In 100 Years (Your Campus May Resemble Venice)

Posted on December 4, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

Earlier this week, the tides of the Adriatic Sea submerged the Italian city of Venice. The New York Times published an astonishing set of photographs of Venetians and tourists attempting to go about their days, seemingly defiant of the flood. One picture captured tourists thigh-deep in water in Saint Mark’s Square, another showed fashionably-dressed teens strolling down a street and casting a glance at a shopkeeper bailing-out his store, and my favorite featured a group of gondoliers eating their breakfast at an outdoor café table… in several feet of water. As I clicked through these images, I couldn’t help but think that I was not only glimpsing the past (which is unavoidable with Venice) but also the future.

The past and the future of my employer, Rice University, have been on my mind a lot lately. The year 2012 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first entering class at Rice (then known as the Rice Institute). An observer in 1912 would have noted that a tuition-free institution of higher education had opened to serve the white men and women of Houston and the state of Texas. (S)he would likely have wondered – at least privately – about the wisdom of placing this institute beyond the reach of the streetcar, past the end of any paved road, outside the edge of the small but growing city of Houston (population approx. 80,000), upon a mostly treeless and entirely remote muddy campus of prairies and swamps.

That same observer today would find the place utterly unrecognizable. That muddy swamp is now a heavily-wooded thriving university campus, a park-like oasis set within the heart of our nation’s fourth largest city. That white Texan student body is now international, multi-racial, and tuition-paying. That remote location is across the (now paved) street from the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center. Searching for any reminder of 1912, perhaps that observer would remark that at least the nearby streetcar is still there, not knowing that it had be removed around 1940 and only recently rebuilt at great expense. The world can change a lot in a single century.

One change not readily visible but no less important to this discussion is that Rice is now six feet lower in elevation than in 1912.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[1]<!–[endif]–> When the university was founded, the campus was approximately 56 feet above sea level; now it’s 50 feet (and at 50 miles inland, you get a sense of the flat slopes of the Texas coast). How does that happen? Heavy withdrawals of groundwater across greater Houston caused some areas to subside by as much as 10 feet between 1906 and 2000.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[2]<!–[endif]–> One suburban neighborhood – the Brownwood subdivision – literally sank into Galveston Bay, and following Hurricane Alicia in 1983 was condemned and converted into a nature preserve.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[3]<!–[endif]–> Thankfully, after nearly half a century of inaction despite compelling scientific evidence (sound familiar?), a special regulatory district was formed to prevent further subsidence, and elevations in most of the Houston area have since stabilized.

With the 100th anniversary of Rice rapidly approaching, we are enacting a 10-point plan to shape the next century on our campus, known to the Rice community as the Vision for the Second Century. As I look ahead to these next 100 years of Rice University, I recognize that we will continue to lose elevation, not due to subsidence but to the effects of global climate change. The question is by how much. The 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects a global sea level rise of between 0.18 and 0.59 meters (7-23 inches) by the end of the century (mostly due to thermal expansion and the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps).<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[4]<!–[endif]–> However, the wild cards in the deck are the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, which were not taken into account in the IPCC’s estimates due to uncertainties of how quickly these sheets would melt.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[5]<!–[endif]–> In other words, the estimate they provide is too conservative. NASA climate scientist James Hansen suggests that a more appropriate estimate is several meters under a business-as-usual scenario.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[6]<!–[endif]–> The lab of Dr. Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona reports that “Our work… suggests that the Earth will be warm enough to melt the Greenland Ice Sheet in less than 150 years. Unless, that is, efforts are made to slow global warming.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[7]<!–[endif]–> Such an event would result in a sea-level rise of 23 feet.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[8]<!–[endif]–> As for the West Antarctic ice sheet, researchers at the British Antarctic Survey estimate such a melting would produce at least a 16 foot rise in sea levels.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[9]<!–[endif]–>

The Overpeck lab has created a viewer that uses a map with a 1-km resolution that shows the effect of sea level increases between 1 and 6 meters at increments of 1 meter. If you’re a map geek like me, you’ll love this tool. Using their viewer, you’ll quickly see how vulnerable certain areas of our country (and world) are to even slight increases in elevation, such as south Florida and most of southern Louisiana below Interstate 10.

