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New York Under Water, pt 3: Global Warming in Science Fiction

This is part 3 of a 3-part series on the sea level changes we will likely need to deal with in the future, and what science fiction has to say about the matter. Earlier posts are here: Part 1, Part 2.

“May You Live in Interesting Times”

What will people do when the sea rises as much as 6″ a year, and in a few years washes away their beachfront homes, and floods the streets of their coastal towns and cities? What will businesses do, when in a relative handful of years, the properties they own and have developed become worthless structures below sea level on a new flood plain? It’s certain they won’t have buyers for those properties, and they can forget flood insurance, once the inevitability of the sea’s encroachment becomes evident to all.

How will society and government respond when the public discourse switches from, “it’s not going to happen anytime soon, if it happens at all,” to, “Oh my God, we’re losing our homes, businesses, and the urban area where our friends, family, and resources are.” It is a scenario that reminds one of Katrina, on a global scale: not as abrupt, but every bit as long-term devastating as the waters that swallowed vital parts of New Orleans.

Maybe the Katrina experience holds some vital lessons for us, some clues about what not to do, and how best to navigate a future where the earth has changed around us. We will certainly need some role models and inspiring visions for the eventuality of dealing with significant sea level changes. Right now real-life examples are few, and it is here, perhaps, that science fiction can be helpful. Stories let us test drive scenarios, explore responses in an imaginary realm before we need to work them out in the material world we live in. What does science fiction have to say about sea level changes?

I think it’s precisely the job of science fiction to ask these “what if” questions, and to help us look at uncomfortable scenarios of this sort from the safe remove of a fictional distance. While some state and urban agencies are already doing contingency planning for a climate-changed future, these issues have barely begun to surface in the public consciousness. Science fiction allows us to think them through in advance, see how they might play out, and gives us a role-playing jumpstart on possible reactions and responses to disaster.

So far there is not a large quantity of climate-change related sf on the market. I predict there will be a significant jump in this genre of science fiction over the coming decade, as we see more earth changes that cannot be ignored. Right now, there is what I think of as the “pebbles before the avalanche” of this kind of future exploration. They seem to fall into two camps: one is directly climate change related, the other is catastrophic climate change on the heels of an unimaginable and sudden earth-scale disaster. Some things in this vein that have left an impression on me:

Lucifer’s Hammer. This 1985 classic by Niven and Pournelle takes as its jumping off point the scenario of the earth being impacted by a comet. It causes quakes orders of magnitude off the Richter scale, creates globe-flooding upheaval in the oceans, forces abrupt temperature shifts (in this case, global cooling) and climate change. This is on a scale with events posited in prehistoric times that might account for dinosaur die-offs and so on. The bulk of the story is about survival and rebuilding civilization after such a literally earth-shaking event. The science and the descriptive fiction about the sudden climate change is riveting. Though perhaps not directly relevant to real futures we may face in the coming decades, it touches on global change.  Its speculation on massive public response to disaster is interesting food for thought.

Forty Signs of Rain. This 2005 book by Kim Stanley Robinson deals directly with global warming, and the consequences thereof. It portrays an all-too-realistic scenario of scientists and engaged civil servants battling endless bureaucracy and political in-fighting that stifles any effective response to rising sea levels and altered storm and weather patterns.

If you check out the flood map link and play with it a bit, you’ll see that a 2-meter sea level increase imperils portions of Washington, D.C, and a higher rise overtly floods areas of the city. Even at the modest 2-meter level, during threatening weather a storm surge could make parts of the city unusable and uninhabitable, just as New Orleans succumbed to Katrina. How will our government function if our seat of government is destroyed or incapacitated by natural forces? Without adequate planning and response, the damage done even by something predictable like flooding is out of all proportion to the actual event. Again, witness New Orleans’ unhappy experience. Robinson describes such an event on the heels of rains and a record storm surge, atop already elevated oeans:

Constitution Avenue looked like the Grand Canal in Venice. Beyond it the Mall was like a rainbeaten lake. Water sheeted equally over streets,m sidewalks and lawns. Charlie recalled teh shock he had felt many years before, leaving the Venice train station and seeing the canal right there outside the door. A city floored with water. Here it was quite shallow, of course. But the front steps of all the buildings came down into an expanse of brown water, and the water was all at one level, as with any other lake or sea. Brown-blue, blue-brown, brown-gray, brown, gray, dirty white – drab urban tints all. The rain pocked it into an infinity of rings and bounding droplets, and gusts of wind tore cats’ paws across it. (Forty Signs of Rain, p361)

submerged New York AI 2001 240x178 custom New York Under Water, pt 3:  Global Warming in Science FictionA.I. – Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg’s provocative and moving science fiction film from 2001, considers a similar scenario. Global warming is a given and its effects are present as part of the backdrop of the movie. Here, the flooded city scenario moves to New York, where the stark image of the drowned Statue of Liberty, only her hand and torch above the waves, tells the sad tale of the submergence of that metropolis. (I consider this one of the top 10 sf movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out. It is something of a Pinnochio story, although with a sad, maybe bittersweet ending instead of a happy one.)

