The Day The Icecap Died, Part 1

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September 11, 2021
Everyone knew it was going to happen sooner or later, but most people had expected it later in the decade, or perhaps early in the 2030s. It wasn’t until June and its record temperatures that everyone realized it was probably going to happen this year. Nobody saw the precise moment it happened.

Most people were thinking about something else — after all, this was the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. So it was a fairly minor story that when the next satellite overflew the poles, the last traces of sea ice floating in the Nares Strait and the Lincoln Sea were gone. From the Bering Strait to the Barents Sea, from the coast of Siberia to the labyrinth of channels between the Canadian islands, the Arctic Ocean was finally ice-free.

It stayed that way for three weeks.

September ’21-March ‘22
As in every year, with the passing of the autumnal equinox polar twilight and polar night descended over the Arctic Ocean in expanding concentric circles of darkness. The ocean surface, never very far above freezing to begin with, lost its heat to the cooling air.

In early October, the first traces of grease ice appeared. The ice spread, forming a slushy layer over the surface of the ocean that gradually hardened into glittering chunks. The ice chunks thickened and merged. By December, the Arctic Ocean was again covered (mostly) by a reassuring white blanket that reflected light and heat back into the emptiness of space, even as it held in what remained of the heat.

Winter that year was… not too far outside what had come to be accepted as normal. In North America, the jet stream flowed just south of the U.S.-Canada border. There were still snowstorms, although not generally south of the Ohio Valley and the lower Missouri unless you were in the Rockies, where small amounts of snow fell as far south as Flagstaff and Albuquerque. In February, a severe ice storm hit the Carolinas.

The story elsewhere was much the same. Record warm temperatures in France, the Balkans and Iran, record snowfall in Japan and Korea… but overall, not a winter to ring alarm bells. Not compared to those the world had already gone through. And spring, when it came, was if anything slightly cooler than it had been last year, particularly in North American and western Europe.

As it turned out, none of this mattered.

The Feedback Loop
The Arctic ice cap in mid-March of ‘22 was about 14.6 million square kilometers in area — among the smallest on record for that time of year. Considering it had disappeared without trace six months ago, the surprise was how big it was now. Some wondered if they had gotten worried over nothing.

Although area was much easier to measure, looking at the volume would have given a clearer picture of the situation. Comparing the current thin scab of ice to the massive floating layer that had once existed was like comparing a Hollywood backdrop to a brick wall. If by some miracle the Earth’s temperature had suddenly dropped enough to allow some trace of it to survive the summer, it might have formed the core of a new multi-year icecap… but this did not happen.

In May, the same forces that had destroyed the icecap in the first place got to work on its replacement. By the middle of July, there was open water at the North Pole. By August 19, the ice was gone once again.

Deep ocean water has a much lower albedo than ice. Even the weak sunlight of the high latitudes, absorbed by the water, was enough to warm the Arctic Ocean slightly. (“Warm,” of course, is a relative term. The highest it got was between four and five degrees centigrade — not recommended for swimming.) What this meant was that when the polar night came again, it took longer for the ocean to cool down to freezing, which meant less time for ice to form and led to an even thinner icecap that winter… which melted even faster in the spring of 2023, disappearing on July 24.

And so it went. In ’24, in spite of an unusual cold snap in April, the last of the ice melted on July 9. In ’25, it melted on June 18. In ’26, it melted on June 10.

And here was where the trouble began…

The Floods of '24
No one thought much about the heavier-than usual snowfall that hit the Northwest Territories and Alaska in November of 2023. It was within the natural variability of the climate, and affected very few people. The first real hints that something had gone wrong were in the fall of 2024.

Meteorologists mapped the events as “precipitation anomalies” — three huge zones in which the rain was much greater than average for the time of year. Fortunately, one of them was over the North Pacific and affected no one but sailors. The mildest of the three stretched from Quebec and northern New England into the North Atlantic. 175 mm of rain fell on Montreal over the first three weeks of October.

The worst, however, was the one that stretched from the British Isles over Scandinavia and the Baltic coasts into northern Russia. 250 mm fell on St. Petersburg in October. London, no stranger to wet autumns, endured over half a meter of rain between October 1 and November 15. Between the middle of September and the middle of November, Stockholm saw 620 mm of rain.

