Hard to tell where the canal ends and the pavement begins, Venice floods 2012.

Atlantis redux

While on our first European vacation years ago, Morgen and I visited Venice, that beautiful Italian city where the streets are paved with water. We were there for only a few days, but we enjoyed every minute of it. The place oozes history, and it’s wonderfully romantic. When we took the customary gondola ride through the city’s canals, our gondolier casually pointed toward a small house and said, “Marco Polo used to live there.” And we could believe it—if it were not for the constant noise of motor boats, it would be easy to imagine that the city looked much the same way centuries ago as it does now. But it’s not quite the same as it was in Marco Polo’s time. Whatever other changes have happened, the most significant one is that the city, as our gondolier reminded us, is sinking.

Of course, the entire planet is doomed to be destroyed when the sun explodes in 500 million years or so, but I’m not losing any sleep over that. Why should I worry about Venice? It still looks OK to me, so it must be sinking very slowly, right? Well, not really. Venice is located in a lagoon on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. When Venice was founded in the year 421, the level of the Adriatic was about 5 meters (16 feet) lower than it is today. For centuries the water level rose very, very slowly, but in the last century or so the rate has increased dramatically. With each passing year, the difference between street level and water level shrinks faster. From time to time, the city gets a brief reprieve. As recently as 2005, unusual weather patterns caused Venice to experience exceptionally low tides—so low that boats could not navigate most of the city’s shallower canals. Nevertheless, the clear trend, as observed over centuries, is in a decisively downward direction. If nothing is done and the trend continues, by 2055, a significant portion of the city’s walkways, plazas, and ground-level floors will be submerged all the time.

That Sinking Feeling

For a long time I was puzzled about just what it meant for Venice to be “sinking,” because that doesn’t fit into my categories of things a city is capable of doing. This is in fact a somewhat simplistic description of a complex problem. One part of the problem is that the city is not built on a solid foundation. Venice was originally a collection of muddy islands. In order to construct buildings, workers drove millions of pilings—thin, sharpened poles made of alder trees—through the mud and into the marginally more solid base of sand and clay beneath. Oak planks were placed on top of the pilings, and on top of the planks, several thick layers of marble (which is impermeable by water) formed the foundations of the buildings. From there on up, most of the construction was done in ordinary brick or wood. At the time the buildings were constructed, the marble was well above the high water line, so there was nothing to worry about. However, over the centuries, the weight of the buildings has driven the pilings deeper into the mushy seabed. In addition, at one time there were hundreds of wells in the city, removing water from deep aquifers. Unfortunately, these aquifers had acted as a sort of balloon of water propping up the city; when it was “deflated,” the city began to sink even faster.

But the literal sinking of Venice, which averages something like a few centimeters per century, is only part of the problem. The other part is that the surrounding water level has been rising at an alarming rate. This is partly due to the effects of global warming and partly due to centuries of poor environmental management in the entire region. But in any case, the rising waters compound the sinking problem and make the net effect quite serious.

When It Rains, It Pours

Venice has always been subject to periodic flooding—mainly in winter, and especially at high tide. This is something that residents have come to regard as a fact of life, and not a terribly troublesome one; most of them get around in boats anyway. But whereas flooding used to be something that would happen a few times a year, now it happens on the order of a hundred times a year. Because the sea level has risen, even in a modest flood, the water level rises above the waterproof marble foundations of the buildings, rapidly wearing away the less-robust building materials.

In November, 1966, a particularly bad storm caused a devastating flood that put much of the city under 2 meters (over 6 feet) of water. This caused extensive damage to both buildings and the valuable artwork they contained, and began to impress upon Venetians the need to take drastic action.

In 1970, a plan was proposed that involved the installation of large, mobile gates at the three inlets of the lagoon; these would be raised as needed to keep out high water. But for the next 30 years, a series of excruciating delays prevented any significant progress from being made. There were, of course, significant engineering problems to be solved, not to mention the problem of financing such an ambitious undertaking. But political reasons, more than anything else, held up development. Many Venetians did not want to believe their city was in imminent danger—and even to the extent that they did, there was tremendous disagreement about how best to address the problem. Some wanted to address the problem at the base—to basically “jack up” the city and install new and improved foundations. Others wanted to build a series of dikes and locks around the city—the so-called “Dutch solution”—or use a different mechanism to hold back high waters.

Holding Back the Sea

At the end of 2001, a plan was finally put in motion to keep back the high waters. A project called MOSE (an acronym for Experimental Electromechanical Module in Italian, but also an allusion to Moses) involves the construction of 78 steel gates, hinged at the bottom, installed along the sea floor at the three inlets to the lagoon. The gates, which are hollow and normally filled with water, measure 20 meters wide, 3.6 meters deep, and 20 to 30 meters high. When water levels appear to be rising dangerously high, compressed air will be pumped into the gates, causing the ends to float up to (and slightly above) the surface. In effect, they will form a dynamic dam that will appear only when needed. The gates will be tall enough to hold back water quite a bit deeper than the 1966 flood.

