Putting the life back in science fiction

California in the High Altithermal, Part 6: Embracing the Suck

This is an ongoing series.  Here are links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

One of the challenges with this scenario is that it starts 100 years from now, since it follows my (probably overly simplistic) model from Hot Earth Dreams. This is a problem, because it would be easier if I did the simple doomy-gloomy thing and predicted that we’re going to collapse in, oh, about 20 years or so, so the future has a lot of stuff we’d recognize. If we’re talking about a collapse 50-100 years out, then we’re basically talking the collapse of a civilization that tried for sustainability and ultimately failed over the course of decades.   This means, in turn, that there’s a potentially large amount of sustainable, appropriate technology that could be (hopefully will be) invented between now and then, stuff which will make our descendants’ lives better even if things go permanently pear-shaped. Here I’m not going to speculate on possible technology (that’s what the comments are for, Alex), but hopefully you’ll see why some inventions still matter more than others.

Instead I’m assuming that, during the 21st Century, some combination of  a titanic storm (the ARkStorm, for “Atmospheric River, 1000-year Storm”) and the Big One earthquake, possibly with a side order of pandemic, famine, and non-nuclear war, combine to trash California over the 21st Century, and that some large fraction of California’s population loss is due to emigration to Oregon or Mexico, not in-state excess mortality (aside to Oregon: it’s not too early to start building that border fence…)

Here I’m going to talk a little about human life during the early part of the High Altithermal.

The ARkStorm (I keep thinking of it as the Arkenstorm, thank you Prof. Tolkien) is the big bad, because without water and with a lot less power (some dams generate hydropower), the American southwest becomes a pretty unpleasant place for millions of people to live. My guess is that something as simple as a ginormous storm could be the biggest cause of California’s collapse. So much of the current state depends on this intricate statewide water system we’ve built since around 1860. The shattering of that system is a watershed event, and whatever happens next will look very different. I’m going to fudge wildly and assume that what happens next is the High Altithermal, but I want to point out that the ARkStorm could hit next month  or any El Niño thereafter.  If you live up near the Sacramento River, the best thing you can do to prepare is to put a boat and an axe in your attic, in case you have to evacuate through your roof.

After the ARkStorm, my guess is that, absent some really cool concrete technology, people will let the rivers rewild and manage the new marshlands for carbon sequestration (wetlands can be really good at putting carbon underground), rather than trying to reassemble the old water system, recreate the farms, and start planting again. As with the mess at the San Onofre nuclear plant, I suspect that a catastrophic failure will make people less inclined to try to rebuild, even though it will theoretically work for a century or so.

What grows up in its place? Well, thanks to the recommendation of the Onthepublicrecord Blogger, I’d suggest reading the first chapter of Robert Kelley’s Battling the Inland Sea. The Sacramento River, which drains the northern Sacramento Valley normally flows at 5,000 cubic feet per second, but it could crank up around 600,000 cubic feet per second at peak flood, at least before it was dammed. When this happened, the river burst its banks with a vengeance, flooded the low-lying Sacramento Valley, and things stayed flooded for weeks and marshy for months. In a drought, of course, the river flow goes down. The old Central Valley was occasionally a lush place, but it was also a highly changeable place, prone to both harsh droughts and big floods. It will be that way in a High Altithermal too.  However, a century of terraforming (with dams, aqueducts, and so on) means that it won’t be the same Valley as it was in 1830.

So how do the future (Sacramento) Valley People live?  Probably through a combination of fishing, gardening, and herding (especially water buffalo, if any survive that long).  In other words, sort of vaguely like the Marsh Arabs of Iraq.

