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Archive for September, 2011

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the family read-aloud book this past spring. I found myself especially drawn to Twain’s description of the Mississippi River, a reminder of how much of an impact the Big Muddy had on my own childhood as I grew up along its banks. Naturally, I watched the new reports in May as my hometown flooded, and I wondered if the many miles of levees could possibly hold. The system put in place by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers largely did its job, but the river still exacted a price, eating away at the banks and attempting to carve new channels (i.e., doing what rivers do in flood events). A report in the Memphis Commercial Appeal details the costs of “bank failures” from the big flood. With federal budget cutting fever rampant in D.C., you have to wonder about how many federal dollars will be directed toward the repairs.

Corps officials estimate it will cost $222.5 million to undo the damage inflicted by the river as it tried to create new channels during the flood. If the repairs aren’t completed before the next big flood, the Mississippi could complete the course changes it began this year.

That $222.5 million sum is in addition to the projected $327.7 million it will take to fix flood-damaged levees, the $157.4 million worth of flood-related dredging needed and the estimated $70.6 million required to restore spillways and similar structures.

To pay for those and other damages, the U.S. House approved $1 billion in emergency appropriations for the corps in the energy and water bill. But the Senate has yet to approve any funds.

A retired Army Corps hydraulics engineer, Larry Banks is quoted in the article:

“We don’t control the river. The river is the control,” Banks said. “The works of the corps can tickle it a little bit and keep it manageable.”

One of the bank failures, .5 mi wide and 1 mi deep into Presidents Island near Memphis. Photo by International Port of Memphis.

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Even for Texas, this is BIG. An interactive map created by ESRI, showing fire locations and links to social media accounts (like YouTube videos), can be found here.

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In reading through an interesting series of posts by Andrew Revkin (here, here, and here – all behind the NY Times subscription wall, I think), I was struck by several ideas that have direct implications for planners and designers. Revkin states that science is clear on greenhouse gas function (rising CO2 levels mean a warming world), but science is much less clear about the specific effects of climate change that matter to people at the local level, in their communities and daily lives. We do not know exactly how much sea level will rise by 2100, for example. There are also many uncertainties about the sensitivity of the climate to a doubling of CO2 levels. And on the regional climate models that planners would like to see, Revkin says:

I noted many climate modelers are convinced that regional climate forecasts — another top concern of officials and the public — are unlikely to improve much even with far more powerful computers and years of extra work on simulations. (Emphasis added.)

In reviewing these points, I noted, “That’s why this is what some complexity theorists call a ’super wicked problem.’”

So here we are – faced with a need to act (adaptation, rather than mitigation in this case), a need based on threats to health, safety, and welfare, and equipped with inadequate knowledge of exactly what will happen. Revkin’s larger point is that “while the basics of the science are clear, the science on questions that matter most to society is not.” In the two follow-up posts, Revkin publishes reader responses, one of which emphasizes the political argument that data may be less important to the public than the underlying values threatened by climate change – risks to life, property, and the economy.

The other follow-up is a response by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. Louv critiques the term sustainability, which he says connotes stasis, and instead offers up “thriveability.”  Louv suggests shifting the debate to the creative and hopeful, but still rooted in concerns that matter to people on an individual basis, like the welfare of their children. And designers should appreciate the attention Louv and Revkin give to creative acts of place making that include the green, “natural” areas in cities:

… for the sake of biodiversity and human happiness, conservation is no longer enough; now we must create nature — where we live, work, learn and play. Those actions not only serve our immediate needs, but might also have an impact on biodiversity and climate change, or at least attitudes about climate change. (Emphasis added.)

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There’s an interesting post in the WorldWise blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Power of Blogs in Forming New Fields of International Study.” It is written by Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, in England. Thrift has a particular interest in an emerging field of study called speculative realism, and he attributes its rise, in part at least, to communication in online communities.

The vice-chancellor identifies blogs as a primary vehicle for scholarly exchange in the emergence of speculative realism for these reasons:

First, they are a key preserve of particular communities like postgraduates and early career researchers, not least because so much activity can go on below the radar, so to speak, outside the attention of the kind of disciplinary policing that journals and other institutions tend to impose.

Second, they are a means for established figures to communicate in a different and more immediate register and often to become more prominent more quickly than might otherwise be the case.

Third, they are a much easier means of importing material from other disciplines, in ways which might be frowned upon if the material was to appear in formal outlets.  ...snip…

Fourth, they allow all manner of researchers to communicate with each other, establish reading groups and the like, often concerning intellectual alleyways which might prove of the greatest importance. There is real debate.

Fifth, new material reaches an audience much more rapidly than it would through the normal means of communication.

Climate adaptation is an emergent interdisciplinary field that has the potential to grow in this manner – through informal, international discourse that is then used as the basis for more formal research and peer-reviewed publication.

 

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