Monday, November 29, 2010

The abandoned spaceport

I finally made it to Flushing Meadows Corona Park last weekend to visit the ruins of the 1964 World's Fair. Technically, the abandoned New York State Pavilion is closed to the public, but the fence is poorly maintained and it's easy to sneak in:

And here's how it looked in 1964:

The park is an hour's bike ride from the Queensboro Bridge, or you can ride the 7 train to the Mets-Willets Point station. If you're in NYC, visit soon before the Parks Department fixes the fence, or worse, tears down the historic structure altogether.

Much more to come about Flushing Meadows Corona Park in future posts here...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Atomic Age

I'm sharing Neil's comment on the last post (on 20th century atomic tests, and the associated spike in radioactive soil that dates to the 1950s) here on the front page, in case you missed it:
"And it's not just topsoil of course. Teeth and trees and deep sea corals and lichen and thereby reindeer piss all show bomb spikes."
Yes, teeth! Nuclear weapons going off in the upper atmosphere between 1955 and 1963 produced enough neutron radiation to create a dramatic spike in the world's supply of radioactive carbon-14 and strontium-90 (which are like regular carbon and strontium, but with extra neutrons fused on). These radioactive isotopes then lodged themselves into life all over the planet - including the tooth enamel of baby boomers.

This means that the degree of radioactivity in your teeth are can give a remarkably accurate determination (within 1-2 years) of when you were born. According to Dental Tribune (The World's Dental Newspaper), this forensic technique can be useful "in a large natural disaster or in an unsolved homicide case." Or if you're a biologist figuring out the growth rates of trees or corals.

So hey, the Cold War was good for something, wasn't it?

Image: advertisement for Detrifice Tho Radia, made from "a basic salt of thorium."

Monday, November 22, 2010

The 2,053 Nuclear Explosions of the 20th Century

Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto created this video timeline that shows the dates and locations of each of the 20th century's 2,053 nuclear explosions, 2,051 of which were detonated during "peacetime" as weapons tests.

When I was a college dilettante, I spent a semester's worth of evenings in training to become a NRC-certified operator of the chemistry department's research reactor. I dropped out of the effort when my economics coursework led me to balance the benefits of the effort - namely bragging rights - against the costs. It is justifiably difficult to pass the NRC's operator exam. But I did get a chance to power up the reactor under supervision in the control room, and it was a pretty great extracurricular lesson in nuclear physics and chemistry.

This video reminded me of one of the fascinating things I learned from that experience. All over the globe, undisturbed layers of topsoil that date from the early 1950s (when the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear weapons and set off a rapid acceleration of tests worldwide) to October 1963 (when the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty went into effect and sent subsequent tests underground) are substantially more radioactive than surrounding layers of soil - and will remain so for thousands of years.

The 20th century's close brush with self-annihilation is therefore a part of the geologic record. Future archaeologists, if there are any, will find it just beneath the chemical traces of the global suicide pact we're writing now - the rapid spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Monday, November 08, 2010

History Repeating

NPR's Morning Edition reported today that gasoline and oil prices are on a steady rise once again. Though the US remains mired in a recession, many other large countries (like Brazil and China) are demanding more energy, while the supply for oil is flat or shrinking. The cost of crude oil is creeping towards $100 a barrel again.

When this happened in March 2008, forecasters correctly predicated that gasoline would soon be $4 a gallon. Over the summer, more and more suburban homeowners could no longer afford both to fill up their tanks and to pay their mortgages. And we all know what happened then.

But when all this transpired two years ago, people still had jobs and credit. That's not the case anymore - Americans have less purchasing power, which means that $4/gallon gas is going to hurt a lot more this time around.

One financial analyst quoted in the story brought up an interesting statistic: "A $10 increase in the price of oil is like a $200 million tax on the economy a day," said Gary Taylor, a principal with The Brattle Group. That's $1 billion every workweek.

Luckily, we have new government leaders coming in who are gung-ho to cut our taxes. I look forward to seeing how they'll set us free from the $1 billion/week oil dependency tax.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Up In Smoke

This is the Salem Harbor Power Station, a coal- and oil-fired power plant that's capable of generating 745 megawatts of dirty energy. That's more electricity than could be produced by all of New England's wind turbines, combined, on the windiest day.

The plant occupies a 65-acre site in the middle of historic Salem, Massachusetts. In fact, the plant's mountainous coal supplies - on a typical day, the plant burns over 700 tons - occupy a quay just a couple of blocks away from Nathaniel Hawthorne's birthplace.

Salem Harbor Power Station. CC-licensed photo by dsearls on Flickr.

According to New England's Conservation Law Foundation, Dominion Energy, the plant's owner, has filed documents to shut down the power plant in the near future. The combination of cheap power from wind turbines and cleaner-burning natural gas plants, combined with increasingly stringent Clean Air Act requirements, seems to be taking its toll on the 60 year-old plant.

This is good news. But New England still has work to do - there are still massive coal-burning power plants operating in our region, in places like Merrimack and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Together, they send tens of millions of tons of greenhouse gas pollutants into the atmosphere on an annual basis, and these other plants have no closure plans in the works. The massive Brayton Point station in Fall River, Massachusetts, for instance, burns over 2 million tons of coal annually, and sent 148 pounds of neurotoxic mercury into the atmosphere in 2005 alone.

If the progressive and wealthy New England states can't shut down their climate-burning coal power stations, how can we possibly expect the rest of the world to do the same?