Sunday, March 30, 2008

Polar Cities a Haven in Warming World?

The New York Times, in a blog written by environment and science reporter Andrew Revkin [in photo above at the North Pole], posted a nice introduction to the polar cities project today, in a blog post titled "Polar Cities a Haven in Warming World?"

Noting that the project, with illustrations by Deng Cheng-hong, a Taiwanese artist, is a [non-threatening] thought experiment, it will be interesting to see the kinds of reactions the blog post provokes, both pro and con. I am all ears.

Mr Revkin noted:

Danny Bloom, a 58 year old American freelance writer from the Boston area living in Taiwan, is on a one-man campaign to get people to seriously consider a worst-case prediction of the British chemist and inventor James Lovelock: life in “polar cities” arrayed around the shores of an ice-free Arctic Ocean in a greenhouse-warmed world.

Dr. Lovelock, who in 1972 conceived of Earth’s crust, climate and veneer of life as a unified self-sustaining entity, Gaia, foresees humanity in full pole-bound retreat within a century as areas around the tropics roast — a scenario far outside even the worst-case projections of climate scientists.

After reading a newspaper column in which Dr. Lovelock predicted disastrous warming, Mr. Bloom teamed up with Deng Cheng-hong, a Taiwanese artist, and set up blogsites showing designs for self-sufficient Arctic communities.

Mr. Bloom, a 1971 Tufts graduate, told me his intent was to conduct a thought experiment that might prod people out of their comfort zone on climate — which remains, for many, a someday, somewhere issue.

I interviewed Dr. Lovelock two years ago on his dire climate forecast and prescriptions — and also his ultimately optimistic view that humans will muddle through, albeit with a greatly reduced population. There’s a video of my chat with Dr. Lovelock on my blog.

“At six going on eight billion people,” Dr. Lovelock told me, “the idea of any further development is almost obscene. We’ve got to learn how to retreat from the world that we’re in. Planning a good retreat is always a good measure of generalship.”

The retreat, he insists, will be toward the poles.

It’s a dubious scenario, particularly on time scales shorter than centuries. But — as we’ve written extensively in recent years — there is already an intensifying push to develop Arctic resources and test shipping routes that could soon become practical should the floating sea ice in the Arctic routinely vanish in summers.
Sensing the shift, the Coast Guard has proposed establishing its first permanent Arctic presence, a helicopter station in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost town in the United States.

It’s not a stretch to think of Barrow as a hub for expanding commercial fishing and trade through the Bering Strait.

The strategic significance of an opening Arctic recently made the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine, in an article by one of my longtime sources on this issue, Scott Borgerson, a former Coast Guard officer who is now a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“It is no longer a matter of if, but when, the Arctic Ocean will open to regular marine transportation and exploration of its lucrative natural-resource deposits,” he wrote.

So even if humanity isn’t driven to Arctic shores by climate calamity at lower latitudes, it’s a sure bet that the far north will be an ever busier place. Urban planners, get out your mukluks.

I sent a note back to the Dot Earth blog that reads:

Thank you for posting this nice introduction to the polar cities
thought experiment. Am looking forward to reader reaction pro and con.
We talk alot these days about mitigation, and we need to. And
geo-engineering ideas are also very important. But "adaptation"
strategies, if worst comes to worst, will also be vital.

Below is the exact sentence from Dr Lovelock's oped piece that started
me off in this direction more than a year ago. It was his "breeding
pairs" remark that jolted me awake. Deng Cheng-hong in Taiwan, the
illustrator who made a series of computer-generated "blueprints" using
the SketchUp software, deserves special mention for visualizing what
was at first just a very rough black-and-white sketch that I drew on a

"We are in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and
before this century is over billions of us will die and [*the few
breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic*] where
the climate remains tolerable." -- (James Lovelock)

Mr. Deng's images have now been tracked across the Internet in posts
that have appeared in English, Japanese, Spanish, French, Korean and
Chinese. I hope these are just the beginning of many other conceptual
drawings of what future Arctic habitats might look like in the far
distant future.