Let’s suppose that sea levels rise by 3 meters by the end of the century (about 10 feet). For those of us on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, I will note for reference that the storm surge for the recent Hurricane Ike peaked at 17.48 feet, and with waves on top of the storm surge, the maximum high water mark was 21.2 feet.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[10]<!–[endif]–> A 3-meter rise brings Rice’s elevation down to 40 feet above sea level. While that news is not good for Rice, a 3-meter increase in sea level is positively alarming for a number of other universities. For example, the University of Miami would be at sea level, and its medical school 7 feet below sea level. Lamar University in southeast Texas would be 3 feet under water, as would The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas – the state’s oldest medical school – would be at sea level. Ditto for Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, would take on water when tides reach 3 feet above normal.

If we assume a scenario of a 6-meter rise in sea level (about 20 feet), Rice drops to 30 feet in elevation, just past the reach of the storm surge. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts would sit right at sea level. LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a city that may become the post-Katrina economic engine of Louisiana, would be just 19 feet above sea level, within striking range of a significant storm surge, and much closer to the coastline. And what about if both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets collapse over the next century or two? These losses, combined with thermal expansion of ocean waters due to warming, could result in a sea level rise of about 41 feet (23 feet + 16 feet + 23 inches). This would place the Rice campus at less than 10 feet above sea level, easily within the storm surge of a hurricane. In that case, our Vision for the Third Century had better include a seawall.

The idea that many of our campuses might someday resemble the images from Venice is shocking. However, it is certainly well within the realm of possibility. In a century or two, those wading tourists in Venice’s Saint Mark’s Square could instead be in Harvard Square, those fashionable teens strolling thigh-deep in water past a flooded store could be midshipmen at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis dressed in their white uniforms filing through the tide of the Chesapeake Bay past the Nimitz Library, and those dining gondoliers with seawater just below their tablecloth could instead be University of Miami students sipping a Starbuck’s in the surf outside the University Center (near the ironically named Storm Surge Café).

We know that the world can change rapidly in a single century, especially this coming century. We know that a host of external environmental factors will shape the future of our campuses at a level never seen before. As campus sustainability professionals, we have a lot of hard work ahead of us. If we fail, our future might be Venice, a beautiful curiosity losing a long battle with the sea, and we can’t let that be so.

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[4]<!–[endif]–> Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Basis – Summary for Policy Makers, p. 13,, accessed November 29, 2008.

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Post-Storm Lessons in Energy Planning (The Hurricane Ike Edition, Part 2)

Posted on October 13, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

Today marks the one month anniversary of Hurricane Ike. In Houston, the tree canopy is noticeably thinner, tarps still cover many roofs, and certain city services have been suspended to enable workers to focus on debris collection. However, life for most in this city is returning to normal. Galveston is another story altogether. To paraphrase an article in Sunday’s edition of the Galveston County Daily News, residents are experiencing a “new normal,” that is, something quite different than before. With only 60% of that city’s population back on the island, uncertainty about the future and an incomplete understanding of what just happened are the prevailing moods.

Over the past month, I’ve found myself thinking quite often about how the bonds of modern civilization are more fragile than I had suspected, and how the notion of sustainability fits into the equation. The hurricane in the financial markets has confirmed this sense of the society’s thin veneer, but I’ll focus my comments on meteorological hurricanes, not economic ones. I have identified a few lessons from Rice’s experience with Hurricane Ike that will hopefully enable other campus sustainability professionals to better plan for the provision of utilities and supporting infrastructure on their campuses, especially in the event of disasters.

At Rice, our campus imports both electricity and natural gas, the latter of which fires a combined heat and power system that produces electricity and steam. On a typical day, our central plant operators can vary the mix of inputs to produce our campus utilities, depending upon a variety of conditions including the cost of each source. During a crisis event when electricity is not available from the power grid, we are able to switch entirely to natural gas to provide heating, cooling, and power for our designated essential facilities on campus. The first lesson is that diverse energy systems create operating options and reduce the risk of disruption. Monocultures are vulnerable to exogenous shocks; variation reduces the susceptibility to catastrophic failure.

I should point out that it’s not just the multiple inputs that make the system diverse. At my home, I also import electricity and natural gas. The difference is that I cannot switch between sources to meet my basic needs. Natural gas doesn’t help me with refrigeration or cooling or lighting or power. If I owned a natural gas outdoor grill, I would at least be able to cook using a source other than my electric stove and oven (albeit this still requires different hardware – a grill). The fact is, natural gas only provides my home with hot water and heat, and the furnace will not operate without electricity. Despite the two energy sources, what I really have are two energy monocultures.

Energy system diversity is not enough, as Rice learned during the storm. The second lesson is that systems intersect. Rice’s energy system requires water to supply boilers, chillers, and the cooling tower. Without a reliable supply of water, our energy system cannot function indefinitely.

