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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for September 2017

Is Site C needed? No.

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After reading Mark Jaccard’s opinion piece in today’s Vancouver Sun (would we use Site C’s electricity? September 12 2017), I felt compelled to write a letter.  Here it is, below; we’ll see what happens!

A map of the Site C project, with the existing Williston Reservoir to the west.


Jaccard and his team carried out long-term electricity demand projections based on the expected switch to electricity for vehicles and space heating (via heat pumps), as well as population growth.  I do agree that an increased demand is likely (although the potential of an aggressive conservation program seems to have been dismissed).

But it is a leap of logic to conclude that Site C is needed.  For one thing, Site C is considered a clean source of electricity; it is not. The rich soils that the reservoir will submerge will produce greenhouse gases.

But mostly, the conclusion is made without considering other potential sources.  More electricity could (and should) be generated by the dams already built on the Columbia in Eastern BC (to say nothing of Kemano II, which should enter the discussion).  But megawatt for megawatt, the winds of the Peace Valley could be harvested at a lower cost, and built progressively, as demand grows.  Wind may be an intermittent source, but the large Williston Reservoir provides all the needed storage to ensure dispatchability.  And we remain the only jurisdiction on the Pacific Rim that has not exploited geothermal energy.

Jaccard says that the decision should be made using unbiased analysis.  I couldn’t agree more; but the analysis does not support any conclusion other than more electricity will be eventually needed. 


Written by enviropaul

September 13, 2017 at 10:23 am

Water and identity: a musical interlude

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of water in the Canadian identity.  Not long afterwards, the composer Gilles Tremblay passed away.  That was just after I had discovered a very beautiful album called, simply, water, recorded by pianist Hélène Grimaud.  There is a connection: it’s about water.

Tremblay was a classical, modern composer from Québec, born in 1932.  His music was of the contemporary musical style, that is, the kind that few people ever listen to, but a composer’s composer.  His most famous work is called Fleuves (rivers).  He claimed that his music was never meant to be Canadian or Quebecker; he said that he wrote about the Saint-Lawrence because it is the river he knows best, (un fleuve d’horizons immenses, de générosité – a river of immense, generous horizons) but that the music is about water, ultimately, the same water as in every river.

I had never heard his stuff, or so I thought; but then I learned that he composed the music that was piped into the Québec Pavilion of Expo67.  I spent a lot of time there as a kid, and always loved the strange, surreal mood of what would now be called “nature sounds sampling” – he was a pioneer of the genre, and the mixture of water sounds and forest sounds within an eerie sound matrix was just magical (the music won the Calixa Lavallée award for 1968).

Along the same theme Hélène Grimaud recorded an album of solo piano compositions.  Just the titles of some of the pieces are evocative enough: Jeux d’eau (water play), two pieces with the same title by Liszt and Ravel; Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie (the submerged cathedral); Berio’s Wasserklavier (water keyboard); Janacek’s In The Mists; Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch.  All beautiful, intimist music that easily takes you floating into a daydream.  Every piece is separate by a short interlude of electronic music by Nitin Sawhney that somehow set the stage with what a friend said sounded “like underwater music”.  The video below gives a taste.

(I want to pause here – these two are far from the only musicians to be inspired by water; there are articles devoted to lists of these, such as here, here or here.  One only needs to think about Debussy’s La Mer (the sea) or Smetana’s Vltava, a piece that ties Czech nationalist aspirations with the river that flows through Prague; or the Eurythmics’ Here Comes the Rain Again, among many popular songs, or the countless references to the Mississippi in blues.  One personal favourite is jazzman Abdullah Ibrahim’s Water From An Ancient World, below.)

It’s no wonder water inspires musicians.  Beyond the fact that we, as a species, are emotionally drawn to water, water itself creates music, be it a babbling brook or the hypnotic rhythm of the waves by the seashore.  Some musicians have incorporated purely natural sounds such as recorded whale songs.  The Croatian architect Nikola Basic went one step further, letting the ocean create its own music:  the Zadar sea organ.  As waves enter a chamber, they pressurize air that exits through a series of organ pipes, set at different heights and with a different pitch.  Have a listen.

It’s worth quoting the liner notes from Grimaud’s album to get a sense of the inspiration water can generate.

