Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dumpster Pools on Streets Without Cars

Damn, that last post was a real downer. Sorry, everyone. Why don't we beat the heat by taking a dip in a recycled dumpster parked on a car-free Park Avenue in front of Grand Central Station?

This is roughly what Park Avenue near 42nd Street will look like on three consecutive Saturdays in August, when the city invites pedestrian and cyclists to enjoy major streets without any motor vehicle traffic. It has all the trappings of a futuristic Ecotopia, where fashionable pedestrians have re-conquered the highways from automobiles and dumpsters hold swimming pools instead of garbage. Luckily the image above is just a Photoshop job, so that kid diving into the shallow end isn't really going to break his neck.

The dumpster pools are a new addition for the second annual "Summer Streets" event. This massive prohibition of motor vehicle traffic on one of Manhattan's major avenues to is actually an initiative of the city's Department of Transportation under the leadership of Janette Sadik-Kahn, an avid cyclist and pedestrian. Let this be a lesson to all the other Departments of Transportation: while your pencil-necked bureaucrats are making life more difficult for pedestrians and designing expensive new ways for people to waste their time in traffic, New York City is showing us how transportation planners can actually be lovable.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It's been warm where I am, and where you are, too

This Guardian summary of the latest record-breaking temperature data from NOAA is chockablock full of staggering and depressing facts. Among them:
  • Last month was the hottest June ever recorded worldwide and the fourth consecutive month that the combined global land and sea temperature records have been broken.

  • According to NOAA, June was the 304th consecutive month with a combined global land and surface temperature above the 20th-century average. The last month with below-average temperatures was February 1985.

  • Separate satellite data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado shows that the extent of sea ice in the Arctic was at its lowest for any June since satellite records started in 1979.

I found this report via Wired writer Bruce Sterling's Twitter feed, where he made the powerful observation that we'll spend the rest of our lives "dolefully watching physical realities like 'hottest month ever recorded.'"

Future heat waves will break records of the less-distant future, which themselves will outdo these heat extremes of the present day. Struggling journalism institutions like the Guardian will cut costs by recycling the same report, tweaking the details as necessary, and someday soon getting rid of the reference to Arctic sea ice when Arctic sea ice disappears altogether.

But at some point, the reports will cease. When agriculture fails and as more and more nations collapse over water shortages and economic turmoil, organizations like NOAA will either lose their capacity to collect and analyze global climate data, or cease to exist altogether. At that point in our lives, if our lives haven't gone the way of our political and economic institutions, we'll no longer be burdened by these reports and their staggering statistics.

We'll merely be burdened by the staggering reality of a broken world.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Organic labels

Via, "a downloadable set of 16 stickers to let you label your favorite foods, books, and appliances as organic. Just print them out, stick them on, and start feeling good about yourself!"

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Hot Days Incinerate Oil

If you're an electric utility, you don't take the dog days of summer lying down. No, when it's 95 degrees outside, that's when you want to burn millions of gallons of oil in your oldest, least efficient power plants. Beat the heat by starting a thousand-degree inferno.

That's exactly what's happening across the northeastern United States this week, as record temperatures are also breaking records for electrical consumption. It's the first law of thermodynamics writ large: as millions of office buildings, supermarkets, and houses work their AC units to stay cool, the region's utilities need to put massive amounts of heat into the system, and they fire up every power plant they have at their disposal to meet the demand.
Most utilities keep a handful big power plants in reserve, maintained year-round just to operate a handful of times a year when the grid needs to call in the cavalry. Many of these plants tend to be old and relatively inefficient: they're not economical to run on a daily basis, but they're maintained in running condition for the handful of days each year when they might come in handy, and when spot-prices for electricity rise high enough to justify their high costs of operation.

One such power plant is located right on the edge of scenic Casco Bay, visible from Portland's Eastern Promenade Park and from thousands of other waterfront vistas in greater Portland. Wyman Station, about which I've blogged previously here, is a 1970s-vintage oil-fired power plant capable of generating more electricity (over 800 megawatts) than any other plant in Maine. It's old, it's inefficient, it burns expensive fuel, and it occupies extremely valuable coastal Maine real estate. But it's still there for those few times when a million air conditioners ask the grid to turn the juice up to eleven, and pay for the privilege.

In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, Wyman Station, in spite of its sporadic use, still managed to produce 2860 tons of sulphur dioxide, 155 tons of carbon monoxide, and 736 tons of nitrogen oxides (source: US EPA). According to the US Energy Information Administration, burning a thousand gallons of heavy oil in a typical boiler yields about 47 pounds of nitrogen oxides, so a little math tells us that Wyman burned somewhere on the order of 30 million gallons of oil in 2005.

In SI units, that is 1.3 shit-tons of filthy fuel. Imagine the Deepwater Horizon oil leak spilling into Casco Bay for 7 days, and you'll have a rough idea of how much oil Wyman burns every year. Go ahead, imagine it.

