In the last decade, I’ve been writing about climate change a lot. Sadly, it looks as if climate change is now on a runaway course. The increasingly violent forest-fires, droughts, heatwaves floods and storms that are ravaging all part of our planet. Here in Britain, the news has focussed on the forest-fires of California, the South-Western United States, the hurricane in the Gulf, Australia’s runaway forest-fires and so on, but the problems are occurring worldwide. Every week, there is a new record for heat, storm-strength, drought or fires in some part of the world. I think it is time that we, as a species, discussed how we’re going to get through this alive, and then do something about it. The time has passed for discussing how we’re going to stop climate change; that’s a waste of time. We can’t stop it. We need to focus on a more basic challenge; our long-term survival. For anyone who feels that this is unnecessarily negative, the science is clear. Any competing information is either delusion or a lie to keep the masses docile while the fossil-fuel billionaires rake in their profits while they sort out their own lifeboats. Here’s a couple of straightforward graphs that tells us where we’re going:
Here’s an Australian temperature graph:
It’s time for us to think about survival. To start with, we need to think about food and water.
Our planet is going to become a very difficult place to grow crops. Just this week (Aug 2020), farmers in the UK have reported a terrible wheat harvest, due to our unusually warm, wet Winter and dry Spring. Many are thinking of switching to soya crops, traditionally grown in sub-tropical countries. The price of flour will increase. This will be part of a general trend, where food price will rise higher and higher, resulting in tarriffs and trade wars as countries protect their staple crop supplies. But there are more ominous factors in play and one of them is soil.
Soil degradation has being going on literally since civilisation began in 4,000 BC (or earlier). The ancient plan of ploughing soil up and planting seeds is far from ideal. It inevitably degrades the soil. Humans have avoided this negative consequence historically by finding more untouched land to farm, such as clearing woodland and draining swamps, or clearing indigenous tribes off prairie-land. More recently, countries have turned to fossil fuels. They’ve made use of massive amounts of fertilisers, created from petroleum, which has temporarily offset this degradation, but it won’t last much longer. The rate of soil degradation around our planet has been accelerating with population growth, as explained in this Guardian article. Several studies conclude that we have fifty to a hundred harvests left before what’s left the soil simply blows or washes away. This fate was dramatically demonstrated in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl disaster, where over-use of the region’s thin soils caused them literally to blow away.
The effects of climate change – hurricanes, floods, heatwaves etc – will accelerate this soil loss, causing large-scale crop failures. Plants stressed by drought and heat are more likely to suffer disease, increasing the likelihood of disease like wheat rust and banana fungus. Conflict, social disorder and wars often follow crop failures, as shown by the Arab Spring, triggered by a price rise in bread, the conflict in Syria (which occurred after a record drought) and South Sudan. These will eventually be seen as the early signs of a problem that will group everyone, including the G20 nations. The problem is that wars and social disorders exacerbate the growing and selling of crops, causing negative feedbacks. Effectively, in fifty years time, the entire global process of growing food in the open air will become severely reduced. Mass starvation and social breakdown will follow. The strategy of ploughing up the ground and planting grasses, such as wheat, was never a good long-term plan; it would inevitably have destroyed soil developed over tens of thousands of years, but climate change and population growth have accelerated its collapse.
Some readers, at this point, might wonder that as our planet warms, new areas for growing crops will appear at the poles. Unfortunately, that won’t work very well. Soil takes millennia to build up. The soils of these polar areas are far too thin and nutritionally deficient, due to the traditional cold temperatures, to grow any commercial crops for half-a-century at least.
There is also the problem of fresh-water. The global population of seven-billion has already been stressing the availability of fresh water on our planet, which is a tiny percentage of the total water content. One simple way we’ve gained our water is through the draining of natural aquifers, far faster than they’ve been able to replenish themselves. Northern India and parts of the United States are now suffering serious freshwater issues as their aquifers runs out. In addition, many nations have historically relied on seasonal snow-melt and glacier-melt to keep them supplied with fresh water. Due to climate change, this is become increasingly sparse as glaciers recede and weather systems change. Major nations are already responding to the issue of water scarcity. They are damming some major rivers, and redirecting others, so that they get all the water. This, understandably, is going to cause major international hostility and, in the long-term, will trigger wars. For a in-depth analysis of how these problems will probably unfold, I recommend the book Climate Wars, which I’ve reviewed in this blog article.
