The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The first meter


This is a Dow Chemical plant in or near Clute TX, at about a meter above sea level. I am sure they take petrochemicals in. I am not sure what they ship.

Every structure you see in this picture is, I believe, on a single property. There are similar scale facilities all along the Texas Gulf Coast. What will happen to them if and (most likely) when they are permanently submerged? The economic consequences are clear enough. What about the environmental consequences? Will all these vast factories be evacuated in an orderly fashion?

The trains in the foreground explain the photo opportunity: the picture is taken from the highway overpass over the tracks. There is a vast surrounding territory which is absolutely flat.

Somewhat higher resolution picture here. If you are interested in the full 8 megapixel pic let me or Irene know; we don't have an appropriate server for it just now. There is an amazing amount of detail in the original shot.

photo: Irene Tobis (who rocks!)

update: Commenters seem to think it's important that these facilities are protected by levees. First of all, these levees become one meter shorter for each meter of sea level rise.

More to the point, though, one lesson of New Orleans is that protecting land below sea level indefinitely in an area subject to tropical storms is extremely difficult and expensive. I am not opposed to heavy industry: the current world population cannot survive without modern technology. I do think the industries in question should be paying attention to their own vulnerabilities to climate-driven sea level change, which seems very substantial.

Coping with the occasional flood is not the same thing as coping with sea level rise.

People with an interest in low-lying property have a tricky situation to negotiate. The best way to protect their property values in the short term is to deny the problem, and in the long term, to address it vigorously.

It's messy alright. In a way it's like the dilemma attached to any other real estate property with a defect, but it applies to a whole region. Unfortunately this inclines the people who are most motivated to deal with the potential problem to deny that it's serious.

update: Thanks, on the other hand, to the sharp-eyed commenters who pointed out that this is primarily a Dow facility, not BASF. I saw a sign on a gate saying BASF but apparently that is for a subfacility. There is a BASF location in Freeport TX on the property. Anyway, the text is updated with the correction.

Here's a map showing the facility for those interested.

update: This article is getting some attention from people outside my usual readership. Since I love attention, I'll ask y'all to stay tuned for an upcoming article in the week of August 6 on the science of sea level rise. update**2: Here is that article on sea level rise.

update: The New York Times has a relevant article about the difficulty in replacing large infrastructure here. From that article:

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sometimes points out that digging for what are now called the PATH tubes, which connect Manhattan and Newark, N.J., began in 1874, two years before General Custer died at Little Big Horn.

Generally, the bigger an object, the longer it survives, because it has economic value, and has usually become intricately connected to things around it.

Replacing the Brooklyn Bridge, in service since 1883, would mean years of disruption, and the possible replacement of all roads that lead to it. The PATH tubes are still in place because they are still needed and because a new Hudson River crossing would cost billions. Replacing old nuclear plants would be similarly astronomical, even if the legal and environmental barriers could be overcome.

“You cannot just replace the old stock with new stock, without changing a lot of stuff around it,” said Viren Doshi, a London-based consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, who has studied the telephone and electricity industries. “So they keep on patching up the old stuff.”

update: Yet more thoughts about chemical plants near sea level.

9 comments:

John Fleck said...

How does the usable lifespan of plants like this compare to the time frame of sea level rise? In other words, is it a trivial and routine problem? When the old one's obsolete, build the new one farther inland? Or is it an expensive problem - sea level rise forces the plant to be abandoned before its useful life is over?

Michael Tobis said...

John, as a guess, I would think the plants are constantly upgraded. I think it is difficult to expect a chemical production plant to say "This piece of infrastructure will last 50 years, and we expect the entire plant to be abandoned in 30, so we shouldn't build it." When to stop investing is a big issue.

Of course the scale of the problem is very dependent on magtnitude as well as rate of sea level rise. It turns out that this is one of the least well-constrained of the major decades-to-centuries climate predictions.

