Putting the life back in science fiction

The Blue Sky Tipping Point
February 25, 2019, 10:49 pm
Filed under: Altithermal, climate change, deep time, Hot Earth Dreams, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Got some new climate science to talk about, yay! Actually, it’s not good news, but it is fairly solid model evidence for tipping point, up around 1200 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere (as I write this, we’re around 410.81 ppm).

The cause of the tipping point is Continue reading


The Future Looks Like Hawai’i?

Haven’t posted for a month, because (among other things) I’ve been out marching with posters and everything (Marches for Science and Climate), and then I went on vacation for two weeks to the Big Island of Hawai’i.  And in honor of the vacation, I’d like to post about one of the more misleading thoughts I’ve had for years: the future looks like Hawai’i.

I’m sure you’re now thinking of girls in grass skirts and coconut bras dancing to the ukelele under the coconut trees by the beach while you eat mahi mahi, avoid the bowl of poi,  and drink mai tais  while you wait to be entertained, and that’s the image I don’t want to promulgate.  That’s the Hawaiian fantasy of cruise ships and expensive luaus, and that’s not at all what I’m talking about here.

No, I’m thinking of the real Hawai’i.  We stayed a week each in two vacation rentals, one on the southeast Puna side (the rainforest where, it is said, the government likes to relocate its witnesses) and one in the Kailua-Kona area on the touristy west coast, near where the chiefs used to seat their royal rumps when they weren’t out playing their version of the game of thrones.

So what do I mean by the future looks Hawaiian?

–The people are ethnic, often indeterminately so.  They’re really hard working (the work traffic on the Kona side started before 6 AM), but mostly not paid so well.  Meanwhile, a lot of the land is bound up in big ranches (like the Parker Ranch), resorts, and other such things.  So a few rich people, and a lot of people working hard to get by.  Sound familiar?

–It’s kinda hot and humid all the time, unless you go up in altitude, which means you go somewhere into the island’s interior, which isn’t flat to speak of.  The Big Island at 4,000 square miles is a bit smaller than LA County (or Connecticut), but when you realize that it’s basically all one big volcano with a bunch of subsidiary cones, you understand that it’s literally oozing topography (from Kilauea).  And geography too, with a desert in the center and the tallest mountain on Earth.  Indeed, much of the island (including the high ranch areas on the northwest and Hilo) remind me more of Oregon than of a tropical paradise.  At least if you don’t look at the plants too hard.

–Speaking of the plants, that’s the eyecatching thing for a botanist: it’s mostly weeds, unless you’re really high up, in which case it’s just fairly weedy.  There are great rolling grasslands composed primarily of introduced pennisetum grass, with eucalyptus for shade (or Mexican mesquite down lower, or Brazilian peppertrees).  Parts of the Kohala range look for all the world like Oregon, and the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea looks like eastern Oregon, unless you know your plants.  On the Puna side, there were native Ohi’a trees, but they were interspersed with all sorts of things, including the Schefflera actinophylla, the octopus tree, which is a close relative of the Scheffleras we neglect as house plants.    Most of the birds are non-native, as are almost all the mammals, the lizards, the coqui frogs, the…you get the picture.  When climate change takes off and everything’s migrating, I’d expect California and many other places to be more like weedy ol’ Hawai’i.

–Oh, and the Ohi’a trees are being taken out by Rapid Ohi’a Death, caused by the fungus (probably a species complex) Ceratocystis fimbriata This is another one of them difficult problems, and there were shoe cleaning stations at the entrances to many parks.

