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History > 2013 > USA > Nature, Weather, Climate, Environment (I)



Progress Stalls

in California on Earthquake Warnings


March 20, 2013
The New York Times


PASADENA, Calif. — Scientists at the Caltech Seismology Laboratory were at their computers last week when a warning popped up on the screen: “Earthquake, earthquake!” The initial magnitude of the quake, 100 miles away, was 5.2, the alert said, and a countdown clock warned that mild shaking would reach here in 40 seconds.

“Since I did not expect any damage, I did not dive under the desk,” said Kate Hutton, a staff seismologist. Instead, she sat and waited to feel the rumble beneath her laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, which arrived precisely as predicted.

Ms. Hutton was enjoying, as it were, the benefits of an ambitious if unfinished earthquake alert system for California, intended to one day give as much as 60 seconds’ warning of an approaching quake — to hospitals, emergency response workers and anyone near a cellphone or computer — in an attempt to reduce the casualties and the damage that officials have long feared were as inevitable as another huge California earthquake.

But the episode, set off by what proved to be a harmless earthquake in the desert on March 11, instead provided a disquieting reminder of how far California lags behind other earthquake-prone places — notably Japan and Mexico — in completing an effective alert system that is clearly within technological and financial reach. Even as others surge ahead, the network in California — which would be the first in the nation — is a work in progress, a beta system with patchwork software sending alerts to just 100 geologists and selected emergency workers.

Last month, state lawmakers introduced legislation calling for an expedited program to raise the $80 million needed to complete the program, but acknowledged they did not know where the money might come from.

The delay here is, in one sense, testimony to human nature. It has been 19 years since the last significant quake rolled through California — the magnitude 6.7 earthquake in Northridge in a corner of the San Fernando Valley in 1994 — and memories of its damage and psychological trauma (some people moved away) have softened with the passage of time.

“We are in a long period of what I call seismic peace in California,” said Thomas H. Heaton, the director of the Earthquake Engineering Research Laboratory at Caltech. “But you can go for a long period when things are calm, and then instantly things are transformed into chaos. When you are in peacetime, it’s hard to get people’s attention and remind them what a big problem it is.”

Alex Padilla, a Democratic state senator who studied mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is sponsoring the earthquake alert bill, said the central hurdle was finding a source for the money that university scientists and their partners at the United States Geological Survey say is needed to finish the project. California has been struggling with a financial retrenchment, the federal government is cutting back spending, and private industry is wary of putting so much money into what many people argue is a public responsibility.

“I haven’t come across anybody who thinks we shouldn’t do it,” Mr. Padilla said. “The only question I get is ‘Where is the money going to come from?’”

“I don’t think it’s a huge amount of money, particularly when compared to the billions of dollars in damage that we associate with every major earthquake,” Mr. Padilla said, adding, “I really don’t think any state official wants to answer the question ‘Why didn’t we?’ after the Big One hits and we haven’t deployed the system.”

A fully operational system would use a network of sensors — 300 are in place now, but hundreds more are needed — to detect the first signs of a rupture, using the data to project the severity and breadth of the quake, the area most likely to be damaged and the number of seconds until the shaking begins. As demonstrated in Japan, even a 30-second notice was enough to activate computerized programs to slow commuter trains so they did not go off their tracks, stop elevators so passengers were not stranded between floors, flash highway warning signs instructing motorists to slow down and avoid overpasses, and open doors at fire stations so they would not be stuck shut should power be lost.

The warning would go out to home computers and personal cellphones, giving surgeons a moment to withdraw scalpels, workers at Disneyland time to shut down Space Mountain, home cooks an opportunity to turn off the gas and everyone a moment to, as Ms. Hutton at Caltech put it, dive under a desk.

“If you are cooking, you can step away from the boiling water,” said Maren Boese, a research fellow at Caltech, as she ran through a demonstration of the alert system. She also said it would help people psychologically, decreasing the surprise that can freeze people in confusion and fear when the ground starts moving, or lead to panicked and dangerous reactions, like running outside a building.

“I think you get mentally ready,” she said. “We think it will reduce panic.”

The network would cover much of the length of California, much like the network of fault lines here, though the geology of Southern California is particularly suited to this kind of early warning system. Much of the San Andreas Fault lies far enough away to permit something of a warning. (That said, many faults run right through the middle of Los Angeles, in which case, the system would be essentially useless.)

The existing network needs major investments to bring it to the level of Japan and Mexico: an expansion of the sensor stations and the development of software permitting the warnings to be distributed to the public.

“In order to turn the system into a system that can be used across California, it has to be turned into professional-grade software,” Mr. Heaton said. “It is just completely inappropriate to have software that has bugs and that was not written by software engineers.”

Mexico developed its alert system after the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, and Japan after the Kobe earthquake of 1995.

“That seems to be the pattern,” said Douglas D. Given, the early earthquake warning project coordinator with the federal Geological Survey. “It is our hope that we can deploy an early warning system before we have a killer earthquake.”

    Progress Stalls in California on Earthquake Warnings, NYT, 20.3.2013,






A Model for Reducing Emissions


March 19, 2013
The New York Times


Who would have thought the United States would one day be a leader in cutting greenhouse gas emissions?

This is the nation, after all, where a former chairman of the Senate committee on the environment, James Inhofe, wrote a book about global warming called “The Greatest Hoax.” This is where a presidential election took place not six months ago in which climate change barely merited a mention, buried under an avalanche of promises to dig for coal and drill for oil.

Fuel economy performance for cars and trucks is still among the worst in the developed world. And only 7 percent of the nation’s energy comes from renewable sources, less than in most other advanced nations.

Yet when President Obama talked about the nation’s energy revolution during his State of the Union address last month, he could have boasted that American emissions of CO2 had fallen almost 13 percent since 2007. It was perhaps the biggest decline among industrial countries, and substantially steeper than in Europe, which has been much more committed to combating climate change.

Carbon emissions from the United States have never fallen this much, not after the first oil price shock following the Arab oil embargo of 1973, nor after the Iranian revolution of 1979, when American drivers suddenly discovered the virtues of Japanese small cars and President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House to heat the water.

What stands out most in this shift, however, is not environmental regulation or public concern about global warming but the price of energy and market-driven technological advancements. “It wasn’t so much a policy shift that brought carbon emissions down,” said James Hamilton, an energy economist at the University of California, San Diego. “It was irresistible market forces.”

The United States consumes 9 percent less energy for each $1 of G.D.P. than it did five years ago. Total energy use has fallen about 5 percent in the last five years.

To be sure, regulations have contributed to the process; tighter fuel economy standards are expected to lead automakers to double the fuel efficiency of new cars and light trucks by 2025. Tax breaks are encouraging companies to invest in renewable energy sources and retrofit buildings to increase energy efficiency.

But the main reasons are economic. The great recession and the world’s sluggish recovery have depressed energy use. As in the 1970s, high oil prices have encouraged drivers to drive less, and switch to cars and trucks with better fuel economy.

There is a new force as well: high prices underpinned the widely trumpeted investment in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale rock rich in oil and natural gas, which pushed the price of gas to some $2 per thousand cubic feet last April, down from $9 four years ago. Cheap gas, in turn, has encouraged power companies to switch to the cleaner fuel, replacing the most heavily polluting source of energy that we know, coal.

