark or sarcasm, that I sincerely appreciate the effort that community organizers, especially Chris and Magdalena at our local CDC, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH), and state and local government representatives, have put into thinking about climate change preparedness in my community of East Boston. Okay. What follows is a short summary of a local climate change event. The facts and the absurdity are true, only the names have been omitted because I forgot them.


On Wednesday, March 25, 2015, I attended a Climate Change Workshop at my (brand, spanking new and uber-sustainable) local library in East Boston. It was well attended - at least 100 people in attendance - but like all community meetings with local government, a little less than perfect. Attendance at community meetings is always challenging, but it's awkward when residents are underrepresented.

State, regional, and city officials (as well as outside organizations and the odd graduate student) outnumbered my neighbors 2 to 1. Worse, they had taken all of the good seats and nearly cleaned out the buffet dinner. Residents, like myself, were largely relegated to the margins and forced to scrounge for cold scraps at the break. The irony doesn't end there, of course.

The first speaker, a severe-looking woman in a red suit from Massport (Massachusetts Port Authority), began her presentation with the statement: "At Massport, we have been focused on how to protect our assets." Amazingly, no one else in the room except me found this statement funny (in the picture, I'm the medium-sized guy standing at the back of the room with a bewildered look on his face).

She sped through a series of PowerPoint slides demonstrating that the airport was indeed spending time thinking about how to protect its own assets: modeling flood potential on airport property, investigating how to flood-proof doors, and ensuring that when the next super storm hits, the military would have somewhere to land and save us all. Her overarching message: what's good for the airport, is good for your community. Stirring.

Some agencies are better than others at communicating with the public.

Steve from DOT (Department of Transportation), a serial presenter at these kinds of events, used his classic sleeper move, attempting to bore the audience into submission. Indeed, an elderly woman standing next to me said (somewhat loudly), "This is boring." In place of a PowerPoint slide, Steve actually scrolled through the pages of a PDF report (including the front matter and "this page intentionally left blank" page), providing a halting monologue about the significance of this report. At some point, someone yelled, sarcastically, "You're going too fast," which almost led to him to SLOW DOWN. To our relief, he scrolled on to a page with a map and proceeded to talk about the importance of this map, without actually explaining what it showed. As far as I can tell, the map depicted, in higher-than-average resolution, areas along the central artery highway that are prone to flooding. Again, this interpretation is based on a post hoc reconstruction. 20 minutes down, 230 to go.

The guy from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (speaking also on behalf of MWRA (Massachusetts Water Resources Authority), who were very sorry they couldn't be here) was a welcome relief. No PowerPoint or PDF. Plain English. These guys are prepared and are thinking critically, AND they know how to talk to residents. What we learned is that the system for drainage and our drinking water is constructed with enough slope that it is not at immediate risk from sea level rise or flooding. With absolutely no hint of sarcasm, he assured us that this gravity-based infrastructure is relatively safe because gravity is still working well. Thank God.

The guy from BRA (Boston Redevelopment Authority) explained that the City now has a checklist which explicitly asks property developers along the waterfront whether they have thought about sea level rise. It's not clear how many have, but they've been asked. On an equally hopeful note, he recounted how many houses are installing solar panels on their roofs. In the event of a power outage, some houses may still have power.

Other agency representatives spoke, I think.

After the speakings, we were granted a short break before reassembling by sub-neighborhood throughout the library. I dutifully joined my people in the Eagle Hill sub-neighborhood section. Agency people were to circulate amongst the three sub-neighborhoods in 20-minute rounds. Our moderator, who was from Cambridge (for which he apologized, appropriately in my opinion), endeavored valiantly to generate dialog that he could moderate.

In the first round, it was us against the severe lady from Massport and Steve from DOT. It was clear that the agencies, and some of our moderators, were still focused primarily on protecting their assets, rather than people. My wife asked a very pointed question to the Massport lady: "Do you have a plan for protecting the job security of workers at the airport in the event of a disaster or major emergency? For low wage workers, the economic disruption can be just as disastrous. Many people in this neighborhood lost jobs when public transit shut down due to the snowstorms."

Massport lady said, "That is a good point." She then laughed and said, "You know, for me, I just got five days off during the snow storm. I went skiing." She beamed with the memory. Even our moderator from Cambridge looked disgusted.