–If you read Hawaiian history, you’ll find out that King Kamehameha I, who was born on the northwestern tip of the island on one of the windiest areas I’ve ever seen a small airport in (did you know a Cessna could hover?  Neither did I.  That’s headwind it dealt with right after it took off, and I’m only slightly exaggerating), presided over a population crash from somewhere north of half a million people when Captain Cook arrived (extrapolating from their estimates of 400,000-500,000), to somewhere around 130,000 people when the first missionaries ran a census fifty years later.  That’s the effect of the virgin ground pandemics that hit the chain, starting with Cook.  While the social system did break down (the tapu system was abandoned, Christianity was promulgated, the Parker Ranch was founded on what used to be densely populated farmland…), the monarchy did not break down for another hundred years or so, and that’s an important hint for how radical depopulation could play out.  Total anarchy is not guaranteed, and indeed, some people may use the disruption to grow wealthy and/or powerful.

I could and probably should go on and discuss the chaos that will happen when the islands are cut off from the mainland, but I’ll leave it there.  As Gibson noted, the future is already here, but it’s just not very evenly distributed.  I’d suggest that Hawai’i shows many aspects of that future.  Unfortunately, and especially on the Kona side, the place is getting over-run with California-style gated communities and planned developments, with malls of multinationals, tract housing, the whole nine yards.  The irony here is that a somewhat hopeful view of our possibly dystopian future is getting over-written by the greed of the present.  But that’s the kind of stuff I go on vacation to see, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Tekelili! The Wilkes Land Gravitational Anomaly

Another little post, this one on a news item a few months old.  Whenever someone spots a gravity anomaly in Antarctica, people get silly, write things about how the tinfoil hat brigade think it’s a UFO, or an alien base, or NAZIs.   They’re so silly.  Of course it’s shoggoth (not sure what the singular or plural is.  Since shoggoth is sort of like concrete or nanotech, is it singular, plural, collective singular, collective plural, or what?).  Anything that close to the Transantarctic Mountains has to be.  it’s canon.

More seriously, there’s some potentially interesting science buried under the ice.   Continue reading

Labor Day Silliness: America as Rome, part duh

While I don’t want to kill the previous conversation, I’d like to post a rather silly question, if you’ve got some down time this weekend and want to swat at it.  The idea is based on the USA kind of following in the caligulae of the Roman Empire as it crashed.  The question is, when Washington DC floods due to sea level rise, what city becomes the new capital, the American Constantinople?

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What I did on my vacation (California in the High Altithermal)
May 18, 2016, 11:10 pm
Filed under: Altithermal, California, climate change | Tags: , ,

Yes, I had a nice, long road trip through the west, up the Central Valley to Oregon, back around through various national parks, and back in through the Imperial Valley.  Now I’m back, just in time to bury myself in a bunch of environmental documents.

Still, I had fun.  As usual, I made the fun weird by reading an (in)appropriate book, in this case Ronnie Ellenblum’s The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072The premise here is that, when Europe was enjoying the Medieval Warm Period, eastern Europe and the Mediterranean were hit a couple of times by really bad droughts and associated famines due to regional cooling that extended well past the Black Sea.  Ellenblum blames the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate and the rise of the Turks (who came in off the steppes) on this change in weather, and suggests that the reason the Crusades “worked” was that eastern Europe was suffering at a time when western Europe was booming.   One can argue with this idea, but one can’t argue with a bigger point, which is that the reason this particular history isn’t better known is that the archives are spread across multiple languages, from Hebrew to Arabic to Greek to whatever, while the medieval history of western Europe is largely in Latin.  Thus, you have to be multilingual (as Ellenblum is) to compile a regional history of the Near East and notice that so many people are complaining about famines and civil unrest at exactly the same times.

Given how much California is like modern Israel–climatically at least–I’m finding the book interesting as sort of a guide to what happens during major droughts, and Jerusalem is a great example.  Up until the 10th Century, the city was watered by several Roman-built aqueducts that tapped springs in the nearby hills.  As the droughts deepened, the big aqueducts fell out of service, and the city depended more on local aqueducts and on storing rain in big cisterns, as at the Temple Mount.  As one might expect, the less dependable water was, the smaller the population of Jerusalem was.  Ellenblum makes a case that it’s not a linear relationship between water and population, because Jerusalem’s rain fluctuates enormously between years.  Rather, when the city was running solely on rainwater, and on perched springs fed by recent rainwater,  the dry years seemed to be a really dominant driver in determining how many people were willing to live in Jerusalem.

