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Drought

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The river of time flows on, and empires crumble, leaving behind only legend that becomes myth, while new polities arise to take their place. This process of decay and creation is going to receive a boost from “peak energy” and, above all, climate change – which will redraw the maps of power to an extent unprecedented since the end of the last Ice Age. Throughout recorded history, the centers of advanced civilization have seesawed east and west, but remained constrained within a “band of habitability” that did not extend much further north than Oslo, St.-Petersburg, or Harbin. If the pessimistic scenarios of AGW come true, this band will become inverted: the tropics and mid-latitudes will become increasingly drought-stricken, desolate wastelands, perhaps even uninhabitable by 2300, while the Arctic regions, and a thawing Greenland and Antarctica, will become new centers of global civilization.

In this post, with the help of many maps, I will explore what this will mean in more detail than I believe has been done anywhere else on the Web. Needless to say, I am making the assumption that there will be no technological singularity, or other technological breakthrough, that will enable the continuation of modern high-energy civilization. But not will these be any all-out apocalypse. That part of the technological base that does not rely on high levels of energy inputs for its maintenance will survive, that is, railways, electricity generated by hydropower, radios, even elementary computing. So let us venture forth into the brave new world of 3000 AD!

The Rise of the Poles

The first major transformation that I want to emphasize is that people will stop thinking of the world as they currently do.

world-map

This would make no sense when population levels in the equators and mid-latitudes plummet due to constant drought and heat stress that actually makes mammalian life unviable during the summer months. Let’s start with basics: temperatures under full humidity cannot exceed the body’s if you want to survive.

real-world-heat-stress-map

Today, the entire world fulfills this basic requirement. The same cannot be said of a world that is 11-12C warmer; at that point, a “belt of uninhabitability” will encircle the world.

simulated-world-heat-stress-map

As you can see above, life will become impossible within the interiors of the Eastern US, much of the interior of South America, northern Africa, large swathes of the Middle East, India, eastern China, and Australia. It will also get a great deal more uncomfortable almost everywhere else. Note how Siberia becomes as oppressively hot as the Ganges river plain today.

Furthermore, you need a constant source of water to sustain large-scale agriculture. Where this is impossible, as in the US Great Plains or much of the Middle East, there is a reliance on runoff from mountain snow-packs (the Himalayas, for instance, feed the great Chinese and Indian rivers) or fossil aquifers (as in the US Great Plains, or large parts of the Middle East and India today).

drought-map-2000

The world’s water situation will become a lot worse under extreme AGW, at least until plant life adapts and re-greens the southern regions (but this will take many tens of millennia at the very least).

drought-map-2100

As you can see from the map above, agriculture will become impossible in most of the world’s current breadbaskets. India will be too hot to survive in, despite its plentiful rainfall. Agriculture will largely be confined to what is now Alaska, northern Canada, Scandinavia, Siberia, northern China, and East Africa (as well as newly deglaciated Greenland and Antarctica).

But what’s more, quite a lot of the newly opened up areas will be flooded due to sea level rise. Below is a map of the effects of all the ice melting.

world-ice-free

This shows that two major regions that may have become (or remained) suitable for intensive agriculture will become flooded, such as much of what is now northern Argentina and the West Siberian Lowlands. On the other hand, they may go Dutch and salvage quite a lot of these territories by land reclamation. Also, the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea are obviously not going to expand as shown above, because they are internal and none of the extra water from melted icecaps is going to find its way into them; to the contrary, they will more likely vanish, leaving behind salted, desert wastelands.

But this is not all. A much warmer world will have much stronger storms, such as hypercanes. Originating from locally warmed ocean waters, they feature 800km/h (F9) winds and can traverse the globe several times leaving behind a trail of destruction. This will make civilization in Argentina difficult to achieve, as any dykes the agriculturalists build will be overwhelmed by the 18m storm surges generated by these hypercanes. Same goes for South-Eastern China, Borneo, and Papua New Guinea. On the other hand, the Arctic region will be much safer, because there will not be enough heat energy to sustain the hypercanes that far north; likewise, regions blocked off by mountains, such as East Africa, may also prosper, relatively speaking.

