Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Climate change, old sewers boosting NYC sinkholes 

New York City officials are contending with aging sewer systems that are succumbing to the impacts of climate change.  

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) identified 3,921 sinkholes during fiscal year 2022 alone — a 38 percent increase from the previous year, The New York Daily News reported.  

“A lot of places in this area have a lot of big potholes, and they’re going to sink,” Angelo Bastone, who witnessed the formation of a sinkhole in his Bronx neighborhood this July, told the News. 

That sinkhole, according to the outlet, was so big that it swallowed an entire van.  

Incidents like this are usually caused by cracks in century-old sewer systems, the Daily News reported, citing DEP Commission Rohit Aggarwala.  

The sewers in Morris Park — the area of the Bronx where Bastone lives — were built in 1916 and deemed “highly modern” at the time of construction, Aggarwala said.  

But while those lines were built to cope with about 1.5 inches of rain per hour, the city’s current standard for sewers is 1.75 inches per hour, Aggarwala said.  

And even that standard has become inadequate, as the effects of climate change bring more powerful storms to New York City’s shores, he added. 

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. I’m Saul Elbein. Send tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll survey the damage caused by another thousand-year flood — this time in Dallas-Fort Worth, the biggest city to flood so far this year. Then we’ll look at how drought in China could delay Tesla production times, and we’ll review an experimental new form of air conditioning that sidesteps the climate costs of current models. 

Flash flooding stuns Dallas

Record rainfall in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex on Monday flooded freeways, filled apartments and forced emergency responders to rescue people from trapped cars. 

The deluge in capped a weekend of intense downpours across the Southwest that trapped hikers and inundated homes across Texas, Utah and New Mexico. 

Another record rainfall: Dallas-Fort Worth received a record-breaking 3 inches in a single hour — contributing to what the National Weather Service called “life threatening flash flooding,” according to The Washington Post. 

  • It’s another “thousand-year flood” — an event with a 0.1 percent chance of occurring each year, following similar events in southeastern Illinois, St. Louis and eastern Kentucky, according to the Post. 
  • One Dallas-area rain gauge recorded 40 percent of its year-to-date total in just 12 hours, seeing 10.24 inches of rain, meteorologist Jeff Linder wrote on Twitter. 

The rains are now moving east along the Interstate 20 corridor toward Louisiana, the Post reported. 

Scenes from the downpour: The late night and early morning floods caught the area by surprise, with rainwater running off the city’s vast array of impermeable asphalt-covered roads and parking lots to overwhelm sewers and storm drains.

  • Dallas resident Brittany Taylor posted a video of a fridge floating in the murky yard-deep water that filled her apartment.  
  • Footage from storm chaser Brandon Clement early Monday morning showed trapped motorists swimming from a flooded car to first responders along a flooded Dallas freeway.  
  • Many area restaurants and bars flooded, with one bar filling with about 6 inches of water, the Dallas Morning News reported. The bar’s owner, Peter Tarantino, said his street had “turned into a river” and he couldn’t get out of his apartment.   

Monsoon weekend: The Dallas-Fort Worth floods followed monsoons across the Southwest that swept away a hiker in Utah and forced hundreds more to be evacuated in New Mexico, The New York Times reported. 

Rising water, rising risk: Emergency responders in New Mexico and elsewhere this weekend offered up a potentially lifesaving National Weather Service motto: Turn Around Don’t Drown. 

  • More than half of all flood-related deaths occur when a car is driven into flood waters — which can carry away an SUV if more than 2 feet deep, according to the National Weather Service. 
  • Seventy-three people have died in floods this year — the bulk of them in Kentucky’s record flooding in late July, the Weather Channel reported.  

Ongoing power rations threaten global auto industry 

Officials in central China have extended power cuts in a key manufacturing hub, posing a potential threat to the global auto and chipmaking industries.  

Limits on factories and malls: Authorities maintained existing limits on factory production while also restricting opening hours at shopping malls, according to The Wall Street Journal.  

  • In Sichuan’s provincial capital of Chengdu, automakers and component suppliers reported lower production due to the electricity constraints. 
  • Due east, in the metropolis of Chongqing, shopping malls were only allowed to operate between 4 and 9 p.m., the Journal reported, citing state broadcaster China Central Television.     

Compounding effects: These decisions came after Chinese officials issued the country’s first nationwide drought warning in nine years.  

Earlier in the week, the Sichuan government had announced initial factory closures — throttling output for some of the world’s largest electronics firms, such as Apple supplier Foxconn and chipmaker Intel.  

Major car companies hurt: The power rationing in Sichuan has harmed production for major automakers in Shanghai, including Tesla, CNN reported, citing state media.  

  • While Shanghai is some 1,200 miles from Sichuan, it is home to Tesla’s “Gigafactory” and relies on supply chains that originate in Sichuan. 
  • Also under stress is China’s largest automaker, SAIC Motor, which has three Shanghai factories — including joint ventures with Volkswagen and General Motors.  

In total, the electricity cuts meant that some 16 auto suppliers in Sichuan were unable to produce sufficient parts last week, according to CNN.  

Shanghai steps in: Shanghai’s economic planning agency has asked Sichuan to increase power supplies to the shuttered factories that produce components for the affected car companies, CNN reported.  

