Healthy Cities are for Walkers; Walkers for Healthy Cities

Mar 9, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Cambridge, MA, in snow. From this photo, I ask: Who ranks? Cars or walkers?

This is a scene in Cambridge, MA, last Friday morning during the nor’easter that passed through late last week. From this photo I ask you: Who ranks in Cambridge, drivers or pedestrians?

In fairness to the hardworking snowplow drivers, municipal employees and property owners – this was in the middle of a storm, we’re all just trying to do the best we can, access for emergency vehicles is essential, and budgets are tight so we can’t do everything.  I understand that and have great respect for our public servants. This isn’t about their job performance.

It’s about our priorities. Who ranks? Cars rank. The sidewalks never get plowed by our elected, tax-supported city government. Clearly it’s not our priority to make it easy to walk. Even though walking is better for our bodies and our planet, and in cities when coupled with public transit it’s the easiest, cheapest, healthiest and overall best way to get around.

Ironically, a few blocks from the scene above, a conference on Public Spaces at the Harvard Graduate School of Design was treating topics such as “Public Space, Democracy and Equality:  For the People, By the People, of the People?”  The attendees were a crowd that understands the importance of public space to public health and the environment – and thriving cities – if there ever was one.  However, emerging on the snowy sidewalk a group of them, lamenting the snow and stepping in ankle-deep slush, scoffed at the idea that the city might actually clear the sidewalks of snow so that people can walk on this vital public space.

Which goes to show how deeply engrained our cars-over-walkers priority scheme really is.

This will change. The world is urbanizing. Young people in the US are buying cars at a much lower rate than their parents’ generation, and many are not even getting drivers’ licenses. They are much more willing to use public transit, and share a car if/when they need one. They walk. And they will replace us, as a matter of mathematical inevitability.

So our priorities have to change. And the sooner the better – because we cannot afford to keep driving everywhere, and maintaining (let alone expanding) a transportation system that prioritizes cars.

This is not a purist view. Cars are a good and necessary thing. We all use them at times, and will continue to need to, so we’re not about to get rid of them altogether. Our collective fleet needs to go electric, in a big way, for similar reasons.  And that’s going to happen too – but that’s another subject.

This is about our priorities. Decreased use of cars in urban areas (large, medium and small), and increased use of walking, biking and transit, is both good for us and the way of the future in any event.

The sooner we align our public spending with that set of priorities the healthier, wealthier and wiser we will be.

 

Winterless Wonderland: Help Protect New England’s Winters

Jan 17, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Caption: CLF President John Kassel, Bear, and his brother Peter Kassel, on a New Years hike up Vermont’s Camel’s Hump. (Bear is the one in the middle.) Note the extremely thin snow cover – unusual for the Green Mountains at that time of year.

 

In the mid-1990’s a Vermont ski area executive told me this joke.

“How do you make a small fortune in the ski industry in New England?” he asked.

“Start with a large one.”

He was talking about the challenges he faced then, which seemed normal at the time:  limited water for snowmaking, labor shortages, skyrocketing costs of doing business, aging baby boomer population, and inconsistent (though generally reliable) snowfall. The snow sports industry now faces a much more fundamental challenge: a shrinking winter.

But for a recent cold snap, a light dusting on MLK day, and a destructive storm in October, our winter here in New England has been largely without snow. The temperature has been high – in many instances, far higher than normal.

Consider recent temperature trends as reported by @JustinNOAA – the Twitter feed by NOAA’s Communications Director. On Friday, December 9th, he Tweeted: “NOAA: 971 hi-temp records broken (744) or tied (227) so far this January.” The day before broke “336 hi-temp records in 21 states.”

Rising temperatures are a death knell for falling snow. On the final day of 2011, only 22% of the lower 48 had snow. Today, New England remains largely untouched by snow. A glance at NOAA’s snow depth map shows most of New England with 4 or less inches of snow. This was true of my New Year’s hike with my brother and his dog up Camel’s Hump. As the background of the photo shows, there was little snow across the surrounding Green Mountains.

With so little snow, New England is suffering. While ski mountains have been making snow (and areas like Sugarloaf and Stowe are reporting recent snow fall), other outdoor recreationists are suffering. Some seasons haven’t even started yet, weeks if not months into their normal season.

Snowmobilers, for instance, are facing one hell of a tough time. With so little snow in most of New England, they’ve been prevented from riding over familiar terrain. Ice fishermen, too, are facing lakes and ponds that, by this time of year are usually covered in a thick layer of ice by mid December. Today, many that are usually frozen by now remain open bodies of water.

