Monday, January 6, 2014

For the birds -- cold

Female Cardinal beneath feeder
Female Cardinal beneath feeder   © harrington

I hope you're somewhere safe and warm and haven't been more than mildly inconvenienced by our current weather. If you've been wondering, as I have, how we can be "blessed" with these temperatures at the same time we're supposed to be experiencing global warming / climate change, take a look at the world-wide temperature patterns. It turns out that the IPCC anticipated this type of question back in their 2007 report. Dot Earth (See Other Paths to Follow sidebar, on the right) has done their usual great job of coverage on climate change.

Purple Finch and Chickadee at feeder
Purple Finch and Chickadee at feeder   © harrington

I don't know how comfortable it is in your house, but, around here when it gets this cold, to borrow a phrase from It's a Wonderful Life "I don't know why we all don't have pneumonia. Draughty old barn! Its like living in a refrigerator." The difference starts to show up as the temperature drops below about twenty degrees. This morning's low of 24 below became really noticeable inside. (At least we're better protected than the local birds.) This has started me wondering how increasingly volatile weather (cold spells, storms, heat waves) will affect the design basis for our buildings and infrastructure. I seem to recall something about highways not being designed to accommodate peak hour traffic and storm water systems using a 25 year design storm. The concept, as I think I understand it, is that it would not be cost effective to design for peak flows. How this may change if and when we experience greater volatility in heat waves, cold spells, rainfall and whatever is unclear. Contrast this with how much it cost to rebuild NOLA after Katrina and how much it is costing to rebuild after "Sandy" walloped the East Coast.

Male Cardinal and Purple Finch in pine tree
Male Cardinal and Purple Finch in pine tree © harrington

It seems to me that we might be wise to try to save money, what's left of the climate as we currently know it, and our existing built environment by mitigating our Green House Gas emissions rather than rely only on a response based on adaptation. I haven't been tracking this topic very carefully but it seems to me this is one of former Secretary Rumsfeld's "known unknowns," things we know we don't know. For buildings, based on the obvious effects in my house caused by a lack of air sealing and insufficient attention the amount and quality of insulation on both comfort and economics, the question this homeowner is facing is "How often does this have to happen to make it worthwhile to fix it?" Looking at Duluth's recent storm water problems, similar questions are probably being discussed by the designers of Duluth's replacement system(s). Do we need a widespread conversation about prevention, adaptation and resilience for Minnesota's built environment. Should we just sit around and see what happens because of political and social concerns about appropriate responses? What do you think? Grace Paley makes it clear this is not a new topic for consideration.

House: Some Instructions

By Grace Paley 

If you have a house
you must think about it all the time   
as you reside in the house so
it must be a home in your mind

you must ask yourself (wherever you are)   
have I closed the front door

and the back door is often forgotten   
not against thieves necessarily

but the wind   oh   if it blows   
either door open   then the heat

the heat you’ve carefully nurtured   
with layers of dry hardwood

and a couple of opposing green   
brought in to slow the fire

as well as the little pilot light   
in the convenient gas backup

all of that care will be mocked because   
you have not kept the house on your mind

but these may actually be among   
the smallest concerns   for instance

the house could be settling   you may   
notice the thin slanting line of light

above the doors   you have to think about that   
luckily you have been paying attention

the house’s dryness can be humidified   
with vaporizers in each room and pots

of water on the woodstove   should you leave   
for the movies after dinner   ask yourself

have I turned down the thermometer
and moved all wood paper away from the stove

the fiery result of excited distraction   
could be too horrible to describe

now we should talk especially to Northerners   
of the freezing of the pipe   this can often

be prevented by pumping water continuously   
through the baseboard heating system

allowing the faucet to drip drip continuously   
day and night   you must think about the drains

separately   in fact you should have established   
their essential contribution to the ordinary

kitchen and toilet life of the house   
digging these drains deep into warm earth

if it hasn’t snowed by mid-December you   
must cover them with hay   sometimes rugs

and blankets have been used   do not be   
troubled by their monetary value

as this is a regionally appreciated emergency   
you may tell your friends to consider

your house as their own   that is   
if they do not wear outdoor shoes

when thumping across the gleam of their poly-
urethaned floors they must bring socks or slippers

to your house as well   you must think   
of your house when you’re in it and

when you’re visiting the superior cabinets   
and closets of others   when you approach

your house in the late afternoon
in any weather   green or white   you will catch

sight first of its new aluminum snow-resistant   
roof and the reflections in the cracked windows

its need in the last twenty-five years for paint   
which has created a lovely design

in russet pink and brown   the colors of un-
intentioned neglect   you must admire the way it does not

(because of someone’s excellent decision
sixty years ago) stand on the high ridge deforming

the green profile of the hill but rests in the modesty   
of late middle age under the brow of the hill with

its back to the dark hemlock forest looking steadily
out for miles toward the cloud refiguring meadows and

mountains of the next state   coming up the road
by foot or auto the house can be addressed personally

House!   in the excitement of work and travel to
other people’s houses with their interesting improvements

we thought of you often and spoke of your coziness
in winter   your courage in wind and fire   your small

airy rooms in humid summer   how you nestle in spring
into the leaves and flowers of the hawthorn and the sage green

leaves of the Russian olive tree   House!   you were not forgotten

Thanks for listening. Stay safe and warm. Come again when you can. Rants, raves and reflections served here daily.