Looking at this map, the pink wriggle in Southern California that begins nowhere and ends nowhere is the Mojave River. It flows year round underground, visible in only a few places. In better, wetter days it watered the desert plain and helped to fill those empty lake beds you pass by on the way to Vegas. The land was green, even lush in places and if the fossils are any evidence it must have been as crowded with creatures as the Serengeti. Eventually the Mojave spilled into the now even sadder Amargosa River to help fill the immense lake that is now the unlaked Death Valley. In the wettest winters the Mojave reappears and fills the emptiness of Soda Lake, surreally threatening to submerge Baker. But only for a few weeks. Summer comes, the lake evaporates and the Mojave retreats into its subterranean bed, flowing unseen deep into the Mojave Desert where gravity eventually pulls it down into the water table. That’s the pink squiggle on this map in the middle of southern California, the one you’d never notice if someone didn’t post about it instead of finishing the dishes, the 110 miles of the longest river we have south of the Kern and west of the Colorado. You’ll have to wait till the Earth’s tilt changes enough in 90,000 years or so for things to get wet enough to bring it back to the surface, when it refills the lakes and send the residents of Baker scurrying for higher ground.
There could be open water at the Pole in the summer within a few years, and the Arctic will be fully navigible in all but the winter months by 2040, easily. Perhaps even much sooner.
This is an extraordinarily significant development, one of the most dramatic geographic changes in all of recorded human history. You would have to go back twelve thousand years to the end of the last Ice Age, well before recorded history, to find something more significant, though back then of course no would have recognized it as such. As far as global perceptions go, this will be the biggest change since Eurasians realized there were two entire continents between Europe and the Orient. If you are in your twenties now, in fifty years your perception of the lay out of the world will be completely changed because the Arctic Ocean will by then be where Eurasia and North America meet. It will connect them the way the Mediterranean and Carribbean connect the lands that surround them. If you live in the northern Hemisphere now, you see the world on an east west axis. Once the Arctic is open, that axis goes north and then south, up and over. The Arctic will be as central to civilization as the Mediterranean was in Roman times. And if you live in Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and especially Australia, you will be more isolated from the northern hemisphere than ever.
This is happening so fast….
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.