And that was just the cities. Flash floods killed hundreds in Maine, Norway and Scotland, and the number of people displaced by rising river ran into the millions worldwide. Even the giant Lough Neagh swelled its banks in Northern Ireland. In Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, East Anglia and central Ireland, centers for evacuation had to be evacuated themselves.

That wasn’t the bad news. The bad news was where the rain was coming from.

The rain was coming from the Arctic itself. For the first time since Homo sapiens became capable of recording the weather, the waters around the North Pole were exposed to direct sunlight during the hottest, brightest part of the year. The sun was low on the horizon, but it never set. It never gave the ocean surface a chance to cool down. The effect was like putting a pot of water on the stove, turning the burner underneath it to its lowest setting… and then walking off and forgetting about it for the rest of the day. The result was evaporation, and lots of it.

What was bringing it out of the Arctic was a breakdown in the jet stream. The Arctic Ocean was releasing its moisture, and stored heat, into the atmosphere at about the same time of year that the rest of the Northern Hemisphere was cooling down. The lower the difference in temperature between the temperate and subarctic zones, the weaker the jet stream — and the more easily its course could be deformed by every passing storm.

In other words, as long as the Arctic was ice-free in the summer, this was going to happen every single year in large parts of the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, most years would be a lot worse.

A modern society has many mechanisms for recovery from natural disaster — government agencies, the Red Cross and other nonprofits, the insurance industry. With these, the damage from even the worst floods and storm seasons can be repaired with surprising speed. But all these things are built on certain actuarial assumptions about how much damage Nature is likely to do in a given year or decade. All those assumptions had just been washed out to sea, and no one knew enough to develop any new ones.

This was what climate change meant. What had once been defined as an emergency now had to be taken as normal.

Here Comes the Rain Again
What climatologists had started to call the “Northern Monsoon” began again in September of 2025. Again, it appeared in three great belts. One stretched across the northern United States from Oregon and Washington to the Great Lakes, and extended into southern Canada. Another stretched from southern France to the north slopes of the Caucasus. The third stretched from Manchuria and North Korea into northern Japan and far out into the Pacific.

Again, flash floods struck wherever the soil was thin or the terrain concentrated the water, killing thousands. Elsewhere, rising water flooded many towns and forced the evacuation of whole cities — Kansas City, St. Louis, Budapest, Belgrade, Harbin. In Ukraine, southern Russia, the upper Midwest and the breadbasket of Canada, the floods made planting next year’s winter wheat impossible over huge stretches of territory. 2026 would be a hungry year.

But even outside the rain zones, precipitation was higher than usual. Particularly in the North Atlantic, where the warped and weakened jet stream (described as a “negative phase in the Arctic Oscillation”) altered the courses of winds all over the ocean, drawing many storms to the north. Most of these blew themselves out over water, but in mid-September, a post-tropical depression poured its heart out onto the Vatnajökull in Iceland. Near the beginning of October, another storm hit the southern tip of Greenland.

Nothing destroys a glacier faster than rain. When the season ended, vast amounts of ice had been either melted or broken off by erosion and carried into the sea. It was not enough to raise global sea levels by even one full inch, but between the meltwater and the rain from the storms, there was a broad band of ocean between Cape Farewell and the Hebrides that was cooler and less saline than usual for the time of year… at least on the surface.

And the surface was where the problem was. Normally in that part of the North Atlantic, a certain amount of surface water is always evaporating, leaving its salt behind. The saline water left over, being heavier, sinks into the depths, creating a partial vacuum which is immediately filled by more warm water from the Gulf Stream. This is one of the forces driving the oceanic “conveyor belt” that keeps Europe far more temperate than it would otherwise be.

The weather had just thrown a monkey wrench into that belt. In October, scientists observed a 40-50% reduction in the volume of the North Atlantic Drift. It would be spring before the ocean currents had returned to their former pattern. In the meantime, Europe east of Helsinki, Lviv and Istanbul experienced the worst winter in twenty years — heavy snow alternating with subzero temperatures everywhere north of Madrid and Naples.

Some speculated that this would be the beginning of a major cooling trend for Europe, or perhaps even for the whole world. They pointed to sudden drops in temperature 8,500 and 12,000 years ago, also believed to have been caused by intrusions of glacial meltwater into the North Atlantic. But those events had happened on an immeasurably larger scale, and in a very different world — a world only just emerging from the depths of the last ice age. No one could really say what effect this would have now.

