Friday, September 02, 2005

imho The Great New Orleans Flood, global warming, blah blah


Now for a rambling disquisition on this, that, these, and those.

This tragic levee break and flood in New Orleans, and all the flooding and other hurricane damage in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. They're "used to" hurricanes, obviously, but this was clearly "The Big One" they've been fearing. Bigger than Camille in 1969.

And for New Orleans, the big one they've been abstractly bracing themselves for for years and years. And now it's just a real nightmare. Essentially, the totalling of a major American city, on a par with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake/fire and the 1871 Chicago fire. Pretty much an entire large city has been rendered uninhabitable in a sudden natural catastrophe. Such are the perils of living below sea level.

There's no question whether we/they'll drain, mop up, and rebuild New Orleans. Of course, we/they will. Any human settlement that's positioned so centrally on a maritime crossroads--or any crossroads--will get built and rebuilt and rebuilt again, new shiny layer upon old shattered layer, and so on and so forth. Hasn't archaeology demonstrated that central fact of human existence conclusively. Floods, earthquakes, fires, wars, etc.--the smashed crockery of human habitations will fairly quickly be swept away and new crockery set on new shelves. The "New New Orleans" will look a bit different from the old--it may lose some of the funky charm of the ancient (for North America) Cajun/Creole Big Easy. But it will be built back.

Which brings me to a semi-related thought. This flood was obviously due to a transient weather phenomenon: a powerful hurricane that swept up from the Gulf of Mexico. What's not-so-transient is the gradual warming of the earth's climate, and an increased frequency and ferocity of hurricanes and other storms may be the inevitable consequence of that long-term trend.

As we know, another consequence of global warming is the melting of the glaciers--north and south. Which leads to rising of sea level--everywhere. People who live at or below sea level will start to realize that their days in their current digs are numbered, most likely, unless they figure out how to rebuilt their cities on telescoping stilts or whatever. A sort of Jetsons scenario. Try to stay elevated above the rising seas. Glub glub.

A while back, I did a quick mental survey of the earth's coastlines, trying to figure out what currently-at/below-sea-level areas will be rendered uninhabitable by global warming, glacier melt, and glub glub. Off the top of my head, I listed: New Orleans and southern Louisiana, the Netherlands, Israel/Palestine, Bangladesh, and Micronesia. Oh, and of course, New York City; Venice, Italy; Jakarta, Indonesia; and other low-lying coastal cities. Or they're going to have to build new floodwalls or radically raise/strengthen existing levees/dikes/etc to keep out the ocean.

If you think of it, the contours of coastlines have always defined the geographic context for civilization. Think of the Bering land bridge, long gone vestige of the previous ice age, and how it temporarily provided a conduit for settlement of the western hemisphere. Think of the end of the last ice age, and how the rising of the seas inundated the Black Sea, causing the diaspora of Indo-European peoples (whose ancestors probably hailed from the prior shores of that sea) across Eurasia. Think of how humanity appears to have emigrated from Africa first along the coast of the Indian Ocean, in boats and/or on foot, and settled Australia (yes...archaelogical and DNA evidence indicate that the native Australians were among the first out-of-Africa emigrants, 40,000 years ago, and they undoubtedly got there via coast-hugging boat).

My feeling is that we must recognize the pivotal role of sea-level change in the shaping of civilization. Every human society's civilization. Essentially, the best way to remind ourselves of that role is to date all years from the putative recession of the previous ice age glaciation, hence the latest (in historic time) rise in sea levels everywhere.

Scientists have determined that the last ice age ended around 10,000-12,000 years ago. Let's, for the sake of convenience, peg that ice-age end at 12,000 years ago. If we do, then renumbering the years is as simple as prepending a "1" to the front of each year.

So, today, in PG (post-glacier) time, it's 2 September, 12005.

Remember. We're in post-glacier time. Keeps everything in perspective. Post-glacier time may also be, and probably is, pre-glacier time.

It's also post-flood time. And pre-flood time.

Depending on which end of the linked-disaster scenario you focus on.