Category Archives: Travel

Climate Change in Florida — Seeing is Believing

Photo of Miami skyline

Miami, Florida. Image: Unsplash.com. Photo by Muzammil Soorma

Back in 2014, Rick Scott, then republican governor of Florida, was asked if he had a plan to deal with Climate Change. Here’s a 24-second YouTube video clip in which Scott gives his answer: No Plan. That was his position for the remainder of his term in office.

The threat posed by sea level rise to the future of Miami is known and it is dire. Yet people continue to purchase ocean front properties as if no such threat exists. The question is, why? Noah Smith, in an opinion piece for Bloomberg News dated May 3, 2018, suggested that “Increased probability of coastal flooding makes waterfront real estate a bit like a junk bond.” It’s an analogy that calls for elaboration.

A junk bond is a high-yield, moderate-risk security. For example, a city in danger of going broke, may raise money by selling ten-year junk bonds that pay a higher rate of interest (the yield) to attract buyers. The risk to the buyer is that the city may go bankrupt before the ten-year maturity date is reached, in which case the bonds become worthless. Waterfront property threatened by ocean flooding can be compared to that city. The property will continue to attract investors so long as it continues to offer a higher than normal quality of life (real or imagined). That’s the yield. The risk to the buyer in the short term — 10 to 20 years — is the unlikely chance that the property insurers (private or government) run out of money to cover damage when flooding does occur. In other words, the short-term risk to the buyer is negligible.

What about the long term threat posed by sea level rise (3 to 6 feet higher by the end of the century)? As far as Miami real estate transactions are concerned, it hasn’t yet become an issue. The immediate attraction of a higher quality of life (seaside living) has so far trumped whatever worries buyers may have about sea level rise. Furthermore, the prevailing political position has been to avoid giving the buyers reasons to to worry. State officials have taken a see-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach to the threat. There are no zoning laws or other disincentives aimed at discouraging further development in the region’s  flood-prone areas. In effect, the politicians are sitting on their hands, apparently waiting for the ocean to force the issue. 

That raises another question: when forced to act by rising waters, what will the city or the state do to protect the people and their way of life? Move them to higher ground? Miami is built on land that lies barely above sea level. The average elevation of Miami-Dade County is about 6 feet. The highest point in the county is about 25 feet. This means that high-tide flooding already affects those parts of the city that sit at little more than a foot and a half above Mean Sea Level (the average level of the sea between high and low tide). And even conservative predictions say that in 15 to 25 years, sea level will be a foot higher than it is today.

There’s a geological feature called the Atlantic Coastal Ridge stretching along the eastern edge of the Florida peninsula. It consists of outcrops of limestone, which In some places provide marginally higher ground. For example, the North Miami communities known as Little Haiti and Liberty City are built on ridge limestone that rises a few feet higher than the surrounding land. Noah Smith, in his opinion piece for Bloomberg News, mentions studies showing that “higher elevation locations have risen in price faster than similar locations at low elevations.” Okay. But it’s a side issue. The population of the Miami metropolitan area is pushing seven million.     The place can’t speculate its way out of the problems that lie ahead. It needs a real plan.

Florida now has a new Governor, Ron DeSantis, another republican. Here’s a YouTube video in which he says, “I see the sea rising, I see the flooding in South Florida, so I think you’d be a fool not to consider that as an issue we need to address.” That’s progress. Let’s see what he actually does about it?

Amtrak’s Vision for High Speed Rail scuppered by its own report on Climate Change

Photo: Concept Rendering of Amtrak’s NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station

Concept Rendering of NextGen High Speed Rail at Existing Wilmington Station, Delaware. Source: AMTRAK

The only civilized and environmentally sound way to travel long distances is by rail. The roads are either clogged or dangerous. The airline operators treat their customers as self-loading freight. Cars and planes are wasteful emitters of global warming CO2. Amtrak wants to provide its customers with an enhanced high-speed service along its busiest route, the Northeast Corridor, which connects Boston, New York, and Washington. It’s a great idea, and the company has been promoting it for the past ten years — so far without success.

The Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor – 2012 Update Report, outlines the company’s dream for the high speed rail service. It calls for a 25-30 year investment program to cut travel times by half, using ‘next generation’ trains capable of 220 mph speeds. Estimated capital cost: $150 Billion ( 2011 dollars).

Map of Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment

Proposed Northeast Corridor, high-speed rail alignment. Source: Amtrak

So what’s holding things up? Amtrak is a quasi-public corporation. Although it operates as a for-profit company, it remains dependent on federal subsidies. Getting politicians to commit funds for necessary upgrades, let alone for ‘next generation’ infrastructure, is not easy. There are priorities, like debt-ballooning tax cuts, military hardware, boarder walls, etc.

