ASIA – CLIMATE BREAKDOWN’S NEW FRONT LINE

By Bill McGuire

In my last blog I reported on the unsurvivable heatwaves that lie in wait, later this century, for unsuspecting populations, particularly across Asia. Without serious efforts to slash global carbon emissions now, three quarters of the population of India will be exposed to ‘extremely dangerous’ levels of humid heat, while four hundred million inhabitants of China’s northern plain will be at severe risk of heat death.

This is shocking enough in its own right, but this week brought more bad news for the region that looks, increasingly, as if it will occupy an unenviable position in the front line as our world’s climate continues to break down. The huge populations of nations like India, China and Pakistan are only sustainable while there is a reliable food supply. This, in turn, is critically dependent upon a trustworthy supply of water for irrigation. There have been worries for some time that a failing climate will result in a more sporadic monsoon, or even – on occasion – its failure. The new research, however, brings an even greater threat.

According to the results of a new landmark study1, the glaciers of the 3,500-long Hindu Kush Himalaya mountain chain are in such a precarious state that a business as usual emissions scenario will see two-thirds of them gone by the century’s end. Even if we really pull our fingers out and slash emissions so as to keep the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C, one third of the ice will still be gone by 2100.

The reason why this scenario is so potentially cataclysmic is that the great rivers draining the Hindu Kush Himalaya – including the Indus, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow – provide the water that irrigates the crops that feed two billion people across a region stretching from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the west to China and Myanmar in the east. Cut off this water supply and the stage is set for a prodigious famine far beyond biblical proportions. The study is the work of more than 200 scientists and peer reviewed by a further 150, so it stands as a formidable work of climate science that cannot and must not be ignored.

With 15 percent of the ice already gone, since the 1970s, problems are already becoming apparent due to more erratic river flow. By the middle of the century, the authors of the report predict, river flow will ramp up as more and more meltwater cascades down from the mountains. Flood events will occur far more frequently, while population centres will also face existential danger from catastrophic deluges arising from the breaching or overtopping of high-altitude meltwater lakes.

The real problems will set in, however, from around the 2060s onwards, as river flows start to drop off in earnest as the source ice fields fade away. Not only will this have a devastating impact on agriculture, it will also ensure that hydro-power dams on the rivers can no longer function, cutting power across the region. The prospects of billions being unable to feed themselves while at the same time having insufficient power to attend to the basics of life, doesn’t bear thinking about. This is a pending human catastrophe on the grandest of scales, and yet another reason why we can’t afford to dither any longer. The honest truth is that, even if we manage to achieve net zero emissions by 2025, this still won’t be enough to stop climate breakdown in its tracks. But failing to do this will doom vast tracts of our world to the heat, dust and despair of Hothouse Earth.

1The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment

https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-3-319-92288- 1

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

COMING SOON – THE HEAT THAT KILLS IN HOURS

By Bill McGuire (ex-IPCC scientist writing exclusively for XR Blog)

Here in the UK, with snow drifting down and the papers full of warnings of the imminent arrival of ‘the beast from the east’ – the bitterly cold weather pattern that brings the worst of winter weather – it is hard to imagine that elsewhere on the planet temperatures are soaring to dangerous levels. A world away from the frost and icy wind, Australia is in the grip of an unprecedented heatwave. Last week, temperatures across much of the country topped 40°C and, in many places breached 45°C. A few days ago, at Port Augusta in South Australia, the temperature peaked at a record-shattering 48.9°C. Probably most astonishing is the record overnight temperature, which – at Noona in New South Wales – fell to just 35.9°C; an all-time record for the country. I have always thought of Australia as essentially a desert with a few green bits around the outside. The prospects for the country on Hothouse Earth are bleak, so it is particularly ironic that successive governments have proved to be some of the least climate-friendly on the planet.