The effects of this extends beyond our enjoyment to our economy. According to a story on NPR, reported by Maine Public Broadcasting, the unseasonably warm winter has meant millions of dollars in lost revenue for sporting good stores, lodging, and recreation. One store in the story has reported a decline in sales by around 50%.

Competitive cross-country and downhill skiers suffered, too. They’ve have had their race schedule reshuffled due to rain last week. According to the US Ski Team development coach Bryan Fish, quoted in the Boston Globe, “We’ve had the same challenges on the World Cup. It is always a challenge in a sport that relies on the climate.”

That is precisely the problem. People are drawn to New England to live, work and play for its climate: its warm summers, stunning falls and picture perfect winter landscapes, suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities. Walk down the halls of our states offices and you’ll see signs of that passion right here at home: people wearing ski vests, pictures of people snow shoeing, cabins nestled into densely fallen snow. If our climate changes – which the IPCC and others have repeatedly demonstrated it will – then New England will be a very different region than the one we all have come to know and to love.

That’s why I ask you to help us protect our New England winters. Help us protect the places where we enjoy ourselves.

To do just that, I suggest a few things:

1)      Help us transition away from inefficient, 20th century energy to clean energy of the 21st century. As a recent EPA report showed, power plants account for 72% of greenhouse gases – by far the largest contributor to global warming in the U.S. Here at CLF, we’re pushing for a coal free New England by 2020.

2)      Also according to the EPA, transportation accounts for the second largest portion of greenhouse gasses. Ride your bike, walk, or take public transportation to work, to do your errands or your other daily tasks. It makes a big difference.

3)      Support both national and regional or local environmental organizations. As I wrote in a NY Times letter to the editor recently, local environmental organizations “have known for years what the nationals are only now realizing: we’ve got to engage people closer to where they live.” Support local, effective environmental organizations who are creating lasting solutions in your area.

4)      Make yourself heard; write letters to your Senators, Congressmen and Representatives. Ask tough questions, and don’t settle for easy answers.

5)      And be sure to get outside. Plant a garden, even if it’s a small one in a city. Go for a hike, or for a bike ride. And take a friend or family member. Remind yourself and others why we need to protect our environment.

By doing all of these simple but important things, you can help us keep winter, winter.

Freezing weather and chilly commuters highlight need for MBTA investments

Jan 27, 2011 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

MBTA General Manager Richard Davey likes to say “We’re only as good as our last rush hour,’’ and by that standard the T is not doing very well right now. The long delays throughout system on a recent frigid day have enraged commuters and discouraged new riders from getting onboard, as Boston Globe reporter Eric Moskowitz wrote in an article published in yesterday’s paper.

The T, to its credit, did not pretend it was surprised it gets cold in Boston in January. When it discusses the T’s “aging fleet” the Globe hints at the real reason for these delays:  a long list of necessary repairs to its system that the T estimates will cost at least $2.7 billion to address.  Despite the ingenuity of MBTA’s employees to keep the system running, the only way we can ensure that the T runs smoothly in the future is to raise sufficient revenue to pay for much delayed improvements.  While few in government right now want to talk about raising revenue, investment in public transportation infrastructure, not just for the MBTA, but throughout the state, is critical for encouraging economic development, slashing the greenhouse gas pollution changing our climate, improving air quality, and providing affordable and efficient transportation for everyone.

More (Or Less) Road Salt

Jan 25, 2011 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

Less than a week after I posted my blog post about the environmental and health problems associated with road salt, the Boston Globe published an article about de-icing alternatives some Massachusetts communities are turning to. Boston has received almost 50 inches of snow this winter compared to a total of 17 inches on average around this time. We can only assume that it means we’re using record amounts of salt to combat all this snow. While it is difficult to say if the increased snowfall we’re seeing is directly related to climate change, increased temperatures tend to increase evaporation thus resulting in increased precipitation.  (In the Northeast, there has been a 5 to 10% increase in annual average precipitation since 1900.) More generally speaking, scientists are increasingly concerned about the link between global warming and anomalous winter weather (such as the bizarre snowstorms seen recently in the South). As such, it is encouraging to hear that towns are looking to more environmentally friendly alternatives to deal with our new weather conditions as the planet continues to warm.

