Category Archives: Global Warming

The New Arid Region of the United States

The southwest and states east of the Sierras magnify the effects of global warming in the intensity of their aridity. But global warming reveals a new relation of regions to overheating, and reveals the depths of inflexibility to accommodate water scarcity, as well as the tragedy of its effects. As aridity of the soil and reduction of groundwater reaches unprecedented scales, our passivity is accentuated as we are suspended before maps that try to visualize unprecedented aridity that cannot comprehend the magnifying effects of warming. We must learn to magnify the effects of warming on the land and environment, on food supplies, agriculture, and livestock, but, beyond, on hydropower and natural disasters. For, increasingly, we face the threat of further fires more destructive than any in recorded history–potentially enough to energize an implausible recall effort in the state of California, where historic drought, mandated energy shortages, reduced water supplies, have led candidates who were global warming skeptics to question how drought and wildfire reflect poorl on Gavin Newsom’s gubernatorial competence, although they object to aggressive climate legislation aimed at emissions reduction, preferring a free market approach.

Yet the arid region has expanded, returning bigger and better than ever since it was described as extending west from the hundredth meridian by John Wesley Powell, in one of the foundational maps of climate aridity. In much of today’s parched ground of California, featuring dangerously low levels of rainfall across the central valley, we have yet to come to terms with the expanse of he “lands of the ‘Arid Region.'” The New Arid Region, afflicted by far more aridity and low soil moisture than at any time, parallel to increased global suffering of warming and increased heat, the persistence of private water “rights” to agrarian expanse stand increasingly on a collision course with global warming throughout the new arid West in ways we have yet to address, even as we recognize that we are facing a climate emergency of the sort without precedent in modern memory.

No single visualization can, perhaps, adequately come to terms as unprecedented aridity of the past twenty years. For no visualization can fully capture the cascading and magnified effects of declining water and soil health. But the terrifying nature of the intense aridity of western states in part lies in how we have seem to forgot the semi-arid nature of the region. Does selective amnesia underlie how we map the drying out of the west? Most data vis of rising temperatures and low rainfall across the western states is already magnifying and escalating the effects of unprecedented heat over twenty years in a deeply melancholic vein, daunted by the scale of dryness across such an interstate expanse, and passive before an absence of atmospheric moisture that seems a modern casualty of global over-heating. If we were already “living in the future” in California’s frequent and increasingly extreme fire regimes, the multi-hued data visualizations electrify the landscape–and not with power or hydro-energy, but by the all-too familiar color ramp of the extremes of climate change we have been trying hard not to normalize. These images chart a landscape that has gotten away from us, outside seasonality changes, making the American West a cautionary case study for global climate change inspires melancholy.

Even as we continue to hope that groundwater depletion won’t extend to the Upper Basin of the Colorado River to secure groundwater on which so many farmers–and thirty-five million north of the border and three million living in Mexico depend, across its Lower Basin, technologies of diversion have meant far less water reaches the lower basin–none reaches the river’s old delta–surface water and groundwater barely provide for the border region, as the almost unregulated overdraft of the basin’s aquifers have made trans-border water management a crisis often overlooked in favor of water management north of the border.

The additive logic and graphic syntax of maps, long before the separate map-“layers” that accommodate information from GPS, provided a basis to define the fungibility of water and the emergence of “rights” to water across the Arid Region, enabling the idea of governing the transference of water and water “rights” across the region, that separated water from the landscape and environment. The flow of water had long been understood and reconstrued in the west by a logic of irrigation needs–and the “rights” to unpolluted water for livestock raising, pasturage, and agricultural needs of land owners–that was removed from conserving groundwater needs. The increased nature of the fungibility of water as able to be transacted across basins, state lines, and counties reflects the legal fiction of considering water as a “good” tied to the needs of property owners, that, long before global warming, had already sanctioned the removing water from the ground.

If we use metaphors rooted in temporality that try to come to scale with the new era of global warming that cut down and perhaps minimize the era of water scarcity. in which we are entering–“heat waves,” for example, that broke records in states from Washington to Idaho in June and July, breaking or matching records of hot temperatures, the levels of aridity that have allowed the ground to grow arid and degrade have not only led to a spate of western wildfires, but have changed the levels of soil moisture over the long term in ways we have difficulty to map in the scale of our weather maps, or even the maps of the U.S. Drought Monitor, as the cascading influence of such unprecedentedly dry conditions–where stresses on river water create extraction of groundwater that stresses aquifers and groundwater supplies–can be scarcely imagined, or confined to the conventions and color ramps of weather maps.

We have struggled for decades to process the cascading effects of waves of unprecedented heat that over time have produced a drying out of soil and reservoirs over the past twenty years, resulting in an expanded and far more destructive fire season and parched lands whose effects we cannot fully come to terms or comprehend, as we have not seen or experienced the extent of dryness of subsoil, soil, and low rainfall which the US Drought Monitor seems to have mapped, as drought expanded not across the entire Pacific Northwest, from Oregon to Idaho, or 86% of Idaho–by the land’s combustibility, impossible to read without premonitions of lost forests–including old growth forests–melancholic fears more than tinged by an acute sense of a lack of agency.

The sense of struggle with an absence of agency–at the same time as an almost moral urgency–reflects the difficult to process such absence of water as a landscape we have inherited from the rapidly accelerating dynamics of climate change. The history of the increased aridity is all the more poignant as a source of melancholy not only because exceptional drought was the standard before President Trump, and a national emergency before his Presidency. We have failed to register this national emergency with the same immediacy, even as the theater of the border was magnified in disproportionate ways in public discourse on migration. The sense of melancholy is compounded as the map seems haunted, if only tacitly, and perhaps without acknowledgment, by the fact that the head of the USGS in 1890 admonishingly illustrated virtually the same basins now suffering severe and moderate drought as distinguished by semi-aridity–if the current levels are nothing like those faced over a century ago, when the transition of public to private lands. We have recently mapped the substantial threat of increased aridity to the Great Plains–less than a tenth of whose croplands are irrigated–where farmers depend entirely on rainfall to grow soybeans, sunflowers, cotton, and winter wheat, the fear of greater “dry spells” as anthropogenic emissions drive decreasing rainfall and groundwater reserves–a term that tries to convince us they are not permanent–led red flags to be drawn in broad brushstrokes in those states, where extreme and exceptional ‘drought’ .

But climate change has created a new concept of “water stress”–stresses best be pictured not by the isotherms of weather maps, but the watersheds and drainage districts that were the basis of Powell’s revolutionary map, and matching the very region of the Arid Zone where the soil scientist Powell turned viewers’ attention to the crucial index of ground and soil moisture, the true determinant of the future of agrarian settlement and the future of food. The regions determined of greatest future stress were the very basins that Powell mapped, and suggest the relevance of his map, as well as his caution of the difficulties of governance in an area of severe water stress-stress being understood and indexed as a relation between supply and demand, as well as rainfall, in national watersheds.

The “Arid Region” of the Untied States had been austerely and admonishingly described by John Wesley Powell as a geologist to caution against the administration of its future settlement with a level of clarity that reveals his Methodist upbringing. It is hard to know how clearly we can ever parse aridity, in an age when rising temperatures have unremittingly drained soil of water. As if informed by a deep respect for the map as a clarity of record, possessing the power to reorient readers to the world by preaching a new relation to the land, Powell had placed a premium on cartographic form as a tool to re-envision local governance–and prepared his striking eight-color map of the limited rainwater that arrives west of the hundredth meridian, the eastern border of what he baptized as the Arid Region, an almost zonal construction akin to a torrid zone.

The imposing title of this reclassification of the interior of the United States revealed Powell’s own keen sense of the map as a visual record of the territory, whose transparency as a record of the quality of the land would be a basis for all discussion of settlement. Powell parlayed his own deep study of the geography of the Colorado Basin to query the value of parsing the administration of water rights by state lines in 1890, convinced of the need to oversee later apportionment outside the jurisdiction of the arbitrary boundaries of western states, but joined them to his sense of duty of preparing a legible map of striking colors to convey the constraints and difficulties for its future settlement– not only by the scarcity of the threads of rivers curled against its topography, but the few watersheds.

Powell trusted the map might mark the opening of the “Great American Desert” in order to alert the US Congress that the dry lands west of the hundredth meridian was a divide. Even if the meridian no longer marking as clear a divide of reduced rainfall, as we confront the growth with unprecedented degree of global warming of a parched west–both in terms of reduced rainfall and declining soil quality–it may serve as a model for the map we need for the future governance and administration of already contested water rights. Powell’s place in the long story of soil quality reflects how neatly the American west as a microcosm of global warming is rooted in the conversion of public lands to private ownership, into which warming has thrown such a significant wrench.

Arid Region of the United States, Showing Drainage Basins (1890)

For the Arid Region’s aridity has since been unremittingly magnified, producing a region more arid than we have ever experienced and struggle to find an adequate color ramp adequate. But we would do well to try to map the forgetfulness of that arid region, even as we confront the quandary of the stubborn continuity of sustained dryness of a megadrought enduring multiple years, compounding the aridity of the soil, and multiplying fire dangers–and the conditions of combustibility of the region–far beyond what the west has ever known or Powell imagined possible. If aridity of soils and poor land quality has spiraled out of control due to “global warming,” raising questions about the future of farms and livestock, the absence of groundwater and surface water alike, global warming demand we shift from national lenses of water shortage to beyond American territory,–but also to discuss the warping nature of national lenses on the remaking of the sediment of the west–and Colorado Basin.

The difficulties of parsing river-flow by “states” as helpful political aggregations for future settlement was rebutted by the map, which sought to direct attention to the aridity of the ground’s soils to orient its administration in a region where water was destined to remain front and center on settlers’ and residents minds for the foreseeable future. The subsequent attempt to jerry-rig the question of scarcity of water by entitlements that rely on re-apportioning unused water escaped the constraints Powell located in the basic common denominator of groundwater.

As much as the region needs to be mapped outside a national context–despite the national nature of climate tracking–the hope of revealing imbalances of the drought indeed exist across borders, and impact water-sharing agreements, much as the smoke from recent northwest fires has traveled across the Pacific northwest. National territory is as meaningless an analytic category for global warming, or water scarcity, which, this blogpost argues, exists in a global contest of migration, as the migration or transborder transit of fires’ smoke.

The conditions of aridity that Powell described in the Colorado Basin and its neighbors offer an oddly productive image of the dryness of the ground, in an era before irrigation, that may be useful for how we can come to terms with the fear of a suspension of irrigation across western states. But it is as if the very definition of aridity was forgotten, as infrastructures of irrigation have re-mapped the region that John Wesley Powell in 1890 mapped as an area of difficult agrarian settlement, as farmlands of agrarian fertility and wealth. Powell proposed to view the “arid region” of the United States east of the Rockies with a clarity approaching scripture in a powerful eight-color map to instructively show how limited water constrained settlement of the region after surveying the Colorado Basin.

Powell probably imagined his map in somewhat revisionary as much as rebarbative, reorienting attention to the dry nature of the soil of the semi-arid region of the Colorado Basin by parsing it in areas by which the availability of water constrainted the settlement of the “open” government lands of the west, obscuring that they were seized from indigenous, to correct the mythic geography propounded by official state-sponsored geologists. Unlike Powell, most state geologists had boosterishly endorsed a site for future pasturage, to be enriched by unknown artesian springs, and ripe for settlement by homesteaders, and Powell’s map posed a more tempered image of resettlement that would obey the laws of the availability of water in the Colorado plateaux and other regions he knew so well, cautioning against the encouragement of settlement and sale to prospective farmers in ways that have improbably made the map something of an icon of conservationist thought. Against promise of prospective bucolic lands of pasture, the dry colors chasten viewers by communicating scarcity of water of drainage basins.