As it turned out, they weren’t even asking all the right questions. An equally valid question would have been “What effect would slowing or stopping the Gulf Stream have at the other end?” After all, at the same time the Gulf Stream was warming Europe, it was cooling the tropics.

The breakdown in the North Atlantic Drift was like closing off two lanes of traffic on a busy highway. As the Gulf Stream slowed, warm tropical water backed up all along the east coast. Some of it turned east further south, into Madeira and North Africa, bringing unexpected heat to the Canary Current. On land, the southeastern United States never really had a winter, and out to sea, the hurricane season didn’t end on November 30. Tropical storms continued to form as late as February. The city of Charleston was hit by a Category 1 hurricane on Christmas Day.

Witnesses to the Dawn of a New Era
Part 1: Snow and Rain and Heat and Gloom of Blight
“Reports coming in say that power has been restored in about ninety percent of the Chicago metropolitan area. However, New York City, Indianapolis and huge swaths of Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania are still without power…

“For the past few years, every winter we’ve been seeing snowfall increase almost everywhere north of the 50th parallel, especially Canada and Russia. Now we’ve got five, six, seven feet of snow covering most of Canada and a stretch of the northern United States. It’s as though this whole area has become upstate New York.
“And along the southern edge, where the warm, moist winds coming up from the Gulf are hitting this massive blanket of snow, that’s where you’re seeing these ice storms. They start out in the upper Midwest and roll east until they hit the ocean.
“The bad news is that according to FEMA, many states are now running short of sand and salt to keep the ice of the roads, and winter isn’t over yet…”

--The Weather Channel, February 9, 2026

“Hurricane Anamarí is expected to make landfall somewhere around Joinville. The Brazilian states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, along with southern Paraná, will be the first ones affected before the storm blows itself out over northeastern Argentina. Parts of Paraguay and Uruguay may also see some damage.
“But before any of that happens, this hurricane — a Category 3 — will follow this course, shown here on the map. As you can see, the eye of the storm is running about 30 to 40 miles south of the coast. We’re expecting heavy rain, gale-force winds and storm surges to hit the Rio and São Paulo metropolitan areas. That’s over 30 million people affected before this storm even makes landfall.”

--CNN, March 16, 2026

“…it’s well known that during times of war and states of emergency, the government does everything it can to broaden its reach and to command national sentiment on its own behalf, and all too often succeeds. I could quote Orwell or Randolph Bourne, but there’s hardly a need to. We’ve seen it in American history. Lincoln declaring martial law in Maryland, Woodrow Wilson suppressing dissent, rationing and internment during World War II, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 — again and again, Washington has used wars of one sort or another as an excuse to increase its power, lessen its accountability and diminish the economic or political freedom of the people. And, unfortunately, the people have consented to it, when they weren’t actually cheering it on.
“So what’s changed? Until fairly recently, before it went to war or declared a state of emergency a government needed enemies, and those enemies needed to be other people — foreign powers, rebels, terrorists. Nothing less than that would elicit the sort of reaction the government wanted. When President Carter called for the nation to wage ‘the moral equivalent of war’ on the energy crisis, to reshape that whole part of the economy into something less subject to the whims of a foreign oil cartel, the nation simply didn’t buy it.
"But that was then, and this is now. Today, 'the moral equivalent of war' is a real thing. Look at the recent election in Canada…"

--Keynote address to the Libertarian Party
 Convention, May 22, 2026, San Diego

“Now the Phoenix area has three major sources of drinking water. There’s the Salt River Project — that’s this network of reservoirs and canals on the Salt and Verde Rivers; there's the Central Arizona Project canal, which brings water from the Colorado River; and there's the aquifers. The problem is the SRP. That's where the shortage is. Over the past three or four years, too much hot weather, not enough rain and little to no snow have left water levels there dangerously low.
“I mentioned the aquifers. The state had a plan to get them to where potable water was flowing into them or being returned to them as fast as it was being taken out, and to have this done by 2025. They’ve had to push that back to 2030.
“But the real fight is over the water in the Colorado River. Thanks to heavy rain and snow in Utah and Colorado, the Colorado is more than usually full. But the amount of water Arizona can take was long ago settled by law — the Colorado River Compact, first approved in 1922. The state’s taking every drop it’s entitled to, and it isn’t enough. They are not getting enough. All the candidates in the gubernatorial election are promising to persuade the upriver states to re-negotiate the Compact, but the upriver states are already saying, basically, ‘No thank you.’
“So in Phoenix, and in Tucson, they’ve had to start rationing water. If you have a family of a certain size, or you run a certain kind of business, you get a certain amount of water.

