Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Open Space on Long Island

Above: New York's pre-eminent open space, the Fulton Lakes Chain in the Adirondacks.

WSHU had an interesting story about open space on Long Island, and why we should care about it:

The report mentions that Suffolk County is buying up farm land to preserve as open space. More such open space would have been persevered if the Open Space proposal hadn't been defeated by voters this past fall.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Yankee Stadium Home Runs Not Necessarily Related to Weather

Yesterday AccuWeather via their blog put forth a hypothesis that the well documented increase in home runs at the new Yankee Stadium was due to a change in the stadium’s shape, allowing for west winds to enter and exit the stadium at a high speed and the proper angle to turn lazy fly balls into home runs. More specifically:

The wind on Saturday during the Yankees' 22-4 loss against the Cleveland Indians was mostly from the west at 15-20 mph. Given the layout of the stadium, the wind could have had an effect on fly balls in right field. Six home runs were hit by the Indians in the second inning alone.

Although the field dimensions of the new stadium are exactly that of the old stadium, the shell of the new stadium is shaped differently. meteorologists also estimate that the angle of the seating tiers in the new stadium could have a different effect on wind motion across the field.

Note the lack of scientific explanation for the statements in the article. Notice how many times words like mostly, could, estimate are used in the paragraphs. No modeling, or observational studies were used. Let me translate that for you into plain English, “hey we watched the game on Fox on Saturday and it sure looked like the wind was blowing the ball hard, maybe it’s the new stadium?” Look it seems like a reasonable hypothesis and all, especially watching some of those pop flies end up as home runs on Saturday, but it’s just a theory and the accuweather story struck me as being less science and more guessing. I was frustrated that a weather company would present this theory with only one games worth of wind data as as motivating observation.

So I wanted to test their theory with a bit of weather data to see if it holds any water. The methods are explained below and the study includes only six games the four versus the Indians this past weekend and two exhibition games versus the Cubs in early April. The chart shows the number of home runs hit each game, the mean direction of the wind and the wind speed. First note, only three of the six games hosted at Yankee Stadium so far had a west wind. So three of the games played so far had winds not out of the west, and often out of the opposite direction (east), which would by the accuweather theory suppress home runs. In each of these games where the wind was not out of the west, 3 home runs were hit.

Table 1. The above table shows the average wind direction, and speed for games at Yankee Stadium so far in 2009. See the methods section below for details.

During games with a west wind, 8, 6 and 5 home runs were hit, each a significant amount of home runs for a MLB game. But might these home runs be due to the players involved in the game and not the weather? I’m not a saberatician so excuse my clumsy attempt to convince you that there is just as good a chance that the HR’s were due to good offences hitting against struggling pitching as there is a chance that the wind was directly responsible for the home runs. Cleveland lead the American League in runs scored after the all-star break last year and is #2 in runs scored in this young season. During the west wind games this high powered offense was coupled with some exceptionally poor pitching. Of those three games with a west wind, two of them were started by Chien Ming Wang who has for a lack of a better word been awful both at Yankee Stadium and away so far this year. Other pitchers starting in these high home run games were Fausto Carmona (5.85 ERA in 2008, 7.87 ERA in 2009) served up 4 HR, Anthony Reyes (5.73 ERA in 2009, was lights out in second half of 2009) served up 3 HR while Joba Chamberlain (5.60 ERA in 2009 and 2.60 ERA in 2008 and arguably the best pitcher of the crew) only allowed 1 HR. Relievers who served up home runs include minor league pitcher Anthony Claggett who appeared to be overmatched, Jose Veras, Edward Ramirez, Zack Jackson and Jenson Lewis whos ERA’s range from 5.79 to 43.20 this year. Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, Brandon Webb and Mariano Rivera these pitchers are not.

It’s too early to draw any conclusions from the weather data presented above. But it’s clear that a number of factors not related to the weather may have resulted in the home run deluge, and we can’t say for sure if the west wind is the cause of the HR deluge:

  • The accuweather hypothesis appears to be at best an untested guess, not based on modeling studies or scientific observation.

