REVERSE-ENGINEERING THE ENVIRONMENT: URBAN FLOOD PLAINS

I grew up in a coastal area, which used to be prone to flooding until robust sea defences were built in the 70s and 80s.  My parents had many stories of homes being evacuated and the army being brought in to place sandbags, and so I grew up considering flooding to be a risk only from the sea.

But of course, it’s not that simple.  Humans have changed their environment in a number of ways for short-term gains, with long-term consequences.  Many cities were built on the banks of rivers, for military and trading purposes.  At the time, no-one would have considered how these cities would have grown and developed several hundred years into the future.  The building materials available back then, and the density of development, did not cause issues with drainage. While sophisticated irrigation systems can be dated back to the ancient Egyptians, human manipulation of watercourses was only recognised as problematic in the last century.

The industrial revolution brought with it expansion of urban areas, and engineering of the natural environment, in the form of canals and railway embankments.  Watercourses were altered to provide drainage ditches, forge canal routes, and to culvert rivers and streams in built-up areas.  The Victorians also created an extensive and robust sewer network, to serve the sanitary needs of large numbers of people in a small space.  Flood plains were drained for farmland, and streams, ditches, and rivers were dredged to ensure the swift transportation of water from the fields to the estuaries.

Things are going pretty well up until this point.  Britain is a superpower, and has invested wisely and intensively in its infrastructure.  The transport and water networks are more than adequate to serve the needs of 19th Century Britain, and are the envy of the world.

But some time between then and now, things have changed.  It could have been around the time of Ian Nairn’s OUTRAGE, with the ever-creeping sprawl into Subtopia, when our love for concrete surpassed our respect for nature.  Let’s not be wishy-washy tree-huggers about it; we can do whatever we like to circumvent Nature, but when we’re not quite smart or diligent enough to do it properly, Nature defeats us with a vengeance.  The climate, land, seas, rivers and skies have no emotion or compassion.  When the rain comes down, we get wet.  And there is nothing we can do to stop it.  Which is pertinent nowadays because there is mounting evidence that the recent extreme weather in the UK, and other parts of Europe, is part of a trend driven by anthropogenic climate change.  See?  Mess with Nature, it messes with you.

Manchester is a great example of this.  We even got our own Facebook campaign during the last flood, which seems a bit OTT, but it’s nice that they thought of us.  My road has been flooded three times in the last year.  I live in the city centre.  While no (human) lives have been lost so far, the scale of damage and inconvenience caused is astonishing.  It’s incredible to see a month’s worth of rain fall out of the sky in the space of ten minutes, but it’s even more incredible to see roads become rivers, and buildings that we considered city-proof be ankle deep in flood water.  And I do feel for the numerous businesses that have cellars.  That is one clean-up job I would not want to be around for.

Manchester is an average city, and you’d think a relatively uneventful one.  But we’re realising that floods like these are not just possible, but likely.  And the areas closest to watercourses are where most of the development is.  The Mark Addy was a marvellous riverside pub on the banks of the Irwell (Mark Addy was a local resident who saved many people from drowning in the Irwell), but in the second-to-last flood, it was damaged so badly by rising water, that the business cannot afford the repairs.  Residents living along the banks of the rivers and canals have been evacuated from their homes in some cases, and The Lowry Centre (which has bizarrely been renamed as some nondescript corporate throwaway) had the river lapping at its doors.  Manchester was not built for this, but ironically, it actually was.

I don’t think there is the political will to do anything about it.  Construction on flood plains will still get approved, and people will still choose to buy homes in totally inappropriate locations.  Decentralisation of the economy could go some way towards reducing the risks cities face (I’m looking at you, London), but this is a process that takes time, something that we do not have the luxury of.  We can now see the effects of climate change happening right now, in our lifetime.  It’s no longer a problem that we can put off until tomorrow, but we will.  As often seems the case in the UK, Something Will Be Done once services are stretched well beyond breaking point, and something catastrophic has happened.  There will be much surprise in parliament and in the media, as no-one will have expected this thing that scientists had told them, repeatedly, over the last 30 years, would happen.

I had an interesting chat with my dad about flooding and land management (I grew up in a farming community), and his views on how to solve flooding are similar to those of others in rural, UKIP-loving little Britain.  When he worked on farms, the marshes were drained to make way for pasture, and ditches and streams were regularly dredged to keep the water flowing away from the reclaimed land.  My dad is a huge fan of dredging, and doesn’t understand why some of the fields are left to flood, when we could be driving a whacking great ditch through there to sort it out.  Well, this approach works for those living upstream.  But drain the flood plains and deepen the rivers, and you turn a trickle into a torrent.  When that torrent reaches the concrete jungle just before the coast, the city can’t cope.  Rivers in pipes, collapsed and blocked drains, very little bare earth – the water has nowhere to go.

