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Archive for April, 2014|Monthly archive page

Waterworld: Becoming the Kevin Costner Movie We Didn’t Know We Could Be

In Career, The Great Outdoors on April 10, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Why Sea Level Matters – Even if We’re Not Waterworld

Environmental textbooks like to emphasize that ours is a water world, driven by a complex hydrological system that both regulates global temperatures and nourishes the land.  But that’s not the kind of water world I’m talking about.

I’m talking about Waterworld, the 1995 post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie starring Kevin Costner.  It’s a bizarre film – and not just because its eco-friendly protagonist sports webbed toes and gills.  Waterworld’s western parallels play out on a vast, post-apocalyptic ocean where the desert is made of water and all the horses are boats.

Costner plays The Mariner, a drifter whose very nature makes him unsuited for civilized life.  The gruff nomad finds himself drawn into a woman’s quest to find Dryland, a mythic place in this distant future where the polar ice caps have melted and drowned all dry land.

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Check out what the world will look like after the ice melts!

The good news is that scientists think it will take up to 5,000 years for all the ice on Earth to melt – not the mere 500 years it took in the movie universe.

The mechanics of sea level rise are fairly simple.  Heat absorbed from the sun is warming ocean water.  Warming water expands, its extra space contributing to higher sea levels while its heat melts smaller ice caps and glaciers.

Most of the Earth’s warming over the past 40 years has been hidden in the ocean, and that’s unsettling because it took scientists almost as long to figure that out. Meanwhile, the combination of atmospheric warming and ocean warming has helped global sea levels rise 1.0 – 2.5 millimeters per year over the last century.

At the same time, global warming patterns are expected to speed glacial melt and increase tropical sea temperatures.  Sea levels are difficult to predict but could rise between 6 – 37 inches by 2100 … if Antarctica holds.

WAIS, antarctic ice sheets, map of antarctic ice sheetsThere’s a reason most research on sea level rise leads to the Antarctic.  The continent, which is covered in snow and glacial ice, holds more than 800,000 years of climate history in its ice.  With ice shelves extending off 75 percent of its coastline, Antarctica is the Big Boss for climate change.

Glaciologists agree that the Come-to-Jesus moment for sea level rise will happen when and if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) collapses.  A marine ice sheet, the WAIS could become unstable if ocean warming trends continue.  If this one ice sheet melts, it could raise sea levels more than three meters (about 10 feet).

Evidence from sediment samples in ice cores suggests the WAIS melted in previous interglacial periods.  Keeping a watchful eye is not unreasonable, especially after the recent collapses of two major Antarctic ice shelves:  The Larsen A in 1995 and the Larsen B in 2002.  While studies have since shown the Larsen A previously melted and returned, they also concluded that the Larsen B Ice Shelf was a permanent fixture during previous warming cycles.

This begs the question:  Is Waterworld even possible?

Nope!  Melting polar ice caps will not drown the entire known world – but they would rewrite it. If the polar ice caps, land ice and glaciers all melted, the Earth’s sea level would rise more than 200 feet. Swaths of North America would disappear into the Atlantic and whole countries erased, but there would still be land.

While this isn’t exactly Waterworld-type ocean rise, it would devastate already at- risk coastal cities and upend today’s geopolitical structure.

And that’s kinda the point of the film.

For a film that doesn’t openly discuss ecology, Waterworld is surprisingly preachy.  The reluctant hero is a man whose mutations enable him to live in harmony with the environment.  The antagonists, pirates who cobbled together smoke-belching combustion engines, terrorize society from an old oil tanker called Exxon Valdez.  Even its premise evolved with the idea that humans created ecological factors resulting in their own destruction.

“What was different about [Waterworld] was that it had to do with an ecological conflagration, a whole world covered in water because of human stupidity and greed,” said director Kevin Reynolds in a 1995 interview.

the mariner boat, exxon valdez waterworld,

Scientists don’t expect Antarctica to melt any time soon.  The continent, which is buried beneath feet of ice sheets, can survive warmer climates for some time before it gives way.

