The title of this blog post is actually the title of a piece of science fiction, a short story written by Paul Briggs. Just like a couple of weeks ago when I was asked for advice on an idea for a novel, Paul asked me for some feedback on his short story. I figured posting it here, will generate a lot more feedback than I can offer. And most of you will probably find it an interesting read.
Paul writes on his website:
I started writing this story because, well, nobody else was doing it. Like a lot of people, I had read the projections of the Arctic Ocean having its first ice-free moment in human history some time in the 2020s.
Nobody seems to know what happens after that. The consensus seems to be that seasonal patterns of temperature and rainfall in the northern hemisphere will be altered in ways that will make many heavily populated parts of it much harder to survive in and seriously inconvenience anyone trying to grow crops, but no one can say exactly what this will look like.
So I decided to take a guess. I'm not a climatologist or anything, I'm just winging it.
I wrote this for AlternateHistory.com, in the "Future History" section where only registered members could read it. Since it won the 2013 Turtledove Award for Best New Future, I thought I'd give it a little editing and share it with a wider audience.
It goes without saying that I find Arctic sea ice loss an excellent subject for this kind of fiction. As with most science fiction and predictions, it's all about timing. Maybe the sequence of events is a bit too soon and too fast (my only 'gripe'), but it portrays the potential risks of Arctic sea ice loss in a gripping way. Like a fist gripping your stomach. The narrative style, a description of what happens after the Arctic becomes ice-free, followed by a collection of future news stories covering the consequences, makes the story exciting and easy to read. The open ending leaves some room for optimism, in the sense that not all is lost. At least, that's how I (want to) read it.
Here's the first part of the story:
September 11, 2021
Everyone knew it was going to happen sooner or later, but most people had expected it later in the decade, or perhaps early in the 2030s. It wasn’t until June and its record temperatures that everyone realized it was probably going to happen this year.Nobody saw the precise moment it happened.
Most people were thinking about something else — after all, this was the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. So it was a fairly minor story that when the next satellite overflew the poles, the last traces of sea ice floating in the Nares Strait and the Lincoln Sea were gone. From the Bering Strait to the Barents Sea, from the coast of Siberia to the labyrinth of channels between the Canadian islands, the Arctic Ocean was finally ice-free.
It stayed that way for three weeks.
September ’21-March ‘22
As in every year, with the passing of the autumnal equinox polar twilight and polar night descended over the Arctic Ocean in expanding concentric circles of darkness. The ocean surface, never very far above freezing to begin with, lost its heat to the cooling air.
In early October, the first traces of grease ice appeared. The ice spread, forming a slushy layer over the surface of the ocean that gradually hardened into glittering chunks. The ice chunks thickened and merged. By December, the Arctic Ocean was again covered (mostly) by a reassuring white blanket that reflected light and heat back into the emptiness of space, even as it held in what remained of the heat.
Winter that year was… not too far outside what had come to be accepted as normal. In North America, the jet stream flowed just south of the U.S.-Canada border. There were still snowstorms, although not generally south of the Ohio Valley and the lower Missouri unless you were in the Rockies, where small amounts of snow fell as far south as Flagstaff and Albuquerque. In February, a severe ice storm hit the Carolinas.
The story elsewhere was much the same. Record warm temperatures in France, the Balkans and Iran, record snowfall in Japan and Korea… but overall, not a winter to ring alarm bells. Not compared to those the world had already gone through. And spring, when it came, was if anything slightly cooler than it had been last year, particularly in North American and western Europe.
As it turned out, none of this mattered.
The Feedback Loop
The Arctic ice cap in mid-March of ‘22 was about 14.6 million square kilometers in area — among the smallest on record for that time of year. Considering it had disappeared without trace six months ago, the surprise was how big it was now. Some wondered if they had gotten worried over nothing.
Although area was much easier to measure, looking at the volume would have given a clearer picture of the situation. Comparing the current thin scab of ice to the massive floating layer that had once existed was like comparing a Hollywood backdrop to a brick wall. If by some miracle the Earth’s temperature had suddenly dropped enough to allow some trace of it to survive the summer, it might have formed the core of a new multi-year icecap… but this did not happen.
In May, the same forces that had destroyed the icecap in the first place got to work on its replacement. By the middle of July, there was open water at the North Pole. By August 19, the ice was gone once again.
Deep ocean water has a much lower albedo than ice. Even the weak sunlight of the high latitudes, absorbed by the water, was enough to warm the Arctic Ocean slightly. (“Warm,” of course, is a relative term. The highest it got was between four and five degrees centigrade — not recommended for swimming.) What this meant was that when the polar night came again, it took longer for the ocean to cool down to freezing, which meant less time for ice to form and led to an even thinner icecap that winter… which melted even faster in the spring of 2023, disappearing on July 24.
And so it went. In ’24, in spite of an unusual cold snap in April, the last of the ice melted on July 9. In ’25, it melted on June 18. In ’26, it melted on June 10.
And here was where the trouble began…
Read the rest here, and if you have any, share your thoughts on the scientific aspects of this scenario.