The project now faces a more serious problem. It concerns a multi-year study undertaken by Amtrak on the likely impact of climate change on the company’s operations along the Northeast Corridor. The study concludes that by mid century, rising seas and flooding associated with climate change will subject rail assets including portions of track to “continual inundation” thus rendering them unusable. Reportedly Amtrak completed the study by April 2017, but kept quiet about it until November 2018 when Bloomberg News obtained a redacted copy following a Freedom of Information request. Why the secrecy? Well, that’s easy to understand. Amtrak had said it could provide a finished product for $150 Billion. How can it now explain the need for many more billions to move its stuff out of harms way? It’s embarrassing.

According to Bloomberg, while the study provides details about the parts of the corridor at risk, it focuses on a ten mile stretch running through Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington is located close to where the Christian River joins the Delaware River (actually a tidal estuary), and much of the city is low lying. It is home to a training center for Amtrak engineers, a maintenance yard for the repair of electric locomotives, and a rail traffic control center, all of them situated in flood-prone parts of the city, as is the track itself.  For example, a three mile stretch of the track northeast of the city, lies within feet of the Delaware River shore line (see map below).

Map of Wilmington DE ans area showing section of Northeast Corridor Rail Line beside the DelawRe River

Map showing section of the Northeast Corridor lying closest to the Delaware River. Source: openstreetmap

You can see the problem for yourself next time you travel between New York and Washington by train. Take a window seat looking east, and watch for the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Wilmington. If the tide is in as you pass the three mile section, you may be shocked at how close the water is to the base of the tracks.

Alternatively, watch the following YouTube video (credit: Jersey Mike’s Rail Videos) showing the view from the back of an Amtrak train on route from Wilmington to Philadelphia. If you start the video at the 4.50 mark, you’ll see a substation to your left and the I-495 to your right. The track leaves the shore line at about the 7.15 mark.

Amtrak management knew about the potential for climate change to impact its rail assets when it released its ‘Vision for High Speed Rail’ in 2012, but made no mention of it in the proposal. A report for Amtrak dated September 2014 by Booz/Allen/Hamilton on the vulnerability of the Northeast Corridor to climate change, says (section 3.3.3) “Climate Change will directly and indirectly affect rail service in several different ways.”  Sea level rise causing long-term/permanent track flooding, is one of the ways listed in the report. Amtrak could have updated its ‘Vision’ proposal at that time, but did not do so. Now, more than four years later, the climate cat is out of the bag and as far as High-Speed Rail is concerned, Amtrak has no place to go but back to square one. Pity.

Rhode Island’s Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. Can it handle a big one?

Photo of Huge ocean wave. Image by Ray Collins

Ocean Wave. Photo by Ray Collins

Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay sits like an open mouth, ready to swallow any hurricane that makes its way up the East Coast. Usually these northward trending hurricanes lose steam when they reach the colder waters off New England. Usually but not always. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 arrived over Rhode Island with a forward speed of 50 to 60 mph and wind speeds exceeding 120 mph. It carried with it an ocean swell that filled the bay to overflowing.

Map of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island

Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Openstreetmap.org

According to the National Weather Service (NWS-Boston), “The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Connecticut coast, with 18 to 25 foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod. The destructive power of the storm surge was felt throughout the coastal community. Narragansett Bay took the worst hit, where a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, marinas and yacht clubs. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet.”

In 1954, Hurricane Carol produced a storm surge of more than 14 feet in Narragansett Bay. Downtown Providence was once again flooded, this time by 8 to 12 feet of water. All levels of government — local, State, and Federal — agreed that something had to be done to protect the low lying city center. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, completed in 1966, was the result.

Aerial photo of Downtown Providence and Providence River

Downtown Providence and the Providence River. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier is hidden behind the I-195 highway bridge. Image: providenceri.gov

All travellers on the I-195 Highway pass within feet of the Barrier as they drive across the eight-lane bridge over the Providence River. But those who want to look at the barrier and appreciate its design, leave the highway on the east side of the river, and make their way back to Bridge Street and its small riverside park (marked in yellow on the satellite view below)

Satellite view of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier

Satellite view of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier and vicinity. Google Maps Image

The barrier is located a couple of hundred yards up stream from Fox Point, and just north of the I-195 Highway Bridge. It consists of a concrete wall built across the Providence River and earthen dikes that extend flood protection about a thousand feet over the land on each side of the river. Built into the river wall are three, 40 foot wide gates, each weighing  53 tons. Under normal weather conditions, the gates remain open so as not to impede the flow of the river. The gates are located at the eastern end of the river wall. They can be seen in the sattelite view above.