  • Winds have been equally out of the west as other directions, thus they can’t directly explain the deluge of runs and home runs scored over the weekend.

  • More home runs have been hit when there is a west wind at Yankee Stadium than when the wind has been from the east or south.

  • In the games with west winds the pitching has been poor, pitched either by pitchers who do not have demonstrated long term records of being above league average or are who are clearly struggling so far this season.

  • Cleveland and the Yankees are amongst the two best offensive teams in the American League

  • At this point there is not sufficient data to prove whether or not wind direction is statistically tied to home runs.

As Peter Abraham pointed out in his blog today, it’s too early to rush to judgment, the Yankees and opponents hit 20 HR in a four game series last year as well! It’s a neat theory to tie wind direction to HR production, but I think it’s irresponsible for accuweather to claim that the west wind is leading to these home runs. We’ll have to see what the numbers bare out this summer, and draw conclusions after a sufficient sample size has been drawn.

Methods. I calculated the mean wind direction, wind speed and air temperature at LaGuardia Airport from raw METAR code taken from the Plymouth State Weather Data Archive. LaGuardia Aiport was chosen to represent conditions in the Bronx due to the well documented problems with the Central Park observation site. The averages were calculated for the hours of the game, based on data taken from box scores, except during the exhibition games vs. the Cubs where length was estimated to be 4 hours.

Table 2. As per table 1, but includes standard deviation and temperature data as well.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Environmentalist Pirates?

Does the current bout of piracy in the Indian Ocean have its roots in environmental activism?

In February of 2005 the United Nations announced that containers filled with radioactive materials, industrial and medical waste had washed ashore in Somalia.

A United Nations' report released this week says nuclear and hazardous wastes dumped on Somalia's shores had been scattered by the recent Asian tsunami and are now infecting Somalis in coastal areas.

A spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Nick Nuttall, told VOA that for the past 15 years or so, European companies and others have used Somalia as a dumping ground for a wide array of nuclear and hazardous wastes.

"There's uranium radioactive waste, there's leads, there's heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, there's industrial wastes, and there's hospital wastes, chemical wastes, you name it,” he said. “It's not rocket science to know why they're doing it because of the instability there."

Mr. Nuttall said, on average, it cost European companies $2.50 per ton to dump the wastes on Somalia's beaches rather than $250 a ton to dispose of the wastes in Europe.

Recently a Somali ex-patriot named K’Nann posted on the internet explaining why the Somali people did not oppose the piracy that is rampant along their coasts.

Already by this time, local fishermen in the coastline of Somalia have been complaining of illegal vessels coming to Somali waters and stealing all the fish. And since there was no government to report it to, and since the severity of the violence clumsily overshadowed every other problem, the fishermen went completely unheard.

But it was around this same time that a more sinister, a more patronizing practice was being put in motion. A Swiss firm called Achair Parterns, and an Italian waste company called Achair Parterns, made a deal with Ali Mahdi, that they were to dump containers of waste material in Somali waters. These European companies were said to be paying Warlords about $3 a ton, whereas to properly dispose of waste in Europe costs about $1000 a ton.


The UN envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, says that the practice still continues to this day. It was months after those initial reports that local fishermen mobilized themselves, along with street militias, to go into the waters and deter the Westerners from having a free pass at completely destroying Somalia's aquatic life. Now years later, the deterring has become less noble, and the ex-fishermen with their militias have begun to develop a taste for ransom at sea. This form of piracy is now a major contributor to the Somali economy, especially in the very region that private toxic waste companies first began to burry our nation's death trap.

Mr. K’Nann is suggesting that current piracy have its roots in residents who were determined to protect their fishing rights and their waters from pollution. In the years following the start of dumping the effort has gone from something justifiable, to villainous. While this is likely a major simplification of events, it’s just interesting to note that this major geopolitical problem may have its roots in environmental degradation.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Could a Long Island Offshore Windfarm Disrupt Weather Radars?

