The first meter


This is a Dow Chemical plant in or near Clute TX, at about a meter above sea level. I am sure they take petrochemicals in. I am not sure what they ship.

Every structure you see in this picture is, I believe, on a single property. There are similar scale facilities all along the Texas Gulf Coast. What will happen to them if and (most likely) when they are permanently submerged? The economic consequences are clear enough. What about the environmental consequences? Will all these vast factories be evacuated in an orderly fashion?

The trains in the foreground explain the photo opportunity: the picture is taken from the highway overpass over the tracks. There is a vast surrounding territory which is absolutely flat.

Somewhat higher resolution picture here. If you are interested in the full 8 megapixel pic let me or Irene know; we don’t have an appropriate server for it just now. There is an amazing amount of detail in the original shot.

photo: Irene Tobis (who rocks!)

update: Commenters seem to think it’s important that these facilities are protected by levees. First of all, these levees become one meter shorter for each meter of sea level rise.

More to the point, though, one lesson of New Orleans is that protecting land below sea level indefinitely in an area subject to tropical storms is extremely difficult and expensive. I am not opposed to heavy industry: the current world population cannot survive without modern technology. I do think the industries in question should be paying attention to their own vulnerabilities to climate-driven sea level change, which seems very substantial.

Coping with the occasional flood is not the same thing as coping with sea level rise.

People with an interest in low-lying property have a tricky situation to negotiate. The best way to protect their property values in the short term is to deny the problem, and in the long term, to address it vigorously.

It’s messy alright. In a way it’s like the dilemma attached to any other real estate property with a defect, but it applies to a whole region. Unfortunately this inclines the people who are most motivated to deal with the potential problem to deny that it’s serious.

update: Thanks, on the other hand, to the sharp-eyed commenters who pointed out that this is primarily a Dow facility, not BASF. I saw a sign on a gate saying BASF but apparently that is for a subfacility. There is a BASF location in Freeport TX on the property. Anyway, the text is updated with the correction.

Here’s a map showing the facility for those interested.

update: This article is getting some attention from people outside my usual readership. Since I love attention, I’ll ask y’all to stay tuned for an upcoming article in the week of August 6 on the science of sea level rise. update**2: Here is that article on sea level rise.

update: The New York Times has a relevant article about the difficulty in replacing large infrastructure here. From that article:

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sometimes points out that digging for what are now called the PATH tubes, which connect Manhattan and Newark, N.J., began in 1874, two years before General Custer died at Little Big Horn.

Generally, the bigger an object, the longer it survives, because it has economic value, and has usually become intricately connected to things around it.

Replacing the Brooklyn Bridge, in service since 1883, would mean years of disruption, and the possible replacement of all roads that lead to it. The PATH tubes are still in place because they are still needed and because a new Hudson River crossing would cost billions. Replacing old nuclear plants would be similarly astronomical, even if the legal and environmental barriers could be overcome.

“You cannot just replace the old stock with new stock, without changing a lot of stuff around it,” said Viren Doshi, a London-based consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, who has studied the telephone and electricity industries. “So they keep on patching up the old stuff.”

update: Yet more thoughts about chemical plants near sea level.

Climatological Culture, Wunsch and Ruddiman

Ecologists, the science closest to environmentalism, have had a culture of protest and dismay for some time. It’s not surprising, really, considering what they study and what is happening to it.

Climatologists are perceived as culturally close to ecologists, and perhaps there is a tendency toward a countercultural perspective among younger participants. (I’m sort of the oldest of the young here.) On the whole, though, the field emerges from culturally conservative, Eisenhoweresque roots; physics, agriculture, military logistics, aviation.

You can see this attitude in the curmudgeonly attitude of the few older climatologists who have strayed into the camp of the obfuscationists (I’m thinking Grey and Lindzen in particular, with a sort of half-tip-of-the-hat to Reid Bryson), but it’s interesting to consider the position of the founders of the field. While you do get people willing to rise to the occasion like Hansen and Broecker, you mostly see very politics averse people. I saw Robert Toggweiler visibly shudder when climate policy came up in his detailed mathematical discussion of the dynamics of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current in the the glacial cycle. His attitude to climate change is to wish it were someone else’s problem, because life was easier when he was further from controversy. The older generation didn’t get into climatology because they wanted to be in the thick of controversy!

You’ll see this in younger scientists as well. I know of a promising young scientist who has some ideas about tropical storm incidence in climate change, but is backing away from the field as quickly as possible under the glare of non-scientific controversy.

Now, all of us are frustrated by how little the world understands our own obsessions. Climate scientists don’t think the policy questions are all that complicated. If only people would pay attention! Yet, most scientists pay very little attention to the larger context in which we operate. This is how Karl Wunsch got in trouble. He didn’t see Durkin coming not because he was credulous, exactly. Rather, he had no imagination that a creature such as Durkin might exist!

For those of you who find that strange, I am pleased to report that another of the old guard, William Ruddiman, in the conclusion of his excellent book Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum (2005) reveals the mindset of the scientists who revealed the climate change problem to the world. Ruddiman’s book argues that human-caused climate change began gradually with agriculture, and has been at an instrumentally detectable level for millenia.

Here are some quotes that reveal how Ruddiman learned about the Durkins of the world.