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Providence, RI

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier’s three flood gates, looking down stream from park on Bridge Street. I-195 Hwy bridge in background. Providence RI. Image: Brown.edu

An essential component of the barrier system is the pumping station consisting of five massive 4500 H.P pumps, each as big as a grain elevator. When the flood gates are closed to keep a storm surge out, the entire flow of the river must be continuously pumped up and over the barrier. Otherwise the river would be held back, overflow its banks, and flood the city. The pumping station is housed in a building at the western end of the river wall (its roof is plainly visible in the satellite view). The five pumps, operating together, can lift 3.1 million gallons per minute and discharge the flow to the downstream side of the barrier.

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Providence RI

View of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier from Bridge Street pocket park. Pumping Station at far right. Google Image

The barrier gates have been closed against storms several times since going into service in 1966. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the water crested at 9.5 feet. But the barrier has yet to experience a direct hit from a category 4 or 5 hurricane. As coastal flooding increases in the coming years, hurricane barriers of all kinds are going to be in the news.

North Carolina’s mobile Outer Banks and its new, immovable Bonner Bridge

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse being moved in 1999. Image from International Chimney Corporation website

The iconic Cape Hatteras lighthouse no longer sits on the ground on which it was built in 1870. Under threat from the encroaching sea, the 210 ft., 5,000 ton masonry structure was moved in 1999 about 2800 feet southwest from its original location. Masonry buildings, when shaken (during earthquakes, for example) tend to come apart along mortar lines, or even fall completely to pieces. So it isn’t easy to move them safely.

International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo NY and Expert House Movers of MD Inc., were awarded the moving contract. The job was carried out successfully; not a single brick was dislodged during the operation. The lighthouse is now about a third of a mile from tide water, distant enough, it’s hoped, to keep it safe from the sea until at least the end of this century. In recognition of the difficulties involved in moving the structure, the two company’s jointly won the American Society of Civil Engineers 40th Annual Outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement Award.

The following map shows the location of the lighthouse before it had to be moved:

Map showing shoreline recession at Cape Hatteras NC

History of shoreline recession at Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks, North Carolina (map also shows pre-1999 location of the lighthouse). Image: pubs.usgs.gov (paper 1177-B)

To visit the lighthouse up close, drive south from Bodie Island on Highway 12. The H. Bonner Bridge carries the road across Oregon Inlet, linking Hatteras Island to the northern Outer Banks. The economic life of Hatteras Island depends on it. By early next year, the new Bonner Bridge will be ready to take over from the old one.

Aerial photo ofOregon Inlet and old H.Bonner Bridge, Outer Banks NC

Oregon Inlet and the old H. Bonner Bridge. Photo taken from above Pamlico Sound looking east towards the Atlantic. Image: usgs.gov

Built in 1963 with a life expectancy of 30 years, the old Bonner bridge is in danger of falling down. The new bridge (due to open for traffic early next year) is built to last 100 years according to the designers, HDR Inc., an engineering company based in Omaha, Nebraska. The bridge is built on shifting sand, so that longevity claim is based on the company’s confidence in their engineering abilities. Domenic Coletti, HDR design manager, quoted in the company’s website, said this:

To our knowledge, no one has previously designed and built a [bridge] foundation where piles had to be jetted and driven through nearly 140 feet of soil [sand] in a way that still provided adequate capacity [stability] after 84 feet of scour occurs.”

SCOUR is the anticipated tearing away of the sand around the support piles due to ocean currents in the inlet.

Photo of the old and the new H. Bonner Bridges, Outer Banks, North Carolina

The old and the new H. Bonner Bridges crossing the Oregon Inlet, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image from The Outer Banks Voice, 13/11/2018. Photo by Bob Moris

But consider this: although the new bridge may very well last 100 yeas, how many years will the inlet over which the bridge crosses remain in its present location?After all, storms have opened and closed numerous inlets along the Outer Banks since records began in the 16th century. A hurricane formed the Oregon Inlet in 1846. Another one could close it. The steady migration of the Outer Banks over time, may also cause problems. Here’s part of an October 16 email I sent to Pablo Hernandez, Resident Engineer, NCDOT, asking about that matter:

According to the US Geological Survey, the Outer Banks have historically migrated south at the rate of 60 to 70 feet per year, a process that sea level rise may speed up. This suggests that in 20 or 30 years, the Oregon Inlet may no longer be where it is now, thus leaving the new bridge without a function. I’m wondering what actions DOT plan to take to avoid such an outcome?”

