Our Dynamic Doomed Earth



What really matters is the internal force. How do I respond to disasters? Over that I have complete control. Leo Buscaglia

 
When the worst natural disaster in United States history struck in the summer of 2005, it must have seemed to the people of New Orleans, as well as large swaths of southeastern United States, that this was indeed the end of the world. In the aftermath, with the numbers of dead pegged at over 1800, the displacement of people from their homes and the enormous cost of cleanup at an estimated 81 billion dollars, it indeed was truly a horrific disaster. Could it have been worse though? Can hurricanes become even larger and more dangerous? Is it possible that hurricanes could become as common as summer thunderstorms?
 
The answer to all the questions is “yes.” If the world was struck by a large asteroid or comet or suffered a large volcanic or supervolcanic eruption or the more sinister and insidious climate change through global warming, what is known as a hypercane could evolve. Hypercanes are a hypothetical class of storm which form if the ocean temperature reaches at least fifty degrees Celsius, about fifteen degrees warmer than any ocean temperature ever recorded. Such storms, should conditions ever prove to be just right, could wreak real havoc on civilization. The winds could reach upwards of 800 kilometers per hour with an extremely low pressure at its eye, about seventy kilopascals, which would give the storm an extensive lifespan. In other words, it would not burn out any time soon.
 
In addition, such extreme conditions would likely produce a storm the size of an entire continent and could spawn further smaller storms. A hypercane’s ferocity could reach right up into the stratosphere where it would damage the Earth’s ozone layer thus producing another potential disaster in the form of overexposure to ultraviolet light; ozone protects us against excessive exposure to ultraviolet light of the sun.
 
How such hypercanes may affect the human race has been envisioned by science fiction authors such as Peter F. Hamilton. In his The Night’s Dawn Trilogy, 24th century earth is described as experiencing climate change-induced armada storms, essentially hypercanes. The name of armada storms come from chaos theory in which the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world can cause a storm on the other. If there were an armada of butterflies flapping their wings in unison, imagine the storms they would raise.
 
In John Barnes’ Mother of Storms, a preemptive nuclear missile strike causes the release of tons of methane stored at the ocean bottom creating the runaway greenhouse effect that could theoretically contribute to a scenario where hypercanes are created. J. G. Ballard, in his first published novel, The Wind From Nowhere, writes of a world that is destroyed by increasingly powerful winds. J. G. Ballard, as we shall see, did not stop with this nightmare scenario as he has envisioned in his very literary novels other disasters as well.

Hypercanes are just one reason to fear climate change, at least at the pace that it is happening. Climate change is real and is not something to be taken lightly. One of the major sources for climate change is the burning of fossil fuels. Since the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide, as a result of the burning of fossil fuels, in the atmosphere has increased approximately forty percent. Such a large shift in concentration of carbon dioxide, in turn, can begin what is known as a climate change feedback. Feedback is a process whereby the changing of one quantity changes a second quantity and the second one, in turn, changes the first. Positive feedback amplifies the first quantity and negative reduces it.
 
For example, the warming of the atmosphere could cause a release of methane that is locked in the permafrost in the polar regions.  It is estimated that in Western Siberia where the world’s biggest peat bog is located, that there is stored as much as 70,000 million tonnes of methane which if released to an already greenhouse gas saturated atmosphere would be nothing short of catastrophic. Methane is a very efficient greenhouse gas; in fact, it is far more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
 
Further, the decay of organic material in the thawing permafrost which, in turn, releases carbon dioxide would increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
 
Another large source of methane lies in the oceans where huge amounts are locked away, unavailable to the atmosphere. The ocean bottoms store methane clathrate which is a form of water ice with a lot of methane embedded into its crystalline structure. A sudden release of such gases could create a runaway global warming. It is estimated that a release of this source of methane could cause an overall five degree Celsius rise in atmospheric temperature rather quickly. Further to this, the theory also predicts that there will be a dramatic shift in atmospheric oxygen content which is thought by some scientists to have contributed to mass extinctions in the past including the Permian-Triassic Extinction (which was by far the greatest mass extinction in the history of the world) as well as the Paleocene-Eocene Extinction.
 
Another greenhouse gas will become problematic as the air of the planet continues to warm. As air warms, the ability to store water vapour increases; water vapour is another very efficient greenhouse gas.
 
