: The Human Age

Brainstorming from Equator to Ice

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Brainstorming from Equator to Ice

Such claims may soon become less novel, but fortunately humans are gifted with a taste for the novel thats leading us to some innovative responsesnot only old-style mechanical solutions like fossil-fuel-powered Industrial Age steel floodgates, but promising new ways of addressing root causes and harnessing solar power.

Some countries have been stalwartly battling tides for years. Maeslantkering, one of the largest moving structures on Earth, is part of a network of sluices, dams, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers protecting the Netherlands from the blustery North Sea. Galveston, Texas, is designing what will be the United Statess longest sea wall, affectionately known as the Ike Dike, to protect the low-lying city from impending floods. In Venice, the $5.5 billion MOSE Projectseventy-eight mobile, underwater steel gateswill isolate the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic Sea and shield the city from floods.

In London, gated crusaders are already at their posts. Like a row of giant knights standing up to their necks in water, armor gleaming, weapons hidden, the Thames Barrier spans the river near Woolwich, downstream of central London. Behind each helmet looms an antique vision of the brain, all levers and hydraulics. Trapped in futuristic folded steel, the fixtures appear lighter than water, though in reality each gate weighs about 3,300 tons. Altogether they can close ranks beneath the waves to protect the city from storm surges.

Like so many other rivers, the Thames is not as wide as it used to be. We encrust the banks of our rivers with shops and houses, nosing out into the water, as if we long to be osmotically part of the current, in the process narrowing channels and putting our lives and property at risk. London has flooded famously in the past307 people died in the 1953 floodand with the worlds sea levels rising, and the city steadily sinking at a foot a century, it needs not so much Knights Templar as Knights Temperature.

In mild days and years, the gates lie open, and you can sail between the five-story-high helmets, admiring their sleek beauty and wondering what Londons son John Milton would have made of them in the 1600s. They also serve who only stand and wait, he wrote in a sonnet about his blindness. He meant himself, serving God, but the Knights of the Order of the Barrier also stand and wait, reminding Londoners of climate changes reality, and how it will play out in their backyards, streets, and wharves if they dont take steps. Meanwhile gleaming guards defend the shores. Peer into their faces and darkness greets you. They will serve a few years more before their metal weakens and theyre replaced by newer and abler paladins.

There is something ironic and fitting about using the very process that has led to troublethe burning of fossil fuelsto forge the protectors to combat the ongoing sequelae of that very climate change, technological lords of deliverance we hope will protect us from ourselves. Better to harness the sun.

One of the most heartening solar stories comes from northwestern Bangladesh, home to the worlds largest floodplain. Even though its not raining at the moment, the humidity is nearly 100 percent, and the air feels thick as rubber. The monsoon season is ending, and though the sky can still rip with fierce downpours, children wearing colorful tunics and trousers hurry to the riverbank to board their solar-powered school boat. Older villagers wait for the health boat or library boat or agricultural extension boat. Thanks to one mans ingenuity and generosity of spirit, hope floats whenever it floods.

Mohammed Rezwan, an architect and climate-change activist who grew up here, ached to see his country being ravaged by ever-worsening floods. Hes noticed that as temperatures rise and more snow melts in the Himalayas, more water surges across the Bangladeshi floodplain. Every year one-third of Bangladesh lies underwater, as if a giant eraser annually scrubs away the hand-drawn pictures of family life.

Rezwan decided that he didnt want to design buildings only to see them and whole communities washed away before his eyes. So, in 2008, he founded Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha (which means self-reliance), a nonprofit that deploys a fleet of one hundred boats with shallow drafts that can skim across the lowlands, serving as libraries, schools, health clinics, and three-tiered floating gardens. He persuaded local boat builders to outfit these traditional bamboo boats with solar panels, computers, video conferencing, and Internet access. The fleet also provides volunteer doctors, solar-powered hurricane lanterns, and bicycle-powered pumps. Solar batteries on each boat can power cell phones and computers, and people may recharge lamps to take homeprovided their children keep attending school. Thus far, the project reaches 90,000 families, and it expects to reach another 81,500 families by 2015.

Because people become stranded and cant feed themselves in flood season, Rezwan invented a technique for them he calls solar water farming. As he explains: The system includes floating beds made of water hyacinth (to grow vegetables), a portable circular enclosure created by fishing net and bamboo strips (to raise fish), and a floating duck coop powered by solar lamps. It has a recycling systemduck manure is used as fish food, cold-water hyacinth beds are sold as organic fertilizer, and the sun energy lights up the duck coop to maintain the egg production.

