Filed under: livable future, Real Science Content, Speculation, sustainability, Syria | Tags: desalination, Syria, Syrian civil war, water politics, water war
Not that I’m an expert on foreign policy or Syria (there’s someone with the same last name who is. We’re not related). The one thing I do understand, a little bit, is water politics, and that’s may well be one of the important drivers of the Syrian civil war. As Mark Twain said, “Whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” And good Muslims won’t drink whiskey. Since I’m interested in the deep future with climate change, this might be a portrait of things to come for other parts of the world, including where I live in the southwestern US.
Here’s the issue: between 2006 and 2011, the eastern 60 percent of Syria experienced “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago,” forcing 200,000 Syrians off the land (out of 22 million total in Syria) and causing them to abandon 160 towns entirely (source). In one region in 2007-2008, 75% of farmers suffered total crop failure, while herders in the northeast lost up to 85% of their flocks, which affected 1.3 million people (source). Assad’s policies exacerbated the problem. His administration subsidized for water-intensive crops like wheat and cotton, and promoted bad irrigation techniques (source. I’m still looking for a description of what those bad irrigation techniques were.).
These refugees moved to cities like Damascus, which were already dealing with over a million refugees from Iraq and Palestine. They dug 25,000 illegal wells around Damascus, lowering the water table and increasing groundwater salinity (source). The revolt in 2011 broke out in southern Daraa and northeast Kamishli, two of the driest parts of the country, and reportedly, Al Qaeda affiliates are most active in the driest regions of the country (source).
One thing that worsened the problem was Turkey. The Tigris, Euphrates, and Orantes Rivers flow out of Kurdistan in Turkey into Syria. Turkey, in a bid to modernize the Kurdish region, built 22 dams on these rivers up to 2010 in the Southeastern Anatolia Project. They’ve taken half the water out of the Euphrates, and used it to grow large amounts of cotton within Anatolia, doubling or trebling local income in that traditionally rebellious area.
So is drought destiny? Experts caution that it’s not that simple (source). In 2012, the American Midwest suffered a record drought, While that may have led to Tea Party outbursts in the 2012 elections, it didn’t lead to armed insurrection. (As an aside, you can figure out how well the drought map correlates with the 2012 Presidential election map. Washington might one day take note of this…). Still, when you couple drought, poverty, bad governance, and a witch’s brew of historical grievances and systemic injustice, drought can cause a civil war.
There are a couple of big problems here. The first is that the US didn’t see the revolt coming. Right up until the first protests started, they thought that Syria was immune to the Arab Spring (source). This isn’t all that surprising. Due to the War on Terror, the CIA and other agencies work closely with government intelligence agencies to hunt terrorists (source), and have little or no intelligence capability to learn what’s happening on the “Arab Street.” This led to the US missing the Arab Spring movement pretty much in its entirety. The US military has been talking about climate change for years, and they’re starting to get serious about preparing to deal with it (source), but they don’t seem to have a functional reporting system yet, let alone a good way to respond. To put it bluntly, no one in Washington or other capitals seems to watching things like water supplies, crop reports, rural migration to cities, or even the price of bread. Or if they are, they’re not being listened to. Spikes in bread prices throughout North Africa helped prepare the ground for the Arab Spring uprisings, and the region is still a major wheat importer (source).
The second problem is that, so far, our leaders haven’t officially acknowledged that water’s a problem. Basically, during the drought, Syrian per capita water dropped by almost half. While a lot of this could be returned by better management, growing different crops, convincing people not to eat bread in the place where wheat was first farmed, and so forth, there are probably too many people relative to the water supply, at least during droughts. Part of this is demographics. The population of the Middle East has quadrupled over the last 60 years, and the water supply, if anything, has shrunk (source). The brutal answer is to get rid of those people, which may be one reason why Assad was so willing to use chemical weapons. There are 1.851 million registered Syrian refugees at the moment, and that’s about one percent of the population outside the country. Assad (and whoever follows him) may not be interested in having them return, either. Syria likely would be more stable with fewer thirsty mouths.
What’s the solution? One important part is to get water on the negotiating table. Turkey officially helps Syria with water flows, but it’s not clear how diverting half a river is a friendly gesture, and the two countries are not on good diplomatic terms. If the Turks are using the Euphrates to water cotton, most of that water is lost to the air, rather than flowing back into the river where Syria can get it. Turkey could help stabilize Syria by letting more water out of its dams, but by doing so, it would risk insurrection in Kurdistan, so I don’t think they will voluntarily give up that water. Since Turkey’s water sources are secure for the moment, I suspect that quite a few Syrians are going to be resettling there, just as Iraqis and Palestinians are (or were) living in Damascus. More countries should volunteer to permanently take in Syrian refugees, especially in the north (as Sweden has). Why not? It increases populations in areas that are experiencing population decreases due to low birth rates, and it’s cheaper than trying to fight in the Middle East. Moving people to where there’s water is much less cruel than interring them in refugee camps in border deserts with inadequate resources and no hope.
One of the problems with climate change is that the northern edges of deserts are forecast to get drier, and the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin are one of those edges. If we want to avoid continual unrest in that region, it’s high time we all (in the international sense) start financing regional desalination plants in the Middle East and other dry areas. This has worked to secure water for Israel. Granted, it’s an energy intensive solution, but a large-scale desalination plant is cheaper than a single day of all-out ground war, US style (source).
