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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  April 2008

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE April 2008

Subject:

Eco-disaster

From:

Louis Proyect <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 24 Apr 2008 11:20:22 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (302 lines)

http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/04/envirofuture200804

Three Planetary Futures

The rapid pace of environmental change threatens to drastically 
transform our world. What might the future look like? Alan Weisman, 
best-selling author of The World Without Us, peers ahead 50 to 100 years 
to construct plausible scenarios for three widely divergent ecosystems, 
and the people who inhabit them.

by Alan Weisman WEB EXCLUSIVE April 21, 2008


I: Las Vegas, Nevada

By the late 2020s, something had to give, and it ended up being Las 
Vegas. With rainfall and snowpack in the Rockies steadily dwindling in a 
drying climate, the Lake Mead reservoir was no longer filling—meaning 
that turbines weren’t spinning, electricity wasn’t generating, and some 
25 million downstream users in places like California were howling for 
what little precious water remained trapped behind the lower sections of 
the Hoover Dam. Nevada’s last gasp was a plea for Denver’s Colorado 
River allotment: Denver, it was argued, in turn could take the Nebraska 
and Kansas share of the Platte River, because those states could 
recharge their depleted Ogallala Aquifer by siphoning water from the 
Mississippi, and so on ever eastward. But this grand cascade scheme 
collapsed under dire predictions of astronomical engineering costs and 
threats of internecine, even armed, water warfare among various states 
jealously guarding whichever of the nation’s great drainage basins lay 
beneath them.

So the Hoover’s spillways were opened, and what remained of the Colorado 
trickled off to Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Mexico (which had 
sworn to cut off tributaries to the Rio Grande if it didn’t receive a 
share). The glittering southern Nevada town named for its vegas—meadows 
of sacaton grass that once grew around artesian springs burbling up from 
surrounding mountains, until they were pumped dry—had also tried piping 
in water from ranches as far as 250 miles to the north. But those wells, 
too, succumbed to deepening drought. Finally, by the mid-2030s, what had 
been America’s fastest-growing city at the turn of the 21st century just 
gave up.

The verdant lawns surrounding the Garden of the Gods at Caesars Palace 
have now reverted to desert crust. After the drip irrigators ceased 
delivering, the once immaculately trimmed laurels and Italian cypresses 
withered. They have been supplanted by rough Mojave shrubs like creosote 
and bursage, which dot the grounds amidst tall tufts of red brome grass. 
An aggressive European interloper carelessly introduced by ranchers, 
brome grass sprouts early, snatching what little spring rain falls 
before native species have a chance. With ornamental hotel flower beds 
shriveled and gone, the most vivid color comes from another hardy 
invader, Sahara mustard, otherwise known as rapeseed, an escapee from 
cattle feed. Its pungent yellow blooms are pollinated by yet another 
spreading immigrant: Africanized bees.

The plastered walls of empty casinos crack and exfoliate, shedding ever 
larger patches of stucco in desert heat that now regularly reaches 130 
degrees Fahrenheit in July and August. (Although the city is abandoned, 
the pavement of Las Vegas still acts like a heat island, its concrete 
retaining enough warmth by night to keep daytime temperatures 
consistently several degrees hotter than the surrounding desert.) 
Without crowds of people, whiptail lizards, desert iguanas, and stout 
chuckwallas abound. Plodding desert tortoises, once tragically 
vulnerable to speeding motorists, are also enjoying a comeback. Hotel 
rooms have become habitats to thrifty kangaroo rats that live on seeds 
and minuscule amounts of moisture. As the number of seed-producing 
plants has declined, so has the kangaroo rat’s population, but the 
species survives.

Except for that most adaptable quadruped, the ever tough coyote, large 
animals have suffered severely from the lack of water. Bighorn sheep are 
nearly gone from Mount Charleston, rising north of town, as are 
pronghorn antelope in the flats, and the number of mountain lions, which 
prey on both, has accordingly dropped. Horses and burros—equines that 
originated in the Americas and were re-introduced into the New World by 
Spanish conquistadors—had established substantial feral herds in Nevada 
and Utah’s Great Basin during the 19th and 20th centuries, but as 
drought persisted, increasingly they depended on artificial guzzlers set 
up by well-meaning people—animal lovers who are now gone.

