Adventures in Learning #2

12 May

This is the post where I share what I’ve learned from my non-fiction travels. Won’t you join me in my latest “huh!” moment? (Brought to you by The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman)

Today I learned that NYC depends on constant human maintenance to stay even half-livable. Without lots of people and machines, it’ll flood pretty quickly, whether this whole global warming thing pans out or not.

Manhattan used to be full of streams (Spring Street?), inlets, and marshes (Central Park was actually “built” by bringing in soil). It also used to be covered in, y’know, dirts and plants and stuff, which did the job of absorbing rain water. Now those streams have been covered up, and that soil has been replaced by concrete. Of course, as one of Weisman’s many experts says, “Rain still falls. It has to go somewhere.”

Turns out, Manhattan’s preservation depends on the minute-by-minute efforts of Transit employees tasked with pumping this water, with over 700 pumps. “Every day, they must keep 13 million gallons of water from overpowering New York’s subway tunnels.”

And like a few other older cities (London and Moscow included), Manhattan’s subway tunnels were built underneath sewage pipes, partly so that they could also be used as bomb shelters. This means that all that excess water has to be pumped uphill.

Without these pumps, even if it didn’t rain at all, it would only take TWO DAYS for the subway tunnels to fill, which would eventually cause all the streets to cave in, in under 20 years. So there goes my nice little notion that our major metropolises would last decades, slowly wearing away (in a rustic but still romantic way) and being inhabited by lovable families of raccoons.

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8 Responses to “Adventures in Learning #2”

  1. Buried In Print May 12, 2010 at 1:47 pm #

    OMG, yes: this was just an amazing chapter in the book. It has changed my daily life because I just can’t look at those little puddles in the subway tunnels, and the wet patches on the walls, and the rivulets at the edges of the walkways, the same way now. ::shakes head, shivers slightly::

    • Lija May 13, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

      It completely destroyed my weirdo fantasies of cities remaining to amaze future generations of human “survivors.”

  2. Riff Randell May 13, 2010 at 2:46 am #

    Jeez Louise. Now, all of PEI is below sea level, so if global warming is real (which I do believe it is), we’re doomed. We also lose something like an inch off the Island every year due to erosion.

    But NYC? It seems too fancy to have a similar Achilles heel!!

    • Lija May 13, 2010 at 2:18 pm #

      I don’t mean I don’t believe global warming is real, just that it may not play out exactly according to our predicted models (which Weisman talks about in this, too). But yeah, NYC pretty much requires constant hand-holding no matter what happens.

      • Riff Randell May 15, 2010 at 3:08 am #

        Gotcha. And yes, this tidbit about the fragility of one of earth’s great metropolises definitely made “The Book of Eli” a little less plausible.

        I mean, come ON; Gary Oldman as a crazy/Nero/book-hoarding demigod and Denzel Washington saving us all? I still think it sounds pretty feasible.

  3. Nymeth May 15, 2010 at 9:51 am #

    Ah yes, I remember that chapter very well. An eye-opening book overall.

    • Lija May 18, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

      Yeah, this is the first part that really made me sit up and take notice.

  4. winstonsdad May 20, 2010 at 12:43 am #

    interesting facts on subway ,isn’t the people live in tunnels ? All the best stu

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