Human extinction, or not.

(This was a Twitter thread)

There are very few examples on planet in human history where human societies or civilizations completely vanished. Even in times of catastrophic change–creation of the Sahara, 90% fatal pandemics in Amazon, volcanic devastation–human beings have stayed, even if reduced from large scale societies to hunter gatherer bands. Society changes, civilizations collapse, but the species does not go extinct. Indeed, our very evolution has been achieved by dealing with continuous stress and change including population crashes to as few as one thousand or less individuals for the entire species for as long as 100,000 years. We survived, evolved and thrived under extraordinary pressures that would have driven most species–indeed all other hominid species–to extinction. We are extraordinarily adaptable and virtually everything about us is designed to allow us to survive under extremely stressful conditions. That’s why we are here and not a single other human species remains. Society, culture, civilization are all dispensable, it is our extended family that is the default unit that allows Homo sapiens to survive almost anywhere under any conditions. The point of this is that no matter how severe climate change is, no matter if civilization collapses and our numbers are reduced to 1/100,000,000th of today’s population, Homo sapiens will survive. It would take something much more drastic–a giant asteroid, perhaps, or a nuclear war involving thousand of warheads–to completely annihilate the species forever. Both of which are possible, of course. But we will survive even the worst case global warming. It will not be comfortable, the impact on nearly all the world’s ecosystems will be devastating, and it’s hard to imagine a more dystopian future, but it will be livable for just enough of us to keep the genome going.

Our grandkids will never believe that people used to walk to the North Pole

(2016)

Sea ice in Arctic shrinks to second lowest level on record. Could be ice free by 2030…. There is no going back, and won’t be for eons, perhaps until the next Ice Age. Incredibly profound change. The arctic will be open to navigation in the summer months before we know it. You’ll be able to go from the Chicago in the middle of North America to Novosibersk the center of Asia entirely by water. Hell, there might be “adventure cruises” doing just that within a decade or two. I think the melting of the Arctic will not only be environmentally and climatically profound, but it permanently alters geopolitics and even the way we view the world on an east-west axis, because the quickest way between Asia and America will no longer be via the Pacific. While we can barely get our heads around any of this, kids born today will have trouble believing that people used to walk on the North Pole. Global warming has happened so much faster than we thought it would.

arctic-ice-pack

Second smallest Arctic ice pack ever, despite the cloudy summer. (Image from the National Snow & Ice Data Center)

Siberia

Odds are you have never heard of the Ob River or of Novosibirsk. Perhaps you’ve seen them on a map and wondered. Well, the Ob is the Mississippi River of Siberia (well, one of three…but the Ob is the biggest). And Novosibirsk is the Chicago of Siberia, a thriving economic engine and cultural center, a million and a half people in the middle of a continent. You don’t know them well now. There’s been no need. Both city and waterway are about as isolated from America as any place on the planet can be. But your children and their children will know of them, the way people in Siberia have heard of Chicago. And they will know because the icecaps are melting and the Arctic Ocean will be navigable and interconnected with the rest of us. Now you fly in on a rickety Russian airliner. Or make the endless drive on the Trans-Siberian highway to get there to Novosibirsk, or take the Trans-Siberian Railway. Both are somewhat beat up. Novosibirsk is an island in the middle of the land, very difficult to get on or off. The open arctic will change all that. The open arctic will bring new railroads, improved highways, airliners that don’t scare you. Port cities draw infrastructure to them. Look at a map. Notice how all across the world there are railroads and highways and canals radiating out from ports. There is so much money to be made. Look at a map of the Great Lakes and all the cities on their shores. Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Buffalo, and up the St Lawrence, Montreal are all major inland ports. Between them smaller port cities dot the shore. The Great Lakes Megalopolis is vast and economically powerful and helped to shape the modern world. Such is probably the future of Novosibirsk and all the other cities deep inside Siberia–Irkutsk, Kemerovo, Krasnoyarsk, Novokuznetsk, Omsk, Barnaul, Tomsk, Tyumen–that sit on the huge rivers drain the immense central Asian watershed into the far distant Arctic Ocean. Connected to the rest of the world by sea, the cities will thrive and grow and become powerful. What is still a string of czarist outposts will begin to come together as something not Russian at all, but Siberian. And for maybe the first time ever, a major civilization will arise from the Russian taiga. It will be a mix of Russian, Central Asian, Siberian and Chinese peoples. It will be exploiting a land that has barely been touched by human hands. It will have vast resources, and, being so new, will have few mistakes to undo (and many to make). And it will could just have the same mammoth impact on the world as the industrialization and economy and agriculture and resources and money and culture and ideas of the American Midwest had on the world. The Midwest was a blank canvas for American civilization. The natives (my wife’s family among them) were a tragic distraction who never had a chance. The genuine threat–slavery–was annihilated. With the end of the Civil War the Americans went crazy with innovation. Modern mass industry was perfected in the Midwest. Chicago was the template for all cities thereafter. Large scale agriculture, even modern ways of shopping (pre-internet) came out of the Mid West. Unlike almost everywhere else (including the U.S. south) there were no wars or revolutions in the Midwest to mess things up. And the place was so devoid of people that it was populated with millions of immigrants and emancipated slaves, all adding their own cultural DNA to the mix. The American heartland was a riot of ideas and invention and innovation and social experimentation. The people on the coasts laugh, and the people in the South are offended, but the nation we are today was created in the Midwest. It was a lab for everything new. Its industrial output helped to keep the fascists from winning WW2, its agricultural output fed Europe after the war. It was an economic powerhouse on a scale never seen before on the planet. Indeed. a sizable chunk of the CO2 that is melting the polar icecaps today originated in the American Midwest. Which, ironically enough, is what is making this Siberian powerhouse possible. What the American midwest was for a century Siberia could be for new century. It might be a lab for everything new. All because of global warming. All because the ice is melting. The earth will be hotter and life will probably be harder and the world will be more interconnected than it has ever been. And the very concept of east vs west–which is how we see the world now–will become obsolete. What was east or west will now be to the north and then south, across an Arctic Ocean shimmering beautifully in the midnight sun.