‘We don’t flush the toilet every time, you know? It’s hard to get used to — my wife and I… we used to be a very clean family.’
‘Mi abuela… she say if you have clean sand, you can clean dishes with it. But I never do that until now.’
‘A lot of people have stopped bathing. Two weeks ago I fired a server for coming to work with a severe case of body odor. Then yesterday I had to hire her back because everyone else who applied for the job smelled just as bad. Or worse.’

"Some businesses — the golf courses, for example — use reclaimed water. That’s wastewater that’s been partly purified, so it's not safe to drink or bathe in, but good enough for other uses. But even that water is running low, and getting harder to purify. Too much sewage, not enough water. A couple of golf courses have had to close due to bacterial contamination. Others have cut back to nine holes, or replaced their grass with artificial turf.
“Outside those cities, they’ve just let the price of water go up. This is supposed to be a free-market approach. The price of water is supposed to rise to its natural level. Unfortunately, not everyone is playing along with that. The cotton growers in Arizona have managed to persuade Congress to increase their subsidies, which means they can buy enough water to stay in business… which leaves even less for everyone else. Growing cotton takes a lot of water. Here’s what the mayor of Scottsdale has to say:

‘People are leaving! Poor people — they’re getting on the bus and going away in droves! They can’t afford to live here any more, with the cost of water what it is! Why do we even need to grow cotton out there? Wait a few years and they’ll be growing it in New Jersey!’"

--The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, June 18, 2026

Q: ‘Is there a danger that with so many countries rationing bread products, that the market will be affected?’
A: ‘I don’t see that happening. Governments are still paying market value for grain.’
Q: ‘When can we expect wheat prices to go back to something closer to normal?’
A: ‘Probably never. First of all, in the case of winter wheat, if you’re a farmer and you think your crop is going to be a total loss one year in three, then in the good years you need to increase your profits by fifty percent just to break even.
‘Second, food is a fungible commodity. If the price of one crop rises — in this case wheat — people start eating more rice or potatoes, which raises the demand for those products while reducing it for whatever is in short supply.
‘But look at what’s happening in the United States, with the drought in the Midwest and the heat wave in the southeast. In many ways, the heat wave is worse. Rice, corn and soybeans are three of the world’s great staple crops, and when the temperature goes above 40° centigrade — about 104° Fahrenheit — they just… stop growing. No matter how good the soil is or how much rain there is, the plant’s chemistry doesn’t work any more. That’s what’s been happening in southern China and the southeastern United States. With every passing week, those crops are losing days of growth, they’re getting hit by funguses and aphids…’”

--An interview with the Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, CNN, July 13, 2026

Witnesses to the Dawn of a New Era
Part 2: Big Trouble in China/Canadian Government Initiatives
“We’ve seen a number of natural disasters so far this year — the hurricane in South America, the tornado and derecho outbreak in the United States, and just last month we saw Pakistan hit by floods as bad if not worse than 2010 or 2019.
“Typhoon Haishen, however, is the worst — or rather, the worst so far. Take a look — we’re hovering over Shanghai Railway Station. It’s been nearly 24 hours since the last bands of rain passed overhead, and as you can see, the streets haven’t drained yet. That’s seawater more than anything else. Most of Shanghai is built on fairly low-lying ground, and it was hit by a 40-foot storm surge. We suspect some blockage may have gotten into the sewer mains from all the debris. Over to you…”

“Thank you. Yesterday at about 8 to 8:30 p.m. local time the eye of the storm passed directly over Changzhou, and it was still a Category 5 storm at that point. It’s lost a lot of force since then — it’s currently over Anhui and Henan, and its winds have dropped below 100 miles per hour.
“Government spokespersons in Beijing have emphasized that all evacuees are safe — most of them are in Hubei, Jiangxi or Fujian, well away from the path of Haishen. Even so, we’re talking about over 20 million people that had to be relocated. If the U.S. had to evacuate New York — the state, not the city — it would be almost as bad as this.”

