Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Cli-Fi Story: Winter Solstice in Antarctica

Reposted from "Chimeras"

Antarctica deglaciated and uplifted, as it could appear ten thousand years after the Great Warming of the 21st century (from global warming art). 

The text below is part of my cli-fi novel "Queen of Antarctica" that one of these days I might be able to publish, somewhere. The novel takes place in a remote future and it is based on the idea that, after the runaway climate change of the 21st century, the survivors managed to colonize the extreme North and the extreme South of the planet, including Antarctica. And here is how their remote descendants living in Antarctica would tell the story. Note that the story assumes a relatively warm Antarctica, but it reflects the peculiar conditions of a civilization living near the South Pole that would experience six months of light followed by six months of darkness.In this world, people would spend the dark winter in a sort of hibernation. For them, seeing the stars in the dark sky would be something special, worth celebrating. 

Children, come. Come here, because this is a special night. It is the night when the Moon is highest in the sky, and the night when the Moon starts to go down and, slowly, to let the sun come back, and give us light again after the long winter night. And we call this night the night of the winter solstice.

So, children, you have been sleeping through the long winter night, but now you are awake, and it is good that you are awake because this is a very special night. It is the night when we all wear heavy clothing and we go out to look at the stars! Yes, children, the sky is dark during the solstice night, and this night is darker than all the other nights of the year. So, we go out and we look at the stars, and at the moon, and at the planets above us. It is beautiful, and many of you have already seen it, and some of the youngest among you see the dark sky for the first time because they were too young to go out the last solstice.

But before we go outside to see the stars, children, it is the time for me to tell you a story. I'll tell you the story of the land where we live, that we call Antarctica; and of the city where we live, that we call just the city. And it is for me to tell you this story because I am the oldest woman of the city and some say that for this reason I am a wise woman, and some call me witch because I know many things. And this may be true, though all what I know I learned from other wise women who came before me, just like you, children, are learning this story from me. And maybe, one day, when you'll be old as I am now, you'll be telling this story to the children who will be here in front of you, because this is what has happened in our city for a long, long, time, since it was founded long, long ago.

So, children, listen to me. You know that the world was created when the Goddess separated the waters from the land, and then the She created the Sun and the Moon, and She made the Sun so that it would shine light on the land during half of the year, and She made the Moon so that it would stay in the sky for the other half of the year, and then the cycle would restart. And it is the light of the Sun that makes grain grow and makes us live. And then, it is the time for the Moon to be alone in the sky, then the land rests, and the people of the city rest, all the creatures of Antarctica rest, ready for the new cycle to start. And then the sun comes back, the snow melts, and grain grows again for us.

But, children, you must know that Antarctica has not been the same forever. This is an ancient story that comes from the time of the founders and that the wise women of the city have kept by telling it to one another for a long, long time. And the story says that long, long ago, Antarctica was not the same as it is today; no, it was colder. Much colder than it is today. And that was so long ago that it is difficult for us even to imagine. It was not centuries ago, it was not millennia ago. No, it was some ten millennia ago, and some say it was more than that. And, at that time, Antarctica was covered in ice, by mountains of ice! They say that the tip of these mountains of ice was as tall as the mountains you see today. So tall that and so big that nothing of what you see today was visible. The land where now our city stands was covered in ice, and the grain fields around the city were covered in ice. Everything was covered in ice.

Long, long ago, ten thousand years ago, when Antarctica was covered in ice, no one lived here: no plants, no animaps. People lived far, far away, on the other side of the sea. And the lands in which they lived were not so hot as they are today, and people lived there. And people had built cities there, great cities with tall buildings. But those cities don't exist anymore and the people living there are no more. It was because of something terrible that happened and that the founders called the Great Warming. Some say that it was the will of the Goddess that caused the world heat up so much that so many people died and they say that it was because people had become too proud and they were not paying to the Goddess the respect she deserved. But the founders say otherwise and they say that it was the fault of the ancient who had done something that had caused the Great Warming without knowing what they were doing.

The founders said that the ancient had found something underground, a dark stuff that they could burn as if it were wood, but that was not wood. They dug it out and they burned it to warm themselves, to cook, and to smelt metals. And this dark stuff was easy to find and easy to burn, so they burned a lot of it. And they burned so much of it that it poisoned the air and made it warmer. It was like when you warm yourself in a sealskin and it may be too warm for you if you do that during the summer. And this blanket made the world much hotter than it used to be, and it covered the whole world.