The scorching temperatures down under are likely to be just the advance guard of what may well be Planet Earth’s hottest year ever. With a new El Niño looking to build across the Pacific – a phenomenon that acts to boost global temperatures as well as supercharge extreme weather – 2019 is widely predicted to be hotter than each of the last three years which, themselves, make up the three hottest on record. As a consequence, heatwaves are likely to be widespread – as they were in 2018. Last year saw unprecedented heat across four continents, especially in July, when more than 3,000 daily high temperature records and 55 all-time highs were shattered.

It hardly takes an Einstein to appreciate that heatwaves will become one of the most damaging, disruptive and lethal hazards as the world continues to heat up. According to the University of Hawaii’s Camilo Mora, one of the authors of a study published last year in Nature Climate Change, when it comes to future heatwaves ‘our options are now between bad and terrible.’ What this means is that, even if we slash greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, by the end of the century nearly half the world will experience deadly heatwaves. If we take no effective action, then three-quarters of our planet’s population will be under threat.

Furthermore, the nature of the worst future heatwaves will be very different from those currently baking Australia and that scorched much of the world in 2018, and their impact potentially catastrophic. As global temperatures continue to ramp up, a deadly conspiracy of heat and humidity, measured by the so-called ‘wet-bulb’ temperature, will bring about murderous heatwaves from which there can be no relief and no escape. When the wet-bulb temperature reaches 35°C, the combination of heat and humidity is such that losing heat through sweating is impossible for the human body. In such circumstances anyone without access to air conditioning – however young or fit – has only six or so hours to live, whether sheltering in the shade or not. Research (1,2) reveals that as the century progresses – and under a business as usual scenario – more and more of the planet will come under severe threat from such devastating heat, in particular the Middle East, South and South East Asia and China. Ground zero looks like being China’s northern plain where – today – four hundred million people toil in the country’s agricultural heartland. By the second half of the century, fatal humid heatwaves are forecast to strike the region repeatedly, effectively making China’s breadbasket uninhabitable.

No human has yet had to experience such heat-death conditions, but it can only be a matter of time. In Bandar Mahshahr (Iran) temperatures of 46°C combined with 50 percent humidity, brought conditions, in July 2015, to the very limit of survivability. Perhaps 2019 will be the year the threshold is breached, bringing a first taste of what it will be like when parts of the world that brought forth and moulded our species finally become off limits to us.

(1) http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/8/e1603322

(2) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-05252-y

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

Going Under

By Bill McGuire

If your children or grand children live within sight of the sea, then be afraid. Very afraid. Sea-level rise is set to be one of the most devastating and disruptive consequences of climate breakdown and the prospect of the oceans drowning coastal communities by the end of the century is growing by the day. The prevailing view sees perhaps a metre or so of sea-level rise by the century’s end – enough in its own right to doom low-lying islands and coastlines – but the true picture may be far worse. A number of studies suggest that sea levels by 2100 could be two or three metres up on today; perhaps as much as five metres. A truly terrifying scenario.

uk_sealevel_rise

How the UK would look on an ice-free Earth

Global sea levels rose by around 20cm during the 20th century and are climbing now at close to half a centimetre a year. Much of this is due to the expansion of the oceans as they warm, but melting ice is playing an ever more important role in hiking the rate of the rise. The problem is that the Earth is not heating up uniformly, and the bad news for us is that temperatures across the polar regions are climbing far more rapidly than anywhere else. Of course, this is where the vast majority of our world’s ice resides; in total, a staggering 24 billion cubic kilometres of it – close to seventy per cent of all the fresh water on Earth. The great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have been bastions of stability since the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. During the second half of the 20th century, however, and especially in the last few decades, they have started to crumble, shedding vast quantities of freshwater into the oceans.

Until recently, attention has been focused on accelerating melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, which are the most sensitive to rising temperatures. The last 20 years or so has seen a huge increase in the melting rate of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which is now shedding close to 400 billion tonnes of ice every year. Even more worryingly, the melting rate is increasing exponentially, which means it will continue to accelerate rapidly.

