Boing Boing 

Why do trees fall over in a storm?

The more accurate version of this question would really be something like, "Why do some trees fall over in a storm while others stay standing?" The answer is more complex than a simple distinction between old, rotted, and weak vs. young, healthy, and strong. Instead, writes Mary Knudson at Scientific American blogs, trees fall because of their size, their species, and even the history of the human communities around them.

“Trees most at risk are those whose environment has recently changed (say in the last 5 – 10 years),” Smith says. When trees that were living in the midst of a forest lose the protection of a rim of trees and become stand-alones in new housing lots or become the edge trees of the forest, they are made more vulnerable to strong weather elements such as wind.

They also lose the physical protection of surrounding trees that had kept them from bending very far and breaking. Land clearing may wound a tree’s trunk or roots, “providing an opportunity for infection by wood decay fungi. Decay usually proceeds slowly, but can be significant 5-10 years after basal or root injury.” What humans do to the ground around trees — compacting soil, changing gradation and drainage “can kill roots and increase infection,” Smith warns.

Read the full piece at Scientific American Blogs

Image: West Philly Storm - Trees Down, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from kwbridge's photostream

Can Sandy victims sue power companies for extended outages?

Short version: yes, but it's not easy. "To win, New York ratepayers have to show that their power company was not just slow or inefficient. Instead, Kreppein said, under a 1985 New York Court of Appeals ruling called Strauss v. Belle Realty, electric company customers must establish that the utility was grossly negligent — that its conduct was way outside the bounds of reasonableness." Alison Frankel at Reuters.

New York considering taking cues from The Walking Dead, may open up prison to displaced Staten Islanders

As you can imagine, the situation here in New York is dire, what with the still-large amount of people who have yet to even get their power back. But Staten Island (and the Rockaways, and Long Beach, most of the south shore, not to mention Red Hook, parts of New Jersey... you get the idea) was hit particularly hard, with entire houses being destroyed. According to Gothamist, 5,200 residents of the borough have filed for FEMA housing, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering one location specifically designed to provide a large amount of people (about 900) heat, food, and temporary shelter: Arthur Kill Correctional Facility. Yup. A prison. That's been shut down for about a year. Sound familiar? Like the plot of the third season of The Walking Dead? Living in an abandoned prison makes sense, of course -- for all the same reasons it made sense as an option during a fictional zombie apocalypse. Wow, things are that bad? Some of those thousands of displaced residents might say it is. But it's just an idea at the moment. (via Gothamist)

Fossil hunting on Rockaway Beach

The ocean has not always met the land at the same place it does today. In fact, during Ice Ages, when more of Earth's water was trapped in glaciers, large swaths of what is now the Atlantic Ocean were dry ground. Things died there. In some cases, they fossilized. And when a big storm like Sandy hits, those bits of fossils can get broken out of the stones they're embedded in and washed up on our modern shores.

In this video, paleontologist Carl Mehling wanders Long Island's Rockaway Beach looking for fossils unearthed by Superstorm Sandy. It's a great video — and a handy "how to" as Mehling explains the basics of beach-based fossil hunting and how to tell the really old dead things from the simply dead things.

Via Mindy Weisberger

Louis C.K. and Jerry Seinfeld to hold events benefiting Sandy victims

Everyone, just shut up and give them all your money: Louis C.K., who hosted Saturday Night Live in New York City in the midst of Sandy's chaos, and Long Island native Jerry Seinfeld are both planning separate comedy shows to benefit storm victims. Louis C.K.'s two shows will take place on Staten Island, one of the hardest hit areas of New York, on November 17 at St. George Theatre. Tickets are currently being sold through his site, and he urges everyone to ignore any possible scalpers.

Seinfeld, who was served lunch by my very own grandmother when he attended Massapequa High School, will be adding an additional Long Island show for December 19 at the NYCB Theatre in Westbury as part of his December tour. All proceeds will benefit Sandy victims, as well as the earnings from last night's show at Brooklyn College and the newly-scheduled December 6 show at St. George Theatre.

While it's not exactly a surprise that two comedians with incredibly strong ties to New York would want to do something to give back, it's still always nice to report that celebrities have hearts. In case you needed a reminder.

Photo credit: St. George Theatre

(via Gothamist, CBS New York)

After Sandy, on election day: photographs by Kate Black

Belle Harbor, Rockaway, November 6th, 2012. Kate Black.