Other sf works include global warming as part of the backdrop in notable ways. In Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather, the focus is on monster storms and tornados born of a runaway greenhouse environment. In the background of the movie Blade Runner, the constant rain is because of climate change, though I don’t recall how this is treated in Philip K. Dick’s original book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent trilogy about the colonization of Mars (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars), the people of an overpopulated Earth struggle to adjust to the consequences of global warming run amuk, including sea level rises, elevated temperatures, food shortages, and more. The references to this are brief, but compelling glimpses into a possible future – one I hope we can use our real-world knowledge to mitigate.


Do you know of other science fiction dealing with the consequences of global warming, or related aspects of climate change? Please share your reading or media suggestions in the comments.

Reader Feedback

12 Responses to “New York Under Water, pt 3: Global Warming in Science Fiction”

  • TJM says:

    Interesting that you mention Lucifer’s Hammer. Another climate-change-related book by Niven & Pournelle is “Fallen Angels,” though for completely different reasons. In FA, them crazy anti-science enviro-nutbars have succeeded in stopping fossil fuel burning (you know, with the awesome political power that environmentalists wield.) But it turns out burning those fossil fuels was all that was stopping the next ice age! Now science fiction is outlawed, the hordes of ignorant non-SF-readers are called “mundanes” and occupy the ‘Danelaw. And our stalwart heroes are astronauts from the last redoubt of science, the orbital L5 colony, who have crashed on the glaciers of Texas or whatever and have to make their way to safety. All in all, it’s a smug, self-absorbed and (hopefully, by now) utterly embarrassing piece of skeptic propaganda.

    • Collin says:

      I think "Fallen Angels" is a spoof. See the movie "Quintet" with Paul Newman (1979). Some scientists in the mid-seventies believed that all that was holding the current ice age at bay was industrial waste heat and heat producing pollutants. Awesome movie too!

  • Teramis says:

    Interesting. I completely missed that one.

  • Alex Marshall says:

    Thanks for your timely warnings. To me, the big wild-card is what will happen to the weather as a result of long-term warming. Your articles, and the flood maps, imply that sea-level rise will happen smoothly over time. That’s a lot less scary than the possibility of a massive disruption (which I think cd happen quite quickly — in a decade or two rather than a century or two) of the equatorial turbine that drives global weather systems. If the great weather-making flows of oceanic water change course or disappear, what happens to the 40 per cent of us who live at or close to sea-level, not to mention the other 4 bllion?

  • Teramis says:

    Good question, Alex. We’re clearly not prepared for catastrophic change, much less more gradual change, and the collective science conversation and public consciousness is not yet grappling with these more extreme scenarios.

    I crossposted the first of the New York Under Water series to Opensalon.com, and this comment from that post might be of interest:

    **
    I am an oceanographer who works in the arctic. I have seen first hand (as well as collect the data) what climate change is bringing to not only the arctic but the planet. It is real, it is here. Permafrost is melting, the air is warmer, the sea ice freezes later in the year and melts earlier in the year. As the permafrost melts, more methane and CO2 are released creating a positive feedback loop which exacerbates the situation. We are seeing glaciers melting at ever increasing rates be they along the coast, Greenland, Antartica, the Alps, etc. Sea levels will rise as the scientist featured here correctly states. But here is the kicker. With all the melting going on, there is a huge lens of fresh water being introduced to the surface of the ocean – particularly in the GINSEA – the Greenland Icelandic Norwegian Sea. This is where the Gulf Stream travels to, releasing its heat and helps to moderate Europe’s climate. This is also where the deep waters that comprise the North Atlantic Deep Water form. After giving up its heat, the water is cold and salty – very dense. It sinks. The NADW then flows back south (at some 1500 meters or so) and starts the great “Conveyor Belt”. This conveyor belt is a majorheat distribution mechanism for the planet. By introducing all this fresh water (which is less dense), the NADW cannot form; the water will not sink. In essence, the conveyor belt gets shut down. This can occur within a matter of decades. Researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of Toronto have already measured a slowdown in deep water formation. The end result if the conveyor belt shuts down…the planet goes into an ice age. So, humans are really messing with a very delicate system which will only result in very dire consequences for our civilization.

