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11 April, 2011

Once and Future Islands

Early March found me in the Skagit lowlands, field after field of flat. Not much growing now, just puddles of rain and snowmelt. And maybe the water table coming up. Meanwhile, on NPR, the US Navy's chief meteorologist was being interviewed. The military is not exactly a bastion of liberalness (the policy for left of center personnel is Don't Ask, Don't Tell, with no end in sight), but when it gets down to brass tacks (or shell casings) they don't have a lot of patience for cockamamie right wing theories that fly in the face of science. A lot of math was developed with trajectories in mind; physics, chemistry, and materials science are at the heart of many a weapons system. Communications, surveillance, keeping copters and jets in the air,..the list of military needs that won't work on the basis of Creationism or Faith goes on and on.

This extends to long term planning, which is where the admiral came in. A scary proportion of Republican congressmen may deny the existence of global warming, but the US Navy sure as hell doesn't. They know that the sea is rising, and that the rate could suddenly increase if and when the Greenland ice reaches a tipping point and starts flowing into the sea at more than the accustomed glacial speed. They know that this will bring them headaches ranging from submerged and storm-battered bases to increased geopolitical stress and strife as populations migrate inland and fresh water tables are salinated. I'm sure the admiral would love to believe that it won't happen, but he knows better.

The low fields of western Skagit county have tasted the ocean before, and will again. The hills that poke up through the coastal sediments, long seen by farmers as intrusions into an otherwise nice field, will once more become islands. The dikes that have held back the Salish Sea will be gobbled by it, deltas will erase levees and fan out. 

All this in a blink of a celestial eye, a tic of geological time. The far-flung flats are no older than the last glaciation, anyway. The waters of the straits and sounds, seemingly so protected from the ocean and buffered by islands, rise and fall with wild abandon in just the short time that humans have been here. Not entirely because of water being frozen and then released, either. The land itself rises and falls as glacial weights pile on and flow away, as the oceanic plate plows beneath the continent, as faults give way. Some of the San Juan islands bob up rather gently on the rebound after glaciers leave, while others were thrust up suddenly from deep in the earth during subduction zone quakes that dwarf anything humans can recall. 

The Japanese quake and tsunami remind us that cities can be erased suddenly, landscapes altered in a day. (The geologists' office where I work displays a quote from Will Durant, "Civilization exists by geologic consent, revocable without notice.") The climate's change promises us a less obvious, but far more widespread, alteration of our earth. We humans, clinging to the coast, are in for some hard lessons, especially if we insist on denying what is demonstrably true because it does not comport with short term political goals or a particular religious outlook. Reality won't wait for the slow-witted, and even if they manage to make an ark, their drifting voyage will find whatever shores it may reach already occupied by people who operated not on faith, but on knowledge.

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