It’s Snowing Again in Boston…and Time to Focus on Resilience

Posted by on Feb 14, 2015

Heavy snow in Boston. They've run out of places to dump it. Photo: John Gravelin

Record snowfall in Boston. Shown here is a neighborhood in the Charlestown section of the city. With about six feet of snow having fallen this year—before this weekend’s storm, Boston has run out of places to dump it. Photo: John Gravelin

We like to think we know about snow here in Vermont. We have about two feet of the white stuff on the ground—the settled depth from several storms this year. I spent a couple hours pushing back the deepening piles along our driveway with my tractor, getting ready for the next storm, and my neck is still a little stiff from raking snow off a roof the other day (not the roof of our house, mind you). But for the most part, I’m enjoying the snow. It’s a winter-lover’s winter here in Vermont!

But it’s become a nightmare in Boston and Providence, and Portland—coastal cities that have gotten battered by the Nor’easters that have marched up the coast since the first of the year and Clippers that have brought in snow from the West. Boston has had about six feet of snow in the past month, 42 inches so far in February—and the month is just half over. I’ve lost track of just which one the Blizzard of 2015 was, since there have been so many. Coastal New England has run out of places to dump the snow. Roofs are collapsing. Tempers are flaring. Schools have been cancelled so many days that students may be in classes into July.

And this weekend another 10-14 inches is expected in Boston, perhaps two feet up the coast in Portland. Some of this morning’s articles are referring to this one as a “snow hurricane,” since the barometric pressure is expected to drop as low as it does during a Category 2 hurricane. Wind speeds up to 70 mph are expected, making this potentially one of the most severe blizzards in years—though with less snow than earlier winter storms this year.

Something’s going on with the weather

One can’t say with certainty why this winter is so severe or what is causing this weekend’s storm. But the harsh winters we’ve had in the Northeast the past couple years are consistent with climate models. More moisture is held in the atmosphere, a dramatically warming arctic is changing global circulation patterns, and a warmer Atlantic allows storm systems to pick up steam.

It sounds like we need to get used to intense winters here in New England. And if that’s the case, we should be prepared for them.

Winter storms and resilience

To me, this calls for a greater focus on resilience. That was one of our priorities in building (re-building) our house in Dummerston. My wife will do just fine in our new house with almost any winter storm event Nature could throw at us.

Relative to the roof and snow, we designed the roof with standing-seam metal roofing to shed snow; if snow isn’t shed fully, the structure is ample to carry many feet of snow; the house is well enough insulated and tight enough that we will never have ice dams; we have deep overhangs that most of the snow sliding off the roof keeps away from the walls; and we don’t have basement windows that could be damaged by snow cascading off the roof.

We designed our driveway to be able to handle a lot of snow and move it out of the way fairly easily—though I recognize that being in rural Vermont is far different in this respect than being in urban Boston or Cambridge. I admit that it also helps to have a tractor with front-end loader to move excess amounts of snow around when necessary.

Our house and barn in a snowstorm last week. Photo: Alex Wilson

Our house and barn in a snowstorm last week. Photo: Alex Wilson

Most importantly, if we get four or five feet of snow that shuts everything down—as has pretty-much happened in Boston over the past three weeks—we can hole up in our house and do just fine. Our house was designed with passive survivability in mind: it’s so well insulated that even if we lose power during a snowstorm we can keep comfortable with our tiny wood stove.

And as I discussed in an article a couple weeks ago, an important aspect of resilience is food. We keep enough food in the house to live on for at least several weeks. After six weeks, we might be boiling up those dried soy beans that we bought by mistake ten years ago and have kept around, but we’d do quite well for at least three weeks. I do want to go a little further in this department: figuring out a system to store durable goods in a way that we use the oldest first.

Cooking food would be an issue if we lose power, as our house is all-electric, but we have some options. We selected a wood stove that has a cast-iron top that we could cook on. We were attracted to some Vermont-made soapstone wood stoves, but soapstone takes an extremely long time to heat enough to boil water. Also, I recently bought a wood-burning backpacking-type cook stove that I’ll write about after I get a chance to test it. We could cook outside on our covered porch with that stove if necessary.

Being able to cook during power outages is the one reason I might recommend a gas stove, but my general feeling is that the indoor air quality problems that result from cooking with gas outweigh the resilience benefits.

Snow piles are getting deeper with each snow storm.  Photo: Alex Wilson

Snow piles are getting deeper with each snow storm. Photo: Alex Wilson

Watching the news

I feel terrible about what my friends on the New England coast are going through—and I fear it will get worse with this latest storm. They’ve been through a lot over the past month.

As we build new homes and apartments and renovate older ones, resilience should become a higher priority. With a resilient home you can enjoy these storms.

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed. To receive e-mail notices of new blogs, sign up at the top of the page.

8 Comments

  1. Your points are all very valid, Alex, and I would add a root cellar, solar oven, chickens that lay in winter, and full tank on a gas BBQ to the list.

