In the early twenty-second century, about the year 2120, everywhere around that old Earth the vast ocean waters, already risen from melted ice, continued expanding from the absorbed heat, day by day, year after year. The oceans were quite highly risen from those old days of twentieth and twenty-first centuries…
VFE (Very fast evolution)
Let us now with reasonable logic project from very certain existing trends, documented well beyond any slightest doubt, to a future scenario over the next three hundred years. A mere three hundred years—the same brief slice of time as the full industrial revolution from which we’re still emerging with uncertainty. Think of it as a thought experiment.
We begin with acknowledgement that everywhere around the earth the oceans are now warmed, expanding and rising as they warm yet more, while their salinity declines from the freshwater input and their acidity increases as chemical runoff and absorbed carbon dioxide conspire to make carbonic acid, which kills shellfish. These trends are fully documented by science and they grow more exact by the month. Because of the rising ocean levels, several small low-lying island nations in the Pacific and Indian oceans are quite publicly planning for removal of their populations to higher ground before 2050. In the meantime they are at increasing risk from increasingly higher storm surges that increasingly severe typhoons send their way. In all its many ramifications, the entire global warming problem is best described by the word “increasing.” Even ourselves.
Worldwide fishing corporations in contrast are making no plans to stop harvesting the fish and shellfish on which their profit depends. Year by year, as whole species fall victim to the increasing acidity plus increasing depletion from overfishing, and disappear, gone forever extinct, the corporate fisherman switch their great nets increasingly to whatever species remain that are good enough, and big enough, to eat. They remind me of my long-gone Highland cattle—ambling from here to somewhere else in quest of another netful of something, anything, that’s worth eating, good enough to turn a profit. In this, they are responding logically to the increasing demands of ever-more new hungry mouths to feed because of our rapidly increasing, ever increasing, world population.
A century from now, about 2120, everywhere around the globe, ocean waters still expand from absorbing the sun’s heat, further increasing the rise caused by those melted glaciers. Both rise and expansion are well understood to be happening because of heating induced by CO2 we humans dumped into the world atmosphere over several recent centuries. Iceland’s mighty Vatnajokull glacier and America’s Glacier National Park are no more. Worldwide, most of the other glaciers are gone. Those remaining melt faster every year, cubic miles of their precious fresh water draining daily down into the briny seas.
Few people a century earlier had understood how serious, how consequential, was sea level rise of a mere few millimeters when multiplied by that three-quarters of the earth’s surface which is oceans. Fewer still understood the danger in those millimeters, which represented cubic miles of water. By 2120 a century’s accumulated sea level rise is measured not in millimeters or inches but in feet and meters. In 2120 Earth’s atmosphere and all her oceans are, on average, several degrees warmer than a century ago. Even if past leaders had somehow summoned the will to seriously reduce CO2 emissions early enough—alas they did not—a delayed reaction called oceanic thermal inertia would still occur. Even when the CO2 pollution stopped—as inevitably it would, one way or another—the greenhouse heat would continue rising for decades before it finally peaked, held, and on some future day started slowly back down. By 2120 that course has been certain for a century and a half.
The oceans’ rise is between three and seven feet, depending where on earth you measure. The world’s oceans don’t all rise the same amount at the same time. They slosh around, pile up in places. The influx of so very much new melt water has severely changed the old ocean currents, the dynamics of coastal erosion, the way storm surges have their impact on every mile of coastline around the world. Huge old cities on all coasts are abandoned or in process. New Orleans was among the first of them as the rising Gulf of Mexico encroached onto our southern coast. Progressively submerging the delta and its coastal flanks, salty waters extend ever northward up the lower Mississippi basin.
As recently as 2080, only forty years ago, some rogue nations actually still burned coal, natural gas and oil to produce power and drive vehicles. Those finally got bombed, mostly—but their CO2 still hangs around. Added to what our great-grandparents put up there, it will be with us a long, long time to come.
The atmosphere grows yet warmer, every year. Surviving ice, melting even faster, prominently includes the giants on the Himalayas, Greenland, Antarctica. They will go soon, and their sea-level consequences will be so awful we cannot imagine it. We know only that the additional rise will be measured not in tens of feet, but in hundreds.
Those old political ideologues who failed to act, whose inaction and even opposition to action caused that awful world catastrophe and all its dying, they are all dead and forgotten, yes—but despised in the abstract, let their names be buried in the vile muck.
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During my [near-death] experience…I was also shown events that are likely to happen in the near future, but was made to understand that nothing is absolutely fixed and that everything depends on how we choose to use our own free will, that even those events that are already predestined can be changed or modified by a change in our own way of relating to them.
Margot Grey: Return From Death, 1985
Another century passes. In 2220, the first quarter of the 23rd century, the much warmed Gulf waters are still expanding, still rising. No longer does a great Mississippi delta reach out into the Gulf. A broad new estuary, a wide-mouthed southern version of that old Chesapeake Bay, has drowned the delta along with the nation’s entire central underbelly. Salt water now extends more than two hundred miles up the Mississippi basin, spreading many miles east and west, out beyond the old banks. Hundreds of square miles of the flat once-fertile farmlands along both sides of the old river channel are long submerged, turned to wetlands, saltified as they say. Out on the edges newer wetlands expand farther east and west every year, salt water saturation ruining the ground for farming despite the big river’s massive fresh water flow down the center. The southern-edge shape of that old Louisiana is changed forever. Its neighbors too.
