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Fifty Degrees Below

Fifty Degrees Below is the second in Kim Stanley Robinson's climate change trilogy, and in most respects builds solidly upon the foundation he laid out in Forty Signs of Rain. As is typical for the second book in a trilogy, much is left unresolved at the end of Fifty Degrees Below; nonetheless, it's clear by the end of the novel that a great change has taken place, and that we're about to see the repercussions. There's a lot more action in Fifty Degrees Below than in the previous book, and I suspect we'll see even more when the next in the series comes out.

The core of the story is an abrupt climate change event pushing the Northern Hemisphere climate into the "cold, windy, dry" state of a persistent ice age. Winter temperatures across the Eastern Seaboard of North America and across Europe reach the titular -50°, a sufficient disruption to give the main characters (who all work for the American National Science Foundation) license to explore a variety of solutions -- from public education to political campaigns to rapid, extensive research into renewable energy and efficiency technologies. The greatest effort, however, goes into something almost unimaginable:

...it was the next slide, REMEDIAL ACTION NOW, that was the most interesting to Frank. One of the obvious places to start here was with the thermohaline circulation stall. Diane had gotten a complete report from Kenzo and his colleagues at NOAA, and her tentative conclusion was that the great world current, though huge, was sensitive in a nonlinear way to small perturbations. Which meant it might response sensitively to small interventions they could be directed well.

So, Diane concluded, this had to be investigated. How big a sea surface was critical to downwelling? How precisely could they pinpoint potential downwelling sites? How big a volume of water were they talking about? If they needed to make it saltier in order to force it to start sinking agin, how much salt were theyt alking about? Could they start new downwellings in the north where they used to happen?

Kenzo's eyes were round. He met Frank's gaze, waggled his eyebrows like Groucho. Pretty interesting stuff!

"We have to do something," Diane declared [...] "The Gulf Stream is an obvious place to look at remediation, but there are lots of other ideas for direct intervention, and they need to be evaluated and prioritized according to various criteria -- cost, effectiveness, speed, all that."

Edgardo grinned. "So--we are going to become global biosphere managers. We are going to terraform the Earth!"

"We already are," Diane replied. "The problem is we don't know how."

The notion of "terraforming Earth" in response to dramatic climate disruption is a familiar one to WorldChanging readers, and many of the concerns brought up in the novel -- do we know what we're doing? What kinds of unanticipated results will we face? Might we make matters worse? -- were common themes in the discussions following the Terraforming Earth posts I wrote last year. Robinson himself wrote a non-fiction piece on the idea, available as an inexpensive Amazon download.

The main terraforming method chosen by the protagonists is, as suggested in the excerpt, dumping large amounts of salt into the North Atlantic to restart the thermohaline circulation. But that's not the only one that happens, and it's likely that the third book will play out many of the possible results, both beneficial and dangerous, arising from the multitude of uncoordinated terraforming efforts.

Climate science and mitigaton efforts make up a recurring part of the novel, but are not the dominant element. Much of the book concerns the character Frank Vanderwal and his experiment in Paleolithic living. I wasn't entirely convinced by this aspect of the story, although I was amused by recurring references to the research of Dr. William Calvin, a University of Washington evolutionary neurophysiologist who, in the course of examining climate change as a driver for brain evolution, was the first to popularize the idea of abrupt (or, as he called it, "whiplash") climate change.

The book is also heavily political in a starkly partisan way. One of the main characters works for the Democratic candidate for President, who adopts a platform with climate as the key issue. The Republican incumbent bears a striking resemblence to George W. Bush, but is never mentioned by name (but pay close attention to the name of his scientific advisor...); much of the criticism leveled against the incumbent President in the book could be readily applied to the current real administration. Additional political subplots include hacked election machines, Total Information Awareness-style political markets, and (in a bit of prescience) illegal government surveillance of US citizens.

It won't surprise you to learn that I would have liked KSR to spend more time talking about the mitigation efforts and less time covering Frank's romantic entanglements and life as a scientist-by-day, caveman-by-night. Still, Fifty Degrees Below remains a highly readable and interesting story, one which could easily use WorldChanging as its "for more information..." reference. It is, in the end, a story in which scientists are heroes, denial is the greatest villain, and in the face of the greatest possible adversity, humankind is ready, willing and able to choose experimentation over resignation.

Comments (7)

Daniel Johnston:

I've been arguing for couple of years now to anyone who would listen (probably to the point of losing friends!) that CO2 reduction is not going to be enough and that mitigating global engineering strategies are going to have to be the way to go eventually. It's nice to see it slowly edge out of the 'loony' fringe into the mainstream. I think it will be the eventual right wing answer to the left wing's insistence that clean energy technologies are going to be enough (not that I favour either wing - or even understand why the distinction is so meaningful!:)).
I wanted to ask people, though. Is there any site which looks at data and discusses such terraforming ideas - pros and cons? If we have some kind of idea which options are preferable and why (or even just somewhere to argue about it) before the worst scenarios arrive we may even find ways to head them off!
If there isn't one already perhaps someone knows about setting one up?!


The subject matter might be interesting, but that's dreadful prose. Don't think I could sit through a few hundred pages of that.


ooooh! that would instantly become my favorite site!! lets go beyond CO2 reduction to geo-engineering climate and adaptation!!!


..and while we're on it, woudln't the north atlantic (say near norway...) be an ideal place to build huge (offshore) water desalination plants? the water could then be delivered (by submarines) to anywhere freshwater is needed


only kim stanley robinson would attempt to make a powerpoint presentation by hapless government functionaries with 1 dimensional personalities interesting. and he fails.

I love his Martian trilogy. But this climate change series sounds like the Martian trilogy minus everything Mars. Is that the case?

Daniel Haran:

Hah! lee, that's an amusing thought. I imagine windfarms powering off-shore desalination, and the resulting water left there being saltier. Terraforming for fun and profit? :)


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