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July 3, 2011

The world in 2050

Category: General

The book, The World in 2050 – Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith is about the future of all land and oceans lying north of 45° north latitude belonging to the United States (i.e. Alaska), Canada, Iceland, Greenland (which is a part of Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. These countries all border the Arctic Ocean and the author coins the term NORC countries for referring to them, Northern Rim Countries.

The subtitle for this book is “Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future”. Those four forces are:

  • Demography (basically about the changing populations)
  • Growing demand on natural resources, services and gene pool
  • Globalization
  • Climate change

I borrowed this book from the library but as I read it I found it was so rich in information that I wanted to own a copy for future reference. So rich is this book that I’ll focus only on a little of what I learned about the last of the four forces, climate change.

Climate models

The book talks about many of the things happening now regarding climate change and its effect on the north, some of this is mentioned below, but for the future the predictions are left to climate models.

A main point is that “climate” models are not “weather” models. A weather model makes a short term prediction, what the weather will probably be like this coming week. A climate model predicts for decades ahead. Over that period of time there will be variations and not everywhere will experience the same changes.

An analogy is made with the stock market. Anyone who gambles in the stock market knows that if you buy a stock and intend to hold onto it for a while, you ignore the daily ups and downs and pay attention only to the long term trend. The mean global temperature experiences the same thing. The problem is that people don’t realize this and on a cool year they change their mind about climate change and say it’s not happening. This year to year variation can be seen below while the overall trend is clearly rising.

Source: NOAA

The book also points out the common mistake people make in judging whether or not climate is happening based on their local climate. Climate change models predict climate on a regional or larger scale.

How can a climate model be tested if it’s a prediction of a future that hasn’t happened yet? It’s tested against past data to see if it can reliably predict the present. If it can’t then the model is either modified and tested again or it’s discarded. If it can then it’s used to predict the future climate while tweaking one parameter, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Changes in precipitation

Worldwide precipitation (rainfall) changes are expected to happen as a result of climate change. In fact this is a thing that the different climate models agree on very well.

The following is taken from the International Panel on Climate Change Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report page 47. The caption under it in the report says “Relative changes in precipitation (in percent) for the period 2090-2099, relative to 1980-1999. Values are multi-model averages based on the SRES A1B scenario for December to February (left) and June to August (right). White areas are where less than 66% of the models agree in the sign of the change and stippled areas are where more than 90% of the models agree in the sign of the change. {WGI Figure 10.9, SPM}”.

Notice that the northern countries, the south and the band straddling the equator are expected to get more precipitation while the areas in between are expected to get less.

Permafrost changes and the resulting problems

I’ve long known that the permafrost in the north is melting. I was reassured to learn from this book that it will never completely melt. But enough will melt to cause problems and already is.

I recall seeing photos of pipelines run along areas of permafrost. The pipes were raised up off the ground and I never knew why. It turns out that’s to keep the pipes from heating up the ground and melting the permafrost near the top. If that permafrost melts then the soil becomes loose, even swampy, and the pipe no longer has a solid ground to support it. Joints may then break. But if the permafrost is melting anyway as a result of climate change then raising the pipe up no longer helps.

I’ve also long known that that permafrost contains methane but what I didn’t know was where that methane comes from. The methane is in the form of frozen dead organic matter. When the permafrost melts, that organic matter decays just as food taken out of your freezer and left too long on a table decays. That decay is a result of microbes eating away at it and methane is released as a byproduct. Methane is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Shortening ice road seasons

It’s become common knowledge that for many northern communities, the only roads to them are temporary roads across frozen lakes that are frozen for only so many months of the year. One side effect of climate change that’s pointed out in this book is that the period of time for which those lakes are frozen is getting shorter and shorter. This also affects some mining concerns in the north that require the ice roads to be available for a minimum length of time for their businesses to be viable.

Melting arctic ice

You’ve probably heard that the arctic ice is melting more and more each year. Some of the ice never melts and never will melt but the amount of that permanent ice has been lessening at an alarming rate over the past decades. The non-permanent ice actually refreezes each winter but the thickness and extent of it is lessening. The following diagram shows the minimum extent of sea ice during selected years.

Source: NASA

One key thing the ice does is reflect sunlight back to space. With less ice there is less of this reflecting area. The exposed ocean water is dark and absorbs the sunlight, converting it to heat. That’s why the ice is vanishing at an alarming rate, it’s a feedback effect. The more ice that melts, the more dark area there is to create heat, and the more heat there is, the more ice melts.

You’ve probably also heard that there’s oil and other resources under that melting ice and that countries are vying for it. This is true but what’s not true is that there’s any military buildup or future conflicts that will result. In 2007 two Russian subs were lowered under the North Polar ice and planted a flag but this was just a stunt performed by private companies.

In fact there is a UN agreement and process called UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) which all NORC countries adhere to and are using to determine which areas fall under their respective jurisdictions. This process is not yet complete but is a peaceful one that will be completed conflict free.

The other change brought about by the melting ice is that the northwest passage, the route from east to west just over mainland Canada, will be open water for longer periods of time. However, as this book points out, it will still never be navigable 100% of the year. The traffic that will pass through it will not be traffic bringing goods from Europe to Asia, for example. It will be traffic that has business in the north: mining, research, delivering supplies to northern communities and so on.


The above is a quick synopsis of a small subset of what’s in this book, and even then, only the climate change subset. I would definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in what the future may look like.

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