The Subterraneans

In an article published back in 2008—but pointed out afresh by a new post on Friends of the Pleistocene, exploring the aquatic infrastructure of New York City—there is an extraordinary image.

New York's Rondout-West Branch Tunnel, we read—"45 miles long, 13.5 feet wide, up to 1,200 feet below ground and responsible for ferrying half of New York City’s water supply from reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains," as the New York Times describes it—is leaking "some 20 million gallons each day."

[Image: "A 24-foot-long pressurized tank serves as living quarters for divers repairing a valve 700 feet below. They breathe a mixture of mostly helium." Photo by Alan Zale for The New York Times, courtesy of The New York Times].]

At one point, however, the city hired a crew of near-permanent deep-sea divers to fight these leaks: specifically, New York "enlisted six deep-sea divers who are living for more than a month in a sealed 24-foot tubular pressurized tank complete with showers, a television and a Nerf basketball hoop, breathing air that is 97.5 percent helium and 2.5 percent oxygen, so their high-pitched squeals are all but unintelligible."

This vision of alien vocals ringing out amongst a long-term diving crew living deep beneath the streets of the city is like something straight out of the B.P.R.D.

But, even without such fantastical overtones, the very idea that parts of the city are only inhabitable with the aid of bespoke manufactured atmospheres—in this case, a 24-foot-long tank of helium—suggests extreme new design directions for the future of urban infrastructure.

The rest of the article—as well as the Friends of the Pleistocene post that points to it—is worth reading in full.

(Earlier on Pruned: Deep-Sea Living in the Underground Tunnels of New York City).

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone have any insights into why they're giving them so much helium? to help ward off the bends?

Otherwise, fascinating and ridiculous at the same time. Who knew, the NYC water system needed this kind of intense repairs.

June 14, 2011 12:38 PM  
Blogger Alexander Trevi said...

Here's my take on the article from a while back. Easily one of the most interesting hydro stories I've read that year.

June 14, 2011 1:28 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

I knew I'd seen that before—thanks, Alex! Added it to the post.

June 14, 2011 1:39 PM  
Blogger typingtalker said...

Anonymous asked, "Anyone have any insights into why they're giving them so much helium?"

Narcosis while diving or Nitrogen Narcosis.

June 14, 2011 2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not only Nitregon Narcosis (or inert gas narcosis). O2 becomes toxic creating convulsions after about 220 or higher. So O2 and both N are reduced by adding He and solving both problems. He is used regularly by deep technical divers diving beyond 50m (165 feet)

June 23, 2011 9:57 PM  

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