  • “SAIC and Tesla are the leading companies in Shanghai to build a world-class automotive industry center,” the Shanghai government told Sichuan, CNN reported, citing the Chinese media group Caixin.   
  • These companies “have established important supply partnerships with many auto parts companies in Sichuan province,” the message added. 

Revamping air conditioning for a changing climate 

As a summer of extreme heat scorches communities across the globe, scientists on Monday unveiled a prototype device that they hope could someday replace the polluting air conditioning systems available today. 

What’s wrong with today’s ACs? The hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants used by these devices are “potent greenhouse gases and major drivers of climate change,” the researchers from Harvard University’s chemistry department said in a statement.  

  • Traditional AC systems work by allowing a refrigerant to cycle between gas and liquid state. 
  • When the liquid becomes a gas, it expands and absorbs heat — cooling a room.  
  • A compressor then turns the gas back into a liquid, releasing heat that is discharged outside the home.    

Driver of warming: Although this traditional ACs are efficient, environmental concerns have prompted scientists to seek out alternative solutions, according to the Harvard chemists.  

“Just installing an air conditioner or throwing one away is a huge driver of global warming,” one of the researchers, Adam Slavney, said in a statement.  

Much more potent than CO2: Such refrigerants are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide and can leak into the environment, Slavney, who was presenting the prototype at the American Chemical Society’s Fall Meeting on Monday, said.  

Solid refrigerant option: The scientists considered a class of solid refrigerants — called “barocaloric materials” — as another solution, as they don’t leak and work similarly to traditional gas-to-liquid cooling systems.  

  • Instead of relying on gas-to-liquid heat release and absorption, this approach employs a “solid-to-solid phase change.” 
  • Under massive amounts of pressure, the materials transform from a relaxed solid to an ordered solid — releasing heat in the process.  
  • When the pressure is released, the material reabsorbs the heat. 

What’s wrong with that? Producing the massive amounts of pressure necessary to drive these heat cycles requires expensive, specialized equipment that isn’t practical for real-world cooling, according to the researchers.  

Lowering the pressure: But the Harvard team members, led by principal investigator Jarad Mason, said they had identified barocaloric materials that can act as refrigerants at lower pressures. 

  • These refrigerants — called “metal-halide perovskites” — work in a prototype cooling system the researchers built from scratch.  z
  •  
  • To their knowledge, this is the first such cooling system using solid-state refrigerants that rely on pressure changes.    

“Our system still doesn’t use pressures as low as those of commercial refrigeration systems, but we’re getting closer,” Mason said in a statement. 

Luxury carmakers offer last chance for gas 

Luxury carmakers Bentley and Bugatti are bidding farewell to their gas-powered production lines with last-chance limited-run internal combustion engine “roadsters” — part of the ongoing shift of sports cars into a fully electric form. 

Sold out: Bentley is previewing the design of its forthcoming high-performance electric vehicle (EV) in the form of a staggeringly powerful $2 million gas-guzzler, Car and Driver reported. 

  • The new Batur model boasts a 12-cylinder engine — twice the size of the engine in a Ford Mustang or Chevy Camaro. 
  • It was released in a limited run of just 18, all of which have been sold. 

The point of the new model is to serve as a “living concept vehicle” for the electric future, MotorTrend reported. 

Last chance for gas: French carmaker Bugatti is also rolling out 99 new similarly powered $5 million Mistrals — the company’s last all-gas car before it goes hybrid, CNN reported. 

Muscling through: For those who like their cars sleek and powerful, electrification offers many distinct advantages over gasoline power, The Associated Press reported.

  • Electric vehicles’ high power, which deploys immediately on accelerating, makes them pick up speed much faster than internal combustion-powered cars. 
  • The heavy battery also creates a low center of gravity, improving handling.  

Lacking danger: But there are some downsides, Dodge CEO Tim Kuniskis told the AP, regarding the company’s forthcoming electric Charger. 

Electric power “doesn’t have the emotion,” Kuniskis warned.  

“It doesn’t have the drama,” he said. “It doesn’t have the kind of dangerous feeling that ICE (an internal combustion engine) has when it’s loud and rumbling and shifting and moving the car around.” 

Monday Miscellanies

Fashion rental has limited sustainability benefits, Alaskan king crabs have largely vanished from their frigid underwater realm and most marine species could face extinction if humans don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions.  

Fashion rental’s sustainability benefits may be overrated 

  • While renting fancy clothes is often billed as a more sustainable option than purchasing them, the need to ship, package and dry-clean rented dresses and suits negates most such benefits, The New York Times reported. “Anything can qualify as fast fashion if you go through it fast enough, including rentals and secondhand,” fashion-industry critic Alden Wicker told the Times.

Crabs missing from Alaskan oceans 

  • A mysterious 90-percent decline in the population of Alaskan king crabs has flummoxed scientists and frightened fishermen in the small northern communities that depend on the industry, The Washington Post reported. “We believe we had a very large mortality event, which points to an extreme event that we have never seen before in the Bering Sea,” one marine biologist told the Post.

Most marine species face extinction if emissions don’t drop: study 

  • If humans fail to curb greenhouse gas emissions, up to 90 percent of marine species could go extinct by the end of the century, according to a new study in Nature Climate Change, covered by our colleague Zack Budryk. Reduced emissions, on the other hand, could cut the risk for about 98.2 percent of the 25,000 analyzed species, per the study, conducted at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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