We don't really know yet. We do know that the more carbon we pump the faster the rise, and we are seeing indications that there are tipping points along the way.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what the purpose of your blog, but here is a few thoughts from an outsider:
This picture is NOT of BASF.
Perhaps if you had stopped somewhere and bothered to ASK someone, you would not be posting inaccurate information.
Also, many times, these plants are built near convenient modes of transportation. In this area, it is the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway - and railroads.
If you would have looked, you would have seen there are levee's on either side of the bridge you were on when you took the picture. They are there to protect from rising water. Unlike New Orleans. they are NOT below sea level - yet.

Michael Tobis said...

Not sure what anonymous is going on about. How did the train track get past the levee?

Anonymous said...

There is more than one levee in that area! They are there for flood control/prevention.
The one I mentioned is on either side of a barge canal, which the overpass goes over, as well as the rr tracks.

Rupert said...

Anonymous is correct.
The white tank car appears to have DOWX printed on it - and that belongs to the Dow Chemical Company, the picture is near Freeport, TX.
Many of the towns in the area have protection levees around them, and there are many pumping stations to pump the rainwater out - we are talking about millions of gallons a minute folks!
The train tracks have their own bridges to get across levees, rivers,and streams.
If there were a sudden rise in the sea level, most all of the cities and all of the chemical plants would be able stay up out of the water. Though not pictured, one of the plants near Freeport began construction in 1940, and produced magnesium for the war effort. Though no longer producing magnesium, the plant still producea a variety of chemicals.

Anonymous said...

Do you really think sea level will rise 1 meter before these plants are obsolete and replaced anyway? Remember the 3mm per year sea level rise rate currently(very low by historic standards during this interglacial BTW, so why is AGW a disaster?), it's math.

Michael Tobis said...

Response to the latest anonymous poster:

Will the obsolete plants be replaced before the sea level rise kicks in?

Sort of. There's a lot of tendency to replace things in place. Rome was founded in what, the 7th century BC. New York is almost four hundred years old. Individual structures get replaced but a nexus of activity tends to stay in one place.

Is the current sea level rise rate indicative of the future?

I strongly doubt it, as explained in the linked article.

Is the current or projected sea level rise rate geologically unprecedented?

No, not at all. There is less ice to melt, so in the end the amount that melts will not be more than has happenned in the past.

Is the anticipated sea level rise historically unprecedented?

You betcha. Industrial civilization has never seen anything like the sea level rise rate we anticipate, though. Many of our behaviors are predicated on the existence of "real estate" which may turn out to be less real than people like to think.

So "it's math"?

As long as you include statistical reasoning, sure. As I explain in the linked article, we don't have a clear idea of when these events will actually hit. People with large investments near coastlines ought to start taking this matter into consideration in their calculations.

Is AGW necessarily a disaster?

On the populated coastlines, eventually, I think the answer is yes. We just don't know when. People who live in jurisdictions with significant exposure ought to be taking it into consideration in their politics for purely selfish reasons. The US, and in particular Texas, are clearly at risk. It is an unfortunate historical and cultural accident that we don't perceive this. We also are incredibly inventive and could actually solve the problem if we stopped whining and conspiracy-spinning. We can win this game instead of whining that it's stacked against us.

Is there any way out of this mess?

At the Bob Bullock history museum I was instructed that "the best way to get anything done is to tell a Texan it's impossible". This may not be our most endearing characteristic but we might want to get that can-do spirit into gear for this problem.

Michael Tobis said...

This article continues to get hits, and today I saw some from Dow Chemical.

I am not sure exactly why, but this spooks me a little bit.

As orientation for industrial bigwigs who might happen by, while I am pro-regulation, I'm not by any means anti-corporate or anti-industry. This point of view, (which I would call "social democratic") was conventional wisdom when I was a kid; now it is almost forgotten, but it definitely shouldn't be and it's due for a revival.

Anyway, welcome to my blog, set a spell, make yourself at home.