The other lesson here is that politics and politicians matter. Drought isn’t necessarily destiny, but bad water management choices can turn a chronic problem of scarce resources into a bloody war. If you want to know why I’m not a libertarian, this is why. It’s nice to have liberty, but it’s necessary to have water. Good politicians work to get you enough of both, and we need more of them at the moment.
Filed under: Kaiju, Pacific Rim, Real Science Content, science fiction, Speculation | Tags: Bechdel Test, Kaiju, Pacific Rim, Real Science Content
The first thought was inspired by Darren Naish’s comments about the portrayal of scientists in Pacific Rim. This is scarcely news. In fact, it’s even inspired a few entries at TV Tropes. Still, it’s frustrating, especially when the sheer stupidity of some applied phlebotinium degrades the rest of the movie (red matter, anyone?).
There are potential solutions. Movies tend to be quite sexist, and this has inspired the Bechdel Test which is a litmus test for how women are portrayed in a piece. In order to pass, the piece must:
a. Include at least two women,
b. who have at least one conversation,
c. about something other than a man or men.
When you start thinking about the number of films that fail, you realize how biased most films are. This goes double for summer blockbusters, unfortunately.
Can we do something similar for science? I’m not as pithy as Bechdel, but my first thought was that if a film could be improved by hiring an out-of-work scientist to vet the script and including her suggestions, then it fails the test. This would catch everything from midichlorians and red matter to the continuity gaffs in all the Star Treks, the teleportation between forests in Jurassic Park and so forth.
Now, movie types typically argue that scientists are such a tiny percentage of the audience that there’s no point in catering to them, but that misses the point of the test. This test is more in line with Van Halen’s requirement in their contracts that there be no brown M&Ms backstage. The point of this bizarre-seeming contract clause was that Van Halen at the time was touring with a huge, heavy and technically sophisticated stage rig. Their contracts ran to dozens of pages, and included things like making sure the stage they were to perform on wouldn’t collapse under the weight of all their props. The no-brown-M&Ms clause was actually there for safety. if they spotted brown M&Ms in the bowl, they would immediately know that the venue managers hadn’t bothered to read the contract. At that point, they’d have to immediately check every other show detail, to make sure that nothing collapsed and no one died during their show.
When a movie is stupid about the science, it’s often stupid about a lot of other things too, things that everyone notices, like a crappy plot or cardboard stock characters. Get too stupid and the movie flops. Compared to that, getting a scientist to vet the script is pretty cheap.
Now, let’s turn to Pacific Rim. At this point, I haven’t seen it (and since Darren and
Mike Matt have seen it multiple times, I’m not sure they need my ticket money). Be that as it may, I’d like to suggest what would really happen to any kaiju, including godzilla, that was stupid enough to make repeat visits to our little world.
Here’s the fundamental stupidity about these giant kaiju films. It’s all about killing cities. Yes, this would certainly happen the first few times, at least until someone ran an analysis on a kaiju corpse. See, kaiju are biophysically impossible as we understand reality, so if they did exist, they’d be absolutely full of bizarre chemistry. In Pacific Rim, this is all treated as hazardous waste and black market rhino horn stand-ins. But in real life, each corpse would be a gold-mine for the transnational, immensely sophisticated, chemical industry. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rendering Godzilla down for radionucleotides to supply the chronic shortages of medical isotopes, or rendering the blood of PR Kaijus down for all that ammonia, which is a major feedstock for both fertilizers and explosives. Those giant things are too valuable to nuke.
So if our world was invaded by kaiju, here’s what I suspect would happen. First, people would hack kaiju communications to figure out how to lure them or repel them (much as the Allies hacked U-Boat communications in WWII and routed the entire force. Controlling attack subs from a central hub is self-defeating). Then they’d build giant killing pens, probably on the coast of China (note that I’m suggesting this not due to any bias against China, but because they have become chemical suppliers to the world, and they’ve got the huge infrastructure needed to deal with the influx of kaiju products). Once these facilities were built, fleets would lure and drive kaiju into these kill-zones, dispatch them humanely, perhaps with a bunker busting guided bomb to the back of the skull dropped from 10,000 feet, and render their carcasses for everything we could get out of them. Rather than shutting the rift down, we’d probably drop a note in, asking the kaiju masters to send more kaiju (NSFW link). For all I know, bringing in kaiju this way would render our industrial civilization a bit more sustainable, since we would have outsourced production of some highly dangerous chemicals to another planet.
Yes, I understand that Pacific Rim runs on awesome, and that what I just suggested would be titanically not awesome, more in line with The Cove than with what actually made it to the screen. In fact, given Hollywood’s limited set of plots, the only movie they would make out of this scenario is some blue-eyed mother kaiju being mercilessly herded to her doom on the industrialized China coast, with impractical environmentalists’ efforts to save the noble beast from certain destruction. But there’s something a little sad in this whole exercise. It’s not just the bad science, it’s the lack of vision. Hollywood can only think to make kaiju in one mode: destroying coastal cities. There’s little creativity, it’s all replaying a trope that first showed up in 1954. The Japanese were more inventive with their kaiju, but Hollywood’s creativity has been leached out by the monstrous budgets they play with, since investors far prefer predictable ROI to untested creative productions. Personally, I think that adding a little real science, along with that massive dose of creativity that real science inevitably brings, would spice up the whole enterprise. Unfortunately, I doubt anyone in the industry (outside the SyFy Channel) would agree with me. And so it goes.