Novosibirsk, two million people as far away from anything as two million people can be, for now anyway.

Novosibirsk, two million people as far away from anything as two million people can be, for now anyway.

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Arctic blue

Wow, just read another article about the end of the polar ice cap. It’s amazing to think that the Arctic Ocean is fast becoming navigable. It’s not an if anymore, but a when. Almost daily there are reports in the news and articles in the press about warming air and warming seas. This article in the Atlantic, Huge Waves in the Arctic Demonstrate Ice Loss—and Aggravate It, explains how enormous waves in the arctic ocean, formed in the newly open water and stirred by the increasing winds that come with open water, melt the ice cap even more, creating more open water, more winds, then more open water, more winds, more open water…. It’s a process we can actually see, in real time. It’s nothing like the invisible CO2 build up, or the incremental (if inexorable) temperature rises. These are just great oceanic swells in an open ocean. Beautiful blue water for miles. Broken bits of icebergs floating, melting. The waves slosh and wash and crash against the ice pack, wearing it down, breaking it up, melting it away. White ice becomes beautiful blue water. Inclement weather kicks up wind, as inclement weather does, just like winds kick up on a real unfrozen ocean, an ocean you can’t walk on this side of Jesus, an ocean that won’t freeze you in solid, trapped, doomed. An ocean that a hard shelled boat, not necessarily an icebreaker even, just not too flimsy, can move through, transporting goods or people or resources along the Northern Sea Route.

That’s what they call the open water which lies year round along the Siberian Arctic coast, the Northern Sea Route. Freighters ply the route now, from Europe to the Far East, where once they crossed the Indian Ocean. It’s a third less distance (and no pirates). There’s no dust, they say, and no smog. The water is a deep blue and the ice floating by a range of gorgeous pastels. New sea life, abhorring a vacuum, has moved in, or begun staying year round. It’s a brand new world. The ancient arctic creatures cling to shore. The arctic foxes lose their snow white sheen. On shore the mosquitos and black flies are in clouds thicker than ever. Roads and villages disappear into liquefying permafrost, and great holes appear, unexplained. Travel overland is treacherous. Offshore, though, a few miles beyond the land, the water is blue and the going smooth and lovely and profitable.

But thinking beyond, two or three decades from now, merchant ships will no longer be hugging the Siberian coast like ancient galleys followed the Mediterranean coast, terrified of storms. Entire new trade routes will open up, intercontinental routes. Perhaps within a generation, and definitely within two, you could travel from Chicago in the middle of North America to Novosibirsk in the middle of Asia on a seagoing vessel. You’d leave Chicago and sail though various Great Lakes and up the St. Lawrence and into the Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland. A larger vessel then would continue on a northeasterly course, rounding Greenland and heading toward Siberia by passing north of Iceland and south of Svalbard. A smaller vessel, though, could slip west into a blue water passage through Nunavut (née Northwest Territories) that leads to other passages between the islands in the Canadian Arctic and follow the fishing fleets and tramp steamers and cruise ships past Ellesmere Island and into the open Arctic Ocean. What a sight that will be, a grand vista of the deepest blue. Dolphins, new to these waters, will splash along side. Whales will loll and spout. The ocean waters, free of year round ice and warmed and lit by the sun, will explode with plankton, krill and pelagic fish. The glorious summer light never turns to darkness over the entire trans-oceanic trek, and perhaps your ship will take you over the Pole itself, where northward turns instantly southward. Then on the far side of the Arctic Ocean you’ll enter the Kara Sea, within sight of Siberia, then continue into the narrow gulf that is the largest riverine estuary in the world, hundreds of miles long, beginning in tundra and ending deep in the taiga. There you’d enter the mouth of the Ob River and fresh water. The final leg is southbound up the Ob, surrounded by the vast Siberian forests that fade after a thousand miles into endless, treeless steppe. The nights lengthen, the moon and stars reappear. Finally, after two thousand miles on the river you dock at the sprawling metropolis of Novosibirsk. A journey entirely by water from the center of one immense continent into the center of an even more immense continent by way of an ocean that was once icebound and impassable.