Although construction has been underway for quite a few years and significant progress has occurred, there are still numerous problems ahead, and the completion date has been delayed repeatedly. One issue is the 5.5 billion euro (and counting) cost, and more specifically the vast portion of that sum that has disappeared due to corruption. There are also significant environmental concerns; the project was vigorously opposed by numerous environmental groups. Among their concerns is that any interference with normal tides will increase the levels of toxic chemicals such as mercury in the waters of Venice, seriously threatening both marine life and the health of people who consume the local fish. There are also basic worries about health and sanitation. Venice has no sewer system; household waste flows into the canals and is washed out into the ocean twice a day with the tides. No one is certain quite what effect the gates will have on the city’s natural waste treatment system.

An Uncertain Future

Under the most optimistic prediction, Project Moses will be fully operational by 2022, but given the city’s history of delays, few expect it to be finished that soon. And even if it works perfectly, it is not a complete or final solution. The city will continue to sink and the water level will continue to rise. Sooner or later, the gates will no longer be able to protect the city from deterioration.

In the meantime, Venice faces an uncertain and paradoxical existence. While tourism increases to record levels, the population of the city itself has plummeted. The historic old part of the city had about 184,000 residents in 1950; today, there are fewer than 55,000. A shocking percentage of Venice’s glorious old buildings stand vacant as owners move to more stable surroundings, yet real estate prices remain astronomically high, discouraging an influx of new residents. With no one to renovate and maintain the buildings, they will fall apart faster; but the more the city deteriorates, the fewer people are willing to live there and do anything about it. Project Moses may keep the floods out, but will it enable Venice to keep its head above water?

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 2, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on March 21, 2005.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Sirocco Winds over the Adriatic Sea

More than just a bunch of hot air

Our article about the Chinook winds discussed an unusual meteorological phenomenon, but one thing it didn’t touch on was the peculiarity of a wind having a name in the first place. That strikes me as odd, like a temperature or a humidity level or a barometric pressure having a name. I mean, I get it: we give hurricanes and certain other storms names, and that serves a useful purpose, but just calling the movement of air in a certain way at a certain time by a proper noun seems weird.

Be that as it may, we were able to find quite a few other examples of winds that have names. Here’s a representative sampling—by no means a complete list:

  • Bora: A cold, north-eastern katabatic wind that blows along the east coast of the the Adriatic Sea (including Greece, Russia, and Turkey).
  • Brickfielder: A hot and dry summer wind in Southern Australia.
  • Cape Doctor: A dry south-easterly wind that blows over part of Western Cape Province in South Africa, so named because of its apparent effect of clearing away pollution.
  • Chinook: A warm winter wind in the western United States and Canada.
  • Fremantle Doctor: A cool summer sea breeze on the coast of Western Australia.
  • Halny: A strong, warm föhn wind storm in the Carpathian mountains of Poland and Slovakia.
  • Khamsin: A hot, sandy wind in Egypt.
  • Mistral: A cold, forceful wind that blows in southern France and into the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Santa Ana: A hot, dry wind, usually in autumn, in southern California and northern Mexico.
  • Sirocco: A powerful wind that blows from the Sahara through North Africa and Southern Europe.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

ATK Space Systems' Solar Sail during testing at the Plumbrook Test Facility in Sandusky, OH

The next big thing in space travel

If you wanted to cross the ocean by ship, you’d probably choose an engine-driven vessel over a sail-driven vessel. The engine will get you where you’re going faster; it enables the ship to be much larger than it could be if it were driven by a sail; and it requires much less manual intervention to keep it going. Besides, you won’t be at the mercy of unpredictable winds. In oceangoing vessels, the technological progression from sails to internal-combustion engines solved a great many problems while creating only a few new ones, such as the need to obtain and store significant quantities of fuel and the pollution that results from burning that fuel. Of course, since the planet is conveniently spherical, you’re always a finite distance from the nearest port where you can fill up. If, on the other hand, you wanted to circumnavigate the globe without stopping for fuel, sails would be the way to go. The trip would take longer and the ship would be smaller, but you’d never have to worry about running out of gas.

This is the very thinking behind an ostensibly retro design for spacecraft: by ditching the fuel and engines you can enable much longer journeys, albeit with some trade-offs. Outfit your ship with a giant sheet of lightweight and highly reflective material, and you’ve got a solar sail, a propulsion system that can take you to the distant reaches of the galaxy without any fuel—pushing you along with the gentle power of light from the sun.