No answer yet. My guess is that the Army Corps of Engineers will be kept busy dredging the channel for the indefinite future. What other solution is there? Unlike a lighthouse, a bridge can’t be moved. When Mr. Hernandez gets back to me I’ll update this post.

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks showing location of Cape Hatteras lighthouse and Oregon Inlet. Image from U.S. National Parks Maps

North Carolina’s valuable pile of sand

This land isn’t permanent, it moves. This whole pile of sand moves with every storm with sea level rise, and it’ll continue to move for hundreds of years. And we’ve tried to engineer it like it’s Raleigh, like it’s a rock, but it’s not. It’s sand.” — Stanley Riggs, former professor of marine and coastal geography. — Courier-Tribune, Sept. 15, 2018

The pile of sand Riggs is talking about is the Outer Banks, the 200 mile string of barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. His concern is the continuing development on that long sand bank, and the general lack of interest in restricting it.

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks

Map of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Image from U.S. National Parks Maps

Given that the Outer Banks consist of shifting sands, sit barely above sea level, and are located in a part of the world subject to violent ocean storms, why is there continuing development?

The developers know that building houses and roads on sand is asking for trouble. The difficulties associated with the stability of buildings have been researched for well over 2000 years. Matthew, a great authority on the subject, said: ”And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and Great was the fall of it.“ — The guy knew what he was talking about.

Image of fallen house on Hatteras Island, North Carolina

fallen house, Hatteras Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina. Image: Steve Early/ Virginia Post

North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission studied the situation in 2010 and wrote a report predicting a 39 inch rise in sea level by the year 2100, enough to flood coastal towns and wash away the existing built environment on the Outer Banks. Advocates for economic development in twenty of the State’s coastal counties formed the NC-20 group to lobby against the report which, they said, was based on bad science. It would, they argued, scare away business and tourists. The Legislature agreed, passed a bill prohibiting scary predictions, and ordered the commission to write something acceptable to the economic development people. The result was a 2015 report predicting a sea level rise of 6 – 8 inches by the year 2045. What a relief.

As well as the thousands of year-round residents and summer-cottage owners, the Outer Banks attract several million tourists each year. It’s a big enterprise and an important tax generator. Of course government wants to support it, and they’ll continue to do so until the environmental situation becomes untenable. In the mean time, the real estate developers, estate, agents, house builders, private insurers, road contractors, shop owners, and rental accommodation suppliers, will all get paid. And the tourists will continue to enjoy fun in the sun.

What about the property owners? Well, in real estate, timing is everything. They’ll just have to watch the market and judge when to sell — that’s if they even care; purchasing beach-front property is not a poor man’s game. And if a hurricane happens to blow their stuff away, there’s always FEMA and the Feds (the American taxpayer) to help them rebuild their houses, on taller stilts if necessary.

Beach houses on Hatteras Island, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene

Beach houses on Hatteras Island, August 2011 after Hurricane Irene. Image: Telegraph/AP

If sea level rises faster and higher than the 6 – 8 inches currently mandated by North Carolina’s law makers, who will bare the cost? Probably the people living in towns along the State’s low lying mainland coast. The houses they live in are not summer homes or holiday rentals — it’s all they’ve got.

Map of North Carolina showing physical regions

North Carolina Physical Regions. Map image from NCPedia

 

Light Rail Transit – the right choice for Norfolk VA

The Tide Light Rail vehicles at MacArthur Square, Norfolk VA

The Tide Light Rail vehicles at MacArthur Square, Norfolk VA. Image by Mega Anorak at Flickriver.com

It’s an eight minute ride on The Tide, from the Eastern Virginia Medical Center campus in Norfolk’s Ghent district to downtown Norfolk. The Tide is the city’s Light Rail Transit line. Opened in 2011, the line runs seven and a half miles from its western terminus at EVMC/Fort-Norfolk, through downtown Norfolk, to its eastern terminus at Newtown Road. From end to end, the ride takes 18 minutes, including brief stops at nine intermediate stations.

Map showing route of The Tide Light Rail Transit Line, Norfolk BA

Route of The Tide Light Rail Transit Line, Norfolk VA (termini marked in blue and circled))

The route to the east from Downtown Norfolk is far from scenic. It runs roughly parallel to Interstate-264, which means that the passing scene consists mostly of highway support structures  — underpasses, overpasses, level-crossings, and the like. Also on view are commercial buildings and parking lots. Many parking lots. Suburban residential areas along the the way appear like untamed nature by comparison. The ride is comfortable and entertaining. And it gives one an appreciation of the enormous amounts of concrete and blacktop used to sustain our automobile economy.