--CNN, August 20, 2026

“‘With every passing winter, Canada has lost a few buildings — generally older buildings with flat roofs that were vulnerable to heavy snowfall. Last winter was particularly bad, not just because of the snow but because a lot of buildings couldn’t be fixed — the insurers had either dropped them or gone bankrupt. Now these buildings are being bought up by the national government, provincial and local governments, or private nonprofits, and either knocked down or heavily retrofitted — extra windows added, or whole walls knocked out and replaced with glass. They’re not ideal for the purpose, but they are cheap to purchase and there are plenty to go around.
“‘The plan is to use these structures as hothouses — not to grow food or endangered plants, but to cultivate tree seedlings by the millions. The majority of these will be subalpine fir and different species of spruce, but they’re also looking at trees like white oak, grand fir and sugar maple. Right now, tree experts are scouting the wilderness for places north of the trees’ current range, or north of the tree line altogether, where they can be planted and survive. The administration’s goal is to plant 38 million trees next summer — one tree for every man, woman and child in Canada.’
“‘That sounds like a lot, but is it? In real terms?’
“‘Well, if they succeeded, and if each tree were given 100 square meters — that’s a minimum of 5 meters on each side — that would cover an area slightly larger than Kent. Vanishingly small, in Canadian terms. The bottleneck turns out to be the number of seedlings likely to be available. In ’28 and ’29 they hope to plant much larger numbers. The idea, you see, is to get as many young trees pulling carbon out of the air as possible, while at the same time helping the species move into their new ranges.’
“‘How is all this being paid for?’
“‘A surprising number of people are willing to volunteer their labor. Even so, this is an expensive program, particularly when added to the other public and private expenditures Canadians are coping with. The new government, along with several provincial governments, are using a mixture of tax hikes and bond sales, with funds carefully earmarked. The rule is that anything they expect to complete within the next five years should be paid for with bonds, while anything that will be an ongoing expense for the foreseeable future is to be paid for with taxes.
“‘The new sewer systems, for example, are being paid for with bond sales. Hothouse construction falls into that category as well. They're only raising taxes for the things that are likely to be annual expenditures for the foreseeable future.’
“‘These bond sales… how are the markets responding?’
“‘Well, I asked one buyer if he was feeling optimistic about the future. What he said was, “Either Canada is going to survive the next fifty years as a functioning state, or else it isn’t. If it does, I’m set. If it doesn’t, odds are most other countries are going to go down too, and losing my investment will be the least of my problems.”’”

--BBC, August 31, 2026

“‘The plan was originally for the Sanming camp to be shut down by the end of the week as all these people were moved back into their homes — or elsewhere if those homes turn out to be unsalvageable. Unfortunately, this camp has been quarantined due to an outbreak of what officials say is a form of avian flu, possibly H5N1. Now, so far it hasn’t spread outside the camp, but people aren’t taking any chances — as you can see, pretty much everyone on the street is wearing face masks.’
“‘Do we have any word on casualties, or on the number of infected?’
“‘Not yet, but the government has already asked the Red Cross for assistance, which implies something more than just a handful of cases.’
“‘Any word on how this might have happened?’
“‘We don’t know the specifics. But when you have three days to set up a temporary facility for a quarter of a million people, you have to expect that something’s going to go wrong. When this has to be done dozens of times in dozens of places, a situation like this one comes close to a mathematical certainty.’”