Since 2007 the share of the nation’s electricity produced by gas-powered generators has jumped to 30 percent from 21 percent; CO2 emissions from electricity generation have tumbled more than 15 percent. This new fuel brings potential problems of its own. Environmental groups have sounded the alarm about chemicals and methane leaking from wells, potentially contaminating local water supplies and releasing additional carbon into the air.

But fracking also appears, against all odds, to have brought Mr. Obama’s early, hopeful promise to cut CO2 emissions by 17 percent between 2005 and 2020 within reach.

Will our carbon footprint continue to shrink? The Energy Department forecasts that CO2 emissions will tick up nearly 2 percent this year and 0.7 percent in 2014, as the economy recovers. Coal use in power plants is also expected to rebound as gas prices rise from their 2012 trough.

Historical precedent is not promising. The drive for energy efficiency that started in the 1970s did not continue once oil prices fell in the 1980s; among other things, American drivers fell in love with S.U.V.’s and trucks. In 1981, the Ford F-series pickup truck became the nation’s best-selling light vehicle. In 1986, Ronald Reagan had the White House solar panels taken down.

Nonetheless, there are some encouraging signs that this time may be different. The shift from coal to gas-fired power plants should be sped up by new rules requiring old coal generators to install expensive environmental equipment. Oil prices are supported by fast rising demand from the developing world and are unlikely to plunge despite new sources found in Canadian tar sands and American shale.

The United States’ experience with new fuels also offers some options for countries intent on pursuing economic growth while restraining carbon emissions.

China is rushing to develop its large fields of shale gas. Europe — where natural gas, most of it imported from Russia, is expensive and power plants rely heavily on coal — may follow suit. Several European governments have banned fracking or imposed sharp restrictions on it, but some — like Britain — are moving ahead.

Still, the United States’ serendipitous success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions suggests how much more needs to be done than switching from a particularly dirty source of carbon to a cleaner one.

Even if every American coal-fired power plant were to close, that would not make up for the coal-based generators being built in developing countries like India and China. “Since 2000, the growth in coal has been 10 times that of renewables,” said Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency in Paris, points out that if civilization is to avoid catastrophic climate change, only about one third of the 3,000 gigatons of CO2 contained in the world’s known reserves of oil, gas and coal can be released into the atmosphere.

But the world economy does not work as if this were the case — not governments, nor businesses, nor consumers.

“In all my experience as an oil company manager, not a single oil company took into the picture the problem of CO2,” said Leonardo Maugeri, an energy expert at Harvard who until 2010 was head of strategy and development for Italy’s state-owned oil company, Eni. “They are all totally devoted to replacing the reserves they consume every year.”

Perhaps the most important lesson from the American natural gas boom is how prices drive both demand and supply. Putting a price on emissions of CO2 that reflects the burden they impose on the environment and the threat excessive amounts pose to future generations would almost certainly be the most effective strategy to persuade energy companies, power generators — and you and me — to spew less of it.

    A Model for Reducing Emissions, NYT, 19.3.2013,






Two Enlistees in the Climate Wars


March 5, 2013
The New York Times


In 2009, President Obama pledged to reduce America’s greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. Thanks to several factors, the country is halfway there. On Monday, Mr. Obama announced the appointment of two seasoned officials who could fulfill that pledge — but only if the president himself helps them navigate the formidable political obstacles ahead.

Mr. Obama nominated Gina McCarthy, an experienced clean air regulator, to run the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ernest Moniz, an M.I.T. physicist and strong advocate of natural gas and nuclear power, to run the Energy Department. Both believe global warming is one of humanity’s most pressing challenges. Both have deep experience — Ms. McCarthy as an assistant administrator at the E.P.A. and an adviser to Republican governors in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Mr. Moniz as an under secretary of energy in the Clinton administration.

Both will be required to use their regulatory authority creatively and aggressively. There is zero chance that Congress will enact the “bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change” that Mr. Obama called for in his State of the Union address. This means that his second-term agenda on climate change will run through Ms. McCarthy’s and Mr. Moniz’s agencies, and will depend almost entirely on executive actions that do not require Congressional approval. Here are three strategies that could make a big dent in carbon emissions.

¶Invoke the E.P.A.’s authority under the Clean Air Act to limit pollution from stationary sources, chiefly fossil-fuel power plants that account for almost 40 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. The agency has already proposed strict standards requiring new power plants to capture their emissions, an untested technology. The bigger problem is what to do with existing plants, which provide a big chunk of the nation’s electricity and which cannot be shut down quickly or by fiat. Devising a gradual phaseout will require ingenuity and persistence in the face of what are sure to be strong legal and political challenges from industry.

¶Make natural gas safer. Thanks to hydraulic fracturing, the country is now awash in natural gas. One major reason for the unexpected decline in national carbon emissions is that many power plants have switched from coal to natural gas, which emits only half as much carbon dioxide. But there is a downside: drilling for and transporting natural gas can produce methane leaks, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas that can cancel out whatever carbon advantage gas has over coal. Much tougher restrictions must be imposed throughout the system, including on thousands of miles of pipelines.

¶Improve energy efficiency across the board. One of the success stories of the last 30 years has been the increase in energy efficiency in appliances, new commercial buildings, and cars and light trucks. But there is plenty of room for improvement. The task of designing ever-stricter standards will fall largely to Mr. Moniz.

There is obviously more: finding new refrigerants to replace climate-warming hydrofluorocarbons, investing not only in familiar renewable energy sources like wind and solar power but also in basic research, next-generation nuclear plants and experimental technologies that could smooth the path to a low-carbon economy.

Little of this will happen without a good deal of push-back from industry and its Congressional allies. From start to finish line, Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Moniz will need the president at their back.

    Two Enlistees in the Climate Wars, NYT, 5.3.2013,






In California, What Price Water?


February 28, 2013
The New York Times


CARLSBAD, Calif. — On a calm day, a steady rain just about masks the sound of Pacific Ocean water being drawn into the intake valve from Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Listen hard, and a faint sucking sound emerges from the concrete openings, like a distant straw pulling liquid from a cup.

At the moment, the seawater is being diverted from the ocean to cool an aging natural-gas power plant. But in three years, if all goes as planned, the saltwater pulled in at that entryway will emerge as part of the regional water supply after treatment in what the project’s developers call the newest and largest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere.

Large-scale ocean desalination, a technology that was part of President John F. Kennedy’s vision of the future half a century ago, has stubbornly remained futuristic in North America, even as sizable plants have been installed in water-poor regions like the Middle East and Singapore.

The industry’s hope is that the $1 billion Carlsbad plant, whose builders broke ground at the end of the year, will show that desalination is not an energy-sucking, environmentally damaging, expensive white elephant, as its critics contend, but a reliable, affordable technology, a basic item on the menu of water sources the country will need.

Proposals for more than a dozen other seawater desalination plants, including at least two as big as Carlsbad — one at Huntington Beach, 60 miles north of here, and one at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base — are pending along shorelines from the San Francisco Bay Area southward. Several of these are clustered on the midcoast around Monterey and Carmel.

The San Diego County Water Authority has agreed to buy at least 48,000 acre-feet of water from the plant each year for about $2,000 an acre-foot. An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, roughly enough for two families of four for a year. The authority has made a long-term bet that those costs — now double those of the most readily available alternative — will eventually be competitive. But it still means the authority will pay more than $3 billion over 30 years for only about 7 percent of the county’s water needs.

As Sandra Kerl, the deputy general manager of the authority, said in a recent interview, “There’s a lot of eyes on this.”