Kate Black has been volunteering in post-Sandy recovery efforts in the Rockaways and other areas surrounding NYC where people lost power, homes, and belongings in the storm. She has also been photographing the people and places she encounters. Above, one of many images captured on Election Day.

NOAA to American public: No, we are not going to just nuke the storms

A Q&A piece on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration begins with this incredibly disconcerting sentence: "During each hurricane season, there always appear suggestions that one should simply use nuclear weapons to try and destroy the storms."

Really? Seriously, America?

Anyway, the entire piece ends up being pretty fascinating, as research meteorologist Chris Landsea explains why nuking a hurricane would be a bad idea ... besides, you know, the obvious reasons.

... an explosive, even a nuclear explosive, produces a shock wave, or pulse of high pressure, that propagates away from the site of the explosion somewhat faster than the speed of sound. Such an event doesn't raise the barometric pressure after the shock has passed because barometric pressure in the atmosphere reflects the weight of the air above the ground. For normal atmospheric pressure, there are about ten metric tons (1000 kilograms per ton) of air bearing down on each square meter of surface. In the strongest hurricanes there are nine. To change a Category 5 hurricane into a Category 2 hurricane you would have to add about a half ton of air for each square meter inside the eye, or a total of a bit more than half a billion (500,000,000) tons for a 20 km radius eye. It's difficult to envision a practical way of moving that much air around.

Attacking weak tropical waves or depressions before they have a chance to grow into hurricanes isn't promising either. About 80 of these disturbances form every year in the Atlantic basin, but only about 5 become hurricanes in a typical year. There is no way to tell in advance which ones will develop. If the energy released in a tropical disturbance were only 10% of that released in a hurricane, it's still a lot of power, so that the hurricane police would need to dim the whole world's lights many times a year.

Read the rest of the piece at the NOAA website

Via Mark Strauss

Image: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

Engineers warned of storm surge threat to NYC in 2009

“Scientists and engineers were saying years before Katrina happened, ‘Hey, it’s going to happen, folks. Stop putting your head in the sand.” —Malcolm Bowman, professor of oceanography at the State University at Stony Brook. In 2009, he and other experts convened at a meeting in NYC of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and issued warnings that surge barriers or tide gates would help protect. Read more in James Glanz and Mireya Navarro's NYT report.

In post-Sandy "dewatering" mission, Army engineers drain one Olympic-sized pool's worth of water per minute

In an Army Corps of Engineers press release, details on the astounding rate at which workers are draining water from New York's subway and transit tunnels: "To date, the USACE has used about 50 pumps of various sizes to remove 64 million gallons of water from the New York City mass transit system. Operations are ongoing at six sites, with pumps removing about 116,000 gallons per minute. The 696,000 gallons the pumps are draining each minute exceeds the amount of water in one Olympic-size swimming pool (660,000 gallons). There were roughly 600 million gallons in the tunnels when pumping operations began on Thursday, Nov. 1." (via Noah Shachtman).

Deconstructing Sandy

Yesterday, I got to have a great conversation on Minnesota Public Radio's The Daily Circuit. Host Tom Webber and I spent a good 45 minutes talking about Hurricane Sandy, climate change, and why it's so hard to talk about the connections between the two in an easily digestible, sound-bite format. In the meantime, he might have gotten some good sound bites out of me.

NOLA to New York

Andy Kopsa created the "Nola to New York" tumblr during Hurricane Sandy. The idea: Katrina survivors talk to New Yorkers suffering after the storm.

Read the rest

Energy emergency: Sandy profiteers sell gas, generators at predatory prices on post-apocalypse Craigslist

Gas supplies remain extremely limited in New York and New Jersey, nearly a week after hurricane Sandy, and the power's still out for many in those states and others, such as nearby Connecticut.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie signed an executive order announcing a state of energy emergency and instituting gas rationing for the purchase of fuel by motorists in 12 counties, starting today at noon.

Make way for price-gouging entrepreneurs!

Try this, to get a taste of how bad it is: search for "gasoline," "gas," or "generator" on NY Craigslist right now. Gas sales I've found on Craigslist range from $5 to $20 a gallon, but there are probably ads at higher prices. My favorite was the 55-gallon drum of gas for a thousand bucks. Unleaded! Cash only, folks.

Not only is this exploitative, it's explosive. A black market of gasoline reselling, without appropriate safety measures, seems to me like a recipe for tragedy.