The founders say that the wise among the ancient understood what was happening and warned the others, but that the ancient did not believe what the wise people were telling them and so they didn't want to stop burning that dark stuff, and that was perhaps how they offended the Goddess, as some people say. So, they kept burning that dark stuff and the world became hotter an hotter. And then, the founders say that something came out of the depth of the earth, something that made the air even hotter and did it faster, so fast and that could not be stopped, no matter what the ancient tried to do. And that was the Great Warming that some say was a punishment sent by the Goddess.

When the great blanket of ice that covered Antarctica felt the heat of the Great Warming, it started melting. And all this ice that melted went into the oceans as water, and the oceans rose. And the cities that had been on the coasts of the continents in the North were submerged, and the people who lived in those cities had to move inland, and they didn't have enough food to eat because the Great Warming had dried up much of the land, and many places were too hot for people to live. So, many of them died, many, many of them. And those who survived migrated to the Northern Lands, where they say that their descendants still live today, although it is so far away from us that nobody has been there for a long, long time.

Here, in Antarctica, when the ice melted, much of it crashed into the sea very fast, because the great ice sheets slid over the water under them, and they moved very rapidly and, soon, there were great stretches of land in Antarctica that were free of ice. But there was nobody living in there because nobody had ever lived in Antarctica up to then. It was at that time that the founders came. They came from the North, they were some of those who had survived. They came by boat, and it was a difficult trip for them, because the currents that circle around Antarctica were strong and dangerous at that time and they are still strong and dangerous today. But they crossed the Antarctic Ocean and they landed in the land that we call the Peninsula, even though it is an island, because at that time it was connected to the mainland of Antarctica.

The founders came, and they came to Antarctica to settle. They were wise and learned, they brought tools and machines that today we don't know anymore how to make. And they brought animals with them that we don't have anymore because they died and so, still today, Antarctica has no other animals than the birds who flew here by themselves; and the creatures who swam here by themselves, seals and iguanas, and others. It was a difficult time for the founders because the land was bare, there were no plants and no animals, and the sea was growing in height as the ice kept melting. But the founders were resourceful and they had brought seeds with them, and they sowed grain, and they planted trees on the land left free by the ice.

In time, there was no more ice on the land of Antarctica, and much of the land was submerged and under the sea. But they also say that, slowly, the land rose, little by little the waters receded. It took many centuries, millennia, and the land is still rising, but much more slowly by now, so that Antarctica is now the way we know it; without ice, and with its coasts that fall rapidly into the sea.

And while the ice was receding, the founders moved inland and they built cities and they built the city in which we live today. We live in this city and we remember the old times, and we remember of the founders, and we remember the things that happened so long ago. And some say that, one day, the ice will return; and some say that in the mountains, something is now happening that never happened before; and it is that when summer is at its height, there still remains a little snow on top of the mountains. And some say that the snow will grow and it will become ice. And that, one day, Antarctica will be covered with ice again. But that will take a long, long time, longer that we can say, longer than we can ever imagine. If that happens, then the people of the cities of Antarctica will have to move to somewhere else, because things always change and as the founders came here, so long ago, we can go back to where they came from, if that will be necessary.

But now, children, it is time to go. It is the solstice night, and you'll come with me and we'll go outside; to see the stars. The stars that you never see during the summer, the stars that come out when we are all sleeping during the winter, the stars that we see together in the night of the solstice. And you'll see the moon shining bright, and bright stars that the ancient told us are not stars but are called planets. And you'll see how beautiful is the dark sky, how beautiful is the moon, and how beautiful are the planets! Then, children, you'll go back inside, and you'll be warm and comfortable in the city until the next cycle starts and the sun comes up again, and this is the cycle that keeps us alive, and it has been going on like that for a long, long time, and it will keep going like that for a long long time. And you'll grow in this city, children, you'll become adults, and then you'll become old, and then you'll go dreaming underground. And then you'll become grain, and then you'll become bread, and then you'll become people again. And that's the great cycle that was created by the Goddess, as it has been, as it is, and as it will be for a long, long time to come. May the Goddess bless you, children! And now come with me, to see the stars!


  1. Great story Ugo! Thank you. A mere 10,000 years ago where I live (USA, Minnesota) supposedly had about 1000 meters of ice cover. Perhaps that will happen once again many years from now. Meanwhile I hope to enjoy one of the warmest winters on record.
    May your holiday be as you wish.

