The Coastal Packet

The longtime national journal, Progressive Review, has moved its headquarters from Washington DC to Freeport, Maine, where its editor, Sam Smith, has long ties. This is a local edition dealing with Maine news and progressive politics.



Sam Smith

In part because the media has misleadingly written endlessly about global warming rather than climate change, there are going to more than a few people in mid-Atlantic cities who think the recent snows prove it's all not a problem.

In fact, as a reader recently pointed out, change is just that. It is hard to predict. We know past data definitely indicates a shift but we can't define the precise nature of that shift because we haven't experienced it yet.

Just before the current blizzard, the National Wildlife Federation issued a report that suggested that we shouldn't be surprised by such things:

"Global warming is having a seemingly peculiar effect on winter weather in the northern United States. Winter is becoming milder and shorter on average; spring arrives 10 to 14 days earlier than it did just 20 years ago. But most snow belt areas are still experiencing extremely heavy snowstorms. . . Even as global warming slowly changes the character of winter, we will still experience significant year-to-year variability in snowfall and temperature because many different factors are at play."

Washington, DC, well illustrates the uncertain quality of change. The storm last weekend dropped the fourth largest amount of snow on the city in recorded history. But you need only to go back two years to February 6, 2008, and you'll find the city setting a warmth record for that date of 74 degrees. The coldest February 6 was back in 1895, when the thermometer fell to one degree.

It may help to keep in mind two principles:

- Change is change and doesn't fully define itself until it's happened.

- An average is only an average.

Having recently moved from DC to Maine, I gaze out my window at the remains of 22 inches of snow that hardly slowed things down at all in these parts and recall the number of my friends who said something like, "How are you going to survive those Maine winters?" and I think how grateful I am I wasn't back in DC this weekend.

In fact, Maine has two mre typical advantages over the capital in winter. We have a lot of sun and the cold is dry. Twenty-five degrees on a sunny Down East day is infinitely preferable to a 35 degree cloudy day in DC with the humid cold cutting through any protection you might be wearing.

Here's how I described it back the 1970s:

"The city lived for spring and fall, periods separated by muggy summer and by an unpredictable yet dull winter. In the fall, the gauze of noxious gas that stretched over DC all summer was peeled away, permitting the sun a rare chance to lounge unimpeded against the sides of buildings or ricochet off spires. The air conditioner's monotone was finally silenced and the hint of chill repulsed by a friendly jacket. But the spring was even better; you quickly forgot the snow that didn't come, or that did come but all in one blizzard, and you luxuriated in a few months of unadulterated color and life. Summer was awful and in winter it was best to heed the words of Mark Twain:

"'When you arrived it was snowing. When you reached the hotel it was sleeting. When you went to bed it was raining. During the night it froze hard, and the wind blew some chimneys down. When you got up in the morning it was foggy. When you finished your breakfast at ten o'clock and went out, the sunshine was brilliant, the weather balmy and delicious, and the mud and slush deep and all pervading. You will like the climate-when you get used to it. . . . Take an umbrella, an overcoat, and a fan, and so forth.'"

As for Maine, I don't have to check any data to confirm that the climate has changed. All I have to do is remember the Farm Bureau supper I attended as a kid where I overheard the straw hatted Harold Mann telling a companion, "Ayah. I remembah that wintah of ought eight. We had our first snow the middle of Octobah and come May 1st we were still on runnahs."

Sam Smith, Washington Post, 1987 - Al Thompson is superintendent of roads in Freeport, Maine, with a population about one percent of that of the District. But what Maine lacks in people, it makes up in roads, so Al Thompson has about 12 percent of Washington's asphalt mileage to look after.

Now Al doesn't have anything like the equivalent of Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues in his charge, and the local politicians tend to realize that nature often is impervious to memos, directives and policy guidelines. On the other hand, he works without the benefit of Snow Command Centers, Computerized Cancellation Centers and Codes Yellow. What he does have is five trucks with 12-foot dustpans and 11-foot wings.