The news from West Antarctica is not good either. In the five years from 2012 to 2017, ice loss from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet shot up threefold, from 76 billion tonnes annually, to a colossal 219 billion tonnes. In total, more than 2.7 trillion tonnes of Antarctic ice has melted in the last quarter century, adding three-quarters of a centimetre to global sea level. At the new rate, the contribution over the next 25 years would be 1.5cm. Not really too much to worry about. If, however, the rate of increase is maintained over this period, then the annual rise by the mid-2040s – barely more than 20 years away – would be close toa catastrophic five centimetres a year. And this is without the growing contribution from Greenland and from the increasing expansion of sea water as the oceans continue to warm. It is not known how the melt rate will change in coming decades, but it is a sobering thought that even if the rate of increase stays as it is, low-lying lands and all coastal population centres would be threatened with permanent inundation by the century’s end.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, new research from East Antarctica paints an even more disturbing picture. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet dwarfs those of both Greenland and West Antarctica. Complete melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet would raise global sea levels by around seven metres, while melting of all the ice in West Antarctica would add another five or so. If East Antarctica lost its ice, however, it would push up sea levels by a staggering fifty metres or more. Until recently, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet was regarded as largely stable, and some studies even suggested that it might have been growing. The new study (1) reveals, however, that this is now changing, and changing with a vengeance. What was a sleeping giant is now beginning to wake up.

Satellite data reveals that a cluster of colossal glaciers, which together make up about an eighth of the coastline of East Antarctica, are starting to melt as the surrounding ocean gets progressively warmer. The loss of the giant (It’s about the size of Spain!) Totten Glacier – just one of the cluster – would, on its own, raise global sea levels by more than three metres. The new data show that it and its companions are now moving increasingly rapidly seawards and thinning as they do so, meaning that even the worst predictions for rising sea levels may be optimistic. As with the many other indicators that flag the remorseless breakdown of the stable climate that fostered the growth of our civilisation, the collapse of the polar ice sheets sends us the message that time has run out. Prevarication is no longer an option. Only serious and determined action now will give us any chance of avoiding a climate calamity that will swamp the world’s coastlines and displace hundreds of millions – if not billions – of people.

(1) https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2018/more-glaciers-in-antarctica-are-waking-up

 

Bill   McGuire   is  Professor   Emeritus   of  Geophysical   &   Climate Hazards   at  UCL   and   author  of   Waking   the  Giant:   How   a  Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was   a   contributor  to   the   IPCC  2012   report   on  Climate   Change   &Extreme Events and Disasters.

 

Forward To The Past

By Bill McGuire

The trouble with blogging about climate change is that the bad news comes so thick and fast these days that it is difficult to know what to flag up next. The findings of at least three pieces of research were published in the last week or so, each of which added further support to the case that we are going to hell in a hand cart. It took a deal of humming and harring before deciding which to address here, but in the end I determined to take a look at what past climate change can tell us about where we are headed. For now, the melting glaciers of East Greenland and evidence for an upcoming acceleration of planetary warming will just have to wait.

The idea that the past is the key to the present is a tenet worth much in the fields of Earth Science and geophysics, and it makes perfect sense. In the same way that observing natural processes happening today can help us interpret events within the geological record, so what happened thousands or millions of years can tell us what we to expect on 21st century Earth.

The latest news from deep time is not good. In fact it is terrifying. Around 252 million years ago, the geological period known as the Permian was brought to an abrupt end by the greatest mass extinction event in the history of our world. Known as the Great Dying, it saw almost all marine species wiped out, along with two-thirds of all life on land. What caused this cataclysmic dieback has been a matter of debate and controversy in geological circles for many years. Now, though, it looks as if the culprit has been fingered – climate change. 