Filed under: Cthulhu, fantasy, fiction, science fiction, Speculation, Uncategorized, Worldbuilding | Tags: Cthulhu, Interstellar Travel, Lovecraft revisionism, science fiction
Time for something different. Admittedly, it’s inspired in part by Matt Wedel’s recent musings on how to make a proper Cthulhu idol. Since it’s July, I figured I’d trot out something I’ve been musing about. It has to do with vernal pools. And Cthulhu. And interstellar civilization.
Vernal pools, in case you don’t know, are rain-fed pools that crop up in the spring. I’m used to the California ones, which feature a wide variety of (typically rare to endangered) species that act as typical aquatic or wetland species, but only for the few weeks to months that the pools last. They have a couple of neat properties that are relevant here. One is that vernal pool species have a number of ways of dealing with the inevitable death of the pool, from flying to another pool to going into hibernation to producing propagules (seeds, eggs, etc) that can survive up to a century before they grow once a new pool forms. The other thing to know is that organisms in the pool typically start at the small end (fairy shrimp, algae), followed by bigger ones (tadpoles, small aquatic plants), followed by “large” predators (dragonfly larvae, beetle larvae), followed finally by the really big things (ducks, garter snakes) as the pool dries. It all happens quite fast, a miniature serengeti, as someone called it.
If you don’t know what Cthulhu is, well, what can I say? Go read The Call of Cthulhu, and come back later. But this is more about Lovecraft’s whole mythos of critters that lived in deep time and still live here and there, ready to jump out and go boo. Erm… Right.
Lovecraft didn’t know much about math or biology, for which I don’t blame him. It wasn’t his thing. Still, rather a lot of science has floated under the bridge since he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, so I’d suggest it’s high time to retcon the Cthulhu mythos into modern science. That, and it’s July. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest an interstellar civilization composed of Mythos monsters, and based in part on the model of a vernal pool.
Let’s start with our galaxy. By most measures, there seem to be millions of potentially habitable planets out there, but equally, in our world, we don’t see any evidence of interstellar cultures. This is slightly bizarre, as sun-like stars have been around from something like 500 million years longer than our sun has existed. One would guess that, if interstellar civilization could exist, it would exist, and that furthermore, it would have colonized Earth long ago. That is exactly what Lovecraft posited, with his fossil cities in At the Mountains of Madness, The Shadow Out of Time, and elsewhere. Personally, I think his reasons for why we’re not over-run by alien beasties are a bit weak, so this is where the retcon starts.
The big problem with interstellar civilization is that traveling between stars is horribly energy and resource expensive. Lovecraft got it right, when he talked about species migrating between the stars, rather than commuting (although his Outer Gods seem to not have that trouble). It follows then that when a interstellar civilization colonizes a planet, resource extraction begins in earnest. We’re not talking about sustainability here, not by a long shot.
Since we know what a non-sustainable civilization looks like (we’re living in one), we also know that, absent major changes, such civilizations die out in a geologic instant. This may sound non-functional, but there’s a way out of it. If the interstellar civilization on a particular world can colonize one or more new planets before the civilization dies, it can keep going. Planets recover from civilization over a 10-65 million year period (thanks to geologic processes that allow the biosphere to recover, new oil reserves that gather surplus sunlight, and erosion that uncovers ore deposits), so it’s theoretically possible for a really clever interstellar civilization to persist indefinitely by constantly moving, leaving most of the hundreds of millions of habitable worlds in the galaxy fallow for most of the time. When the civilization ends on a planet, its constituents either leave, die off, hibernate, or leave some sort of remnant or propagule to grow when civilization comes again, tens of millions of years later. Granted, it’s tricky for anything to survive intact for tens of millions of years, but with god-like technology comes god-like hibernation abilities.
So what happens when civilization rains down on a planet? I suspect it’s a lot like what happens when a vernal pool fills. The little guys (elder things and their shoggoth bionanotech) show up first and most frequently. If the planet’s biosphere isn’t that suitable, that may be all that shows up, and they leave after they’ve sucked up the available resources to move on to the next suitable planet. If conditions are more favorable, the elder things are followed by all manner of beings: mi-go, the Great Race, and so forth, each preying on (excuse me, establishing trade relations with) the things that came before.
Then Cthulhu and his kind show up. They’re the megacorps, excuse me, the big predators. However, Cthulhu has an odd biology. According to the Call of Cthulhu“[w]hen the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.” In biological terminology, Cthulhu and his ilk use two strategies: interstellar travel (“plunging through the sky”), presumably if the stars are close enough for them to make the transit, and they also can go dormant (“could not live”), presumably through some amazingly advanced form of anhydrobiosis, to wait between boughts of civilization. Once Cthulhu’s kind is through ravaging a planet, the show’s over, and those survivors who didn’t flee settle in to wait for the planet to heal itself. This is much like what happens when a vernal pool dries to mud. The flowers bloom in the mud, and everything sets up to wait through another dry summer
Note that colonization isn’t an organized process, but then again, vernal pool community formation isn’t organized either. Every pool is different every year, and it depends on things like how fast the pools are evaporating and what animals are close enough to colonize the pools. Most of them can pass a year (or hundred) without needing water. Similarly, interstellar civilization is conditioned by how far a particular species can travel between stars and by what they need to survive on a planet, whether they can pioneer an uncivilized ecosystem (as the elder things can), or whether they need a civilization present to feed their great bulk (as with Cthulhu).