Until the past year or two, I kept a wary eye on both sides of the global warming debate. I discredited the disinformation coming from both extremes of the issue and tried to weigh the solid evidence and form my own opinions. Very recently, however, I have become aware that this dispassionate detachment may be too idealistic. The debate has taken a surprisingly ugly turn. …

I told [journalists] that the global warming issue was a hornet’s nest, and I didn’t intend to stick my hand into such a nasty mess. I also said that I was willing to predict how … the two extremes would probably react. … Both of these predictions came true: reports on my hypothesis appeared in both industrial and environmental newsletters, each making use of it for their own ends. …

my name had somehow been added as a recipient of several [contrarian] newsletters … These newsletters opened a window on a different side of science, a parallel universe of which I had been only partly aware. The content of these newsletters purports to be scientific, but actually has more in common with hardball politics.

One technique is instant commentaries against any new scientific results that appear to bolster the case for global warming. … A related technique is to cite published papers that address the same subject but come to conclusions more favorable to the industry view. In the cases where I know the science reasonably well, these papers do not match the rigor of the originals. …

This alternative universe is really quite amazing. … But this alternative universe is new and worrisome; in the name of uncovering the truth, it delivers an endless stream of one-sided propaganda. …

Stop the presses, eh?

How different this attitude is from the one that the obfuscationists try to paint us with! This is the dominant culture of climatology.

Radio Interview: Me

I’ll be on community radio on KOOP Austin’s “Shades of Green” interview program Thursday at 1 PM Central Time (91.7 FM) and, I believe, streaming at koop.org . The conversation will be about the science of climate change in general.

(That would be 18:00 UTC according to my computer.)

My intention is to make it clear that I am speaking for myself and on my own time, rather than treating this as outreach. It’s far from clear that my employer wants me being the voice of their climate change outreach.

Thanks to Ken McKenzie-Grant, whom I met at a Live Earth house party, for the opportunity to vent to a new audience.

Texas Flood

First of all, it’s still raining and it looks to be getting worse soon.

The New York Times had an article recently about Ron Paul remarked on the strange confluence of far left and far right opinion. This has coastal folks baffled. It makes perfect sense in the south, though. People who dismiss “flyover country” and come up with stupid theories about what makes rural people tick drive me mad. They should drop their theories and try to get acquainted with the average Kinky Freidman or Ron Paul voter.

I’m on an interesting Texas-based mailing list. I won’t identify the list; I’m not sure whether that would be a violation of trust, but I will say that it’s interesting how kind and decent their hearts are and how confused their information is. There’s some interesting dancing around religion on the list; people are going out of their way not to offend each other and I will stand by that. (While I won’t point you to them I have pointed them to here.) This mutual respect is wonderful and remarkable.

The list pretty much begins with a substantive agreement that Something Is Wrong and We Must Do Something About It. While there are substantial and impressive competencies represented I have to say that broad education and scientific insight is distressingly weak. It’s hard to imagine how this genuinely decent and courageous demographic can actually work together without making big mistakes.

There is blame aplenty on both sides for the nearly complete failure of the reds and the blues to communicate. I wish the courage and decency of this group could be combined with coastal sophistication. (Instead we have a government that combines coastal cynicism with heartland confusion. Great. Democracy at work.) Anyway I’ll try to bring a little blue perspective to the list without being overbearing. It’s hard to bite my tongue as much as I ought to.

So back to the point. Those on the list who are willing to treat climate science as authoritative seemed basically relieved when I told them that nothing uphill from San Antonio would be below the sea, ever. This strikes me as very strange; all the coastal counties, along with the enormous petrochemical infrastructure perched upon them, are at risk. The Katrina migration has affected everyone; refugees are scatterred hither and yon through Texas, and yet there is little concern what effect hundreds of times that amount of migration and homelessness might have on our beautiful hill country.

Meanwhile, August approaches. The high pressure cell that is supposed to be established over Texas by mid-June is nowhere to be seen. Rather, there’s a persistent low. Rain occurs daily, downpours most days, and huge localized flood events pop up here and there in the hills. The normal high for the time of year is 97 F (36 C). Yesterday we barely hit 80 (27 C). An actual tropical depression approaches and we (and especially neighbors to our south around San Antonio and points south and east of there) may be in for some real trouble.

Statistically, one weird summer can’t be called climate change, but the headscratching seen around here is very similar to what you saw in the shirtsleeve-weather Christmases in Chicago that have been popping up lately (including last year’s one). Some people are sticking to their “climate change is natural” guns, but nobody except the statisticians suspects for a minute that what we are seeing is a part of normalcy.

I see the statisticians’ point but there’s a point they are missing. I don’t think you can treat the various northern hemisphere anomalies happening this summer as independent events. I go along with the folk wisdom on this one. I don’t suspect for a minute that nothing unusual is happening.

Update: The tropical depression fizzled. We are still fine.

Update: Hank Roberts points to a site with an alarming estimate of global flooding trends.

Walking Considered Weird

A readable article, flickering somewhere between respectful and mildly condescending, about a journalism professor appears in the Austin Statesman, focusing largely on the man’s refusal to own a car. Living without a car, in Texas, constitutes news. One of the reader comments reads

“In the classroom we heard about his unique way of life. I guess I thought it was weird at the time, but consistently living according to one’s own standards and convictions is something to be admired. Plus I bet his health care bills are next to nothing!”

On this score, This small city in Russia is very weird.