The arid region that Powell correctively propounded was long inscribed in the psycho-geography of the United States to be forgotten, but the arrival of irrigation infrastructure allowing irrigation of western states continues to inform, even in our own era of global warming, the return of the boosterist sloganwhere water flows, food grows,” that is still raised in Northern California’s San Joaquin Valley, to protest “cuts to farmwater” in the recent order of an “emergency curtailment” across rivers of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed — essentially the entire Central Valley. The recourse to an engineering “miracle” of making water flow uphill and redistributing more water from reservoirs contest calls for conservation–and only demand the further construction of dams, reservoirs, and water storage for better irrigation. The very promises that the flow of the Colorado River would irrigate lands, that made good on the promises made to homesteaders by describing the region to settlers as a New Canaan, where the growth of future streamflow and even rainfall that had never been documented, would make it suitable for the expansion of animal pasturing and farming, suggests a mythic geography of timeless bounty has replaced its actual conditions.

Friant-Kern Canal Flowing past Kern Dam/Septmeber 2020, Eric Paul Zamora, Fresno Bee

The mythic geography led to a rewriting of America’s irrigation infrastructure that in itself may be one of those pieces of infrastructure just no longer adaptable to extreme climate change. And as we face the scale of the national emergency of water shortages about to be triggered by falling reservoir levels, the crisis of using and recycling water, and the inefficiency of desalination plants of riverwater and groundwater, on which the world currently relies–and were predicted by the US Bureau of Reclamation back in 2003 to provide a “sustainable” solution to the dwindling water provided by the Colorado River, which had allowed the unexpected expansion of the settlement of western states. While desalination plants currently generate worldwide over 3.5 billion gallons daily, with 50 million gallons produced daily in Carlsbad, CA alone, desalination plants in one hundred and twenty counties, only half using sea-water, its energy expense justified as the Colorado River’s flow has declined, and is promoted as a “sustainable and drought-proof water supply in Southern California” in an era of climate change, as if to calm our concerns at the dramatically decreased groundwater across western states. And while Reclamation scientists assured the nation in 2016 of future recharge in the Upper Colorado Basin would offset temperature increases in their modeling scenarios through 2099, projecting basin-wide precipitation, the fears of the persistence of a mega-drought of extreme aridity with little recharge that may last decades has left fifty-sevens million living in drought conditions across the west according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, that has brought a new era of mega-fires. The thin blue line of the Colorado River is but a crack or thread coursing through a combustible landscape in this recent map of the expansion of unprecedented extreme drought in western states from National Geographic:

For all the disturbing and disquieting elegant if terrifying spread of deep red isotherms in Riley D. Champine’s map, the consequences of such exceptionally below-average levels of precipitation and aridity are difficult to comprehend as cumulative and deep in our nation’s history, as well as the effect of man-made climate change.

The utter saturation of this data vis of growing dryness of a region where rain far below previous norms fell forces the viewer to process an undue range of measures of aridity that they must struggle to process-if the deep orange and reds approaching emergency warning to suggest that surely a climate emergency is at hand. The absence of text in the visualization invites viewers to acknowledge they stand an eery remove of familiarity with an irrevocably landscape, posing unspoken if also unanswered questions about hydrological infrastructure in the Colorado basin, and greater west, that all but erases the geopolitical formation of this landscape–interruption of a rich color ramp at the southwestern border compartmentalize the large-scale decline in precipitation apart from national categories; but the danger lies in its focus on the economically developed north, more than the global south, as if it lacked adequate resources to prudently respond to groundwater shortages, but as an emergency for the developed world. The focus of the climate emergency is on a large scale, daunting the possibility of individual response, but focussing on prudence at a local level, even if its scale is not defined, questions whether state politics can even resolve the intensity of the dilemma of declining rainfall levels below a thirty-year norm, a deviation on so broad a scale to be impossible to process save in local terms, but that omits the way the basin has been engineered as a site where goundwater now all but fails to accumulate, increasing the basin’s deep aridity more than the color ramp reveals.

The trust that Powell placed in his maps stand in sharp contrast to the “purple” coloration of regions of extreme heat introduced across western states to suggest so many “red-flag” warnings of excessive heat. In a year already tied with 2017 for receiving “excessive heat” warnings from the National Weather Service, already in early summer at a rate that is increasingly alarming, purple designates the need for caution when leaving air-conditioned environments, and suggests the booming of electric cooling across the west: the metric of a prediction of temperatures reaching 105°F for a two-hour stretch has paralleled the debate in Washington on infrastructure spending that suggest a similar disconnect that Powell confronted when he tried to describe the need for constraints on planning settlement west of the hundredth meridian in 1890.

Four Excessive Heat Warnings issued from late May 2021 have introduced yet a new color to prominence in National Weather Service maps, the new deep purple was introduced in weather maps in 1997 as a venture of the NWS into health alerts; rarely used in other weather maps, which in recent years have shifted from urban areas to large stretches of the nation, shifting from a use of red to designate high temperatures to purple to designate risk of triple-digit temperatures, especially in man-made surfaces like asphalt (able to rise to 170°-180° Fahrenheit–territory of third-degree burns–or cars which can rise thirty degrees above air temperature.

Heat Advisories, July 11, 2021/National Weather Service

During the decade before 2003, the water-level of Lake Mead had begun to decline precipitously, inaugurating a historical decline that led it to fall to but 35% of its storage abilities. While the decline was not more precipitous than the two earlier declines in its water-levels in the reservoir from the mid-1950’s and mid-1960’s, the current decline in storage capacity of what is the largest reservoir of water in the United States has raised the unthinkable and unimaginable arrival of water cutbacks, as Arizona’s share of the Colorado River’s waters will be reduced by 7%, and Mexico–where the Colorado runs–will lose 5% of its share, in a scenario never foreseen in the dam’s history, but that reflects the increased aridity of the watershed from which the Colorado River draws. The decline to 1,075 feet in the reservoir’s depth that triggered the Tier 1 reductions in flow may only be a harbinger of the arrival of future Tier 2 reductions, should Lake Mead drop to 1,065 feet, as is expected in 2023, and raises the fear of a Tear 3 reduction, should the lake level fall below 1,025 feet, reducing the water allocated to western cities. In ways that the infrastructure of irrigating the Arid District of the United States could never have foreseen, the arrival of the driest period that the basin has ever experienced in 1200 years has brought longer periods of drier weather without rainfall that have reduced the riverwater that fills the reservoir.

The declining level of Lake Mead plunged below average lake elevation of 1173 feet, by 2003, in ways that should have sent alarms across the west, were we not consumed by a war against terror. The Bush administration’s attacks on global warming grew, questioning the science of global warming and the dangers of increasing aridity. But the disconnect between the expectation for irrigation by the farming industry and farming states was dismissed, with global warming and climate change, as temporary shifts that wouldn’t alter the landscape of irrigation or river flow.

Robert Simmon, based on data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

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Filed under border studies, climate change, data visualization, Global Warming, Mapping Ground Water

Surfside Ecotones

Shifting from a vision of blissed-out honeybees flying from hives to a flowering birch tree in gardens of a city whose buildings encode “labor-intensive materiality” in each of their individual bricks, American poet Campbell McGrath conjured a distinctly modern melancholy that turns from wonder at bees bearing pollen from blossoms of cherry trees on their anthers to hexagonal cells to the transience of New York, reduced to an “archipelago of memory,” as buildings of man-made bricks once “barged down the Hudson,” from a hinterland of clay pits, quarries, and factories, disintegrate into the Atlantic, and in an imagined future we are left to imagine their eventual return to silt: “It’s all going under, the entire Eastern Seaboard,” the Miami-based poet prophesied the impending retreat of the city, almost as an afterthought with resignation or awe in early 2020, and imagined how a new map of the nation that emerged as the Atlantic rose. The American Capitol secures more solid grounds in Kansas City and leaves the shores of Washington, DC, leaving “flooded tenements” or houseboats that are “moored to bank pillars along Wall Street.” As the Atlantic rises, few “will mourn for Washington,” and the once densely inhabited seaboard has been all but abandoned. What was the coast became a fluid ecotone bridging land and sea, in this dystopic flight of fancy, shifting the capitol to western Missouri in a search for more secure grounds.

The sudden collapse of half of the south tower of Champlain Towers in Surfside, FL, may be less apocalyptic in scope than the eastern seaboard. But it is now impossible to speak of offhand: we are agape mourning residents of the collapsed tower, trapped under the concrete rubble after the sudden pancaking of the southern tower. Without presuming to judge or diagnose the actual causes for the tragic sudden collapse of a twelve story condominium along the shore, the shock of the pancaking of floors of an inhabited condominium raises questions on how the many structural questions that surround Champlain Towers were overlooked. We ask in retrospective whether the certification process is adequate for forty year old concrete weight-bearing structures exposed to far more saltiness and saltwater than they were ever planned to encounter, they also raise questions of the increasingly anthropogenic construction of the coast.

Although the realty industry and development business have sold the coastal experience of Florida as access to the shore, that increasingly popular prospect on the tranquil sea, the coast is in fact an ecotone–an intersection of land and sea, and increasingly porous one. We must recognize the coast as an increasingly overbuilt environment, and one poorly mapped as a divide between land and sea. The absence of the shore as a clear line should be more than evident not because of sea-level rise, but the density of shoreline skyscrapers and concrete residences crowding a strip between protected interior wetlands and the shore in southern Florida that is mostly built on former wetlands, but presented as a clear divide between land and see. We have encouraged the construction of a complex of coastal settlement as if it lay on solid ground, in concrete towers that are not impervious to weathering from the ocean air that washes over the shore, as we ignore the coastline’s vulnerability from ocean elements. If the porous nature of land and sea are viewed as problems of the ocean–the adverse effects of agricultural runoff or human waste on ocean currents beset by tidal algal blooms from the late 1970’s–due to agricultural runoff–and apparent in inland lakes, the fragility of the built environments we have made on the shore are not fully mapped for the very consumers sold residences promising ocean views, which are often poorly inspected due to developers’ greed. We have failed to map the coast as an ecotone–or acknowledge the increased permeation of the shore with saltwater, both underground and in the increasingly active weather systems that envelope the shore with saline ocean air, as we imagine the shore to be able to be mapped as a straight line, when it is not.

We continue to map “settlement” and “development” in terms of sold shoreslines, as if they were impermeable and not buffeted themselves. We have long mapped Florida by its beaches, and constructing homes for a market that privileged the elusive and desired promise of a beach view. Despite the allure that the state offers as a sort of mecca of beach settlement, meeting a market by offering vicarious live beach webcams in Florida and refusing, in the 2020 pandemic, to close beaches and beach life that promise an engine of economic activity, or imagine red flags by posing danger signs on the beaches.

Risks are similarly reduced or erased in the practice of coastal development for too long. We long recognized the instability of the shoreline communities, and not only from rising sea-level or surging seas. The lure of the beach continues, denying their actual instability, with the lure of otherworldly qualities as “edges” we imagine ourselves to be exhilarated by, if not released from day-to-day constraints, as a destination promising a new prospect on life.