We are therefore in a desperate situation when it comes to the simple act of growing food. If human-kind is to survive, long-term, we must start making plans to develop societies that are fed by food that is grown indoors, in an environment that doesn’t constantly degrade the medium, the soil, that it is grown in, and a place that conserves its water use. Understandably, it’s going to be near-impossible to do this for seven-billion people, but we have to do something for some people, or else no one will be saved. We can’t try and continue as normal. The storms are getting larger and the outside temperatures are getting scarier. We have to get under cover.
Fundamentally, it’s perfectly possible to grow food under cover, or underground. There has been a lot of progress in the field of ‘artificial’ farming, both in the science of growing hydroponically (without soil), as well as growing crops underground. For example, an entrepreneur turned an old World War 2 bomb shelter in London into an underground salad farm, run on artificial light. It now supplies high quality greens to London restaurants. It shows that full-spectrum light, powered by renewable energy, can enable food to be grown in large quantities.
We, as a species, have also developed the skills to make very large covered structures. For example, the Russian architectural company, AB Elis Ltd, designed a domed habitat to be built in one of the largest man-made holes in the world; the Kimberlite diamond mine in Mirny, in Eastern Siberia, as described on this website. The project never reached the building stage, but its ideas and technical analysis show what’s possible. To quote from the article:
“The project would be located inside a giant man-made crater of more than one kilometer in diameter and 550 meters deep that used to be one of the world’s largest quarries. The idea is to create a new garden city that will be shielded from the harsh Siberian environmental conditions characterized by long and severe winters and short hot summers. The new city would attract tourists and residents to Eastern Siberia and would be able to accommodate more than 100,000 people. The new city is planned to be divided in 3 main levels with a vertical farm, forests, residences, and recreational areas. On of the most interesting aspects of the proposal is the glass dome that will protect the city and would be covered by photovoltaic cells that will harvest enough solar energy for the new development. A central core houses the majority of the vertical circulations and infrastructure along with a multi-level research center. The housing area is located in the first level with outdoor terraces overlooking a forest in the center of the city. The idea is to create a new type of highly dense urbanism in harmony with nature.”
It’s worth noting that in a century’s time, due to the effects of climate change, Eastern Siberia will be a very different from what it is today. It is far enough North to escape the scorching heat. It is distant from coastlines, thus avoiding storm surges and floods. It will also avoid tidal waves caused by such events as methane cathrate eruptions, sea-mount collapses and volcanic events, which will be increasingly likely in a climate-changed future, as explained in Bill McGuire’s book Waking the Giant. Mirny is also distant from major populations centres, which would insulate it from war and civic breakdown. What’s more, the Siberian climate will be more European than arctic in the next fifty years or so, enabling agricultural plants to grow, although its thin soils would need to manually enriched. The Mirny habitat is therefore a potentially vital project for Russia. The architects’ work seems to show that it is feasible, at least from an engineering prospective, to create a survival habitat. Its expected population of 100,000 people may seem a tiny number, in terms of the current population of the human race, but it is a large enough number to produce a genetically healthy population. A total population of 100,000 people is not necessarily a bad thing. Human beings are apex predators and therefore naturally should only exist in relatively small numbers. We have also survived, as a species, during times when our population was even smaller than this number. After the Toba eruption, around 70,000 years ago, the total human population on Earth, according to some calculations, fell to less than 10,000 people.
One big problem with this approach to long-term survival is that it is a huge and costly undertaking. It would be very difficult to persuade anyone with the money to pay for the construction of a massive habitat when normal farming is still economically viable. The tragic irony is that when it becomes clear that a massive habitat will be necessary, it will probably be too late to build one, populate it, grow the crops and stabilise its environment before everything falls apart.