    As much as I enjoy the outdoors in winter and yes, even this much snow, it’s also gotten me thinking about how our older and less able community members will fare in the long term. I don’t have a tractor (yet), but having my rural 1/4 mile driveway plowed sets me back $60 each time. Unsustainable for most folks on a fixed income. Those without the physical means to grow extra food may be unable to afford to stock much extra. Wood heat requires the ability to carry wood and load a stove several times a day.

    Community-based resilience operations are mostly unequipped to tackle the magnitude of effort required to care for an entire community of older folks.

    The events of 9/11 brought millions of dollars to cities and towns for preparedness…I wonder what it will take to focus the same resources on climate change driven events.

    I read somewhere that when the Finnish settle a town, the first thing they do is build the community sauna. It’s a priority to keep everyone warm before going about your own business of constructing a home.

    • Excellent points, Susan. What I didn’t say about our own place is that a longer-term goal is to be able to serve as a neighborhood “resiliency hub”—a place that does well enough during an emergency that we can do our part to help out others in our community, including those without the land to grow food or a functional water supply without power, or a place to keep warm.

      This is why I believe community is so important to resilience and why I’m trying to build a stronger local community—the other day I posted a note on my Facebook page about a house in West Dummerston Village, adjoining our house, coming onto the market; I’m hoping that a new neighbor committed to strong local community will buy the place and move in.

  2. Good points. Especially the root cellar, and the need to be resilient to help ones neighbors/community. I add:

    Water: A hand operated “Simple Pump” http://www.simplepump.com/OUR-PUMPS/Hand-Operated.html Augments our submersible pump to provide water when the power is out. Neighbors have used it also.

    Power: AIMS 1000 Watt inverter with a fast-connect plug. Under 10 minutes setup enables our Prius to work as a fuel-efficient, low-emission, quiet generator. I’ve used it a few hours/day during extended outages to keep our chest freezer, fridge and computer cold/charged.

    Transport: VW TDI diesel Golf converted to run also on waste vegetable oil (WVO). Keep on hand 100-200 gallons of filtered, de-watered WVO in 55 gal. drums, with a combination hand crank/gravity feed pumping system. In a pinch could get someone to a hospital, evacuate to a safer location, etc.

    Cooking: Regular two-burner propane camping cooking stove and two 5 gallon tanks.

    Knowledge Resources:
    “Tom Brown’s Field Guide to City and Suburban Survival”
    “Making the Best of Basics: Family Preparedness Handbook” by James Talmage Stevens
    David Werner’s “Where There Is No Doctor: A village health care handbook.”

    Paul Lipke

  3. Here is going to be another one of my pleas for simplicity. I have a lovely new gas boiler that serves both my hot water radiators and and a big hot water storage tank for domestic use; it is supposed to give priority to the radiators, and given that it is -15°F outside you would think that would be the case. Except that today of all days it thinks I should have a hot bath instead of a warm room and the temp inside when we woke up this morning was under 60° inside. And of course I have no idea what to do and I cannot get service because it is a holiday weekend up here in Ontario.

    I keep kicking myself and reminding myself that if we don’t know how our systems work and can’t figure out the most basic stuff, then we can get into trouble really fast.

    • Lloyd, sorry I missed your message right when it came in—not that I could have helped a whole lot. I suspect that you could shut of the valve that goes from your boiler to your water heater, but you would want to confirm with your plumbing and heating contractor that you can do that—and exactly how to do it. (Good to figure out for next time.)

      BTW, relative to resilience, you might want to ask your heating contractor or an engineer if you could use your car to power the burner, fan, and pump for your boiler and hydronic distribution system in the event of a power outage. The question would be whether your car could produce enough AC electricity through the cigarette lighter and an alternator to power those needs. If so, you could have an awesome emergency heating system by running your car periodically to get some heat circulating through your apartment. (I’m assuming here that you’re on the ground floor and could park close enough to get power from your car to your boiler.)

  4. Alex, I notice in the picture that the solar panels on your barn are all covered up with snow. Is that the roof you were raking? For high-up panels like that is there another way to clear them, since the time you’re most likely to need their output on an emergency basis is post-snowstorm. I used to have a solar hot water system you could run backward for a while to encourage the snow to slide off, but I don’t imagine there’s a similar function on PV panels.

    • The roof that I was roof-raking was on what had been on my parent’s home (which we are trying to sell). I did bring the roof rake over to our place, though, hoping to clear some of the snow off the panels on our barn roof. Standing on a snow bank in showshoes, I was able to clear the lower right corner of the roof without risk being buried in an avalanche if all of the snow were to suddenly slide off. I had hoped that if I cleared just a corner, the clearing would spread over the roof in the sun. No such luck so far.

      This is the first time the panels haven’t cleared within a day or two of a snowstorm. I think I’m not alone. Driving to Northampton last night I saw that snow was still covering the panels of two large ground-mounted arrays.

      In answer to your question, there are a couple hybrid PV-solar hot water systems on the market, but I’m not sure if the hot water can be forced through those systems when the roof is very cold. And I don’t know of any solution for PV-only systems.

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