Finally, enclosed sea regions such as the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the Caribbean Sea may become anoxic dead zones due to the shut-off of ocean circulation. But presumably any coastal dwellers will have long since left anyway.

All that said, it will be logical that – with the exception of whatever civilization happens to occupy East Africa, Antarctica, and perhaps Patagonia – the peoples of the world will cluster around the Arctic and will come to think of their world as one that is centered at the North Pole.

arctic-transformation

Indeed, people may no longer even think of world in terms of traditional concepts such as east, west, north or south. They may instead think horizontally (“Let’s go left, to Alaska,” says a traveler in Labrador) and vertically (“I think I want to either go down to see the ruins of Delhi this summer, then go up to the beaches of Novaya Zemlya,” says a rich aristocrat living in a city on the Yenisei flood plain).

Polar Civilizations

What will these post-high exergy, post-AGW civilizations look like? Much will depend on the geographic and climatic peculiarities of the entities in question. Let’s start off by listing the possible centers of powerful civilizations.

  • Scandinavia
  • Ob-Yenisei (West Siberian Lowlands between the Purana and the Urals)
  • Lena (Central Siberian Plain up to the river Lena)
  • Kolyma (maybe includes Anadyr; Kamchatka)
  • Amur (plus Heilongjiang, Sakhalin, North Korea)
  • Lake Baikal; Lake Balkash; Tian Shan statelets
  • Vorkuta (north-east of European Russia)
  • Alaska
  • Greenland
  • Canadian Archipelago
  • Labrador (along with Nova Scotia, Newfoundland)
  • Hudson Bay
  • The Eastern Rockies (to the far north)
  • East Africa
  • Patagonia
  • Antarctica
  • Though they remain cool enough, the regions of North California and the Himalayas will be unlikely to maintain high-level civilizations because they will be in permanent drought.

Below is a map of the Arctic region around 3000 AD, showing risen sea levels and a deglaciated Greenland.

arctic-far-future

The nature of the states and empires that will come to occupy this Arctic world will depend heavily on specific geographies and the patterns that have traditionally been associated with them. For instance:

  1. Massive flood plains and land reclamation, as may be expected in West Siberia, are typically pushed through by bureaucratic, authoritarian states (called “hydraulic despotisms” by Wittfogel). They tend to be populated by many peasants living near the edge of subsistence, feeding a religious, administrative, and military class that works to consolidate the country from internal rebellions and outside invasions.
  2. Bay regions, such as that of the Hudson Bay, and islands, as in the Canadian Archipelago, tend to be more diverse and disunited. Probably no single empire will consolidate them all under its control.
  3. There is a constant historical theme of conflict between lowlanders and highlanders. This may be resumed, though for different reasons. Historically, nomads frequently invaded and enslaved riverine peasant populations thanks to their craving of their material goods, emphasis on martial values, and protein-rich diets. In the far future, the highland nations in places like Kolyma or Alaska will be far more energy rich than in West Siberia or around the Hudson Bay, because they will have an abundance of the major remaining source of electric power: hydropower. Their populations will also be healthier, having access to more calories and being farther away from the diseases flitting across the tropical lowlands. If they can unite, their power will far outclass those of lowland empires, despite their lower populations.
  4. The other major historical enmity relevant to this world is that between sedentary people and desert nomads. Unlike the highlanders, the desert nomads will pose only a minimal threat. Nomads do not have manufacturing bases, and in a world in which guns and heavy weapons continue to be used in warfare, they cannot do anything more than harass border settlements.