This isn’t a possible future. It’s not science fiction. It is the future. And while we dread the environmental catastrophe that accompanies it, the mass extinctions and desertification and struggles for water towards the equator, there are young entrepreneurs right now in Siberia and Greenland and struggling Inuit communities dreaming about all of this. Dreaming of new ports and new cities and new trade routes. A few of these dreamers will die fabulously wealthy old men, and their walls will be adorned with pictures of polar bears and igloos and glaciers and icebergs, and they’ll tell their grandkids stories of the old days, when you could walk all the way to the North Pole. Their grandkids will look across all that blue water and not believe a word of it.

Northern sea route, 2013.

Northern sea route, 2013.

Mudslides

Mudslide at Oso, Washington. Dozens dead, scores missing.

Mudslide at Oso, Washington, March 29, 2014. 43 dead.

The site of a fresh mudslide from a distance always looks so cleanly cut, as if a shovel dug into the wet ground and simply lifted the hillside away and dropped it gently a couple hundred feet down. Grass and shrubs and even small trees are often left in place. Come by in a few weeks, after the rains have stopped and the sun is out and you can see wild flowers in all their colors where people and houses used to be. Sometimes the people and houses are still there, after the survivors had given up hope of ever digging them out again. The old hillside becomes their tomb, and the flowers just make it pretty.

Oso Washington...mud

Another view of the Oso slide….mud everywhere.

Once you recognize the shape you can see mudslides all over the place in southern California, recent ones and old ones. They’re not uncommon. In fact they’re usually so small as to even be newsworthy. Someone loses a backyard and the people below get their pool filled it. It doesn’t even have to rain for those, a broken water pipe will do it. Even a sprinkler left on during a vacation. But it’s rain that really gets the ground moving. Hillsides become soaked, the soil becomes mud, and mud being heavier than dry soil, eventually, at a certain point, that ground begins to slide downward, and continues to slide until a new center of gravity is found and the movement ceases. One of the amazing things about mud is how the water holds the dirt together into a mass while at the same time makes that mass easy to move. An entire hillside, thousands and thousands of tons of dirt, can suddenly move as if my command in one piece, holding its composition and even keeping its topsoil in place. With all our engineering prowess and computer modelling we can’t do that. We can’t make a hillside move in such an orderly fashion down a hillside in one piece, and in a matter of seconds. We can start avalanches and rock slides, sure, those are easy. We can blow a mountain to kingdom come to get at what’s inside. But we can’t just make a whole hillside shift downward a few hundred feet without disturbing the flowers. That’s a matter for rain and gravity and fluid mechanics.

Mudslide at Oso. the grin

Mudslide at Oso. The grin.

Mass wasting is the technical term, gravity making shit fall down. Rocks falling down all the time in California. Our mountains and hills are very young and haven’t been worn down smooth yet by erosion, and besides that a lot of the material is made up of fragile sedimentary rock that breaks up and falls back down easily. Quake, rain, flash flood,. high winds, fire zone…everything comes down out in Southern California. If you ever drive along the base of the mountains in Pasadena, say, you come across these enormous catch basins designed to capture all the stuff that begins falling down in heavy rain…including boulders that weigh hundreds of tons. Those things used to roll for miles, trashing everything in their paths. I love this state, always exciting.

The effects, as in Oso, Washington, can be horrific. Sometimes merely destructive. In 1995 there was a very impressive mudslide above the village of La Conchita, between Ventura and Santa Barbara. For months afterward the 101 there was covered with a thin layer of mud, and if you looked up at the bluffs you could see a classic view of a hillside dropped down a couple hundred feet and resting atop what had been a street.

For a while afterward houses stood with their insides protruding through their front windows. Just imagine how much mud could make a house do that. Down the other end of the street the mud had buried houses completely. Then in 2005 the hillside came down again but much more quickly (here’s some terrifying video) and took out more streets and houses. Ten people died in their homes.  A whole family was entombed in one, save for the father, who had stepped out to go to the store. He spent days walking the streets calling out the names of his children. No one knew what to say. When I saw the news of that mudslide in Washington, saw the scar where the hillside had been, and the hillside now where the houses had been, I thought of that man again, looking for his children.

