Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brooklyn Tornadoes and a Cool-Headed Appraisal of Weather Weirding in New York

(Above, the September 16, 2010 storm passing over Manhattan.)

Get ready: This is going to be about New York and the environment in some very, very big-picture terms.

A Brooklyn Tornado, A First!
“Jeffrey M. Warner, a meteorologist at Penn State University, said that the tornado was the first one to hit Brooklyn since at least 1950, when modern record-keeping began.”
Was Mr. Warner talking about the September 16, 2010 tornado that tore through Park Slope with its sister storm taking a slice out of Flushing, Bayside and Forest Hills, Queens? Perhaps 1000 trees were uprooted around the city in a few swift minutes, cars were crushed and a woman in one of those cars was killed. (An initial report by the Times cited an estimate by Adrian Benepe, the city’s parks commissioner “that as many as 2,000 of the 650,000 street trees had been killed or else so crippled that they would have to be cut down.”)

(Above, one of the exceedingly large trees that went down in Prospect Park during the storm. In Prospect Park alone, according to the Times: “40 trees went down, and almost 130 others were badly damaged.” Prospect Park was constructed 1866-1873. Might this old tree have gone back that far?)

Seeking Historical Context on the Weather

No, Mr. Warner, the Penn State University meteorologist, wasn’t talking about this month’s storm when he was identifying the first tornado “to hit Brooklyn since at least 1950, when modern record-keeping began.” The purpose of this article talking about the weather is to put things in a bigger historical (and possible future) context and we are quoting Mr. Warner for the purpose of doing that. Mr. Warner was talking about the August 8, 2007 tornado and storm that “raged through Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, ripping the roofs off five brick rowhouses, yanking thick trees out by their roots, turning cars sideways and shattering countless windows.” That means that in the last three years, on separate late-summer occasions, we have actually had the first TWO Brooklyn tornadoes since “modern record-keeping began."

In 2007, the Times reported how that first Brooklyn tornado “forced the evacuation of 20 buildings,” damaged another 50 buildings, killed one woman, involved 100 to 200 cars being smashed or hit by trees and was “the third time in seven months that a sudden downpour had brought the transit system to its knees.” Mr. Warner had more historical context about the unusualness of the weather:
It was the first tornado to hit New York City since 2003, when a weak tornado touched down in Staten Island, and only the sixth tornado recorded in the city since 1950, Mr. Warner said.
(See: Tornado Hits Brooklyn; Subway Back in Service, by Anahad O’connor and Graham Bowley, August 8, 2007.)

Global Weather Warming and “Weirding” of Weather

Welcome to the effects of global warming? There’s a good likelihood that’s what’s going on. While the United States has more tornadoes than any other part of the world, the conditions that make the Midwest ideal for their formation do not exist in Brooklyn, but August 17, 2007, not many days after the first Brooklyn tornado, NASA published a report based a climate model they had developed predicting that violent severe storms and tornadoes may become more common as earth's climate warms. (See: Global Warming Will Bring Violent Storms And Tornadoes, NASA Predicts, ScienceDaily, Aug. 31, 2007). We endorse the suggestion of replacing the term “global warming” with the term “global weirding” because it is more descriptive of what happens as global temperatures rise and the climate changes: There are all sorts of weather extremes, including violent weather events.

More on New York’s Historical, Once Cooler, Climate

New York’s climate isn’t what it used to be. You don’t have to consider the advent of tornadoes to know that. Ric Burns’ 16-hour documentary film on the history of New York recounts how an impetus for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge (begun in 1870 and opened in 1883*) was the freezing over of the East River in January of 1867. The freeze locked up barges and ships and prevented ferry service for commuters between New York and Brooklyn, two separate cities at the time. Intrepid commuters could, however, walk across the ice if they dared. (Here is PBS video. Below is picture from The Brooklyn Bridge: a wonders of the world book By Elizabeth Mann, Alan Witschonke.)

(* It can be regarded, in part, as a great public work constructed mostly during the extended great depression of 1873)

In the 1800s the East River froze over often enough, regularly providing in ice bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn, so that even the New York Times as paper of record seemingly couldn’t keep straight how often it happened. (The Times does make mistakes.) We found this March 14, 1888 article in the Times written at the time of the Great Blizzard of 1888. It tells us that in the 1800s the river had frozen over on “six other instances recorded during the present century”; solidly in early February 1813, for a few hours in February 1817, for two days in the last week of January 1821, solidly in January 20, 1851, from noon to 4:00 PM January 17, 1857, February 1875 between the 9th and the 13th and finally on March 13, 1888, the day of the Great Blizzard. Including the Great Blizzard that would make for seven instances in all except that the Times list leaves out the January 1867 freezing that was impetus for the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which included would make eight such freezes.