That’s something I’m really thinking about, after driving past so many farms watered by groundwater and cities fed by enormous aqueducts.  When we run out of usable groundwater and when the aqueducts fail, California’s population is going to fall by quite a bit.  No surprise there, of course, but the pleasant(ish) thought is that, well, Jerusalem weathered some really bad spells, and it’s still accreting history today.  Los Angeles could collapse from a population in the millions to a population in the thousands, but some part of it might remain,a dusty desert pueblo parked between Silver Lake and the LA River, for at least another thousand years.

That wasn’t the only history I saw.  We puttered along State Route 49 through the California Gold Country.  It was gorgeous with wildflowers (this was a few weeks ago), and we drove past some pretty empty reservoirs.  Then there were the little towns, with the closed tourist shops and the broken down gas stations.  As we got closer to Sacramento (past Ione, anyway), the ranches were going up for sale, and some had sprouted subdivisions and malls.  There were at least three generations of California history packed in there, with the ranches (some broken down, some fine), the old towns from the horse days, the old gas stations from the early car days, the more modern towns where people had concentrated (often with their little strip malls and chain stores), and then the (often gated) subdivisions where the ranchers had sold out.  Alan Schoenherr’s California progression of “the cow, then the plow, then the bulldozer” was happening all over, but kind of randomly, as some ranches held out longer than others.

Coming back to San Diego, we saw the same sort of development all around Coachella, where it really looked like an exercise in martian terraforming, with bland, walled suburbs and anonymous malls plopped on top of what had been creosote, after the farmers moved south.  It’s amazing what you can do with some Colorado River water and developers with a vision to make the same homes over and over and over again.  They’ll leave some neat ruins when the water runs out, at least until the sheet rock falls apart.  The Colorado Desert doesn’t seem to be that kind to old buildings.

Going back to the Mid East, one reason the area work(ed?, s?) so well for civilization is that the croplands depend on not one, but two different rain regimes.  The Middle East itself runs on a Mediterranean climate with winter rains and summer drought.  The Nile in Egypt, though, is fed from the Ethiopian Highlands, which run partially on the Indian Ocean Monsoon.  Either one can fail, but it’s historically rare for both the Nile and the Middle East to have simultaneous droughts.  Unfortunately, when the double drought happened, empires tottered, because they couldn’t export grain from Egypt to feed hungry people elsewhere, nor could they import grain to feed hungry farmers along the Nile.  Nowadays it looks like Egypt’s a net importer of wheat, and subject to global market forces instead of regional ones.  I’m not sure what it does for global stability, having everyone tied together into one system like that, but that’s where we are right now.

Southern California kinda-sorta does the same thing as Egypt and the middle East used to do, by drawing water from the Rockies via the Colorado, and from the northern Sierra Nevada via the California aqueduct.  Both these are long pipelines, though, and weather in Colorado and the Sierra are more linked than, say, the weather in Israel and Ethiopia.  Still, there’s some parallel, and it’s one reason why farming in the Imperial Valley used to be so prosperous.  Now the salt’s creeping in, so they’ve got their own problems (not least of which is the Salton Sea), but that’s another story.

In any case, if and when California collapses, it’s probably not the end of all the cities, just a radical downsizing.  That might be bad news for Oregon, since I don’t think they’re ready for 35 million climate refugees heading north, but it’s better than total devastation.

And, in the meantime, if you take a car trip, you can look for signs of history as you drive too.  It beats listening to books on tape, at least in my opinion.


California in the High Altithermal Part 9: Death Valley Dreams

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading articles (such as this one) about how anomalously warm Alaska and other parts of the Arctic were this winter.  Someone even said that if California had warmed half as much as the Arctic did, we’d be in trouble.