The results of a new study published earlier this month1 by scientists from Stanford University and the University of Washington provide robust evidence for a huge spike in warming at this time, with global average temperatures climbing as much as 10°C in as little as a few hundred years. As a result, the warmer oceans may have lost up to four fifths of their oxygen, leading to the obliteration of 96 percent of all marine species. On land, the extreme temperatures wiped everything – from lizards and insects to early plants and bacteria – from the face of the planet. The cause of the temperature spike is not certain, but up there as the favourite is a massive outburst of greenhouse gases triggered by elevated levels of volcanic activity.

Substitute the repeated annual injection into the atmosphere of more than 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, for volcanic activity, and the situation begins to look horribly familiar. But surely, you might say, even the worst case scenarios don’t predict a 10°C rise in global temperatures, do they? Well, on the basis of current trends, the best we can hope for is a global average temperature hike of 3°C by 2100; nearer 4 or 5°C – or even more – should feedback loops really start to kick in as expected. That is already half way to the Great Dying, and would see countless species wiped out in a continuation of the ongoing, human-induced, sixth great extinction. Even worse, if we burn most (not even all!)known fossil fuel reserves, it has been calculated that our world could end up a staggering 16°C warmer than during pre-industrial times2. At the moment, the average temperature of Planet Earth is a little over 14°C. This would take it to more than 30°C. The result would be a mass extinction to put the Great Dying in the shade, and one that the human race would struggle to survive. Under these furnace conditions, most of the planet would simply be too hot for human physiologies to function, so the best prognosis for our race would be the survival of a few pockets clinging on in the slightly cooler polar regions.

So, it is perfectly clear. We now know exactly what trajectory we will be on if we continue to burn fossil fuels and swamp the atmosphere with carbon.  Not back to the future, but forward to the past. We can’t let it happen.

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

Sources:

(1) http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6419/eaat1327 

(2) https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20140017102.pdf 

The Summit To Nowhere

By Bill McGuire

The insanity of it! The crass stupidity. Not only is this week’s critical UN Climate Summit taking place in a country where coal is king – generating eighty percent of its electricity – but it is hosted by the coal mining city of Katowice. Make no mistake, despite the flim-flam on the conference website about its alleged green credentials, this is a city built on coal and powered by coal, which is home to Poland’s biggest coal company.

And it gets worse. In our neo-liberal, everything-monetised, world, no big event can be left un-sponsored, and this year’s climate summit is no exception. What sort of organisations might you expect to attach their names to arguably the world’s biggest ‘green’ event? Maybe the builders of wind turbines or solar farms, or perhaps those involved in sustainable reforestation or carbon capture. But no, the Polish government has permitted – not to say encouraged – a pair of coal companies to become official sponsors. You really couldn’t make it up. But then, the Polish government has a history of this sort of abject and disgraceful behaviour. The last time the country hosted a UN climate conference was in Warsaw in 2013. Then, the Polish Ministry of Economy teamed up with the World Coal Association to host an international coal and climate summit in parallel with the UN event. One of the planet’s greatest despoilers piggy-backing on the high-profile of those trying to clean up their mess. It’s like a sick joke.

And to add to the feeling that the whole thing is taking place in some weird alternative reality, the summit attracts its usual bunch of crazies, fossil fuel apologists and neocon ideologues to its fringes. Topping the bill in Katowice, at an event held nearby by the US Right-wing lobby group, The Heartland Institute, will be a small gang of climate deniers. These despicable cranks will no doubt delight their audience by telling them (a) that climate change is not happening; (b) that if it is, humans are not the cause; or (c) even if we are, it’s nothing to worry about – possibly all three simultaneously.

As if all this is not enough, the chance of anything worthwhile coming out of Katowice – anything concrete that will give us hope – is vanishingly small. The goal of the summit is flagged as being to set down the rules by which the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement will operate. That’s right – three years on there are still no mechanisms in place that will allow the translation of the vague promises of Paris into measures that will actually reduce emissions in the real world. You certainly can’t accuse these guys of rushing things. The so-called Paris Rulebook is supposed to determine how governments record and report their greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to cut them. But it doesn’t matter how well you record and report progress, bugger-all is still bugger-all.