Be praised, Lord, through Sister Water.  She is very useful and humble, and precious and pure. (a quote from St Francis of Assisi)

The majority of our bodies, like the surface of the Earth, is made up of water of water.  Life cannot exist without it.  Water is merciless and miraculous.  It sustains and humbles us, divides and completes us. Water is nature’s architect, sculpting the contours of the earth.  Water is also Nature’s composer, its drops, streams and waves beating the world’s primordial rhythms.

By my favourite liner quote is from Heraclitus, the well-known “no man ever steps in the same river twice”.  Grimaud makes sure to give the full quote, continuing with “for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”  Heraclitus, early on, realized that the only constant is change – or is it?  Rivers evolve and meander, its waters always renewed; but despite this, we give a permanent name to a river.  People change and age, as well; they may feel similar, keep their unique identity from one day to the next, yet their constituent molecules are always replaced, such that nothing in your make-up of seven years ago is present in you now.  But water!  A molecule of water, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, stay together over eons, evaporate in your breath, coalesce as rain, enters the well that holds the water that your brewer draws to make your beer – or becomes a part of a hydrated mineral crystal, buried deep, emerging back as lava billions of years later – the same molecule.  Water both reinforces and challenges your concept of identity.

Well, enough philosophy.  Forget hard thoughts and concepts, and let water-inspired music work its emotional magic on you.  I’ll leave you with Tremblay’s Fleuves – immerse yourself in the other type of music that was all the rage in the sixties.

Written by enviropaul

September 11, 2017 at 6:58 pm

About Harvey, part 3: floodproofing

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A Bajau village on stilts

Harvey is a stark reminder: we need to learn to manage floods.

Houston has been much criticized for its laissez-faire approach to urban planning.  Yes, having more green ground and less paved ground would have helped – a bit.  The amount of water was just too big, flooding would have occurred no matter what, but maybe more slowly and not as high.

What was a surprise to me, though, was the extent to which planning rules were broken.  Houses were built in both of the reservoirs designed to collect the flood waters – so, naturally, they flooded as water rose in the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, as it was meant to do.

Now what, though?  These folks bought the land, it is still theirs.  If new rules are created (and enforced) to prevent further development, or rebuilding, on these sites, they are left holding the bag: destroyed homes, valueless properties.  Compassion dictates that they be helped – but rebuilding on the same lots, isn’t that the height of foolishness?  Rebuild somewhere else, but where is the money coming from?  Should taxpayers, the ones still dry and solvent, contribute?  Is it buyer beware – too bad – or should the developers who knew better, the city hall clerks who gave the permits, be sued?  Or the oil companies who enabled climate change (and lied about it)?  No matter how you look at it, it’s messy.

(And God knows, if any city should have known better, it’s Houston.  It was founded by the survivors of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, still the worse disaster ever to hit the US in term of fatalities.  And yes, Galveston was eventually rebuilt, and it’s as much as sitting duck now as it was then.)

I don’t have solutions to offer, but the situation made me think of the approach adopted in Northern Europe, making room for the water.  As I posted before, in Hamburg’s HafenCity, for instance, that means buildings that can withstand having their ground floor flooded.  Could that approach be used in places like Houston? Or, for that matter, in the flood plains of Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver? I read that we are still “not well prepared”.

Room for the water, in an ordinary subdivision?  That would be possible if the houses are on stilts.  This is not as foolish as it sounds.  I have collected some pictures of stilt buildings from a variety of sites, some modern, some not (see here, here, here, or here). As I looked around, I was surprised by the number of examples I found.  One of my discoveries is the site called “make wealth history”.  The tag line is “because the Earth can’t afford our lifestyle”; but despite the crunchy-granola sound of this, the site has a wealth of examples.  For instance, this is where I learned about the new hospital in Boston designed to withstand flooding and keep working (I trust that the architects of our own St-Paul’s Hospital, moving to the very floodable False Creek Flats, are taking a look).

The flood-proof Spaulding Hospital in Boston © Steinkamp Photography



A development in Charleston





A cabin in Washington State


Built to withstand a tsunami, Camano Island, WA









In Galveston, of all places…

In Florida









And it’s not like it’s a radical new lifestyle, either.  Stilt houses have been around since the Neolithic; their modern ram-shackle counterparts can be seen in the Tonle Sap lake or the Bajau community, or in Trondheim for a more northern version.  Enjoy the pictures; there’s something atavistic about them.



