Climate Change Is Destabilizing The City Of Chicago. Who Knew?

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The New York Times is often criticized by CleanTechnica readers, and rightly so, for its years long campaign of negative reporting on Tesla. Yet on the issue of climate change, it is a journalistic leader, at least in the United States. On July 7, it published a Pulitzer Prize worthy story about the city of Chicago and how climate change threatens its very foundation.

Chicago is a tribute to the indomitable human spirit that starts with the premise that people are smarter than nature. Where Chicago stands today was once a swamp, back in the days when Marquette and Joliet were the first Europeans to explore the area. Indigenous people showed the pair a watery pathway between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan and that was the beginning of what would become America’s Second City. The elevation between the two bodies of water was minuscule. Sometimes the water would flow one way and sometimes in the opposite direction.

It’s not a pleasant subject, but all of civilization depends on the proper disposal of its waste products. The first thing an army does is dig latrines. Then and only then do issues like food and shelter get addressed.

There are no cities without flush toilets. Chicago was built on a plain just a foot higher than Lake Michigan, which meant it could not bury sewer pipes deep underground as other cities did. News reports of the day describe the streets of Chicago as fetid conduits filled with raw sewage so deep that if an errant peddler made a wrong turn, his horse and carriage could sink out of sight into the festering ooze.

So Chicago did something audacious. In the late 1800s, it built a new sewer system, put streets on top of it, and raised all of its buildings approximately 8 feet to match level of the new roads. Hundreds of workers were enlisted to turn giant jackscrews that lifted the buildings out of the muck. According to a report by the Chicago Tribune at the time, “The superintendent takes his stand,” and with a “shrill whistle” directs the crew to begin. “He continues his whistle long enough for every man to turn each screw one complete round of the thread. Thus the building is raised at every point precisely at the same moment.”

An engineering marvel that nevertheless begs the question, “Should we be doing this?” Humans delight in taming nature, building ever higher, ever wider, and everywhere until every square inch of earth is covered with monuments to homo sapiens. If we can do it, it is done. Today, many look at such wonders and scoff that climate change is just another engineering challenge that the human mind will overcome.

“Not to worry, people. We will science our way out of this,” they say, sure in there smugness that nothing nature can do will ever cause them to miss their favorite TV show or suffer any discomfort. How exquisitely arrogant! The best recent example may be Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin telling an audience of adoring reactionaries, “Climate change is bullshit.”

But climate change is not bullshit to Chicagoans. For centuries, the level of Lake Michigan never varied more than a few inches — a little more in the spring as winter snows melted and refreshed the Great Lakes, a little less in the autumn as the summer’s heat led to more evaporation. That steady state was disrupted in the past decade, with the level of the lake changing by as much as 6 feet. Suddenly, storm surges were battering the building in Chicago’s poshest neighborhoods.

Heavy rains have flooded the Chicago River, which is little more than a huge uncovered sewer carrying the city’s effluent away to the mighty Mississippi. Once that happens, the city must open the floodgates to allow all that untreated sewage to flow back into Lake Michigan — the source of Chicago’s drinking water. Lovely!

High water is a problem, but so is low water. The Chicago River is fed by Lake Michigan. If the water level gets too low, there is no water coming into the river and so its flow stops, leaving the city’s sewage to fester in the open air.

Where Did The Beach Go?

Josh Ellis, a former vice president of Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, tells the New York Times, “There are buildings just teetering on the edge of the lake. A few years ago, they had a beach. Now the water is lapping at their foundations. This is an existential problem for those neighborhoods and, ultimately, for the city.”

South Side resident Jera Slaughter remembers a dramatic flood in 1987 when water washed through the ground floor of her apartment building. “We were told, ‘You’ll never see this kind of water again in your lifetime,’” she says, “but it’s worse now.” In South Side, sewage in the basement has become a way of life. Patios that once overlooked the lake are now taken over with cobbled together storm barriers made from sand bags, concrete blocks, and sections of highway barriers. The water doesn’t seem deterred in the slightest.

Climate Change Is The Culprit

Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist at the University of Michigan, tells the New York Times the speed and uncertainty of the changes taking place underscore how Chicago is more immediately exposed to the dangers of global warming than cities on the ocean. At least ocean levels change relatively slowly and predictably and move in just one direction — up.

Remember how climate scientists have been telling us for decades that climate change will bring with it wetter conditions in some areas, drier conditions in others?  Over the past three decades, the Great Lakes Basin has received far more precipitation than average. The past five years collectively have been the wettest half-decade on record. It’s not bullshit, senator Johnson, it’s reality.

Chicago’s historic average for precipitation for May, 4.49 inches, was eclipsed in May 2018 when a record 8.21 inches of rain fell. In May 2019, 8.25 inches soaked the city. Then in May 2020, another record, 9.51 inches, swamped Chicago. Is it a coincidence that the average air temperature in the region has increased 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1991? Warmer air factors into wetter weather, and a surging lake level, because it can hold more moisture.

This is where the ice comes in to play. Even a slight air temperature increase can dramatically reduce the lake’s winter ice cover. And because ice reflects the sun’s heat, less ice means warmer water, which accelerates evaporation. But in recent years, destabilized jet stream patters in the Arctic have let to blasts of frigid air and more ice on Lake Michigan. Colder water means less evaporation and higher lake levels. That’s not bullshit, senator Johnson. That’s reality.

The Point Of No Return

Climate scientists are indeed surprised by the rate at which climate change is accelerating. The latest IPCC report will say we have already passed several tipping points that will make catastrophic global warming inevitable. All the while, we act like nothing is wrong and that somehow, someway, as the temperature is Sheboygan and other American cities hit 120º F on a regular basis, a miracle will happen and we will be saved from a disaster of our own making.

It’s not going to happen. We either stop making fossil fuels the basis of our economy or the vast majority of us are going to die. It’s as simple as that. In a comment to the New York Times article, Susan Long says, “We ignore this at our peril. And yes, the businesses involved: shipping and the manufacturers of goods being shipped have a financial and moral responsibility to contribute to researching solutions and making them happen.”

I have said elsewhere that the human race will have a one word epitaph — Greed. I am going to amend that and say there may be a second possible epitaph — Hubris. If we don’t put all our resources to work to transition away from a carbon based economy, our goose is cooked, literally and figuratively. And that’s no bullshit!

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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