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In a year of extreme weather events, past cataclysms help learn

The Perito Moreno Glacier dam rupture is a recurrent partial collapse over the Brazo Rico and Brazo Sur branches of Lago Argentino. Every two to four years, the giant circus of blue and white ice collapses thunderously into the water, attracting thousands of tourists around mid-March.

Perito Moreno is one of the few glaciers effectively advancing in the world, though what watchers seek isn’t a contemplative view of its mighty while hiking nearby, in the fashion of 19th century Romantics climbing the Mont Blanc to assist to the panoramic of the Mer de Glace, a Sea of Ice above the valley of Chamonix that nowadays resembles somewhat a receding creek.

Postcard of the Mer de Glace above Chamonix (Mont Blanc, French Alps, 1870)

In our perception of nature, we find pathways for inspiration and introspection but also a clock of our fate as a civilization.

A year of perceived acceleration?

As the weather becomes more erratic, episodes of intense heat that dry soil moisture, when followed by heavy rains, cause the liquefaction of riverbeds and even rock avalanches. The electric grid hasn’t adapted to rising temperatures and soaring demand (which increases when the malfunction risk increases, causing fires).

In temperate zones, fire seasons last longer and intensify. In contrast, alpine and Nordic areas deal with the effects of hotter summers that turn previously frozen or firm ground into malleable terrain.

By mid-August, Canada reckoned with a record fire season, wondering about the new normal, and the Mediterranean basin experienced a heat wave once again this summer; heavy rains over central Germany flooded cities like Frankfurt, which canceled flights and closed the metro and several roads with underpasses below water; and southern California experienced a rare tropical storm, flooding the state’s desert valleys and filling Palm Springs in mud.

If images (or short videos) are sometimes worth a thousand words, there are opportunities this summer of record breaks. Just in the last few days, there are homemade videos of mudslides, a rock avalanche in the Swiss Alps near Italy, which blocked the railway connection between Italy and France and several local roads, as well as the view of swelling mountain rivers in the Austrian provinces of Carinthia and Styria after torrential rains.

The picturesque Gasteinerfall Waterfall in the city center of Bad Gastein, Salzburg, runs narrow this time of the year, but after 24 hours of heavy rain, it hammered its rocky riverbed, threatening nearby vegetation, bridges, and buildings, as vast amounts of muddy water came tumbling down with surreal force and noise.

What insurers want to tell you

If the record temperatures and the effects of heatwaves, fires, and storms followed by floods weren’t enough, we’re also reckoning with record temperatures in marine regions. As the oceans absorb most of the excess heat, water temperatures are rising also, causing new stress levels to marine ecosystems.

None of such events are extraordinary in isolation, and most of them are bigger versions of recurrent events like El Niño, which shows up every two to seven years. Warmer and drier summers in temperate zones and warmer and wetter tropical weather will cause known disruptions like fires and tropical infections, respectively, only at a bigger scale.

With El Niño, warmer ocean currents in the Equatorial area of the Pacific Ocean increase floods and storms, leading to intense hurricanes in some places and worse-than-normal droughts in other areas. The difference is that extreme events are getting more intense and frequent. And this time, El Niño, which is about to start, could be especially virulent.

Archaeologists work in bringing the prehistoric landscape of Doggerland back to life using advanced mapping; the landscape of this landmass that connected Britain to the continent was a blend of gentle hills, marshes, wooded valleys, and swamps; the perfect seasonal hunting ground

Are we preparing as individuals and as societies for the challenges of reducing the possible risk associated with increasingly erratic weather? If we were to ponder our response with the updated risk assessment of insurance companies like Allstate and State Farm, which have scaled back their home insurance offers in areas considered too risky to insure, like fire-prone rural California or hurricane-prone Louisiana, the answer is no.

Are insurance companies being alarmist? Why not raise their premiums to tackle a higher risk perception instead of leaving some markets uninsured altogether? At market rates, and given the losses caused by natural disasters in 2022, some companies think they can’t afford the risk.

When everybody is a prepper

Droughts followed by floods in temperate zones or epidemic outbreaks in tropical areas experiencing wetter-than-normal weather will also affect food security as some staple crops can bring synchronized low yields across different regions. As of now, for example, the global rice market is under stress as India has pre-emptively banned exports to avoid potential shortages.