--CNN, September 2, 2026

“We’ve all seen the photos of the devastation on the ground — or maybe I should say what used to be the ground — but to fully appreciate the scale of what’s happened, you have to see it from space. This is a Google Earth image of the Turpan Depression from before. Notice the forests here, the dry lakebed, the general desert-type terrain. And now here… this photo was taken by a satellite yesterday during a break in the cloud cover.  Not a complete break, as you can see, but… well, just look at that. There’s a lake. A huge lake that three months ago wasn’t there.
“And if you look at this map, you’ll see where it came from. Looking at it straight down on the North Pole like this, you can see this almost triangle-shaped belt of rain around the Northern Hemisphere. There are a couple of thin spots in it, over the Chukchi Sea and here over Greenland — and let me just say we’re very glad Greenland hasn’t seen a lot of heavy rain yet — and some thick areas around the north slopes of the Alaska Range and the northern Canadian Rockies — that’s a rain-shadow effect, which is perfectly normal even if we’re not used to seeing it in that part of the world.
“But the biggest area of rainfall is this stretch of central Asia that runs from eastern Kazakhstan to central Mongolia and south into the Tien Shan. And that’s important, because this region, to put it mildly, is not used to heavy rainfall. We’re talking about a part of the world that normally gets maybe eight to twelve inches of precipitation a year, mainly in the summer, and is now getting three times that in the space of two months. And what makes it worse is that the soil is so thin. There’s just no way it can absorb this much water in this little time. It has to go somewhere, and here’s where it’s going.
“So now we have a new lake in northern Xinjiang, and — because the Turpan Depression is actually below sea level — we’re not expecting it to go away any time soon…”

--The Weather Channel, October 28, 2026

2027 Part 1
The first two months of the year were, by the standards of this decade, downright temperate. In the United States, snow fell as far south as Maryland and Tennessee, although it melted in a matter of days. Snowfall was much heavier than average in Canada, Siberia and northern Europe. By the end of January, the city of Helsinki had completed its new showcase sewer system, designed and built at great expense to accommodate a tropical downpour. It met the challenge of the spring snowmelt and passed with flying colors, proving that at least some changes in the climate could be adapted to… by those willing to spend the money.

There were other bits of semi-good news. The Antarctic Peninsula glaciers and the West Antarctic ice sheet experienced several major collapses, raising global sea levels by… a millimeter and a half. Hurricanes appeared off the Brazilian coast from late February to the first week of April, but never made landfall. In China, the outbreak of H5N1 was officially over in February, and the new Party leadership celebrated by… ordering vast quantities of mosquito netting. (Scientists had detected the spread of malarial mosquitoes into new parts of China, and the government was not about to be caught napping a second time.)

As a sign of how others were adapting to a changing ecology, in May fishermen out of Alaska were threatened with firearms in international waters, and forced to withdraw, by a Japanese fleet catching tuna — not to kill, but to collect tissue samples for the growing kuron-maguro industry. (Over the past few years, declining fish stocks had led to a revolution in the fishing industry. Now, Japanese fishermen harvested small samples of tuna muscle and cloned them to grow multi-ton sheets of meat. As these tissue cultures eventually succumbed to cell senescence or infection, new samples were constantly needed. The fishing fleets were developing an almost pastoral[1] — and distinctly proprietary — relationship with the schools of tuna.)

In May, an army of young volunteers in Canada, Russia and Scandinavia set about planting trees in places where they were deemed likely to grow and less likely to have their roots drowned in the northern monsoon. The supply of seedlings ran out long before the volunteers could run out of energy.

The last of the ice disappeared from the Arctic Ocean on June 5, only five days earlier than the previous year. This raised hope that the freeze-and-melt cycle in the Arctic was settling into a new pattern that would last at least the next few decades. The resulting “neo-boreal” climate was one that had never been seen before, with warm to cool summers, heavy to extreme rain in the fall and heavy snow in the winter.

Unfortunately, this climate was having some very bad effects nearby. Once again, as had first happened in 2012 and had happened half a dozen other times since then, melting was taking place over the entire surface of the Greenland ice sheet. Normally, most of the meltwater refroze quickly, or flowed down a moulin[2] to the base of the icecap. This year was different. This year, starting in June, the entire ice sheet was being rained on. It wasn’t the torrential downpour of the northern monsoon, but it was enough. The rain and meltwater filled the moulins and eroded paths through the ice that ran down to the sea, crevasses and gorges that could be clearly seen from space. It was like a time-lapse of the formation of a river valley. Collapses occurred along the frayed edges of the sheet, where the ice was thinnest.

But a sheet of ice a mile thick is not going to be destroyed by a few inches of rain — or even, in some cases, five or six inches. Between the beginning of June and the end of September, the Greenland ice sheet lost less than one percent of its mass — enough to raise global sea levels by a little over two inches.