How long does it take his trucks to cover 130 miles? Says Al: "An hour and a half, an hour and three-quarters." Then it takes another three hours for a second "cleanup" trip.

To put it in D.C. terms, that would mean, with the number of vehicles we've got (if properly equipped), you theoretically could sweep through the city in a couple of hours. Since it is clear our trucks are outmoded and not properly equipped, let's look at it another way: 25 good snow plows could, using the Maine standard, run through every street in the city in nine hours. . .

Now, before someone at the District Building picks up the phone to tell The Post about "complex urban problems," let me tell you about George Flaherty. He's director of parks and public works for Portland, Maine. Portland is about one-tenth the size of D.C. but has nearly 30 percent of its street mileage. He uses about a quarter of D.C.'s equipment and expects to have the job done in 8 to 10 hours.

I asked if he could explain the logic of a not-uncommon Washington scene: two snow plows working directly behind each other, sometimes with a Department of Public Works pickup truck in the lead. He just laughed and said, "No." Al Thompson agrees: "Doesn't do any good to plow over ice. Got to use salt."

And you don't wait until four inches have piled up before you start plowing. You start when you've got an inch and a half, and you stay ahead of the storm. And you don't leave it to the Almighty once ice-covered streets become mushy. You run the plows through and get the stuff off. Here, even downtown, we let the streets freeze again so the morning traffic reporters will have something to talk about.

"As soon as the storm starts, we salt all our major arterials," Flaherty says. In cases of major storms, "we will salt our critical areas just before it begins to snow.". . .

It will be argued that northern cities are willing to pay a high premium for clearing their streets because they get so much snow. But this year Portland budgeted, like most cities, for the best of all possible worlds: 25 inches, a winter roughly comparable to ours so far. With one-third the street mileage of D.C., Portland still planned to spend one-third more.

Why? Maybe because they know what bringing a city to a halt really costs. Here are some figures that will give you a rough idea of the costs of closing down D.C. for a day: the D.C. government spends $3 million a day on its payroll; the federal government spends close to $20 million a day for its D.C. payroll; private businesses spend another $30 million. What did D.C. budget for snow removal? Just under $1 million. Calculate the odds yourself.


Anonymous wellbasically said...

Change is unpredictable but it's going to be terrible. CYA

February 7, 2010 12:14 PM  
Blogger MonkeyMuffins said...

It's also important to note that because global warming causes increasing evaporation, there is a lot more water in the atmosphere, thus more rain and snow.

Warming does not end winter.

People don't want to "believe" in global warming (climate change) because it exposes the lie of our myth of infinite growth on a finite planet.

But, the cold, harsh, indifferent truth is this:

We live at the end of empire, during the century of contraction, in a culture of make believe.

We're not going to grow, consume and indebt our way out of the problems of growth, consumption and debt (R.I.P. John Maynard Keynes). is doing some of the best economic analysis of reality.

February 7, 2010 12:56 PM  
Anonymous wellbasically said...

In other words, I got mine, but you poor people should just lump it at a lower standard of living than me, so I can keep feeling smug and superior.

February 7, 2010 6:07 PM  
Anonymous cemmcs said...

I hope you enjoy your life in Maine and conitnue your good work.

February 7, 2010 6:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am so sorry for you that Maine knows all about how to handle big snows. Maybe it is a sign that I have an anarchist streak, but I take esthetic and moral pleasure at seeing big snows shut down big cities. One of my favorite memories is walking down the middle of 5th Avenue below Central Park in Manhattan when there was scarcely a single car on the street because of a heavy snowstorm. Likewise the current paralysis of DC, which has its inconvenient aspects, is on the whole something to enjoy. If the world can survive 3or 4 days of Washington inactivity, there is still hope, I say.

February 7, 2010 7:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sam, please read Plimer's "Heaven and Earth." It may cause you to question your assumptions about climate change, where it's headed, and what we can do about it.

February 8, 2010 5:17 AM  

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