When Lovecraft talked about ancient cities, his biggest problem was lack of a viable dating technology. He wrongly assumed that species had been on Earth for hundreds of millions of year due to fragments throughout the geologic record, when in fact the planet was settled repeatedly, at different times, tens or hundreds of millions of years apart. It’s an easy mistake to make.
We can even understand the nature of Lovecraft’s Other Gods in this scheme. Azathoth, the blind idiot god (or demon sultan) at the center of the universe is pretty clearly the black hole at the center of our galaxy. Without it, this galaxy wouldn’t exist, so it is our creator in its own mindless way. Yog-Sothoth, the All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self, is probably our galaxy’s equivalent of the Internet, possibly powered in part by the central black hole Azathoth. After all, if civilized species don’t know what’s going on on other worlds, how can they know where to migrate next? Nyarlathotep, “that frightful soul and messenger of infinity’s Other Gods, the crawling chaos,” is Yog-Sothoth’s equivalent of Siri, or perhaps Clippy the Paperclip, which may explain humanity’s generally negative interactions with it.
This leads to some interesting ideas. Paleontology in Lovecraft’s world is likely to be rather more interesting than our world’s paleontology. Think of what the remnants of an alien interstellar city would look like in the fossil record. Moreover, there would be a rather more sinister explanation for Earth’s mass extinctions, and the evidence would be rather different.
Of course, the ultimate question for humans is, when the stars come right and galactic civilization comes to this planet yet again, do we join in the madness and plunge between the stars with them, do we resist, or do we hide out until they go away, and hope we can survive on the scraps left behind?
About a month ago, De. Deepak Chopra appeared on the NPR show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (which you can listen to at this link). At the end, he repeated the old idea that form is an illusion, because inside atoms is mostly empty space. While I have no quarrel with Dr. Chopra, I started thinking about this, and realized both that he is (most likely) dead wrong, but that form is nonetheless an illusion. Since I haven’t posted for a while, I figured I’d throw this up in the best (and increasingly endangered) tradition of late-night dorm bull sessions.
The issue with the Dr. Chopra’s idea can be boiled down to two words: dark matter. According to the physicists, a majority of the stuff in the universe is dark matter, which can be seen only by its gravitational signature. Assuming they’re right, all that “empty space” inside our atoms actually has a fair amount of stuff in it: dark matter, if not dark energy. Neutrinos sleet through a bunch of the rest of it, as do all the photons that convey the radio waves I was listening to. One could, in fact, argue that space is an illusion, that even the sparsest interstellar vacuum is far from empty.
But the mystics are still right: form is illusion. It’s just a different kind of illusion. For those who watch Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel. Human brains are not just prone to illusions, they are hard-wired to see them. Neuroscientists have been having a lot of fun studying the neuroscience of magic. The basic finding is that our brains use a number of systems and shortcuts to make sense of the world. Some of these are innate, while some are learned, often culturally specific. To over-simplify, the world is so complex that we cannot understand it without simplifying it, pinning meaning onto sights, sounds, scents, and so forth so that we can respond to raw sensory inputs and survive. Without meaning, we would be lost. For example, our eyes are somewhat less acute than average smart-phone cameras, but we see more because our eyes move constantly, and our brains stitch the images together to provide the illusion that we’re seeing more than we actually do.
Thing is, this is part of being human, and the downside is that we’re innately susceptible to illusions because of the way our brains process incoming data. It’s a tradeoff, honed by evolution: we see the stuff we need to see (in the evolutionary sense of needing to survive to leave behind offspring), but that means we can be fooled by everything from camouflaged snakes to clever illusionists. In this sense, forms are illusory. We don’t see only what’s there. Instead, our brains are grown to see what we find meaningful. This is the difference between a camera and an eye: a camera sees what is actually there. However, it takes an enormous amount of effort to program a computer to see with a camera, because the programmer has to figure out how to embody human norms, assumptions, and illusions as computer code to interpret the camera image in a way that makes sense to humans. We do it automatically.
Personally, I think that the idea that form is illusion should be thrown out. Anyone who aspires to enlightenment needs to realize that illusions are a fundamental property of the structure of their brains. Seeing illusions is part of being a human being. We can, however, learn to see things somewhat differently, to not be caught by some illusions. For some people overcoming some illusions may be important, whether it be spotting the rattlesnake in the dead leaves or not being bamboozled by a con artist. Unfortunately, we are limited beings, and we will never see the world as it truly is.
For a trifecta, let’s look at another common mystical statement, that now is the only moment that is real. This may be scientifically true: we don’t really know what time is, and the only moment we truly experience is now. Nonetheless, now is just as illusory as anything else. It takes something like 40 milliseconds for a sensation to travel from your toes to your brain, so your sense of what’s going on in your feet “right now” is actually 40 milliseconds behind. I have no idea how the brain integrates feelings so that you have the immensely useful illusion that your face and feet are feeling the same thing at the same time, or that sounds and sights are integrated with these feelings, but it’s all an illusion: your brain is busy compiling all this incoming data into one whole that is partially illusory. Your sense of yourself, what “you” are at any instant, contains a lot of illusion. It’s not at all a stretch to say (as the mystics do) that you are an illusion.