High Altithermal Gardens

Throughout High Altithermal California, I’d guess that future agriculture will look more like Indian and Mesoamerican agriculture.  As California switches to a summer rainfall regime due to the warming Pacific Ocean, the classic agriculture of corn, beans, and squash will be increasingly viable (as will tropical specialties like manioc).  European-style crops (like old-fashioned white sonora wheat) will be grown in the winter and/or at higher elevations, and Asian crops will be grown in the more humid parts of northern California.  Fields will be treated more like gardens and probably farmers will have multiple fields some miles apart.  This isn’t just to keep them from all getting wiped out by one disaster, but because airborne corn pollen travels for several miles, so separating corn fields by many miles allows the farmer to grow different corn varieties without them crossing and creating useless hybrids.  This kind of widespread selective breeding of all crops will help gardeners adapt to the rising temperatures of the High Altithermal.  In desert Southern California, probably the fields will be more similar to the desert agriculture of the Pima and Maricopa.  In tropical Northern California they will probably plant gardens more like milpas and forest gardens [2/23 update:  check out this article for pictures]; denser, possibly with more species, possibly with fallowing, possibly as permaculture.  I’m not sure whether anyone in the Valley floodplains will create anything like Aztec chinampas, simply because water supplies will be too variable, but you never know.  There are a large number of horticultural traditions in California even now, and I suspect that future gardens will be mosaics of existing species and techniques, again as they are now.

Posturban Culture

Who will be planting these gardens?  It’s hard to say, really.  I suspect the people who stay in California as it collapses will be a wide variety of Indian tribes, immigrants, ranchers, farmers, survivalists, permaculturalists, desert rats,  scavengers, hunters, poachers, gang leaders, monied nutcases, idealists, and those down on their luck–the usual granola California has had since 1849.  Thing is, disasters, societal collapse and a continually changing climate will mix all these people together, so whatever creole culture comes out of the churn is hard to say.  This affects everything from the languages they speak to the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the political ideals and systems they favor or despise, and so on.  It’s a lot of fun to contemplate, but the only commonality I’ll suggest is that 20th Century consumer culture will be long dead and probably heartily despised, whatever else these people actually do.

Embracing the Suck

Whatever High Altithermal Californians believe, whether the religion meme even survives the chaos of a changing climate, one thing I do predict is that beliefs will change radically from what is common today.  Just as an ancient Roman religion of conspicuous extravagance and consumption gave way in the late Empire and dark ages to religions (like Christianity and Manichaeism) that emphasized asceticism, I suspect that Californians in the High Altithermal will embrace endurance, denial, and asceticism, whether it’s in the form of returning to ancestral tribal beliefs, ascetic Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, or whatever, survivalists showing off their endurance in the desert, and so forth.  In other words, they’ll embrace the suck that is climate change and lionize those who can survive in such conditions.  Conspicuous display and consumption will be denigrated as the remnants of the bad old days that destroyed the world.

One other thing I suspect is that places like the San Joaquin marshes and the deserts will be refuges for people on the losing side of political and other battles.   For all I know, descendants of California’s environmentalists will form communities on mounds built from suburban rubble in the San Joaquin Valley, while the Scientologists will become a ascetic desert cult.  Or vice versa.  Or probably something even weirder.

What did I miss?


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[…] California in the Hi… on California in the High Altithe… […]

Pingback by California in the High Altithermal, Part 7: The Mish-Mash and the Rebirth (?) of Civilization | Putting the life back in science fiction

Nice piece on Realclimate about future sea level rise.


While the long term would be dire, the rise in the 21st century is expected to be no more than 1.34 m (assuming the consensus is correct, rather than Hansen’s far more aggressive estimates). So we have another century of technological development to find short and long term solutions while sea level rise stays manageable. We might even be able to seriously mitigate sea level rise by geoengineering on a scale unimaginable today.

Of course, if Hansen is correct (and he has a good track record), then global civilization could face impossible odds of maintaining itself as flooding damage would happen too quickly to contain or manage. The scale of recent flooding in the UK is the sort of thing than would break current approaches of national governments if it kept happening.


Comment by Alex Tolley

[…] is part of that ongoing series.   Here are links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6, and Part […]

Pingback by California in the High Altithermal, Part 8: This time it’s different… | Putting the life back in science fiction

[…] is part of that ongoing series.   Here are links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6,  Part 7, and Part […]

Pingback by California in the High Altithermal Part 9: Death Valley Dreams | Putting the life back in science fiction

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