The long distinction of the state by its beaches–its uncertain edges with the ocean–demand to be mapped and acknowledged as less of the clear line between land and sea than not only a permeable boundary, but of a complex geography vulnerable to both above ground flooding and underground saltwater incursion, sustained exposure to salty air, winds of increased velocity, and an increasing instability of its shores that have long been a site attracting increased settlement. Can one view the ocean surrounding the shores not only as a quiescent blue, but as engaged with the redrawing of the line of the shore itself as a divide long seen as a stable edge of land and sea?

From the increased tensions of hurricanes from the warming oceans, to underground saltwater incursion, to a constant beach erosion and remediation, the beaches we map as lines are coastal environment whose challenges engineers who valued the economy and strength of concrete towers did not imagine. The combination of the influx of salty air, the erosion and replacement of beach “sand”, and increased construction of condominium have created an anthropogenic shore that demands to be examined less as a divide between land and sea than a complex ecotone where salt air, eroding sand, karst, and subsoil weaknesses all intersect, in ways that the mitigation strategies privileging seawalls and pumping stations ignore. As importation of sand for Miami’s “beach” continues, have we lost sight of the increasingly ecotonal organization of Florida’s shores?

Sands from Central Florida Arive with U.S. Army Engineers in January, 2020
Matias Ocner/Miami Herald

The point of this post is to ask how we can best map shifts in the increasingly anthropogenic nature of Miami’s shores to come to terms with the tragedy of Champlain Towers, to seek us to remain less quiescent in the face of the apparent rejiggering of coastal conditions as a result of climate change beyond usual metrics of sea-level rise. For the collapse of Champlain Towers provides an occasion for considering how we map these shores, even if the forensic search for the immediate structural weaknesses that allowed the disaster of Champlain Towers to occur.

Miami Beach has the distinction of the the lowest site in a state with the second-lowest mean elevation in the nation, and ground zero of climate change–but the drama of the recent catastrophic implosion of part of Champlain Towers should have become national news as it suggested the possible fragility of regions of building that are no longer clearly defined as on land or sea, but exist in complex ecotones where the codes of concrete and other building materials may well no longer apply–or, forty years ago, were just not planned to encounter. While we have focussed on the collapse of the towers with panic, watching the suddenly ruptured apartments akin to exposed television sets of everyday Americans’ daily lives, the interruption of the sudden collapse of the towers is hard to process but must be situated in the opening of a new landscape of climate change that blurs the boundary between land and sea, and challenges the updating of building codes for all coastal communities. The old building codes by which coastal and other condominiums were built by developers in the 1970s and 1980s hardly anticipated to being buffeted by salty coastal air, or having their foundations exposed to underground seepage or high-velocity rains: the buildings haven’t budged much, despite some sinking, but demand to be mapped in a coastal ecotone, where their structures bear stress of potential erosion, concrete cracking, and an increased instability underground, all bringing increased dangers and vulnerabilities to the anthropogenic coast in an era of extreme climate change.

Rescue Workers in Surfside Disaster Attempt to Find Survivors in Champlain Tower South

A small beachside community bordering the Atlantic Ocean just north of Miami Beach, on a sandy peninsula surrounded by Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic, the residential community is crowded with several low-rise residential condominiums. While global warming and sea-level rise are supposed to be gradual, the eleven floors of residential apartments–a very modest skyscraper–that collapsed was immediate and crushing, happening as if without warning in the middle of the night. As we count the corpses of the towers residents crushed by its concrete floors, looking at the cutaway views of eerily recognizable collapsed apartments, we can’t help but imagine the contrast between the industry and care with which bees craft their hives of sturdier wax hexagons against the tragedy of the cracked concrete slab that gave way as the towers collapsed, sending multiple floors underground, in a “progressive collapse” as vertically stacked concrete slabs fell on one another, the pancaking multiplying their collective impact with a force beyond the weight of the three million tons of concrete removed from the site.

This post seeks to question if we have a sense of the agency of building on the shifting shores of Surfside and other regions: even if the building codes for working with concrete have changed –and demand changing, in view of the battering even reinforced concrete takes from hurricanes, marine air, flooding, and coastal erosion and seawater incursion near beachfront properties–we need a better mapping of the relation of man-made structures and climate change, and the new coasts that we are inhabiting in era of coastal change, far beyond sea-level rise.

Champlain Towers
Chandan Khanna/AFP

As we hear calls for the evacuation of other forty-year old buildings along the Florida coast, it makes sense to ask what sort of liability and consumer protection exists for homeowners and condominium residents, who seem trapped not only in often improperly constructed structures for an era increasingly vulnerable to climate emergency, but inadequate assurances or guarantees of protection. We count the corpses, without pausing to investigate the dangers of heightened vulnerability of towers trapped in unforeseen dangers building in coastal ecotones. Indeed, with the increased dangers of flooding, both from rains, high tides, storm surges, and rising sea-lelel, the difficulty of relying on gravity for adequate drainage has led to a large investment in pumping systems in the mid-beach and North Miami area. The sudden collapse of the building, which civil engineers have described as a “progressive collapse,” as occurred in lower Manhattan during the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center, the worst fear of an engineer, in which after the apparent cracking of the structural slab of concrete under the towers’ pool, if not other structural damage. The thirteen-story building, located steps from the Atlantic ocean, was part of the spate of condo construction that promised a new way of life in the 1970s, when the forty year-old building was constructed; although we don’t know what contributed to the collapse that was triggered by a structural vulnerability deeper than the spalling and structural deterioration visible on its outside, the distributed liability of the condominium system is clearly unable to cope with whatever deep structural issues led to the south tower’s collapse.

Americans who hold  $3 trillion worth of barrier islands and coastal floodplains, according to Gilbert Gaul’s Geography of Risk, expanding investment in beach communities even as they are exposed to increased risk of flooding–risks that may no longer be so easily distributed and managed among condominium residents alone. And the collapse of the forty year old condominium tower in Surfside led to calls for the evacuation and closure of other nearby residences, older oceanfront residences vaunted for their close proximity to “year-round ocean breezes” and sandy beach where residents can kayak, swim, or enjoy clear waterfront. The promise that was extended by the entire condominium industry along the Florida coast expanded in the 1970s as a scheme of development that was based on the health and convenience of living just steps from the Atlantic Ocean, offering residences that have multiplied coastal construction over time. While the tragic collapse suggests not only the limits of the condominium as a promise of collective shouldering of liabilities, it also reminds us in terrifying ways of the increased liabilities of coastal living in an age of overlapping ecotones, where the relation between shore, ocean spray, saltwater incursion, and are increasingly blurred and difficult to manage in an era of climate change–as residences such as the still unchanged splashpage of Champlain Towers South itself promise easy access to inviting waters that beckon the viewer as they gleam, suggested exclusive access to a placid point of arrival for their residents that developers still promise to attract eager customers.

Although the shore was one of the oldest forms of “commons,” the densely built out coastal communities around north Miami, the illusion of the Atlantic meeting the Caribbean on Miami’s coasts offers a hybrid of private beach views and public access points, encouraging the building of footprints whose foundations extend to the shores, promising private views of the beach to which they are directly facing, piles driven into wetlands and often sandy areas that are increasingly subject to saltwater incursion. The range of condominiums on offer that evoke the sea suggest it is a commodity on offer–“surfside,” “azure,” “on the ocean,” “spiaggia“–as if beckoning residents to seize the private settlement of the coasts, in a burgeoning real estate market of building development has continued since the late 1960s, promising a sort of bucolic resettlement that has multiplied coastal housing developments of considerable size and elevated prices. Is the promise to gain a piece of the commons of the ocean that the real estate developers have long promoted no longer sustainable in the face of the dangers of erosion both of the sandy beaches and the concrete towers that are increasingly vulnerable not only to winds, salt air, and underwater inland flow, but the resettlement of sands from increased projects of coastal construction?

If collapse of the low-rise structure that boasted proximity to the beach may change the condo market, the logic of boasting the benefits of “year-round ocean breezes,” has the erosion of the coast and logic of saltwater incursion in a complex ecotone where salty air, slather flooding, and poor drainage may increasingly challenge the stability of the foundations of the expanding market for coastal condos–and to lead us to question the growing liability of coastal living, rather than investing in seawalls and beach emendation in the face of such a sense of impending coastal collapse, as the investment in concrete towers on coastal properties seem revealed as castles in the sand.

If the architectural plans for the forty-year-old building insured adequate waterproofing of all exposed concrete structures, in an important note in the upper left, the collapse left serious questions about knowledge of the structural vulnerability in the towers, whose abundant cracking had led residents to plan for reinforcement. The danger that Surfside breezes sprayed ocean air increased the absorption of chloride in the concrete over forty years that it cracked, allowing corrosion of the rebar, and greatly weakening the strength of supporting columns that had born loads of the tower’s weight, significantly weakening the reinforced concrete. The towers had been made to the standards of building codes of an earlier era, allowing the possible column failure at the bottom of the towers that engineers have suggested one potential cause for collapse in ways that would have altered their load-bearing capacity–the lack of reinforced concrete at the base, associated with the collapse of other mid-range concrete structures often tied to insufficient support and reinforced concrete structures. The dangers of corrosion of concrete, perhaps compounded by poor waterproofing, of cast in place concrete condominium towers in the 1970s with concrete frames suggest an era of earlier building codes, often of insufficient structuring covering of steel, weaknesses in reinforced concrete one may wonder if the weathering of concrete condominiums could recreate between columns and floors–and potential shearing of columns to the thin flat-plate slabs whose weight they bore, creating a sudden vertical collapse of the interior, with almost no lateral sideways sway.

Courtesy Town of Surfside, FL
Champlain Towers
Chandan Khanna/AFP

Even as we struggle to commemorate those who died in the terrifying collapse of a residential building, where almost a hundred and sixty of whose residents seem to be trapped under the collapsed concrete ruins of twelve floors, we do so with intimations of our collective mortality, that seems more than ever rooted in impending climate disasters that cannot be measured by any single criteria or unique cause. The modest condo seems the sort of residence in which we all might have known someone who lived, and its sudden explosive collapse, without any apparent intervention, raises pressing questions of what sort of compensation or protection might possibly exist for the residents of buildings perched on the ocean’s edge. Six floors of apartments seem to have sunk underground in the sands in which they will remain trapped, in sharp contrast to the bucolic views the condominium once boasted.

Miami Beach Coast/Alamy

While the apparent seepage in the basement, parking garage, and Champlain South that ricocheted over social media do not seem saltwater that seeped through the sandy ground or limestone, but either rainwater or pool water that failed to drain adequately, the concrete towers that crowd the Miami coastline, many have rightly noted, have increasingly taken a sustained atmospheric beating from overlapping ecotones of increased storms, saltwater spray, and the underground incursion of saltwater. If the causality of the sudden collapse twelve stories of concrete was no doubt multiple, the vulnerability to atmospheric change increased the aging of the forty year old structure and accelerated the problems of corrosion that demand to be mapped as a coastal watershed.

The bright red of coasts in the below map seems to evoke a danger sign that is intended to warn viewers about heightened increased consumer risk, from the Gulf Coast to Portland to Florida to the northeast, as sustained exposure to corrosive salt increased risk to over-inhabited coasts, particularly for those renting or owning homes in concrete structures built for solid land but lying in subsiding areas along a sandy beach. Indeed, building codes have since 2010 depended on the gustiness of winds structures would have to endure and not only along the coast, as this visualization of minimum standards across the state–mandating the risks coastal housing needs to endure–a green cross-hatched band marking new regions added to endure 700-year gusts of wind, inland from Miami.