What Goes Around

Solar sails are by no means a new idea. In fact, German astronomer Johannes Kepler floated the idea by Galileo in 1610. Kepler imagined “heavenly breezes,” though, and had no concept of the scientific principles that would actually come into play. In 1871, James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish physicist, predicted that electromagnetic radiation (including light) should exert a small amount of pressure when an object absorbs or reflects it; Russian physicist Peter Lebedev first demonstrated the effect in a laboratory in 1900.

A little more than 20 years later, another Russian physicist named Fridrikh Tsander proposed using this radiation pressure to push a spacecraft along using a large but very thin mirror. In the early 1970s, NASA funded research into solar sails, and for a while proposed that they be used to propel a probe that would rendezvous with Halley’s Comet in 1986 (though the necessary technology turned out to be unavailable at the time). Today, NASA and numerous other groups are actively developing solar sail designs, and several spacecraft powered by solar sails have already been deployed.

Light Pressure

The whole idea of light exerting pressure seems counterintuitive. I’ve personally stood in front of some very bright spotlights without so much as a wobble. And I know from my rudimentary understanding of physics that photons, the particles that make up light, have no mass. Nevertheless, under the right circumstances, light can indeed provide a push. The math, frankly, is beyond me, but according to scientists who seem to know what they’re talking about and can back it up with impressive-looking equations, photons do indeed exert a gentle pressure on objects they hit—and the pressure is roughly twice as great if the object reflects the light than if it absorbs the light, so solar sails would effectively be giant mirrors. But the key word here is gentle. I’ve read various analogies for the strength of the sun’s push, but one I particularly liked, on a NASA webpage, said that if you had a mirror the size of a football field, the pressure of the sun’s light would be about the same as the weight of a first-class letter.

In space, a small amount of pressure goes much further, because other factors such as gravity, air friction, and wind don’t get in the way. Even so, if a solar sail is going to push a spacecraft of any significant mass, it must be enormous. And therein lies a problem: with greater size comes greater mass—not so much from the sail itself but from the support structure that’s needed to keep it rigid and connect it to craft’s payload. The greater the mass to be pushed, the greater the size of the sail that’s needed, and so on. Thus, in solar sail design, thinner and lighter materials are almost always better. Sail thickness is measured in micrometres (µm)—millionths of a meter—with some being as thin as 2 µm. (By comparison, the average human hair is about 80 µm thick.) This brings up a second problem: fragility. You’ve got to fold or roll up a huge sheet of material that’s a zillionth of an inch thick, get it into space, and then unfurl it perfectly—without ripping or mutilating it, and without creating a support structure so massive that it’ll cancel out the sail’s low mass. One promising material is a type of porous carbon fiber that’s much thicker than the polymer films most researchers have used, and yet lighter in weight because of its unusual structure; it’s also highly rigid, durable, and heat-resistant.

Still More Uses for the Force

Proposed solar sail designs have used a wide variety of shapes, from simple squares to disks to pinwheels. As with wind sails, you can change the angle of a solar sail in order to steer the craft; designs that incorporate numerous smaller sails provide greater directional control. But one thing you will not see is a solar sail shaped like a parachute—since light travels in straight lines, that would make for a highly inefficient design. Interestingly, that’s exactly the shape of a certain fictional solar sail—the one used by Count Dooku’s spaceship in Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones.

Besides having an inappropriately shaped sail, that ship somehow managed to zip across the galaxy at a startling speed as soon as the sail unfurled. Real solar sails, because they generate so little force, accelerate quite slowly. On the other hand—and this is what makes them an intriguing option for long-term missions—the velocity continues to increase over time, there being no friction to counteract it. The result is that over a period of months or years, a craft powered by a solar sail could reach speeds far in excess of any rocket-powered design. However, as the craft gets farther and farther away from the sun, the radiation pressure also decreases, so it’s not as though the rate of acceleration can continue to increase indefinitely. Even so, a vehicle with a very lightweight solar sail could reach the orbit of Pluto in about 7 years. (The Pioneer 10 probe, launched in 1972, took 11 years to reach that point.)

Sail On

After many years of ground-based and suborbital testing, as well as a few noteworthy failures, an interplanetary solar sail spacecraft (Japan’s IKAROS probe) was first successfully deployed in 2010. NASA launched the NanoSail-D2 later in 2010. And The Planetary Society launched and successfully tested a small solar sail-powered spacecraft called LightSail 1 in 2015; LightSail 2 is scheduled to launch in June, 2019. Numerous other solar sail projects are in various stages of planning.