A reconstructed neolithic village in Lake Constance

Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia

Pic: Copyright Timothy Allen

Some say that an amphibian lifestyle is what humans evolved to have: like marine mammals, we have naked skin, we shed salt tears, we have the diving reflex.  And we have this great yearning to be near water, which gets us in trouble.  All I’m considering is – can we not make our buildings resilient?

Written by enviropaul

September 4, 2017 at 6:27 pm

About Harvey, part 2: Messrs. Claudius, Clapeyron, and Mann

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One completely unexpected consequence of Hurricane Harvey: it has caused the Clausius-Clapeyron equation to be mentioned by the mainstream media.  A Google search reveals that Wired, the Guardian, the BBC, LA Times, the Washington Post, and Bloomberg have all mentioned the equation in the context of the Hurricane (and that’s just Page One of the search).

You have to thank climatologist Michael Mann for mentioning the equation (in a Facebook post, of all things) and explaining its significance: every time the air warms up by one degree centigrade, the air can hold up about 7% more moisture.

The equation itself is fairly complex (and its derivation scary – two pages in Wikipedia, and they simplify) but there is an approximation, the August-Roche-Magnus formula, that makes the point that it is an exponential relation, like compound interest:

This is the equation I’ve used in class, because it is accessible to anyone with a scientific calculator (yes, that’s what the button ex  is for).  It relates a fairly arcane complex (the water pressure) to the ambient temperature.  I say arcane because water pressure is just another way to say how much moisture is in the air.

I always find it interesting, if not downright nerdy, to figure out who these people were who gave their names to equations.

Rudolf Clausius

Rudolf Clausius was born in 1822 in what was then Prussia (in the town of Koszalin, now in Poland).  From what I can gather he was an exemplar of the Prussian cliché: very exacting, he gained fame by demonstrating that the thermodynamic laws of the time contained a contradiction, and restating the equations so as to make the problem disappear.  (In other words, the fact that the equations his colleagues used then worked well enough was not good enough for him.)  He also was the first to express in mathematical terms the mind-boggling concept of entropy.

Clausius got his PhD, a relatively new degree, from the university of Halle, in 1847. Prussia had recently acquired Halle and the area around it in 1815.  The old university became integrated into Prussia’s effort to increase its general education performance, especially in the applied sciences (Prussia had by then the most educated population of the world).  Clausius went on to teach in Berlin at the Royal Artillery and Engineering School.  He married twice and had seven children.

Benoit Clapeyron

Benoit Clapeyron was born in Paris in 1799, just at the start of the Napoleonic wars. He became an engineer developing the then-newfangled technology: the railway and its steam engines.  In 1834 he published an essay on the ”motive power of heat”, which was the first publication to feature the graphs of steam volume versus pressure (the very graphs dreaded by all engineering students in courses such as Intro Thermodynamics). By all accounts he was an eminently practical man, working on the practical problems of his era, be they better steam engines or bridges (for which he is equally famous in engineering circles).  He was presumably well connected, and married into the Bazaine family (the sister of the future Grand Marshall of France).  He died at the age of 64, having enjoyed a fine teaching job at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées, and what had been then the longest uninterrupted period of peace in Europe.

Clausius and Clapeyron apparently never worked together; Clausius reworked the French scientist’s equation from first principles, in a document published in 1850 (hence the name of the equation).  One wonders what they would have said to one another.  But in the era when the bulk of thermodynamics work was written, the France of Napoleon III and the Prussia of Bismarck eyed each other suspiciously.  As it was, Bismarck was to manufacture a diplomatic incident that led to the 1870 war between the two countries, which led to the complete defeat of France (led by Clapeyron’s brother-in-law Bazaine) and the unification of Germany.  Clausius organized an ambulance corps for the German side, was wounded during an engagement, received a medal and a permanent disability.

Penn State’s Michael Mann

What would these two have thought of Harvey and climate change?  They would have been interested, no doubt.  But maybe they would have also been surprised by our inability, 150 years later, to tackle the problem.  They probably would have also applauded climatologist Michael Mann’s intervention away from the ivory tower of science and into the public sphere; the idea that scientists should stay quietly in their labs was not current then.

Then again, having witnessed, one the devastation of the Napoleonic wars, the other the absurd horror of the Franco-Prussian war, they may have just shrugged and rolled their eyes in dismay.

Be that as it may; the silver lining is that, finally, science has regained its rightful place in the discussion.



Written by enviropaul

September 4, 2017 at 11:39 am