Fortunately, there is a half-way house scenario. Instead of building a massive sealed habitat from scratch, an alternative plan is to build a domed farm. This domed farm is then turned into a habitat at a later date. There are multiple benefits to this approach. Firstly, it is becoming economically viable to build domed farms. They are far less expensive to construct, per acre, as a full-on habitat. They are also immune to the weather problems already affecting farmers. This horizon website article discusses their benefits and feasibility. Here is an extract from the article:
Huge indoor farms combining crops and livestock could transform the way we think about food, bringing exotic produce to countries such as Estonia without costing the earth.With an expected two billion more mouths to feed by 2050, the world needs to learn how to grow more food on less land. Over the last century, agriculture has intensified, dictating global diets, reducing biodiversity and contributing to global warming.With more mouths to feed every day, two recent EU feasibility studies have shown that high-yield indoor farms could be the missing link in achieving a sustainable food chain.Around a sixth of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from agricultural production. Prioritising sustainable food production will help feed Europe’s population and enable Europe to achieve its target of reducing 1990 CO2 emissions levels by 80 % to 95 % by 2050.To reach this end, the EU has put together The Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, which looks at ways to lower the environmental impact of food production and consumption, and launched the SME instrument to help small- and medium-sized enterprises optimise food production.
‘The way our food is grown, harvested, distributed and delivered to our plates, is an incredible, wasteful and energy-intensive cycle,’ said Tom Bosschaert, Director of Except Integrated Sustainability, an organisation developing innovative sustainable solutions, among which are farming systems. ‘We collected a group of scientists and studied how we could use some of the principles of permaculture to come up with an industrialised natural food system,’ said Bosschaert.
With Except, he invented the Polydome which is a type of greenhouse using complimentary crops and animals in a mini ecosystem.The relationship between these plants and animals maximises production while all waste is reused within the system, eliminating the need for artificial fertilisers.The Polydome has potential yields of 60-90 kilogrammes per square metre, diverse outputs of over 50 crops including mushrooms, chickens, eggs, fish, and honey, and can provide pesticide-free food for 3 000 to 5 000 people per hectare each year.To put that into context, the current EU average yield per hectare for single cultures of wheat is 0.56 kilogrammes per square metre, while for potatoes it’s 3.16 kilogrammes per square metre, according to a report by the EU’s in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre. Indoor farming like this can also greatly reduce water use and emissions compared with conventional farming, but with the business model for these systems yet to be widely tested we’re still some way from another agricultural revolution.
Domed farms are therefore not far off being commercially viable at this moment. It’s therefore feasible to believe that they will be built soon, as climate, storms and droughts stress all outdoor farming, lowering crop yields worldwide. If they could be built, not only with short-term commercial priorities, but with long-term climate-survival priorities, then the door could be left open for them to be upgraded and transformed into fully-fledged habitats in thirty-to-fifty years time. To make this work, domed farms would need to be placed away from coastlines, to avoid storm surges and tsunamis. Apart from that, the path to full-habitat seems viable.
Before any plans are made to setup survival habitats, it would be worth knowing if they can actually work. Would the inhabitants all starve to death in a month? Would they suffocate or go mad? Fortunately, studies have been done to find out answers to these questions.
Life in a jar
There are several examples, in the literature, of attempts to live in a sealed habitat. Perhaps the largest in scale is the Biosphere 2 project. It was constructed in Arizona between 1987 and 1991. To quote from the Wikipedia article:
“Biosphere 2 was only used twice for its original intended purposes as a closed-system experiment: once from 1991 to 1993, and the second time from March to September 1994. Both attempts, though heavily publicized, ran into problems including low amounts of food and oxygen, die-offs of many animals and plants included in the experiment (though this was anticipated since the project used a strategy of deliberately “species-packing” anticipating losses as the biomes developed), group dynamic tensions among the resident crew, outside politics and a power struggle over management and direction of the project. Nevertheless, the closure experiments set world records in closed ecological systems, agricultural production, health improvements with the high nutrient and low caloric diet the crew followed, and insights into the self-organization of complex biomic systems and atmospheric dynamics.The second closure experiment achieved total food sufficiency and did not require injection of oxygen.”
The last sentence of the quote is of particular relevance. Even though the biosphere was only 3 acres in size (about 12,000 square metres) and several stories high, it was able to achieve total food sufficiency for its eight staff. If we apply a very rough calculation, that would mean that the Mirny domed habitat plan in Russia, mentioned earlier, with its far larger cubic volume of about 500 million cubic metres, could support around 30,000 people. This is a third of the Mirny habitat’s expected population, but still within the realms of genetic sustainability.
