Brian May’s Flooded Basement Foretells a Climate Under Pressure
LONDON – Brian May is best known as the songwriter and guitar god who supported Freddie Mercury in the British band Queen. He has a doctorate in astrophysics and studies asteroids as a hobby. But lately Mr. May has drawn attention to the kind of earth-related problem that plagues ordinary people: a flooded basement.
When a torrential downpour on July 12 flooded London, pouring out a month of rain in a single day, sewage poured back into Mr May’s basement, soiling his carpets with “stinky mud” and destroying buildings. photo albums, scrapbooks and other treasured keepsakes, he shared on his Instagram account.
“It’s disgusting, and actually quite heartbreaking,” May wrote, comparing the ordeal to being “invaded” and “desecrated.”
The floodwaters were especially poignant in Mr. May’s cellar, which is of standard size and came with his gracious home in wealthy Kensington. For years he’s been a fierce critic of wealthy neighbors who dug deep into the ground to install multi-story basements, complete with swimming pools, wine cellars, cinemas, and exotic car showrooms. .
For Mr May, these vast underground complexes are not only a symbol of miserable excess, but also an abuse of their neighbors, who have had to suffer for years from loud noises as excavators claw at London clay. Now he has added a climate-related charge: oversized basements clog underground aquifers and interfere with natural drainage, causing sewage overflows of the kind that hit him.
With the howl of its owner, Mr May has succeeded in tying two politically resonant issues together: the growing threat of extreme weather conditions, which scientists generally agree is a manifestation of climate change, and the environmental impact of years of extravagant construction projects by the London superriches.
“Digging can be seen as bad or good for the environment, depending on your perspective,” said Tony Travers, urban affairs expert at the London School of Economics. “But if you’re building a basement and you’re wealthy, you’d be well advised to install a pump.”
Mr May’s rock star fame and scientific credentials, Professor Travers said, ensured that his warnings would be registered with people, certainly more than another academic article or a politician like Cassandra. The musician’s story has drawn attention to London’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change, which are real, although less evident than in low-lying coastal cities like Miami or Mumbai.
The problem, Professor Travers said, is that the weather in London is generally so moderate and predictable that no weather event, however damaging, is likely to galvanize politicians to take major action to protect the city from the climate.
Alarmist reactions to bad weather are a long-standing London tradition: heat waves herald distorted railways; a light layer of snow paralyzes the streets. But they tend to fade with the return of clouds and drizzle.
Extreme weather conditions
Even if there were a climatic calculation, the most obvious remedy – rebuilding London’s Victorian-era sewer system, which was built to serve a city less than half its current size – would be d ‘prohibitively expensive. The city is currently digging a giant tunnel system, the Thames Tideway, to transport the sewage that flows into the river when it rains. The cost of that alone is almost $ 7 billion.
“There is no doubt that this Victorian infrastructure is not capable of handling so much water,” said Roger Burrows, professor of cities at Newcastle University. “Poor Brian May’s basement is just one example.
Professor Burrows, who has written about the proliferation of mega-basements in London, said it was too much to blame them for the overflowing sewers. After all, the city already sits on a large amount of excavated underground space, most recently the Elizabeth Line, a new 60-mile railway that currently connects Paddington Station and Liverpool Street Station and will ultimately connect the Heathrow Airport to the west with Essex to the east.
But, Professor Burrows added: “The very fact that the super-rich and simply the rich have mined 12 times the mass of St Paul’s Cathedral under London is bound to have an effect. The water is going to go somewhere.
He predicted a boisterous era of ‘underground politics’, with critics deriding mega-basements as toys for oligarchs now able to call them climate villains, the wealthy neighborhood equivalent of coal-fired power plants. .
Mary Dhonau, a consultant who advises on flood risk, said large basements were just one of many factors that helped make London more vulnerable to flooding. The owners had also paved the equivalent of about 22 Hyde Parks – or about 10 Central Parks – in their gardens to create parking spaces. This makes the soil less permeable to rainwater, which is then forced into their homes, she said, “almost like a waterfall.”
“When you remove so much soil in one place, you lose places for water to seep in and seep in naturally,” Ms. Dhonau said. “There’s a lot going on in London that when you put them together makes the flooding worse.”
As a city on a floodplain, London has already taken important steps. In addition to the Thames Tideway, which is slated for completion in 2025, in 1982 the city built a gargantuan retractable barrier over the Thames to hold back water from storms and tidal waves coming from the North Sea. During its first decade of operation, it was closed 10 times; over the past decade it has been closed 80 times.
Now city officials are talking about installing three-foot-high glass barriers along a stretch of the Thames to prevent the river from bursting over existing barricades. They also say they will have to upgrade or modernize other valves. And parts of London are restricting development in areas prone to flooding.
The market for sprawling basements has cooled down anyway, in part because local authorities are more stingy in approving their construction. Homeowners have to submit expensive hydrology, geology and soil analysis reports, according to Paul Schaaf, partner of the Basement Design Studio, which has designed more than 2,000.
Mr Schaaf disputes the claim that other people’s basements caused the flooding of Mr May’s house. Water, he says, finds a way around such obstacles. As for the basements he designs, advancements in technology now allow homeowners to install sophisticated pumps to keep their premises dry, he noted. At one point, however, conceded Schaaf, it’s a simple matter of physics.
“If the water level is a foot above the manhole outside your house,” he said, “there’s nothing you can do.
For his part, Mr. May seems to want to move on. When asked to elaborate further on his take on basements and flooding, his publicist declined, saying Mr. May was busy preparing the re-release of his 1992 album – aptly named in these stormy weather – “Back to the Light”.
Anna joyce contributed reports.
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