Rice purchases most of its water supply from the City of Houston, but we also have a water well on campus that in any given year meets up to 20% of our water needs. During an emergency, we can switch entirely to well water, an important illustration of the benefits of system diversity. However, during the storm, a power surge burned-out the motor of the pump on the water well, leaving Rice dependent upon City water. When the City’s pumping station at the Trinity River went down, water pressure dropped across Houston, threatening the availability of water and by extension energy on campus. The third lesson is that despite system diversity, the failure of a single component can cause the entire system – or several systems – to crash. Knowing what those weak points are, and understanding the conditions under which they might fail, will enable planning for a stronger system.

As an aside, with the threat of outages of both water and energy, and a replacement pump nowhere to be found, a member of Rice’s crisis management team contacted two alums in the oil services industry for help. They located a pump in Tennessee and arranged for it to be transported to Houston. Rice police met the delivery truck in Louisiana and provided an escort into Houston, and the pump was installed in just enough time to keep the campus energy system from crashing.

Rice admittedly has a level of independence from “the grid” that most of us do not enjoy at our homes. There are of course differing scales of energy independence. In political discussions, energy independence tends to mean not relying upon petro-dictators for oil. This kind of energy independence does little for reducing the energy monocultures that most of us live in today. In a previous post, I discussed the need to diversify our energy inputs while reducing our exposure to the fossil fuel operating system. The past month has taught me a fourth lesson, which is the need to drive energy independence to a localized level, especially for certain critical facilities.

I will illustrate the importance of this fourth lesson by providing an example of the first three. From a transportation perspective, most of Houston is a monoculture. In 1991, Joel Garreau wrote in Edge City: Life on the New Frontier that traveling around Houston without a car is like traveling around Venice without a boat. This over-reliance upon the automobile makes mobility in Houston especially vulnerable to exogenous shocks, such as hurricanes (a violation of lesson one). Without the reliable flow of gasoline, Houston shuts down. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, Houston faced a gasoline shortage. Many stations had run dry prior to the storm as motorists topped-off their tanks, but there’s more to the story. As we learned from lesson two, systems intersect. Gas stations need electricity, not just gasoline. Even those stations with gas in their underground storage tanks could not sell it because the pumps could not operate without electricity. The gas pumps were the critical component from lesson three that caused an entire system – several systems, actually – to crash. Until electricity was restored, a process that took many days and even weeks, gas stations were powerless to feed Houston’s gasoline-dependent transportation system.

Certainly facilities like hospitals are designed with a high degree of energy independence, and as I’ve discussed, our campus can function somewhat independently as well. But what about grocery stores and gas stations and banks? These are essential too. An entire gas station need not be able to function in the event of a power outage: just the pumps. An attendant could accept cash transactions and record credit card purchases through imprints. Had these pumps been designed to operate independent of the broader electrical grid, life in Houston would have recovered far more quickly than it did.

A more sustainable society in my view is one with a degree of decentralization and diversity that makes us less vulnerable to extreme events, which we are sure to see more of as our climate continues to change and as energy supplies tighten. For those planning in a campus environment, this suggests thinking about energy with some additional criteria in mind: avoiding monocultures, understanding where and how systems intersect, identifying critical points where failure can occur, and striving for localized energy independence. Many of us dream about being “off the grid” – able to meet our needs through renewable energy and sustainable water strategies on our own sites without depending upon the broader utility infrastructure and its inputs. But failure to take these lessons into account could mean that we’re “off the grid” in a different sense. That is, powerless.

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How Twenty Miles Saved a City (The Hurricane Ike Edition, Part 1)

Posted on September 22, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

While people in most parts of the United States welcome the arrival of summer, those of us living along the Gulf Coast and in the coastal communities of the Southeast note the season’s arrival with a certain amount of anxiety, and mark its passing with a sense of relief. It’s not so much the heat and the humidity, although we (or at least I) look forward to that about as much as a Chicagoan pines for the frigid winds blowing off of Lake Michigan on a January morning. The real source of worry is that we must once again endure that meteorological game of Russian Roulette known as hurricane season.