The technology used in the Carlsbad plant, known as reverse osmosis, was developed decades ago. It involves pushing the water through a series of microscopic sieves rolled up into larger cylindrical filters. The energy-intensive process separates pure water from both salt molecules and impurities. The filters, some of which are made locally, are cheaper and more durable than they were a decade ago, industry accounts say, bringing down the overall price of the plant and its operations.

In the Western United States, where the complexities of water law and heavily subsidized federal and state water projects have complicated the economics of water delivery and hamstrung any widespread development of water markets, the Carlsbad plant offers a peek into a future when water prices reflect the actual cost of procurement and delivery. David Moore, a managing director of Clean Energy Capital, financial advisers to the San Diego County authority, said the water authority had “made the call that over time this water is going to be more affordable than other sources. That was the fundamental risk of the transaction.” The price of water the authority now gets from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is about $1,000 an acre-foot.

The bet on this technology was not an obvious one; the recent history of desalination in the United States and Australia has been mixed, at best. Some recently constructed Australian plants are flourishing while others stand idle some of the time. In this country, technological missteps, delays and bankruptcies dogged the first big plant, which finally opened in Tampa in 2007.

“Tampa was a buzz kill for the sector,” Mr. Moore said.

So the Carlsbad plant is being watched not just for its performance or its effect on the local marine environment, but for its financial architecture.

Mr. Moore and other financial advisers are trying to make investors and bondholders comfortable with the technology by mimicking the financial approach of a merchant power plant — for instance, substituting a “water purchase agreement” for a “power purchase agreement,” to show that Carlsbad’s water has a guaranteed market.

The water purchase agreement was signed by the San Diego authority and the plant’s developer, Poseidon Resources, of Stamford, Conn., in late November. Poseidon bears the responsibility for completing the plant and operating it; the authority does not pay for any water that is not delivered.

The project’s costs are financed by two bond offerings totaling $734 million and a $189 million equity investment. In addition, the water authority is committing about $80 million to other capital needs. All of these arrangements have interlocking guarantees and risks, with the costs of constructing the plant borne by the project developers and the water authority responsible for constructing a 10-mile pipeline to send the water on its way to San Diego’s taps.

The public water authority did not want its ratepayers to be responsible for paying for water that was never delivered; it will pay only for water that meets its standards and goes into its reservoirs. That said, when the water is flowing in 2016 the county must pay as much as $113 million annually, which could rise over time.

Late last year, this financial picture prompted Fitch Ratings to give the project’s bond issue a BBB- rating, the lowest for investment grade debt. For Fitch executives, familiar with the unexpected obstacles in deployment of desalination technology, the water purchase agreement was a critical factor leading to a rating above junk level.

The cost comparison remains ugly for desalination right now, but the water agency has calculated that, given the history of annual rate increases from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the desalinated water could be cheaper than the current supply by 2024.

Then there is the question of reliability. Water supplied by the Southern California water district comes from Northern California transfers and Colorado River diversions. Climate change is likely to cut into both sources over time. And San Diego and the Southern California district have a history of antagonism; the Carlsbad plant, which would supply as much as 7 percent of the region’s needs, is the most recent of several San Diego efforts at diversification.

But water policy experts and local environmental activists are skeptical about the value of desalination compared with conservation and reuse. They will be watching the plant from a very different perspective.

Heather Cooley, a senior research associate with the Pacific Research Institute, an Oakland-based nonprofit group specializing in water supply questions, said that even if the Carlsbad plant worked well, a new rush to desalination was hardly certain.

It depended, she said, on whether “water demand continues to grow, as was likely in the past, or whether, as we’ve seen in the past 15 years, it stays the same or even declines, based on efficiencies and conservation and the structure of the economy.”

She added that by promising to buy at least 48 million gallons a day from the plant, the county water authority has less incentive to step up its push for water conservation, or to invest further in water reuse.

The environmental group the Surfrider Foundation, which has fought the Carlsbad plant at every turn, expects the plant to be an object lesson in how not to guard against water shortages. Among other things, the foundation emphasizes the energy needs of the plant, which will consume 5,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity to produce an acre-foot of water.

As electricity costs go up over time, the county’s water bill — already estimated to be $5 to $7 a month higher for each customer by 2016, thanks to Carlsbad — will rise in tandem.

But authority officials noted that water delivered from the Southern California district also required energy, and its cost, too, would go up in such circumstances.

The costs have been one focus of opponents.

“If the county had taken a holistic, practical approach to water management and water supply needs, it would never have done something so costly,” said Belinda Smith, a member of Surfrider.

She and her colleagues see the surface water intake valve as the plant’s Achilles’ heel. The current state permit covering the intake’s operations expires when the Encina natural gas power plant is no longer using cooling water. If the new permit required expensive changes — if, for instance, the entire intake had to be moved below the surface — the cost to ratepayers, and particularly to Poseidon, could increase significantly.

The county and the developers said this eventuality was covered in the financial planning.

But for the moment, Poseidon officials are energized by the prospect of beginning construction, after a decade of delays. Peter M. MacLaggan, a senior vice president at Poseidon, referred to the experience of the company’s desalination technology partners when he said, “We’re at desal 3.0 or 4.0 here at Carlsbad.”

He added that the need for new water supplies could provide a ready market for the technology, if it is effective. “Water in California has been cheap and plentiful. And that’s no longer the case,” he said. In San Diego, he said, “We’re facing it. The rest of California is facing it to different degrees. We’re all challenged in finding new water supplies.”

    In California, What Price Water?, 28.2.2013,





Limiting Carbon Dioxide Pollution by Power Plants


February 26, 2013
The New York Times



ELECTRIC power plants spew about 40 percent of the carbon dioxide pollution in the United States, but, amazingly, there are no federal limits on utility emissions of this potent greenhouse gas. The Obama administration plans to remedy this situation by drafting rules that would curtail these discharges from existing plants. The president should make sure they are tough. Nothing he can do will cut greenhouse gases more.

By accomplishing this under the executive authority Congress granted him in the Clean Air Act, the president will be stepping in where recent Congresses have refused to go. He did the same thing last August, when he toughened auto emissions standards that will result in a new car fleet that averages 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, and again last spring, when he proposed rules, restricting carbon dioxide emissions, that will effectively prevent the building of new coal-burning power plants.

Now President Obama should require existing power plants to reduce their emissions by at least one-quarter by 2020. These plants emitted 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, so a 25 percent cut would result in a reduction of more than 500 million tons. This would reduce lung-related illness and premature deaths, slow the accumulation of climate-changing gases in the atmosphere and demonstrate to the rest of the world that the United States was serious about taking on global warming.

To achieve these reductions, the rules should favor making homes, buildings and power plants more energy efficient over the more costly conversion of coal-fired plants to natural gas. (Gas-fired power plants emit half as much carbon dioxide as coal-fired plants. But expanding energy efficiency will reduce electricity demand and eliminate the need for the coal plants. Closing them is better than converting them to gas.) The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy says the technology exists now to cut electricity use by one-quarter by 2020 through efficiency alone. Based on the average electricity production of the nation’s large coal-fired power plants, this would allow for the closing of close to 60 such plants across the nation.