All this isn’t to bash Buddhism or any other mystical religion. While these religious ideas about space, form, and nowness may be partially illusory, Buddhism in particular is aimed at enlightenment, not as a way of winning some sort of psychosocial game, but as a way of overcoming suffering. Some scientific research suggest that, in fact, Buddhist practitioners can overcome suffering and become among the happiest people studied to date. From a scientific perspective, their practices may be based on illusions and a misunderstanding of science’s reality (and I can’t say this for a fact, since I’m not a Buddhist or a scholar of Buddhism), but if they can overcome normal human suffering, I’d say that Buddhists and other meditators are definitely worth our respect regardless.
Filed under: livable future, Real Science Content, Speculation, sustainability | Tags: Deep Future, livable future, science fiction, Speculation
I’ve been having some fun reading up on Milankovitch cycles since the previous post in this series, and I’ve learned that I didn’t know what I was talking about in the previous post. However, there’s still an apocalypse involved.
Here are the basics about global warming. The global average temperature goes up when there’s more CO2 in the air, down when CO2 goes out. The temperature change is proportional (roughly) to the doubling of CO2. If we double the old concentration of about 280 ppm, temperature goes up 1.5-5 degrees Celsius. If we quadruple it, the temperature goes up about 3-10 degrees, and so forth. Currently, we’re following what the IPCC calls the BAU (Business As Usual) model, or the 5000 Gigatonne carbon release. This will crank CO2 levels up to about 1200 ppm or more, so we’re easily into the quadruple jeopardy mode.
Anyway, the Milankovitch cycles are composed of three components: Earth’s orbital eccentricity, it’s axial tilt, and the precession of the orbit, all of which change at different rates. Of these three, only eccentricity (how elliptical the orbit is) actually changes the annual amount of sunlight earth as a whole receives, and that by only a percent or two. Obliquity and precession don’t affect the average amount of annual sunlight across the globe, and in this I was wrong.
Here’s the picture from the last post, about insolation at 65 degrees north at midsummer) for reference:
What’s happening here is real, but it’s only true for the northern Arctic area. Variations at the equator are similar in direction but smaller in magnitude, while those at the Antarctic Circle are (very crudely) reversed.
Now, remember how I said that Earth wouldn’t be warming up at the peaks and valleys in this graph? That is true. However, there will be LOCAL increases and decreases in temperature. Variations in axial tilt and precession of the equinoxes cause substantial changes in the seasons. When there is a lot of sun in the north, the summers are warmer (and probably wetter), while the winters are cooler (and probably drier). At the local lows, the summers are cooler and drier, while the winters are warmer and wetter. This is all on a comparative level, of course: it’s the difference between, say, California and South Carolina. The California coast gets most of its rain and snow in the winter and has cool, foggy summers, while the Carolinas get most of their rain in the summer, and have relatively fewer rain or snow storms. The southern hemisphere, of course, follows the opposite pattern.
When we’re dealing with Ice Ages, cool summers and warm winters can be a problem. Warm winters mean more snow falls, while cool summers means the snow lasts longer. If the summers are cool enough, the snow never melts entirely, and glaciers start to form. If the summers are warm enough, the snow melts, and the glaciers go away. This is how (very crudely) Milankovitch cycles help control the onset and end of ice ages, at least during times when the climate is cold enough (due to low levels of CO2) that ice ages are possible. The northern hemisphere at 65 degrees north is a bit of a driver, because there’s more land at that latitude than there is in the southern hemisphere, and large ice fields help force global ice ages (more or less).
Now, getting back to the idea of 37 apocalypses. We’re dumping a lot of CO2 into the air, and it’s going to take a long time to come out. Therefore, the Earth will be warmer for a long time, until that carbon comes out of the air. However, the seasons can vary. Due to the Milankovitch cycles, the weather can vary between summer rain and winter rain. If the temperatures are tropical, this doesn’t particularly matter. Most tropical areas have a dry season and a wet season, but since the annual temperature doesn’t vary a huge amount, when the rain occurs doesn’t particularly matter. Milankovitch cycles don’t particularly matter.
However, closer to the poles, these matter, even if the world is very warm. Above the Arctic circle, there’s an entire season of darkness as the sun slips below the horizon (due to axial tilt). If most of the precipitation comes during the darkness, it will land as snow. If it comes during the daylit summer, it will come as rain. Different plants prefer these conditions, so people living there will have to grow different crops. To use the example of California and the Carolinas, California does great with winter vegetables and summer fruits, while the summer rain areas can grow things like corn and other late summer vegetables. Winter rainfall climates also tend to favor massive irrigation projects, because farmers have to capture the moisture that comes during the winter, and dole it out when the crops are growing.
The Milankovitch cycles do matter in that they dictate what the vegetation will be, due to when precipitation occurs and what form it comes in. Think the differences between Portland, Oregon and Madison, Wisconsin, for example . Plant communities will shift to follow the Milankovitch cycles, as will farming practices and things like irrigation. Classically, these are the kinds of shifts that cause civilizations to rise and fall, and I have no doubt this will continue into the future. As noted in the previous post, there will be times of future stability, and times of future change, and the times of change will likely bring down civilizations that adapted to the old conditions.