Of course, all that cold, fresh water pouring into the ocean at once had an unmistakable effect on the ocean around Greenland. What had happened in the North Atlantic two years ago happened again this summer, and it was much worse this time. Summer in western and central Europe was several degrees cooler than average, even as the East Coast of the U.S. sweltered in the heat. As in any year, the majority of Atlantic hurricanes turned east before hitting the mainland U.S., but those that did crossed the warm water of the backed-up Gulf Stream, and were swelled to monstrous size. Florida, North Carolina and eastern Long Island were hardest-hit.

[1] In the sense of “shepherd-like.”
[2] A vertical shaft in a glacier formed by flowing water.

2027 Part 2
“Climatology is not a morality play. The sky and the ocean do not care whether we restore balance to them through a wholesale reinvention of our civilization, the palliative measures of geoengineering, or both. And it seems more and more likely that both will be necessary.”

--The Canadian Prime Minister, delivering the keynote address to the U.N. Conference on Climate Change

The U.N. Conference on Climate Change had been scheduled for October 27 through November 4 in Toronto, in the hope that this year’s northern monsoon would focus the minds of the attendees on the urgency of the situation. The city experienced such heavy rains during the conference that the Metro Toronto Convention Centre had to be surrounded by a wall of sandbags.

Inside the Centre, they began by reviewing the progress that had already been made. The host nation and several others boasted of their tree-planting efforts. A representative from China revealed that by the end of this year, his country’s navy and merchant fleets[1] would have all their diesel and LNG engines replaced by fuel-cell engines. Australia had begun encouraging the growth of coral reefs further south, in waters that had never been warm enough before (although the project was a little constrained by the shipping lanes.)

Inside the Centre, representatives from virtually every nation on Earth reviewed the disasters that had already taken place, and learned that the worst might be yet to come. Vague warnings about the end of the world were replaced with specific scenarios of catastrophe. Climatologists painted a picture of a world, in 2100, of such heat and humidity that it was no longer physically possible for Homo sapiens to survive in the tropics (or the temperate zones during the summer) without air conditioning. Those who did survive in those areas would have to adjust to an entirely different assortment of crops, probably genetically engineered tropical plants.

This wasn’t the worst-case scenario. That honor belonged to the "Green Sky" scenario, theorized to be possible if CO2 levels rose above 1000 ppm, in which the ocean currents that exchanged water between the surface and the deep sea halted or slowed to a crawl. In this scenario, oxygen levels in the deep ocean dropped below the point that could sustain most forms of life… except of course for anaerobic bacteria, which exploded in numbers, feasting on the corpses of everything that died at sea and poisoning the ocean — and the air above it — with hydrogen sulfide. (According to one theory, something like this had happened a little over 250 million years ago, and had played a large part in the “Great Dying” — the mass extinction which separated the Permian and Triassic eras, arguably the worst catastrophe in the history of life on Earth.) Under these conditions, whatever was left of the human species might be reduced to living like settlers on Mars, sealed in airtight cities, perhaps for thousands of years. There was some question whether this was possible under the present configuration of the continents, but as one attendee put it, “The story of global climate change has been the story of one decade’s hysterical doomsaying becoming the next decade’s unwarranted optimism.”

There was a very strong sense in Toronto that something needed to be done. The Chinese representatives were particularly emphatic — after Typhoon Haishen and Lake Turpan, the new Party leadership was not inclined to take half-measures. There were, however, three controversial questions:
• How could the Conference solve the free-rider problem?
• Geoengineering: good idea or bad?
• Should the goal be to stop the world from warming further, or to restore the climate of the mid-20th century?

The free-rider problem was one the conferees had been trying to cope with since the Kyoto Protocol. All the attendees were committed to action, but suspected each other of wanting to continue business as usual and leave the heavy lifting to others. And the U.S. and other industrial giants, which were the nations that most needed to change, were also the nations that the U.N. had the least power to punish.

Ultimately, the question was considered moot, since the nations in question were not holding themselves to the same standards to begin with. China, for example, was already one year into a five-year plan to replace all coal-fired plants with solar, wind and (to the dismay of some) nuclear power plants, and a ten-year plan to replace all internal combustion engines in vehicles with hybrid or electric engines. Most nations were somewhat less ambitious in their goals, but everyone was promising dramatic action. (Representatives from the more authoritarian states were rather smug in pointing out that they, at least, could make promises that their governments would keep.)[2]

Geoengineering made a lot of people nervous, for two reasons: it might be used as an excuse for inaction in other areas, and it had immense potential for unintended consequences. Even the Chinese representatives were uneasy about it. (China had its share of experience with ill-fated attempts at large-scale ecological redesign, and there was no reason to think such things were limited to communist states. The inclusion of sparrows in the original “Four Pests” campaign, for example, had been a failure of ornithology, not of economic doctrine.) The prospect of random climate-altering schemes being carried out willy-nilly, with or without any scientific basis, at the behest of rogue governments or eccentric billionaires, was only slightly less terrifying than the “Green Sky” scenario.