Certainly, the coal and utility industries won’t take this lying down. Some coal mines may be closed, and the electric industry will be reconfigured. A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated recently that reducing emissions by at least one-quarter over the next seven years would cost $4 billion in compliance expenses in 2020. But the reduced hospitalizations and fewer days of work lost to illness, and other health and environmental benefits would save $25 billion to $60 billion, the study said. The approach would also stimulate investments of more than $90 billion in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, according to the analysis for the N.R.D.C. by the consulting firm ICF International.

The progression to using less coal will create new jobs to build the highly efficient appliances, wind turbines, solar farms and other technologies that capture renewable energy. In addition, jobs will be created as some states and utilities choose to comply by building natural gas power plants, which should be done only if they won’t cause environmental havoc.

The auto industry is beginning to show how strong emissions standards and the technological advances they stimulate can benefit employment. When the new rules were announced last summer, Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, predicted that they would require “more engineers and more factory workers, expanding employment in the industry.” And Ford, which had already doubled its team working on fuel-saving engineering, said it planned to redouble the unit in 2015. Indeed, last week, Ford announced that it was adding 450 jobs at its Brook Park, Ohio, plant to produce its EcoBoost engine.

Not everyone will benefit immediately, of course. As demand for coal drops, some miners will lose their jobs. The nation owes them economic support, job training and sustainable jobs. There is a precedent for this: the government established a fund to help workers at nuclear weapons plants move to new jobs as the cold war ended.

But even as we reduce power plant pollution, we will need to do more to protect the atmosphere. We should also reduce emissions of such short-lived contributors to global warming as methane by tightening up leaky natural gas systems, and hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in air-conditioning.

Ultimately, we must meet our energy needs largely without coal, oil or gas. We must use energy more efficiently to lower demand to the point that ramped-up clean, renewable energy supplies most of what we require.

By ordering the new auto emissions standards, Mr. Obama took an enormous step in the fight against global warming. In a similarly bold move, he can reduce our reliance on coal, a dirty fuel that is the greatest contributor to the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution. By setting stringent power plant standards, he will slow global warming at a fraction of the cost of ignoring it.


Daniel F. Becker directs the Safe Climate Campaign.

James Gerstenzang, the campaign’s editorial director,

covered the White House and the environment for The Los Angeles Times.

    Limiting Carbon Dioxide Pollution by Power Plants, NYT, 26.2.2013,






In New England, a Natural Gas Trap


February 15, 2013
The New York Times


Electricity prices in New England have been four to eight times higher than normal in the last few weeks, as the region’s extreme reliance on natural gas for power supplies has collided with a surge in demand for heating.

Frigid temperatures and the snowstorm that hammered parts of the Northeast last week have revived concerns about the lack of alternatives to natural gas. Many plants that ran on coal or oil have been shuttered, and the few that remain cannot be put into service quickly enough to meet spikes in demand. The price of electricity is determined by the price of gas.

Last year, natural gas provided 52 percent of New England’s electricity, and that share is expected to grow. Gas is generally cheaper than other energy sources, and the lower costs have spurred the retirement of aging coal generators and nuclear reactors. The six-state New England region and parts of Long Island are the most vulnerable now to overreliance on gas, a vulnerability heightened by a shortage of natural gas pipeline capacity, but officials worry that similar problems could spread to the Midwest.

“We are sticking a lot of straws into this soft drink,” said William P. Short III, an energy consultant whose clients include companies that move and burn gas. “This is a harbinger of things to come in New England, as well as New York.”

James G. Daly, vice president for energy supply at Northeast Utilities, a company that, through its subsidiaries, provides electricity to homes and businesses in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, said: “There is concern we don’t have enough capacity to supply heating and electricity generation.”

Northeast and many other companies are temporarily insulated from the spot market because they sign long-term contracts for electricity supply. But Northeast’s energy charges next year could be 10 percent higher than they are now, Mr. Daly said, because the companies that sell power on a long-term basis will charge more to absorb the risk of short-term spikes in prices.

“It is certainly true that a region like New England that relies on a single fuel source like natural gas for the bulk of its power does leave itself open for more disruptions than a region with a more diverse fuel mix,” said Jay Apt, executive director of the Electricity Industry Center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “It’s not a knock against natural gas; it’s a knock against a single fuel source.”

The American Public Power Association has warned since 2010 that demand is outpacing the delivery capacity of gas infrastructure. At coal plants, “you can look out the window and see that 60-day supply of your fuel,” said Joe Nipper, the group’s senior vice president of government relations. But gas plants tend to deliver fuel just as it is needed.

The gyrations of the spot market are hard to follow because prices are set in units few consumers understand. Electricity is sold on the wholesale market in megawatt-hours, or thousands of kilowatt-hours; a megawatt-hour is enough to run a big suburban house for a month. Natural gas is sold in a unit called an MMBtu, or a million British thermal units. An MMBtu equals 10 therms, the unit home heating customers pay for.

Normally, a megawatt-hour costs $30 to $50, and an MMBtu less than $4. But not lately.

The problem began late last year. During a cold snap around Thanksgiving, electricity prices in New England shot up to the highest in the country: $103.20 per megawatt-hour and $12.37 per MMBtu on Nov. 27.

On Jan. 24, the cost of an MMBtu of natural gas at Algonquin Citygate, a spot near Boston where gas is traded, rose to $31.20, pushing the price of a megawatt-hour over $200. Constellation Energy, which operates plants in the region, attributed the jump to temperatures 15 to 20 degrees below average.

A megawatt-hour cost about $150 early this month, according to weekly reports from ISO New England, the independent operator that maintains the region’s electricity market. A year ago, the price was around $30.

New England’s problems have been moderated somewhat by imports. “Without Indian Point, New England would have been toast,” Mr. Short said. “We’re importing 1,400 megawatts out of New York.” Indian Point is a twin-unit nuclear plant on the Hudson River that New York State is seeking to close.

But the region is littered with 1950s- and 1960s-era coal and oil plants that have been retired in the last few years. The 214-megawatt, coal-fired AES Thames unit near Uncasville, Conn., shut down in 2011; Somerset Station, a 174-megawatt, coal-fired plant in Somerset, Mass., closed in 2010.

The Salem Harbor plant in Salem, Mass., once had four coal and oil units, with a capacity of 745 megawatts. Two have closed, and the others will probably close next year. A new owner intends to build a 630-megawatt plant that will run on natural gas.

The underlying issue in New England is that gas pipeline capacity is inadequate to keep prices steady in times of high home heating demand, said Vamsi Chadalavada, executive vice president and chief operating officer of ISO New England. ISO is leading a study focused mainly on reliability, but reliability is intertwined with price, he said.

Importing liquefied natural gas would help, Dr. Chadalavada said, but cargoes are going instead to Europe and South America, where prices are higher.

Several companies want to liquefy and export gas from the continental United States because of the shale gas glut, and the events in New England could affect that debate. Opposition has come mostly from domestic industries that use the gas. A spokesman for Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said Mr. Wyden saw the price gyrations in New England as a reason to “look before we leap ahead with unfettered exports of gas.”

But the biggest problem may be the inadequacy of existing pipelines. On Feb. 7, ISO New England told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that it was concerned about “increasing reliance on natural gas-fueled generators at times when there is an increasingly tight availability of pipeline capacity to deliver natural gas from the south and west to New England.”

Additionally, experts say that the natural gas market and the electric market mesh poorly, because while the electric market runs around the clock, the gas market closes down at night.