So giggling children attend school, even during flood months, and their families can produce food and clean water despite the deluges. In this way, if monsoons or conflicts push people from their homes, the flotilla creates lifesavers of education, medicine, food, lighting, and communication.

Rezwan cant single-handedly fight climate change, but his brilliantly simple solution is helping people adapt. The words adaptation and mitigation are appearing more and more often in the lexicon of climate scientists, who use them to cover practical (and impractical) responses to climate change.

Remember blue-green algae, to whom we owe our oxygen-besotted lives? One controversial idea is seeding the Antarctic Ocean with iron to trigger the growth of such algae. Algae thrive by absorbing sunlight and carbon dioxide, which they use to forge chlorophyll, but for that they need iron. As algae soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they sink down to the ocean floor and die. Scientists arent sure yet if widespread iron fertilization is safe for ocean animals, so they recently tried a small test, dumping iron powder into an Antarctic whirlpool (so that it wouldnt spread). Sure enough, a giant bloom of algae diatoms arose, sucking carbon dioxide from the air, and after a few weeks many diatoms carried pearls of CO2 to the bottom and died. Would it work safely on a large scale? Thats the big unknown. Geoengineering is a highly controversial plaything. We wont know except by trying, and a bad outcome could be deadly. Weve already been geoengineering the planet for decades, unintentionally, by saturating the air with CO2 and the oceans with fertilizernot with good results.

Geoengineering and adaptation ideas run the gamut from shucks-why-didnt-I-think-of-that to plain nutty. The monochrome Earth method includes painting cities and roads white, covering the deserts in white plastic, and genetically engineering crops to be a paler colorall to reflect sunlight back into space. Or installing roof tiles that turn white in hot weather, black in cold. More bizarre tech fixes include firing trillions of tiny mirrors into space to form a hundred-thousand-mile sunshade for Earth, or building artificial mini-volcanoes that spew sulfur dioxide particles into the atmosphere to block sunlight. Theres even been a modest proposal that we genetically engineer future humans to be tiny so that theyll need fewer resources.

At the other end of the globe, on the Norwegian coast, a colossal Carbon Capture Storage facility, owned jointly by Norway and three oil companies, is bagging carbon emissions before theyre released into the atmosphere and storing them in underground vaults. Carbon prisons are still too expensive to be practical everywhere, and not worry-free, but many countries are following suit. In a quest for the first technology that can efficiently, economically pull CO2 out of the air, Richard Branson is offering a tempting prize of $25 million.[7]

Research by the cell biologist Len Ornstein shows that if the Australian Outback and the Sahara were forested, theyd absorb all of the CO2 were pumping into the atmosphere every year. Obviously not an easy venture, its technologically possible. Grassroots indigenous, nongovernmental groups have already planted over fifty-one million trees in Africa. In time the forests, absorbing water from the soil and releasing it back into the atmosphere through their leaves, will generate their own clouds, rain, and shade, cooling things down, and providing the bonus of sustainably grown wood for their host countries.

Meanwhile, the eastern coast of the United States, from Boston to Florida, needs widespread sea barriers, preferably of sand, and also artificial barriers and gates wherever theyre workable. They neednt be poetic knights of deliverance like Londons. They might even be a version of the natural reefs and oyster beds that once flanked the American coast.

Trillions of oysters lined the eastern shores, building up knuckle-shelled beds that blunted the storm surges, capturing waves on the reefs, where they collapsed before they could blast down the estuaries. The Hudson River estuary was famed for the quality of its oysters. Oysters closest to shore also filtered the water, which made the habitat ideal for marsh grasses, whose root systems, clinging to the land, kept it from eroding.

Weve largely destroyed that long, sweeping natural barricade. Now, as hurricane surges pummel cities and harbors, were starting to realize what weve lost, not just in small innocent-seeming meals of wild-gathered shellfish but through toxic runoff from cities and farms. And its the same the world over85 percent of the worlds oyster reefs have vanished since the end of the nineteenth century.

To protect New York City, the landscape architect Kate Orff favors an archipelago of artificial reefs built from piles of rocks, shells, and fuzzy rope, to attract oysters, because oyster beds naturally act as wave attenuators. In time, the oyster-encrusted barriers would filter the water and also serve as a kind of ecological glue. Infrastructure isnt separate from us, or it shouldnt be, Orff explains. Its among us, its next to us, embedded in our cities and public spaces.

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