Gusts Required Residences to Endure by Minimum Building Codes since 2010

Florida received a low grade for its infrastructure from the incoming administration of President Biden–he gave the state a “C” rather grudgingly on the nation’s report card as he promoted the American Jobs Plan in April, focussing mostly on the poor condition of highways, bridges, transit lines, internet access, and clean water. The shallow karst of the Biscayne aquifer is a huge threat to the drinking supplies of the 2.5 million residents of Miami-Dade County, but the danger of residences has been minimized, it seems, by an increasingly profitable industry of coastal building and development. While incursion of saltwater inland remains a threat to potable water, the structural challenges of the new As coastal Floridians have been obsessed with working on pumps to empty flooded roads to offshore drains, clearing sewer mains, and moving to higher grounds, the anthropogenic coastal architecture of towering condominiums offering oceanfront views have been forgotten as a a delicate link whose foundations and piles bear the brunt of the ecotonal crossfire of high winds, saltwater, and salty air that contributed to the “abundant cracking” of concrete that is not meant to withstand saltwater breezes, underground incursion, or the danger of coastal sinkholes in the sandy wetlands where they are built.

It is hard to look without wincing at a visualization designed to chart cost effectiveness by which enhanced concrete would mitigate the damage of hurricanes and extreme weather to coastal communities.

The below national map colors much the entire eastern and southeastern seaboard red, as a wake-up call for the national infrastructure. In no other coastal community are so many concrete structures so densely clustered than Florida. If designed and engineered for land, they are buffeted by salty air on both of its shores, from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic; wind speeds and currents make the coast north of Miami among the saltiest in the world–as high winds can deliver atmospheric salts at a rate of up to 1500 mg/meter, penetrating as afar as one hundred miles inland that will combine with anthropogenic urban pollutants from emissions to construction–creating problems of coastal erosion of building materials, as much as the erosion of beaches and coast ecosystem threatened in Miami by what seems ground zero in sea-level rise, and, as a result, by saltwater incursion, and indeed the atmospheric incursion of salty air–concentrations of chloride that is particularly corrosive to concrete.

And is the exposure of concrete structures across southern Florida to salty air destined to increase with trends of rising sea-levels, already approaching five inches, and projected to deviate even more from the historical rate along the coast, exposing anthropogenic structures from skyscrapers to residences to increased flow of saltwater air?

Dr. Zhaohua Wu, FSU

We are all mourning the collapse of the Surfside FL condominium whose concrete pillars were so cracked and crumbling to expose rusted rebar exposed to salt air. Built on a sandbar’s wetlands, reclaimed as prime property, the town seems suddenly as susceptible to structural risk akin to earthquakes, posing intimations of mortality fit for an era of climate change. The collapse of the southern tower in the early morning of pose questions of liability after the detection of the cracked columns, “spalling” in foundational slabs of cement that allowed structural rebar within to deteriorate with rust that will never sleep. Its collapse poses unavoidable questions of liability for lost lives and unprecedented risk of the failure to respond to concrete cracking, but the ecotonal nature of the Florida shore, whose stability has been understood only by means of a continuing illusion as a clear division between land and sea, as if to paper over the risk of a crumbling shore, where massive reconstruction projects on its porous limestone expose much of the state to building risk of sinkholes and the sudden implosion or subsidence of the sandy shore in a county that was predominantly marshlands, and the inland incursion of salty air that make it one of the densest sites of inland chloride deposition–up to 8.6 kg/ha, or 860 mg/sq meter–and among the most corrosive conditions for the coastal construction of large reinforced concrete buildings facing seaward.

Miami building collapse: What could have caused it? - BBC News

While coastal subsidence may have played a large role in the sudden instability of the foundations that led the flat concrete slab on which the pool to crack, and leak water into the building’s garage in the minutes before it collapsed, the question of liability for the sudden death of Surfside residents must be amply distributed. For the question of liability can be pinned to untimely review process, uncertainty over the distribution of costs for repairs to condominium residents, and the failures of proper waterproofing of concrete as well as a slow pace of upkeep or repairs, the distributed liability raises broad questions of governance of a coastal community. The proposed price of upkeep of facade, inadequate waterproofing, and pool deck of $9.1 million were staggering, but the costs of failure to prevent housing collapse are far higher–and stand to be a fraction of needed repairs for buildings across Miami-Dade County over time.

The abundance of concrete towers in Miami-Dade county alone along the coast poses broad demands of hazard mitigation for which the Surfside tragedy is only the wake-up call: the calls from experts in concrete sustainability at MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHUB) for a reprioritization of preparation for storms from the earliest stages of building design has called fro changes in building codes that respond to the need for increased buffeting of coastal concrete buildings, arguing that buildings should be designed with expectations of increased damage on the East and Gulf coasts that argue mitigation should begin from the redesign of cement by a better understandings of the stresses in eras of climate change that restructuring of residential buidings could greatly improve along the Florida coast–especially the hurricane-prone and salt incursion prone areas of Miami-Dade county both by the design of cement by new technologies and urban texture to allow buildings to sustain increased winds, flooding, and salt damage. Calculated after the flooding of Galveston, TX, the calculation of a “Break Even Mitigation” of investing in structural investment of enhanced concrete was argued to provide “disaster proof” homes, by preventing roof stability and insulation, as well as preventing water entry, and saltwater corrosion in existing structures, engineering concrete that is more disaster resistant fro residential buildings in ways that over time would mitigate meteorological damage to homes to be able to pay for themselves over time; the “Break-Even Mitigation Percent” for residential buildings alone was particularly high, unsurprisingly, along the southern Florida coast.

MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (CSHub)

1. Although discussion of causes of its untimely collapse has turned on the findings of “spalling,” ‘abundant” cracking and spiderwebs leading to continued cracks in columns and walls that exposed rebar to structural damage has suggested that poor waterproofing exposed its structure to structural damage, engineers remind us that the calamity was multi-causal. Yet it is hard to discount the stresses of shifting ecotones of tides, salty air, and underground seepage, creating structural corrosion that was exacerbated by anthropogenic pollution. The shifting ecotones create clear surprises for a building that seems planned to be built on solid ground, but was open to structural weaknesses not only from corrosion of its structure but to be sinking into the sandy limestone on which it was built–opening questions of risk that the coastal communities of nation must be waking up to with alarm, even as residents of the second tower are not yet evacuated, raising broad questions of homeowner and consumer risk in a real estate market that was until recently fourishing.

The apparent precarity of the pool’s foundations lead us to try to map the collapsed towers in the structural stresses the forty year old building faced in a terrain no longer clearly defined as a separation between land and sea, either due to a failure of waterproofing or hidden instabilities in its foundations. And despite continued uncertainty of identifying the causes for the collapse of the towers, in an attempt to gain purchase on questions of liability, the tower’s collapse seems to reflect a zeitgeist of deep debates about certainty, the anxiety with which we are consuming current debates about origins of its collapse in errors of adequate inspection or engineering may conceal the shaky foundations of a burst of building on an inherently unstable ecotone? While we had been contemplating mortality for the past several years, the sudden collapse. of a coastal tower north of Miami seemed a wake-up call to consider multiple threats to the nation’s infrastructure. Important questions of liability and missed possibilities of prevention will be followed up, but when multiple floors of the south tower of the 1981 condominium that faced the ocean crumbled “as if a bomb went off,” under an almost full moon, we were stunned both by the sudden senseless loss of life, even after a year of contemplating mortality, and the lack of checks or–pardon the expression–safety nets to the nation’s infrastructure.

The risks residents of the coastal condominium faced seemed to lie not only in failures of inspection and engineering, but the ecotonal situation of the overbuilt Florida coast. Residents seemed victims of the difficulties of repairing structural compromises and damage in concrete housing, and a market that encouraged expanding projects of construction out of concrete unsuited to salty air. As much as sea-level rise has been turned to visualize the rising nature of risk of coastal communities that are among the most fastest growing areas of congregation and settlement, as well as home ownership, the liability of the Surfside condominium might be best understood by how risk is inherent in an ecotone of overlapping environments, where the coast is not only poorly understood as a dividing line between land and water, but where risk is dependent on subterranean incursion of saltwater and increasing exposure inland to salt air, absent from maps that peg dangers and risk simply to sea-level rise? The remaining floors of the partly collapsed tower were decided to be dismantled, but the disaster remains terrifyingly emblematic of the risks the built world faces in the face of the manifold pressures of climate change. While we continue to privilege sea-level rise as a basis to map climate change, does the sudden collapse of a building that shook like an earthquake suggest the need to better map the risks of driving piles into sandy limestone or swampy areas of coastal regions exposed to risks of underground seepage that would be open to corrosion by dispersion of salt air.

Florida building collapse video: Surfside, FL condo disaster | Miami Herald

The search for the bodies of residents buried under the rubble of collapsed housing continued for almost a full week, as we peered into the open apartments that were stopped in the course of daily life, as if we were looking at an exploded diagram–rather than a collapsed building, wondering what led its foundations to suddenly give way.

Michael Reeves/Getty Images

As I’ve been increasingly concerned with sand, concrete, and the shifting borders of coastal shores, it seemed almost amazing that Florida was not a a clearer focus of public attention. The striking concentration of salts that oceans deposited along the California coast seemed a battle of attrition with the consolidation and confinement of the shores. Long before Central and Southern Florida were dredged in an attempt to build new housing and real estate, saltwater was already entering the aquifer. As the Florida coast was radically reconfigured by massive projects of coastal canalization to drain lands for settlement, but which rendered the region vulnerable to saltwater, risking not only contaminating potable water aquifers, but creating corrosive conditions for concrete buildings clustered along the shores of Miami-Dade County across Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, as much of Florida’s coast–both in terms of the incursion of saltwater and the flow of salty air, that link the determination of risk to the apparent multiplication of coastal ecotones by which the region is plagued, but are conceptualized often only by sea-level rise. Even as Miami experienced a rise in sea-level some six times the rate of the world in 2011-2015, inundating streets by a foot or two of saltwater from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale was probably a temporary reflection of atmospheric abnormality or a reflection of the incursion of saltwater across the limestone and sand aquifer, lying less than two meters underground. Did underground incursion of saltwater combine with inland flow of salty air in dangers beyond tidal flooding in a “hotspot” of sea-level rise? One might begin to understand Surfside, FL as prone to a confluence of ecotones, both an overlapping of saline incursion and limestone and its concrete superstructure, and the deposit of wet chloride along its buildings’ surfaces and foundations, an ecotonal multiplication of risk to the consumers of buildings that an expanding real estate market offered along its pristine shores.

Approximate Inland Extent of Saltwater Penetration at Base of Biscayne Aquifer, Miami-Dade County, USGS 2018

While the inland expansion of saltwater incursion and penetration has become a new facet of daily life in Miami-Dade County, where saltwater rises from sewers, reversing drainage outflow to the ocean, and permeates the land, flooding streets and leaving a saltwater smell in the air, the underground penetration of saltwater in these former marshlands have been combatted for some time as if a military frontline battle, trying to beat back the water into retreat, while repressing the extent of the areas already “lost” to the sea. If the major consequences of such saltwater intrusion are a decay. and corrosion of underground infrastructure as water and sewage pipelines, rather than the deeply-set building foundations of condominiums that are designed to sustain their loads, the presence of incursion suggests something like a different temporality of the half-life of concrete structures that demands to be examined, less in terms of the damage of saltwater incursion on building integrity, than the immersion of reinforced concrete in a saline environment, by exposing concrete foundations to a wetter and saltier environment than they were built to withstand, and exposing concrete to the saline environment over time.