Whether or not a rulebook pops out at the end of this week’s summit is going to make very little difference to the chances of keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C or even  2.0°C. It is perfectly clear, to those able to see past the obfuscation, deceit, hyperbole and misplaced confidence, that the emissions reductions promises made in Paris – even if they are kept – are nowhere near enough to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown. Certainly, they will not get us anywhere near the 45 percent emissions drawdown by 2030 that the IPCC now demands, which, in itself, is nowhere near enough.

Let’s face it, this whole way of doing things just isn’t working. Summits every year, excruciatingly complex emissions reduction plans that require a 500 page plus rulebook, accommodating fossil fuel companies, keeping big polluters happy just to keep them on board, talking up our chances of keeping our world cool. None of these things are going to get us where we want to be, which is NZ7 – net zero emissions in seven years. What we need instead is an immediate ban on all fossil fuel subsidies, carbon taxes that will make it uneconomic to get hydrocarbons out of the ground, a ‘war on climate change’ economy that embraces personal carbon ration cards, the retooling of industry to drive a crash programme in wind and solar, electric vehicles and infrastructure, energy efficiency and carbon capture, the imposition of NZ7 emissions pathways for all businesses, a ban on deforestation and a massive programme of new planting.

If this all sounds draconian, that’s because it is. If we had taken the climate change threat seriously nearly four decades ago, when it started to be seen as a clear and present danger, we could have turned things around by now, slowly and steadily. Instead, we chose to ignore it, so that emissions are still rising and our world is on the cusp of catastrophe. Sorting the problem now is going to demand big sacrifices by everyone, but the only alternative is to pass on even greater sacrifices to our children and those that follow.

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

We need an Apollo programme for climate change

By Bill McGuire

      A recent visit to the cinema to see the excellent First Man, which follows astronaut Neil Armstrong on his path to immortality, reminded me of the big anniversary coming up next year. I find it hard to believe, but 2019 will see the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, way back in July 1969. I was a schoolboy at the time and remember it vividly. In many ways, this seminal event was the beginning of the end for the hugely ambitious US space programme. Despite another five landings following, and all the drama of the Apollo 13 emergency, the final two moon missions were scrapped, along with plans for a moon base and manned mission to Mars in the 1980s. There has been no return to the Moon and – notwithstanding wildly optimistic ravings from Elon Musk and other internet billionaires with more money than sense – a human presence on the red planet seems as far away as ever.

      It is probably not entirely a coincidence that interest in space and reaching out to other worlds began to fade at a time when concerns over our own was growing. Today, few in their right mind would prioritise space exploration over putting our house in order down here on Earth. A house that is in severe danger of being trashed beyond repair by a conspiracy of climate breakdown, environmental degradation and mass extinction. Notwithstanding this, space still has a major role to play down here on the surface. Specialist satellites play a key part in observing and tracking many of the features that flag up how quickly our world is falling apart, including ice cover, sea-surface temperatures and land use. The Apollo programme, in particular, also taught us a vital lesson; just how quickly something can be accomplished if it is wanted badly enough. This is encapsulated in a short clip from the now famous speech President Kennedy made in 1962, during which he announced the intention to put a man on the Moon. 

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.

      Swap ‘stop climate breakdown’  for ‘go to the Moon’ and these few sentences describe perfectly the can-do thinking that a war on climate change requires. It may be Kismet, but Kennedy’s speech was made seven years before the first moon landing; the same length of time over which Extinction Rebellion demands that UK carbon emissions reach net zero. So, it seems obvious. What we need is an Apollo Programme for climate change. An all-embracing crusade that strives to cut emissions to the bone within seven years. To do this will require retooling the economy and rebooting our wasteful lifestyles to make falling carbon output the measure of the success of our society; not rising GDP, the number of families with two cars, or how many fighter jets we have sold to Saudi Arabia.

