North American readers who can melt their frozen eyeballs long enough to read this, muh bogl, may sneer, but here in jolly old Britain we’ve not been having a great time either this Winter.
Of course, it rains – does Sherlock Holmes inhale London fog with his crack pipe? – but not like this. Not forever.
I’m told by the weathermen that there is a twisty ribbon of swirling, high-altitude wind called the Jetstream, that circles the North Pole as if round a Christmas pudding, at speeds of up to 300 mph. They have kindly shown me diagrams, so it must be true.
Anywhere to the north of the Jetstream is very, very cold. Anywhere to the south are anticyclones of low-pressure spinning-out from the equatorial Atlantic, that pick up warm water and dump it over the nearest landmass. That’s us, folks.
This winter, the Jetstream turned rogue. Over the USA, it dipped down as far as the Florida keys and everyone froze to death on lakes of steam. A blaze at an old folks’ home in Canada graphically illustrated the problem, when water from the firefighters’ hoses instantly froze over the building, creating a terrifying mausoleum of ice. While somewhere in China, it was cold enough for an army of sculptors to chip an actual sparkly city out of ice, palaces and buildings and roads, chilly bars and brothels, that tourists can go marvel at.
Correspondingly, the Jetstream hung around to the far north of northwestern Europe and we got the warm Atlantic douche instead. The British Isles have been battered for months by a seemingly unending series of low-pressure systems, generating hurricane-force wind gusts, damaging tidal surges and many inches of rain. Parts of the country flooded five weeks ago are still under water, that doesn’t get time to soak away before the next depression blows in.
Okay, it’s not the Philippines, or Haiti. We’ll live. And one benefit, it’s been preternaturally warm, just as the gas companies stuffed up their prices, expecting another lucrative cold winter, haha. Fuck ’em.
Walking with Hunzi beside our swollen river today, as another light shower crashed over us, it set me thinking. Could the Bible story of Noah have actually happened? Is it possible you could get forty days and nights of continuous heavy rain, maybe as a one-in-ten-thousand-year event?
Well, looking at the river, I’ve seen it higher. It would have to come up another five feet to match the flood we had in June 2012. That was after two days and a night of rain falling on dry ground, and a cock-up (rather, a cock-open) at the barrage. This time the rain has come in pulses, just giving time between for the water to soak in, or run away. The river, the flood defences, have coped.
So let’s assume. About ten thousand years ago, round about the end of the last ice age, something went wrong with the weather. There were plenty of people around, but not many survived. Only those that went to high ground. Those that did survive told a terrible tale of a mighty flood, that drowned nearly every living thing.
For six thousand years their descendants sat around the fire, endlessly retelling the story of the Great Flood, and the one family that survived with their livestock, microbes and all. Eventually, somebody living in Iraq who had learned a newfangled way of storing information wrote it down, just as he had heard it as a kid, heavily embellished with millennia-old storyteller stardust, but true at heart. Endlessly retweeted, the tale ended up in the Bible. So it must be true.
What might have gone wrong? I’m always happy to speculate unscientifically on any subject, as my army of Followers well knows. So let’s kick around a few scenarios.
Big Rain. Not very likely, as rainwater/river basin floods are quite shallow and don’t affect sea level. Yes, annual ‘fertile basin’ floods are important for farming and form the basis of much mythology. I don’t believe there’s a connection: this is not a river story. Even after forty days and nights – forty being a random number just meaning ‘lots’ – you’re never going to get a global inundation kilometres deep.
Besides, what weather system known today could cause it to rain continuously everywhere for that length of time?
Answer: a geological event causing massive transpiration AND sea level rise together. Asteroid impact? It would have to be on water, not on land – we can see the evidence of those. But in the deep ocean… heroic quantities of energy transfer, tsunamis a mile high circling the globe several times, superheated steam thrown skyward, falling for weeks as rain? And no visible crater. Or… Thor’s Hammer: violent airbursts of showers of hundreds of water-bearing comets, spiralling out of the Oort clouds? Or… supervolcano. Nine km-wide magma chamber fractures deep beneath Siberia, allows ingress of vast quantity of water from neighbouring underground aquifers the size of the Mediterranean, superheating steam blows lid… Result, torrents of rain worldwide.
Could something like that have happened within human memory? We’ve been here around a million years, using language for maybe 100,000 years… telling tales around the fire for what, 40,000 years? A long time for nothing cataclysmic to report. A long slow-news day.
It’s said that the Cumbre Viejo volcano on Las Palmas in the Canary Islands may be on the point of shedding a sidewall of rock 12 km long by two thousand metres high, that will slide rapidly into the sea, displacing billions of tonnes of water (what happens to the fish? I wonder). Lab tests and analysis of evidence of big waves caused by collapsing glaciers suggest this will cause a tsunami 1.5 km deep, that will cross the Atlantic at 500 mph and in under six hours rear-up over the continental shelf to inundate the entire east coast of the USA, up to 100 miles inland, with major coastal flooding as far north as the British Isles and southwards to Argentina, worldwide ripples. So…
By the end of the last ice age, there was a cap of ice covering the entire northern hemisphere as far south as Bristol, up to 3 km thick (radar measurements show that the Antarctic ice cap is 4.5 km thick in places. Imagine looking up at that thing, grinding its molars!). Why did it mostly disappear, retreating northwards so quickly – a period of less than two thousand years? One theory is gradual warming – the planet warmed up (Has the Antarctic ice-sheet survived because the land beneath stayed cold, while the Arctic ice mainly covered a warming ocean?). Another is sudden warming: again, caused by some geological event.
Either way, imagine vast lakes of meltwater forming behind an ice barrier a mile high. The warming icewall breaks along a 100 km front and slides into the north Pacific, meltwater pouring forth… Bye bye, megafauna of the tundra. Hello, Great Lakes. And, while on the subject of tsunamis, planetary near-miss? There are several suspects in the solar system, moons of Mars and so on, captured objects whose orbits could have taken them right by Earth, with huge gravitational effects on the oceans, slopping around like a cup of tea. (Have to credit Immanuel Velikovsky with that one.)
Any such events might lie behind the much-told tale, in which our hero – we’ll call him Noah – saves his family and all the animals from destruction by building a boat, that lands with a bump on a mountaintop and, as the water recedes comes down to restart the human race. (Luckily he saved the doves.)
Of course, there are other imaginable narratives that don’t involve a real flood, or not one that big. One I have heard, is that the story was invented to explain the inexplicable – unusual bones lying around, of long-extinct animal giants. It might not be too far from the truth. But this isn’t a long-ago monsters story, anymore than it’s a river story… above all, it’s a story about human hitory. And there are parallel tales told in many cultures. Right out of Sci-fi, would be the idea of a space ark – that the disaster happened on another planet, that humans arrived on Earth as survivors, carrying with them the biological materials, the DNA, to reconstruct… Nah, maybe not go there.
There is so much tantalising evidence, so many intriguing specifics in the story, that I can’t personally believe that at some long-ago but still remembered point, we didn’t have to press the Reboot button after a cataclysm. For years as a child, I dreamed of huge waves, that I was climbing higher and higher until I reached a pinnacle and saw bearing down, one last, even higher, wave. To this day, I cannot visit the sea without wondering what is keeping it in.
Oh look, it’s raining again. Swell. Time to feed the animals.
Once again, themindbogler prefigures events with uncanny prescience! This morning’s edition of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time programe on BBC Radio 4 was devoted to a scholarly debate on Catastrophism, three days after the Post above first appeared on this, muh bogl! I missed most of it, unfortunately, owing to a fearsome meteor strike on my kitchen. I’ll catch the repeat.