Filed under: Altithermal, black swans, climate change, deep time, Hot Earth Dreams, Speculation, Uncategorized | Tags: black swans, California High Altithermal, Hot Earth Dreams
[Note: additional material was added on Feb 15]
In this entry I’m going to be a real brat and not talk about the logical next section: California’s posturban cultures. The only excuse I’ll plead is that I’m reading up a bit on Sonoran desert agriculture (Tohono O’odham papers, Gary Nabhan, and so forth), to at least raise my ignorance to a higher level. Since I just found a really cool book I want to delve into, that post is going up probably in a week or so.
What I’m presenting here is what I originally intended to finish the series with, a consideration of the white, gray, and black swans that will affect California’s history going forward. If you’ve read Hot Earth Dreams, you already know that I’m talking about Taleb’s black swan theory, with white, gray, and black referring to major, disruptive events that range from predictable in timing and scope (white) to totally unpredictable (black), with gray in between. What disasters await Californians?
Well, duh. The next big ones are going to hit over the next 1500 years, of course. When, when, and how big are the things we can’t predict. Color this swan gray.
The thing about earthquakes is that these details critically matter. For example, the Los Angeles Big One. If it hits tomorrow, thousands of people die, LA is crippled for a year or more, it’s a disaster that dwarfs Katrina…and then LA almost certainly gets rebuilt, pretty much as it is now, car country USA, with electric gridlock and slow jams.
If that same quake happens in about 10 years, even more people get hurt, but I suspect the city would get a radical rebuild to be much more water saving (due to cutbacks coming down the aqueducts) and reliant on local solar. A lot of green technology will be mature by then, LA’s aging infastructure will be past due for a thorough rebuild, and the US economy will still be able to afford the construction. This earthquake will position LA to last for awhile.
If that same quake happens in 30-50 years, it’ll be a huge disaster that potentially cripples a tottering US economy. A lot of LA probably won’t get rebuilt, and it will probably devolve into multiple small towns.
If that same quake hits after a century or more, it will rattle the rubble and bring down a lot of adobe structures. LA will have collapsed already, and while the quake will kill people, the devastation will be minuscule compared to what earlier Big Ones might wreak.
Quakes aren’t just about LA, because California’s seismically active throughout the entire state. Still, I’d suggest the same pattern holds. When the quake hits is as important as where it hits and how big it is. Because of this, earthquakes will shape how California enters the High Altithermal, whether it’s with rebuilt, semi-sustainable cities, in ruins, or some combination of both.
Another result of earthquakes. And landslides. And volcanoes. If, for instance, Portuguese Bend on Palos Verdes Peninsula gives way, the resulting tsunami will drown Avalon Valley on Catalina Island (that around 5,000-ish people affected), before reverberating back into the Port. If one of the subduction zones off the northwest coast decides to dance, the resulting wave will hit Japan after it trashes coastal Humboldt and Del Norte counties. If the Hilina Slump on the south flank of Kilauea gives way, well, the coast gets to play slip n’ slide, megatsunami style, for awhile. All these events are going to happen eventually, but when they happen matters, much as it does with earthquakes. Near future disasters are a reason to rebuild, hopefully in a more sustainable way. Far future occurrences randomize the rubble and make more mudflats for life to resettle.
There are 20-odd volcanoes in California, although not all are active. Mt. Shasta last erupted in 1786. Mt. Lassen last erupted in 1915. The Long Valley Caldera near Mammoth last hosted a small eruption 600 years ago, but it’s one of the biggest volcanoes on the planet, and there have been earthquakes there since the 1980s. When and if the Long Valley Caldera becomes fully active, it’s going to mess up North America for awhile. One of its previous eruptions produced 1,500 mi² (3,900 km²) of lava. So yes, eventually each of these will erupt, and that’s going to affect things. As with the previous gray swans, when each eruption happens matters quite a lot.
Megadroughts (and 2/15 Megafloods)
There’s already a floating prediction that the next La Niña will start this fall, and it’s probable that California will hit a decade-long drought in the next few decades. Worse, the Central Valley will run out of groundwater some time in that span, and California will lose something like 3 million acres of agricultural land to climate change by 2050. These are the limits, but how they’re dealt with is, basically, political. It’s worth reading onthepublicrecord.org (see that last link) for an idea of just how political it is, and how many different options there actually are, most of which are (as usual) being ignored.
[2/15 EDIT: I somewhat missed the boat on the magnitude of droughts and floods in California, as I’m finding out by reading The West Without Water. To pick an example, the 1861/1862 floods flood most or all of the entire Central Valley. The flood was so deep that the poles carrying the telegraph line from San Francisco to New York were entirely submerged, cutting off communication. I’d forgotten I’d read this in Brewer’s Up and Down California. In any case, that’s what a series of “Pineapple Express” storms can do to California. The Pineapple Express is an “atmospheric river” that basically lines up from the subtropical Pacific to California and dumps a lot of rain on California. Think of it as a winter hurricane. In the High Altithermal, I’d guess that we’d just get hit by genuine hurricanes, especially once the ocean heats up. While California-bound hurricanes won’t often dump nine feet of rain (that’s what triggered the 1861-62 flood), I’ll bet such deluges will happen occasionally in the High Altithermal. Certainly, the Indians who saw the 1861 storms coming in moved to higher ground and escaped the ravages of the floods, so such disasters used to happen frequently enough to stay in cultural memory. Incidentally, if we got the same storm today, the price tag is estimated to be three times bigger than the one from the Big One quake in southern California (see the ARkStorm simulation).