We also found the print below on the Brooklyn Library’s site which it says was published Harper's Weekly in March of 1871. The library's post writes about the accompanying story as if it were contemporaneous coverage* but, unless it depicts a prior year's event, 1871 would bring the total for freezes to at least nine.

(* “According to the accompanying article, the changing tides forced the ice to break apart after only a few hours, leaving groups of people scrambling for safety. Those not quick enough to reach land in time were stranded on ice floats in the frigid water--a frightening end to a playful excursion.”)

Colorfully Cool

The 1888 Times article provides an account of that freeze that is quite something to visualize. The entrances to the Brooklyn Bridge were jammed with hundreds of people. “The ice was fully six inches thick and covered with two more inches hard pack snow.” On the Brooklyn side one enterprising young lad set up a ladder down to the ice and charged dedicated Brooklyn commuters two cents apiece to use it. On the other side between Fulton and Beekman another fellow assisted people back up off the ice for five cents apiece. Several hundred people reportedly crossed the ice before “Brooklyn Police authorities, fearful of catastrophe and loss of life” put an end to it. Then with some stragglers still crossing steel prowed tugboats came up from the Battery to ram the ice and “the startled pedestrians,” observing their approach and “comprehending aright their intention” “scattered and ran for the nearest shore.” Not everyone made it. The ice was broken apart with a “report like that of a small canon” and a dozen men remained on the ice floes in “despair” until thrown a rope and rescued by one of the tug “little the worse for their temporary peril and fright.”

The Times article also colorfully reports that during the 1857 freeze the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher made his way across the ice bridge with a young lady companion “asserting that it was not the wicked alone who could stand in slippery places.” I know what you are thinking: Didn’t the safe crossing of a river on an ice floe by Eliza escaping from the evil Simon Legree factor as a key element of the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the anti-slavery novel written by Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe? The answer is yes but if you are thinking that this inspired Ms. Stowe that would not be the case since her book was published in 1852. Reputedly, the Ohio crossing was inspired by another true incident concerning the escape of a young slave woman in1838. Unless the Times got the date of Beecher’s crossing wrong it was more likely Beecher who was inspired by his sister Stowe’s book than vice versa. (I will resist at this time recounting how Beecher officiated in Brooklyn Heights over the marriage of my great-grandmother’s sister to the son of one of the nation’s most famous eccentrics.)

And the 1700s?

Clearly we have not been experiencing this kind of cold weather in New York since I was born in the middle of the 20th century nor the years of that century which preceded me. We have also not seen such cold in first ten years of the 21st century. What about the 1700s? On page 213 of Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 we see that the river froze over allowing people to walk to Brooklyn in the winter of 1772-73. Then during the Revolutionary War in 1780, the “coldest winter ever known on the North American Continent” the Hudson River froze over for five weeks (likewise a large part of Long Island Sound) with the ice being able to bear a man on horseback until March 17th. The British were able to move troops, two 2-ton cannons and eighty sleighs of provisions from Manhattan to Staten Island over the frozen river ice. (See: The New York Chronology: The Ultimate Compendium of Events, People, and Anecdotes from the Dutch to the Present, By James Trager.) (The British wanted to defend themselves against George Washington's troops who were in Morristown, N.J.)

Can anyone remember Staten Island ferry service ever being suspended for five weeks because the harbor was solid with ice eight or more inches thick? Yes, this weather in 1780 was not only very cold but also exceptionally cold even for those times. Unfortunately, it is time to move on from this subject rather than delve more deeply.

Weather We Were Inspired

(Above, from Wikipedia Park Place in Prospect Heights Brooklyn during the Blizzard of 1888.)

We shouldn’t, however, depart from the subject of the Great Blizzard of 1888 without mentioning that this severe weather event is also credited with inspiring a great public work. Just as the freezing of the East River in1867 is credited with spurring construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, so too is the Great Blizzard of 1888 credited with spurring the construction of the city’s underground subways, speedily constructed and opened in 1904.

One More Way to Destroy the City?

Most of the time we would like to avoid bothering our Noticing New York mind with the problems of global warming or weather weirding. Generally, we are content to preoccupy ourselves with the more traditional ways our local politicians vex us with much more mundane plans to destroy the city, such as the notion that we should be tearing down all the historic buildings in Coney Island while reducing its amusement area down to a minimal fraction.