Our moderator from Cambridge asked, "Could the airport possibly be a place that people in the neighborhood could be evacuated to in the event of an impeding hurricane or other disaster?"

Massport lady said, "Well, at some point, the neighborhood has to take responsibility for itself. If a hurricane is coming, there shouldn't be anyone here." Our soon-to-be state representative (an Eagle Hill resident) pointed out that all three assisted living homes in the neighborhood are in flood-prone areas and those people cannot be easily evacuated. His mother (head of the Eagle Hill Civic Association) observed that there are no ambulances on this side of the harbor. If the tunnel to downtown Boston is closed in the event of an extreme flood event, the only emergency vehicle is at the airport.

The elderly lady I was standing next to earlier (i.e. "This is boring"), an Eagle Hill resident, threw all caution to the wind and deliberately asked Steve from DOT a question. I do not recall what he said, or maybe I just ran out of space in my head to remember his response.

In round two, it was us against the guy from BRA and a young woman from MEMA (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency). This time, our moderator from Cambridge came in swinging, asking residents who hadn't said anything yet to please say something. I asked, "Is there a plan for encouraging more green infrastructure? One of the challenges in East Boston is the very high level of impermeable surfaces, which exacerbates flooding." After an uncomfortably long stretch of silence, the young woman from MEMA said, and I quote, "Rest assured, we are working on that." Rest assured? Has she not read the orientation manual for all incoming bureaucrats that says, "Do not, under any circumstance, respond to a member of the public with the words 'Rest Assured' unless you have traveled back in time to 1955. And you are wearing a black suit and black sunglasses"?

In round three, it was us against the guy from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. This time, it wasn't personal. This guy listened AND he admitted that he did not know the answers to some questions. I know. He didn't even try to make up an answer. This was profoundly reassuring. Even our moderator from Cambridge was compelled to thank him for not being obnoxious.


While I think many of my neighbors walked away somewhat more informed, a number of us were left feeling even less confident and more worried about what the future might hold with regard to climate change and sea level rise as a result of these encounters. To be clear, it's not just the water we're afraid of.

I understand that this is a necessary process, and that it is messy. Kudos again to NOAH for shepherding this messy process along and bringing agency folks to the community. This is something that must be done and there is a lot of work and education that needs to happen, and much of it needs to happen with agency folks.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How long would it take to melt all the snow from Boston’s streets and sidewalks?

tractor emptying snow into snow melter

Record snowfall this year – at least 100 inches since late January 2015 as of this writing – has nearly brought the City of Boston to its cold knees. The City has made a valiant (or maybe quixotic) attempt to attack the problem head on by employing diesel-powered snow melters. The Mayor has touted the tonnage of snow melted as a measure of progress. The city has use of four (borrowed) snow melters, with a combined capacity of melting 700 tons of snow per hour. That sounds impressive, but how big of a dent does it make? Let’s figure it out.

According to MassDOT data, there are approximately 1,332 miles of roads and rights of way in Boston. If we take into account the widths of these roads and rights of way (including sidewalks), we calculate a total area of 10.71 square miles or 298,643,564 square feet.

Let’s assume 100 inches of snow has fallen uniformly across Boston, which equates to a depth of about 8.33 feet of snow (taller than Big Bird!).

The volume of all this snow is then Area x Depth = 2,488,696,367 cubic feet of snow on Boston’s streets and sidewalks. Whoa.

 Because it’s been so cold, we can assume that the snow has been fairly light and fluffy (yet no less annoying). Let’s assume a density of 10 pounds per cubic foot of snow.

The combined weight of all that snow is then Density x Volume = 24,886,963,667 pounds of snow. At 2,000 pounds per ton, that comes to 12,443,482 tons of snow on Boston’s streets and sidewalks. Double whoa.

At 700 tons of snow melted per hour, the time it would take the City’s snow melters to clear Boston’s streets and sidewalks is 12,443,482 tons ÷ 700 tons/hour = 17,776 hours!

So, running around the clock – 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year - it would take just over 2 years to melt all the snow from Boston’s streets and sidewalks!

At that rate we should be ready for the next big snowstorm by late February 2017 (assuming it doesn’t snow again before then).

Of course, this whole exercise may sound a little unrealistic, since we all know that the City makes no effort to clear snow from sidewalks.

pedestrian standing in front of snow pile