La Conchita mudslide, 1995

La Conchita mudslide, 1995

On the back slope of the ridge I live on here in LA you can see another old slide. There’s a big concrete wall holding it back off Riverside Drive. I remember sitting at a gas station years ago and wondering what the hell that big slab was there for and then saw the shape of an old mudslide. It was like a miniature version of that hillside in La Conchita, scooped out of the ridge and deposited fifty or sixty feet below. I asked a few other people if they saw anything there. They said no. I guess you have to know what to look for.

Once the scar is grown over again and green, it doesn’t look so menacing. You have to stare hard to realize what you’re seeing. Once you do see it, though, you can never miss it again. You can, in your mind’s eye, take the piece of the hillside that is now below it and pick it up and put it back where it was and see what a perfect fit it makes. But there it is, at the foot of the ridge. I can’t imagine that this slide buried anything. Some ground squirrels, maybe, a few tarantulas. Some California poppies. Some of the snow birds wintering on the street there (we call that stretch the Riverside Riviera) might have found their beat up vans engulfed in a foot or two of mud. But I don’t think there were any structures there. Somewhere down there on Riverside Drive was an old gay bar, but I don’t know where exactly. Some of the older guys from the neighborhood–all gone now–told me stories about the place. A total dive, they said, a wreck. Every winter they had to open the back door so the water coming off the hill could flow through the bar and out the front door and onto Riverside Drive. Some winters the place would be full of mud. It was a popular place, though. But that bar, whatever it was called, is long gone. From what I was told–and this is just hearsay–the place was condemned as a hazard because the ground behind it was unstable. So maybe it was where the hillside came down. But I have no idea what happened to it. Perhaps the patrons just got tired of muddy shoes.

Anyway, they’re talking about another El Nino rainy season next year, which we desperately need, so more of these ugly gaping smiles where hillsides used to be will appear throughout Southern California. Especially in burn areas. Next summer well after the rains (should they come) you should be able to see them. By the following spring, after a few rains again and the grasses turn the hillsides green, they’ll really stand out, big brown scars where green slopes should be, and below them, mustard and lupine and poppies waving in the breeze, yellow and purple and red. Pretty.

Mudslides have been one of the prime shapers of our topography here in southern California. Mudslides on the hillsides, debris flows down the mountains, earthquakes and floods . You don’t like the lay of the land now, just wait till the next big rain. Something’s bound to give.  Just don’t be there when it does.

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(Great National Geographic article on the slide: Mudslides Explained: Behind the Washington State Disaster)

Atmospheric rivers

Just got back from the Antelope Valley. We drove out to Littlerock on the Pearblossom Highway for a date shake at Charlie Brown Farms. It was a perfect day for a drive, hot as hell and crystal clear, and the air in the desert was so dry it was enervating. Sweat evaporated off the skin instantly, giving the illusion of a chill, and we touched fingers and jumped at the static spark. The sky was a perfect blue, the wind promising fire, and off in the distance the Grapevine burned, a billow of smoke, a brushfire burning over itself, dying. The 14 is such a gorgeous run, all that maddening geology, layer upon layer, millions of years of time bent into ridiculous angles. There’s one layer that must be ten, even fifteen feet thick of rounded rock and rough gravel cemented into conglomerate. Sandstone above and below. Even whizzing past at 75 mph I was awestruck at the violence in it, the tale of an atmospheric river of Amazonian proportions that one wet winter millions of years ago filled this long dead river valley thirty feet deep in land scoured roughly off the surrounding hills. If anything had lived in that river before, it was dead then, gone, washed away or buried. The debris and stones and hilltop soils remained, and were buried by sand left as the river, renewed, coursed its lazy way above, shifting with the season and laying down sand in fractions of inches. It hardened into sandstone that, like its equal below, trapped the layer of rough conglomerate. More layers–sandstone, shales, some lesser flood debris–are laid down slowly overhead, hundreds of feet thick, and eventually the pressure compresses our thirty feet of flood debris into its current compacted ten. It’s cemented now, like a badly mixed concrete, full of rocks that tumble out in the rain. But even from down here on the highway it’s an impressive sight, one year’s worth of sedimentation, one rainy season really, perhaps even just a few day’s worth, compacted into ten or fifteen rough feet, between who knows how many centuries of hardened sand above and below it. Uplift and seismic pressure–the San Andreas Fault is just behind these Sierra Pelona Mountains that we’ve been driving through–have left the tale of this deluge in a sheer rock wall a hundred feet above us. Nothing sits still in California, nothing stays in place a billion years as in Australia. There are perfect fossil beaches in the outback billions of years old, while an hour north of Los Angeles there is bottomland a few million years old now high in the Sierra Pelona with the hawks and circling vultures. I drove past, quietly awestruck, and as the rock disappeared in the rearview mirror I thought about the atmospheric rivers to come, and alluvial plains full of homes on streets full of water.
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