    1. Thanks Mick! At least one person has read this strange story of mine!

  2. "The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica"

    a novel about how the Founders arrived on the White Continent.
    still in print and available at Az

    1. The beauty of fiction: "Grim will relate, looking back from the year 2037, how he and a band of men and women fled a civil war that was raging in Sweden in 1995, and sailed on the cutter Angel of Death through many an adventure until what remained of the band arrived in the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, where Grim is now confined in an ice prison for crimes he has committed against humanity."

  3. Why is it assumed that even extreme global warming will drive people to the poles? The oceans are a great moderator of temperature change, so ocean temperatures will show much less variation than continental temperatures. Since air temperatures are dominated by ocean temperatures for those land areas very near the ocean, islands and coastal regions should stay much more moderate in temperature than continental interiors. Instead of moving to Antarctica, why couldn't people just move to any high island habitat that wouldn't be inundated by sea level rise, even in the tropics?

    1. Good point; that deserves to be commented in some detail. First of all, for the novel I have examined several scenarios based on climate models and the conclusion seems to be that Antarctica could have a temperate climate; which, on the other hand, was the situation, or instance, during the Eocene; millions of years ago. Large animals (even dinosaurs) lived in Antarctica during these remote ages, so I assume that it would be possible for humans to live there once similar temperatures are reached again.

      Then, the scenarios tell you something about the average temperature and that the area that we call today "temperate" could become too hot in summer for humans to survive. But they don't tell you about the coasts, where, indeed, temperatures could remain low enough for people to be able to live and survive.

      But there is another point that's not mentioned in the short story here, but that is described in the novel. It is the "H2S burps" scenario. That's something called Euxinia, and involves the emission of poisoning gases from an oxygen poor ocean, generated by sulfur metabolizing bacteria. These gases would hit, mostly, people (and all life) living on the coast and, obviously, they would be more intense in the warm areas, that is in the planetary tropical belt. That explains why people (in the novel!) moved far inland in Antarctica. In order to avoid the H2S bursts, they avoided the coasts.

      So, you see, science fiction is about "world building" and that takes a lot of work. But it is an extremely interesting task, where you learn a lot of things. Yes, one of these days I'll really have to publish my novel. And thanks for this comment!

    2. BTW; a consequence of these consideration is that, after the Great Warming, people could live inland in high altitude areas. It is said, indeed, that vertebrates survived the Great Permian Extinction by retreating to such areas. So, in addition to an Antarctic civilization and a far northern civilization (which, in the novel, fight each other using swords and muskets), there could be a Himalayan civilization, a Rockies civilization, an Andean civilization, people surviving on top of the Kilimanjaro, and perhaps on the Urals, the Alps, and other mountainous areas, far from the coasts. But those are scenarios for other novels!

    3. And, to finish with these considerations, in the novel it is told how the Northern People travel to Antarctica from Greenland using galleons. When navigating, they tend to stay far away from the coasts because they are afraid of the sulfur bursts, even though, by the time the story takes place, the worst effects of the Great Warming are over and euxinia has become rare.

      Sorry for this outburst; as you see, I've spent a lot of time on this novel!

    4. Upon rethinking, Himalaya may not be so good as a refuge because of Anoxia - loss of oxygen in the atmosphere. Maybe Appalachia is a better place for civilization to take refuge. Of a sort

  4. Antarctica started freezing over 30 Ma ago, soon after it separated from Australia, at a time when it was about 20º north of where it is now. When Antarctica started freezing global CO2 was at 750 ppm and temperature was 2 to 3 ºC above what it is now.

    Over 50% of the Antarctic bed rock is presently under the mean sea level. A scenario where the tropical climate extends to the poles (i.e. meridional circulation stops) requires global temperatures 8 to 10 ºC above present levels, more or less what happened in the late Permian and early Jurassic. The implied sea level rise would almost entirely submerge Antarctica, leaving behind just a few mountainous islands.

    Best wishes for 2016.

    1. Luis, you forget the isostatic rebound phenomenon. In ten thousand years, Antarctica would rise up and become a large and dry continent, well above the sea level, as shown in the picture at the beginning of this post.

    2. I understood this story was taking place soon after a rapid increase in global temperature. 10 ka is long time at the Human scale (about all of the History).

    3. Yes and no. Homo Sapiens has been around for some 150,000 years

    4. But you are right. In this short text, it is not explained that the story takes place ten thousand years in the future. Should add a little note to it....

    5. Cli fi or sci fi. Make up your mind.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)