The novel 2140 by Tim Stanley Robinson is about New York City circa 2140. This is the story of what it is like to live in a New York has been flooded for the last 100 years.
Robinson is not your typical science fiction writer. He writes a good story full of adventure and romance and interesting characters, but he also a writes a about really interesting ideas. His novels are full of intriguing crumbs of science, economics, and philosophy. And he makes all of this very entertaining. Below is part of his take on global warming in this novel.
This small excerpt is about exactly how the Arctic and Antarctic could melt very, very rapidly. What he describes has not come about yet, but many scientists that study the Anarctic say that the process has already well underway and will certainly take place in our very near future. I never quite understood all of this before.
From Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel 2141
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat in the atmosphere by way of the well-understood greenhouse effect; it closes a gap in the spectrum where reflected sunlight used to flash back out into space, and converts it to heat instead. It’s like rolling up the windows on your car all the way on a hot day, as opposed to having them partly rolled down. Not really, but close enough to elucidate if you haven’t gotten it yet.
So okay, that trapped heat in the atmosphere transfers very easily and naturally to the oceans, warming ocean water. Ocean water circulates and the warmed surface water gets pushed down eventually to lower levels. Not to the bottom, not even close, but lower. The heat itself expands the water of the ocean a bit, raising sea level some, but that’s not the important part.
The important part is that those warmer ocean currents circulate all over, including around Antarctica, which sits down at the bottom of the world like a big cake of ice. A really big cake of ice.
Melt all that ice and pour it in the ocean (though it pours itself) and sea level would go 270 feet higher than the old Holocene level. Melting all the ice on Antarctica is a big job, however, and will not happen fast, even in the Anthropocene. But any Antarctic ice that slides into the ocean floats away, leaving room for more to slide.
And in the twenty-first century, as during the three million years before that, a lot of Antarctic ice was piled up on basin slopes, meaning giant valleys, which angled down into the ocean. Ice slides downhill just like water, only slower; although if sliding (skimboarding?) on a layer of liquid water, not that much slower.
So all that ice hanging over the edge of the ocean was perched there, and not sliding very fast, because there were buttresses of ice right at the waterline or just below it, that were basically stuck in place. This ice at the shoreline lay directly on the ground, stuck there by its own massive weight, thus forming in effect long dams ringing all of Antarctica, dams that somewhat held in place the big basins of ice uphill from them.
But these ice buttresses at the ocean ends of these very huge ice basins were mainly held in place by their leading edges, which were grounded underwater slightly offshore—still held to the ground by their own massive weight, but caught underwater on rock shelves offshore that rose up like the low edge of a bowl, the result of earlier ice action in previous epochs. These outermost edges of the ice dams were called by scientists “the buttress of the buttress.” Don’t you love that phrase?
So yeah, the buttresses of the buttresses were there in place, but as the phrase might suggest to you, they were not huge in comparison to the masses of ice they were holding back, nor were they well emplaced; they were just lying there in the shallows of Antarctica, that continent-sized cake of ice, that cake ten thousand feet thick and fifteen hundred miles in diameter.
Do the math on that, oh numerate ones among you, and for the rest, the 270-foot rise in ocean level is the answer already given earlier.
And lastly, those rapidly warming circumpolar ocean currents already mentioned were circulating mainly about a kilometer or two down, meaning, you guessed it, right at the level where the buttresses of the buttresses were resting.
And ice, though it sits on land, and even on land bottoming shallow water when heavy enough, floats on water when water gets under it. As is well known. Consult your cocktail for confirmation of this phenomenon.
So, the first buttress of a buttress to float away was at the mouth of the Cook Glacier, which held back the Wilkes/ Victoria basin in eastern Antarctica. That basin contained enough ice all by itself to raise sea level twelve feet, and although not all of it slid out right away, over the next two decades it went faster than expected, until more than half of it was adrift and quickly melting in the briny deep.
The image at the top of this page was taken in Yankee Boy Basin in Colorado.
This is probably the premier place in Colorado for viewing
wildflowers in a natural setting.