As for historical megadroughts, in the Mid-Holocene, Tulare Lake–which is reportedly over one million years old and part of a complex that included Buena Vista and Kern Lakes–dried completely sometime around 5,500 years ago, during the Holocene Thermal Maximum/Altithermal period (This is where I appropriated the term “Altithermal” from. Our climate is now in or close to what happened back then). Ironically, after the 1861/62 floods, settlers started reclaiming this whole wetlands complex for farmland (it being, of course, a brilliant move to put farms near so much water right after an epic flood), but after all the rivers feeding into these lakes were dammed and the water diverted to agriculture, they all dried out.
This gives you an idea of the extremes that California deals with. The authors of The West Without Water suggest that this variability is one reason why so many Indians didn’t build long-term towns, but instead moved frequently to deal with the ever-changing climate. And they may be right.]
Yes, sooner or later, we’ll be in the hot zone, with either pandemic influenza or something else that’s slipped out of control. Makes you like vaccinations, doesn’t it? Again, the details matter: who dies, how fast, when and where it happens, how fast it spreads, and so on.
One hypothetical example is if, for something like AIDS, a certain group of people become naturally resistant to an infection that kills others, living out their entire lives even though they’re infected. This isn’t just the Typhoid Mary story, it’s more like what Wolbachia bacteria do to many species of insects. All the susceptible people could be killed off by (sexual) contact with asymptomatic carriers. An epidemic can do a lot more than just kill a lot of people. Incidentally, that AIDS/Wolbachia idea came from Sam Kean’s book, The Violinist’s Thumb, which I recommend.
Still, epidemics killing people are a big problem. When Ebola was spreading in 2014, I had an elderly relative in the hospital for treatment of a Clostridium difficile infection (that he may well have picked up in that hospital on a previous visit, not that anything can be proved). He was quarantined, but as he grumbled and I observed, if Ebola had come to that hospital, he and all his caregivers would have died. They were shockingly careless in the way they handled him, even though there were flags and tape telling them that he was in quarantine due to his infection. When an epidemic hits, a lot of health care workers are going to die out of sheer ignorance and carelessness, and their actions are going to infect and kill a lot of their patients. If you know someone in health care, try talking to them about sterile procedure. Hopefully they won’t give you a big dose of attitude and not listening in return. Too many think they know better, or that it won’t happen to them. That’s how diseases spread.
So, let’s see, a certain US Presidential candidate described as a “sentient caps-lock button” wins the election, makes America safe for fascism, and the rest of the world allies themselves (perhaps led by France, per Daniel Keys Moran’s old books) to take us down and save the planet. Yeah, that would reshape California a bit. San Diego without its military installations could be renamed Detroit Del Mar.
We could get into WW3, but again the details matter. If we go through a nuclear apocalypse after runaway greenhouse gas emissions, the resulting mass extinction will be similar to, if hopefully smaller than, the Chicxulub asteroid strike. If, instead, WW3 is Web War one and Space War One, we might see the internet disintegrate, taking along with it the smart grids that we were hoping would let us have a sustainable civilization, the GPS we’ve replaced our maps with, and the weather satellites we used to figure out what was going to happen to us next. Those are serious blows, and civilization might never recover, even if no nukes fly.
While I don’t think a huge war is inevitable, I think it’s possible, and more likely if we insist on relying on foreign oil and using our oil-powered military assets to defend our appropriation of this hazardous resource. That isn’t to say that we’ll have peace on Earth if we go 100% renewable, as wars over resources like water, phosphorus, and lithium are all possible. Still, the details matter, and so does the timing. A war in 2050 will cause a different kind of devastation than war in 2017, a big conventional war will have different impacts than a prolonged insurgency, and so forth. And this doesn’t even include an Uprising of the Machines or similar horrors. As always with the swans, the details matter. Still, I’d color this swan firmly black.
Cuddly Black Swans
Not all swans are evil. There’s at least the possibility of some rather pleasant black swans, in the form of innovation, adaptation, and sheer good luck. There are things we can do to improve our survival odds, and there’s massive room for positive innovation all over the board.
My point is to show just how much randomness shapes our future, at all scales. If you’re writing a future history of California, at some point you have to do the equivalent of rolling the dice, to determine which swans fly, when, what they egg on and what they ignore. Unfortunately for futurists, the future isn’t deterministic, and many of its most important events are predictably unpredictable.
What did I miss?
18 Comments so far
Leave a comment