Rising sea levels and apocalyptic fiction

Photo of Kulusuk, Greenland by Nick Russill, flickr/cc https://www.flickr.com/photos/nickrussill/146760303/

I’d always thought my song about the mountain dwellers ending up on waterfront row because of rising sea levels was not to be taken too seriously. It was an apocalyptic view of what might happen if it didn’t stop raining and, moreover, not a terribly original idea as it turned out. But the risk of flash flooding from above-average rainfall is only half the problem for people living down there, at sea level.

A loyal reader, visiting the coast from cooler climes down south was discussing his theories about rising sea levels and coastal tourist locations like Noosa, given news of the Arctic region’s third winter heat wave in a row. His attention had been drawn to Greenland, where temperatures have remained above freezing at a time of year when it should be at least 30 below. Clearly such weather extremes in the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic region must accelerate the process of rising sea levels?

As The Independent reports, this is happening even though large parts of the Arctic Circle are trapped in perpetual darkness.

New global projections forecast a sea level rise of 2m by 2100, compared to a 0.74m rise in a 2013 study. So far, the forecasts that oceans would rise on average by 3mm a year has provoked a scornful debate between believers and climate sceptics. Yes, the science is not wholly believed. There are people in high places who have made naïve and disturbing statement such as “coal is good for humanity”, at a time when most scientists agree that CO2 emissions, produced largely from human activity, must be reduced.

The spectre of melting polar ice bringing an apocalyptic end to civilisation as we know it has been a favourite theme of science fiction writers for a long time. Now there is even a fiction sub-genre known as ‘cli-fi’ which has spawned many cataclysmic climate scenarios.

The spookiest forecast, before cli-fi was a thing, was The Drowned World, J.G Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962. Ballard’s main character is a scientist in charge of a floating research station, drifting above a submerged London, beset on all sides by encroaching tropical jungle. A 50th anniversary edition (with an introduction by Martin Amis) has been released and it is available as an ebook. I’ve not read it, though, relying on Peter Briggs’ review for the synopsis.

Ballard eerily conjured up a world where polar ice caps have melted and solar storms have left us in an irradiated world. Europe is a series of lagoons, devoid of human life, although the tropical bugs love it!

The most recent book in the cli-fi genre which I have read is The Ice by Laline Paull. Her 2017 mystery novel begins with wealthy tourists aboard the Vanir, traversing previously frozen Arctic oceans. The mission is to find a (now rare) polar bear, but instead they find the thawed body of an explorer who went missing years ago in mysterious circumstances.

Fiction aside, the alarming temperature rises in the frozen north have had a bizarre impact on Europe, the US and Canada in 2018, which at this time of year ought to be seeing the first thaws of spring. A day temperature of 1 degree celsius in Greenland might not seem too warm to us Aussies, but typically the days are often up to 30 degrees colder. And this is not confined to Greenland. The most northern US city (Utqiaguik, Alaska), has also been enjoying a balmy 1 degree celsius − again that’s 22 degrees above average.

Meanwhile,The Independent observed that a relatively high pressure system over Russia and the Nordic north and a relatively low pressure system across the UK resulted in freezing Artic air being drawn towards the UK and causing exceptionally cold weather there.

The chorus of Waterfront Row ponders: “Little did I think when I moved to the mountains, I’d end up on Waterfront Row, renting out my shed to all those who fled the torrents and the foment down below.”

Imagine my chagrin upon writing and recording this song to be told (by a country music fan), that the song was similar (in theme) to Graeme Connors’ A Beach House in the Blue Mountains. I had not heard of the song but googled it (as you do).

We’re not the only ones taking ‘cli-fi’ into the realms of songwriting. Sunshine Coast songwriter Noel Gardner made up this cheery tune about the low-lying island nation of Tuvalu. He takes the role of the climate sceptic to satirise the controversy about Tuvalu and rising sea levels.

Some years back, the tiny Pacific island nation was said to be so prone to inundation its citizens might have to become New Zealanders. As it happens, some 2,400 Tuvaluans have already moved to NZ or neighbouring islands, according to a not-for-profit group that monitors world poverty.

They may have moved too soon, if, as the article below says, Pacific atolls like Tuvalu actually grow and float, becoming impervious to rising tides.

Now, a study confirms what we’ve already known – atolls, and in particular Tuvalu are growing, and increasing land area, writes Anthony Briggs. “So much for climate alarmism”.

Nevertheless, the highest elevation on Tuvalu is 15 feet and it is perpetually exposed to rising sea levels, cyclones and tsunamis.

An article in The Conversation says previous studies examining the risk of coastal inundation in the Pacific region have been conducted in areas where the rate of sea level rise is ‘average’ – 3mm to 5mm per year. A team of authors, led by The University of Queensland Senior Research Fellow Simon Albert unearthed outlying examples.

At least five reef islands in the remote Solomon Islands, where sea level rises are in the order of 7mm-10mm a year, have been lost completely to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. A further six islands have been severely eroded. These islands range in size from one to five hectares and supported dense tropical vegetation that was at least 300 years old.

Last year, new projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the US revealed that global sea levels could rise by 2 metres by 2100 if emissions remain at their current levels. As the ABC reported, this is substantially higher than the 74cm increase proposed in a 2013 Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. Under these new projections, Sydney’s Circular Quay, Brisbane Airport, Melbourne’s Docklands and North Fremantle would be among locations at risk. So too Stradbroke Island, the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, while in South Australia the seaside suburb of Glenelg would also be in trouble.

Scarier predictions have been made, with scientists taking into account the prospect of Antarctica melting, as well as the Arctic, doubling predictions of a 2m rise by 2100.