Interior view of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle

Interior view of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle. Image: Wikipedia Commons

The Tide is presently equipped with nine Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicles. These are double-ended cars with operating controls at both ends and doors on both sides. The same vehicles are in use or on order at nine or ten other US cities.

Diagram of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle

Diagram of Siemens S70 Light Rail Vehicle. Image from Siemens website

According to the August 13, 2016 issue of the Virginia-Pilot, building the 7.4-mile line cost $318.5 (including $86 million in cost overruns). That year, weekday ridership had reached 4,800, and the operator, Hampton Roads Transit, declared the project a success. There’s been talk since then about extending the system into other parts of Norfolk and into Virginia Beach.

Investment in Light Rail Transit systems makes perfect sense. They are clean, quiet, safe, popular, and they do the job. But for Norfolk, the big question is this: Expand the transit system or Protect the city against the rising sea — which comes first?

The Tide Light Rail, Norfolk VA. View looking south-east from the EVMC/Fort-Norfolk Station

The Tide Light Rail, Norfolk VA. View looking south-east from the EVMC/Fort-Norfolk Station. Image by Jon Bell

 

Norfolk VA – Retreat, Dig-In, or Both?

The Coastal Plain — the land bordering the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Cape Cod — was once sea bottom. It has low topographic relief and extensive areas of wet land and drowned valleys such as the Chesapeake, the Delaware, and Long Island Sound. From the air the plain looks as flat as a pancake. The part of the plain that extends eastward into the Atlantic, forms the continental shelf. Norfolk, Virginia, is located on the eastern edge of the plain, on land the sea now wants to reclaim as its own.

Water view of Norfolk VA

Norfolk VA viewed from across the Elizabeth River. Wiki Commons image

It’s a pleasantly warm November day in downtown Norfolk. The sun is shining on the Elizabeth River and there’s nothing to suggest to the casual visitor that the city is under threat from an encroaching ocean. But the Inhabitants of the city are well aware of the threat and are constantly reminded of it.

For example, here’s part of a memorandum from the administrators of the Eastern Virginia Medical School to its students, faculty, and staff, concerning campus safety:

[The school] is located in a low lying coastal area; Norfolk’s elevation and its proximity to several rivers make it susceptible to flooding. Nearly every year, and sometimes several times throughout the year during times of heavy rain, hurricanes or nor’easter storms, the EVMS Community is threatened with the potential of precipitation, tidal and/or wind-driven flooding and/or low-land flooding.

The memo goes on to offer safety tips: If advised to evacuate your home, do so immediately; If there is any possibility of a flash flood, move to higher ground; If possible, move essential items to an upper floor; Turn off utilities at the main switches or valves; Do not walk through moving water. As little as 6 inches of moving water can make you fall; Do not drive into flooded areas. If floodwaters rise around your car, abandon the car and move to higher ground if you can do so safely.

The EVMS campus is located a mile or so north-west of Norfolk’s downtown core, in the district called Ghent. But the threat of flooding is not restricted to any one area, it is a constant concern throughout the city. 

Norfolk VA storm surge map

Norfolk VA storm surge map. Virginia Dept. of Emergency Management

What the map tells us is that, under present sea level conditions, the surge from a category three hurricane would put most of the city under several feet of sea water. However, because the level of the sea is continuing to rise, the potential for catastrophic flooding will increase with time.

The grey area on the map at the north end of the city marks the location of Navel Station Norfolk, the nations largest navel base. The base is particularly vulnerable to storm surge. When a serious storm approaches, the fleet wisely heads out to sea.

Aerial view of Naval Base Norfolk

Naval Base Norfolk. Image: Wiki Commons

So what can be done to protect the city?

The US Corps of Engineers – Norfolk District, has produced a 438-page report titled ‘Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study’ in which it proposes building — at a cost of $1.57 billion — a series of storm surge barriers and sea walls. The scheme is designed to protect the city from a 50-year storm, assuming a rise in sea level of 1.5 feet. However, since no one knows what level the sea will actually rise to, or how strong future storms will actually be, and considering the high cost of the plan, it’s unlikely the city will move on the recommendations any time soon.

The May 21, 2018 issue of Inside Climate News, quotes George Homewood, Norfolk’s planning director:

“I truly believe that technology will begin to address some of our climate issues and some of our sea level rise issues, . . . There are obviously some issues, but in theory, can we live with water? Can we make it so the water comes, the water goes, and we just keep on keepin’ on?”

In the same issue, the author, Nicholas Kusnetz, writes:

“Norfolk officials say they don’t know how exactly their city will cope in the long term if seas rise quickly. They voice an understandable, but ultimately troubling faith that someone, somehow, will figure out a solution. Homewood acknowledges that, on some level, it won’t be enough.”