Blue death

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

Some say the world will end in fire

I like the idea of a nuclear apocalypse — the sound of it. The “nuclear” clips and the “apocalypse” pops. More than that, I like the suddenness. I’d like to go quickly, in the four-mile blast radius where winds reach speeds of 158 miles per hour (and that’s just for a one-megaton bomb). Of course, a four-mile blast radius is only 50 square miles of a 200-million-square-mile Earth, but the world is small when a bomb lands on top of you. And when a bomb lands on top of you the apocalypse is stentorian and scriptural and sudden. The world ends just as it should – in fire that falls from the sky. Red death is quick.

Blue death is slower. The seas are rising: a millimeter and a half every year in the 1990s, three millimeters a year by 2000. Three and a half millimeters in 2016. A slow creep as global temperature rises and the ocean expands. And scientists expect that hurricanes will get worse too, as the decades tick by – infinitesimally more intense one season, infinitesimally more intense the next.

But a slow apocalypse is so difficult to think about. We don’t like it. I don’t like it; I hate playing the game of time. If I have children, will they have children, and will those grandchildren be born by 2100? (Climate scientists tend to make their predictions for the year 2100.) And will those grandchildren perhaps live in the Netherlands (where my grandparents lived), at some location that is currently only one meter above sea level? Because, if so, those hypothetical grandchildren would surely be subsumed by the sea – but this game is tedious and by this point I’ve lost interest in panicking.

It’s much easier to panic about the nuclear apocalypse than it is to panic about the apocalypse that is wet and blue and slow.

The heat of a hurricane

The heat energy released by a fully developed hurricane is equivalent to that of a ten-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. Not a one-megaton bomb, with its 158-mile-per-hour winds within a four-mile blast radius, but a ten­-megaton bomb, and in another 20 minutes another ten-megaton bomb, and in another 20 minutes another ten-megaton bomb. In the most impressive hurricanes – Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale – wind speeds may exceed 158 miles per hour. The amount of energy released by a hurricane is shattering. It’s apocalyptic.

If a Category 5 hurricane churns over you, then the apocalypse is quick, although not red. If you favor a fiery end, then console yourself that at least there is heat in a hurricane – thousands of billions of watts of heat, many nuclear bombs’ worth of heat. So much heat that it’s almost strange that hurricanes bring blue death.

The hate of a hurricane

There’s hate in the nuclear apocalypse. There has to be hate, because bombs are dropped by people. (Hate is indifference where there should be empathy.) There’s no hate in a hurricane.

Except that hurricanes intensify as the climate warms, and the climate is warming. The most intense of hurricanes – the Category 5 storms as well as their cousins in Category 4 – are going to become more frequent. By 2100, when my hypothetical grandchildren are growing up, the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes will have doubled. And perhaps my grandchildren will not be living in the Netherlands, after all (because perhaps the Netherlands will be underwater) and will instead inhabit a more hurricane-prone location, like Japan or Bangladesh or the Gulf of Mexico coast. And while they are growing up on the Gulf of Mexico Coast, they will have good reason to be afraid of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, because Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are exceptionally destructive. During the last century, when they only accounted for 6 percent of the storms that hit the U.S., they were responsible for 48 percent of the hurricane-induced damage.

So there is no hate in a hurricane, except that hurricanes intensify as the climate warms, and climate warms as carbon dioxide spills into the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide spills into the atmosphere because we burn coal and oil and gas, and we burn them freely. And we like to think that the apocalypse will be red and fast, so we like to think that it can’t be happening right now. After all, it’s hard to see the sea as it rises, millimeter by millimeter, and it’s hard to see the hurricanes getting worse and worse, because they only land on us one at a time. And it is very tedious to spend time considering a hot, wet, blue death.

And perhaps it’s just tedious enough that I am unmindful, and perhaps I am just unmindful enough that I am willing to be cruel to my bright-eyed hypothetical grandchildren. And perhaps, in 2100, there is hate in a hurricane after all – my ancient hate.

(Hate is indifference where there should be empathy.)

Death by water

When a hurricane hits it is certainly not the heat that kills, and nor, mostly, is it those galloping, screaming winds. Nearly seven hundred storms hit the U.S. over the past half-century; they killed two-and-a-half thousand people; and the winds killed less than a tenth of those people. Water killed nine-tenths – about 2,100 people.

When a hurricane makes landfall, it pushes before itself a wall of water called the storm surge, which can be as short as four feet or as tall as forty. Storm surges in the U.S. over the past-half century accounted for half of the deaths by water. A hurricane also brings rain, and where it rains it may flood, or the ground may collapse into a mudslide – so rainfall accounted for about three-tenths of the deaths by water. And the rest drowned in riptides, and waves, and the open ocean. It can take more than four minutes for a person to drown, and death is slow, and death is blue.

When I dream of the end of the world I dream of water.

Kalila Morsink is a university student in New York City, where she studies earth science and creative writing. When not preoccupied by blue thoughts about the future, she enjoys going hiking and purchasing patterned socks.

2 thoughts on “Blue death”

  1. I really like the balance between the hurricane and the nuclear apocalypse. The sudden impact versus the ‘boiling the frog’ death. This is a piece of writing that really makes me think about how I react to climate change. An original and thought provoking piece.

    Can I be pedantic? In different parts of the world it is hurricane/cyclone/typhoon.

    1. Thank you! I spend a lot of time thinking about climate-related panic, myself. And you’re absolutely right about the different terms for tropical cyclones – I happen to live in a “hurricane” part of the world, so I used “hurricane” to refer to all of them.

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