During the storm last week, with transmission lines being knocked out by snow and high winds, ISO asked some gas-fired generators to start running in the middle of the night, Dr. Chadalavada said, and found they could not. “We were sitting here, 3 in the morning, trying to get gas generators to start up, and we started seeing where they couldn’t access that market in the overnight hours,” he said.

About 30 percent of the generators in the region burn coal and oil, Dr. Chadalavada said, but they produce less than 1 percent of the energy because they run so seldom. Some can take 24 hours to return to service.

ISO and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate electricity and gas markets and transmission, are trying to make the systems mesh better.

    In New England, a Natural Gas Trap, NYT, 15.2.2013,






Storm Leaves Northeast Reeling and Digging


February 9, 2013
The New York Times


A gigantic midwinter storm buried the Northeast in snow on Saturday, leaving behind a debilitated and disoriented region digging through plump white drifts and reeling from gale-force winds.

Painting a white landscape from Maine to New York, the storm expressed itself much as weather forecasters had predicted. New York City eluded its worst bite, and muffled-up pedestrians trooped along slushy sidewalks as insouciantly as after any matter-of-fact winter snowfall. But points to the north and east were battered hard.

More than three feet of snow fell on parts of Connecticut, and more than two feet accumulated on Long Island and in Massachusetts, causing coastal flooding that forced evacuations of some Massachusetts communities.

Hundreds of thousands of people shivered without power in the biting cold. Wind gusts of 80 miles per hour cut power lines and toppled trees.

The storm, spawned by the collision of two weather systems, touched more than 40 million people, though early reports suggested it accounted for only a handful of deaths. One awful case involved a young boy shoveling snow with his father in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston who died of carbon monoxide poisoning after he retreated inside a car to warm up. The exhaust pipe was blocked by snow.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg expressed relief at a Saturday morning news conference that the city had avoided worse damage and offered to assist the more heavily pounded neighboring states and Long Island, the hardest-hit part of New York State. Most roads in the city, he said, were well on the way to being cleared, and he thanked people for staying off the streets during the storm. The accumulation in Central Park was measured at 11.4 inches by the time the snow relented at daybreak Saturday.

“I think it is fair to say we were very lucky,” Mr. Bloomberg said.

But for many areas, “this storm will rank in the top five of recorded snowstorms,” said David Stark, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in eastern Suffolk County on Long Island. Outside his office, measurements have been taken since 1949, and this storm beat them all with 30.9 inches.

“The way this evolved was a very classic winter nor’easter,” Mr. Stark said. “The way it formed and moved is well understood, and it is the type of situation we have seen in the past — but this storm brought more moisture and therefore more snow.”

The National Weather Service received reports of flooding up and down the Massachusetts coast, especially in areas just north and south of Boston. Water carrying slabs of ice sloshed through the streets and lapped against houses. The National Guard was dispatched to assist in evacuations.

Waves off the South Shore of Boston and parts of Cape Cod measured as high as 20 feet. Two feet of water was observed in Winthrop, Mass., just north of Boston. Waters breached a sea wall in the Humarock section of Scituate, while roads in Gloucester, Marblehead and Revere were reported flooded or impassable.

At a news conference, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said New York would send crews to Connecticut and Massachusetts to help remove snow and restore power.

Some streets in Connecticut resembled ski slopes or mountain passes. People could not open their doors.

With snow still falling, the Weather Service said it had reports out of New Haven County of 36.2 inches in Oxford and 38 inches in Milford. In Commack, on Long Island, 29.1 inches of snow was reported at 6 a.m. and 27.5 inches at MacArthur Airport in Islip. In Boston, where the sun finally broke through about 2 p.m. Saturday, the official accumulation was 24.9 inches, the fifth highest in city history.

On Long Island, the storm barreled in so quickly on Friday night that hundreds of drivers abandoned their cars as roads became impassable, even with snowplows working furiously. Scores of cars including tow trucks, semis and even county snowplows were strewn about and stuck in the snow along North Ocean Avenue in Brookhaven, which had received 30.3 inches by 6 a.m.

Barbara Bariciano, 43, a housecleaner, tried to shadow the plows, but the snow snapped both windshield wipers on her Honda Civic hybrid.

“My knees are shaking,” she said when she stopped at a gas station to scrape snow from her windshield. “I’m going to stay right here for a while.”

States of emergency were declared in five states. Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts banned travel on all roads as night fell on Friday, an order that remained in effect until 4 p.m. Saturday. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut reported cars stranded across his state despite orders to stay off the roads, and said several people needed to be treated for hypothermia after spending hours trapped in their cars.

In Bridgeport, Conn., George Berry, 69, was stuck on a road in his Chrysler sedan, holding up traffic. He had worked the night shift at a supermarket and was almost home. Three men were digging out his car. Two of them had also been offering their services to homeowners, charging between $20 and $50.

The three men extricated Mr. Berry’s car and he handed them $20.

Coming less than four months after Hurricane Sandy walloped the New York area and boldly confirmed the merciless side of nature, weather-anxious residents took this storm very seriously. People crowded supermarkets and supply stores to stock up as the storm bore down on the region. Long lines materialized at gas stations.

But it was impossible for some to stay home minus power. More than 400,000 customers were reported without power in Massachusetts, and more than 180,000 in Rhode Island. The Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass., shut down because of the storm. On Long Island, about 10,000 customers were reported without power, the Long Island Power Authority said. New York City fared far better: 478 customers were out of power in Brooklyn, according to Consolidated Edison, for by far the most of any borough. Manhattan was next with 184.

National Grid said it had more than 2,000 crews working to restore power in Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts, including supplemental crews from 26 states and two Canadian provinces. As of Saturday afternoon, they had restored power to about 25,000 customers in Massachusetts and predicted in a late-afternoon statement that “all Massachusetts customers outside of Norfolk and Plymouth Counties should have power within 24 hours.”

Areas in those two counties, south of Boston, were flooded when the ocean breached their sea walls. “Given the extensive damage to the electric system in these two counties, it will be at least a few days before all customers will have their power back in those areas,” National Grid said.

Marcy Reed, president of National Grid, which also supplies power to the Long Island Power Authority, said failures there could last several days because repairs would require unearthing power lines buried under mounds of snow.

In Massachusetts, National Guard soldiers were deployed, mainly in the southeastern part of the state, to retrieve residents and take them to warming centers and shelters. Yet even members of the Guard found themselves trapped at home; only about 2,000 out of a force of more than 5,000 managed to get out.

Betty Ludtke, the single mother of newborn twins and two other young children, woke up at midnight to find her Hyannis Port home on Cape Cod without electricity. To keep warm, they snuggled beneath down comforters on the living room floor. Her car was encased in snow.

“I wouldn’t be so worried for myself but with the kids” she said. Then just before noon on Saturday, Wilson Dsouza, a close family friend who lives about four miles away, appeared at her door. He had flagged down a snowplow to get his own car out and took the Ludtkes back to his house.

The Boston Archdiocese released Roman Catholics from their obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, saying they should attend only if they could do so safely.

Logan International Airport in Boston was expected to open Saturday night. The three international airports around New York City were slowly working to resume operations on Saturday. With more than 5,000 flights canceled since Friday, many travelers could still face challenges.

Many people in New York City woke up early to snap photos of snow-topped streetlamps and make fresh tracks on their way to find the best hill to go sledding. Or they looked to pick up income. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, Ashley Faria, 18, snow shovel in hand, had just cleared a neighbor’s stoop and sidewalk and collected $20.