By the way, while Dr Lovelock says "at the end of the century, meaning
2100 AD, and in recent interviews in the Guardian and Daily Mail in
the UK has mentioned the dates of 2020 and 2040 as when this will
occur, my own (more naive) thinking dates these polar cities as being
inhabited around the year 2500 AD. So we have 30 more generations to
start thinking about these human population retreats, planning them,
designing them, siting them and even pre-building them.

One possibility is our own generation, now, is to build a model polar
city with funding from someone like Sir Richard Branson or the Google
people and letting volunteer "residents" test it out during summer
months in a place such as Norway or Iceland or Alaska, mostly as an
educational tool and public awareness vehicle. But 2500 is a long way
off, so there's plenty of time.

By the way, humor is important, too, as always. Some observers have
compared these polar city illustrations to Habitrail tubes for
hamsters and gerbils, and one wit titled his blog post "Shall the
future be lived in Gerbil Cities?"

To see what a variety of top scientists have said to me personally
over the past year, in emails in which I am keeping their names
private, you can check the pro and con statements that they have made
privately to me here:

Lastly, I also sent an email to Dr Lovelock earlier this year, to show
him the images that Mr Deng created, and the very next day I received
an email back from Dr Lovelock saying: "Thanks for showing me the
images. It may very well happen and soon."

For Dr Lovelock, "soon" might might be the yaer 2100. But naive
youngster that I am, I still say not until the year 2500. But it's
getting later earlier and earlier.



April 2008

What experts in the climate change field have told me over the past 12months:

The following quotes are from emails from scientists and experts in the field of climate change and scientific research. Since the emails were private and not intended for publication with their names attached, I have decided to keep their actual names private, keeping with international standards of Internet etiquette. -- DB

*NOTE: Below are comments, some supportive but many of them critical or negative, from scientists and professors in several English-speaking countries, and one from Russia.

Professor A: "If it comes to that, in the far distant future, as you say, we probably won't have the social stability to
sustain such advanced developments as 'polar cities'."

Professor B: "While I think that polar cities might surface as a reasonable model for future habitation, I'm still not ready to give up on reorganizing ourselves in the lower latitudes just yet. In other words, given the warming scenarios, why not simply reconstruct sustainable (and, most especially equitable) kinds of communities in northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Russia Scandinavia?"

Professor C: "With the movement of grain belts north, and the thawing of lots of open ground, wouldn't it be much easier, less costly and accommodate many more of global warming 'refugees; if we were to build closed-loop, sustainable communities in the north -- but above ground? Are your polar cities above ground or below ground?"

Professor D: "Sir, your notion of polar cities for survivors of global warming in the distant future is quite provocative -- and most interesting. My real hope is that it will help prod the conversation in the direction it needs to go. If it serves that purpose, that, alone, will be a considerable achievement."

Professor E: "I doubt I would have any useful comments to make on something 400 years from now. However, people are clever and will create for themselves very interesting living conditions as time goes on."

Professor F: "I had not heard of this idea until now. If we do not halt global warming, it is probable that by 2500 the polar areas will be quite warm. It will probably take many thousands of years to melt all the ice in Antarctica, but the northern tundra of Canada and Siberia may become more habitable and it may indeed be possible to establish cities there. However, most of the tropical and all the temperate zones will also still be habitable. In any case most people are not likely to try to make plans more than 100 years ahead."

Professor G: "The last time the Earth was this warm with high levels of CO2 was the Cretaceous Era, and at that time the temperature was not much hotter in the tropics than at the poles, so yes, I think James Lovelock is wrong. Of course we don't want to wait and see, do we? There is still a chance of stopping things before they go too far. Keep up your work, but please don't send me more questions as I have a lot of other emails and so forth to deal with."