Bearing these issues in mind, this is what I expect the geopolitical configuration of the world in 3000 AD to look like.

arctic-map

The West Siberian Lowlands between the Ob and the Yenisei, and the regions around the Lena River, will be an empire with resemblances to that of Egypt: heavily dependent on rivers and irrigation for agriculture in a region that would otherwise be desert, and obliged to support a big elite caste to manage said waterworks. These two river basins may well be united under one mega-empire, for the Central Siberian Plateau does not represent a serious impediment to communications between the West Siberian Lowlands and the Lena valley.

Kolyma will be able to sustain another major hydraulic civilization, and likely a more productive one because its hydropower potential relative to the population its river basin can sustain is greater than is the case in Siberia; and because Kolyma’s mineral base will be exhausted later than Siberia’s because it won’t be exploited as soon due to its remoteness. Kolyma will probably have hostile relations with the empire(s) to its west because of its logical desire to secure the Lena River. Separated from them by mountain ranges, Kolyma is probably unlikely to be united with smaller mountain states such as the ones that will appear in and around current-day Anadyr, Kamchatka, and Magadan.

eurasia

Most states to the south of Kolyma will be poor, being landlocked deep within Eurasia. The major exception is the the Amur region stretching to the origins of the Lena river, and including Sakhalin and modern-day Heilongjiang, which I expect to form the foundations of a respectable Great Power.

We may expect smaller entities to form around Lake Baikal, and the Altai Region, and what are now the countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. They have adequate rainfall, and can raid Siberia’s underbelly for food and slaves. A major Power is unlikely to appear in the Himalayas. It is predicted to be a drought-stricken area, and under catastrophic AGW the mountains will lose all their snow, so irrigation agriculture will also be impossible. Crops may find it hard to grow at such high altitudes.

Already being somewhat settled, any resources in Scandinavia will have long since been depleted in Scandinavia by 3000 AD – with the possible exception of the Kola Peninsula, which has one of the world’s greatest concentrations of Rare Earth Metals. What is North-East Russia will also be similarly exhausted, and in addition will be buffeted by hypercanes coming up from the Atlantic and racing over a flooded northern Europe: not shielded by mountains, as are the West Siberian Lowlands and much of Scandinavia, they will bear the brunt of these fearsome tempests.

greenland

Once it thaws, Greenland will have a geography to die for. Multiple awesome harbors? Check. Internal lake massively lowering internal transport costs, allowing for ease of capital accumulation? Check. Secure from external threats? Check. Many mountains that will provide hydroelectric power (and block hypercanes)? Check. Full of minerals that will take a long time to start exploiting? Check.

I fully expect whoever gets Greenland to develop the Arctic world’s most developed economy and navy, and perhaps even become its predominant superpower.

canada-map

Alaska will presumably go much the way of Kolyma – a set of states, possible competing, possible confederating, all of them rich in relative terms because of the plentiful rainfall, mountains, and resources that will only start getting exploited late in the world’s history. There may be naval skirmishes between Alaskans and whoever wants to challenge them for control of the Bering Strait from the Kolyma side.

Canada will be a relatively poor set of competing entities, divided primarily into four groups: (1) the Rockies states centered around the great Canadian lakes, which try to eke out an existence by whatever they can dredge from any mines still bearing lodes (their north will be buffeted by the remnants of hypercanes billowing through Vorkuta and across the Arctic, and their south will be harassed by nomadic raiders from the desertified Great Plains); (2) the disparate collection of sultanates, slave plantations, foreign naval bases, and pirate strongholds that will claim control over the Canadian Archipelago; (3) the competing lowland states clustering around what is today the Hudson Bay, with no resources or sources of energy, their trade strangled by pirates from the Archipelago and their border settlements attacked by southern raiders; and (4) the state that will appear in Labrador. This state, which may or may not also include what is now Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, will have rolling hill-lands and will likely be the only respectable Power on the American continent apart from Alaska.

antarctica-map-no-ice

Elsewhere, the only region I expect to have a chance of becoming powerful is what is now Antarctica once it melts; however, contacts with the Arctic region will be difficult, passing through a world of desert wasteland on land and sea, so it may technologically regress to a greater extent than is the case in the northern hemisphere. Regardless, despite its formidable extent and industrial potential, it is hard to imagine Antarctica playing power politics in the Arctic from the other side of a long-deglobalized world.