“I enjoy it, it’s peaceful,” she said. “I’m listening to my music. I could do it all day.”



Reporting was contributed by Jess Bidgood, Robert Davey, Ann Farmer, Dina Kraft, Elizabeth Maker, Eli Rosenberg, Nate Schweber, Michael Schwirtz, Katharine Q. Seelye, Ravi Somaiya, Alex Vadukul and Vivian Yee.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 9, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated the location of Winthrop, Mass. It is north of Boston, not south. It also misspelled the surname of a woman driving on Long Island. She is Barbara Bariciano, not Barkiano.

    Storm Leaves Northeast Reeling and Digging, NYT, 9.2.2013,






Just a Storm? Not After the Hurricane


February 8, 2013
The New York Times


Perhaps in any other year, the nor’easter would have been met with little more than a shrug in the New York region. Sure, some people would still have stocked up on batteries, water, food and snow shovels. But even they would have salted these purchases with knowing complaints about too much hype.

This year is different. Barely three months after Hurricane Sandy destroyed thousands of homes, businesses and cars, and stripped millions of residents of power, the rites of disaster preparation are tinged by a fresh sense of vulnerability in a region that has learned not to underestimate mother nature.

So on Friday, as the snow-choked storm system moved ever closer, there was a palpable sense of urgency in the air. Idling cars stretched from gas stations, some of which ran out of fuel. Supermarket lines extended out doors, and shelves emptied. Generators were prepared for possible power failures. And many of these disaster-ready residents wrestled openly with another worry: that a minor storm would make all these preparations seem over the top.

“I’m still fixing up my house from that storm; it’s been tough,” said Joe DiSalvo, 51, an engineer who lives in Long Beach, N.Y.

Mr. DiSalvo spent part of Friday lining up at a gas station to fill three spare gas cans for his generator, and said he had never taken such precautions for a blizzard before. “Now anytime there’s a chance of a storm, I prepare,” he said. “I really don’t want to do it, but what are you going to do?”

The anxiety was particularly high among those still deep in the process of rebuilding, some of whom worried whether they would be able to cope with another nature-born blow.

In Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, where many people are still not back in their homes and the local volunteer fire department’s hall is being used daily to serve hot meals to storm victims, firefighters doled out extra advice: people should keep whistles on hand, even around their necks, in case something happens and they cannot contact anybody.

“Everybody’s a little nervous,” said Linda Cupo, first vice president of the neighborhood’s property owners association. “Everybody’s a little leery.”

In Staten Island, several people living in heavily damaged areas said they would be closely monitoring the storm, with plans to flee if the water inched too close. “Some in our group have evacuated, even though there’s no mandatory evacuation,” said Joseph Tirone Jr., who heads a group pushing for home buyouts in Oakwood Beach, Staten Island. “We sort of welcome the storm to show how dangerous the area is.”

The scenes of people taking extra precautions in ways they had not for Hurricane Sandy, let alone past winter snowstorms, were repeated across New York and New Jersey. The Mobil station in Long Beach was one of many besieged by customers starting on Thursday night. It ran out of gasoline around 10 a.m., the first time its pumps had dried up since Hurricane Sandy. The manager, Yehuda Rodriguez, 33, said he did not understand his customers’ thinking: “They’re filling their cars to sit in the driveway because if there’s six feet of snow, where are you going?”

At Brewers Hardware in Mamaroneck, N.Y., Anthony Lividini, the manager, said he was selling far more blizzard and power-failure supplies than usual for a winter storm, including generators that cost as much as $1,299. “People are getting nervous and coming out early because after Sandy they were unable to get supplies,” Mr. Lividini said.

The months of recovery work meant that many community groups were ready to help should the storm cause problems. In Brooklyn, the Red Hook Initiative and the Red Hook Volunteers checked their lists of homebound seniors, in case the electricity failed.

Several people noted that if floodwaters hit — flooding is projected to reach as high as four feet — they were already somewhat prepared by virtue of having less to lose: their basements and first floors were still gutted from the hurricane. Still, they felt a measure of vulnerability.

“What little I was able to save from my first floor is in a container in my driveway,” said Mike Dziuk, 54, a retired detective and firefighter who lives in Belle Harbor, on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, half a block from the ocean. “That’s all exposed.”

Even in hard-hit waterfront communities, residents expressed a measure of defiance and grit. Fears about the coming storm, they said, were hyped. The threat of snow seemed far less menacing than the floodwaters brought by Hurricane Sandy. “We need this blizzard like we need a hole in the head,” said John Vetter, preparing for the storm in Far Rockaway. “But we’re beach people. We don’t run.”


Joseph Berger, Nate Schweber and Alex Vadukul contributed reporting.

    Just a Storm? Not After the Hurricane, NYT, 8.2.2013,






Storm’s Heavy Snow

and High Winds Lash at the Northeast


February 9, 2013
The New York Times


A ferocious storm system pummeled the Northeast for a second day on Saturday, bringing high winds, deep snow, and leaving more than 600,000 homes and businesses without power, mostly in New England.

After a day of pelting wet snow, five states — New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island — had declared states of emergency, and Massachusetts had banned vehicles from every road in the state. Major highways like Interstate 93 were almost completely abandoned; downtown Boston, in blizzard conditions, was a ghost town lost in a swirl of howling winds and snow. Dozens of cars that had gotten stuck on the Long Island Expressway Friday night remained there Saturday morning, unable to pass each other and virtually trapped by mounds of plowed snow.

The storm moved with full force into New England Saturday morning, with record-breaking snowfall amounts a possibility even as the storm started to leave the New York area. Forecasters said the storm would continue to bear down on New England through Saturday afternoon and winds could reach 75 miles per hour, leaving behind a fresh white blanket perhaps three feet thick.

In New York City, where the National Weather Service had reports of up to 8 inches of snow in Central Park by 3 a.m. Saturday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told people to stay home and warned them not to “panic buy” gasoline because the supply was plentiful. But the memory of Hurricane Sandy in October was still so raw that many across the region went on buying sprees anyway, emptying store shelves and filling extra containers of gasoline in addition to their car tanks.

“I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as they’re saying, but I said that with Sandy, too,” said Lavel Samuels, 42, as she filled her tank at a gas station in Far Rockaway, Queens. “I’m filling up based on my experience with Sandy, in case there’s no gas on Sunday or Monday.”

But New England was bearing the brunt of the storm as heavy snows caused downed power lines throughout the region. By Saturday, 380,000 power failures were reported in Massachusetts, and more than 180,000 were reported in Rhode Island. And the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass., shut down because of the storm.

Marcy Reed, president of National Grid, said failures could last several days because repairs would not begin until the storm ended and would require unearthing power lines buried under mounds of snow.

Some, though welcomed the heavy snowfall, particularly skiers who have bemoaned almost two seasons of barren slopes.

“These aren’t flakes falling from the sky; these are dollar bills,” said Ed Carrier as he sat in a coffee shop in Portsmouth, N.H., and envisioned the boon for winter sports. Staff members at the Thirsty Moose Taphouse nearby said they were determined to stay open through the storm until their regular closing time at 1 a.m. (except in the case of a power failure), and even offered storm-related drink specials: $3 porters and stouts, as long as it was snowing. “It’s just a little bit of snow,” said the hostess, Kim Lovely. “Mother Nature’s just brushing out her dandruff.”