Water is very heavy, yes, as known by anyone who ever hefted a five-gallon bucket of it. Year by year, the expanding lower Mississippi estuary has added vast new weight atop the lower reaches of the New Madrid seismic zone. The overburden pressure of this colossal new water-weight laying heavy upon the land extends an additional two hundred miles west, east…and north. And so inevitably, in a manner not altogether unlike the earth tremors which constantly occur beneath the enormous weight of the big glaciers, the increasing weight of water in the estuary’s northern reaches eventually becomes so heavy that it has high potential to trigger an earthquake near the zone’s southern end. “Potential energy,” as they call it, with potential that is immense indeed.
It isn’t only the weight of the water. It also happens to be the time of perigean spring tide—king tide—that once-a-year day when the highest tide of the year occurs, several feet higher than any other tide during that year’s orbit around the sun. Nor is it just any ordinary perigean spring tide, as in most years. It is an extraordinarily high king tide, made several significant feet higher by the seemingly random effects of celestial bodies. The earth, its moon and the sun all happen to swing into a nearly-straight line that week, a fairly rare but not-unheard-of heavenly lineup that enables their combined gravity to add its considerable force to the immense swell of water piling up in the Mississippi River estuary—bulging, humping its way up onto and over the southern end of the New Madrid fault zone—uncountable trillions more gallons of weight than usual.
Nor is all that the end of it. Atop these conditions comes an unseasonal hurricane—category 5, winds above 150 miles per hour, torrential rains. The water-laden storm meanders around the Gulf, finally sets a slow northward course directly up the Mississippi River, dumping its massive rains every foot of the way. In its known history the south-central United States has never seen such confluence of rising seawater, massively flooding rain water, gravitationally-boosted spring tide and hurricane wind-driven storm surge. The situation is unprecedented, though not at all precluded or even unexpectable given the climate, weather and topographical contours of the region.
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In late autumn of the year 2220, the weakest southern section in the New Madrid aulacogen breaks and shatters, suddenly, without warning.
New Madrid residents could not have seen it coming. As in 1811, the quake once again is quite large—say 7.8 magnitude—and it does something completely unexpected. Here at mid-continent there is no slipping sideways, in the usual way of San Andreas quakes. Sideways is not possible. The mid-continental plates are too massive, the old cratons too thick and too strong. Like super concrete blocks made of granite, they surround and block any significant lateral movement within the tightly packed fault zone. The zone can only break and crumble, and so it does. The earthquake’s release of massive earth pressure forces the overlying crust to choose one of the only two options available to it—up or down. By geological chance, the crust submerges—crumbling as it goes. Everything on its surface crumbles and submerges along with it.
This is not unprecedented. In ancient days, movement of California’s San Andreas fault caused a huge chunk of land, the Salton Sea Trough, to drop below sea level where it remains today. Similarly, this newly fractured southern block of the New Madrid seismic zone, some six hundred square miles in area (that’s only thirty miles north-south, only twenty east-west), settles deeper, severely breaking up into smaller chunks as it descends.
As is common in many earthquakes, the ground liquefies. Gigantic deep crevasses hundreds of feet long open wide—and things tumble in. Then the cracks close—across what were moments ago ordinary corn and wheat fields. And small town Americana. The affected land doesn’t submerge very far, perhaps only tens of feet here, a hundred or more there, but that is enough. The estuary’s massive waters rush in to cover the new low places, its vast weight compacting them still farther down.
In less than two hours, several hundred cubic miles of heavy salt water from the Mississippi estuary have advanced northward in an almighty swoosh not seen on earth since the waters of the Mediterranean Sea broke through and filled the Black Sea basin—which basin, incidentally, formed in ages past by subsidence due to massive compression at the junction of old tectonic plates called an aulacogen.
Collapse of the southern New Madrid seismic zone is a trigger. Under the suddenly-added new weight of so much water—plus the great Father of Waters flowing massively backward again for the first time in a long time—the remainder of the New Madrid zone shortly collapses, and the Gulf waters rush northward again. Up into Huck Finn country, and beyond, forever drowning all of it. Their massive new weight now presses on the southern end of the adjacent Wabash seismic zone.
Already stressed and destabilized by the big quake, the Wabash zone too soon collapses, and again the waters rush in, and the mighty old Wabash River is no more. The process of crumble and collapse repeats, northward, then repeats again, then again. Within a short time—let’s say by exactly 2:15am on December 16, 2220—four hundred and nine years since the last New Madrid great quake—the entire New Madrid-Wabash Valley-Midcontinental Rift-Great Lakes system is in a state of collapse from one end to the other. It has become the floor of a new ocean sea.