The only two other regions outside the polar regions that may continue to support advanced civilizations are East Africa and, perhaps, Patagonia. However, they are both isolated, and unlike Antarctica, do not have the territorial extent to constitute their own world empires. They will fall far behind, and most of their energies will be preoccupied by the single imperative of arresting civilizational collapse.

Conclusion

In a very real sense, catastrophic AGW truly will create a new world. And it will not necessarily be uniformly apocalyptic in the style of Mad Max and Waterworld (though there’ll be plenty of that). Some regions may prosper, like Kolyma or Alaska, and a few, like Greenland, may even offer their citizens a quality of life comparable to 20th century standards. Others will be populated by peasants eking out a subsistence existence, as in West Siberia and much of Canada. As one goes further south, civilization fades away, and as one ventures into what is now modern Afghanistan or Spain or south of the Great Lakes, even survival becomes impossible during the summer months. Away from the Arctic, civilization will live on live on in isolated pockets if that.

Whereas it is possible to make some informed deductions as to the geopolitics and political economies of certain regions in a warmed world, this becomes an almost purely speculative affair once we move onto national specifics, such as culture, language, ethnicities, or religion. Presumably, the descents of today’s Americans, Europeans (especially Anglo-Saxons and Germanics), Russians, Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese will be relatively well-represented. The same cannot be said of peoples now living in the Middle East, India, or Africa. Even if the northern Powers let in their climate refugees, it is hard to believe they will give them an equal footing with the indigenous inhabitants; more plausibly, today’s ethnic Russians and Canadians will become the aristocrats or military and priestly castes of countries transforming into hydraulic despotisms on the backbones of southern immigrants exchanging survival for serfdom.

It is at this point that futurism ends, and fantasy begins.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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This post is a meta-commentary on media coverage of Russia’s drought and wildfires. Now make no mistake, I admire the yeoman work of some journalists in covering Russia burning: no doubt a few will even make their way into the classical cannon such as The Saga of the Burned Foot (Miriam Elder) or The Tale of How Aleksandr Pochkov Quarreled with Vladimir Vladimirovich (A Good Treaty). :) But in my opinion, they almost all fail to consider the key facts that render their Kremlin criticism moot and fail to grasp the “big picture”: the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010 as a mere herald of things to come.

In summary: 1) There is nothing the Russian government could have done to contain a natural disaster of such magnitude, 2) many of the lectures about how Russia could have done better to prepare itself would have been counter-productive had they actually been implemented, 3) the hysteria about Moscow turning into a giant morgue from heat stress and smog or radioactive ash clouds is overblown, and 4) the real problem, or rather predicament, is global warming, the effects of which are expected to transform Russia’s heartlands into Central Asia within the next few decades.

Unprecedented Drought, Reductio ad Putinum

I’m going to be using Julia Ioffe as a foil in this section (not because I hate her but because I’ve actually read her articles). In her August 5th shock piece, Russia on Fire, she writes:

A strong argument could be made for calling this disaster Putin’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, then-President Putin, in consultation with the Russian timber industry, “reformed” forestry regulations, eliminating positions for rangers, making each of the remaining ones responsible for more territory, increasing paperwork so they spent hardly any time outdoors monitoring the forests—and, on the off chance that they did spot a small fire while on patrol, making it a punishable offense (a misuse of state funds) to put it out.

So assume that the Kremlin had listened to forestry expert Ioffe, and restarted the Soviet practice of forest fire suppression whenever they sprang up. That would have solved the problem, right? No. It would have made it a lot worse.

Left alone, forests experience small, contained fires every few years, which clear out excess undergrowth, replenish the soil and maintain the resilience of the forest ecosystem. But as soon as you start playing Canute to the woodlands, layers of dead biomass accumulate on the forest bed. Eventually, it reaches such a critical mass that the next heatwave is bound to create a conflagration, made catastrophic of the interventionist’s own hubris.