Well, we did warm about half as much.  By my calculations, San Diego was 9°F/5°C warmer than average for the month of February.  This turned what is normally our wettest month into a dry month, with tumbleweeds sprouting in February instead of June, and flowers blooming months early.  The heat squelched our El Niño rains, with persistent high pressure forcing the rains north to flood northern California and Oregon.  Since I’m not a climatologist, I can’t say authoritatively that this is the new normal, but given the fossil record of rain forests in Oregon and the models of a hot dry So Cal, I’ll go out on a little bitty limb and say it sure could be.  But I’m not sure whether we know that we’re in trouble yet.

Still, some rain did get through, so my wife and I took a three day weekend to go up to Death Valley and see the tail end of the “superbloom,” and all I got was this lousy blog idea.  Actually, I had fun and got a lot of cool pictures of individual flowers and landscapes as well, but the massive fields of flowers have faded away.

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California in the High Altithermal, Part 8: This time it’s different…

This idea seems to be sprouting like a weed in some odd places, including (reportedly) with a group of professors at UC Davis.  The general idea, as I’m hearing it second and third-hand, is a conglomeration of “this time it’s different,” “weeds are the new natives, you stupid nativists,” and “It’s now the Anthropocene, so the old rules are out the window.”

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The Future: resilient, invisible, and already here

“It is only too obvious that forcible extraction of agricultural products from the grower by those who produce none of their own foments conflict. Free, self-reliant families with modest needs and no natural incentive to increase food production to feed outsiders stand in the way of those seeking power. It is thus not surprising that Russia’s history from the advent of princes and Christianity to the present day has been that of passive and active resistance to the oppressors, endless uprisings, rebellions, peasant wars and brutal executions, and repressions of those refusing to recognize the “divine authority” of rulers (be it “princes” or “commissars”) or the inviolability of the official ideology (be it “Christian” or “communist”).

Russia’s story is by no means unique, but rather falls into the global pattern, since measures required for gaining control over populations that were previously independent and self-sufficient are similar throughout history and throughout the world.” (Leonid Sharashkin, The Socioeconomic and Cultural Significance of Food Gardening in the Vladimir Region of Russia.  PDF Link)

It’s fun what you can say in PhD theses, isn’t it?  That’s where the above came from.   I certainly explored the intertwined themes of appropriation, violence, resistance, and agriculture in Hot Earth Dreams, as many of you undoubtedly remember.  What we don’t often think about is how often resistance literally crops up, well, everywhere, even in authoritarian empires like China and Russia/USSR.  Or here, for that matter.  It’s about gardens, about how people feed themselves and what they do with surpluses. Continue reading

California in the High Altithermal, Part 7: The Mish-Mash and the Rebirth (?) of Civilization

This is an ongoing series.  Here are links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

One of the things that’s hard about talking about California’s future is that, on the one hand, I’d love to predict winners and losers, and I suspect others would be happier if I did.  For example, perhaps the Latinos take over.  Or possibly the white ranchers will become the feudal lords of the 24th Century.  Or the permaculturalists will agroforest the north, and the Rainbow Family will become a model for future communities.  Or the resurgent Indian tribes will reassert their ancient hunting and gathering life-styles, aided and abetted by the native plant enthusiasts who help them rewild the hills. Or Guatemalan migrant farm laborers will teach the people of California how to make milpas to take advantage of the increasingly tropical climate, and we’ll all go Mayan or Aztec or Tarahumaran or some such, and grow coffee under the trees instead of pot.  Or the tech tycoons will build their shining arcologies on the hills, beacons of sustainable civilization midst a howling wilderness populated by scattered bands of survivalists.

And I could make a story for each of these. But are any of them stories worth telling because it might be true? Or are they just my biases and preconceptions playing out?

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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.

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