Some donkeys and mustangs have managed to survive, however, because with 
no more human beings around to pump groundwater, oddly enough Las 
Vegas’s original historic water source has modestly returned: sporadic 
rains in the mountains around the city have gradually replenished the 
old artesian springs. Nearly a century earlier, they had vanished 
beneath Fremont Street, site of downtown Las Vegas’s early grand casinos 
like the Golden Nugget. Now they are again welling to the surface, 
breaching cracked pavement and creating pressure fissures that cause 
parts of the nearby I-15 and U.S. 95 highway interchange to buckle and 
collapse. That’s where buses making the day trip from Los Angeles must 
stop to disgorge tourists, who, out of nostalgia or ghoulishness, still 
come to Vegas—no longer to gamble, but to gawk at this postmodern 
Western ghost town. Water bottles in hand, slathered in sunscreen, they 
trudge through gusts of sand down Las Vegas Boulevard to the city’s last 
functioning structure: a bare-bones visitors’ center at the base of the 
Eiffel Tower replica, which they can ascend to take photographs of the 
once lavish tourism mecca.

Devoid of flashing marquees and imported tropical foliage, in the 
desiccated glare Las Vegas now resembles not so much its former 
neon-hued glory, but the biblical claimants to the name that it once 
dared to officially call itself: Sin City. The wrath that destroyed 
Sodom and Gomorrah couldn’t have left a sorrier ruin than this one.
Cairo a century hence

Cairo, a century hence: driven by ecological disaster, refugees flood 
the city by the millions, some from sub-Saharan Africa. Photo 
illustration by John Blackford.

II: Cairo, Egypt

The ancient name of Egypt’s first Arab capital, Misr al-Fustat, means 
“City of Tents”—and in 2108, Cairo has come full circle. A century 
earlier, it was already a city of 17 million residents piled atop one 
another in high-rises crammed into the narrow floodplain of the Nile, at 
the point just before the river’s huge delta begins to spread northward 
to the Mediterranean. Now, the capacity of those high-rises has been 
overwhelmed by the greatest influx of refugees in human history. Most of 
the 40 million or so people pressing against the pyramids will never 
leave here. With Egypt’s housing authority effectively stymied, 
so-called temporary shelters of heat-reflective polymer sheeting 
provided by U.N.H.C.R.—the United Nations High Commissioner for 
Refugees, lately the world’s most thinly stretched bureaucracy—will be 
their permanent fate.

Long before a century of rising temperatures begat streams that turned 
into torrents of humans pouring in from ruined farmlands, 
Cairo—U.N.H.C.R.’s major processing center in North Africa—was already a 
magnet for displaced people. Besides Palestinians, Eritreans, 
Ethiopians, Iraqis, and thousands of Sudanese and Somalis fleeing civil 
war or worse, beleaguered immigrants arrived here from as far away as 
West Africa’s Ivory Coast and Liberia, gambling that the U.N. would 
bless them with legal refugee status and make them eligible for 
resettlement programs.

Usually that proved a dashed hope, but Egypt, despite its own 
impoverished hordes, was far wealthier than most other African 
countries, so the refugees dissolved into Cairo’s tenement warrens, 
which somehow always seemed able to absorb more. That wealth, however, 
derived mainly from the enormous, fan-shaped Nile Delta, spanning 150 
miles where it met the sea—that is, until the sea started creeping 
inland. Once, the delta produced more food than anywhere else on the 
continent, and was one of the planet’s most densely populated 
agricultural areas, home to 35 million people, mostly rural fellahin. 
But by 2108, the Mediterranean has already encroached nearly 10 miles 
south of its former shoreline, leaving the seaport of Alexandria, at the 
delta’s western edge, perched at the end of a dike-enclosed peninsula. 
Yet just as frightening as that re-drawn geography is the menace 
advancing annually beneath the surface, through the water table.