As much as we have returned to issues of subsidence, saltwater incursion, and other isolated data-points of potential structural weakness in the towers, the pressing question of the temporality of building survival have yet to be integrated–in part as we don’t know the vulnerability or stresses to which the concrete foundations of buildings perched on the seaside are exposed. The very expanse of the inland incursion of saltwater measured in 2011 suggests that the exposure to foundations of at least a decade of saltwater have not been determined, the risks of coastal buildings and inhabitants of the increased displacement of soils as a result of saltwater incursion or coastal construction demands to be assessed. The question of how soils will continue to support coastal structures encouraged by the interest of developers to meet demand for panoramic views of coastal beaches. While the impact of possible instability on coastal condominiums demands to be studied in medium-sized structures, the dangers of ground instability created by increased emendation of beach sand, saltwater incursion, and possible subsidence due to sinkholes. All increase the vulnerabilities of the ecotonal coastline, but only by foregrounding the increased penetration of saltwater, salt air, and soil stability in the increasingly anthropogenic coast can the nature of how ecotonal intersection of land and augment the risks buildings face.

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Facing Extreme Climate as we Re-Enter Paris Accords

In an age it is disturbingly familiar for news maps to place us on tenterhooks by grabbing our attention, the existential urgency of the blanket of the continent with icy arctic air was no exception. But if the images of sudden entrance of frigid air shocked most states in the union and lower forty eight, the farther one collapsed the week of freezing cold, the more one could see a clarion call for the re-entrance into the Paris Accords,–as if the visualizers of meteorological disturbances at NOAA, newly liberated, were able to show the dangerous consequences of the tippy polar vortex and uncertain weather in an era of extreme climate change. Bright color ramps foregrounded falling temps in rich magenta or icy blue were almost off the charts, from the uppermost end of the spectrum in their duration–below–or in the low temperatures that were advanced–in maps that push the boundaries of expectations with urgency. As maps of the hours the nation was plunged into subzero trace a purple cold front advanced all the way into the deep south as it spread across the continent from up north, the continent shivered under the icy blues over the mid-February cold spell.

The chromatic intensity jarred with the familiar spectrum of meteorological maps to shock the viewer: the map challenged any reader to try to place the arrival of cold air and hours below freezing in a frame of reference, to dismiss the incursion of icy air up to the US-Mexico border as an irregular occurrence, more than a harbinger of premonition of the cascading effects of extreme weather, let alone a warning of the limits of our national infrastructure to adjust to it. If the focus of the NOAA maps of the National Weather Service fulfilled their mandate by focussing on the territoriality of the United States, these images and the news maps made of them communicated a sense of national violation, if not of the injustice of the incursion of such unexpected freezing temperatures and Arctic air, as if it were an unplanned invasion of the lifestyle, expectations, energy policy, and even of the electric grid of the United States, oddly affirming the American exceptionalism of the United States’ territory and climate, as if the meteorological maps that confounded predictions were not a global climactic change.

And in the maps of the fall in national temperatures, as in the header to this post, the news that the nation witnessed a frozen core spread south to the southwest, almost reaching the border, seemed to shift our eyes from a border that was mapped and remapped as permeable to migration, to a map of unpreparedness for climate change, almost echoing the systemic denial of climate change that has been a virtual pillar of the Trump Presidency on the eve when Donald Trump had permanently relocated to Mar a Lago, one of the last areas of the nation that was not hit by the subzero temperature anomalies that spread across north Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico and Iowa, plunging the many states we though of as “red” during the past election an icy deep blue interior in mid-February down to the Gulf Coast–as if the colors were a national crisis not of our own making for a nation that had obsequiously voted Republican, withdrawn from the Paris Accords, and allowed the warmer temperatures to be located only in the state where Donald Trump was now residing in Mar a Lago.

–that , as the week of arctic air’s arrival wore on, the newspaper of record glossed by a color ramp of low temperatures few residents southern states expected to be plunged into subzero surroundings. The color ramp they chose to chart how gelid air poured set off a cascade of events and disasters nicely demonstrated cascading effects of climate change on the nation, as the shock of low temperatures sucked the national attention away from the border, and begged one to come to terms with the challenge of climate emergencies in global terms. The frozen core of the nation was a wake-up call.

Lowest Temperatures in Coutnry, February 12-16/New York Times, February 18, 2021

The entrance of gelid air from a polar vortex poured across much of the midwest in unrelenting fashion. Plunging subzero temps hit the Texas coast that overloaded electric grids and shocked weather maps that seemed out of whack even for mid-February, as even the sunbelt of the southwest turned gelid cold as subzero temperatures arrived over a week, plunging the arctic neckline down into Texas, and almost across the southwestern border.

The shock of this map is its dissonance, of course, from the weather maps that we are used to seeing, the entire nation now, in mid-February, almost blanketed by subzero temperatures of deep blue cold, extending wispy breezes into Utah and Arizona, as well as across Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, leaving only SoCal and Florida pleasantly warm. The national composite that forecast a deep freeze running right down the center of the United States and spreading to both coast at northern latitudes gave the nation a frozen core at the end of a hotly tempered election, that seemed a wake-up call to attend to long-term as well as immediate dangers of climate change, but made it difficult to disentangle the global issues from the existential question of millions in Texas and other states who were left without heating faced dangerously cold and unprecedented subzero temperatures, without clues about where to keep warm.

Image

The impact of climate change has rarely been so directly placed on the front burner of national security–climate change deniers have preferred to naturalize polar melting by removing it from human agency so far to attribute shifting temperature to sunspot activity, or invoke longue durée theories of geological time enough to make noted paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould turn over in his grave. Doing so has stoked a devious confusion between local and global, and immediate and long-term, are bound to be increasingly with us in an era of extreme climate change. The sudden entrance into our borders of such gelid air is an effect of global warming. We are loosing our beaches, and cities like Galveston, TX, Atlantic City NJ, Miami Beach FL, Key West, and Hilton Head SC are not alone in falling into the sea to lie mostly underwater in 100 years. As Ron Johnson assured us that “Greenland” derived its name from the green leafy bucolic forests of the continent–“There’s a reason Greenland was called‘ Greenland’–it was actually green at one time [even if] it’s a whole lot whiter now”–as if the truth about deep time was concealed by those overly alarmed ice shelves falling into the Atlantic, shifting ocean salinity with a sudden injection of freshwater that may alter the Gulf Stream, we were invited to contmplate the fierce urgency of now.

Perhaps the whole question of a span of time, as much as the theoretical proposition of global warming, was a concern. For we are as a country already looking forward with apprehension at maps of economic costs of flood damage to residences, amidst the anxiety charged year of COVID-19 pandemic, with multiple variants now on the loose, to prepare for escalating costs of climate change across the country, and not only on the coasts.

If Louisiana and California coastal cities will seem destined to stand the greatest risk of damage or residences, both due to the high valuation of California’s coastal properties, and the danger of hurricane damages across the Gulf Coast, the increased risk that residences alone face bodes serious economic losses across the United States. Yet as risk rises and brings with it escalated insurance rates, we stand to see the cascade of economic losses, of the sort we have not come to terms in imagining the fanciful image of a time when Greenland enjoyed lush forests in the past–a scenario that never happened, inventive etymologies aside–although it may soon host plant life as it looses its permafrost.

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Freezing Time, Seaweed, and the Biologic Imaginary

We can all too easily lose sight of the centrality of seaweed plays in coastal habitat–even in Northern California, where seaweed washes up regularly in clumps and beds along the shore. Bull kelp and other marine plants on the sandy beaches of northern California seem otherworldly representatives of a removed marine world, but their proximity is revealed in remote mapping that promises to remap the role of seaweed in coastal ecosystems, and offer a picture of the terrifying prospects of ocean warming and climate change.

The relatively recent contraction of kelp forests across much of the offshore where they long provided such dense habitats may soon start to contract in ways never before experienced. The remapping of kelp forests, and the problems of their contraction of treasured habitat, reveal how much coastal waters demand to be seen not as so separate from the land, but part of a complex ecotone–a region where land and sea interact. Underwater species impact a large ecosystem that provides atmospheric oxygen, integral to coastal biodiversity that imparts a specific character to the California coast, and a sense of where we are–as well as makes it a destination for countless Pacific pelagic, shorebirds, and insects, as well as shellfish and fish. But the decimation of kelp forests, tied to an absence of predators to urchins, but more broadly to the ocean warming of coastal waters, as well as potentially an unprecedented increase in coastal pollution, makes both the mapping of the shrinking of kelp forests and the deciphering of that shrinking pressing problems of mapping, destined to impact a large variety of ocean and land-dwelling species.

The need for such mapping underscores all of our relation to the vital ecosystem of the shores and coastal ocean–even if we too often bracket it from our daily lives. While beached kelp may be present before our eyes, the problems of mapping of kelp forests with any fixity complicates how we process the disappearance of offshore kelp beds in an amazingly rapid timeframe. And the failure of creating an actual image capture registering the extent of kelp forests poses limits our awareness of their diminution off coastal waters. The observations of the shrinking of coastal spread of bull kelp is based on local aerial surveys, over a relatively small span of time, the accelerated roll-back of a once-vital region of biodiversity is both global, and demands to be placed in a long-term historical perspective of the way we have removed the underwater and undersea from our notion of coastal environments and of a biosphere.

Bull kelp forest coverage at four sites on the North Coast of California,from aerial surveys (California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

What was first registered in the plummeting of abalone, and the wasting disease of sea stars, afflicting stars from Baja to Alaska in 2013, suggest a condensation of a radical change in near-coastal environments of global proportions, paralleled by the arrival of warm waters that are not conducive to kelp growth, even before El Nino, and before the the arrival of purple urchins whose levels stars controlled, as if the result of cascading effects of a tipping point atmospheric change.

The quite sudden growth on the ocean floor of “sea urchin barrens,” where the near coastal waters are cleared of seaweeds and kelp, is a global problem. As global oceans absorb warmth of increased global warming, near-shore environments are particularly susceptible to species changes that create large disequilibria–from the bloom of phytoplankton to the rise of purple sea urchins and the dearth of shellfish–that stand to change coastal oceans. Yet the same creatures are often ones that fall of outside of our maps, even if the presence and scale of massive kelp beds and submerged forests are hard to map. And even if we see a shrinking of the large undersea submerged beds of kelp off coastal California, it is hard to have clear metrics of their shrinking over time or past extent–or of intervening in their reduction, which we seem forced to watch as inland spectators.

NASA Earth Observatory., image by Mke Taylor (NASA) using USGS data

Indeed, if the presence of coastal seaweed, and the distinctive kelp forest of California’s coastal ocean seems the distinguishing feature of its rich coastal ecology, the holdfasts of kelp forests that are grazed down by sea urchins and other predators are poorly mapped as solely underwater–they are part of the rich set of biological exchanges between the ecotone of where land meets sea, and ocean life is fed by sediment discharge and polluted by coastal communities, as much as they should be mapped as lying offshore, at a remove from the land. Yet the death of beds of kelp that is occurring globally underwater is cause for global alarm.

