All posts by ashladblog

August El Niño Updates

The big news out of the El Niño update for August is that the odds of a fall or winter event has dropped to 65% (from 80%). Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology even lowered their prediction to 50%. Several headlines I saw seemed to focus on that numerical change. Yes, 65% is indeed lower than 80%, but the odds still are pointing to a coming El Niño event. Plus, the odds remain about double that of any given year.

More importantly, the forecast is for a weak or moderate event (“a strong El Niño is not favored in any of the ensemble averages”). On the plus side, you can probably stash away your gold bullion and dehydrated food packets for the next apocalypse. But, there still are plenty weather-related crises to fret over: California drought, Detroit flooding, or Hawaii tropical cyclones.

On Environmental Impact of Urban Policy

Daniel Kay Hertz over at City Notes had two great articles about the abysmal state of urban policy in Chicago. The first, “This is a Joke, Right?,” is about Mayor Emmanual’s and Alderman Suarez’s (31st Ward) plan to add a mere 1,000 affordable housing units over the next 5 years, or 200 units per year. By Daniel’s reckoning, there are over 500,000 households in Chicago in need of affordability relief (they currently pay more than 30% of income for housing). That’s about 2½ orders of magnitude difference. While great for those 200 households, it won’t make a dent in the problem.

Second is “I wonder why we have an Affordable Housing Shortage” where he provides several recent examples of NIMBY activity (supported by the alderman and city zoning policies) that force developers not to build affordable rental units near mass transit hubs.

I don’t think that the government can or should solve Chicago’s affordable housing on their own. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with Robert Taylor Homes or Cabrini Green would know how well that turned out. But, actively impeding private development that is trying to solve that very concern will mean that the problems will continue to fester and grow. Steven Covey was fond of saying, “You can’t talk your way out of what you behaved yourself into.” (My loose paraphrase.) Holding a press conference announcing new housing is fine (even commendable for trying), but it has to be supported by day-to-day actions.

What is the environmental impact here? The short-term result is to get greater energy efficiency out of new construction. Even the cheapest refrigerator or water heater is going to be vastly more efficient and waste less energy than something 5-, 10-, 20-, or more years old. Longer term improvements come from improved urban living where walking, biking, or mass transit provide residents the viable option of lower-carbon alternatives. Real improvements to carbon emissions will only come when the choice is invisible or simply more convenient. Invisible like not having to think about heating the apartment without gale-force drafts coming through that crappy old window. Or convenient like walking a few blocks to the grocery store instead of worrying about finding parking or dealing with traffic. Baring reasonable and affordable urban housing simply eliminates the potential for people to make energy-efficient choices.

Meanwhile in Canada … 28 Jul 2014

There’s a flurry of worth potential MWIC posts, but I must start with HitchBot. This is a hitchhiking robot that intends to travel across the entirety of Canada this summer. It’s more art project than robotics demonstration (only one arm can move), but it does talk, Tweet, and post to Instagram. Think Siri with a solar panel duct-taped to a plastic bucket wearing Wellies and rubber gloves. Okay, don’t do that – it can only lead to NSFW thoughts.

HitchBot started Sun, 27 Jul, in Halifax, NS and has already made it about 550 km (340 mi) to Dalhousie, NB. The ultimate goal is Victoria, BC, which is at least a 6,000 km (3,800 mi) trek. I wonder how HB will fare once it arrives in the Prairies and the initial media hype has faded. I’ll post updates if something interesting happens.

And I can’t let Allan Hawco’s birthday go by with out a link to his time in the Red Chair: How to speak like a Newfie. If none of that sentence makes sense to you, spend a couple years up north. Or maybe I’ll explain it in next year’s MWIC.

Meanwhile in Canada … 14 Jul 2014

Bowhead Whales by SarahOnTheRoad

Happy 15th Birthday, Nunavut! Unfortunately, the Great White North seems to be celebrating this auspicious occasion with fire.

The garbage dump in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, has been on fire for the past two months or so. The fire chief has a plan to extinguish the fire for a mere $4.5 million. They hope to excavate all the garbage, dump it into a pit of sea water, and rebury the soggy mess in a new landfill. The article is a bit vague on what they’ll do with the water afterwards, but, hey, with a golden plan like this, what can go wrong?