But that too would inevitable have been the Kremlin’s fault, according to the Gospel of Julia. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. In her discourse, the main things are personalities, Tsar-Batyushka, the Tatar-Mongol yoke… As Mark Chapman remarked on AGT’s blog:

If Russia’s leaders stay remote and aloof from their subjects, they’re cold and indifferent. If they make any attempt, even one that looks suspiciously scripted, to connect, they’re Janus-faced Tsars.

Now I’m not denying the possibility that the current fire suppression efforts have been riddled with corruption and incompetence. Time will tell. But consider this from another angle. This drought is unprecedented in its severity for at least the last 140 years, if not the last 500! Some much needed facts and figures (as opposed to anecdotes) from Jeff Masters:

At 3:30 pm local time today, the mercury hit 39°C (102.2°F) at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. Moscow had never recorded a temperature exceeding 100°F prior to this year, and today marks the second time the city has beaten the 100°F mark. The first time was on July 29, when the Moscow observatory recorded 100.8°C and Baltschug, another official downtown Moscow weather site, hit an astonishing 102.2°F (39.0°C). Prior to this year, the hottest temperature in Moscow’s history was 37.2°C (99°F), set in August 1920. The Moscow Observatory has now matched or exceeded this 1920 all-time record five times in the past eleven days, including today. The 2010 average July temperature in Moscow was 7.8°C (14°F) above normal, smashing the previous record for hottest July, set in 1938 (5.3°C above normal.) J uly 2010 also set the record for most July days in excess of 30°C–twenty-two. The previous record was 13 such days, set in July 1972. The past 24 days in a row have exceeded 30°C in Moscow, and there is no relief in sight–the latest forecast for Moscow calls for high temperatures near 100°F (37.8°C) for the next seven days. …

Dr. Rob Carver has done a detailed analysis of the remarkable Russian heat wave in his latest post, The Great Russian Heat Wave of July 2010. A persistent jet stream pattern has set up over Europe, thanks to a phenomena known as blocking. A ridge of high pressure has remained anchored over Russia, and the hot and dry conditions have created helped intensify this ridge in a positive feedback loop. As a result, soil moisture in some portions of European Russia has dropped to levels one would expect only once every 500 years.

Furthermore, consider the vast territorial extent of Eurasia’s drought.

[Russia blanketed by forest fire smoke. Source: NASA.]

In retrospect, the current death toll from the fires, at 50, might well be remarkably low, considering the extreme circumstances (compare with 173 deaths in the Black Saturday bushfires last year in Australia, a country Russia’s critics would all consider “civilized” and developed).

But what do I know? According to Julia Ioffe and Foreign Policy, forest fires only happen in countries with non-liberal Presidents.

Moscow Morgues & Radioactive Ash Clouds

Two rather hysterical stories doing the rounds. Make no mistake: premature deaths from heat stress are tragic. Moscow’s mortality rate rose by 29.7% in July 2009, relative to the same period last year. August might be even worse if the searing temperatures continue into next week. The morgues are overflowing, with the numbers of daily deaths multiplying by 2-7x over normal in recent days (the sources differ).

But this does happen when record-breaking heat waves strike, anywhere. I was unfortunate enough to be in Paris during the 2003 heatwave, when temperates hit 40C and more. It was a torrid hell of heat and concrete: I remember taking several cold showers per day and avoiding sun-drenched spaces like a vampire. But I had it good. People with pre-existing medical conditions were dying early. The French capital observed a 142% mortality increase in August 2003, with deaths spiking to 2-8x their normal levels during the week of the heat wave.

[Number of deaths in Paris during August 2003 heatwave.]

But at least Parisians are more used to hot summers and didn’t have to contend with the smoke. Neither can be said for Muscovites. So a high number of excess deaths – estimated to reach 40,000 by Jeff Masters – is regrettable, but to be expected.