For from Norway to Japan to but the decline of natural predators of urchins in California has made a rapid rise of urchins on the seafloor along the coast have contributed to a shrinking of once-abundant kelp forests that produce so much of our global atmospheric oxygen. And these hidden underwater changes seem destined to rewrite our globe, as much as climate change, and threaten to change its habitability. Even as large clumps of seaweed are removed by powerful waves, that deposit piles of offshore forests ripped from holdfasts on beaches in northern California, the narrative of large coastal kelp deposits, their relation to climate change and coastal environment demands to be better mapped, as the transition of kelp to barrens afflicts so much of the coastal waters of the Atlantic and Pacific, at so many different latitudes and across such a variety of local cold water ecologies.

While the decline of kelp forests seems as radical as the clear-cutting of redwoods, it is both far more rapid and far more environmentally disruptive, if far less visible to the human eye.For in recent decades, increasingly warming waters and out of whack ecosystems have led to a massive decline of seaweed, decimated by a rise in the sea urchin population to by 10,000 percent off the California coast over only last five years, shrinking kelp forests that stand to catapult us to a future for which we have no map. The long-term decline in sea otters and sea stars, natural predators of the urchins, have removed constraints on urchin growth, which warming waters has encouraged, reducing a historical abundance of kelp in the near coastal waters across California.

This has perhaps been difficult to register due to the problems of mapping seaweed, and indeed registering kelp forests’ decline. The advance of sea urchin populations that have created barrens in coastal waters stands to disrupt and overturn some of the most abundant ecological niches in the global oceans. How has this happened under our eyes, so close tho shore and lying just undersea? We have few real maps of seaweed or kelp, lurking underwater, rather than above land, and leave out kelp from most of our maps, which largely privilege land. But the abundance of kelp that produce most of the global oxygen supply live in underwater ecotones–sensitive places between land and sea, in-between areas of shallow water, abundant sunlight, and blending of land and sea–an intersection, properly understood, between biomes, on which different biological communities depend.

Looking at the offshore seaweed near Santa Cruz, CA, I wondered if the predominantly passive registration of location–onshore registration of sites remotely by satellites, familiar from the harrowing images of the spread of fires, provided a basis to register our states of emergencies that was spectacularly unsuited to the contraction of coastal kelp, despite the huge advances of mapping techniques, and left us without a map to their contraction, or to register the subtle if radical consequences of kelp loss, and the almost as devastatingly rapid progress of their advance as populations of urchins have mowed down underseas kelp beds. For even as we strike alarms for the the decline of global kelp populations and seaweed forests as a result of the warming of offshore temperatures that place the near offshore regions at special risk of atmospheric warming–

Paul Horn, Inside Climate News/Source Wernberg and Staub,
Explaining Ocean Warming (IUCN Report, 2016)

–we lack maps of the place of seaweed and kelp beds in their ecotone, and indeed have no adequate maps of seaweed populations under threat.

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Filed under climate change, Global Warming, oceans, remote observation, seaweed

Saturated Shores in Southeastern Texas

There is almost no trace of the human, or of the extreme overurbanization of the Texas coast, in most of the maps that were created of the extreme flooding and intense winter rains that hit Galveston and Houston TX with the windfall of Hurricane Harvey.  While maps serve to orient humans to the world–and orient us to human processes and events in a “human world,” as J.B. Harley and David Woodward put it, the confused nature of relations between the human and natural world, is increasingly in danger of being mipmapped.  Data visualizations of extreme weather that erase the modification of coastal environments provide a particularly challenging means of orientation, as news maps are suspended between registering the shock of actual events–and trying to contain the natural emergencies that events of extreme weather create–and the demand for graphics that register natural calamities and the ethics of showing such calamities as “natural”–or even what the category of the natural is in coastal regions that so heavily modified to modify actual weather events.

The ethics of orienting viewers to the rainfall levels that fell in Houston after the landfall Hurricane Harvey Part of the huge difficulties lies in adequately orienting viewers in ways that register a changing natural world–how we are mapping rainfall, for example, or the approach of hurricanes, or are rather mapping the new relation of rain to built surfaces and landcover change that lack permeability for water, facilitating flooding by storms whose potency is changed by the greater atmospheric content of a warming Gulf of Mexico, which the ground cover of Houston, Galveston, and the Texas shore are less able to absorb and return to the Gulf. The area is, itself, something of an epicenter of the increased number of hemispheric tropical cyclones–which demand warm water temperatures above 80 80°F / 27°C and a cooling atmosphere and low wind shear–often led to the Gulf coast.

NASA Earth Observatory/Tropical Cyclones through 2006

–those that come ashore at Galveston hit a seashore that is eminently unprepared to accommodate an influx of water that the paved surface has rendered all but impermeable. If the problem of global cyclones that can become hurricanes is truly global–

NASA Earth Observatory/150 years of Tropical Cyclones

–the intersection between cyclones and areas of paved ground cover is problematic to the southwestern states, and most of all to Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, where water absorption has been anthropogenically reduced in recent decades. At the same time, few other areas of the inhabited world are so widely “tracked” as the destination of tropical cyclone formation..

NWS JetStream Online School)

The problem is partly evident in the choice of new color ramps that transcend the rainbow spectrum of measuring the intensity of rainfall in the recent arrival or ground fall of Hurricane Harvey, which condenses the great difficulty of using old cartographical categories and conventions in order to capture or communicate increasingly extreme weather conditions. in an era of climate change.  But the cartographic problem goes farther:  for it lies in the difficulty of registering the changes in relations f how rain dropped meets the ground, mapping relations between complex processes of warming and atmospheric warmth that lead to greater humidity across the gulf region to ground cover permeability that leaves regions increasingly exposed to flooding.

The relentless logic of data visualizations based on and deriving primarily from remote sensing are striking for rendering less of a human world than the threat of allegedly “natural” processes to that world.  Perhaps because of the recent season of extreme weather we have experienced, weather maps may be among the most widely consulted visualizations in our over-mediated world, if they were already widely viewed as the essential forms of orientation.  But the pointillist logic of weather maps may fail to orient us well to extreme events as the hurricane that dumped a huge amount of water on overbuilt areas to include the human–or the human world–seem a tacit denial of the role of humans in the complex phenemona of global warming that have, with the warming waters of the Gulf of Mexico and ever-increasing ozone over much of the overbuilt southeastern Texas shore, created a perfect storm for their arrival.

This failure to include this role haunts the limited content of the weather map; including the role of humans in maps of extreme weather events indeed remains among the most important challenges of weather maps and data visualization, with the human experience of the disasters we still call natural.  And although the subject is daunting, in the spirit of this blog, we will both look at the communicative dilemmas and difficulties of eye-catching color ramps and their deceptiveness, and poetic difficulties of orienting oneself to shores.  For as the disaster of Harvey is depressing, it compels raising questions of the orientation to the shifting shore, around the national epicenter of Galveston, where the landfall of Hurricane Harvey focussed our attention on August 27, 2017–

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–and the meaning of place in an saturated shoreline, where the sea is somehow part of the land, and the land-sea divide blurs with a specificity that seems as if it may well be increasingly true in an approaching era of climate change.  And as we depend on the ready generation of maps based on remote sensing whose relentless logic is based on points, we risk looking sight of the role of place in determining the relations of rainfall to shoreline in maps of coastal flooding that remove remote observations from the built environment that flooding so drastically changes, challenges and affects, in ways that may elide specificities of place.

At a time when we are having and will be destined to have increased problems in orienting ourselves to our shores through digital maps of rainfall, the unclear shorelines of Galveston sent me to the bearings that a poet of an earlier age took her bearings on the mapped shorelines of the place where she had been born, and how she was struck by a bathymetric map to gauge her personal relation to place, and saw place in how the changing shoreline of the northern Atlantic were mapped in the maritimes, in a retrograde form of print mapping in a time of war.  For the way the mapped shore became a means by which Elizabeth Bishop gained bearings on shores through a printed map of coastal bathymetry to access the spatiality of the shore–how “land lies in water” and the blurred relation of land and water that the bathymetric map charts–in an age when the materiality of the map was changing, with the introduction of aerial composite maps from the early 1930s, as the rise of aerial composite maps removed the hand of the mapmaker from the map in an early instance of remote sensing–

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Cartography Associates/David Ramsey: Historical Map Collection: Composite of 164 Aerial Views of San Francisco by Harrison Ryker/Oakland, 1938, 1:2000

–in a medium of aerial photography that focussed on land to the exclusion of water, and that all but erased the relation between water and shore just a few years after Bishop quickly wrote her poem in Christmas 1935 about coastal “edges” of land and sea.  Ryker, who developed techniques of aerial photography used in the mapping of the shores of Puerto Rico for the Fairchild Aerial Camera Company, as well as photographs of the devastating Berkeley Fire of 1923, went into business in 1938–the year of his map–as a map publisher, with a patent for the stereoscope used to interpret aerial imagery,  and must have performed the massively detailed mapping of San Francisco in one hundred and sixty for images taken from airplanes from 1937-38 as a sort of calling card, soon after Bishop wrote her poem, before manufacturing a range of stereoscopes of pocket and desktop versions for military ends that were widely used in World War II by the US Army.

Before war broke out, but in ways that anticipated the coming war, the printed bathymetric map must have resonated as a new reflection on the impersonality of the aerial view; Bishop was suddenly struck when she encountered the materiality of a print map on Christmas 1938 as the art of cartography was already changing, responding to the drawn map under glass of the Atlantic as a way to recuperate the personal impact of place.  Her poem powerfully examined the logic of drawn maps utterly absent from the digitized space of rainfall maps of a flood plain, deriving from data at the cost of human inhabitation of place–and in envisioning data to come to terms with the catastrophic event of flooding distancing or removing the craft of mapmaking from the observer in dangerously deceptive ways.  And so after wrestling with the problems of cartographic representation using remote sensing, while recognizing the value of these readily produced maps of rainfall and the disasters they create,

1.  For weather maps are also among the most misleading points to orient oneself to global warming and climate change, as they privilege the individual moment, removed from a broader context of long-term change or the human alteration of landscape.  They provide endless fascination by synthesizing an encapsulated view of weather conditions, but also  suggest a confounding form of media to orient audiences to long-term change or to the cascading relations of the complex phenomenon of climate change and our relation to the environment, as they privilege a moment in isolation from any broader context, and a sense of nature removed from either landscape modification or human intervention in the environment, in an area were atmospheric warming has shifted sea-surface temperatures.  The effects on the coast is presented in data visualizations that trace the hurricane’s “impact” as if its arrival were quite isolated from external events, and from the effects of human habitations on the coast.  The image of extreme flooding is recorded as a layer atop a map, removing the catastrophic effects of the flooding from the overpaved land of the megacities of southeastern Texas, and the rapid paving over of local landcover of its shores.

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Such visualizations preserve a clear line between land and sea, but treat the arrival of the rains on land as isolated from the Consuming such events of global warming in color-spectrum maps.  The data of rainfall translate data into somewhat goofy designs represents a deep alienation from the environment, distancing viewers in dangerous ways from the very complexity of global warming that Gulf coast states encountered.

Such data visualizations seem dangerously removed notion of how we have changed our own environment, by describing a notion of “nature” that is immediately legible, as if it were removed from any human trace or of the impact of modification of the land, and by imaging events in isolation from one another–often showing a background in terrain view as if it has no relation to the events that the map describes.  Although weather maps and AccuWeather forecasts are sources of continual fascination, and indeed orientation, they are are also among the most confounding media to orient viewers to the world’s rapidly changing climate–and perhaps among the most compromised.  For they imply a remove of the viewer from space-and from the man-made nature of the environment or the effects of human activity form the weather systems whose changes we increasingly register.  By reifying weather data as a record of an actuality removed from human presence at one place in time, they present a status quo which it is necessary to try to peel off layers, and excavate a deeper dynamic, and indeed excavate the effects of human presence in the landscape or geography that is shown in the map.  We are drawn to tracking and interpret visualizations of data from satellite feeds in such weather maps–or by what is known as “remote sensing,” placed at an increased remove from the human habitation of a region, and indeed in a dangerously disembodied manner.

