• Otter Views: Heat, Ice, Sci-Fi Silos

    Tuesday morning broke bright, hot and still, promising highs in the mid-80s. Retrieving the Herald from its landing place on the porch, I confirmed this with the weather page, then scanned the news.

    Tucked behind Boko Haram and Ukraine was a report from Antarctica. Evidently a big chunk of the continent’s western half is melting faster than previously anticipated, giving low-lying coastal areas something new to worry about.

    In that regard, a photo from a recent issue of the New York Times popped into mind. It showed a man wading barefoot across a flooded street in Miami Beach. Shoes and socks held aloft, he splashed toward his dry cleaning business, its doorway just inches above the water.

    What made the photo arresting was its vivid color. The sky was blue, the clouds puffy white, the flooded street teal green. Sunlight shone brightly on the multi-colored art deco storefronts. This was, the companion article explained, an example of “sunny day flooding,” a new phenomenon Miami Beach is seeing with increasing frequency.

    The sunny day floods are caused not by local rains or ocean surges or even storm runoff from elsewhere, but by sea level rise. And it’s not the sea level rise a Californian might picture, where ever-higher waves or tides breach coastal flats. This is even weirder.

    Because Miami Beach sits on a porous limestone foundation, the “sunny day” flooding bubbles up from underground. At high tide, salt water gurgles out into the streets through the very storm drains and gutter systems designed to send it the other way.

    So far, sunny day flooding affects only Miami Beach employees who have to take off their shoes and wade to work. What’s troubling is that they’re getting used to it. Several of those interviewed made jokes about the situation. Maybe they have stock in sandbag futures.

    Thinking about water reminded me to check my new ground cover. Hoping to convert a weedy dirt patch into a thing of beauty, I recently bought from a nursery 50 starts of pink and purple “magic carpet” ice plant. Neighbors were horrified.

    “That will take over anything growing there now,” I was warned.
    “That’s what I want,” I said. “Only weeds grow there now.”
    So I planted the 50 starts and built a little moat around each one. Then I dutifully irrigated them with my Mary Mary Quite Contrary watering can. The plants are reputedly drought-tolerant, but I figured they’d need a few shots to get started, what with this incinerating heat wave and all.

    After a few days, I realized why that particular patch had always been weedy and dirty. One by one, baby ice plants mysteriously disappeared, leaving only their sad, empty little moats. “Who’s got it in for me?” I wondered, mentally tallying fellow citizens I might have offended lately. Or could this be Cal Am? Paranoia mounted as the starts dwindled.

    Making a second trip to the nursery, I returned with reinforcements, plugged them into the empty moats, and resumed watering. Same result. Finally, walking off to work one morning, I saw a little tunnel and a fresh dirt mound that hadn’t been there the day before. Gophers! Apparently Miami Beach isn’t the only coastal area being beset from below.

    Only time will tell if the gophers and my incipient “magic carpet” can coexist, but I’m heartened to see that those species do so elsewhere in PG. Studying the gopher earthworks also reminded me of “Wool,” a sci-fi thriller I read recently.

    Originally a set of stories serialized on-line, the novel posits a future, barren, post-Antarctic earth whose atmosphere has grown too toxic to support life. Policymakers who saw this coming (or whose wars brought it on) “plant” genetically selected survivors into huge “silos” that plunge 140 stories underground.

    Over untold generations, the “planted” people forget about the surface world and spend their lives making the silos habitable and self-sufficient. They manufacture their own air, raise farm animals and hydroponic plants, recycle wastes, mine for energy, and maintain the heavy equipment that makes all the rest possible. It’s like a space station underground.

    Everything is done old school except on the highly computerized IT decks. There powerful, secretive agents enforce the founders’ mind-control protocols on everyone else. Think Dick Cheney and the NSA. Or Dick Cheney and fracking, for that matter. Anyway, the plebes buy into the IT version of events until one courageous lady mechanic starts questioning the time-honored rationales.

    Soon revolution stirs, bodies fall, perilous quests are undertaken and shocking discoveries are made. It’s a terrific page-turner, not just for the heroine’s derring-do, but also because the reader is kept underground for the 400-page duration. It’s a grim, dim, claustrophobic world under there, although the gophers probably wouldn’t agree.

    Emerging from the fictive silos back into real daylight – even bright, hot, mid-May daylight – renews my appreciation for what we have now. It’s a miraculous, delicately balanced world we share with gophers, ground covers and Miami Beach dry cleaners. We need to do right by it.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 16, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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