Imagine for a moment having to keep one eye on the tropics, making judgments of where a churning storm might land, how strong it might be at landfall, and whether you and your family should shelter in place or evacuate. And if a storm does strike, will anyone be hurt? What will become of your home? Your neighborhood? Your city? Will everyone and everything survive? Or this time, will it all be washed away? Hurricane season is serious business. It’s no wonder that “summertime” music comes from places like southern California, rather than the otherwise rich Gulf coast musical mecca of New Orleans.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, September 13th, the eye of Hurricane Ike made landfall on the east end of Galveston Island in Texas, and pushed inland across the Houston metropolitan area, following a path generally parallel to but a few miles to the east of Interstate 45. Houston was pummeled, and a week later half the city was still without power. The City of Galveston was devastated by the storm, so much so that the remaining people who chose to ride out the storm were ordered to leave. The communities of Bolivar Peninsula , just a short ferry ride from the northeastern tip of Galveston, simply do not exist any longer. They are gone.

People who live with the reality of hurricanes are well aware of hurricane geography. The counter-clockwise circulation of the storm means that the wettest side of the system is the eastern side, with water picked-up from the ocean and dumped onto land disproportionately in the northeast quadrant. This so-called “dirty” side of the storm often brings tornadoes, further adding to the destruction. Worse still, this is the side of the storm that creates the largest storm surge, where a dome of seawater is literally pushed inland by the strong winds. The storm surge in Galveston was 12 feet. The highest point on the island is 17 feet, which is the seawall that protects a portion of the city from the Gulf (prior to construction of the seawall in 1902, the highest point was less than 9 feet above sea level). Waves crashed over the seawall, but the full force of the surge was blunted by the seawall on the eastern side of the island. The west end had no such protection.

Had Hurricane Ike made landfall literally twenty miles to the west, I might very well be writing about Galveston in the past tense. The predicted storm surge to the east of the eye was 20 feet, which would have overtopped Galveston’s seawall and the entire island. Instead, the lesser-populated Bolivar Peninsula took the peak surge, and will never be the same. Progressing inland, moving the eye just 20 miles westward would have put the most densely populated portions of Houston on the dirty side of the storm, with the peak surge thus pushing into Galveston Bay and some of the Houston-area bayous, creating the potential for serious flooding. Most of us in Houston are actually feeling pretty lucky, all things considered.

I will devote a few entries for this blog to lessons from Hurricane Ike, but I’d like to briefly flirt with the messy topic of professional responsibility. In my previous job as an urban planning consultant, I personally billed quite a number of hours to projects related to proposing or studying the creation of special districts to encourage development in a number of Texas coastal communities, including Galveston. The Galveston districts were on the west side of the island, beyond the protection of the seawall. And therein you see the dilemma: where and under what circumstances is development appropriate, what role can and should government take in controlling development (especially on barrier islands), and what are the obligations of a professional consultant even if development in such locations has the backing of government?

These are not easy questions to answer, and in the wake of the storm, I’ve not been able to escape them. When I ask myself what a sustainability professional might have done differently than an ordinary consultant, I believe the answers can be derived from some of the basic characteristics of the profession:

  • First, we are conversation starters. We don’t necessarily have the answers, but we raise critical issues of environmental consequence.
  • Second, we connect the dots, whether it’s with issues or with making sure the right people are speaking with each other. Getting the right people to the table can be critical to bringing about more sustainable outcomes.
  • Third, we often frame discussions further into the future than general practice, which allows issues of longer-term risks to not be entirely drowned-out by shorter-term interests.
  • Fourth, the nature of our profession is that in many instances we have a particular point of view or framework based on ecological principles that drives decision-making, which keeps us from playing both sides of an issue (depending on who is paying the bills) as readily as a typical consultant.
  • And fifth, we are systems-thinkers rather than silo-thinkers, and that makes it harder for us to disassociate ourselves from unsustainable outcomes by saying that it wasn’t our job to consider “the big picture”.

With that said, perhaps a sustainability consultant would have approached this issue of the creation of incentives to spur development on an unprotected section of a barrier island by first asking whether the same desired outcomes could be achieved by focusing on redevelopment of areas that already have structural protection. If not, then that consultant might organize a scenario planning session, engaging experts who could speak to the probabilities of storms of a particular size and strength, and how structures and infrastructure would perform under those conditions, and whether steps are available to bring levels of damage to within an acceptable range. This would mean that the politicians who ultimately decide whether such districts are created would be presented with (or not allowed to avoid) critical information concerning risk.

But let’s be frank. When you’re a junior-level person in a typical consulting firm asking hard questions that a client might not want to hear, you risk your job, not to mention your firm’s ability to get future work from that client. It’s never easy speaking truth to power, and that needs to change. At least universities (the sector where I now work) don’t typically punish those (as harshly) who are willing to speak honestly about challenging subjects. No wonder I left consulting!

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional


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