Putting the life back in science fiction

California in the High Altithermal, Part 5: A Wedge of Swans

This is part of an ongoing series.  Here are the links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

[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.]

Epidemic Disease

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

We might see more subtle apocalypses. Undermined security of the internet might allow it to be made unreliable, breaking the economic infrastructure depending on it. With tight supply chains, loss of alternatives and a dependency on imports, we could be in real trouble. With destructive tax policies, California could slowly implode as loss of taxes stops important services and infrastructure development.

A positive outcome could be a democratization of energy and internet service. So “free” public broadband and community electrical power supply using solar, wind and storage.

Perhaps a living wage across all CA, plus a basic income, reducing the misery of poverty across the state.

If we dodge some of the worst effects of the inevitable earthquake, water use is managed rationally, and so forth, maybe the outlook won;t be so bad, as long as the economy continues to maintain itself and technology offers solutions. Biology might solve the resistant bug issue, as well as allowing quicker treatment responses to new epidemics/ Timing, R&D and politics are always wildcards affecting the outcomes.

Comment by alexandertolley

I can’t say what all you may have missed among the many possible apocalypses, but I can say that whichever occurs, many others will follow as “knock on” effects; for example, a domestic war or a natural disaster that destroys croplands will cause famines, which lowers the health of survivors, allowing pandemics to rage through the already diminished population, leading to exodus or worse.

Most folks miss that connection, but I have read many archaeologists who state that the diminished size and weakness of early medieval European skeletons meant that they couldn’t resist the black plague when it arrived, and
there is a verse in the Tao Te Ching about “Where mighty armies camp, only brambles will grow”.

We see these knock-on effects everywhere: the European migrant crisis as a result of warfare in Syria, the impoverishment of West Virginia as a result of destructive coal mining, the poisoned water in Flint Michigan resulting from the collapse of Detroit’s auto industry, and so forth.

And our leaders never seem to see them coming.

Art Deco

Comment by ArtDeco

Absolutely agreed. As with Hot Earth Dreams, I’m keeping it simple, because the number of possible combinations is enormous if not infinite.

One example I used in HED is the Biblical metaphor of the Four Horseman: Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. The reason they ride together is that, unrest, famine, and epidemic disease are usually linked. When one happens, the other two follow, and 20-30% of the population ends up dying (I think the Bible had it at 25%). If a war starts, food supplies and medical care get disrupted. If a famine starts, epidemics, resource fights and banditry start, while epidemics lead to disruptions in food supply and civil unrest. Generally, most people survive. Death takes “one-quarter,” not all. I didn’t get this until I read Richardson Gill’s The Great Maya Droughts, but I think it’s by far the best explanation for the Four Horseman that I’ve come across.

This is also one reason why researchers argue so much about “the ultimate cause” of any given collapse. If a drought causes wars, is warfare the cause of the collapse, or the drought? Academics with axes to grind can argue endlessly, if they so desire.

Comment by Heteromeles

Hello again;
I have noticed the magic 25% figure and the sequence of violence, followed by famine, followed by disease before, but the whole world has never been wired into mutual dependency like this before. I am expecting a much larger percentage the next time something big happens, and global weirding is really big. Perhaps that why it takes a fictional account to point out the cascading effects…
Art Deco

Comment by ArtDeco

Here’s a link to a story in Scientific American written by one of the co-authors of The West Without Water. The Great Flood of 1862. Central Valley one great lake. Took 3 months to drain. Bankrupted California. Has happened in the past every 100 to 200 years.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

For what it is worth, I don’t think it has to be a disaster that California will lose 3 million irrigated acres. We grow the half the country’s table vegetables and fruit on about four million acres. The other five million acres grow things like nuts, grapes for wines and field crops to support meat. I do think there’ll be enough water and arable land for California to grow our own calories and nutrition in almost any future. Might be lentils and fava beans, but civilizations have lived on those before.

Comment by onthepublicrecord

Welcome! I’ve really enjoyed your blog.

In any case, I misunderstood what I thought I read on your blog, and I think I’m still misunderstanding it. You’re saying that we can feed 50 million people (somewhere around the official 2050 estimate) basically off of precipitation-fed agriculture on California’s existing land, and we can do it in perpetuity as average temperatures climate 8oC or so over 200 years? Presumably we’re going to do it by getting away from alfalfa and growing beans, wheat, and other C3 grains, with cattle and other ruminants on the rangelands on the desert sides of the mountains, and people eat meat on the holidays?

On the one hand, I agree that we Californians waste an unholy amount of water, and we can eliminate some of that waste. On the other hand, I keep thinking about things like soil salinity, and the need to flush a certain minimum amount of water through many soils in the West San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys just to keep crops from dying. It seems like there’s a minimum irrigation amount below which we’re importing food and praying the supply lines don’t crash, and I’d thought we were getting close to it. Since you disagree with this assessment, presumably there’s something I’m either missing and/or misunderstanding…

Comment by Heteromeles

Hi. Thanks for reading, and for links.

No, I wouldn’t say that we can feed roughly 50 million Californians on precipitation fed agriculture. But there are a lot of nice old irrigation districts that tap local rivers, have mostly gravity fed canals, and could maintain irrigation on the east side of the combined valleys. I think we could keep a couple million acres irrigated in all but a total collapse (which seems to be the scenarios you are investigating). That’s plenty of calories, but not meat nor exports.

Comment by onthepublicrecord

Some of the old districts, built in the 1880’s – 1920’s, would probably be robust even in turmoil.

Comment by onthepublicrecord

If I can bug you for more details, is there a link or a book where I can find which districts would be the most resilient?

As I was recently reminded, Phoenix, AZ reportedly got its name because they rebuilt some of the old “Hohokam” irrigation canals after the system was supposedly abandoned back in the 15th century. In so doing they brought the land to life again. Something similar could certainly happen in California.

Comment by Heteromeles

Shoot. Not sure, since I didn’t learn it from books. I learned it from getting tours of the districts.

Given your interests, you might like _Battling the Inland Sea_ .

Basically the old districts: Turlock ID, Modesto ID, in the northeast San Joaquin Valley. Glenn-Colusa and the districts that drink straight from the Sacramento River. If the Friant-Kern Canal were operating, there are some nice gravity-fed districts just downhill from it. Shoot. If EBMUD and San Francisco can keep it together, they have solid pipelines from the Sierras. If your collapsed future still has the remnants of our engineered systems, it could grow a lot of wheat/beans/veggies.

Comment by onthepublicrecord

Thanks! More reading for me!

Comment by Heteromeles

Add to your mix cryoseisms (ice quakes) … they’re becoming more common along the north/northeast possibly due to the roller coaster weather.

On an optimistic note … just read a story about Suntech Greenhouses Ltd that you as a botanist might enjoy. Large hydroponics operation using LEDs. Like everything else, the light and plant relationship is not as straightforward as once thought.


How does global warming/higher humidity modify light, consequently affect the life cycle of plants?

Comment by SFreader

Icequakes? In California? Maybe. In Hot Earth Dreams, I did talk about Greenlandic quakes, due to rebound after the glaciers go away.

Good to see about the greenhouse. Somehow I’m not surprised, since one of the lessons of a botanical education is that plants are disturbingly smart and complicated for things that don’t have nervous systems. This is also why ecologists aren’t fond of greenhouse experiments, unless they can get the same results in the field.

As for the light in a GHG enhanced world, my generalized response is “Grumble grumble, expletive deleted clouds, grumble, reference to Orion’s Arm.”

Comment by Heteromeles

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