Hurricane Ian Destroys Iconic Florida House Meant To Survive Hurricanes

11:25 minutes

three dome-shaped concrete structures with holes that used to be windows. they sit on beams sticking out of the water, and some lean akwardly. dozens of seagulls perch on them
The remains of the Cape Romano Dome House in Florida, taken in 2019, after it’d already experienced sea-level rise. Credit: Shutterstock

The Cape Romano Dome House, built in 1982, was an iconic—if more recently unsightly—piece of Florida architecture. The six interconnected domes located in Collier County, Florida, were built to be hurricane resistant and self-sustaining, with solar power, rainwater harvesting, and other innovations. 

However, erosion and rising sea levels had put the structure at risk, with the structure’s foundation pillars being completely underwater by 2009. Last week’s Hurricane Ian finally destroyed the structure.  

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about the symbolic loss of the building and other stories from the week in science. They discuss possible approaches to repair the damaged Nord Stream gas pipeline, the finding that certain cancerous tumors contain their own microbiomes of bacteria and fungi, and the delicate process of interpreting the behavioral cues of your feline friends.

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Residents of Florida are still recovering from the devastating Hurricane Ian, which brought massive storm surges and flood-like rains. We’ve all seen the pictures, right, of the boats washed in the middle of the housing developments and neighborhoods with homes flattened or inundated with mud. But off the coast of one of Florida’s many islands, there was a small bit of destruction with a bigger symbolic meaning.

Here to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, right here in our New York Studios. Good to have you back, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I’m delighted to be here in person.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, it’s nice to have you. All right. Let’s talk about this. Tell me about this structure, the Cape Romano Dome Home.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, the Cape Romano Dome Home, or Dome House, was this very cool home. It was constructed in 1982. And it had these six large geodesic domes all joined together to create a house of about 2,400 square feet. And it was designed with that dome shape particularly because domes are really great at resisting wind. There’s nothing for the wind to catch on.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So it was great at withstanding hurricane-force winds. And in fact, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit the area, and the inside of the house was trashed, but apparently the exterior structure was standing pretty well. But the problem is it was built out on this spit of land. And as sea levels were rising, it just eroded away.

So the house– two of the domes were destroyed by Hurricane Irma, but the other four were still standing in the water, partially flooded. And then Hurricane Ian hit and it just destroyed them the rest of the way.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. So it was designed to be self-sustaining and survive hurricanes.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. Yeah. It had all these cool sustainability things of like gathering rainwater. It had that dome shape, to resist hurricane winds. And it would have all been great if it wasn’t for the fact that it was just built so close to the ocean that sea level rise really devastated it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, nature will win out on some of these things. Because we thought that, as you say, this would be impervious to these hurricanes.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. Yeah. And it was designed to be. But it was a little hubristic because yeah, it has now been destroyed.

IRA FLATOW: But there are also more modern communities that have been better designed for the changing conditions, right? How did they fare?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So there’s this very cool community, called Babcock Ranch, that has been designed, as you say, to withstand hurricanes. So the first thing they did is, unlike the Cape Romano Dome Home, they built inland– 30 miles inland. They’ve also built in these retaining ponds. So that when it’s raining heavily, when there’s floods, those can get some of the water before it reaches the homes.

And then the roads of the development itself are designed to absorb even more water. So if it gets past those retaining ponds, it’ll still not cause the kind of flooding that we’re seeing in other homes in the state. And it even has other– there’s even very cool things, like they’ve buried all the power lines underground so they won’t get knocked out by the wind.

IRA FLATOW: Great idea. Great idea.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They have hundreds of acres devoted to solar arrays. So they’re powered by solar power during the day, and then they’ve got natural gas generators to pick up the slack at night and in cloudy conditions. And I’m gushing about it a little bit because all that planning paid off.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. They made it through Hurricane Ian relatively unscathed.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: In fact, they actually opened up a community center to climate refugees from other parts of the state who had nowhere to go after Ian destroyed their homes.

IRA FLATOW: Some good news from Florida.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Some good news, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another kind of undersea construction. And I’m talking about the mysterious damage to this Nord Stream gas pipeline, right? Tell us about that. Do we still know what happened, or are we going to still have to find out?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So there’s a lot of unknowns still. The damage seems to have been caused by explosions that were set deliberately. It’s unclear who is responsible for that. And it’s also unclear exactly how it was done. But in three locations, the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines have been damaged.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And pipelines are designed– especially undersea pipelines– they’re designed to resist a lot of damage. They have to be able to withstand a ship’s anchor accidentally bumping into them or objects falling, seismic activity on the sea floor. And of course, seawater does not play nice with metal. So corrosion is a big, big problem. Yeah. And so despite all of these safety measures, the pipeline was damaged.

But luckily, the engineers have planned for that. So they have a couple different options going forward for how they might want to fix the damaged areas.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because as you say, what– a submarine– or a lot of technology you’d need to cause that kind of damage. Yeah.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah. The amount of gas that was released suggests that there was much more destruction than could be caused by probably a minor accident.

IRA FLATOW: Now, let’s move on to a story that you have this week about possible ways that it might be possible to repair this pipeline. I mean, do we go down in– how do we go down? How do we repair this thing– from the inside maybe? I don’t know.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So there’s a couple of options. So one option is just lifting the damaged part up out of the water. And then you take the damaged pipe, replace it with a fresh one, and then weld it on where the damaged pipe used to be. And you can do that, depending– this all depends on the depth of the water where the damaged area is, right? You can’t lift something up for hundreds of meters, but you might be able to lift it up if it’s at a shallower depth.