Read the rest

In backup generators we trust?

It's normal for backup generators to fail. If we want a more reliable system, we'll have to change the way the grid works.Read the rest

Hurricane Sandy: aftermath photos reveal extent of devastation

Burnt houses next to others that survived in Breezy Point, Queens, after Hurricane Sandy, on October 31. (Reuters/Adrees Latif)

At The Atlantic, a big-picture gallery of photos from AP and Reuters photogs and others, documenting the scope of damage in NYC, NJ, and other areas hard-hit by the recent "Superstorm" Sandy. This is way bigger than "some lights are out," folks.

BB Archives: Hurricane Sandy posts.

Time-lapse video of Hurricane Sandy hitting NYC: 2 days into 2 minutes

Two days of extreme Sandy weather condensed into two minutes. Created by SMvideoChan, who told Yahoo News it was shot at Northside Piers Towers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The bridge you see is the Williamsburg Bridge. The time-lapse covers two days of the hurricane's assault on New York, from the early morning of October 29 through Oct. 30. [ Video Link]

TWC setting up mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and recharging stations in lower Manhattan

Jeff Simmermon at Time Warner Cable's HQ in NYC writes: "To help New Yorkers in hard-hit areas like Lower Manhattan and Staten Island who are without power, we are deploying multiple vehicles with mobile charging stations and free WiFi access points. Local residents are welcome to charge their consumer devices such as smartphones and laptops and access a 4G WiFi connection. New Yorkers can follow @TWCable_NYC on Twitter to learn the location of the vehicles, which will make extended stops initially this afternoon in the residential areas of the Chinatown, Flatiron district and West Village."

Salt water vs. infrastructure


Photo: Michael Tapp

Salt water is still winning. Unfortunately.

Remember back during the Fukushima crisis, when you heard a lot of talk about why the people trying to save the plant didn't want to use sea water to cool the reactors? There were a number of reasons for that (check out this interview Scientific American's Larry Greeenemeier did with a nuclear engineer), but one factor was the fact that salt water corrodes the heck out of metal. Pump it into a metal reactor unit and that unit won't be usable again.

Now, the corrosive power of salt water is in the news again — and this time it's ripping through New York City's underground network of subways and utility infrastructure. I like the short piece that Gizmodo's Patrick DiJusto put together, explaining why salt water in your subway is even worse than plain, old regular water:

When two different types of metal (or metal with two different components) are placed in water, they become a battery: the metal that is more reactive corrodes first, losing electrons and forming positive ions, which then go into water, while the less reactive metal becomes a cathode, absorbing those ions. This process happens much more vigorously when the water is electrically conductive, and salt water contains enough sodium and chloride ions to be 40 times more conductive than fresh water. (The chloride ion also easily penetrates the surface films of most metals, speeding corrosion even further.) Other dissolved metals in sea water, like magnesium or potassium, can cause spots of concentrated local corrosion.

Read the full piece at Gizmodo

Via Tom Levenson

Image: Hurricane Sandy Subway Shutdown New York, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial (2.0) image from 59949757@N06's photostream

Meet the National Unwatering Swat Team

As I post this, the National Unwatering Swat Team should be reaching New York City, where it will do what the National Unwatering Swat Team does best — remove water from places it shouldn't ever be. This is a different mandate than dewatering, in which water is removed from places where it's sometimes okay to have water. (Via Philip Bump)

What makes wind?

It can be a nice breeze, or a destructive storm, but either way wind is just moving air. And moving air is just moving molecules.

In an explainer for kids that's actually pretty helpful for grown-ups, too, Matt Shipman reminds us that the air around us isn't totally weightless. It weighs something, because molecules all weigh something:

They don't weigh very much (you couldn't put one on your bathroom scale), but their weight adds up, because there are a LOT of molecules in the air that makes up our atmosphere. All of that air is actually pretty heavy, so the air at the bottom of the atmosphere (like the air just above the ground) is getting pressed on by all of the air above it. That pressure pushes the air molecules at the bottom of the atmosphere a lot closer together than the air molecules at the top of the atmosphere.

And, because the air at the top of the atmosphere is pushing down on the air at the bottom of the atmosphere, the air molecules at the bottom REALLY want to spread out. So if there is an area where the air molecules are under high pressure (with a lot of weight pushing down), the air will spread out into areas that are under lower pressure (with less weight pushing down).