With increased ambient air temperature, the waters of the world will begin to warm up. As the oceans warm up, their capacity to store gases is lessened; cool water has more dissolved gases in it, including carbon dioxide, further increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
 
Increased dissolved carbon dioxide in the oceans, in turn, creates a more acidic aquatic environment-up thirty percent since the Industrial Revolution, which can be toxic to many organisms in the sea’s food chains such as corals, molluscs and crustaceans. A more acidic ocean would also lead to a reduction in the number of diatoms, phytoplankton that not only contribute oxygen to our earth’s atmosphere, but also absorb carbon dioxide in the photosynthetic process.
 
There are even studies that show that an increased acidity of the oceans will affect echolocation which is essential to whales and dolphins of the oceans for communication. There is no telling what the full impact of increased acidification of the oceans may have indirectly on other sea life.
 
As the ice melts in the Arctic and Antarctic regions with increasing water and air temperatures, there is another positive feedback mechanism. Ice has a high albedo; that is, it reflects sunlight very efficiently. However, as the ice melts, more solar radiation is absorbed thus further increasing warming trends.
 
True the positive feedback mechanisms are frightening but rest assured there are negative feedback mechanisms at play as well when it comes to climate change. However, none of them should instil a great deal of confidence that climate change will not happen. One such negative feedback comes from a law of chemistry that is known as the Le Chatelier’s principle. It states that when any chemical system at equilibrium experiences a change in concentration, partial pressure, temperature or volume, the equilibrium will shift to account for the change and a new equilibrium will be established. Applied to the Earth as a whole, it predicts that the Earth’s carbon cycle will shift in response to increased human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. However, with the expansive number of variables interacting with respect to climate change, it is impossible to predict whether such a shift would indeed occur.
 
There is also the Stefan-Boltzmann Law which dictates that as the temperature of a black body (Earth) increases the emission of infrared radiation  into space will increase to the fourth power of the its absolute temperature. Unfortunately, for climate change naysayers, this formula has already been incorporated into global climate models.
 
What other effects might climate change have for the Earth? One might be extreme flooding as the polar ice caps begin to melt. It is estimated that if the polar ice caps were to melt that there would be a four to six meter rise in sea level. If current climate models are correct, by the end of the century, there will be a 0.18 to 0.59 meter rise in sea level. Many island countries will literally disappear and many low-lying countries such The Netherlands and Bangladesh will be severely impacted. Other countries may fair better but their landmass will be somewhat reduced. In the United States, much of the eastern seaboard would be at risk of flooding and storm surges.
 
Science fiction writers have taken this almost Biblical story and modernized it with climate change modelling and a dash of their imagination. J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World depicts a world affected by climate change induced flooding. Interestingly enough, Ballard also has come up with a novel that can be considered a mirror image, a world affected by a super drought that evaporates all of the water on the Earth in the simply titled, The Drought.
 
George Turner in his The Drowning Towers also depicts a world afflicted by climate change and the consequent rise in sea levels. Mai Shangri-La, by Robert Rubis, is scary in that it is set less than twenty years into our future and shows a world beset by a seven meter rise in sea levels.
 
Stephen Baxter’s Flood puts a new spin on the idea of a world being flooded. In this story, the characters have to contend with water levels rising not just several meters but several thousand meters. The source of Baxter’s water is due to submarine seismic tremors that lead to a fragmentation of the seabed, exposing enoromous underground water reservoirs. Ark, part two of this series, is about the building of a spacecraft to take humanity away from a doomed Earth.
 
In the film, The Day After Tomorrow, the world is affected by climate change but there is a very different scene than would be expected in a world of global warming, one in which the world is freezing to death. Could this happen? Is there a possibility of another Ice Age crushing the world in its path? Is it possible in this world that is growing warmer by the year?
 
Many authors have believed in the possibility. Robert Silverberg wrote Time of the Great Freeze, a tale in which a group of New Yorkers travel across the ice that formed over the Atlantic Ocean to London in the year 2650. Fallen Angels, by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn is about a world in the midst of an Ice Age but is still able to have a fully functioning space-based civilization.
 