Biosphere 2 was an extremely useful experiment but it didn’t investigate key factors in long-term sustainability. For example, it didn’t deal with failure and replacement of equipment through corrosion, stress, age-related fatigue of the main structure, repair of accidents etc. This is hardly surprising, as it’s hard to imagine how a habitat that is only three acres in size could include facilities to deal with these long-term problems. In other words, it’s hard to imagine fitting a steel foundry in one of these habitats. Fortunately, even a very large habitat might not need a steel foundry. Modern technology has given us such tools as 3-D printing. To see how a habitat with these tools might survive, we can study the HI-SEAS Isolation Habitat project.
The HI-SEAS Isolation Habitat (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) was a domed habitat, constructed in a remote part of Hawaii in 2016. Its purpose was to test the ability of a team to survive on Mars. The experiment succeeded and completed its year-long sojourn without major problems. During the year, its crew discovered many practical, and psychological challenges to living in a sealed-off dome. One of them, the doctor Sheyna Gifford, has talked candidly about her experience in this New Scientist article. She notes in the interview that naturally grown food was precious and almost magical, after months eating freeze-dried stores. She also noted how material and power were carefully managed and used. If someone was no longer useful, it was often melted down and reassembled into something new, using a 3-D printer. When it came to crew interaction and social cohesion, it seems that the HI-SEAS planners and staff may have learn from the problems in Biosphere 2, where team unity broke down and the eight-person crew split into two factions. Gifford explains in her interview that when things became difficult in terms of heating or food, the dome inhabitants retreated into their rooms, thus avoiding fractious interactions. In some ways, the success of HI-SEAS shows that sealed-dome living can succeed, even when the dome is tiny and the occupants forced to live cheek-to-jowl.
We can therefore see that people can live for long periods of time inside sealed habitats. It’s perfectly possible to grow food inside them and maintain the right air content. It’s also psychologically possible for people to live in the same big jar without going nuts or killing each other. We also have a pragmatic and feasible approach of creating domed farms, which will soon be economically viable, and then upgrading them at a later date to become full habitats. As the climate worsens and heatwaves, storms, droughts and crop failures make the outside world more and more hazardous, people will need little motivation to move into these domed farms. Eventually, the only place to live a healthy life will be inside them. They will be sealed from the outside world and people will only leave them to forage or trade vital artefacts with other domes. By the end of this century, our planet’s human population will exist inside domes similar in style to the ones at the Eden Project in Cornwall, if they’re lucky.
Quick fixes and black holes
The ‘domed farm to sealed habitat’ plan is feasible, pragmatic and can begin very soon, but it does have potential flaws. For starters, a domed farm would not normally be built to withstand hurricane-force winds, or an earthquake, or a tsunami, or armed raiders, all of which would become increasingly likely as the climate worsened and societies broke down. There is also the problem of a sudden, catastrophic event, such as a sea mount collapse in the Canary Islands, a methane-clathrate eruption in the Arctic or a volcanic eruption triggered by glacier loss, leaving us all little time to develop such domed farms before everything went Mad Max. If that was to happen, then it would be good to know that some places might be able to create a protected, underground habitat for large numbers of people at short notice.
One possible site for such a short-term plan is the enormous underground facility under Helsinki, the captain of Finland. As this ABC news report explains:
Beneath Helsinki’s surface lies nearly 500 separate underground facilities and 300 kilometres of tunnels that snake their way throughout the city — one of the most elaborate underground systems in the world.The system was created, out of the granite bedrock, to enable Finns to escape an imminent nuclear attack from the neighbour, Russia. It has power and air circulation systems and food for a lot of Finns to survive for weeks.
Helsinki’s underground network would be an excellent stage-one in developing a survival habitat. It already has several assets when it comes to a climate-change-survival habitat. It is protected from many climate change effects, since Finland is in the far North, therefore making it an excellent place to avoid dangerous surface temperatures. Its underground spaces are extensive and could be transformed into food production, making use of the new generation of underground growing technologies, as already mentioned in this article. As conditions worsen on the surface, the people of Helsinki could then carry out a second phase; constructing surface domes that integrated with their existing underground facility. Such an approach would be far more economically viable than constructing a huge habitat from scratch.