But in most cities and towns, Friday was largely a day of preparing for the worst. With hurricane-force winds, the National Weather Service expects flooding along the Atlantic Coast that could affect up to eight million people.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick took the unusual step of ordering all vehicles off all roads, not just state roads, by 4 p.m. Friday, well before the brunt of the storm had hit. Violators could face up to a year in prison and a fine, though exceptions were made for emergency workers, members of the news media and anyone with a snowplow.

“Two or three feet of snow is a profoundly different kind of storm than we have dealt with,” the governor said from the state’s emergency bunker in Framingham. Officials recalled only one previous such traffic ban, in the aftermath of the Blizzard of 1978, when more than 27 inches of snow paralyzed the region, forcing people to abandon their cars in the middle of roadways.

Maine declared a partial emergency, allowing it to suspend federal transportation rules, extend worker hours and bring in extra crews from Canada to assist with storm damage repair.

Thousands of flights were grounded Friday and Saturday, snarling the nation’s air transportation system through the weekend.

Boston’s transit system, including subway, buses and commuter rail lines, suspended service at 3:30 p.m. Friday, allowing first-shift workers to get home and second-shift workers to get to work. The city inaugurated its SnowOps Viewer, an online portal that allows viewers to see where all snowplows are in real time.

In New York City, transit officials increased bus and train service Friday afternoon to help commuters beat the worst of the storm. But New Jersey Transit suspended most of its commuter train and bus service by 8 p.m. Amtrak suspended northbound service out of Pennsylvania Station in New York early Friday afternoon and southbound service out of Boston, with the suspensions continuing into Saturday. Schools throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were shut or sent students home early.

New York was battered by a sloshy mix of rain, snow and sleet that slowly changed over to all snow overnight.

By Saturday, the total snowfall in New York City was expected to be between 10 and 14 inches. On Long Island, the snow totals will range from 14 to 18 inches, with the highest amounts at the East End.

In New London, Conn., forecasters said there would most likely be more than 24 inches of snow and even more in Boston, which could break modern records by topping 28 inches.

Jerome Hauer, the New York State commissioner of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, said that coastal areas of Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island could experience flooding and that residents should be prepared to seek alternative shelter. While the storm surge is expected to be only 3 to 5 feet — well below the 14-foot surge that the hurricane delivered in the fall — he said large waves could bring water inland.

“If you see flooding, have plans for somewhere to go,” Mr. Hauer said.

For many in New York and New Jersey, the memory of the gas shortages and prolonged power failures that followed Hurricane Sandy are still vivid, and they were taking no chances.

At Brewer’s Hardware in Mamaroneck, N.Y., Anthony Lividini, the manager, said he was selling far more blizzard and power supplies, including generators, than he had in the past.

“People are getting nervous and coming out early because after Sandy they were unable to get supplies,” he said.

Some stations were already reporting Friday that they had run out of fuel — some as early as noon.

At the Shell station on Beach 59th Street in Queens, some drivers also filled red gas cans for generators they bought to get through the post-hurricane power failures.

At a Shell station in Jericho, N.Y., Andy Harris, the station owner, said that he had sold more than 12,000 gallons of gas in the past 24 hours — more than double his usual sales.


Reporting was contributed by Marc Santora, Joseph Berger, Winnie Hu,

Nate Schweber, Jess Bidgood, Christine Hauser, Michael Schwirtz and Andy Newman.

    Storm’s Heavy Snow and High Winds Lash at the Northeast, NYT, 9.2.2013,






It Has Been Frigid Outside,

but Also a Lot Less Dangerous


January 25, 2013
The New York Times


It’s an old saw that murders spike during hot summers, when city dwellers flee their apartments for the streets and tempers soar along with the mercury. Less, however, has been said about the effect of extreme cold spells on mankind’s capacity for violent crimes.

As of 6:20 a.m. on Friday, New York City, with temperatures dropping as low as 11 degrees in recent days, had been murder-free for about 221 hours, a period of more than nine days. The cold, perhaps, pacified a city accustomed, on average, to more than a murder a day.

“We’re rooting for more cold weather,” Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said when asked about the streak of murder-free days.

Murders are inevitable in a city of more than eight million people, Mr. Kelly said, so “any respite in that is obviously a welcomed thing.”

The last time more than a week went by without a homicide in the city was three months ago. Hurricane Sandy’s destructive force appears to have quelled man-made violence for an eight-day period, during which the police did not report a single homicide, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, Paul J. Browne, said.

In August 2010, despite the summer heat, seven days passed without a murder. In 2009, there was a six-day reprieve in February and March. In other years, New York considered itself lucky to go five days without a homicide.

A correlation between cold weather and a drop in violence undoubtedly exists, according to several academics whose habitats range from sun-drenched Miami to frostbitten Iowa.

“Some have argued that there is something about cold that actually inhibits aggression — literally the effect that cold has on the brain,” said Ellen G. Cohn, a professor of criminal justice at Florida International University. She added, however, that she believed cold reduced violence primarily for a different reason: fewer people are likely to be on the streets, which, she said, means “victims and offenders are less likely to come into contact with each other.”

Craig A. Anderson, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, said he, too, believed that some of the decrease had “to do with people probably hunkering down inside” during cold spells. But he noted that the cold, even as it suppressed street violence, could lead to an increase in domestic violence, which largely occurs indoors. And he observed that some research actually suggested that uncomfortable levels of cold could increase people’s irritability and aggression, just as heat does.

Matthew Ranson, who studied the effect of temperature on crime as a graduate student at Harvard University, said that cold affected crime unequally. Property crime, said Mr. Ranson, now a policy analyst, dropped precipitously whenever temperatures fell below a certain point in the 40s. But violent crime, he said, declined more gradually, in a linear manner.

The temperatures were uneven over the recent murder-free period, which began shortly after 1 a.m. on Jan. 16, after a gunshot victim died at a hospital in Brooklyn. The low temperatures for Jan. 16 and the following four days were mostly in the low 30s, and dropped to as low as 11 degrees.

But the streak of murderless days in New York City may have ended on Friday morning, when the police found an unconscious woman in her 40s lying outside a building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, at 6:20 a.m. She was naked from the waist down, the police said, and died. Her death remained under investigation and had not been classified as a homicide by Friday night.


Wendy Ruderman contributed reporting.

    It Has Been Frigid Outside, but Also a Lot Less Dangerous, NYT, 25.1.2013,






First Overwhelmed by the Hurricane,

Now Struggling to Fight Off the Cold


January 23, 2013
The New York Times


It was too cold for Daniel Choi to stay in his storm-gutted home in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, so he left his two pet turtles, Michelangelo and Leonardo, behind to move in temporarily with friends. But on Wednesday, when he stopped by his home to feed them, he made an upsetting discovery. Plummeting temperatures in the still-heatless house had left the two turtles frozen under a sheet of ice.

As the region suffers through a brutal cold snap this week, with temperatures so punishing that uncovered slivers of flesh feel like paper cuts and the slightest wind can send a chill through the teeth like a Popsicle, the best solution seems not to leave home. But for many people whose boilers were flooded by seawater during Hurricane Sandy and still languish, awaiting repair, home is as frigid as the outdoors.

“I’ve been through a lot,” said Mr. Choi, 27, who resuscitated the turtles, but not before discovering that his pipes had burst, leaving miniature ice rinks in the middle of his floor. “It just feels like another problem after another problem.”