A very interesting novel by Adam Roberts, The Snow, evokes those days when one looks outside and the snow seems to never stop falling and results in seemingly endless hours of snow shovelling. In this case the snow actually falls to depths reaching not feet or meters in depth, but kilometres. The Snowfall Trilogy, by Mitchell Smith, depicts a world thrown back into an Ice Age where survivors revert back to their hunter-gatherer roots.
 
Doris Lessing in her story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, is set in a future ice age as are Michael Moorcock’s The Ice Schooner and Poul Anderson’s The Winter of the World.
 
The question still crops up. In an age of global warming, is it really possible to have an Ice Age? Some scientists speculate that it is indeed possible.
 
The ocean currents are now recognized as the world’s conveyor belts, carrying warm tropical water from the equator to the polar regions and colder water from the polar regions to the equator. Like the winds of the Earth, the ocean currents have the effect of modifying temperatures the world over.
 
In the case of the North Atlantic Ocean Current in the Atlantic Ocean, it transports warm surface waters from the equator toward the poles and colder deeper water back to the equator where the cycle begins anew. That’s what makes Europe have a relatively pleasant climate. If one were to look at the latitudes of some European cities we find that they are often equivalent with areas in Canada; Europe’s weather is generally far more benign in the winter than anything found in Canada. If, however, there is increased ice melt as a result of global warming, there is the risk of increasing the fresh water content which could effectively shut off the North Atlantic Ocean Current. Though some scientists state that there is no risk of the circulation being shut down even with the increasing fresh water input from the melting glaciers of the Arctic, others estimate that a rise of seven to nine degrees Celsius in the ocean would cause enough of a fresh water influx to shut the system down completely. Do we really want to take a chance that some models state one thing and others state another? It is far better to err on the side of extreme caution. Even if the theory of the ocean current shutdown turns out to not be true, the other impacts from global warming are just as frightening as any deep freeze of Europe would be.
 
Ice ages for the Earth could be caused by other events as well such as a dimming of our Sun, changes in the orbit of our Earth around the Sun, the motion of tectonic plates, orbital dynamics of the Earth and Moon, meteorite impacts and eruptions of supervolcanoes.
 
Supervolcanoes provide us with a whole new dynamic to ending the Earth. A supervolcano is defined as a volcano capable of erupting ejecta over one thousand cubic kilometres which is thousands of times more powerful than anything in living memory. They tend to form around convergent plate boundaries, but there are also several continental hotspots, the most spectacular being beneath Yellowstone National Park.
 
To give an idea of how an eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano would affect us, imagine the entire continental United States buried with over ten centimetres of volcanic ash.  It would surely kill off many plants but wildlife as well. Even many of the works of humans would be rendered inoperable and in some cases hidden, by the dust. Beyond the United States such a catastrophe would have lasting effects including a cooling effect as the great amount of ash in the atmosphere would filter sunlight for years further affecting many ecosystems around the planet.
 
After the explosion of Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883, the world’s average temperature dropped by 1.2 degrees Celsius, sulphuric acid accumulated in clouds which, in turn, contributed to acid rain and there was an eerie bluish-brown halo, also known as a “Bishop’s Ring” around the Sun during the day and a purplish glow to the sky at night. In fact, weather patterns in the world did not return to normal until 1888.  We must keep in mind that Krakatoa was a small eruption compared to what would happen should Yellowstone blow its top. As early as 1901, perhaps inspired by the explosion of Krakatoa, M. P. Shiel wrote The Purple Cloud about a volcanic eruption that floods the world with deadly hydrogen cyanide gas.
 
In Southeast Asia, there is known to have been one supervolcanic explosion that happened about 74,000 years ago, called the Mount Toba eruption. It literally exploded with ejecta that spread an estimated two to three thousand cubic kilometres and blanketed ash up to fifteen centimetres thick across southeastern Asia. It not only caused about six to ten years of a significant worldwide temperature drop but weather patterns, according to some scientists did not revert back to where they were before the explosion, for up to one thousand years. There is also evidence that between one hundred thousand and fifty thousand years ago that the human race was reduced to between three and ten thousand individuals; one speculation is that the culling of the human race was linked to the Toba explosion.
 
Another possible outcome of a supervolcano explosion could be megatsunamis in which wave heights are not measured in tens of meters, but rather hundreds of meters and can impact well inland. They are caused by mass displacements as would occur with a major meteorite impact in the ocean or massive landslide on a volcanic ocean island. It is well known that the Krakatoa explosion caused tsunamis as far away as South Africa.  The cause was the enormous mass displacement due to the colossal flows of lava into the ocean. David Gemmell, in Wolf in Shadow, wrote of a futuristic world where the world has been devastated by megatsunamis.
 