[The 2003 European Heatwave and the Great Russian Heat Wave of 2010 compared.]

What about the fires releasing radioactive ashclouds from the areas around Chernobyl? Pure hysteria. Even if the inferno spread there, the radioactive particles released in 1986 have long since become diluted in the environment. Rinse and repeat if taken on an airborne ride by the fires a second time.

The Real Meaning of the Great Russian Heatwave of 2010

Most commentators prefer to spend their time discussing Putin’s ownage of the Sovok citizen blogger or the destruction of the naval aviation storage base that spawned a firestorm of blame and recriminations. It certainly doesn’t shed a good light into the nefarious workings of the Russian bureaucracy (few things do), but guys, this is largely irrelevant. What’s really significant is that this once-in-a-century (or is now once-in-a-millennium?) drought is a symptom of global warming, a few more degrees of which will transform the Russian heartlands into Central Asia.

So here are the really important things:

1. The collapse of Russia’s grain production, estimated to fall from 100mn tons in 2009 to just 65mn tons this year. This is huge. It reverses practically all the agricultural revival (in volume output) achieved in the past few years, bringing Russia back (maybe even below) its post-Soviet agricultural nadir. Furthermore, the depression may continue for another two years, if the earth is baked too hard for sowing the winter crop: a nation accounting for 25% of the world’s wheat exports will be out of business for two years. Coupled with agricultural decline in other countries (e.g. floods in China to reduce its rice crop by 5-7% this year) and rising food protectionism, social welfare in poor food importers like Egypt and Pakistan will plummet. The conditions aren’t in place for a repeat of the 2008 food crisis, but this does confirm that our age is now one of increasing scarcity.

2. This year is unprecedented everywhere: it is the hottest July on record (and the hottest year on record). Thermometers have been snapping left, right and center as new temperature records are set from Belarus to Sudan. The Arctic has given up the ghost, with sea ice volume plummeting into oblivion.

["Daily Sea Ice volume anomalies for each day are computed relative to the 1979 to 2009 average for that day. The trend for the 1979- present period is shown in blue. Shaded areas show one and two standard deviations from the trend."]

This is despite the fact that we are at a periodic, deep minimum in solar irradiance. One can only imagine the kind of havoc we’ll see in 2012-15 as it bounces back to its maximum.

And that’s not all the bad news. The Russian fires will have burned an unholy amount of biomass, which is even now making its way into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Historically, heatwave years are associated with above-average increases in atmospheric CO2 as the carbon cycle reverses direction. It is not impossible that 2010 will be the first year in which atmospheric CO2 increases by more than 3ppm (the previous record was 2.93ppm in 1998, a scorcher year that saw massive peat bog fires in Borneo).

The general agricultural and climate crisis is the context in which Russia’s wildfires must be framed.

3. The extent to which Russia benefits from global warming surely ought to be reassessed. Most climate models predicted a moderate increase in agricultural output on the cold Eurasian steppes with up to 2C of warming, making up for declining yields in the mid-latitudes and tropics. These assumptions might have to be reassessed if Russia’s Black Earth metamorphoses into a Dust Bowl. Though mass migration to the Arctic is a possible (and probably inevitable in the long-term) adaptation, it needs generations to be effected.

The preparations have to begin now. The sooner Putin and Medvedev realize this, the more favorably history will judge them; minor things will be forgotten. (I intend to write a post on Russia’s future as an Arctic civilization sometime in the next few weeks).

Russia is unlikely to ever have problems feeding itself, as long as its agricultural policies remain more or less sane. Nonetheless, its massive drought (which may become the norm rather than the exception sooner rather later) and grain export ban indicate it’s unwise to rely on it to bring big food surpluses to the global dinner table in the next few decades.

UPDATE, August 10: So it really is not just a one in a hundred years but a once in a thousand years event: Russian Meteorological Center: There was nothing similar to this on the territory of Russia during the last one thousand years in regard to the heat.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.