About 2,200 km (1,400 mi) west, the Northwest Territories are just burning willy-nilly. According to, about 140 fires are currently burning across the territory. The smoke has flowed down through Saskatchewan, Manitoba, into the Great Plains of the US.

But, let’s focus on the beautiful bowhead whales instead. There are other “Nunagram” photos at Finding True North to celebrate their birthday in much prettier ways.

El Niño July Updates

The July El Niño Expert Discussion update is available from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Not much has changed except maybe the dire predictions of a “super” El Niño have faded. There still as 80% chance of an El Niño between October and December, but the general consensus is for a mid-range event. (I’ll spare you the plethora of numbers — see the CPC’s ENSO page, particularly the weekly updates, for details.) Regardless, even a mediocre event will probably set new records for global high temperatures and areas of droughts, floods, hurricanes, and other such nastiness.

Additionally,’s ENSO Blog posted a couple good articles recently. Today (10 Jul) it is about why we haven’t been seeing the effects of an El Niño, yet — Alaskan and Western Canada warmth, Californian rain, Australian and Indonesian droughts, etc. Several ENSO experts have mentioned recently how the atmosphere hasn’t “seen” the impact of El Niño. The water temperatures are up, but the trade winds and weather patterns don’t act like it. My impression is that the air will eventually catch up, but it will probably be late in the year or into 2015 before anything can be truly attributed to the El Niño.

The other ENSO Blog post is about how the strength of an El Niño doesn’t directly correlate to observed impacts on land. The example they use is the seasonal monsoon in India. South Asia and their over 1 billion inhabitants rely on the monsoons for adequate food for the rest of the year. The strongest El Niño of the 20th Century was in 1997-8, but India actually had above average rain that year. However, the 2002 El Niño was considered moderate to weak and that was one of the driest monsoons on record. The details are at the link, but it is a reminder that there are many unknowns about the effects of any specific El Niño. Don’t let the talk of a moderate event this fall or winter downplay the potential for trouble.

Using electricity from regenerative braking

Most rail mass-transit systems use electricity for motive power. The electric motors that accelerate the train can also be reversed to slow the train and generate electricity, which is called regenerative braking. Unless this energy is used immediately (another train is leaving the station at the same time as one is arriving), it typically is shunted to a bank of resistors and wasted as excess heat. However, a couple transit systems are finding economical ways to use this energy.

Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) installed a lithium-ion battery system to store the excess power. They are able to make the investment profitable by accessing the frequency-regulation market. Not to get too technical, but the market prices for electricity greatly depend on the desired use. Base-load electricity (from traditional power plants) is cheap, but cannot accommodate sudden changes in demand. Frequency-regulating power is used to respond to sudden spikes or dips in consumption. (If this power is not available, the system cannot maintain the desired 60 Hz current, hence the name, frequency regulation.) Utilities will pay a premium for this short-term power supply to keep the overall system running smoothly. SEPTA now earns up to $200,000 per year as a power provider and has reduced energy use by 20 percent. The Scientific American article also discusses other storage technologies in Los Angeles and Portland.

The Dutch train system, Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), faces a similar dilemma to find a profitable use for their excess energy. Netherlands heavily subsidizes their commuter electrical costs to make transit affordable. NS pays approximately 1.5¢ per kWhr instead of the market rate of about 20¢ per kWhr. While this is great for Johann and Jaantje Commuter, there is little incentive for NS to implement new programs or systems to reduce consumption. As an alternative, NS is looking  to convert 30 diesel buses operating out of the Apeldoorn station to electric. The engineers cited in the Climate Progress article estimate that this will save about €8 million (US$11 million) over the next 12 years. Unfortunately, the article did not contain any specifics on whether this is an actual project or merely an engineer’s dream.

Hopefully, projects like these demonstrate viable ways to creatively use readily available but wasted energy.

Friday Cat Blogging – 04 Jul 2014

Bruno 04 Jul 2014
Yeah, Happy whatever… 

Okay, this is late for the 4th, but posing a cat with silly holiday props is time-consuming. Probably a bad idea as well, both as a photo and as a general annoyance to the cat. But, Bruno tolerated it long enough to get this one shot, so I can’t waste it.

Happy Canada Day, Happy Independence Day, and congratulations to Eugenie Bouchard for a historic, but too short Wimbledon run! She’ll be back.