Among the future missions envisioned for spacecraft propelled by solar sails are probes sent to explore the inner planets, monitoring stations near the sun, and deep-space exploration. Some proposals even use a giant laser here on Earth, instead of the sun, to push the craft along. Manned missions, however, are a much more distant possibility; a spaceship big enough to hold passengers would require an unfathomably gargantuan sail, and the slow acceleration would be rather inconvenient considering human lifespans. But if we ever encounter a ship sent a long time ago from a galaxy far, far away, it may very well have been carried along by a solar sail.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 19, 2006.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Take Control of Your Digital Legacy cover

How do you want to be remembered by future generations? You can make a will to handle your physical possessions, but what about your digital life—photos, videos, email, documents, and the like? What about all your passwords, social media accounts, backups, and every other aspect of your digital life? Over the years, I got so many questions about this sort of thing that I decided to write a book about it—Take Control of Your Digital Legacy—and it has turned out to be one of my post popular titles.

If you’re not at the stage of life where you can think about this for yourself, consider that you may have to do so for your parents or other relatives. It’s not all about posterity either, since following my advice will also help loved ones access your key accounts and important info if you’re incapacitated, which can happen at any time—or even if you just decide to go on a long vacation.

This book, like all Take Control titles, comes as an ebook, and you can download any combination of formats—PDF, EPUB, and/or Kindle’s Mobipocket format—so you can read it on pretty much any computer, smartphone, tablet, or ebook reader. The cover price is $15, but as an Interesting Thing of the Day reader, you can buy it for 30% off, or just $10.50.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

An open cardboard box

Old marketing gimmicks never die

Hark back with me to the Dark Years (or the Good Old Days, depending on your point of view)—the time before any object a person desired could be delivered to one’s door within days (if not hours), with no more effort than a few taps on a smartphone screen. I’m old enough to remember a time before Amazon.com—indeed, before the internet itself—when discovering, locating, and procuring a variety of any particular type of merchandise actually presented a challenge. Way back in the days when we had to wait for checks to clear and then allow 6–8 weeks for delivery, the notion that a previously unknown specimen of one of our favorite things would arrive automagically on our doorstep once a month was quite compelling.

I had experienced, and then long forgotten about, thing-of-the-month clubs when, in the early 2000s, my Christmas gift from my mother was a subscription to the Fruit of the Month Club. Once each month, Airborne Express arrived at our door with a box of fresh fruit. The selection changed each month. In December, for example, it was Mandarin oranges; in April it was kiwi and pineapple. The fruit was always of good quality, and the shipments were just infrequent enough that I was always slightly surprised when each package arrived. Although the shipments were fairly small, they were always a welcome treat that didn’t require a trip to the market—and the subscription was something I never would have thought to purchase for myself.

They Deliver for Me

Before my fruit started arriving, I had heard of the Book-of-the-Month Club but had only a vague notion that other kinds of things were available on a monthly subscription plan. Now, however, I seem to find ___-of-the-month clubs every time I turn around. In most cases, the general idea is the same: for a fixed fee, you get a six- or twelve-month subscription, with a different selection of your chosen product arriving each month. This can be an easy way to experience new tastes and broaden your horizons a bit. (You can also, of course, have Amazon or another retailer automatically send you refills of exactly the same staple items on the schedule of your choice, but that’s different from having someone select a different item in a given category for a monthly surprise.)

What other sorts of ___-of-the-month clubs are there? A quick web search turned up hundreds, ranging from the delightful to the bizarre. Things you can receive by monthly subscription include: candles, chocolate, coffee, cookies, craft beer, fruit, gourmet cheese, hot sauce, jam, leggings, oysters, pasta, pastries, pickles, potato chips, socks, tea, trout flies, wine…well, I could go on, but you get the idea. I haven’t seen armchair-of-the-month or vaccine-of-the-month clubs, but with very few exceptions, it appears one can now receive a curated monthly example of virtually any item needed for survival or leisure by subscription.

Reader’s Dozen

And then, of course, there are books, the item-of-the-month that started it all. The original Book-of-the-Month Club was founded in 1926, designed as a way to get new books into the hands of people living in rural areas without easy access to bookstores or libraries. A panel of judges selected a new volume each month, sent at a respectable discount to subscribers. The following year, The Literary Guild—another variation on the same theme—started business. Many decades later, after a series of mergers and acquisitions, both clubs still exist. If you enjoy reading the types of books the book-of-the-month club offers, it can be a convenient way to stay on top of the latest bestsellers and keep your library well-stocked at a reasonable price. As for me, I already accumulate books far faster than I can read them, so I’m more likely to subscribe to consumable products.

Notwithstanding the fact that I write a ___-of-the-day column, I find the notion of monthly subscription clubs strangely appealing—in an endearingly retro sort of way. Since it’s easy to purchase almost anything instantly online these days, this type of subscription program is a bit of an anachronism. My suspicion is that clubs like these continue to thrive not so much for the convenience they provide but because people like novelty…and they like getting packages. If you can justify a subscription by convincing yourself that you’re saving money, all the better—but when you get right down to it, there’s just nothing like opening a box of goodies.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 11, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on October 24, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day