Considering how much I’m learning, I seriously doubt that this will be the last word on the subject, so if I don’t quite understand things now, feel free to straighten me out. My goal here is to think about what the deep future might look like, and I still think it looks like it’s going to keep changing for the foreseeable future, in ways that aren’t that favorable for stable, global civilizations.
I had a little bit of fun with the idea of future apocalypses to celebrate the non-apocalypse of 12/21/2012. Now that apocalypses are passe, I’d like to come back to the idea of environmentally induced apocalypses in the deep future. I’m nothing if not unfashionable.
One good place to look for such disasters is Wikipedia, specifically the article on Ice Ages, and even more specifically a little graph about halfway down, on daily insolation at the top of the atmosphere at 65 degrees north on the summer solstice. I’ve reproduced it below.
Now, I’m not a climatologist, but I’m not entirely ignorant, so I’ll attempt to explain this. Insolation is the amount of energy coming in at the top of the atmosphere. Sixty-five degrees north is pretty much the Arctic circle, and the summer solstice is the time of maximum sunlight. The general idea here is that times of low insolation coincide with ice ages, and the reason there is variation is due to orbital changes due to Milankovitch Cycles.
Now, this isn’t THE explanation of ice ages, because Milankovitch cycles have happened for the past 4.5 billion years. In most times, they don’t apparently result in Ice Ages. Occasionally they do. Other factors such as the position of the continents and the number and size of rapidly rising mountains (which take carbon out of the air through the silicon cycle) also matter. Beyond that, there are (of course) arguments about whether this is the most important value, or whether other factors are more important. Since we’ve got extremely complex models and imperfect climatological record, the arguments about the mechanisms behind ice ages are going to be argued for a very long time.
Despite that, let’s assume that the insolation graph is important, and that when the amount of energy coming in changes dramatically, the climate changes dramatically. Let’s also assume that a rapidly changing climate is generally bad for global civilizations like ours, and that inflection points are good for civilization, because the climate is stable at those points. The logic here is that a rapidly changing climate means that everything (plants, animals, and humans) has to move, because many formerly hospitable areas become less habitable, infrastructure breaks down, and so on. Conversely, stable global climates promote civilizations that create ways to take advantage of a climate that stays moderately stable for a few centuries, whether it is stably hot or stably cool.
In the above graph, between now and 400,000 CE, there are, by my count, 35 peaks and valleys. Each of these is somewhere between 500-1000 years long, which is about how long our civilization has expanded. Ditto with the Romans, come to that.
I’d suggest that we’ve got a very good candidate for our apocalypses here. The apocalypses are the slopes, where insolation changes substantially and keeps changing. At the start of each slope, a civilization that has lasted for centuries suddenly has to radically reinvent itself. In most cases, I’d suggest the result will be a dark age, likely an age of migrations. Sea level will fluctuate, deserts will become grasslands or vice versa, jungles will spread or contract, and so forth, and people will have to move. In my book, that’s an apocalypse for every culture ended by the crisis, although humanity will never be in danger of extinction.
I should point out that what we’re doing with our MegaBelch of gigatonnes of carbon will cause climate to change much faster than what we’re talking about here. If we really go for it and release 5000 GT of carbon in the next two centuries, it will take over 1000 years for sea level rise to max out (at about 100 m above current coastlines), although we’ll reach maximum temperatures in “only” a few centuries after the MegaBelch enters the atmosphere. This is really fast climate change, and while it will be slow in our lifetimes, It appears to be worse than anything on that insolation graph. Appears is the proper term, since I’m comparing the effects of carbon in the atmosphere to sunlight coming in, which is definitely comparing apples to orange groves.
Another caveat is that I’m ignoring all the black swans and most of the gray ones when it comes to future events. I haven’t factored in the megavolcanoes that are undoubtedly going to erupt during the next 400,000 years, nor am I factoring in city killing asteroids (we will get hit multiple times), and giant landslides like the East Kilauea rift, which will raise a gigantic tsunami when it inevitably slides into the Pacific. I can handwave this away by saying that such disasters are more damaging if they hit a globalized civilization, much less damaging if they hit in the middle of a dark age. As the WWII Siege of Stalingrad and the modern wars in Afghanistan have shown, once the infrastructure has been destroyed (which is relatively easy), it’s much harder to wipe out the people who are still living there. Pounding a city reduces it to rubble, but pounding a rubble pile just makes more rubble. On a humanitarian level this is horrendous (and it is not an excuse to keep from rebuilding Afghanistan or other failed states), but it is nonetheless true. A society that keeps its people comfortable is more fragile than one which has to endure disasters on a regular basis.
Regardless climate will continue gyrating into the deep future, however much carbon we blow into the air, and people will live through these changes. On the warm side, the global climate will most likely look like the late Paleocene or early Eocene. On the cooler side, it will look like the Pliocene, at least as long as there is surplus carbon in the air. After perhaps another 500,000 years, our carbon surplus will be gone and we’ll be back into the ice ages proper, with ice free poles in the interglacials and enormous glaciers during the intervening ice ages. Humans will survive, but I suspect our future on this planet is going to be a long history of lost high civilizations, fallow ages, and civilizations rising again during the times climates stabilize.