    posted by jimm2.7182

    **
    Things that make you go, ‘hmmm…’

  • Chuck says:

    There is a book called Blind Waves by Steven Gould that dealt with climate change as part of its premise. Coatal cities are all underwater, a massive population shift is underway, etc. It’s been a long time since I read it so I don’t remember all the details of the plot but I found a nice synopsis page here:

    http://www.rambles.net/gould_waves.html

  • Teramis says:

    Thanks, Chuck. That sounds like an interesting exploration of the problems I’ve been talking about in this series of posts.

  • Collin says:

    Teramis, I cannot recommend more highly the 1979 film "Quintet". In that dark future people are becoming extinct as the next ice age crowds them out. Paul's character is in a tiny enclave in it's last years of habitability. The movie holds up quite well 30 years later, and the science of climatology was in some agreement with the premise. I remember hearing on the news 35 years that we were believed by many scientists to be in an ice age that was in fact held off by our industry and pollution. How far has science turned! haha And you'll LOVE the movie, I swear…

  • Teramis says:

    I've always loved post-apocalyptic movies. The issue of how remnants of humanity face a primal survival challenge is (morbidly) fascinating. Quintet sounds interesting for that reason as well as the climate change related ones. Thanks for the tip: that one was completely off my radar as well, though I was probably living in Berlin at the time it came out, so that would be why. I notice it is available at Netflix and in used outlets. I'll be checking that out.

    Apropos the warming versus Ice Age issue, we could be in for both. This interesting comment from an oceanographer was posted to this New York Under Water post at Open Salon. His comments follow:

    I am an oceanographer who works in the arctic. I have seen first hand (as well as collect the data) what climate change is bringing to not only the arctic but the planet. It is real, it is here. Permafrost is melting, the air is warmer, the sea ice freezes later in the year and melts earlier in the year. As the permafrost melts, more methane and CO2 are released creating a positive feedback loop which exacerbates the situation. We are seeing glaciers melting at ever increasing rates be they along the coast, Greenland, Antartica, the Alps, etc. Sea levels will rise as the scientist featured here correctly states. But here is the kicker. With all the melting going on, there is a huge lens of fresh water being introduced to the surface of the ocean – particularly in the GINSEA – the Greenland Icelandic Norwegian Sea. This is where the Gulf Stream travels to, releasing its heat and helps to moderate Europe's climate. This is also where the deep waters that comprise the North Atlantic Deep Water form. After giving up its heat, the water is cold and salty – very dense. It sinks. The NADW then flows back south (at some 1500 meters or so) and starts the great "Conveyor Belt". This conveyor belt is a majorheat distribution mechanism for the planet. By introducing all this fresh water (which is less dense), the NADW cannot form; the water will not sink. In essence, the conveyor belt gets shut down. This can occur within a matter of decades. Researchers at Dalhousie University and the University of Toronto have already measured a slowdown in deep water formation. The end result if the conveyor belt shuts down…the planet goes into an ice age. So, humans are really messing with a very delicate system which will only result in very dire consequences for our civilization.

    jimm2.7182
    November 10, 2009

    If you want to comment to him or in that original thread the link is here.

  • Ahrvid Engholm says:

    Fallen Angels (by Niven/Pournelle/Flynn) is a very nice book! And it's available here for download from the Baen Free Library:

    http://www.webscription.net/pc-137-1-fallen-angel

    The climate has gotten colder the last decade. And the climate-research scandal named Climategate – with it's manipulation, perversion of peer-review, ousting of non-believers, rigged climate-modelling computer code, lost databases, etc etc – has proven that "global warming" is a bloody fraud.
    It's an extra icing on the cake that this good book also makes heroes out of science-fiction fandom. Sf fans have always seen beyond the little bickerings of the day, and believed in Man. Environmentalists just believe Man destroys everything and must be curbed.
    GLobal warming is stone cold.

    –Ahrvid

  • gerald says:

    While the causes were different, "the Drowned World" by John Brunner looks at a much warmer and wetter world

  • Teramis says:

    Brunner's stuff is great. Thanks for the recommendation, Gerald. I was unaware of that title.

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Author Deborah Teramis Christian


Teramis wrote her first book at age 9, but like all good literary lizards has taken her time charging upon the market. Finally in a situation where she can write full time, she is becoming the Dragon, Unleashed, or a close facsimile thereof. Roar, said the saur.

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