A recent study done by researchers at Northwestern University shows that the infrastructure of major cities may be at risk of damage due to subsurface heat pockets. These hot spots were found to be causing different ground soils to expand, shrink, and swell, deformations large enough to slightly damage the foundations of buildings. None of these will cause buildings to collapse or be destroyed in any fundamental way, but they could cause dysfunction in the regular operations of infrastructure. Additionally, they can affect durability and efficiency, causing more expenses.
The study was conducted in a dense Chicago neighborhood and the models run show that underground temperatures were rising by almost half a degree Celsius per year for a long time, but that the increase has recently slowed to 0.14 degrees.
The professor who conducted the study, Alessandro Loria, wrote that “no existing civil structure or infrastructure is designed to withstand these variations,” but also that heat spots could be a “resource” for more sustainable buildings. Ground temperature across the globe is supposed to be a stable 48 to 52º Fahrenheit eight feet underground, but Loria said in an interview that the study measured “ground temperatures exceeding 70 degrees” at that measure – about 20º hotter than expected.
The study’s messaging is also noteworthy. Everyone, especially politicians, claims to want a better world for the future, and yet actions scientists have laid out to actually accomplish this are continuously ignored. Despite this globe-altering future being certain, many choose to ignore reality, contributing to a phenomenon of ignorance which deserves studying. I believe the narrative of hopelessness about what can be done contributes to this phenomenon. Rather than a lack of information about damages and solutions leaving people uncertain of what to do, reports showing the harm we have been doing to our own planet shock people, scaring the world into inaction. But while the changes the globe is undergoing are drastic, and the urgent dangers those changes present are only going to get worse, any action we take will improve our future.
In the study’s messaging, Loria emphasizes two important things: first, that there is no immediate danger to be afraid of, and second, that there are ways to address the unexpected heat pockets by capturing and using the heat. This makes the study as perfect a communication as climate scientists can achieve, because rather than causing helpless fear, it actually lays out a plan for engineers and other scientists to further and for politicians to enact. Other climate change researchers can and should use this format as a template for their own reports.
Climate change has been on the radar for a long time. Many credit Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962 and focusing on the harmful effects of pesticides, as the kickstarter of the modern environmental movement in the United States. Since the book’s release, environmental concerns have grown to include global warming from carbon emissions, mass animal extinctions, and now underground warming, amongst many other things. The existence of these concerns and human activity’s role in causing them are known by a majority of people, and are almost unanimously accepted by scientists. Still, relatively little solid action has been taken to limit the key actors in environmental harm.
While Loria’s study was done in Chicago, it relates to all cities and anywhere with dense infrastructure – maybe even to a greater extent, as Lake Michigan and the Chicago River may have absorbed even more heat than the study recorded. Subsurface heating is just another global challenge to overcome. And it can be overcome. It is in our interest to take action now, before the cities we’ve built are made unlivable.
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