Another possible accompaniment to supervolcano eruptions is earthquakes. One fictional earthquake story of such a massive scale is A Wrinkle in the Skin, by John Christopher, about a world destroyed by massive earthquakes.  
 
On a more continental level, Walter John Williams in The Rift wrote of an 8.9 Richter scale earthquake to strike south-central United States. Other writers have tapped into this potential story source as several states in south-central United States lie on an earthquake zone, the New Madrid Fault, which may prove to be more powerful than that of the famous San Andreas Fault in California. Peter Hernon wrote of a disaster that befell the area of the New Madrid Fault, a repeat of an actual event that occurred in 1812, in his novel 8.4. Sam Penny, in Memphis 7.9, wrote a similar novel about the same earthquake zone.
 
Even the grand master of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, speculated about massive earthquakes. He co-wrote with Michael McQuay Richter 10, about a scientist who attempts to rid the world of 2024 of earthquakes through nuclear power.
 
So far our climate change scenarios have dealt with a build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the point where our weather becomes unpredictable. There is flip side to this. Some scientists claim that there will come a time in Earth’s future where the atmosphere of the Earth will actually lose so much carbon dioxide that plants will suffocate which will in turn, cause mass extinctions of animals as well. As the Sun, according to the theory, increases in luminosity with age, lurching forward to its red giant senior stage, the biologically enhanced silicate weathering on Earth is able to reduce the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide to a point where the concentration will be so low that plants will be unable to undergo photosynthesis.
 
Though many may dismiss the theory out of hand because it appears somewhat contradictory to the issue of climate change, there is evidence that over time the levels of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere have been decreasing. Carbon dioxide levels on Earth have been as high as seven thousand parts per million over five hundred million years ago in the Cambrian Period to as low as 280 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution. The blip upwards to 370 parts per million today is minor if one looks at the entire history of the world.
 
Here we may have met an unstoppable force. The natural cycle of our atmosphere may be one where the planet will be rendered lifeless. It is not anything that humans have done to destroy the Earth or even remotely related, but it is an immovable force of Nature that we cannot stop.  However, we must remember that life is truly resilient. Once established it really is a problem to get rid of. We only have to look at the deep sea vents in the oceans as examples of this. There entire ecosystems exist without any energy being provided by sunlight, a truly sunless world. This scenario may spell the end of the Earth as we know it but not necessarily life itself. In spite of this scenario’s potential inevitability, it should not absolve the human race from trying to limit the effects of climate change since its effects will be felt a lot sooner than any scenario involving our dying sun.
 
There are a couple of other geological events that may play a role in Earth’s future. One is a cataclysmic pole shift. Here the theory speculates that there could be a rapid shift in the relative positions of the modern day geographic poles and the axis of rotation of the Earth. Most of the scientific establishment have agreed that no geological evidence exists that indicates such a shift would occur quickly, though all agree that it does happen, but a lot more slowly. At least one author, Allan Eckert wrote the fictional The HAB Theory about the possibility of a rapid shift. HAB is an acronym for Hugh Auchincloss Brown, an electrical engineer who, in 1948, first hypothesized this scenario. In this theory it is the shifting ice caps at the poles that cause this tipping of the axis. Charles Hapgood, an American history professor who died in 1982, took up Brown’s cause and wrote The Earth’s Shifting Crust. Interestingly enough, Hapgood’s book had a foreword written by an eminent scientist of the day, Albert Einstein, who ironically had stated that the weight of the Earth’s polar ice is insufficient to cause such a cataclysmic event.
 
What about a geomagnetic reversal which magnetic north and south reverse. Again these events are not spontaneous and occur over long periods of time, scales of thousands of years, well beyond the lifespan of any one human being.
 
All of these disaster novels as does the evidence show one thing is sure, that the world will one day end. It may end in a big bang through the explosion of a supervolcano or it may end insidiously with global warming and all of its potential scenarios or it may end with a whimper with all of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere being used up, thereby exterminating all ecosystems as we know them. Time will only tell.
 
 
Further Reading:
 
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