We confess we found ourselves initially irritated by the “apocalyptic thinking” of the “Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront,” show at the Museum of Modern Art (image above). (See Architecture Review: 'Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront' Imagining a More Watery New York, by Nicolai Ouroussoff, March 25, 2010.) Its grand scale thinking made us uncomfortably ill at ease, reminding us of the kind of from-on-high it-is-easy-to-replace-everything planning arrogance* that is, for example, associated with Coney Island’s destruction.

(* Sure, its easy enough to tear down a portion of Prospect Heights, including newly renovated buildings, to construct the murkily unparticularized “Atlantic Yards” but the ability to actually fill in this hole developer Bruce Ratner created in the neighborhood becomes a theoretical maybe-someday exercise when the developer says of replacement construction: “it's really market-dependent as to when it will really be completed.”)

Then there is the question what can you do about global warming- what’s the old complaint?: Everyone talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it? That was funny in Mark Twain’s time when the weather wasn’t man-made. Now that our weather is essentially a product of mankind the perplexity of our responsibility tends to deflate the jest.

Bloomberg to the Rescue?

What if our most superpowerful local politician, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, were put on the case? Indeed, in what we would deem to be a product of Bloomberg’s wealth, corporate influence and ambitions for presidential office it was announced on September 21st that Bloomberg has been elected to “serve as chair of the C40 Climate Leadership Group, an association of major cities around the world committed to reducing carbon emissions and slowing climate change.” See the press release on the City’s web page. Is this good? Well, we did our own Noticing New York assessment of Michael Bloomberg’s environmental qualifications. See: Monday, November 2, 2009, On Your Way Vote, We Quizzically Ask: How “Green” Is Our Bloomberg? Our analysis? At best Mr. Bloomberg is a Johnny-come-lately and his heart isn’t really in it.

Burning Fossil Fuels

Mankind is continuing to blithely burn the fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. Basically, this involves removing from the earth and injecting into the atmosphere vast quantities of carbon that were sequestered underground for hundreds of millions or billions of years,* going back eons before mankind was a glimmer in the eye of the universe, (and even before the first trees). (Modernish mankind only goes back about 1.2 million years, divergence from the ape lineage is estimated to begin about 5 million years ago, most of the modern art and culture instincts that make us recognizable to ourselves didn’t begin to emerge until only about 70 thousand years ago.) The early earth’s atmosphere went through some gyrations but, simply put, before those vast quantities of carbons were mostly sequestered the world was an unrecognizably warm place that human beings would have found stifling.

(* Most coal was sequestered starting about 400 million years ago. Coals have been discovered in rocks as old as the Precambrian, but it was not until the Devonian Period (some 400 million years ago) that woody plants became abundant on land and peat deposits were able to accumulate enough to make a minable coal. The deposit of significant quantities of oil underground goes back even further, 2.5–2 billion years to the Archean-Paleoproterozoic transition. Then a radical modification in recycling of organic matter, and the Shunga Event—the accumulation and abundant deposition of unprecedented anomalously organic-carbon- rich-matter sediments forming petroleum source rocks and the inferred generation and migration of the oldest known significant volumes of oil/petroleum.)

Free Ride For the Fossil Fuels Industry

Continued burning of fossil fuels persists because it is attractive to the petroleum, gas and coal industry. It is attractive to them because these industries are highly subsidized. They are subsidized overtly with such things as steep tax breaks and, more important, they are subsidized by not having to pay for what they take from the public. The fossil fuel industry doesn’t have to pay for polluting the atmosphere with injected carbon, they don’t have to pay for the cost of higher sea levels, acidification of the oceans, or extreme weather events. They are also insulated, as in the case of the BP oil spill, from full legal liability for the damage done to the environment from spewing oil directly into the ocean.

Close to Home in New York, the Hydrofracking Example

In essence, the profit of the fossil fuels industry is predicated on what they are able to extract from the public and the public realm without paying for it. If anyone doubts the extent to which this can be the case we suggest a viewing of the documentary Gasland, about the bourgeoning hydrofracturing (hydraulic fracturing) industry. Gasland* has been aired on PBS and HBO, and has been in theaters. It is also viewable on DVD. This is the film where homeowners demonstrate how after nearby drilling water from their house faucets has suddenly become flammable. New Yorkers need to be conscious of hydrofracturing because it stands to put New York City’s watershed at risk together with risking most of the state’s above- and below-ground clean water resources. Accordingly, Gasland has scenes that take place in the City Council Chamber and on the steps of City Hall, including a press conference unattended by the City Hall reporters inside the building. If you don’t immediately go see the film we suggest that you at least listen the Terry Gross Fresh Air interview with filmmaker Josh Fox.