And then the other option is you go down to fix it. So they have these hyperbaric chambers. You’re essentially bringing an air bubble with you down to the sea floor where this pipe is. And then you weld the replacement piece into place while you’re underwater.

IRA FLATOW: It’s like how you build a tunnel, right?


IRA FLATOW: The same kind of idea.


IRA FLATOW: You bring it with you.

You have a story this week about possible ways that it might be possible to repair those. And the other news you have is that there’s an intriguing story about the microbiome and cancerous tumors. I saw this being published. But it’s not our microbiome. The tumors themselves have their own bacteria and fungi. They have their own– the tumors have a microbiome.


IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. This is fascinating. So researchers had known before that there was an association between bacteria and certain tumors. But they’ve just done a few really major studies, looking at fungi. And they found that specific species of fungi tend to be found in specific types of cancer, and that the type of fungi or the amount of it can be predictive of what’s going to happen with that tumor.

So for instance, there’s one particular species of fungus, and it’s normally found in pancreatic tumors.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: But when it shows up in tumors from breast cancer, it’s associated with much lower survival rates. So that suggests it could be a predictor of what’s going to happen. There’s another type, a Candida, which is better known as the fungus that causes yeast infections. And when that’s found in certain gastrointestinal tumors, if it’s at higher levels, it’s associated with lower survival rates.

IRA FLATOW: Well, could this help then diagnose whether– or find hidden tumors, right, if you look for the fungi?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, absolutely. That’s one thing that could help with that. It could help indicate, oh, more aggressive treatment is needed because the fungus associated with worse outcomes is present or is there at higher levels. But the thing is, a lot more work is still needed to discover what is going on here in terms of cause and effect.

So it’s unclear, is the fungus spurring the cancer on? Or is the tumor just in an environment where this particular fungus can thrive?

IRA FLATOW: I love that. I love that. Tomorrow, we’ll find out more about that.


IRA FLATOW: Now, you have a story this week about predicting human behavior and how we measure how people are feeling. Explain that to us.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So you’re probably used to rating a restaurant after you eat there or something you buy online, you’ll leave a rating. The problem is those– as you know, when you’re trying to find a good place to eat and looking at how many stars people have left, it’s very subjective, and it’s based on people’s feelings. And scientists don’t love that.

So when economists are making predictions about human behavior, they like to use hard quantitative data, like the GDP of a country or what your socioeconomic status is. But a new study did look at the ratings people give for their own life. So they followed a group of 700,000 people over the course of 30 years. And they periodically asked them to rate, on a numerical rating, how their job was going, their marriages, and their health.

And what they found was that these ratings, these subjective ratings of squishy feelings, were actually great at predicting human behavior.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That is interesting. And something you’re keeping an eye on and moving on is a court case in Montana involving kids and climate change. Tell us about that, please.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. So this is going to be the first case– the first trial heard in court– of young people suing the government in the United States. So there’s been a couple different– there’s been several different lawsuits of specific groups of children suing state governments and also suing the federal government. But in June, in Montana, they’re expected to actually go to court and plead their case.

IRA FLATOW: And a lot of kids– if I remember this correctly– a lot of kids have been saying, you’re taking our future away from us, right?


IRA FLATOW: You have no right to do that, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. They’re saying that their rights to have a healthy life without fearing for the damage that’s been caused by climate change has been compromised by governments continuing to support fossil fuels and other industries that create emissions that spur climate change.

IRA FLATOW: So this has actually made it to court now?


IRA FLATOW: And we’ll have a decision perhaps when?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s supposed to go to court next year in June. So next summer.

IRA FLATOW: OK, catch your breath on that.


IRA FLATOW: Finally, we have– how shall I put this– important news for all the cat owners out there– research into how to tell behaviorally if your cat likes you. Is that actually possible? I know cat own– I’m not a cat owner, but I know how finicky cats can be. Can you actually tell if your cat likes you or not– your cat?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, you can. Cats are famously aloof. But you can figure out what your cat thinks of you by– because your cat treats you as a fellow cat. So if a cat is giving you signals that it gives to other cats when it likes them, that’s a sign that it likes you.

So for example, cats love to rub their scents on things. They have scent glands around their head and neck. So if your cat is rubbing its head against you, it’s leaving it scent on you, it’s saying I’m marking you. You know, You’re one of mine. Another indication is in the tail. When cats have their tail straight up like a flagpole–


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: –that’s a positive sign.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, it is?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That means they recognize you and they like you. Sometimes they also do a tail in a question mark shape. That’s another good sign. And one thing cats love to do is roll over and show their belly to people they like. But they do not want you to pet them there. They’re just saying, look, I’m willing to be vulnerable and expose myself to you.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: If you go in for a pet, though, they’re probably going to claw you.

IRA FLATOW: How different than a dog, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Very different.

IRA FLATOW: Dogs love that when you do that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Dogs love it. Cats are just signaling you. And then you touch them, and they’re like– no, no, no. That’s not what I meant.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a cat. Thank you, Sophie. It’s good to have you back.


IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American.

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