Each year, rising salinity leaves more formerly rich delta bottomland 
useless for the wheat, rice, bananas, cotton, corn, lentils, melons, 
tomatoes, and vegetables that once abounded here. In fields covered with 
a glaze of evaporated brine, agricultural agencies now plant 
salt-tolerant pickleweed. Although pickleweed is edible, neither humans 
nor goats have embraced the chewy succulent as a steady diet, and it has 
not become a cash crop. So annually, more delta families head upstream 
toward burgeoning Cairo; at the same time, more refugees stagger in from 
the opposite direction, as Africa’s parched Sahel succumbs to Sahara 
dunes advancing up to six miles in a single year.

On top of these arrivals, Egypt’s population has doubled from 80 to 160 
million since the beginning of the 21st century, a rate of reproduction 
that relentlessly climbs despite frequent waves of cholera and other 
lethal epidemics. With the delta dying, the only place left to grow food 
is the slender strip along the Nile south of Cairo: a green ribbon 
cutting between bleached plateaus so dry that tombs only a few hundred 
yards from the floodplain hold mummified remains that have spent the 
past 4,000 years virtually moisture-free. But even with the former pride 
of Egyptian agriculture—extra-long-staple cotton—now uprooted to make 
way for more grains to feed the masses, there is simply no more land 
left to cultivate. As U.N.H.C.R.’s struggle against starvation turns 
bleaker, an Egyptian conundrum nearly 150 years old is coming to a head.

Back in the distant past—1960—an infusion of Soviet money changed 
Egyptian history and ecology and the character of the Nile River by 
building the Aswan High Dam, some 500 miles upstream from Cairo. Until 
then, the Nile had flooded every summer, depositing millions of tons of 
sediment that renewed the soil for the year’s plantings and literally 
built the delta. With the Nile’s flow tamed, fields and settlements were 
protected from floodwaters, but the trade-off was the loss of all the 
nutrients borne by river silt, which stayed trapped in Lake Nasser, the 
vast reservoir behind the dam.

This proved a bonanza for hawkers of artificial fertilizer, upon which 
all Egyptian agriculture henceforth depended. But now, nearly a century 
and a half later, U.N. and Egyptian officials are increasingly unable to 
afford enough chemical soil additives to feed an increasingly 
uncontrollable, hungry rabble. They are at the brink of deciding to tear 
down Aswan Dam, before people rise up to do it themselves.

Already, refugee leaders are declaring themselves sick of subsisting on 
flatbread and U.N.H.C.R. rations, warmed in aluminum solar ovens because 
firewood is long gone and there’s barely any other fuel, and are tired 
of fighting over pickleweed, hydroponic vegetables, and 
mini-mushroom-farms-in-a-box because there is no more available arable 
land. They are demanding that the river roar forth again, to restore the 
alluvium and deposit a new, fertile Nile Delta above the new, higher 
Mediterranean shoreline. Let the unleashed Nile scour away the sewage 
and foul pestilence accumulating around permanent refugee camps that all 
the U.N.H.C.R. personnel on earth couldn’t haul away fast enough.

In doing so, of course, the homes of millions would be washed away. But, 
after all, isn’t that what tents are for?

III: Nanisivik, Baffin Island

Back in 1993, when Canada agreed to divide its vast Northwest 
Territories, which stretched from the Yukon to the Atlantic, to give the 
Inuit their own semi-autonomous region called Nunavut, the move was 
regarded as a huge gesture of reparations to aboriginal peoples, but not 
a big deal to most other Canadians: who else wanted to live in treeless 
Arctic tundra?

But nobody back then had any idea how quickly the summer Arctic sea ice 
would disappear. From 2005 to 2007 alone, fully a quarter of North Polar 
ice—once so solid it may as well have been a landmass like 
Antarctica—simply vanished. What remained was barely five feet thick: 
half what was normal. Just six years later—in 2013—the so-called Arctic 
Grail that so many explorers famously froze to death trying to find had 
become a reality: an ice-free Northwest Passage between Europe and Asia, 
4,500 miles shorter than crossing via the Panama Canal.