As I said before, this is for a plant that's only run for a few days each year. So here's the good news: every New Englander who turns off the lights in their office, or shuts down their computers during the hottest mid-afternoon hours to do some old-fashioned analog work, can help save a few gallons of oil from going up in smoke. Many utilities are giving large customers a price break if they do this on the hottest days, since asking your customers to turn off the lights can be cheaper than running expensive diesel backup generators. Right now, this is all done with polite phone calls, but in the near future, appliances will develop a hive mind to communicate with the electric grid, take turns sucking down scarce juice, and keep places from Wyman Station from starting fires on hot days. Others have argued that the situation calls for more solar panels, which tend to generate the most electricity on these hot and sunny summer days.

In the meantime, consider giving your appliances - and your local power plant - a break on these hot afternoons. With or without futuristic "smart grid" technology, if a few thousand New Englanders manage to cut back their consumption on hot days, we could shut places like Wyman Station down for good.

Friday, July 02, 2010

In Seach of Moosey Paradise: A Walk Along Portland's Inner-City Wildlife Corridors

The big news here in Portland yesterday was a young bull moose who had wandered into Deering Oaks Park, a formally-landscaped open space in the central city. Just like the opening credits of Northern Exposure, but with more spectators.

According to reports, the animal took a dip in the park's pond, where it attracted a small crowd of onlookers, as well as the city's police department and a state game warden, who were concerned about how it would cross I-295 on its way out of the city. One of my favorite details of the story is how they were going to shoot the animal with a tranquilizer, but the warden's gun jammed just when she got a clear shot. Apparently Portland's big-game armory has suffered from infrequent use.

It ended up taking the Forest Avenue underpass, crossing one of the city's busiest streets twice, then escaping through the University of Southern Maine campus. It was later spotted at Chevrus High School, located in an inner suburban neighborhood, before it made its way west through the woods in Evergreen Cemetery. The animal was reportedly exhausted, but unscathed.

This isn't the first time a young bull moose has appeared in downtown Portland. A few years ago, police shot one in the middle of the city's Munjoy Hill neighborhood - an even stranger place to see such a huge animal, since it lies at the end of a peninsula, cut off from the mainland by a freeway and the city's central business district. That was also early in the summer, a time of year when juvenile males tend to strike out on their own and take risks in pursuit of their own territory.

These moose that wander into the city obviously have no conception of where it was, just a sense of hope that, on the other side of this neighborhood, it might find a big-enough block of swampy woods with a small surplus of female moose. I'm reminded of how deer and other mammals came to populate islands far from and out of sight of the mainland, swimming for hours on a vague scent, with no way of knowing how much further land would be, or whether they might drown in the crossing. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I'm impressed at this moose's sense of adventure - its willingness to take big risks to find a great new place.

This kind of exploration is hard to come by for anyone who actually lives in and knows the city. But the moose's path in and out of Portland seems to have gravitated towards the city's remaining blocks of undeveloped land and forested parks - and the places where a moose would feel most at home happen to be the kinds of places I most enjoy exploring myself.

Because there aren't any public reports of the moose before it was sighted in Deering Oaks Park, it's hard to tell how this particular moose got into the city, but I suspect that it either came in the way it left, through Evergreen Cemetery, or it ventured in along the banks of the Stroudwater and Fore Rivers. Here's a map:

Although Portland is on a peninsula, there are two large blocks of wildlands on its fringes that extend towards the central city. To the south, critters like deer and coyotes regularly migrate into the city along the Stroudwater River, which is surrounded by a large block of swampy, undeveloped woods, as well as several farms and golf courses. The Maine Turnpike, probably the biggest barrier for critters trying to get into the city (it's the red-dashed line running across the map above) flies over the Stroudwater on a wide bridge, which makes it easy for critters (and people - this is roughly the path of the Stroudwater Trail) to cross under the highway:

On the other side of the Turnpike, just north of the mouth of the Stroudwater, there's the Fore River Preserve, a former Maine Audubon property that occupies the headwaters of the Fore River along with acres of marsh and forested uplands. From the Preserve, a moose bound for the city could walk through the sparsely-populated neighborhood between the Fore River and the railroad tracks, cross under I-295 at the bridge, and then follow an abandoned railway into Deering Oaks, without seeing a human soul.

Alternatively, a critter could cross the Turnpike at one of two other Turnpike underpasses: one at Warren Avenue, a relatively rural-feeling road that cuts through an industrial area, and one where the Presumpscot River passes under the Turnpike in the city's northernmost reaches. From either of these options, a moose could cut through the thin patches of woods between houses in the city's low-density outer suburbs, before reaching the the Evergreen Cemetery. While the front of the Cemetery, along Stevens Avenue, is highly landscaped, and doesn't offer much cover for critters, the back of the Cemetery is a huge, wild forest that extends almost all the way to the Turnpike. Better still, right across Stevens Avenue from the Cemetery is Baxter Woods, a forested city park, which itself is just a skip across a busy road and railroad tracks to a smaller tract of woods around the new Ocean Avenue School. From there, its just a matter of trespassing through some inner-suburb backyards to get to the parklike University of Southern Maine campus, which is right across the freeway from Deering Oaks Park. The moose yesterday opted to take a detour to the north to visit Chevrus High School, but this roughly describes his escape route.

By coming into Portland, this moose has demonstrated to us an inner-city bushwhacking course through the wildest remaining areas of our city. While I've hiked portions of this itinerary before (such as the Stroudwater Trail, which I described here), I've never tried to do the whole thing in a day, as this moose did. But I think it would be fun to try.