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What the La Brea tar pits and Maldivian floating cities can tell us
At the end of a summer of glaring sun, extreme heat, raging wildfires, and torrential rain, it's time to head back to school. Today I've seen students wearing big over-ear white headphones and sunglasses walk by outside, crossing briefly between air-conditioned spaces, carrying eco-friendly dark grey water bottles. They look modern and well-off. They're in their own well-calibrated worlds. Who wouldn't want to control their environment as much as possible?
I remember as a child being taken to Mid-Wilshire to visit the La Brea tarpits. I found the whole thing mystifying. Wait, we're standing on concrete walkways looking down on dark muddy circles of stuff? And animals got stuck there tens of thousands of years ago? I have a distinct memory of too-bright LA sunshine, the school buses that brought us there, and a sort of numb shock that there were layers of lives in the glop below us. It seemed like an intrusion. What were tar pits doing near department stores? We were given head-spinning explanations of what we were seeing, and then we walked away from those black holes, got back on the buses and headed home.
Those tar pits are in the news this week, and the story is worth your time.
Between 14,000 and 13,000 years ago, the temperature in Southern California went up 5.6 degrees C (10 degrees F). This was a long warming phase at the end of the last ice age, and the rise was natural; there have always been oscillations like this. At about the same time, though, humans arrived in the area, bringing fire with them. The trouble was that those early Angelenos had few ways to put *out* the fires they lit.
Out of control fires raged across the landscape, with the result that, over just 200 years, almost all the large mammals vanished. Just like that! Giant beasts that had been there for thousands of years, like camels and huge snaggle-toothed cats, were completely gone. And the tree canopy that had been there was gone too. Scientists figured this out based on fossils in the La Brea tar pits and mud cores from Lake Elsinore. After about 13,000 years ago, the only big mammal bones in the pits were from coyotes. (LA still has coyotes.)
We're experiencing warming today that is climbing ten times more quickly than that earlier surge, and the scientists who carried out the La Brea study note that over the last 45 years California has seen a "fivefold increase in fire frequency and intensity and the amount of area burned." That earlier burning led to a truly dramatic ecosystem shift, a tipping point, wiping out both flora and fauna forever.
This study shows us that human activities, like sparking fires or building giant coastal developments, can combine with climate change to work extraordinarily destructive changes in ecosystems. The particular climate change we're living through is moving exponentially faster, surprising scientists as well as the rest of us. There are many more humans on this earth than there were 13,000 years ago. Events that feel extreme today, like wildfires and floods, will soon become chronic. What goes extinct this time around?
It is not helpful to catastrophize, of course, but I am fascinated by the folding of time signaled by this La Brea study. What images! Giant creatures cut down by fire, all the trees they like to eat wiped out, early humans just wanting to warm themselves causing howling havoc—all being considered during a month in which a tropical storm arrived in Southern California and Canada continued to burn.
What should be done to help humans? This week, the Maldives are looking at floating cities, according to der Spiegel. The newspaper points out that the units will cost between $150,000 and $250,000, "more suited to the upper-middle-class in the Maldives, where average annual salaries hover around $11,000." They'll take a lot of cement to build, and getting waste out and electricity/communications in will take clever engineering, but their Dutch designer, Koen Oithuis, says they will last 100 years. Will it end up as a gated community? Is it more of an effort to escape (no more wildfires!) rather than improve reality? Is it more than just a drop in an endless bucked of need? Just 20,000 people will live there, but there are millions and millions around the globe who will need safety.
Well, this is the point of back to school time. These are the students, those hopefully well-hydrated people in their own content-filled narratives of sound, who will be trying to figure out how to live. They have just traveled through a summer of essentially back-to-back climate field trips: it's happening, and it's all around them.