As climate change bites, it seems likely that the intelligent and resourceful Finns will extend this system and setup up large hydroponics facilities, renewable power systems and other resources to enable long-term survival, underground. Finland is a Scandinavian country – part of it is in the Arctic Circle – and so it is also one of the best places in the globe to survive in a climate-changed world (if they don’t get flattened by an Arctic methane-cathrate eruption). Finns are also known to be impressive at defending their land. The Finns’ Herculean efforts at resisting the Russian invasion in World War Two, during the Winter War, gave their fighters a near legendary reputation for hardiness, cunning and bravery. Hopefully, they won’t need to repeat such actions but many would regard it as a useful backup.
There are also many military underground complexes in existence, particularly in the United States. Many of these were developed to deal with nuclear war but there is also suspicious evidence that some of them have been built for other reasons. An internet search of the keyword ‘DUMBS’ or deep underground military bases yields a lot of alleged information. One whistleblower, Phil Schneider, talked in several Youtube videos about the dark extent of some of these facilities. He explains that he was an engineer, contracted to work with tunnelling machines for the US Military. He personally went down into huge underground bases that were linked to others, across the United States, via high-speed monorails. Unfortunately, his videos came to an abrupt end when he was found dead at his home. Individual allegations aside, there are many openly-verified underground facilities in the United States, enough in total, according to some reports, to house a million people. Mount Weather, Cheyenne Mountain and Raven Rock are the most well-known examples of these sites. It is therefore highly likely that these sites, in the event of sudden climate disasters, could act as habitats for many thousands of Americans.
The US Military underground complexes are a potential haven in the event of climate breakdown but at the same time, I am not confident that all Americans would be allowed into these military bases. Ever since its creation, the United States has been ruled by an Anglo-Saxon religious oligarchy following a Roman-style militaristic mindset. The Roman and Egyptian architecture in Washington, as well as the designs on the dollar bill, were never chosen on aesthetic grounds; they were a statement of intent. Post-war America has drifted even further down a right-wing path. I think it is now more a Spartan state than an Athenian democracy, as I’ve explained in this article. If you’re in the United States and you don’t like that military/chosen-race mindset, or you’re not eligible to be part of the dominant, Anglo-Saxon, religious, right-wing crowd, you’re almost certainly not going to get in those bases. You may not want to, either. Psychology experiments such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, described in my article Twelve famous psychology experiments, shows us that a group of humans, if left to their own devices with no oversight, can become very dark indeed. An underground, militaristic camp, ruled by a right-wing military leadership, could easily descend into horrors akin to the underground, slave-worked factories created by the Nazis during World War 2.
If you’re very lucky, by comparison, you might live in Iceland. Like Finland, Iceland is very northerly, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, and so it will avoid much of our planet’s future heat problems. It has a lot of geothermal power, giving it energy self-sufficiency. It is also investing in underground structures that it uses during the harsh winters. If Iceland began investing in hydroponics, to supply food alongside its fishing-fleet, then its population of 300,000 people could survive for a long time. Its scarcity of other resources, such as metals, would be a challenge but not an insurmountable one. It is blessed with a setup that could carry it successfully through our future climate melt-down.
In conclusion, we need, as a species, to start planning how we’re going to survive the climate-change disaster. Trying to form agreements to limit fossil fuel burning are now futile. Climate-change is on a runaway course. We need to work out a way for some of us to survive what’s to come. Many of us can survive if we gather together and begin buildings habitats. Initially, these can be domed farms, which will be profitable in the near future, making them a viable project economically. These domed farms can then be upgraded into actual habitats, large enough to sustain a population of tens of thousands, a viable number for species survival. Even if this doesn’t happen, the people of Finland and Iceland already have a head-start. They both have the facilities, technology and resources for long-term survival in a climate-changed world. They also seem like a great bunch of people. I know not all Finns and Icelanders can be as lovely as Bjork and the late Rauni-Leena Luukanen-Kilde, but the idea that they might survive makes me feel much better about our future. Onnea!