Professor H: "If we don't take action immediately to begin reducing GHG emissions, we could end up with a planet that has habitable zones only at high latitudes. However, we probably should not forget about global warming's twin, global cooling, who still may be lurking up the road. I'm inclined to think, however, that global warming is going to carry the day as various positive feedbacks kick in. Regarding 'polar cities', I'm unclear about how long it will take the tundra to transition to a non-frozen, heavy weight bearing state, which I suppose would be necessary for construction to progress. When tundra melts, how long does it take for the muck to solidify into weight bearing soil?"

Professor I: "Civilization can gradually move to higher latitudes and altitudes. The
required times are a century more, so this will happen naturally, almost
imperceptably. This sort of shift has happened in the past as climate
has changed, leaving behind archeological sites. The world is full of
ghost towns that were populated hundreds or thousands of years ago.
Famous examples are Pompeii and Ostia Antica near Rome and the abandoned
farmsteads on Greenland, but Europe is full of them (often plowed under
by modern agriculture). Moving to the poles is more remote (the North Pole is under water). Note the global warming warms the winters, not the summers, so that
the present tropics and temperate latitudes will not become uninhabitable."

Professor J: "We'll adapt to a warmer climate. In the late Middle Ages, this is
called a Climatic Optimum. Cities naturally turn over their
infrastructure on a time of 50 -- 100 years, so the cost of moving
inland (uphill) is not prohibitive compared to the ordinary costs of
maintaining a living city."

Professor K: "Global warming warms cold winters. It doesn't affect hot places or hot
summers. Nothing is going to become uninhabitable, although places already
very hot (Death Valley, Persian Gulf, Sahara, etc.) will remain so."

Professor L: "Thank you for sending me the polar city images you have created. It may very well happen and soon."

Professor M: "As for James Lovelock and his predictions, he doesn't understand climate or
physics. He only knows that doomsaying sells books, and he won't live to
be proven wrong."

Professor N: "I am an optimist on human adaptability because history shows that humans
(and ecosystems) adapt to change. The details may be a problem (arctic and
alpine species may go extinct, millions may die in floods in Bangldesh,
though this is avoidable with sensible planning and preparation, many
coastal cities will be abandoned, etc.) but humanity will survive. If
Eskimos can survive the arctic, Bedouin the Arabian desert and various
Indian tribes the Amazon, all with stone-age technology, humanity as a
whole will survive the climate of the next 500 years, whatever it will
be. The Earth won't turn into Venus."

Professor O: "We cannot plan for future centuries ahead because technology will change so much.
Suppose we tried to plan in 1900 for cities of today -- 2008. Big apartment houses,
a small grocery on every block, ice factories in every neighborhood, express
streetcar lines everywhere, lots of TB sanitaria and isolation wards for new
immigrants, utility poles for thousands of telephone wires everywhere..."

Professor P: "I think I will pass
for the time being on writing about your polar cities idea, unless you
have some funding or other form of high-level's thought
provoking but the idea of future generations having to move to the
arctic in a few hundred years time makes me shiver, and I fear it may
sound scaremongering to others."

Professor Q: "Je crois que James Lovelock exagere peu etre un peu trop. Bien que ce
scenario reste plausible, il serait dommage que nous ne pourrions pas
changer le futur plus que ca. J'ai bien lu le livre de Mr. Lovelock et je
crois qu'il a bien dessine les possibilites atroces qui peuvent nous
attendre. Je ne crois pas d'autres parts que ses predictions nefastes qui
sont dominantes dans la derniere partie de son livre sont croyables, surtout
que celles-ci ne sont pas basees sur des recherches scientifiques assez
valables. Votre scenario de ville futuristique enfin est intrigant et, souhaitons le,
ne sera pas necessaire."

Professor S -- [Sergey Zimov, Russia, Northeast Station, Siberia]: "Thank you for your interest to the topic.
I would say yes, the world might need 'Polar Cities' some time. I think
it can happen earlier than 2500."

Professor T: "Climate change will come upon us far more rapidly than that! Year 2500 is too generous. It will happen much quicker than that! And you can quote me on that!"

Professor U: "Polar cities are a fine idea. I am sure there will be more urbanization near the poles as the Earth warms. Of course we need some planning, but it is just not something I have given much thought to. There is a guy in Holland who is promoting floating cities, so there are all kinds of ideas out there. I am a little busy to give a lot of attention to every idea."