To put it simply, We Are Atlantis 1.0, and something like this is more likely to be our future than any singularity.
Filed under: Real Science Content, Speculation, Uncategorized | Tags: electrofishing, plesiosaurs, Speculative paleontology, Tanystropheus
I’m venturing back into the land of speculative paleontology with a modest suggestion about the reason why two groups of aquatic Mesozoic animals had ridiculously long necks. Some of these animals are very familiar: plesiosaurs. Some Plesiosaurs, members of the Plesiosauroidea, had ridiculously long necks. This trait was shared with the lesser known Triassic Tanystropheids, such as Tanystropheus longobardicus. Their necks are typically relatively stiff and weakly muscled, which gives rise to real questions about how the animal used them. Plesiosaurs, for example, could not raise their necks out of the water in the classic Loch Ness Monster or “swan” pose, nor could they sinuously retract their necks as if they were snakes’ bodies. Tanystropheus’ neck was even more limited, being compared to the stiff tails of hadrosaurs.
How did they use these necks? Proposals include Elasmosaurus “conceal[ing] itself below the school of fish. It then would have moved its head slowly and approached its prey from below” (from Wikipedia) to Tanystropheus fishing from marine shores as some sort of dipsy-diver, dropping its head down into the water from above. More bizarrely, taphonomic evidence in the form of fossilized sea floor gouges suggests that Plesiosaurids with long stiff necks were benthic feeders like rays or grey whales, grabbing their prey out of the mud (from Tet Zoo 2.0). It is hard to image an animal less adapted to such a hunting mode.
This doesn’t even get into the exquisite vulnerability of this body shape. Long, thin, stiff necks are very vulnerable to aquatic predators. Indeed, multiple artists have illustrated elasmosaur necks as the chew toys of large pliosaurs, and it is hard to imagine Tanystropheus surf fishing without getting its neck dislocated.
I’d like to suggest a different hypothesis, that these long, stiff necks were perfectly functional, and that, indeed, there are animals today that have similarly constrained morphologies. They aren’t tetrapods though, they’re fish. Electric fish, to be precise. Electrogenic organs have evolved at least four separate times in fish (Gymnotiformes, Mormyridae, Malapteruridae, Torpediniformes), and occur in both salt and freshwater. The South American knifefish (Gymnotiformes) are a particularly good example. As a group they have linear, fairly stiff, poorly muscled bodies. The apparent explanation for their shapes relates to the complexity of interpreting information from electric fields, and simpler body shapes make for more unambiguous signals. It appears that most electrogenic animals (animals that actively generate an electrical field for sensory purposes) have stiffer bodies with simpler shapes than do their less shocking relatives. This is also true for manmade electrogenic sensors, as a simple shape makes for a simple, easily interpretable field.
If the long stiff necks of Plesiosaurids and Tanystropheids are electrogenic organs, the weaknesses of the necks become strengths. Their necks’ main job is to be held stiff and straight in the water, and they appear well-built for this task. Moreover, electrogenic organs are built from stacks of electrocytes, which were the inspiration for batteries. The longer the neck, the more “batteries” it can hold, the bigger a field it can create, and the higher a voltage it can generate. The advantages don’t stop there. Electrogenic organs have three potential functions: sensing, electrofishing, and defense, and I will explore each in turn.
Many animals can detect electrical fields, with or without special organs. Humans can detect sufficiently strong electric fields, while everything from catfish to sharks and rays to platypuses and river dolphins have structures specialized in passively detecting weak electrical fields. Electrogenic animals all actively use their electrical organs to sense their environments, feeling differences in the field due to the presence of things that either are either more or less conductive than the surrounding water. They can also detect the electrical fields innately given off by all animals through things like muscular exertion, heartbeats, or (in fish) the gill area. All of this adds up to a sophisticated electrolocation sense.
This is particularly important for animals that hunt in waters where vision is limited, either through turbidity or at night. It is also quite useful for hunting animals buried in the sediment, which is an explanation for the Jurassic sea-floor gouges caused by Plesiosaurids.
In an attempt to illustrate this, I chose the small (30 cm long) tanystropheid Tanytrachelos. This species was found in the Triassic, in the Solite Quarry in Virginia. It was apparently amphibious, for it was found in the sediments of a highly seasonal lake, and its webbed footprints are found fossilized in lake mud. Its main prey were apparently insects, and it apparently co-occurred with the fish Turseodus, of approximately the same size. Given the description of the lake sediments (alternating layers of mud and decayed vegetation), I suspect that the water wasn’t terribly clear, as it has been illustrated. The lake water may have been stained tea-brown by tannins, or it may have been muddied by rain and animal activity. Either way, I would suggest that Tanytrachelos was something like a platypus, an aquatic insectivore that found its prey using their electrical fields instead of eyesight.
I should note that all the long-necked species probably used electrolocation. It doesn’t take a large electric organ, and in turbid or dark environments it can be critical. It’s also possible that a majority of Plesiosaurids and Tanystropheids were electrolocators only. In modern electric fish, a majority are electrolocators, not active shockers, and there’s no reason to think this was different in the past. Certainly there is a tradeoff between carrying an electric organ and using a neck for something else, and there’s no reason to expect them all to be electrofishers. But some could have been.