Residents who have made do with cold homes under extra blankets and triple socks since the storm hit in October face new challenges as the thermometer continues to dip. Temperatures this week have been about 10 to 15 degrees lower than midwinter averages, according to the National Weather Service, and are expected to slide into the teens over the next few nights, and could even fall into the single digits in parts of the region.

As of Tuesday, New York City’s Rapid Repairs construction teams had restored heat, hot water or power to 12,247 residences in 7,112 buildings, according to Peter Spencer, the spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery. But work is continuing in an additional 1,893 buildings, a substantial portion of which, Mr. Spencer estimated, remain without heat.

Devon Lawrence’s home in Far Rockaway, Queens, was washed through with ocean water that damaged his boiler and heating system beyond repair. At night, he tucks his 75-year-old mother, who has dementia and suffers from diabetes, under two blankets — she never takes off the four pairs of pants, three jackets and hat she wears indoors to hold off the seeping cold. Though the boiler was replaced by contractors from the Rapid Repairs program, the repairs have not been completed, he said. For now, Mr. Lawrence, 48, is heating his home with a kerosene heater and has spent $450 on kerosene in the past few weeks, dipping into money he was given by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that should be going to repairing his house, he said.

“I’m worried about everything,” Mr. Lawrence said. “When you wake up in the morning, you will breathe fog. If we are not properly covered we could suffer from hypothermia.”

Joseph McKellar, the executive director of Queens Congregations United for Action, a coalition of 40 faith-based organizations, called for the city to spend more money helping people get heat in their homes, saying the low temperatures had put people’s lives at risk. Last week a homeless day laborer was found dead inside an abandoned storm-damaged home on Staten Island, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group. Other scenes of hardship were playing out throughout the region. At a public school in the Belle Harbor section of the Rockaways, students were evacuated on Wednesday to a school across the street after a boiler malfunctioned and temperatures in the school dropped.

In Sea Bright, N.J., Mayor Dina Long said that though only a quarter of the residents had returned to the borough, those with heating issues had been taken care of. But at Borough Hall itself, the boiler that had replaced the one the hurricane destroyed was not working. Business was conducted on Wednesday in jackets and sweaters, according to Kathy Morris, a staff member.

There are no more space heaters to give away at the Martin Luther King Center in Long Beach, on Long Island, said James Hodge, the site coordinator. He added that the center ran out on Tuesday. Mr. Hodge, 36, does not have heat at his home, which he shares with two of his brothers. “We’ve thought about everyone else and then at night we’re cold,” he said

Some people have taken matters into their own hands. Doreen Greenwood, a real estate agent and the chief of the volunteer Gerritsen Beach Fire Department, has gone out each night with an ambulance full of space heaters, knocking on doors, and offering them to anyone who is icy.

And in the Arverne section of the Rockaways, Hazel Beckett, 73, a retired nurse, said she was toasty, even though her heating system was still a work in progress. She has been roasting red bricks on the stove. “That’s been throwing beautiful heat,” she said.


Elizabeth A. Harris contributed reporting.

    First Overwhelmed by the Hurricane, Now Struggling to Fight Off the Cold, NYT, 23.1.2013,






Not Even Close: 2012 Was Hottest Ever in U.S.


January 8, 2013
The New York Times


The numbers are in: 2012, the year of a surreal March heat wave, a severe drought in the Corn Belt and a huge storm that caused broad devastation in the Middle Atlantic States, turns out to have been the hottest year ever recorded in the contiguous United States.

How hot was it? The temperature differences between years are usually measured in fractions of a degree, but last year’s 55.3 degree average demolished the previous record, set in 1998, by a full degree Fahrenheit.

If that does not sound sufficiently impressive, consider that 34,008 daily high records were set at weather stations across the country, compared with only 6,664 record lows, according to a count maintained by the Weather Channel meteorologist Guy Walton, using federal temperature records.

That ratio, which was roughly in balance as recently as the 1970s, has been out of whack for decades as the country has warmed, but never by as much as it was last year.

“The heat was remarkable,” said Jake Crouch, a scientist with the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., which released the official climate compilation on Tuesday. “It was prolonged. That we beat the record by one degree is quite a big deal.”

Scientists said that natural variability almost certainly played a role in last year’s extreme heat and drought. But many of them expressed doubt that such a striking new record would have been set without the backdrop of global warming caused by the human release of greenhouse gases. And they warned that 2012 was probably a foretaste of things to come, as continuing warming makes heat extremes more likely.

Even so, the last year’s record for the United States is not expected to translate into a global temperature record when figures are released in the coming weeks. The year featured a La Niña weather pattern, which tends to cool the global climate over all, and scientists expect it to be the world’s eighth- or ninth-warmest year on record.

Assuming that prediction holds up, it will mean that the 10 warmest years on record all fell within the past 15 years, a measure of how much the planet has warmed. Nobody who is under 28 has lived through a month of global temperatures that fell below the 20th-century average, because the last such month was February 1985.

Last year’s weather in the United States began with an unusually warm winter, with relatively little snow across much of the country, followed by a March that was so hot that trees burst into bloom and swimming pools opened early. The soil dried out in the March heat, helping to set the stage for a drought that peaked during the warmest July on record.

The drought engulfed 61 percent of the nation, killed corn and soybean crops and sent prices spiraling. It was comparable to a severe drought in the 1950s, Mr. Crouch said, but not quite as severe as the legendary Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, which was exacerbated by poor farming practices that allowed topsoil to blow away.

Extensive records covering the lower 48 states go back to 1895; Alaska and Hawaii have shorter records and are generally not included in long-term climate comparisons for that reason.

Mr. Crouch pointed out that until last year, the coldest year in the historical record for the lower 48 states, 1917, was separated from the warmest year, 1998, by only 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit. That is why the 2012 record, and its one degree increase over 1998, strikes climatologists as so unusual.

“We’re taking quite a large step above what the period of record has shown for the contiguous United States,” Mr. Crouch said.

In addition to being the nation’s warmest year, 2012 turned out to be the second-worst on a measure called the Climate Extremes Index, surpassed only by 1998.

Experts are still counting, but so far 11 disasters in 2012 have exceeded a threshold of $1 billion in damages, including several tornado outbreaks; Hurricane Isaac, which hit the Gulf Coast in August, and, late in the year, Hurricane Sandy, which caused damage likely to exceed $60 billion in nearly half the states, primarily in the mid-Atlantic region.

Among those big disasters was one bearing a label many people had never heard before: the derecho, a line of severe, fast-moving thunderstorms that struck central and eastern parts of the country starting on June 29, killing more than 20 people, toppling trees and knocking out power for millions of households.

For people who escaped both the derecho and Hurricane Sandy relatively unscathed, the year may be remembered most for the sheer breadth and oppressiveness of the summer heat wave. By the calculations of the climatic data center, a third of the nation’s population experienced 10 or more days of summer temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Among the cities that set temperature records in 2012 were Nashville; Athens, Ga.; and Cairo, Ill., all of which hit 109 degrees on June 29; Greenville, S.C., which hit 107 degrees on July 1; and Lamar, Colo., which hit 112 degrees on June 27.

With the end of the growing season, coverage of the drought has waned, but the drought itself has not. Mr. Crouch pointed out that at the beginning of January, 61 percent of the country was still in moderate to severe drought conditions. “I foresee that it’s going to be a big story moving forward in 2013,” he said.

    Not Even Close: 2012 Was Hottest Ever in U.S., NYT, 8.1.2013,




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