Besides rock salt (sodium chloride), calcium chloride and magnesium chloride can be used in colder temperatures but unfortunately, they are significantly more expensive than the traditional rock salt. Instead a growing number of Massachusetts communities are returning to an age-old solution: brine. The mixture is a combination of rock salt and water. Applying brine before snow falls and ice forms on the roadway (known as “anti-icing”) can prevent snow and ice from sticking to roads. Unlike plain old rock salt, this stuff doesn’t bounce or get blown off the roads like we’ve all seen. As such it dramatically reduces the amount of salt used and the time it takes to remove snow and ice from the roads in turn saving towns money. A study done in Oregon and Washington state showed that anti-icing can decrease costs by more than 50% compared to conventional de-icing. And it reduces the amount of salt that gets into our drinking water and the negative impacts on the environment.

This yet again reinforces the idea that solutions that are good for the environment are often also good for people and the economy.

Hold The Salt- On The Road, That Is!

Jan 12, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

salt-truck.jpg

It’s difficult to imagine a day like today in Boston without the aid of salt to make our roads safe to use. For those of us in the snowier parts of the country, road salt is a necessary and accepted part of our winter. It’s cheap, effective and it allows commuters, motorists and emergency vehicles to safely reach their destinations in harsh conditions. According to the Salt Institute, Americans used 22 million tons of road salt in 2008. In a different study by the National Research Council, Massachusetts tops the list of of states with the highest road salt-use at, 19.94 tons per lane-mile each year, surpassing even New York, with 16.6 tons per lane-mile. Under MassDOT salt policy, salt or sodium chloride is applied at 240 pounds per lane-mile. In other words, trucks in Massachusetts are dumping more than a ton of salt every 10 lane-miles in a single application! Salt does not evaporate or otherwise get removed, so one has to ask: what is the fate of all this salt that is dumped on our roads?

Unfortunately, most of it is washed off of roadways by rain runoff and snow melt and enters our rivers and streams or percolates through the soil into our drinking water supplies. That’s the situation that Cambridge, MA has been combating for years. This densely-populated city gets its water from two reservoirs, both located next to Route 128, making it particularly susceptible to salt contamination. Another town suffering from the same issue is Boxford, MA. The town launched a suit against the state highway department, MassHighway, to close its salt storage shed, contending that it was responsible for contaminating at least 30 local wells. Aside from the ecological damage of excess salt, there are also health and financial burdens associated with high salt levels in public and private water supplies. High salt levels can result in skin and eye irritation and pose a danger for individuals with sodium-restricted diets, according to the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission.

MassHighway is already under court order to manage stormwater runoff after CLF’s successful suit in 2008. Hopefully this effort will divert some of the salt from our waters and, in turn, lead to better health for both the environment and the MA residents who live in it.

Global Warming and Blizzards

Feb 10, 2010 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Our friend Mike Tidwell, the Executive Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (and definitive climate policy blogger Joe Romm) directs attention to the thoughts of Jeff Masters, head meteorologist at Weather Underground on how the current spate of East Coast blizzards is the kind of phenomena that climate science tells us to expect as the globe warms:

A major new winter storm is headed east over the U.S. today, and threatens to dump a foot or more of snow on Philadelphia, New York City, and surrounding regions Tuesday and Wednesday. Philadelphia is still digging out from its second top-ten snowstorm of recorded history to hit the city this winter, and the streets are going to begin looking like canyons if this week’s snowstorm adds a significant amount of snow to the incredible 28.5″ that fell during “Snowmageddon” last Friday and Saturday. Philadelphia has had two snowstorms exceeding 23″ this winter. According to the National Climatic Data Center [9], the return period for a 22+ inch snow storm is once every 100 years-and we’ve had two 100-year snow storms in Philadelphia this winter. It is true that if the winter pattern of jet stream location, sea surface temperatures, etc, are suitable for a 100-year storm to form, that will increase the chances for a second such storm to occur that same year, and thus the odds have having two 100-year storms the same year are not 1 in 10,000. Still, the two huge snowstorms this winter in the Mid-Atlantic are definitely a very rare event one should see only once every few hundred years, and is something that has not occurred since modern records began in 1870. The situation is similar for Baltimore and Washington D.C. According to the National Climatic Data Center [10], the expected return period in the Washington D.C./Baltimore region for snowstorms with more than 16 inches of snow is about once every 25 years. This one-two punch of two major Nor’easters in one winter with 16+ inches of snow is unprecedented in the historical record for the region, which goes back to the late 1800s.

