Year 3, Month 8, Day 7: You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

Two separate stories in the New York Times make for an exceptionally frightening synergy. Read ’em and weep:

Weather Extremes Leave Parts of U.S. Grid Buckling:

WASHINGTON — From highways in Texas to nuclear power plants in Illinois, the concrete, steel and sophisticated engineering that undergird the nation’s infrastructure are being taxed to worrisome degrees by heat, drought and vicious storms.

On a single day this month here, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in asphalt that had softened in 100-degree temperatures, and a subway train derailed after the heat stretched the track so far that it kinked — inserting a sharp angle into a stretch that was supposed to be straight. In East Texas, heat and drought have had a startling effect on the clay-rich soils under highways, which “just shrink like crazy,” leading to “horrendous cracking,” said Tom Scullion, senior research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, he said, unusually high heat is causing highway sections to expand beyond their design limits, press against each other and “pop up,” creating jarring and even hazardous speed bumps.

Excessive warmth and dryness are threatening other parts of the grid as well. In the Chicago area, a twin-unit nuclear plant had to get special permission to keep operating this month because the pond it uses for cooling water rose to 102 degrees; its license to operate allows it to go only to 100. According to the Midwest Independent System Operator, the grid operator for the region, a different power plant had had to shut because the body of water from which it draws its cooling water had dropped so low that the intake pipe became high and dry; another had to cut back generation because cooling water was too warm.

Strong Storms Threaten Ozone Layer Over U.S.:

Strong summer thunderstorms that pump water high into the upper atmosphere pose a threat to the protective ozone layer over the United States, researchers said on Thursday, drawing one of the first links between climate change and ozone loss over populated areas.

In a study published online by the journal Science, Harvard University scientists reported that some storms send water vapor miles into the stratosphere — which is normally drier than a desert — and showed how such events could rapidly set off ozone-destroying reactions with chemicals that remain in the atmosphere from CFCs, refrigerant gases that are now banned.

The risk of ozone damage, scientists said, could increase if global warming leads to more such storms.

I tried to get some Joni Mitchell quotes into the letter itself, but couldn’t make it work. Sent July 27:

Whether it’s a power blackout, a buckled roadbed, a broken water main or a breached levee, infrastructure’s only noticeable at the failure point. As climate change gets faster and more severe, we’re going to discover just how much we’ve taken for granted over the past hundred years of civilizational growth. If America is to prosper in the centuries to come, we’ll need to retool and rebuild for far more stressful conditions.

But there’s another, grander infrastructure that cannot be addressed with a public works bill. The newly established connection between climate change and ozone loss is vivid evidence that many of the environmental mechanisms which have made our species’ efflorescence possible are endangered by the greenhouse effect and its epiphenomena. Genuine sustainability must recognize that such natural systems — oxygen-producing phytoplankton, the processes of photosynthesis, or upper-atmosphere protection against UV rays — are even more essential than sewers and roadways.

Warren Senders

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