March 16, 2015

Walk on water

When I was growing up, the space race competed with underwater sea adventures for gorgeous photo spreads in National Geographic (which nobody read for the articles). Jacques Cousteau was as big a star as the astronauts and took prettier pictures.

As with Stanley Kubrick's space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey, everybody knew that we were going to be living in cities at the bottom of the ocean any day now (because, you know, population).

As useless as the ISS (and more dangerous) but at least cheaper.

Alas, by the time we made it to the Moon, real space exploration had grown ho-hum (sans white-knuckle disasters like Apollo 13). Living in space turns out to be pretty inconvenient. And mostly good for making cool YouTube videos.

The same goes for living under water. Somewhere along the evolutionary path, we homo sapiens got rid of gills, and good riddance.

But as it turns out, millions of people are living at the bottom of the ocean. The trick, you see, is first to raise the bottom of the ocean to sea level. That makes it a lot easier.

Over the past century, almost one hundred square miles of Tokyo Bay have been "reclaimed." I lived for a year in a housing project on reclaimed land in Osaka Bay, also home to Kansai International Airport, built entirely on a man-made island.

In Japan, it's actually more economically, politically, and environmentally efficient to carve up a mountain and dump it into the ocean than to move in the opposite direction, or push all urban development everywhere down to the water's edge.

The Tohoku earthquake has taken land reclamation in a whole new level. It's been four years since. The rubble has been removed, leaving behind empty fields and vacant lots where towns once stood. The question is how to prevent the "next time."

On 11 March 2011, 250 miles of coastline shifted up to eight feet eastward and dropped over two feet. Most harbor seawalls failed. Entire fishing villages were washed away. Fukushima Daiichi was swamped, its backup generators destroyed.

It soon became obvious that building sea walls able to defend against any possible tsunami was a fool's errand. And if built, the high walls would turn the place into a prison (which remains a problem even with the sea walls that are being built).

As a result, two basic approaches are being taken: 1) relocating retail and residential communities further inland; 2) a combination of sea walls and raising the ground level (click to enlarge).

Moving inland and higher up (courtesy Japan Guide).

Following the earthquake, parts of many coastal towns ended up underwater at high tide (and people complain about their mortgages being "underwater"). A good part of what was Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, will rise forty feet above sea level.

Another way to stand on higher ground (courtesy Japan Guide).

This once quaint fishing village now looks like a science fiction movie set: a forest of massive conveyor belts moving 20,000 cubic meters of soil a day. If you're looking for "shovel-ready projects," the shovels don't get any bigger than this.

Elaine Kurtenbach describes the government-industry complex that has been churning along now for half a century:

Pouring concrete for public works is a staple strategy for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its backers in big business and construction, and local officials tend to go along with such plans.

Rikuzentakata won't be going to the mountain; the mountain is coming to Rikuzentakata. Literally.

Making the mountains low (courtesy Japan Guide).

The Book of Isaiah sums up the process very well:

Every valley shall be raised up,
     every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
     the rugged places a plain.

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
This reminds me of the history of Boston's Back Bay. The 19th century effort to fill in what was a soggy tidal marsh created one of the most renowned Boston neighborhoods. In West Virginia mountain top removal is used not just to mine coal but to create flat spots large enough for retail strip malls. The roads go through the valleys so the open land is on the tops of the hills - so that is where new development goes!
3/17/2015 4:40 AM

# posted by Blogger Henry
I remember some local paper showing a picture of Boston after sea level rise. It was going to be the new Venice. Sigh. The Charles River Basin the fronts a much of Boston and Cambridge is already 12 feet above sea level, the result of a largely 19th century design. The actual dam that created the basin was build in 1910.

The ability of humans to remake landscape is vastly unappreciated.
3/17/2015 12:55 PM

# posted by Blogger Joe
I recently read a book about Boston at the start of the American Revolution. Until then, I didn't appreciate how much Boston was remade since the 19th century. The battle of Bunker/Breed's hill makes a whole lot more sense when you understand the geography of the time.
3/17/2015 1:08 PM