For now, Antarctica’s western ice sheet is safe.  But should it fail in the future, we may well be on our way to the water world Kevin Reynolds and Peter Rader envisioned.  And, as in the movie, it would be society’s destructive practices that caused it.


The Winter Soldier Is a Better Sympathetic Villain Than Loki Ever Was

In Career, Fun on April 4, 2014 at 1:07 pm

We all love the god of mischief, but if you saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier you might need to make room in your heart for another villain.

The second Captain America film takes place in a fearful post-Avengers world where government surveillance and military oversight are growing ubiquitous.  Captain America finds himself doubting S.H.I.E.L.D.’s reactionary and fear-based policies, which could easily be misused to great catastrophe.  In the midst of the storm, a new Hydra threat emerges to silence Captain America and take over the world.

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If you read the comics, watched the first film or looked up Captain America within the last year, you know the Winter Soldier’s true identity.  Steve Roger’s childhood best friend “Bucky” Barnes, who seemingly died in the 1943, has been remade by Hydra into a ruthless assassin through physical and mental manipulation.

While Loki looks like he’s having fun, The Winter Soldier is all business.  As Natasha Romanoff explains to Rogers, he completes his missions at any cost.  But his ruthlessness is not inborn but manufactured.

Contrast this with Loki who, after his redemption arc was destroyed in The Dark World, became yet another version of the Lovable Sociopath theme.  Audiences largely forgave Loki from his murderous tendencies in Thor because he had a legitimate bone to pick with his family.  The Dark World shows Loki in a less forgiving light, stripping the veil of begrudged brother away to make room for the last film in the trilogy.

bucky barnes and captain america, steve rogers sidekickThe Winter Soldier makes a bigger emotional impact as a villain because the viewer has no doubt that Bucky was a good man.  The audience see him stand up for the diminutive Steve Rogers and fight against tyranny.  He is brave in the face of danger, a champion of Captain America’s cause.  He also possesses a good-natured sense of humor that opposes Loki’s sarcasm and malicious pranks.

In one striking scene, where the movie’s main antagonist demands to see “The Asset,” viewers get a humanizing peek at the Winter Soldier, a conflicted and confused man who has been memory-wiped and tortured for more than 50 years.  The Asset, as the villains call their creation in order to separate him from his identity, is more than the brutal assassin seen moments before.  When he expresses concern that he recognized Captain America, the Hydra leader orders his caretakers to “reset” him, which they promptly do using an intense looking version of electroshock therapy.

Bucky Barnes is being used as a lethal tool by the institution he gave his life trying to destroy.  He has been divorced from his identity and forced into evil with no choice in the matter.  Bucky needs to be saved, not stopped.

A running Internet theory is that Thanos tortured Loki so badly between Thor and The Avengers that it warped his personality.  While that would lessen his moral responsibility in The Avengers, it’s not canon.  Sorry Internet, but all signs point to a business partnership between the two.

loki evil grin, loki sociopath, loki chaotic evil

Loki’s later actions in The Dark World reveal his manipulative, sociopathic nature.  Following his questionable ascent to power, it is doubtful that Loki had a sincere bone in his body.  Loki’s choices aren’t compelling because that’s what they are:  choices.

There’s nothing sympathetic about being willfully cruel.

“Mad Max” Isn’t Our Dystopian Future

In Career, The Great Outdoors on April 3, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Could the United States really devolve into a Mad Max society?

Mad Max never goes into the world-building or explains its oil scarcity – it simply is – but director/writer George Miller and producer/writer Byron Kennedy developed the idea following the 1973 oil scare.

In the months leading up to the 1973 oil crisis, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced an oil embargo in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel in an ongoing Middle East conflict.  Suddenly, oil supplies to the United States, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom disappeared.

fuel shortages in 1973, 1973 oil crisis, lines for gasoline

A massive oil shortage ensued, with lines at gas stations stretching miles.  Gas prices soared, and car makers were forced to consider making cars with higher fuel mileage rather than the gas-guzzling muscle cars of the previous decade. Many countries, suddenly aware of their energy insecurity, began rethinking their energy policies.