Above, A marks the spot of a wind farm in central Wisconsin that is disrupting weather radars, making forecasting all the more challenging. Image source: Google Maps.

Saw a great article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently about a large wind farm disrupting weather radar capabilities in central Wisconsin. We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of wind power, especially in rural areas, to generating clean electricity. Here is a demonstrated negative consequence of large wind farm installations.

The National Weather Service has issued a new kind of warning because of a Dodge County wind farm that is disrupting the agency's ability to monitor storms in southeastern Wisconsin.

The wind farm's giant turbines - each as wide as a football field and as tall as a 20-story building - are sending false storm signals to the government's weather radar system.

Weather service officials say they see no significant public safety threat, although they say the wind farm has caused radar interference and could confuse some storm watchers.

Meteorologist Marc Kavinsky said the approaching summer storm season will be the federal agency's first opportunity to gauge the wind farm's full impact.
"It'll be interesting," he said. "I'm hoping the effects will be minimal."
Located just outside the Dodge County community of Iron Ridge, the wind farm includes 36 turbines that began operating over the past few months, generating electricity for several surrounding communities.

The farm is about 30 miles north of the National Weather Service office in Sullivan, which provides radar coverage and severe weather alerts across a 125-mile radius that includes all of southeastern Wisconsin.

The meteorologist, Marc Kavinsky, who was quoted in the article has a great website demonstrating the effects of these tremendous blades on Doppler radar returns.

His key implications of the wind farms on radar returns were:

• Thunderstorm or winter storm characteristics could be masked or misinterpreted, reducing warning effectiveness in the vicinity of the wind farm.

• False signatures contaminating Doppler velocity data in the vicinity of the wind energy facility could reduce forecaster's situational awareness, particularly
during hazardous/severe weather events.

• False precipitation estimates could negatively impact flash-flood warning effectiveness.

To summarize the above, the false returns negatively affect the weather services’ ability to forecast for severe events, like thunderstorms, tornadoes and flooding rains. While this would be a major concern in the Midwest where severe weather associated with thunderstorms is common, how important would it be here in the New York region? Let’s try to anticipate the effects of a wind farm 10 miles off of the south coast of Long Island, as has previously been proposed.

The figure above shows how topography coupled with an extremely high wind farm affects weather radards. Source: National Weather Service.

The figure above shows why the wind farm in Wisconsin is so effective in disrupting the radar signals. The radar beam is tilted up, generally in the neighborhood of 0.5 to 3.5 degrees, and in this case the beam intersects the windfarm because the terrain is sloping upward along the beam path. If the ground was flat, the windfarm would go undetected by radar. How would this work in the New York region?

The NWS Doppler radar that serves the New York region is sited on Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island. A conservative estimate of the height of the Doppler radar is 250 feet above mean sea level. Using Google earth software I calculated the distance from the radar to Fire Island on the south shore of Long Island to be about 8.6 miles. Plan for the windfarm had it to be placed about 12 miles off shore, so let’s estimate the closest possible distance between windfarms and the Doppler radar to be 20 miles (even though in the planning stage the windfarm was located futher west, increasing the distance between radar and windfarm). Next step, figure out the height of the proposed windfarm. Taking the extreme of a 20 story windfarm at 15 feet a story, we come up with a height of 300 feet. With the lowest angle (0.5) of the radar, 20 miles away the beam would be about 528’ above where it started and with the highest angle (3.5) it would be 3696’ above the ground where it started. If you ignore radar beam broadening and throw in a ground elevation of somewhere near 250’ the beam would be 775’ to 4000’ above sea level by the time it reached the windfarm.