Professor V: "I think the polar cities might surface as a reasonable model for
future habitation. But I'm not ready to give up on reorganizing
ourselves in the lower latitudes just yet."

Professor W: "I have a daughter, and in my bones I am afraid for her and her children."

Professor X: "I think the futuristic look of the polar cities graphics is blinding us to the reality that we already have "polar cities" - in Russia and Alaska. The cities portrayed somehow suggest an alien ice enviroment, but with global warming the area will actually be more human friendly."

Professor Y: "It is not productive to talk about polar cities now, when humanity needs to focus on how the
world can drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It's silly to think 200 or 300 years into future, it's more useful to
think 20 or 30 years out."

Professor Z: "If your ideas alert the public to the real dangers of climate change and global warming, then your project is a good one. But who knows what life will be like 500 from now. It might be too late by then."

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on this column on Dot Earth blog!

I do, however, loathe the concept presented here of invading the Arctic or poles with self sustaining communities as our Earth warms.

Please understand ....I’m condemning our potential infiltration of those beautiful places. I’m one who will never accept with any grace or joy that those places I hoped would remain isolated, pristine and unparalleled wild lands, will not. How terribly sad, again.

Danny, applause for your creativity and innovativeness regardless of my opinion. It is always inspiring to see a fellow Dot Earther creating, creating, creating!

For the Artic, what a major drag to hear official projections your lovely being is destined to open up to the insatiable human whose economic and consumption interests never seem to reach “enough”. The beginning of yet another end.

— Posted by Elizabeth Tjader

Anonymous said...

Since the latest data from around the globe seems to indicate that the Klimakatastrophe is progressing even more rapidly than the worst-case scenario of the IPCC (e.g. increasing glacier melting rate, decreasing oceans’ ability to absorb CO2), I tend to believe Lovelock’s predictions are spot on.

I think an interesting point to ponder on Dot Earth is: who will populate these refuges? Who will rule them? Even now, Russia and Canada are beginning to squabble (still diplomatically) over who has the “rights” to the Arctic’s resources. Fast forward a decade or two, and these squabbles may become more physical - and the Antarctic resources will begin to be more accessible, prompting conflict there as well.

Einstein once said, “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Similarly, I do not know who will find refuge from the Klimakatastrophe in the Arctic, but they will probably be refugees of the Polar Wars as well. Bloom’s design needs to include pretty strong military defences, if the polar cities are to survive.

— Posted by Yuval Kfir

Anonymous said...

The issue is whether it’s wise to populate the Arctic, exploit necessary natural resources, open up the Northwest Passage to year round traffic or to leave the North Pole in as pristine condition as possible. It should be up to Canada, the U. S., Russia, Norway and Denmark, all with legitimate territorial and geological claims to use collective common sense in any process of polar development.

Frankly, I would count on the Scandinavians to do the best job.

— Posted by juan siglo

Anonymous said...

Good work, Danny. I find Lovelock’s arguments persuasive, and backed by solid reasoning.

Geochemists I have talked to are skeptical of Lovelock, maybe because they will look too foolish if he turns out to be wrong. But these same scientists write papers about the feedback loops that Lovelock describes: ocean warming and methane burps, huge releases of both CO2 and methane from melting of tundra and peat in the boreal region, massive forest fires, and so on.

These are not science fiction scenarios. Danny, your visualizing where things may actually end up is a great idea. Living in concrete bunkers and fighting nature could very well happen, to our horror. If temperatures rise beyond what Lovelock predicts (a theoretical possibility), it may be over for all of us.

Few members of the public know about Lovelock’s predictions in detail. I wish they could be presented by a mainstream publication, and not just in Rolling Stone. Whether he is right or not, this is definitely a possible scenario.

Coal and power companies, forest rapists, and oil companies are engaging in the worst kind of criminal activities. This also goes for the faux scientists who echo their claims in denying the reality of global warming. This should be communicated forcefully to the public, since what we are really talking about is good vs. evil.

