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The Abrupt Kim Stanley Robinson

50DB.jpgScience fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, who brought us the iconic Mars trilogy, is set to release the second in his series of global warming novels next month. The first, Forty Signs of Rain, was mostly set-up; in appears that in the upcoming book, Fifty Degrees Below, we start to see the payoff.

Leading up to the release of the new book, Robinson has been talking about the impact of climate disruption and its utility as the kernel of a novel. His interview with the UK's Guardian newspaper is definitely worth reading, and pulls no punches; it will come as little surprise that he's no fan of the current US administration, and it's clear that this has influenced the nature of the fictional Washington DC of his current novels. But more interesting to me is a new short essay he's published entitled Imagining Abrupt Climate Change: Terraforming Earth.

Imagining Abrupt Climate Change is an "Amazon Short," meaning that it's a digital document available for purchase at a relatively low price (49¢, in this case). For that, you get an 18 page essay in PDF; as Robinson appears not to have a website of his own, I suppose this is a way to get short non-fiction pieces out and even make a little money on them.

The essay is interesting more for its discussion of how climatologists came to understand abrupt climate change than in its discussion of "terraforming Earth." There's a lot that can be said about the latter subject (and I've tried to say a bit of it in my own Terraforming Earth essay series), but Robinson uses it primarily as a jumping-off metaphor.

Nonetheless, the piece is filled with interesting tidbits. For example:

That a physical system as big as the Earth's climate could change so fast was remarkable, but the evidence for it is there, and the explanations were quick to follow; the new paradigm's conceptual field was established by the researchers in very short order. This happened because the researchers were working in a context of new developments in climatology more generally, including the newish meteor explanation for the KT boundary ending the Cretaceous, chaos theory in meteorology, supercomputers and their new speed in simulating more sophisticated modeling,and new information in the paleo-record about what had happened at the end of the last Ice Age some fifteen thousand years ago, coming from all over the Earth. Taken with older concepts, like Euler's work on nonlinear dynamics, there was a suite of concepts and methods that gave the researchers in this new field the tools they needed to explain the data they had. Climate now was understood to be a complex interrelation of physical systems that resulted in semi-stable regimes; change in these regimes was usually slow,but sometimes small and slow changes pushed a regime over a threshold, in the same way that slow and steady pressure on a light switch eventually snaps the switch from one position to another. Thus a big slow system could still exhibit occasional rapid major changes, moving over a tipping point from one regime to another. This model was supported by the evidence that was now there at hand; and so we now have a modified model of how climate works, less than a decade old and still being worked on and argued over.

I have to admit to a bit of a disappointment in discovering that KSR was taking the "abrupt climate change" route for his novel series. Not because I think such scenarios are impossible, but because (a) they've been done, albeit poorly, with The Day After Tomorrow, and (b) they're not a given, while other effects (rising sea levels, droughts, super-intense storms, etc.) remain fairly likely in the coming decades.

I will inevitably pick up Fifty Degrees when it comes out, and will review it here.

Comments (2)

I discovered Amazon's "Shorts" the other day - seems like a great idea, though I haven't purchased one yet. For example Gregory Benford has a handful - here for instance. They must have just started this recently.

But the premise of rapid cooling of the northern hemisphere after the ocean circulation shuts down - "The Day After Tomorrow" scenario, that seems pretty hard to believe.


I don't know if WC reported about it here, but in 2003, the the BBC's Horizon had a programme called 'The Big Chill' (about the collapse of the north-Atlantic thermo-haline conveyor belt), and it appeared about a year before The Day After Tomorrow.

Horizon's webpage is still online, here (check the transcript):


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