This Is The End

Trips to the ends of the world. Travel memoirs, excerpts and bread-crumbs from some apocalyptic research.

A Speech to the Graduates: New Mysteries

Norman O. Brown in Santa Cruz

In 1960, classics professor Norman O. ‘Nobby’ Brown addressed the graduating class of Columbia University in a speech titled ‘Apocalypse: The Place of Mystery in the Life of the Mind':

“I didn’t know whether I should appear before you. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent…. It is because I think mind is at the end of its tether that I would be silent. It is because I think there is a way out — a way down and out … that I will speak.”

“It is possible to be mad and to be unblest, but it is not possible to get the blessing without the madness; it is not possible to get the illuminations without the derangement.”

“And so there comes a time–I believe we are in such a time, when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, the power which makes all things new.”

“Our real choice is between holy and unholy madness. Open your eyes and look around you– madness is in the saddle anyhow.”

“It is High Time to Warn People”: Igor Semiletov and the Methane Time-Bomb (Feedback, Part 2)

Arrhenius’ ideas about feedback effects— mentioned in the March 23 post— were generally ignored, since he wasn’t predicting calamity and he’d made some mistakes. But the substance of his work was dismissed mainly because the idea of humanity affecting the Great Cycles of Nature was out of the question.

It's not about the glove, it's about the bubbles.

In 1896 global population was 1 billion people, and despite the sooty air in coal-burning cities like London, global emissions were relatively low. No cars, no CFCs, far less deforestation. Urban dwellers were still a minority, and most people lived in conditions similar to those of the 14th century. It was a tough sell asking a scientist like Arrhenius to believe that human-caused pollution could, within a century, screw up the biosphere.

What Arrhenius didn’t have data on were the wild cards.  Two such factors are embedded carbon dioxide and methane – greenhouse gases locked by ice into glaciers, the sea-floor, Arctic permafrost and undersea shelves.

As glaciers retreat, and sea-ice disappears—and permafrost melts— both of these gases enter the atmosphere. This in turn raises temperature, which in turn melts permafrost and glaciers more quickly. This is not your parents’ feedback, not Jimi on a Marshall amp. This is bad feedback. An Earth-size headache.

This may be Mr. Semiletov. Click for source.

The amount of carbon dioxide trapped in the world’s thawing tundra and northern taiga landscapes is estimated at 1.5 trillion tons, more than twice what is currently in the atmosphere. As for methane, it’s a greenhouse gas 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping solar heat in the short term (over a twenty-year period it’s 72 times as potent).

Igor Semiletov and Natalia Shakhova, two Russian scientists with the International Arctic Research Center, have studied the increasing release of methane from a submerged land mass known as the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). As temperatures rise in the Arctic and sea-ice disappears, the global warming picture is quickly changing.

“The amount of methane currently coming out of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is comparable to the amount coming out of the entire world’s oceans,” said Shakhova in a National Science Foundation (NSF) press release. “Subsea permafrost is losing its ability to be an impermeable cap.” The amount of methane stored in the shelf is estimated at 2,000 gigatons, equal to 250 years of carbon emissions at our current industrial levels of output.

If just one percent of ESAS methane escapes its crystal prison, Semiletov suggested at a geophysical conference in 2008, it might push total methane to 6 parts per million. Some researchers consider this is a tipping point towards ‘runaway climate change.’ If that term doesn’t summon up an image, you can take NASA scientist James Hansen’s suggestion of an “ice-free state” where the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt entirely, raising global sea level by over 200 feet.

“It is high time to warn people,” Semiletov told the conference attendees, but then took a pause, and offered an apologetic smile before adding: “We can do nothing about it, of course.”

Courtesy the NSF. Click for article.

The usually staid NSF recently backed up Semiletov in a press release. “Permafrost under the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, long thought to be an impermeable barrier sealing in methane, is perforated and is starting to leak large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”

This idea of a methane “time bomb” is the global warming equivalent of Dr. Strangelove’s Doomsday Machine, that apotheosis of Mutual Assured Destruction that once initiated, can’t be turned off. Even Kennedy and Khrushchev could come to detente during the Cuban Missile Crisis and agree to take their fingers off their red buttons. But you can’t reason with a frozen gas bubble.

Svante Arrhenius, Godfather of Global Warming (Feedback, Part 1)

Svante Arrhenius, first to posit the possibility of anthropogenic global warming.

The idea that burning fossil fuels could alter climate was first proposed in 1896 by a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius, who was trying to figure out what caused ice ages. The vague term ‘scientist’ (so beloved in climate-denial PR) is appropriate since Arrhenius was interested in chemistry, geology and astrophysics, among other things. Arrhenius spent months distracting himself from a painful divorce by penciling reams of climatological calculations.

Most were inaccurate, but Arrhenius, like a few other scientists of the time, was aware of some enduring facts. One is that water vapor is the main “greenhouse gas” that absorbs heat in the atmosphere and keeps most of the Earth’s landmasses warm enough to grow tomatoes, at least in the summer.

When Arrhenius puzzled over how the Earth’s climate had changed so violently in certain areas— from existing as sub-tropical habitat for dinosaurs to lying beneath mile-thick sheets of glacial ice— he hit on the idea of “positive feedback” effects in climate.