Read the full story at Carolina Parent

Image: wind, katarinahissen, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from mararie's photostream

Won't somebody think of the rats?

I'm sure you've all been very concerned, worrying about the impact Hurricane Sandy had on New York City's rat population. The good news: Rats can swim and, while many rats likely died during the storm, there are probably still plenty of them alive. The really interesting news: Nobody actually knows how many rats live in New York City. There could be as many as 32 million.

Radar imaging of Hurricane Sandy reveals the power in its core

The images above — prepared by NASA hurricane researcher Owen Kelly — were taken on Sunday, before Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the United States' Northeast coast. They're made from radar data collected by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite, and they show a feature of this storm that helps explain why it's caused much more destruction than you might expect from a Category 1 hurricane.

In the right-hand image, showing a close-up of the storm's eye, you can see a feature labeled "eyewall". Those are vertical cloud walls that surround the eye, and they're the spot with the strongest winds in the whole storm.

Placed in context, the TRMM-observed properties of Hurricane Sandy’s eyewall are evidence of remarkable vigor. Most hurricanes only have well-formed and compact eyewalls at category 3 strength or higher. Sandy was not only barely a category 1 hurricane, but Sandy was also experiencing strong wind shear, Sandy was going over ocean typically too cold to form hurricanes, and Sandy had been limping along as a marginal hurricane for several days.

That eyewall, says NASA and New Scientist, is the result of Sandy's Frankenstorm nature. Despite all the factors that should have made this storm weak, it represented the merging of several storm systems. Because of that, Sandy was stronger than a Category 1 storm normally is.

Read the full story on this at NASA and New Scientist

Via Michael Marshall

Why do electric transformers explode?

Sixty milliseconds is fast. But sometimes, it's not fast enough. That's the gist of a great explainer by Cassie Rodenberg at Popular Mechanics, which answers the question, "Why do transformers explode?"

Before I link you over there, I want to add a quick reminder of what transformers actually are.

Although giant robots that turn into trucks do also explode from time to time, in this case we are talking about those cylindrical boxes that you see attached to electric poles. (Pesco posted a video of one exploding last night.) To understand what they do, you have to know the basics of the electric grid.

I find that it's easiest to picture the grid like a lazy river at a water park. That's because we aren't just talking about a bunch of wires, here. The grid is a circuit, just like the lazy river. Electricity has to flow along it from the power plant, to the customers, and back around to the power plant again. And, like a lazy river, the grid has to operate within certain limits. The electricity has to move at a constant speed (analogous to what engineers call frequency) and at a constant depth (analogous to voltage). This is where transformers come in.

Read the rest

Chat about climate science and Sandy with Stanford's Noah Diffenbaugh

Yesterday, I told you that the relationship between Hurricane Sandy and climate change can be summed up with "It's Complicated". If you want a referendum on climate change, the data is in and we know it's happening. But if you're curious about this specific storm, what scientists know about hurricane systems, and how weather and climate interact, Scientific American has a live chat starting at 1:00 pm Eastern with Noah Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University. Check it out!

Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy? The answer depends on why you're asking

There are two answers here: One for the legitimately curious, and one for people who want a disaster to be a referendum on climate change.Read the rest

Google's Hurricane Sandy crisis map

Here's an excellent resource to link and re-tweet: a crisis/storm-tracking map from Google, with shelter information, and updated data on Sandy's expected course.

Another rainy day fun project: Hurricane Hackers

Hurricane Hackers is a hashtag on Twitter (i.e., #hurricanehackers) and a crowdsource hub to create tech and social projects related to Hurricane Sandy. Proposed projects include an ad-hoc food and water delivery system for after the storm and live maps that show which businesses in a given area are actually open. You can propose projects or start working on projects other people have proposed. Check out the official Google Doc, or the IRC channel. (Via Shasha Costanza-Chock)

Rainy day fun project: Help scientists gather data on Hurricane Sandy

If you're staying home from work today because of Hurricane Sandy, you might be able to help out a team of scientists from the University of Utah and Purdue. They're studying isotopes of water — small differences at the subatomic level that can tell you a lot about where water originally came from and how it got to the place it fell in the form of rain or snow. They need people collecting precipitation samples over 12-hour periods. And they're especially looking for help in some inland places, including West Virginia, Virginia, and eastern Kentucky/Tennesee. Find out more at their website. (Via Sarah Horst)