Heavy snow events–a contradiction to global warming theory?
Global warming skeptics regularly have a field day whenever a record snow storm pounds the U.S., claiming that such events are inconsistent with a globe that is warming. If the globe is warming, there should, on average, be fewer days when it snows, and thus fewer snow storms. However, it is possible that if climate change is simultaneously causing an increase in ratio of snowstorms with very heavy snow to storms with ordinary amounts of snow, we could actually see an increase in very heavy snowstorms in some portions of the world. There is evidence that this is happening for winter storms in the Northeast U.S.–the mighty Nor’easters like the “Snowmageddon” storm of February 5-6 and “Snowpocalypse” of December 19, 2009. Let’s take a look at the evidence. There are two requirements for a record snow storm:

1) A near-record amount of moisture in the air (or a very slow moving storm).
2) Temperatures cold enough for snow.

It’s not hard at all to get temperatures cold enough for snow in a world experiencing global warming. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the globe warmed 0.74°C (1.3°F) over the past 100 years. There will still be colder than average winters in a world that is experiencing warming, with plenty of opportunities for snow. The more difficult ingredient for producing a record snowstorm is the requirement of near-record levels of moisture. Global warming theory predicts that global precipitation will increase, and that heavy precipitation events–the ones most likely to cause flash flooding–will also increase. This occurs because as the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, water vapor in the global atmosphere has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, and 4% since 1970. This extra moisture in the air will tend to produce heavier snowstorms, assuming it is cold enough to snow. Groisman et al. (2004) found a 14% increase in heavy (top 5%) and 20% increase in very heavy (top 1%) precipitation events in the U.S. over the past 100 years, though mainly in spring and summer. However, the authors did find a significant increase in winter heavy precipitation events have occurred in the Northeast U.S. This was echoed by Changnon et al. (2006), who found, “The temporal distribution of snowstorms exhibited wide fluctuations during 1901-2000, with downward 100-yr trends in the lower Midwest, South, and West Coast. Upward trends occurred in the upper Midwest, East, and Northeast, and the national trend for 1901-2000 was upward, corresponding to trends in strong cyclonic activity.”

The strongest cold-season storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent for the U.S.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) began as a presidential initiative in 1989 and was mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-606), which called for “a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” This program has put out some excellent peer-reviewed science on climate change that, in my view, is as authoritative as the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. In 2009, the USGCRP put out its excellent U.S. Climate Impacts Report, summarizing the observed and forecast impacts of climate change on the U.S. The report’s main conclusion about cold season storms was “ Cold-season storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent”.

The report’s more detailed analysis: “Large-scale storm systems are the dominant weather phenomenon during the cold season in the United States. Although the analysis of these storms is complicated by a relatively short length of most observational records and by the highly variable nature of strong storms, some clear patterns have emerged (Kunkel et al., 2008).

Storm tracks have shifted northward over the last 50 years as evidenced by a decrease in the frequency of storms in mid-latitude areas of the Northern Hemisphere, while high-latitude activity has increased. There is also evidence of an increase in the intensity of storms in both the mid- and high-latitude areas of the Northern Hemisphere, with greater confidence in the increases occurring in high latitudes (Kunkel et al., 2008). The northward shift is projected to continue, and strong cold season storms are likely to become stronger and more frequent, with greater wind speeds and more extreme wave heights”. The study also noted that we should expect an increase in lake-effect snowstorms over the next few decades. Lake-effect snow is produced by the strong flow of cold air across large areas of relatively warmer ice-free water. The report says, “As the climate has warmed, ice coverage on the Great Lakes has fallen. The maximum seasonal coverage of Great Lakes ice decreased at a rate of 8.4 percent per decade from 1973 through 2008, amounting to a roughly 30 percent decrease in ice coverage. This has created conditions conducive to greater evaporation of moisture and thus heavier snowstorms. Among recent extreme lake-effect snow events was a February 2007 10-day storm total of over 10 feet of snow in western New York state. Climate models suggest that lake-effect snowfalls are likely to increase over the next few decades. In the longer term, lake-effect snows are likely to decrease as temperatures continue to rise, with the precipitation then falling as rain”.

Commentary
Of course, both climate change contrarians and climate change scientists agree that no single weather event can be blamed on climate change. However, one can “load the dice” in favor of events that used to be rare–or unheard of–if the climate is changing to a new state. It is quite possible that the dice have been loaded in favor of more intense Nor’easters for the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, thanks to the higher levels of moisture present in the air due to warmer global temperatures. It’s worth mentioning that heavy snow storms should be getting increasingly rare for the extreme southern portion of the U.S. in coming decades. There’s almost always high amounts of moisture available for a potential heavy snow in the South–just not enough cold air. With freezing temperatures expected to decrease and the jet stream and associated storm track expected to move northward, the extreme southern portion of the U.S. should see a reduction in both heavy and ordinary snow storms in the coming decades.