A positive feedback is where a trend spirals upwards and fuels its own escalation. Considering volcanic eruptions— like those I’ll try to bring up in a future post, from Toba to Vesuvius to Tambora— Arrhenius theorized that increased eruptions might raise atmospheric CO2 levels. As it turns out, by releasing sulfur dioxide and reflective ash, volcanoes do more to cool climate than heat it, but his theory of feedbacks was generally sound.

Carbon dioxide absorbs heat. Warmer air heated by increased CO2 then holds more water vapor, which in turn further raises temperature, which in turn allow more moisture and carbon into the air.

Arrhenius calculated that if the amount of CO2 in the air reduced by half, perhaps by a long spell of no volcanic activity, the atmosphere could cool enough to trigger feedbacks leading to an ice age. Doubling atmospheric carbon might raise temperature by the same few degrees, and also lead to feedbacks.

Then he took it a step further, equating human burning of fossil fuels with volcanic activity. Using emissions measurements of coal-fired plants and industries gathered by another scientist, he theorized that human burning of fossil fuels could affect the climate— but surely only over thousands of years.

Rising from the Rubble

The man. Havel spent several years in Czechoslovakian prisons for protesting totalitarian rule. Click for his site.

“I think there are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.”

– Playwright, dissident and former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel, accepting the Philadelphia Liberty Medal in a 1994 speech

Extinction Events, Then and Now

Dying Gulf of Mexico brown pelican in a slurry of oil. Queen Bess Island Pelican Rookery, June 5, 2010 (click for source)

In a 1998 Harris poll of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, nearly 70% of biologists agreed that we are currently undergoing “a mass extinction event,” and that nearly all the losses can be attributed to human activity.

Our current era, the Holocene, has been such a disaster for plants and animals it’s been nicknamed The Sixth Extinction. About fifty species disappear every day. At current rates, in the 65 years from 1980 to 2045, humans will have presided over the extinction of more species than have disappeared in the past 65 million years.

In other words, we’re responsible for the greatest species extinction since the dinosaurs.

These facts appear to have little to do with myth, the shifty terrain of the human soul, or our spiritual beliefs. I suspect they do, somehow, which is what this journey into apocalypse is all about. Is there some connection we’re not seeing, a meaning or approach at meaning that we haven’t yet entered into? A holistic ecology means seeing the interrelationship between the inner world and the outer world– but first we have to admit the inner world exists.

An "impact event" imagined by NASA.

In this vein, it’s notable that when the Christian mythos of apocalypse began to wane in the 1700s, the archetype of Doomsday didn’t peter out: it evolved. The End shifted from an event predicted by scripture to one based on natural science and human technology. Meteor strikes, supervolcanoes, passing comets, epidemics or, most recently and most convincingly, the atomic bomb. Global warming is the latest in a long line of natural apocalypses.

Ecological devastation, climate change, and species extinction are more recent versions of the archetype. Climate change doesn’t mean the end of the world–by which we usually mean the end of us, not the Earth– unless you’re a screenwriter. But like toxic pollution, it is already resulting in the end of the world as we know it.

Trinity in the Afternoon

Trinity site is located on the White Sands Missile Range. It’s open to the public only twice a year, on the first Saturdays in April and October.


The way to Ground Zero. More about this later.

The Beginning of The End

There’s an apocryphal story from the mid-19th century in which an end-times Christian barrels his horse past Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Reverend Theodore Parker– the two friends out for an afternoon walk– on a road outside Concord, Massachusetts. The man, part of a regional sect called the Millerites, pulls his horse up short long enough to pass the news to the two squires: the Second Coming was nigh, and praise God the world was to end that very day.

As legend has it, Emerson gave a good-luck wave and called back, “The end of the world does not affect me; I can get along without it.”

“It does not concern me,” added Parker, “for I live in Boston.”

Redstone Missile, at the Atomic Museum in Albuquerque

Redstone Missile, the Atomic Museum, Albuquerque NM

There was a time when apocalypse was relevant only to Christian fundamentalists— they were, it seemed, the only ones who couldn’t do without it.  But the mythos of The End is woven into Western culture. It’s hard to escape, and not only for people raised on the Bible. The flood story of Atra-Hasis (or Deucalion, or Noah) and the Revelation of John then; nuclear holocaust and sea-level rise now. A wily archetype, apocalypse long ago made the leap from the scriptural to the literal.

Climate change was cited by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists as one reason— nuclear war and “emergent technologies” such as genetic engineering and nanotech being the other two—the Doomsday Clock was moved back up in 2007 to five minutes to midnight. (It’s now at six minutes, thanks in part to President Obama’s somewhat less-hawkish foreign policy.)

Michael Ortiz Hill, author of the book Dreaming the End of the World, has suggested that apocalypse is a sort of Western ritual, filling an unconscious psychic need. I think he’s on to something. To suggest there is a mythic element to our apocalyptic fears is not to suggest they are unreal, because reality is mythic. And apocalyptic. If that seems to overstate it, what else do you call a world with a timeline like this?

This is the tricky thing about The End: it’s at once a myth and a reality. As a reality, it’s crushing. As a myth, it has something to tell us about reality, and possibly about how to cope with it, how to come to terms with overwhelming forces. If (to steal a phrase from 20th-century theology) we take it seriously rather than literally, we may discover meaning in the mythos of apocalypse— something to help us understand where we are in history, and what we need to do to restore a world that seems perpetually on the brink.