Here, I would like to compare the fish biologists’ standard sampling tool, electrofishing, with the biological versions. While it is not clear that electric eels hunt with their electric organs, marine torpedo rays certainly do. However, the best insight comes from human electrofishing. For those who are not familiar with it, electrofishing involves using a generator, a transformer, and at least two electrodes. When the system is properly tuned, fish are stunned and can be captured for population samples. Most electrofishing rigs work in freshwater, but several research groups practice marine electrofishing. Still, there are a number of complexities.
Human electrofishing works on a simple principle. Many fish, when caught in a pulsed DC field between a cathode and an anode, involuntarily swim towards the anode, a phenomenon called positive electrotaxis that is caused by involuntary muscle contractions in the fish. Fish biologists use this trick to draw fish into the anode area without killing them, so that they can count and measure them. Translating this to electrofishing animals, I propose that the animals used pulsed DC current, with the anode located immediately behind the head. If one looks at the field lines, this would cause fish to swim uncontrollably straight into the predator’s mouth. Additionally, electrofishing rigs are deliberately designed with the anodes as large as possible to avoid damaging the fish (reference). One could easily argue that the long, slender necks with small heads of animals like Elasmosaurus or Tanystropheus are the exact opposite, with small anodes evolved to stun, injure, or even kill the the prey before it reaches the predator’s mouth. I used Tanystropheus in the cartoon below to illustrate the principle, with the anode behind the animal’s head.
While this is simple in theory, it becomes complex in practice. For one, seawater conductivity varies depending on temperature and salinity. For another, fish catchability varies depending on the ratio of conductivity between the fish and the water, with a maximum efficiency where the fish has the same conductivity as the water. There are other factors, such as the frequency of the pulsed DC current used, which varies by fish targeted (usually determined empirically by biologists), and factors such as the thickness of the fish scales (thick-scaled fish are harder to catch this way) and the size of the fish (larger fish are more vulnerable than smaller fish) (reference). As an aside, it is not clear whether electrofishing works on squid or insects, apparently due more to lack of experimentation than anything else.
Thus, there is no one optimal design for electrofishing animals. Plesiosaurids could not broadly harvest every fish in the water, but would be constrained by how they could adjust to factors like salinity and the fish present, and I suspect that the substantial diversity they show represents adaptations to different electrofishing strategies. Most likely, the biggest plesiosaurids would have to migrate frequently to avoid fishing out local habitats and to take advantage of spawning clusters or feeding congregations, much as large sharks do today. Since a proportionally bigger electrofishing rig is required for oceanic uses, it suggests that freshwater electrofishers should have proportionally shorter necks. This appears to parallel the fossil record, where known estuarine or freshwater species have shorter necks than do marine animals.
As an aside, I get the impression that Mesozoic fish had thick scales compared to those of today. While this may be erroneous, it is possible the Plesiosaurid electrofishing caused adaptive pressure on Mesozoic fish to favor thicker scales than we find today.
Why are there so few electrofishing modern animals? I would suggest that the answer is aerobic capacity. Electric eels reportedly get 80% of their oxygen from the surface. They are air-breathers, more than some amphibians, but torpedo rays (the other electrofishers) are not. While I’m not aware of any physiological studies, large electrical organs have to be metabolically expensive, and being air-breathing does make it easier to power them However, electric eels are stuck morphologically, because they have to cram their all their organs into a shape optimized for electrogenesis, and they have heavily vascularized oral cavities rather than true lungs. Air-breathing reptiles are not so constrained. Better still, their electrical array is physically separated in their necks, away from their heart, lungs, and swimming fins, allowing each system to work separately with fewer morphological constraints. As a result, they could grow much larger than electric eels or any modern electric animal. As for how Plesiosaurids avoided electrocuting themselves with their own voltage, all I can say is that electric eels somehow get away with it, so presumably it’s quite possible. Some electrolocating fish have encephalization quotients close to those of humans, so it’s unlikely that electrogenesis would be a problem for Plesiosaurid nervous systems.
This is a normal outgrowth of electrofishing, although current characteristics probably differ. Indeed, more modern electrogenic animals use these organs for defense than for food gathering. This is the classic electric eel defense, and I suspect that any electrofishing animal could effectively defend its neck from larger predators. A pliosaur attempting to bite down on an electrogenic elasmosaur would be in for a nasty shock. I’ve attempted to illustrate that below, with my cartoon of what might happen when a Pliosaur attacks an Elasmosaurus.
Of course this is all speculative, soft-organ paleontology. I haven’t been able to locate a picture of an electric eel skeleton, so I have no idea how electric organs affect bone shape, or whether it’s possible to determine the presence of an electric organ from any skeleton. Some Plesiosaurid neck vertebrae are described as “odd and asymmetric”, but I have no idea whether this could be due to the presence of an electric organ or anything else.
Still, the strength of this hypothesis is that it presents a good explanation of why both Plesiosaurids and Tanystropheids have long, weak, inflexible necks, and it also accounts for how such an animal could be an efficient aquatic or benthic hunter. As such, it is certainly no worse than the idea that they are stealthy hunters, with their bodies hidden by their long necks so that they appear smaller. In fact, it makes them seem rather formidable. Electric sea dragons, anyone?
Bakker, Robert. 1986. The Dinosaur Heresies. Zebra Press.
Fraser, Nicholas. 2006. Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic. Indiana University Press.