On the other hand, it was clearly too late to solve the problem entirely the “right” way. If for no other reason, methane (a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2) had been found leaking from the melting permafrost and the Arctic seabed, and would continue to do so no matter what limits were placed on fossil fuels.

So the Conference (now a permanent intergovernmental body of the U.N.) established a Geoengineering Commission to study proposals for “large-scale alterations of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans or insolation” and approve or reject them. (The Commission’s reach was deliberately limited to “large-scale” projects. More low-key efforts — white roofs and lighter pavements to lower the albedo of urban areas, for example, or tax breaks for corporations that placed artificial trees on their grounds — would be outside their jurisdiction.)

As for what sort of “large-scale alterations” they would permit, the Commission would give priority to those projects which attacked the greenhouse gases and oceanic carbon directly, rather than trying to force temperatures down in spite of them. They authorized the fertilization of selected areas of the ocean with a total of 100,000 tons of iron dust in 2028, just as a beginning. In places where coral reefs and vital stocks of fish and mollusks were being damaged by ocean acidification, governments were authorized to add gypsum to the water.[3]

The injection of sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere, on the other hand, was rejected for the time being. The sulfur wouldn’t stay in the upper atmosphere, and would need to be injected constantly and indefinitely in order to work. Moreover, it would do absolutely nothing to counter ocean acidification — in fact, when the particles descended into the troposphere they would turn to acid rain and make the situation slightly worse. However, the U.S., Japan and South Korea were authorized to conduct a joint experiment involving the seeding of low-lying clouds over the North Pacific with salt water to increase their albedo, on the theory that, whether or not it did any good, salt water falling in the ocean was unlikely to do any harm.

Tied into the question of what measures should be taken to counteract climate change was the deeper question of what sort of climate the world wanted, and what sort it should be willing to settle for. Reversing the changes that had already happened and returning global temperatures to about what they were between 1940 and 1970 (assuming this was possible) would require far more radical geoengineering than the Commission was prepared to allow. At the moment, the Conference’s goal was simply to stop the climate from changing further.

Many found this completely unsatisfactory. The climate as it existed today was one of burning forests, diminishing harvests, shrinking glaciers, falling aquifers and rising sea levels. Although the melting of Greenland had stopped for the year and the ice sheet was now covered with a reassuring blanket of snow, no one had any illusions about the future. Even if global temperatures did not rise one more degree, that ice sheet would be gone in a hundred years or so. The value of every piece of real estate less than seven meters above sea level had to be adjusted to reflect its new impermanence… and that wasn’t even taking West Antarctica into account. “Are you prepared to say goodbye to New Orleans, Venice, Bangkok and eventually who knows how many other cities?” asked the president of the Maldives, who did not mention that essentially his entire nation would disappear as well, although everyone knew it.

It was with a sense of relief that the representatives left Toronto. In spite of all they had agreed to, they were plagued by the feeling that every minute spent talking was a minute not spent acting.

“Contrary to what some have said, the past forty years have not been wasted. We have developed the tools we need to save ourselves, and have begun to use them on a small scale. Now it’s time to go big.”

-The President of the United States, delivering closing remarks

[1] China and Hong Kong actually have separate merchant marines. (I figure when fuel cells start to see serious use, it will be in cargo ships. The weight of the insulation would be less of a problem there.)

[2] In 1997, President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, but didn’t bother submitting it to the Senate, which had already indicated it wouldn’t pass.

[3] This is an idea I haven’t seen elsewhere (and there may be a good reason why) but it does seem to me that one way to fight ocean acidification would be to add more calcium to balance out the carbonic acid. You’d want to use gypsum rather than limestone, of course, because the point is to make more calcium carbonate, and limestone is already calcium carbonate.
The story on which "Altered Seasons" is loosely based.
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