Should we care? By 2100, the youngest person I know will be 89, so maybe she will care. Her children and grandchildren definitely will.

And what does this mean for Australia, where the majority of the population live along narrow bands of coastal land on the east and west coasts?

You can scare yourself (or reassure yourself) by checking out this interactive website which allows you to see the predicted results of sea level rises wherever you happen to live.

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Overdue letter to Ma

MumDad25th 01

Hey Ma, I’ve been meaning to write this letter for such a long time – like, 50 years or more. Excuse the casual introduction but that’s the way people address their elders in the 21st century. You’d be amazed at the technology today. We email, skype (video phone calls) and tweet (too hard to explain), using hand-held telephones which can take photos, home movies and, oh, make phone calls. You can be constantly in touch with family and friend on social media, firing off messages and photos through the ether.

You’d marvel (and I suspect not totally approve) of my putting your photo on the Internet where millions of people can check you out, if they have a mind. Life now is so different for teenagers. In your courting days, Dad had to ask permission of your father to take you out and have you back at the front gate by 10pm. You communicated with hand-written notes and secret glances across the high street or at the dance hall. Today, girls as young as 12 and 13 are allowed to have boyfriends and ‘sleep overs’ with their girlfriends and who knows what goes on when their hand-held computers are passed around.

You may already know this if there’s some kind of Wikipedia (online encyclopaedia) in Heaven. You believed in the Hereafter, which was probably a good thing, given that you had only 48 years on the planet, including 11 years in your adopted homeland, New Zealand. Women with breast cancer in the 1960s were often diagnosed late and treatment was limited to a mastectomy and radiation therapy. Then your doctor signed you up for new, experimental drug treatment.

“It may not help me, but if it helps some other puir soul in the future that’ll be a fine thing,” you said, faith grounded in the Scottish Methodist church.

It is true that the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1960s was one in 20, and is now one in eight. However, this is mainly due to more people living longer – into the age bracket where they are more likely to get breast cancer. In the 1960s, the life expectancy of a female was 73. Since then, life expectancy has improved to 84 and a great many women live into their 90s and beyond, mainly due to the vast improvement in diagnostic techniques for cancer and all manner of illnesses, great advances in heart surgery, vaccines and treatment for the sort of chronic ailments that put people in a pine box in the 1960s.

The ability to detect cancer early has greatly improved. These days, most women in the target age range have routine two-yearly breast scans (mammograms) which can find otherwise undetectable tiny tumours. And treatment with less invasive surgery, more effective drugs (chemotherapy) and/or radiation can then ensue.

As a result, of early detection and improved treatment, the survival rate has greatly improved since you were afflicted. The five-year survival in 1965-1969 was just 64%, according to the Cancer Journal for Clinicians. So if you’d been diagnosed late, your chances were slim. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says the five-year survival rate now is 89.4%.

Ma, at 67, I have a suspicion of blokes my age who talk too much about their mothers, living or dead. But I have sort of kept you alive in a sense, writing a couple of songs based on your observations and impressions and my memories of the new country. Lucky I kept a few of your old letters and notes of the six-week journey on the Rangitiki in 1955.

When children are left motherless, nothing fills the void and a step-mother, if there is one, is just a (hopefully nice) woman who loves your father. In the 1960s, teenage boys were not encouraged to grieve – we didn’t know how. We became blokes, drinking beer and listening to rock music, getting obsessed with the All Blacks and (trying) to chase girls. As life went on, it should have been obvious that crude sublimation was never going to help a sensitive lad who lost his mother at 17. That major life trauma shaped chapters of my 20s and 30s and got buried beneath the rest of the baggage until it came time to unpack and let go.

Yes, I should have persevered with the piano, as you insisted, because as you said, it could have earned me a living of sorts. Instead, I managed to harness this other gift for words. I came to music later in life − a self-taught musical dunce by the Conservatorium standards. Nevertheless, I’m told the words and music fit together fairly well.

And you missed my weddings, Mum. I married young, spent 12 or 15 years working, travelling, being a drunk, and getting sober. I met a great woman, well, actually I met two. The first one when we were both much younger. If you’d been around you might have persuaded us that 18 and 21 was a bit young. We sort of outgrew each other, but we both got re-married and went on with our lives. Now, this other great woman, she’s been in my life for 34 years. You’d be pleased with my choice, although she’d tell you the choice was all hers! (Who chased who? Ed.)

And then there’s this great extended family, in Australia where we live and back home in Aotearoa. In your last year there were just the seven of us and three wee bairns. Today in Australia, New Zealand and Canada the whanau, as the Maoris call it, number 42, all loyal, loving people, including your 6ft 5in grandson.

We keep in touch with your sister’s daughter in Scotland and another cousin in England. I went to visit your surviving sister in England a few years ago – she’s in her mid-90s and still living in her own flat.

When I saw this tiny white haired-woman come to the door it gave me a pang. When we lose mothers young, we forget what they looked like, but to me, she looked as if you might have done had you been alive today.

I gave her one of our CDs (the modern version of an LP), one of four albums, most of them songs I wrote. Your sister said: “You got that from Winnie, you know. She could play anything on the piano, your Mum. She didn’t need the music – if she knew it, she could play it.”

Well that does sound familiar. I have fond memories of listening to you practice the organ at the wee wooden Methodist church. I’d call in after school and try out the latest Beatles song, picking out the melody with one hand.

I knew there was a reason I loved all those great Hammond organ songs of 1967 – Whiter Shade of Pale, I’m a Man, Light My Fire. It was hardly Trust and Obey, but the music helped me through a difficult year.

So this is me, belatedly toasting my absent mother, and the countless other mothers whose leaving left their children bewildered and lost.

Yours aye,

Bob Jnr