(* We went looking for the industry’s side of the story with respect to the Gasland film. You can judge for yourself but we found its quibbles troublingly hypertechnical and misleading in their arguments about what laws the industry is, or is not, partly subject to and whether drinking water is protected from industry practices. Is the film perhaps more Michael Mooreishly shrill than would be ideal to make its case? Given the fracking industry’s use of nondisclosure agreements we are unlikely ever to know.)

Beyond the fact that hydrofracturing as a fossil fuel extraction process represents the desequestration of ancient carbon material (in New York and other nearby states, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia, New Jersey, even a small portions of Kentucky and Tennessee, it involves removal of gas from the Marcellus Shale Formation deposited almost 400 million years ago) the process entails multiple antisocial problems. Millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand are trucked into a region and injected underground under high pressure to liberate, mix with, and force natural gas to flow up to the surface.

About half of what is pumped underground is removed afterward. The rest remains as underground contamination. The toxic mix that is removed goes into “flowback,” “frack water,” or “produced water” evaporation pits. It can seep back down into the earth and it is sometimes sprayed into the air to speed evaporation. Because of industry-sponsored legislation for which Dick Cheny and Halliburton are partly responsible there is secrecy about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations (which may vary from site to site) but the chemicals include toxins, known carcinogens and heavy metals.

The health effects of being around all this, including the effect on animals, are gruesome. Human beings (who are not drinking the contaminated ground water; nobody will, not even people form the industry or regulators) suffer neuropathies, deadened senses of smell and taste and brain damage. In other words the industry extracts health from the public without paying for it.

Fossil Fuels Industry: Bloomberg and the City’s Real Estate Industry

Noticing New York has written a lot about how under Bloomberg the public realm in New York City is habitually sold off to politically connected developers who do not pay value for it. (See: Monday, February 23, 2009, Un-funny Valentines Arriving Late: Your Community Interests at Heart.) The way in which the politically-wired fossil fuels industry treats the public commons is essentially another version of the same thing. We can and will at another time extend the analogy by explaining why practices in the hydrofacking industry known as “compulsory integration,” or “forced pooling,” where the government forces owners to give up rights to their land, are closely akin to eminent domain abuse but for the moment we hope the analogies are clear enough.

Let’s ask again: Is Bloomberg the man to take on the problems of Global Warming?

Global Warming and New York City

The problems global warming poses for the city are real and need to be thought through. Global sea levels are rising. Sea level is about a foot higher than it was a hundred years ago. The planners of Brooklyn Bridge Park say they have planned for a sea level rise of an additional three feet. That’s only what’s planned for and perhaps relatively near term. Sea levels could rise more than that. Even if sea level rises only another foot or so the intrusion of water into our underground subways will put a lot more stress on the pumping system that day-to-day keeps the subways dry.

The city is also exposed and vulnerable to more catastrophic events when sea level rises. New York is lucky in that the configuration of our coastline somewhat diminishes the overall odds of hurricanes hitting the city (less so Long Island) but there is still a significant chance a hurricane will hit. With weather weirding that storm could be extra strong. And with a sea level rise added into the bargain New York City faces a very significant increased risk from hurricane storm surge. The population is large, prime real estate assets on low-lying land prevalent and the logistics of evacuation are difficult. Damage to the city could be in the hundreds of billions.

Here from a March 23, 2006 report the State Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions under Assemblyman Richard Brodsky:
New York City and the Long Island region have been directly hit by 11 hurricanes over the last 120 years, for an approximate frequency of one hurricane every 10 years. The most severe hurricane to hit the New York coastal region has been a Category 3 hurricane. According to historical records, since 1815 there have been four Category 3 hurricanes that have hit the New York City region: 1815, 1821, 1893, and 1938.
Among other things, the storm of 1938, which mostly missed the city, hitting Long Island and more severely elsewhere, flooded Providence, Rhode Island.