How do you prepare for a winter of potential storms and floods? There’s little that households can do in the grand scheme of things beyond ensuring we’re getting emergency notifications, winter-proofing our streets and driveways, clearing perimetral ditches, and maintaining drainage. At home, whether we live in a house or a building, we can check for leaks, clear gutters and downspouts, and repaint the parts most exposed to the weather.

As heavy rains arrive more often, preparedness lists also become a concern, and more and more people stock water pumps, flood bags, and non-perishable food to be ready if anything unexpected disrupts immediate services and communications, if only temporarily.

Is planning for disaster protection a new form of procrastination? In areas especially prone to extreme weather, being proactive to avoid damage and risk as much as possible can save money and help prevent heavy damage. With a big part of its territory below water level and flatlands threatened by North Sea storms during its history, the Netherlands has built a national character around infrastructure maintenance, water management, and food security.

Meet the Netherlands

As a consequence of consistent policies to keep water at bay with a series of ocean barriers and drainage canals, the Netherlands is among the biggest net exporters of food: it sells meat, dairy products, vegetables, and flowers to the rest of Europe and the world, becoming the second largest exporter of agricultural products by value in the world, only behind the United States.

The Dutch have also pioneered big infrastructures to tame cataclysmic risks to its very own existence: the port of Rotterdam, the biggest in Europe by volume, controls water levels by opening and closing the Maeslant barrier, a storm surge protection system consisting of two 210-meter long barrier gates that close upon each other when necessary.

Situated along the edge of land reclaimed to marshes and the sea (polders), the Netherlands installed rows of windmills that operated as windpumps to help drain the land since the end of the Middle Ages. Such systems were transformed with the Industrial Revolution and are automated nowadays, though the country’s collective unconscious still identifies with the necessary preparedness to avoid catastrophe.

Evolution of Doggerland during the Last Ice Age

Despite historic storms, the country’s land reclamation during the 20th century added 1,650 square kilometers (640 square miles), albeit this land wasn’t added by conquest but by drying flood plains below sea level. Today, 21% of the Dutch population lives below sea level, experiencing among the best living standards in the world.

How did the Dutch transform a palpable and threatening crisis into an opportunity? The answer could have something to do with the country’s collective capacity to acknowledge big risks realistically, and then making sure that collective and individual goals are aligned long term to, in this case, literally maintain the country not only livable and dry for people to live, but prosperous for most people to thrive.

When places decide to change their ways

Other societies, while they may chuckle in admiration when they visit cities like Utrecht and experience for the first time morning or late-day bicycle-traffic rush hour, won’t consider undergoing similar policy processes for, say, reducing traffic congestion and pollution in city centers by building bike lanes and incentivizing bicycle use. It wasn’t always like that: a few decades ago, Dutch cities experienced as much traffic congestion and pollution as in the rest of Europe.

Yes, there are such things as “bike buses” (collective bicycles where all children cycle together to move it) and massive, exclusive bicycle parking to help mobility assisting the Dutch Formula 1 Grand Prix: even unrestrained petrol heads can cycle to their local F1 on a bike and no one will complain of humiliation or obscure conspiracies against freedom or virility. Such policies may seem a stretch too wide for other societies, yet no big demonstrations have haltered Dutch decisions like creating gigantic perimeters for bike parking around the country’s main airports and train stations. (It rains in the Netherlands. A lot.)

Yet not even small, successful, cohesive societies capable of keeping big risks at bay through decades-long, sometimes centuries-long, policies and existential character could placate the peaking effects of a higher degree of extreme weather or cataclysmic events.

If we were to consider the timeframe proposed by San Francisco-based The Long Now Foundation, one in which “now” equals our 3-day present (comprising what’s happening between yesterday, today, and tomorrow), “nowadays” is a 3-decade scope (last decade, this decade, next decade), and “the long now” comprises 20,000 years (from 8K BC to the future in 12K CE), not even one society as successful as the Netherlands could have survived to some of the catastrophes that changed nearby geographical areas.

The tsunami that transformed Doggerland forever

For those unfamiliar with the Northern European territory that once linked France, the Low Countries, Germany, and Denmark with the British Islands in a sole free-roaming land body for animals and humans, the land bridge of Doggerland was a geographic reality for millennia during the Ice Age, then it vanished when it was flooded by rising sea levels around 6500-6200 BCE.