Visualizations resulting from remote observation demand taken as a starting point to be related to from the human remaking of a region’s landscape that has often increasingly left many sites increasingly vulnerable to climate change.  But the abstract rendering of their data in isolation from a global picture–or on the ground knowledge of place–may render them quite critically incomplete.  The remove of such maps may even suggest a deep sense of alienation form the environment, so removed is the content of the data visualization form human presence, and perhaps from any sense of the ability to change weather-related events, or perceive the devastating nature of their effects on human inhabitants:   their stories are about weather, removed form human lives, as they create realities that gain their own identity in images, separate from a man-made world, at a time when weather increasingly intersects with and is changed by human presence.  While throwing into relief the areas hit by flooding near to the southeastern Texas shore at multiple scales based on highly accurate geospatial data, much of which is able to be put to useful humanitarian uses–

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Dartmouth Flood Observatory/University of Colorado at Boulder, August 29. 2017

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Maps of the World

–the reduction of floods to data points creates a distorted image of space renders their occurrence distant from the perspective of folks on the ground, and places their content at a considerable remove from the complex causality of a warming Gulf of Mexico, or the problems of flood drainage by which Galveston and Houston were beset.  Indeed, the multiple images of that report rainfall as an overlay in a rainbow spectrum, at a remove from the reasons for Houston’s vulnerability to flooding and the limits the region faces of flood control, in broadcast Accuweather images of total rainfall in inches advance a metric that conceals the cognitive remove from the dangers of flooding, ora human relation to the landscape that the hurricane so catastrophically affected.  Can we peel under the layers of the data visualization, and create better images that appreciate the human level on which the landscape stands to be devastated by hurricane rains, as much as tracking the intensity of the growth of rainfall over time?

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AccuWeather, Rainfall levels by Thursday

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AccuWeather, Friday to Monday

Such layers of green, meant to suggest the intensity of rainfall that fell over land, reveal the concentration of water in areas closes to the Gulf of Mexico.  Even the most precise geographical records of the dangers of flooding in the floodplain of southeastern Texas with little reference to the historical modification of the region by inhabitants–

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Dartmouth Flood Observatory at University of Colorado, Boulder/August 29, 2017

–and conceal the extent to which the landscape’s limited ground cover permeability has left the region far more susceptible to flooding, and elevated the risks of the emergency.  The problem of reading any signs of human presence into these “images” of precipitation provoke problems of disentangling remote sensing data from knowledge of the region’s recent urban growth and the consequent shift in local landcover.

The perspective of our relation to these events is often as fleeting and as existential as they flood us with data, which we viewers have little perspective or tools to process fully.  The onrush of recent remote sensing maps batter us with an array of data, so much as to lead many to throw up their hands at their coherence.  Even as we are  still trying to calculate the intensity of damages in Puerto Rico–where electricity is so slowly returning that even even after four months, almost a third of its 1.5 million electricity customers still lack power–and the cost of fires in southern California.  We look at maps, hoping to piece together evidence of extensive collateral damage of global warming.  Yet we’ve still to come to terms with the intensity of rainstorms that hit southeastern Texas–deluging the coast with rainfall surpassing the standard meteorological chromatic scale that so misleadingly seems to offer a transparent record of the catastrophe, but omits and masks the experiences of people on the ground, digesting swaths of remotely sensed data that take the place of their perception and experience, and offering little critical perspective on the hurricane’s origin.

The rapidity with which rain challenged ground cover permeability provides both a challenge for mapping as a symptom of global warming and landscape modification:   the mapping of “natural” levels of rainfall blurs the pressing problem of how shifting landcover has created an impermeability to heightened rains, and indeed how the new patterns of habitation challenge the ability of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to absorb the prospect of increased rain in the face of decreasing groundcover permeability, and the extreme modification of the coastline that increasingly impeded run-off to the Gulf.

2.  Across much of southeastern Texas, a region whose growth was fed by the hopes of employment in extractive industries, real estate demand and over-paving have unfortunately intersected with extreme weather in southeastern Texas in ways which dat visualizations have had trouble exposing, but which raise a curtain on the coming crises of a failure of ability to accommodate increased levels of rainfall  If the lack of precedent for the intense rainfall in Galveston Bay generated debate about introducing a new color that went beyond the rainbow scale employed in weather charts, what seemed a problem of the cartographic color-spectrum suggested a problem of governability and indeed government response to extreme weather conditions.  How to register the dangers of rainfall that goes of the scale or standards of measurement?

One must consider how to orient viewers to the intensity of consequent flooding, and to its consequences and better prepare ourselves for the arrival of deluging rains without falling back on the over-freighted metaphor of rains of biblical scope.  How many more hurricanes of increasing intensity can continue to pound the shores, by whipping precipitation from increasingly warming waters and humid air?  The cumulative pounding of tropical cyclones in the Gulf stands to create a significantly larger proportion of lands lying underwater–temporarily submerged lands–with radically reduced possibilities of drainage, as hurricanes carry increased amounts of evaporated water from the humid air of the warming gulf across its increasingly overbuilt shores. in ways that have changed how the many tropical cyclones that have crossed the land-sea threshold since NOAA began tracking their transit (in 1851) poses a new threat to the southeastern coast of Texas, and will force us to map the shifting relation between land and water not only in terms of the arrival of hurricanes, or cyclonic storms–

–but the ability of an increasingly overbuilt landscape to lie underwater as the quantity of the Gulf coast rainfall stands to grow, overwhelming the overbuilt nature of the coast.

Most maps that chart the arrival and impact of hurricanes seem a form of climate denial, as much as they account for climate change, locating the hurricanes as aggressive forces outside the climate, against a said backdrop of blue seas, as if they  are the disconnect.  Months after the hurricane season ended, the damage for hurricanes caused have hardly been assessed in what has been one of the most costly and greatest storm damage since 1980 in the United States,–including the year of Hurricane Katrina–we have only begun to sense the damage of extreme weather stands to bring to the national infrastructure.  The comparison to the costs of storm damage in previous years were not even close.

But distracted by the immediacy of data visualizations, and impressed by the urgency of the immediate, we risk being increasingly unable to synthesize the broader patterns of increased sea surface temperatures and hurricane generations, or the relations between extremely destructive weather events, overwhelmed by the excessive destruction of each, and distracted from raising questions about the extremely poor preparation of most overbuilt regions for their arrival, and indeed the extent to which regional over-building that did not take the possibility of extreme weather into account–paving large areas without adequate drainage structures or any areas of arable land–left inhabitants more vulnerable to intense rains.  For in expanding the image of the city without bounds, elasticity, or margins for sea-level rise, the increasingly brittle cityscapes of Galveston and much of the southeastern Texas shoreline were left incredibly unprepared for the arrival of hurricanes or intense rains.  Despite the buzz of an increased density of hurricanes to have hit the region,

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the questions of how to absorb hurricanes of the future, and to absorb the increased probability of rainfall from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and its shores, suggests questions of risk, danger, and preparation that we have no ability to map.  What, indeed, occurs, as hurricanes themselves destroy the very means of transmitting on the ground information and sensing weather, and we rely exclusively on remote sensing?

Destroyed satellite dishes after Hurricane Maria hit Humacao, Puerto Rico  REUTERS/Alvin Baez

To characterize or bracket these phenomena as “natural” is, of course, to overlook complex interaction between extreme weather patterns and our increasingly overbuilt environments that have both transformed the nature of the Southeastern Texas coast and have made the region both an area of huge economic growth over time, and have paved over much of the floodplain–as well as elevated the potential risks that are associated with coastal flooding in the Gulf Coast.  To be sure, any discussion of the Gulf of Mexico must begin from the increasingly unclear nature of much of our infrastructure across land and sea, evident in the range of pipelines of gas and oil that snake along a once more clearly defined shore charted by ProPublica in 2012, revealed the scope of the manmade environment that has both changed the relation of the coastal communities to the Gulf of Mexico, and has been such a huge spur to ground cover change.

The expansive armature of lines that snake from the region across the nation–

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ProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red; gas in blue

-and whose tangle of oil pipelines that extend from the very site of Galveston to the Louisiana coast is almost unable to be defined as “offshore” save as a fiction, so highly constructed is much of the national waters in submerged lands in the Gulf of Mexico–

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ProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red

They indeed seem something of an extension of the land, and a redefinition of the shore, and reveal a huge investment of the offshore extractive industries that stand to change much of the risk that hurricanes pose to the region, as well as the complex relation of our energy industries to the warming seas.  Yet weather maps, ostensibly made for the public good, rarely reveal the overbuilt nature of these submerged lands or of the Gulf’s waters.

Despite the dangers that such an extensive network of hazardous liquid lines along the Gulf of Mexico, the confusion between mapping a defined line between land and water, and visualizing relations of extreme weather disturbances as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and local infrastructure haunts the extremely thin nature of the sort of data visualizations that are generated about the dangers of hurricanes and their landfall in the region.  For all too often, they presume a stable land/sea divide, removed from the experience of inhabitants of the region and how we have remade the shore.

3.  How can we better integrate both a human perspective on weather changes, and the role of human-caused conditions in maps of extreme weather?  How can we do better by going beneath the data visualizations of record-breaking rainfall, to map the human impact of such storms?  How could we do better to chart the infrastructural stresses and the extent to which we are ill-prepared for such extreme weather systems whose impact multiplies because of the increased impermeability of the land, unable to absorb excessive rainfall, and beds of lakes and reservoirs that cannot accommodate increased accumulation of rainfall that  stand to become the new normal?  The current spate of news maps that provoke panic by visualizing the extremes of individual cases may only inspire a sort of data vis-induced ADD, distracting from infrastructural inadequacies to the effects of global warming–and leaving us at a loss to guarantee the best structures of governability and environmental readiness.

Indeed, the absence of accurately mapping the impact and relation between landcover, storm intensity, rainfall, flooding, and drainage abilities increases the dangers of lack of good governance.  There need not be any need for a reminder of how quickly inadequate mapping of coastal disasters turns into an emblem of bad governance.  There is the danger that, overwhelmed by the existential relation to each storm, we fail to put them together with one another; compelled to follow patterns of extreme weather, we risk being distracted from not only the costs but the human-generated nature of such shifts in seasons between extremes of hot and cold.  For as we focus on each event, we fail to integrate a more persuasive image of how rising temperatures stand to create an ever-shifting relation between water and land.

Provoked by the rhetoric of emergency, we may need to learn to distance ourselves better from the aerial views that synthesize intense precipitation, tally hurricane impacts, or snowfall levels, and view them less as individual “strikes” or events and better orient ourselves to a broader picture which put us in a less existential relation to extreme weather.

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The Weather Channel

We surely need to establish distance to process syntheses of data in staggering aerial views on cloud swirl, intense precipitation, and snowfall, and work to peel back their striking colors and bright shades of rainbow spectra, to force ourselves to focus not only on their human costs, or their costs of human life, but their relation to a warming planet, and the role of extreme of weather in a rapidly changing global climate, as much as track the “direct strikes” of hurricanes of individual names, as if they were marauders of our shores:  their creation is as much tied to the changing nature of our shores and warming sea-surface temperatures, and in trying to create a striking visualization, we deprive ourselves from detecting broader patterns offering better purchase on weather changes.

