Your summer in extreme weather
On a recent morning in New York City (like so many recent mornings in New York City), as temperatures hovered in the low teens and a fresh layer of snow coated the streets, I set off for work the same way I do almost every day: on my bike.
Yeah, I’m one of those crazy bikers who choose to pedal no matter what the weather. I grew up in a car-averse household in Toronto, and on mornings when most kids were being driven to school, my parents told me to bundle up and get on my bike. I didn’t like it at the time, but thanks to them, I’ve never seen cold weather as a reason not to ride.
And here’s the thing—though many commuters can’t imagine making the trip to work without climate control, I’m not alone in my determination to keep riding, no matter the road conditions. Across the United States, many of the cities that boast the highest percentage of bike commuters are also known for nasty winters—places like Minneapolis and Madison, Wisconsin. Warm-weather cities like Austin and San Diego, where the sun always seems to shine, have far fewer regular riders.
It’s a puzzling phenomenon, but less so when you consider which cities have extensive bike lanes and actively promote cycling, explains Caroline Szczepanski, a spokesperson for the League of American Bicyclists.
“What we’ve found is that weather actually isn’t much of an issue if there’s a strong bike culture,” she says.
Minneapolis, for instance, has a phenomenal trail system, downtown bike share, and tons of organized events like bike-to-work days and group rides. Urban planning makes a difference, too. If the nearest grocery store is 10 miles away, you’re less likely to hop on your bike—regardless if it’s 5 degrees or 100.
Even in New York City, and with the help of a city-wide bike sharing program, more and more riders seem ready and willing to brave the elements. On January 7, NYC temperatures plummeted to 4 degrees Fahrenheit, the coldest day on record since 1896. That same day, CITI Bike proudly announced via Twitter that the bike share program had logged 6,669 trips. That number is far below the daily average of 35,000, sure, but it’s still evidence that not everyone sees a frozen thermostat and heads for the subway.
True, on the coldest mornings, my ride along the Hudson River bike path is less crowded. In balmier weather, the trail is buzzing with commuters pedaling downtown. But on that particular morning, with temperatures in the single digits, I had the trail mostly to myself, with my own personal views of the ice chunk soup forming alongside the river’s edge. The path was plowed—but only sort of. Worse, it was unsalted, leaving occasional patches of black ice, which for a cyclist means certain disaster.
And it was. Less than half a mile from my apartment, I wound up sprawled in a two-inch layer of snow and cursing the man who had walked across my path without looking. I swerved to avoid him, realizing too late that my tires had zero traction. The result was an unpleasant meeting with the cold, wet pavement.
OK, I thought, maybe I SHOULD take the subway.
But soon enough, I felt the satisfying crunch of salt crystals beneath me, and the snow and ice disappeared. I even saw a few more cyclists. Best of all, I felt sun on my face—sunlight I might otherwise have gone without during the dark winter days spent indoors. Maybe snow cycling isn’t so crazy after all.
This week, the 2nd-annual Winter Cycling Congress is being held in Winnipeg, a place known—even by Canadian standards—for its frosty winters. More than 170 participants, from engineers to urban planners to artists, will gather to discuss ways to make cold-weather cycling as mainstream as skiing and skating.
To do that, Anders Swanson, the director of the congress, says “people need to realize it’s actually possible—that there are, in fact, places in the world where many people ride throughout the winter and it’s totally normal.” After that, he says, ensuring bike lanes are well plowed and free from ice is essential so riders feel safe.
When I asked Swanson what city most resembles winter cycling heaven, he mentioned Oulu, Finland. “There’s something special,” he says, “about seeing grandmas passing you on a bike in the middle of February, going to bingo, or whole families riding home from the grocery store.”
Oulu, by the way, is located just 124 just miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Great Plains tornadoes
From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.
"It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."
But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."
On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.
Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."
An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.
Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.
Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.
Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."
Florida red tide
A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.
The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.
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