Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Wonder of the Week: Sandy & cost-effective cities?

Sandy at night; 3:35 am EDT, October 30, 2012.  Cities west of the storm twinkle in the dark.
Top of cloud layer is illuminated by the full moon.  NASA Earth Observatory photo.
Superstorm Sandy was over a thousand miles across when it hit the eastern US on October 29.  It was “only” a Category 1 hurricane, but arrived at high tide on the night of a full moon, and pushed huge amounts of seawater ashore (including a 13-ft tidal surge in New York Harbor).  Worst of all, Sandy crossed one of the most densely-populated parts of the country.  Within 24 hours, at least 8 million people were without power.  Major airports in New York City had been closed for four days with 17,000 flights cancelled.  A third of US air travel goes through these airports each day.  Bridges, tunnels, city buses and light rail all were shut down, as was the NYC subway system, used by 5.5 million people daily.  There was no way to keep out highly-corrosive salt water, and some tubes filled to the ceiling.  It will be several days before enough water can be pumped out to assess the damage.  Then components will have to be cleaned, repaired, replaced.  Much of the destruction is underground -- electrical and steam lines in addition to subways -- and the extent of this damage is unknown.  As of October 30, estimated economic losses from Sandy were at $10-20 billion, maybe even as high as $30 billion.  It is likely that one in five Americans will be affected, mainly by impacts to infrastructure.  (Data from PBS Newshour, Nightly Business Report and BBC News America, all October 30, 2012.)
Even the public library way out west in Laramie, Wyoming, felt the effects of Superstorm Sandy.
Sandy hit the day after I finished the Scientific American special issue on cities (September 2011).  By 2008, over half the world’s population was urban (82% of the 2009 US population), and this is expected to climb to two-thirds by 2050.  Does this mean more poverty, pollution, disease and crime?  Not necessarily.  Cities are becoming increasingly profitable, healthy and safe places to live.  For example, urban residents are more likely to find work (especially women), and are less likely to die in car crashes.  They require less investment in infrastructure per capita than those in suburban and rural areas, have smaller carbon footprints, and use fewer resources in general.  As countries become more developed, their cities become increasingly efficient and cost-effective.  But did the authors factor in the extreme vulnerability of densely-populated areas to natural disasters?  Did they consider the huge costs of recovery?
“In the case of cities, their concentrated populations and reliance on the state can result in heavy losses especially when essential services such as water supply and sanitation fail.  This is an increasingly important lesson for the future given that half the world’s population now lives in cities.”  Clive Oppenheimer on volcanic disasters, in Explosions that Shook the World (Cambridge University Press 2011)
“We have seen a brighter future, and it is urban.”  Scientific American, September 2011.
Photo of a not-so-bright New York City from The Baltimore Sun.

About Wonder of the Week ... this is the first in a series of short posts featuring just a few photos and thoughts.  The title is based on the dual-purpose nature of “wonder” (from Oxford American Dictionaries):
noun --  “a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable”
verb --  “... be curious to know something”
Even when things are not so wonderful, I can rely on Nature to provide both types of wonder -- awe and curiosity, among the finest of human emotions.

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