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The Weather Channel

If patterns of weather maps epitomized by Accuweather forecast and projections suggest an exhilaratingly Apollonian view on global and regional weather patterns, they also  shift attention form a broader human perspective in quite deeply pernicious ways.  Such maps provided the only format for grasping the impact of what happened as the hurricane made landfall, but provided little sense of the scale of inundations that shifted, blurred and threatened the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  They provide a format for viewing floods that are disjoined from victims, and seem to naturalize the quite unnatural occurrence of extreme weather systems.  Given the huge interest in grasping the transformation of Hurricane Harvey from a tropical storm to a Category Four hurricane, and the huge impact a spate of Category Four hurricanes have created in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s no surprise that the adequacy of the maps of Hurricane Harvey have been interrogated as hieroglyphs or runes of a huge weather change:  we sift through them for a human story which often left opaque behind bright neon overlays, whose intensity offer only an inkling of a personal perspective of the space or scale of their destruction on the ground:  while data maps provide a snapshot of the intensity of rain-levels or wind strength at specific sites, it is difficult if important to remember that their concentration on sites provide a limited picture of causation or complexity.

All too often, such maps fail to offer an adequately coherent image of disasters and their consequences, and indeed to parse the human contributions to their occurrence.  This post might be defined into multiple subsections.  The first actions suggest the problems of mapping hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in relation to flooding in data visualizations of the weather and the overbuilt region; the middle of the post turns to an earlier poetic model for considering the relation between land and sea that visualizations all too easily obscure, and the meaning that the poet Elizabeth Bishop found in viewing relations between land and sea in a printed map of the Atlantic; after returning to the question of the overbuilt shore compounds problems of visualizing the Texas coast, the final section, perhaps its most provocative, returns to Bishop’s reading of a map of the Atlantic coast.

What such new weather maps would look like is a huge concern.  Indeed, as we depend on weather maps to orient us to place ourselves in the inter-relations of climate change, sea-level, surface temperatures, and rain, whether maps cease to orient us to place, but when best constructed help to describe the changing texture of weather patterns in ways that can help familiarize us not only to weather conditions, but needed responses to climate change.  For  three months after the hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico caused such destruction and panic on the ground, it is striking not only that few funds have arrived to cover costs of rebuilding or insurance claims, but the judgement or understanding of the chances for future flooding have almost left our radar–perhaps pushed rightly aside by the firestorms of northern and southern California, but in ways that troublingly seem to forget to assess or fail to assess the extent of floods and groundwater impermeability  along the Texas and Louisiana coast.  The problems that preparation for future coastal hurricanes off the Gulf of Mexico raise problems of hurricane control and disaster response that seem linked to problems of mapping their arrival–amd framing the response to the increasing rains that are dumped along the entire Gulf Coast.

Indeed, the chromatic foregrounding of place in such rainbow color ramps based on GPS obscure other maps.   Satellite data of rainfall are removed from local conditions, and serve to help erase complex relations between land and water or the experience of flooding on the ground–by suggesting a clear border between land and sea, and indeed mapping the Gulf of Mexico as a surface as if it were unrelated to the increased flooding around Houston, in maps prepared from satellite imagery, despite the uneasy echoes of anthropogenic causes for the arrival of ten hurricanes in ten weeks, in ways that suggest how warming waters contributed to the extreme inundation of the Gulf Coast.  Despite NOAA  predictions of a 45% likelihood of ‘above-normal’ activity for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, with, a 70% likelihood of storms that could transform into hurricanes, the images of inundated lands seem both apocalyptic and carefully removed from the anthropogenic changes either to the ocean or land that intensified their occurrence so dramatically on the ground.

Dartmouth Flood Observatory Flooding Harvey

 Dartmouth Flood Observatory

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Dartmouth Flood Observatory/August 29, 2017

Is it possible to recuperate the loss of individual experience in such data maps, or at least acknowledge their limitations as records of the complexity of a changing climate and the consequences of more frequent storm surges and such inundations of rainfall?  As we seek better to understand the disaster relief efforts through real-time maps of effects of Hurricane Harvey as it moved inland from the Gulf of Mexico, shifting from Category 4 Hurricane from a tropical storm, we tried to grasp levels of rainfall that spun out of 115-mile-an-hour winds across southeastern Texas that damaged crops, flooded fields, ruined houses, and submerged cars, we scan stories in hope of clues to assess our position in relation to increasingly dangerous weather systems whose occurrence they may well forebode.  At a time of increased attention to extreme weather has long developed, the gross negligence of climate change denial is increasingly evident:  it recalls the earlier denial of any relation between hurricanes and climate change, when increased hurricanes were cast as “the cycle of nature,” rather than as consequences whose effects have in fact been broadly intensified by human activity.

Current attempts to map the toll of record-smashing hurricanes focused almost exclusively on point-based data view rainstorms largely as land-based records; even as they intend to monitor the effects of Harvey’s landfall by microwave censors, they risk seeming to isolate real-time rainfall levels from the mechanics warmer air and sea-surface temperatures which result from human-caused global warming, not relating increased storm surges or inundations to achanges in coastal environments or climate change.  To render such changes as natural–or only land-based–is irresponsible in an age of reckless levels of climate denial.  Indeed, faced by the proliferation of data visualizations, part of the journalistic difficulty or quandary is to integrate humanistic or individual perspectives on the arrival of storms, rendered in stark colors in the increasingly curtailed ecosystems of newsrooms which seek simplified visualizations of satellite data on the disaster, which fail to note the human contributions to the travails that are often reserved for photographs, which increasingly afford opportunities of disaster tourism in the news, emphasizing the spectator’s position before disasters, by images that underscore the difficulties in processing or interpreting the proliferation of data from MODIS satellite feeds:  we can show the ability to measure the arrival of torrential rains, but in offering few legends, save the date and scale, but offering few keys o interpret the scale of the disaster.

The looming portent of human-made climate change, however, underlies the poor predictions that NOAA offered of perhaps 2-4 major hurricanes this Spring, and the lack of a new director for NOAA–on which local and state agencies depend to monitor the nations shores and fisheries–suggested the, from June to September, which left states on their own to make decisions and plan for disaster mitigation programs and better flood maps.  (The danger of appointing a newly nominated director, Barry Myers, who is a strong supporter of the privitization of weather maps and an executive at the private Accuweather mapping service, suggests the difficulty of determining the public-private divide in an era of neoliberalism, and a free market of weather maps that were once seen as central to national security and standards of safety.)   There are two hidden scales on which we read these opaque maps of global warming and globalization and local inundation are triply frustrating.   For all the precision and data richness of such point-maps of largely land-based rainfall, local temperature, or flooding, the biases of such instantaneous measurements seem to fit our current governing atmosphere of climate change denial, and dangerous in erasing how such storms are informed by long-term consequences of man-made climate change.  (As the mapping tools of coastal weather seem destined to change, what sort of change in direction for NOAA coastal maps do we want:  the appointment suggests the terrifying possibility of a return to the Bush-era proposal nominee Myers supported that prohibiting the agency from producing any maps already available in the private sector then threatened federal weather lines to go dark–lest they literally compete with ad-supported websites private providers–and shift federal information offline?)

For making moves toward the future readability of weather maps may well be at stake in critically important ways.  The 2005 proposal that Myers backed would have eliminated the National Weather Service, even while exempting those forecasts needed to preserve “life and property,” would in essence have returned the weather services to a pre-internet era, even as the most active hurricane season including a record breaking fifteen hurricanes and twenty-eight storms began in the gulf coast, including the infamous hurricane Katrina.  The proposed bill would have prevented NOAA from posting open data, and not only readily available to researchers and policymakers, in ad-free formats, free of popup screens, but allow them to make their own maps on the fly–ending good practices of posting climate data would work quite dangersously to prevent development of tools of data visualization outside commercial models of rendering storms and hurricanes as if environmentally isolated.

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direct-strikes

A deeper problem of providing such limited weather maps of tropical storms may be the subtexts about the relation of human causes to weather they convey, and the absence of a greater narrative of the transformation of a global ecology or of the ecology of the Gulf Coast.  The curtailed images of “nature” they present by symbolizing rains, winds, floods, or submerged regions in appealing hues as natural–raise questions of the odd simplicity of the absent storylines:  cheery colors erase or bracket complex questions of climate change, the human contribution to extreme weather events, or the human experience of suffering on the ground:  Rita, Cindy, Katrina, Dennis, and Wilma seem not part of the environment, epiphenomenal interlopers moving across a static deep blue sea, in an apparent dumbing down of the mechanics of hurricane or storm formation in a rainbow spectrum removed from a human-made environment.

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Filed under anthropogenic change, climate change, coastlines, ecological disasters, gulf coast

The Terror of Climate Change: Uncorking Bombs of Streaming Snow in the Atlantic

Even in an era when waking up to weather bulletins provide a basic way of orienting oneself to the world, the arrival of the bomb cyclone in the early morning of January 4, 2018, along the east coast of the United States, commanded a certain degree of surprise.  For those without alerts on their devices, the howling winds that streamed through the streets and rose from rivers provided an atmospheric alert of the arrival of streams of arctic air and snows, creating something called “white-outs” in highways along much of the eastern seaboard that paralyzed traffic and reminded us of the delicate balance over much of our infrastructure.

The effects of the arrival of a low pressure system in the western Atlantic created effects that cascaded across the nation, setting temperatures plummeting and winds spewing snowfall as the extratropical cyclone was displaced off New England, and propelling snow over the east coast from what was an offshore weather disturbance.  While the “bomb cyclone” sounded portentous, the actual explosiveness was perhaps not felt at its eye over the Atlantic–

 

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–as the bomb-like burst of pressure scattered snows through howling winds across much of the coast, but rather in the unbalanced distribution of snowfall across the nation that it so quickly created.  The cyclonic winds of the “weather bomb” could not be localized:  their effect was to set off a burst of precipitation, chilled by arctic airs, remindeding us of the delicate relation between land and sea in an era of climate change, when we are apt to feel the effects of colliding air masses across the country, as far as Tennessee or Ohio.

The bomb created a deep oceanic disturbance in the dissonance of sea-surface and air temperatures, and triggered the increasing imbalances of the distribution of snow across the nation, as if inaugurating an era of the increasingly unequal levels of snowfall, as a bomb that seemed to burst over the Atlantic sent snowfall flying across the east coast–

 

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–in ways that led to a deep disparities of snow and ice levels across much of the country, where much of the nation’s western states were surprisingly free of snow, increasingly rare save in several spots.

 

January-18-Snow-Analysis

 

 

 

 

The bomb cyclone spread across a broad surface of the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico, as the areas that stand to be open to gas- and oil-speculation suddenly took a far greater hit than was expected, raising questions of the arrival of extreme weather systems as sea-surface temperatures grew:  the kink in the Gulf Stream created a swirl that sucked in arctic air and spread clouds of snowfall across the eastern seaboard as the seas became incredibly stormy, driven by hurricane winds.  The bomb cyclone wasn’t a major disaster, but seems a wake-up call of the charting of minerals stored in the seabed of offshore areas in the Outer Continental Shelf off the United States–the “federal lands” that the government decided since it administers directly it may as well start to lease.

 

Thursday am bomb.pngPrecipitation Column Rising from Offshore Winds, January 2-4/Ryan Maue

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Filed under energy independence, environmental change, Global Warming, oceans, remotely sensed maps