Monday, October 29, 2012

NYC Subway System

As a student of history and business, one of my natural curiosities is thinking about "what can go wrong" in the world. Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. The past has lots of lessons about things that can have a pretty negative effect upon civilization. Unfortunately, it often happens that some problems which are in plain view to a few people are only obvious to everyone else in hindsight.

I read a pretty interesting book several years ago, called, The World Without Us. Written by Alan Weisman, the book discusses what would happen to various parts of our civilization if humanity suddenly disappeared tomorrow. It's not a judgemental book, and doesn't attempt to provoke reactions by suggesting how humanity would disappear. It just discusses what would probably happen IF humans magically disappeared from the surface of the planet in a short period of time (something like 24 hours, if I remember correctly).

One of the earlier chapters in the book, if I remember correctly, talked about the New York City subway system, and its vulnerability to flooding. I believe that the background behind the concept was related to the gradual rise of sea levels related to global warming. After all, if you remember "An Inconvenient Truth," you'll know that some humans (only a billion or so) would be significantly affected by a rise in sea levels of only several feet.

But now that Hurricane Sandy is hitting New York City (during a full moon, no less, which increases tidal surges), there is a very real chance that storm surges will produce effects similar to or exceeding the situation described in "The World Without Us."

I can only hope that Sandy will not cause as much damage as could potentially be possible in a worst-case scenario. Looking at articles on the net from earlier today, it appears that people have talked about the potential for the subway system to be non-functional for [possibly] a couple of days. In reality, there is a small chance that the subway could be down for far, far longer than that.

Here's an interesting quotation from Gizmodo:
Most people may not realise it — or never have occasion to think about it — but NYC’s subway system is susceptible to flooding. The possibility is quite real.

What most people don’t know is that we depend on just 700 fragile water pumps to keep the tunnels dry — some a century old.

In fact, if someone powered down all these pumps tomorrow, the entire subway network would be inundated in just a few hours. To give you an idea of how complex and massive this system is, it pulls 50 million litres of water out of the subway on any sunny day. No rain. Not even a single drop of water from the sky. If Sandy manages to kill the power of any of the fragile old pumps protecting the system, there may be some serious problems.

On a rainy day, the pump system is absolute chaos, to the point where the MTA — NYC’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority — lives in permanent panic, fearing events like Sandy, the hurricane system that is approaching the little town right now. “At some point, it would be too much to handle,” said the head of the hydraulics team back in 2006, Peter Velasquez Jr, “you’ve got rain plus wind. It basically would shut down the system. You hope not. You pray that it doesn’t.

“To give you an idea about how bad this could be, some of the oldest pumps in the NYCTA system were bought second-hand from the builders of the Panama Canal. I worked for the TA many years ago and even then the pumps were considered a serious problem. The Panama Canal was finished in 1914.”

One of these days, I'm thinking about writing a series of blog posts about other potential disasters that are surprisingly possible for our modern society. To clarify, I'm not the slightest bit concerned by the Mayan "end of the world" predictions for this December. I think that the "end of the world" is all fear-mongering (although to a small extent, it will probably be somewhat of a self-perpetuating phenomena, at least on a micro scale, for certain people). It is only random chance that nature has produced this hurricane, possibly the strongest in decades on the north-east coast, on the same weekend that Canada experienced its strongest earthquake in fifty years. That earthquake was 7.7 RS, which happened here in BC on Saturday night while I was in the shower (with a follow-up this evening at 6.2 RS).

Anyway, a friend of mine (Drew Dudley) had an interesting conversation with me about "Black Swan" events a few years ago. I think that you'd find some of the scenarios to be interesting, if not always likely. I feel like it would be interesting to make some blog posts along those lines in the weeks leading up to December 21st.

Here's a buy-link to "The World Without Us" if you'd like to check it out:

"The World Without Us" on Amazon

Edit, 24hrs later: Unfortunately, it looks like a worst-case scenario has been realized. See this article from half an hour ago.