We know Doggerland was a rich habitat for megafauna and probably hosted thriving human populations during the Mesolithic. In a few centuries, vast and fertile plains turned into marshes, and the Channel River (whose tributaries were, among others, the River Thames and the Rhine) became the English Channel.

From their day-to-day perspective, life must have felt quite stable and rosy for the prehistoric inhabitants of Doggerland: an abundance of berries, game, and fish to collect. Vessels have collected from the area remains of human tools, mammoths, lions, and indications of settlements, perhaps thriving farming communities at the edge of a continent warming up after the Last Glacial Period.

1902-4 picture of a group hiking across the Sea of Ice (Mer de Glace, Chamonix)

As the planet warmed, ice receded in Scandinavia, making the Doggerland tundra ideal for hunting. But the sea also rose, albeit gradually and over long periods. Though we know of at least one event that sped societal collapse in a vast area of Northern Europe, whose echoes probably resonated in prehistoric mythologies for generations: the climatic shift turned out to destabilize the southernmost shore of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and, around 6150 BC, a 190-kilometer shelf of sediment was dislodged off the coast of today’s Norway.

The event created a tsunami so big that the wave in the North Sea devastated the coast of the region; models estimate that it would have reached twenty-one kilometers inland (twice as far as the 2011 Fukushima tsunami), submerging and swamping the whole Doggerland. As Peter Frankopan explains in his last book, The Earth Transformed (page 75):

“(…) the most recent research suggests that the tsunami may have created an archipelago of islands that only later disappeared as sea levels rose around 5000 BC.”

Crisis and opportunity

A tsunami changed Northern Europe to the point of creating archipelagoes and separating Britain from the continent, submerging underwater whole regions that may have hosted some of our ancient relatives.

The following generations of prehistoric Europeans and other populations worldwide experienced other civilization-threatening cataclysms that may have wiped out entire populations. Among other events, the Meltwater Pulse 1C, which peaked in 6000 BC, produced a rise of over six meters of sea level in 140 years (or in the span of only 5 human generations).

Also, around 6000 BC, a volcanic landslide off Mount Etna, in Sicily, caused a megatsunami in the Eastern Mediterranean that destroyed coastal civilizations in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Other regions experienced their extinction-scale events as well. In South America, an eruption in the Andes (Cueros de Purulla, current Argentina) in 5870 BC changed the global weather patterns for years. And, in 5700 BC, Mount Mazama (current Oregon) erupted, creating the Caldera and lake we now know as Crater Lake (one of our family’s favorites).

As for the mentioned tsunami that wiped out Doggerland the way its inhabitants had known it, the stem analysis shows that the tsunami happened late enough in the year to sweep away people fishing and hunting in the region. According to Frankopan:

“Those who managed to survive would have struggled to make it through the winter because of the loss of their dwellings, boats, equipment, and supplies.”

But the catastrophes that marked the end of the Last Ice Age were the prelude to a world with milder weather and perfect conditions for humans to spread plant and animal domestication.

As the etymology of the Chinese word “Wei Ji,” the crisis engendered an opportunity. A little after, the first civilizations flourished in the Mediterranean Basin, the Fertile Crescent, the Indus Valley, China, Mesoamerica, and the Andes, and Eastern Africa.

Working with or against

Over many human generations, changing weather patterns brought habitat transformation for flora and fauna. Complexity of societies also changed, a process that ramped up speed at the beginning of the Bronze Age:

“Changing climates did not create the need for political systems, pave the way for the rise of towns, cities or states or lead to the development of writing systems. All were the product of rising population numbers, greater demands on water and food resources in particular, and the need for social organization. And yet, the role of the environment was central to all. If societies were going to survive and flourish, humans would need not only to dominate nature, but to bend it to their will.”

The total human population in 3500 BC comprised around 10 million people (sources).

Today, there are 8.1 billion humans on the planet. The current extreme weather is aggravated by our activity in the last two hundred years, and more than bending nature to our will, we can learn to align our interests with the health of ecosystems. Or, put by naturalist Bill Mollison:

“(…) a philosophy of working with rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action: of looking at systems and people in all their functions rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions. A basic question that can be asked in two ways is: ‘What can I get from this land or person?’ and ‘What does this person have to give if I cooperate with them?’ Of these two approaches, the former leads to war and waste, the later to peace and plenty.”