Bottom line, a wind farm 20 miles away from the Doppler Radar would require a height of at least 775’ to interfere with Doppler radars offshore in the New York region. While wind farm interference is a problem given the complicated topography of central Wisconsin, it will likely be not be an issue with an offshore farm in the New York region.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Science in the Media

I study mineral dust that is blown by the wind from continent to continent. There was an episode of CSI or Law & Order in which a suspect was caught by matching dust found on their boot to dust found at a crime scene. I found myself thinking, "wow it's taken me a year and a half to come up with a method to source dust, and they pulled it off in 3 hours!" The technology and science used on those shows is humorous to those of us actually trying to perform it. I think the sentiment was caught nicely by this cartoon from Jorge Cham of

Above Image Credit: "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham.

Anyone have any similar stories to tell about tv shows solving their research topic in three hours?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Will MTA Hike Rates Affect Commuter Behavior?

A train pulling into the Ossining, NY Metro North Train Station. Photo credit: USA Today.

Yesterday I mentioned that it is the Golden Age for mass transit use in the United States today, as 2008 set a record for the most people using mass transit. At present in the New York Metro region there is a proposal by the MTA to increase fares on commuter train lines by up to 33%. Every day the governor and state legislature play political hardball with the MTA, it becomes more and more likely that the proposed fare hikes will become reality. The question is how will these fare hikes affect the behavior of commuters? Will air quality suffer as a result of these fare hikes?

To answer this it’s useful to know, how does New York’s commuter train lines compare to other Metropolitan train lines in terms of expense? To calculate this I looked at how expensive it would be to ride the train from the central station to the terminal station on each line during rush hour and then divided this number by the total number of miles traveled by rail. The distance travel was estimated by google maps on a few train lines, numbers in red in the tables below represent estimated quantities. One could alternatively calculate the ratio at the first station serviced, midpoint or an average of all the stations serviced, but in this analysis the terminal station for each line was used.

Table 1. Comparison of New York Metro region train line cost per mile. The top group is the Long Island Railroad, the second ground is Metro North and the last group represents New Jersey Transit.

The Long Island Railroad cost an average of 22 cents per mile traveled, or 25 cents per mile traveled if you exclude the Montauk Branch. New Jersey Transit also averaged 22 cents per mile traveled, including the two branches that serve Rockland and Orange Counties in New York. Metro North, which serves the Hudson Valley and Connecticut averaged 27 cents per mile, the highest rate in the Metropolitan Region.

These rates are less than what the IRS considers to be the rate to operate a motor vehicle of 55 cents per mile, thus offering an economic incentive to use mass transit. However trains are often less convenient than an automobile it terms of scheduling and comfort, so the economic incentives must outweigh the comfort costs of using a personal vehicle to remain competitive. Assuming the MTA raises fares the projected 33%, the regional trains would now cost 29 cents per mile (LIRR or 33 cents excluding the Montauk line), 29 cents per mile (NJ Transit) and 36 cents per mile (Metro North). Given the falling cost of operating a vehicle due to declines in gasoline prices, will taking mass transit still be an attractive choice for commuters?

How would these rates compare to other metropolitan regions? The commuter lines in Boston average 20 cents per mile and in the Baltimore – DC – Northern VA corridor the average cost is 23 cents per mile (see the table below). As it stands the New York Metro regions cost of 24 cents per mile places it as the most expensive, but very close in cost to its neighbors. Given a 33% increase in fares across the board, New York would cost on average about 33 cents per mile, which is nearly 50% more expensive as other metropolitan regions.

Table 2. As per table 1, but here the top group are the commuter lines in Boston and the bottom group are the commuter lines in the DC-Baltimore-VA Metro Region.

This large increase in fares, coupled with declining gas prices will lead to additional motorists using the roadways to get to work each day. These additional drivers will congest an already taxed roadway system, leading to increased emissions of carbon dioxide as well as ozone forming pollutants. The increases in commuter fares are a direct threat to air quality in the New York Metropolitan region.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Good News for Mass Transit

Record high gas prices coupled with a struggling economy caused a surge in mass transit in 2008 Rueters reports.

Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transit last year, up 4 percent from 2007, the American Public Transportation Association said. This is the highest level of ridership in 52 years.
"Where many of the other indicators in our economy are down, public transit is up," APTA Vice President Rosemary Sheridan told Reuters.
U.S. gasoline prices set records in 2008, rising above $4 a gallon in July. Gasoline costs began to cool off in the fall, however, as the effects of a global economic downturn began to curb oil demand.
Although gasoline prices are down, Sheridan said that many people are sticking with public transportation to save money.
Public transit trips were up 4.12 percent in December to 842 million. Ridership on public transportation rose 1.68 percent to 2.7 billion trips in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared to the same period a year earlier.
This is the fifth consecutive year the association has reported record ridership. Sheridan said the economic slowdown might dent public transportation use in 2009, though, as increased unemployment may lead to fewer commuters.
As Americans rode public transit more last year, they drove less. The U.S. Transportation Department reported last month that highway travel fell 3.6 percent, or almost 108 billion miles, in 2008 from 2007.

Due to the global recession, gas prices have declined markedly since their peak. Wise city planners would begin expanding mass transit options at the present, as gas prices can only rise as global demand increases and supply dwindles. Money for civic projects will be tight in the next few years, but investing in mass transit will provide major benefits for urban areas. Mass transit, when run well, reduce carbon emissions, reduce traffic congestion and allow for inexpensive easy transportation options for local residents. The time is now to invest in public infrastructure, not later when gas prices edge back up.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Scary, scary stuff

The Republican War on Science is one of the more evocative book titles in recent memory, but it seems like a bit an exaggeration. Sure the Bush Administration did not fund science research, or put a priority on addressing climate change – but the idea of a crusade against science seemed a bit extreme. But, perhaps it does have a bit of validity to it. Recently the Christian Science Monitor reported that the Chair of the Republican National Committee has denied that Global Warming is occurring.

Speaking on a nationally syndicated radio program, Michael Steele, whose official job title is Embattled Chairman of the Republican National Committee, placed himself in opposition to empirically observed reality earlier this month when he denied the existence of global warming.

Mr. Steele who was filling in for conservative pundit Bill Bennett on Mr. Bennett’s drive-time “Morning in America” call-in show on March 6, responded to a caller who mocked the concept of global warming. Here is Steele’s response, as transcribed by the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein:

“Thank you, thank you,” he said. “We are cooling. We are not warming. The warming you see out there, the supposed warming, and I am using my finger quotation marks here, is part of the cooling process. Greenland, which is now covered in ice, it was once called Greenland for a reason, right? Iceland, which is now green. Oh I love this. Like we know what this planet is all about. How long have we been here? How long? No[t] very long.”

Steele managed to pack many factual inaccuracies into this statement. The notion that the planet has entered a cooling phase is a common – but highly misleading – trope among climate change deniers, who often cite temperature readings that show that the hottest year on record was 1998, implying that the planet has been steadily cooling since then.

Those statements belie the ignorance that is currently gripping the Republican Party. That’s some scary stuff right there. For a long time I’ve tried to judge individual politicians on their own personal views and their voting record. But given that the voice of the Republican Party is denying the existence of Global Warming that gives me pause. How can I support any candidate from a party who’s views are so counter to scientific evidence, logic and reason? It makes me wonder for the future of the country.

Imagine a president who doesn’t trust scientists. What if a meteor was detected flying rapidly towards Earth? Does the president say, “wow I don’t see a meteor, I’m sure it’s okay.” What if scientists reported that flounder were going extinct and needed to be protected? Does the president say, “gee I saw flounder in the supermarket, I’m sure it’s fine.” The sort of disregard for scientific thought that Mr. Steele is portraying is terrifying and makes me pause at the thought of his reasoning towards the economy or foreign affairs. A person who cannot take the advice of world experts is not qualified to lead.