The Inuit who lived on barren Baffin Island, at the eastern end of the 
Passage, wondered if they were about to get rich. To service the new 
shipping corridor, the Canadian government announced plans for a 
deep-water port on Baffin at Nanisivik, a former lead-zinc mine above 
the Arctic Circle. To the 12,000 residents of this, the fifth largest 
island on earth—more than twice the size of Great Britain—that news was 
urgently welcome, because their livelihoods were melting right along 
with the ice. The seals they traditionally hunted depended on a food 
chain adapted to frigid conditions: a chain beginning with plankton and 
algae that lived on the ice itself, linked to the small fish and 
crustaceans that ate them, which in turn were eaten by polar cod, food 
to the seals. The ice had been the chain’s anchor; without it, the seas 
seemed as unrecognizable to the Inuit as the Caribbean.

Talk swirled of fueling facilities, a duty-free zone, international 
banking centers, hotels, restaurants, and a population surge to fill new 
jobs, which would mean a real-estate bonanza on a hitherto barely 
populated island best known for long polar nights. Canada’s first 
mistake, however, was to count on charging transit fees like those the 
Panama and Suez Canals collect, worth up to $4 billion per year. The 
rest of the world, however—Asia, Europe, Russia, and the neighboring 
United States—unanimously considered the Northwest Passage to be 
international waters, and proved unimpressed by a lone military base 
across the Passage from Baffin Island, intended to ensure Canadian 
sovereignty. After some costly years of negotiations, Canada had to 
settle for a quarter of the expected amount.

Second mistake: officials in Ottawa failed to grasp how fast the Arctic 
was changing. True, the unprecedented spreading boreal forest of spruce, 
larch, and fir on a formerly treeless island enhanced Baffin’s scenery. 
But that was merely a harbinger of unpredictable climate chaos. Roads 
atop thawing permafrost crumpled in mid-construction. Despite expensive, 
insulated pavement liners to keep permafrost frozen, within a few years 
streets would sink anyway and need replacing. Sewer and water lines 
regularly snapped. Pilings beneath docks lurched and warehouse 
foundations sagged as ice-bound soil turned into a soggy sponge.

By 2050, the chronic cost of maintenance was exacerbated by water 
shortages. Because of low evaporation, the cold Arctic is mostly a 
desert, its annual precipitation usually not much more than the 
Sahara’s. Countless northern lakes, formed thousands of years earlier as 
receding glaciers dropped icebergs that melted into permafrost kettle 
holes, now wicked away into thawed ground. Baffin Island’s caribou, 
dependent on that fossil water and on moss and lichens bred to longer, 
colder winters, had mostly starved, and the population of Arctic wolves 
that preyed on them plummeted accordingly. The caribou’s other major 
predators, mosquitoes and black flies, next focused on the most 
available mammal around, Homo sapiens. Besieged humans attacked back 
with pesticides, and the fragile Arctic environment declined further as 
already precarious ptarmigan and gyrfalcons also succumbed to the 
sprayed poisons. Hardier Canada geese prevailed in the skies, as did a 
tough new recruit from the south: American crows.

Long before, though, eco-disaster had already become the rule. An 
ice-free Northwest Passage wasn’t necessarily risk-free: along with 
routine fouling of port waters as ships refueled, the first major oil 
spill occurred in late September 2025, when an empty container ship 
deadheading back to China from the U.S. east coast collided with a hunk 
of ice moving in for winter. Now, in 2050, there is no more winter ice, 
but plenty of other hydrocarbon messes abound, because for decades 
Canada’s warming northern continental shelf has been open for gas- and 
methane-hydrate exploration. The Arctic’s land rush turned out instead 
to be a sea rush, as offshore-drilling leases went for more than 
comparably sized real-estate parcels in downtown Toronto.

Taking cues from lessons learned by engineers from Alaska to Canada’s 
Mackenzie River Delta, fighting to hold oil and gas pipelines together 
atop thawing tundra, Nanisivik has become a petro-port. This economic 
solution, fueled—literally—by the same carbon-based culprit that undid 
Arctic ecology, will soon be accompanied by another boom, government and 
industry officials assure Baffin Islanders. That will be carbon 
sequestration: technology in which methane’s dirty carbon atoms are 
separated from clean-burning hydrogen atoms and stored deep in the ground.

With permafrost now just a memory, drilling down there won’t be a problem.

Alan Weisman is the author of The World Without Us, published in July 
2007 by Thomas Dunne Books.

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