However, once the crisis resolved itself, those same governments pushed energy security down a lengthening list of concerns.  Oil dependency went largely forgotten, and that shows in Miller and Kennedy’s film.

The government in Mad Max didn’t consider alternate fuel sources until it was too late.  With oil scarcity making transportation difficult, essential items such as food skyrocketed in price.  Roving marauders took to the roads, interested in stripping cars for profit as much as they were in finding fuel.  Unable to contain the violence, the government began to collapse.  Anarchy ensued.

If the United States is ever hit with a sudden crisis, we might find ourselves living in a similar world.  Private transportation, food delivery and basic manufacturing rely overwhelmingly on oil supplies.  At bare minimum, an oil shortage could make food prices skyrocket.  Two fuel shortages in the 1970s and a localized fuel crisis following Superstorm Sandy in 2012 demonstrate the need for Americans to consider alternate modes of personal transportation as well as overall energy diversification.

superstorm sandy gas rationing, gas rationing 2012, hurricane sandy gasoline shortageThe problem during Sandy wasn’t a lack of fuel but a lack of access.  Gas stations were unable to pump gasoline to waiting cars.  Lines formed.  New York and New Jersey governors Cuomo and Christie imposed rationing systems, which met with criticism and resistance from aggravated drivers.

Unless he or she is a “prepper,” someone who plans ahead for potential disasters, the average U.S. citizen is unlikely to store extra fuel.  In the short term, Sandy points out vulnerabilities and gives companies incentive to diversify their investments with electric and natural gas-fueled cars.

Sudden catastrophe aside, the United States won’t devolve into a Mad Max society because, as oil supplies dwindle, economic power will shift.  Early price increases during a prolonged fuel shortage won’t hold up to truly innovative minds, those corporations flexible enough to embrace change rather than fight for the status quo.

Bike-walk trails are increasingly being woven into existing urban infrastructure.  The Maria Ignacio Creek Trail in California connects with several other trails to provide safe travel to bike-walk commuters.  Cities such as Hoboken and Pittsburgh added more bicycle lanes to city streets, making the roads safer for non-motorized transportation.

Though full or hybrid electric-powered vehicles are still viewed as an expensive luxury for personal transportation, prices are surprisingly low.  In an article on EV Obsession, green tech writer Zachary Shahan lists 11 plug-in electric cars that are cheaper than new cars fueled by gasoline.  Though not ubiquitous, the consumer who can afford a new or slightly used car can now transition easily to electric vehicle (EV) technology.

Natural gas has taken off as an energy source for heating, electricity generation and residential stove tops.  However, natural gas vehicles are hindered by a lack of existing infrastructure.  While natural gas-powered vehicles are already becoming popular in commercial fleets where vehicles can regularly return to a central fueling point, the technology is reluctant to take off in everyday uses.   Who would buy a car without knowing where to refuel it?

Still, natural gas could become the fastest-growing energy source in the world within 25 years, writes NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten in his 2012 article, The Dash for Gas.

 “The energy trade is an important determinant of the global balance of power, and the shift to natural gas will introduce a new set of winners and losers, bringing greater independence to many countries and reducing the energy leverage that oil producers have traditionally enjoyed,” Gjelten writes.

Change is difficult and unpleasant.  Perhaps that is why social collapse happened in Mad Max.  Perhaps scientists warned of a coming fuel shortage only to be ignored by officials made complacent by past success.  After all, when new information challenges our notions of the world our first act is often to discredit the source.

Since natural gas is itself a fossil fuel, it is not a final answer to energy security.  Electric cars have a fair share of faults, too.  It is human nature to want a simple answer when the truth requires articulation, so it’s fair to guess the real answer is a combination of new technology and conservation.  Relying less on the roads may be the only way to prevent this dystopian film from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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