On the prospect of vulnerability to storm surge damage the report said:
The City is especially vulnerable to storm-surge flooding because of the New York bight: the right angle formed by Long Island and New Jersey. The New York bight makes storm surge values in New York City higher than anywhere else along the eastern seaboard. New York Harbor and the surrounding rivers essentially act as a funnel, and the water will have nowhere to go but on land. While a Category 3 storm will cause a 12-13 foot storm surge in Florida, the same hurricane will cause a storm surge above 20 feet for most of New York City’s coast.
The first part of the above quote come from state and federal government agencies, the New York State Emergency Management Office, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The second part estimating the storm surge height and what follows below is from a New York Press article by Aaron Naparstek, the founder of Streetsblog, for which Naparstek got information from Mike Lee at OEM.
Everything below Broome Street will be inundated, some parts under as much as 20 and 30 feet of water. Chelsea and Greenwich Village are completely flooded, with the Hudson spilling over all the way to 7th Avenue. Likewise, the East River and East Village become one, with ocean water surging all the way to 1st Avenue…A major hurricane will push ocean water down from the Long Island Sound into the Upper East Side, South Bronx and northern Queens, flooding those areas severely. Vast stretches of southern Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island will be devastated.
Could a storm surge and damage really be as bad as described above? Maybe and perhaps not but how wrong can we afford to be?

Storm Surge Barriers?

I was at the New York City Council during little reported hearings where the possibility and expense of buildings storm surge barriers was discussed. It’s done in the Netherlands. The cost was estimated at $5 billion and possible because there are only a few choke points in the harbor that would need to be addressed. Naturally, any public work estimated to cost $5 billion will probably cost more: The Brooklyn Bridge (built during the reign of Boss Tweed) cost more than twice its original estimate. But $5 billion is not much more than all the public subsidies we are putting into the Atlantic Yards project; money spent on such barriers would be for infrastructure of benefit to all rather than subsidizing one development firm’s private profit at the expense of others and wouldn’t even $10 billion likely be a small cost compared to the cost of a catastrophic storm surge?

Here is another thing we wonder: Couldn’t the barriers be built with a second function in mind; the use of tidal energy to generate electricity? If that were so, wouldn’t their effective cost be greatly reduced? Or perhaps the barriers/generators would even pay for themselves? That would even more likely be the way the math works out if you consider the cost to society of using fossil fuels. Isn’t this a more reasonable expense to ask the public to bear than that of hyrofracking or off shore drilling and oil spills? As we noted before in this post, severe weather has in the past provided the impetus for great New York public works. This wouldn’t be the first.

A Personalized Noticing New York Experience of the Brooklyn Storm

My own personal experience of the September 16, 2010 Brooklyn tornado was not as dramatic as that of some others but I will tell it to you. I was not where the worst of storm was. (One friend of ours was biking through Park Slope and was admitted to very much needed shelter by someone she didn’t know when she climbed a stranger’s brownstone stoop as the worst of the storm hit dead on)

I was busy writing Noticing New York when I heard rolling thunder. I noticed that the roll of the thunder didn’t stop: There were no intermittent breaks as the lightening flashed. It was odd enough so that shortly thereafter I began to record the thunder (the recording is not that interesting as the sound of wind and thunder compete). I decided the sound of the thunder bore investigation and proceeded to the Promenade from where I was able to see that a storm covered the entire horizon over Manhattan and that the wort of it seemed to be a wall of water cascading down in the vicinity of Red Hook. It was later reported Red Hook was one area the storm hit forcefully. Raindrops were beginning to fall and I could tell that a sweep of more drenching rain was about to come. Waiting until almost the last minute I largely escaped it by sprinting ahead. It took just a few bounds before I was back inside my building’s small portico but by that time my back was completely soaked while the front of me was completely dry. Looking out from the vestibule above the stoop I saw torrents.

Below are videos of the arriving storm and then the torrents that followed. As I said, Brooklyn Heights was not subject to the worst of it.

Upstairs, I knew I recognized the pattern of the weather I’d seen. Suspecting that they would be talking about tornadoes I turned on NY1 and, indeed, they were announcing that there was at that moment a tornado in Brooklyn. Showing it on the map it was not immediately clear to me that I was out of range, which I was, but in a very few minutes it was over. My instincts were right; it was tornado weather over Brooklyn. If my instincts are right in some other respects discussed here, let’s hope we will be able to do something about the global weather weirding that has brought tornadoes to visit in Brooklyn for the first time ever.

1 comment:

Matt Hammer said...

Awesome post. Very well written. I only had the chance to skim most of it right now, but regarding the Brooklyn tornado - what a storm that was! I was actually on the air the night after when the tornadoes were actually confirmed. Impressive storms the night before on the 16th and that's some great video of the storms you posted!! Wish I had seen that video weeks ago!

Look forward to reading this article in depth ASAP. Nice work!!

Matt Hammer