My dad isn’t a full-blown climate change denier, but he seems unconvinced of the seriousness of the situation.  This annoys me no end, because not only does he pooh-pooh my area of work and study, but he buys into two ideas that contribute to me getting wet feet!  Not cool, dad, not cool.

I made a video of the second flood (below).  I’m a bit apprehensive about how my amateur commentary will be received, but YouTube stars don’t all go into it prepared, right?  I was probably more embarrassed wandering around talking to myself and videoing puddles, TBH.

IF GLOBAL WARMING IS REAL, WHY DOES IT SOMETIMES GET A BIT CHILLY?

(Subtitle: And Why Can’t Young People Just Pull Their Pants Up?)

Huh, today I had a conversation that reminds me:

1. why it’s sometimes necessary to step outside of one’s echo chamber

2. some people need to step outside of their echo chambers

In this day and age, it’s accepted by most people that climate change is happening. It’s not a matter of opinion, and I find it bizarre that we even need to have this discussion. The evidence and models all support the theory, and 97% of all climate scientists concur on this.

Unfortunately I considered climate change denial to be the preserve of Daily Mail readers and Tea Party members, but apparently this is not always true. I spoke with someone who, after telling me that the measurements don’t support the science (they do), and that the models are wrong (up to this point, they’re not), that the scientists don’t really know what they’re talking about and are full of doubt (no).

And how do we know this?  Well, sometimes it gets a bit cold.  The mere existence of winter debunks global warming for this person.  We even had snow four years ago.  Clearly trends mean nothing, because we once had an icicle.

Another gem: they read an article in which the temperature on the day the Titanic sank (14th April 1912) was recorded as being the same as some other day at some point since then, somewhere else in the world.  Conclusive proof of zero warming, then.

I found this hard to counter, not because I don’t know the facts (I do), but because this was a socially awkward situation.  The people I was with were of a generation that expects “young” people (the under-50s) to defer to them simply by virtue of them having existed for longer (yay, other generations have prejudices too!), and if I had “caused a fuss” it would not have worked in my favour.

And if I had said something, would I really have got anywhere?  Might I just have reinforced their ideas, and alienated myself so that they don’t listen to anything at all I have to say?

Even worse, the scene was set by the same group having earlier made derogatory comments about some twenty-somethings queueing for a show.  Apparently the interests of the young aren’t worthwhile or relevant, even when we don’t know what those interests are.  Also, they dress a bit funny and they are therefore threatening.  Young people that look like… me.  I’m not even sure if they noticed I was in the room.  Or listened to a word I said.  And maybe that’s the problem.  I’m different, so they pay less attention.  People do tend to pay attention to people who are more like them, and those who deny climate science have a vested interest in doing so – profit, fear of change, or feeling alienated by a scary concept.

[ASIDE: A big part of why this annoyed me was the respect factor.  Not only is it really ignorant to deny facts or views from someone solely because they come from a different group to you, but it’s also a bit crap to hear people basically rubbish my field of expertise, something that has been studied in depth for years by far more people than just me.  So yeah, it was a bit rude, and a part of this did feel like a personal attack.  But their arguments were without any basis, which makes it doubly annoying.  I knew I was right but everyone else decreed that their version of ‘correct’ was more palatable.]

CLIMATE CHANGE & POPULATION GROWTH

I receive updates from ASHRAE regularly, and I noticed a link to an interesting article in the New York Times – Reducing Carbon by Curbing Population. The article rightly points out that much of the conversation on Climate Change is linked to reducing emissions, but we don’t look past this to consider some of the reasons behind the emissions rates. It’s interesting that the article states that only half of the increase in food consumption is due to population growth, but the other half is related to improved diet and higher incomes. So lifestyle choices are another factor in this complicated scenario.

The article goes on to say that if the world’s population grew at a slower rate than that predicted, we could reduce carbon emissions by a substantial amount (of course, this seems to assume that we all continue to live our lives and consume resources at the same rate as today).

It’s certainly true that in the West we don’t concentrate on population growth as seriously as other social problems.  In 2006, Tony Blair stated that the UK has no policy on population.

But at what cost do we control population size?  The article mentions past population control measures that many see as inhumane, such as China’s one-child policy, and forced sterilisations in India. There are better means of achieving a stable population, such as providing improved healthcare and education, but as a nation becomes more developed, it generally consumes more resources through industrialisation and consumerism.

So how do we balance the two?  And how do we balance the myriad issues that all interconnect to form the problem of anthropogenic climate change, and all the other damage to the environment that humans are responsible for?  Maybe it’s not as simple as just turning the heating down one degree.

Click here for the original article.

I’m also hoping to attend the ASHRAE Winter Conference this year, and I’ll be blogging about my time there.  Click here for information on the programme.