Cool ideas for doomsday

While global warming is producing an Arctic land rush, climate change could also result in the far north becoming humanity's ark.
Crosscut archive image.

Increasingly green Greenland. (NASA)

While global warming is producing an Arctic land rush, climate change could also result in the far north becoming humanity's ark.

Seattle once prided itself on being the "Gateway to Alaska," but in the coming years we could become the "Gateway to Civilization." Global climate change is producing a rush for control of the far north, and if doomsday scenarios are right, the Arctic may be the place where humans make their last stand in sustainable "polar cities."

A new article in Foreign Affairs makes the case that warming in the Arctic and melting ice will have a profound impact on oil, energy, and claims to land and sea lanes. We already know that the fabled Northwest Passage will shortly no longer be the ice-bound barrier it used to be. But warming will also trigger a more widespread boom in the northern climes: a section of the story is headlined, "Go North, Young Man":

The Arctic has always experienced cooling and warming, but the current melt defies any historical comparison. It is dramatic, abrupt, and directly correlated with industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. In Alaska and western Canada, average winter temperatures have increased by as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit in the past 60 years. ... The environmental impact of the melting Arctic has been dramatic. Polar bears are becoming an endangered species, fish never before found in the Arctic are migrating to its warming waters, and thawing tundra is being replaced with temperate forests. Greenland is experiencing a farming boom, as once-barren soil now yields broccoli, hay, and potatoes. Less ice also means increased access to Arctic fish, timber, and minerals, such as lead, magnesium, nickel, and zinc — not to mention immense freshwater reserves, which could become increasingly valuable in a warming world. If the Arctic is the barometer by which to measure the earth's health, these symptoms point to a very sick planet indeed.

Industry is viewing the warmed north as the land of opportunity (beyond Greenland broccoli), and the article argues for a much more serious international effort to resolve territorial disputes in the region before countries find themselves fighting over who gets to be Emperor of the North Pole.

Another question: If the ice melts, will people move in? Thinking strictly in terms of space for development (environmental concerns aside), there's plenty of room. Anchorage is on the same latitude as Helsinki and about the size of St. Paul, Minn. It's the largest city in a state twice the size of Texas. There is physical space, and climate change might make the north seem more habitable to more people — especially if conditions down south decline precipitously. That Alaskan "Bridge to Nowhere" might eventually connect with a Big Somewhere someday.

Population pressures will get even worse if the earth's condition radically deteriorates, as some predict. Among the notable doomsayers is British scientist James Lovelock, famed for his Gaia hypothesis, which holds that the planet is a self-regulating entity that maintains an environment friendly to life. He is far more alarmed at the state of global affairs than, say, Al Gore. In his 2006 book The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity, he disdains the term "global warming" and prefers "global heating." He argues we're at or just past the tipping point toward a climate collapse that will turn the lower latitudes into desert over the next few centuries. Mankind, he says, will probably survive, but civilization as we know it might not. At the end of his book, he envisions in B-movie-style the remaining bands of post-collapse humans heading north to what would be the earth's mildest, wettest, and most habitable remaining regions:

[I]n the hot arid world survivors gather for the journey to the new Arctic centres of civilization. I see them in the desert as the dawn breaks and the sun throws its piercing gaze across the horizon at camp. The cool fresh night air lingers for a while and then, like smoke, dissipates as that heat takes charge. Their camel wakes, blinks and slowly rises on its haunches. The few remaining members of the tribe mount. She belches and sets off on the long unbearably hot journey to the next oasis."

Yikes. And that oasis is probably somewhere in France.

That's assuming that Gore's new $300 million ad campaign to raise the level of urgency about global warming doesn't work. Personally, I find the duo of Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson persuasive. Environmentalist Lovelock, however, is skeptical of slow, incremental steps. He advocates for an immediate cessation of the use of fossil fuels, disdains bio-fuels, wind energy, and the emphasis on "sustainability" as dangerous diversions, and argues for an expansion of nuclear power until other technologies can be developed to keep civilization humming. (Could it be that the late Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray, aka "Madame Nuke," was right? That would be tough dish of crow for Northwest greens to swallow.)

Already, the north is being transformed into a Noah's Ark for the preservation of civilization with Norway's Svalbard seed vault. Lovelock argues that what we need is to write a "guidebook for our survivors to help them rebuild civilization." Think of it as a new kind of Doomsday Book.

There is some help already in this regard – several major time capsules, such as Atlanta's Crypt of Civilization. Unfortunately, the crypt (scheduled to be opened in 8113 A.D., a few millennia before John McCain will have us out of Iraq) was sealed in 1940. As far as the crypt is concerned, nuclear science, space travel, and the de-coding of the human genome do not exist. In other words, someone better get started writing Lovelock's book and then find places to hide copies for a rainy — or make that unbearably sunny — day. Otherwise the manual for rebuilding civilization won't get beyond the high-tech precision of a pre-World War II Burroughs adding machine or a Royal manual typewriter, examples of which are preserved in the crypt.

Some people have taken Lovelock's idea of a northern migration seriously enough to imagine what sustainable "polar cities" would look like in the next centuries. An artist in Taiwan has sketched some ideas on his computer.

Attractive they are not, but then, they're not supposed to be. According to a New York Times blog, Dot Earth, a green activist/blogger named Danny Bloom is pushing the idea of Lovelock-inspired polar cities to get people thinking. "I hope polar cities are never needed for survivors of global warming in the far distant future," Bloom has been quoted as saying. "These images are meant to be a wake-up call for those who are still sleepwalking through the climate crisis."

To which I would add that if you are sleepwalking, best you head north to Alaska to get ahead of the crowds.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.