There are alternate strategies as well: I know a firm working with the major insurance and financial sectors to deny financing to carbon emitters as a way to force change, since the US government is filled with hopeless whores. Maybe this is what it will take.

— Posted by Mike Roddy

Anonymous said...


I am pleased to announce acreage for sale at the two poles.

Currently covered by glacial ice, these lots should be available for development in the next ten to fifteen years. Buy now at down-to-earth pricing. Prices will remain frozen for the next several years.

Financing available from laid-off Bear Stearns employees.

— Posted by Location. Location. Location.


''Very fascinating concept, and it's good to see that you're getting ahead of the curve.''

NYC commenter


NY Times scientist talks on climate change

Life and Style Editor
Posted: 3/25/08

"This pale blue dot - so much has unfolded," said Andrew Revkin as he looked up at a photo of earth projected on the screen.

A science writer for The New York Times since 1995, Revkin came to UVM on March 18 to talk about the issues involved in global climate change.

His lecture, "Making Sense of Climate Change from the North Pole to the White House" centered around the problems presented by a growing population, the hinders of journalism in the sciences, and the need for dramatic evidence of a warming climate to spur action.

"How do you make a big movement?" Revkin asked the audience. Even though there is evidence, climate change is happening, said Revkin, it is not as dramatic as we'd like it to be.

Although photos of drowning polar bears and foggy cities have more shock value, in all actuality, the less dramatic problems are actually the more pressing.

Scientific discoveries lacking that journalistic "punch," what Revkin called the "front page thought," are usually put in the recesses of a newspaper and, consequently, in the recesses of the public's mind, said Revkin.

In addition to journalistic obstacles, another issue with getting the word out about climate change is the doubt caused by skeptics.

"There will always be discord between scientists," said Revkin, "For every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD."

However, most of the skepticism spurs from the fact that there is no concrete data to predict the future. "We can only speculate," said Revkin.

This inability to see what's ahead also has many also wondering about the effect of our rapidly growing population.

"There are 6.7 billion people now … and it's predicted to be around 9 billion in the next hundred years," said Revkin. The all-pressing question is: what then?

With sea-level on the rise, and an increasingly more polluted earth abound, we need to be aware, said Revkin. However most people, he stated, aren't ready to be.

"Earth is increasingly what we choose to make it … and we're not ready for that responsibility," said Revkin.

"We have a lot of work to do," he told the audience after showing numerous pictures of ice depletion and discussing how 29 tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere every year.

However, the problems of climate change don't stop there.

According to a graph from shown in the presentation, spending on climate change problems has been steadily decreasing as time progresses.

"Wealth and technology isolate us from the climate risks," said Revkin about the nation's lack of concern for climate change.

"We have a finite basket of worries," said Revkin, saying that usually global climate isn't one of them.

However, there are solutions in sight.

Revkin said that much of the research not dramatic enough for the newspaper is still being discussed, and awareness is steadily increasing.

Anonymous said...

''I read your article posted on Dot Earth. That's really a great idea. You
should try to take a further step to build a prototype and have an
experiment down there in the Antarctica. But I guess this will cost a lot.
Maybe you should try to approach to some successful business men to raise
the fund. They would love the idea, and probably become your sponsors.''

Anonymous said...

"This polar city scenario is most likely going to be used as a FINAL resort. Though I am just a teenager (attempting to understand the world’s problems), I think I know enough to say that things may reverse order before this disaster may occur. It is obvious that global warming is the basis of all these problems, followed by George Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty/Act. But, as stated in “An Inconvenient Truth”, had the world stopped this problem when it would be easy, this unnatural addition to the earth’s carbon cycle would not be existent. It is still reversible-if unnecessary factories are eliminated, and if natural resources were used more often.

— Posted by some dude

Francis Bell said...

REALLY GREAT NEWS!!! Now you can not only heat and cool your home the clean , earth-friendly geothermal way-but also your pool! You also get a 30% tax break-this is really worth looking into-Francis