      The driver for the Apollo programme was simple and straightforward – get to the Moon before the ‘Russkies’ do. When the alternative is global catastrophe, an Apollo Programme for climate change shouldn’t really need to be incentivised. Knowing that we will bequeath to our children and their children a world that is not desecrated beyond redemption should be sufficient. Nonetheless, there are welcome incentives too. A zero carbon world will be a cleaner, safer and – almost certainly – a happier one. So what’s not to like. The sooner we start the better.

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

INCOMING

By Bill McGuire

 

     I blink away a droplet of sweat and draw Bea’s thin frame closer. She looks up at me, shivering despite the heat. In the darkness, the small girl’s face is a pale, featureless smear, but I know it bears a closed expression; the brown eyes nurturing the haunted look they have held since the day her mother was killed. The night is sweltering and starless; the feathery fronds of the young palm beneath which we crouch, hanging motionless in the still air. Across the short stretch of water ahead of us, the towering steel and concrete wall of the Bulwark is bathed in cold, blue light. The dark maw of the Huntingdon Seagate is the only break in the unassailable barrier which, to the left sweeps southwards in a long curve, and to the right marches into the distance along the shore of the Cambridgeshire Bight. A container ship the length of half a dozen city blocks, lights blazing from stem to stern, eases slowly to a halt; heaving-to alongside three others queuing to enter the great port concealed beyond the Seagate. The ship is the latest in an almost continuous train of supply vessels that navigate the polar routes from Asia to feed the insatiable appetite of London Max, the greatest of the European city states.

 

     A shabby little ferry exits the Seagate, bumping and bouncing on a creamy, v-shaped, wash that briefly ruffles the black, oily, surface of the otherwise flat calm water. Its open deck is packed with weary incomers; indentured labourers returning home from 12-hour shifts to the vast favela that straggles for a dozen kilometres along the north shore of the Bight. Dwarfed by its enormous bulk, the ferry crosses the prow of one of the great ships, turns hard to port and heads directly for a  rickety wooden jetty poking into the sea from a cluster of ramshackle huts. Just as a collision seems inevitable, the helmsman simultaneously spins the wheel and cuts the engines, swinging the boat violently and leaving it to clatter side-on into the row of battered tyres that shield the jetty’s fraying edge. Cowed and exhausted, the passengers stumble over the ferry’s shallow gunwale and shuffle the length of the jetty to queue at the checkpoint where Idents are checked by a pair of city protectorate guards. Incomers are counted in and counted out so that none are tempted to overstay their welcome. Any who do pay the ultimate price as the tamper-proof subcutaneous toxin capsules are triggered remotely after a 24-hour period of grace.

 

     I sense a presence, corroborated by a hoarse whisper: ‘Davie!’ and turn to find DB at my shoulder. A waxing moon momentarily evades the cloud cover, casting a sickly yellow glow on the newcomer’s face and picking out a puckered scar that draws his mouth upwards at one corner, so that it seems to be curled in a constant sneer. A tattooed hand, holding two idents is paraded in front of my face. DB attempts a grin, revealing broken and missing teeth and croaks three words:

‘It is time.’

Bea shies away from the grim apparition, burying her face in my side, but I smile my thanks, take the thin metal plates and stuff them inside my sweat-soaked shirt. DB pats me on the back and utters one further word:

‘Go.’

Cloud scuds briefly across the moon and when it emerges again he is nowhere to be seen.

 

     Taking Bea’s hand, I stand, uttering a soft groan as my knees sound their objections. We duck out from beneath the palm fronds and walk the short distance to a track of compacted sand and pebbles that follows the seaward edge of the dune field to the jetty and its attendant clutch of hovels. To the south, the sky beyond the Bulwark glows a ghostly white from horizon to horizon; the low cloud broadcasting far and wide the extravagant light from a gigacity that stretches uninterrupted for hundreds of kilometres to the Channel. I turn my head towards the north and home. Here, beyond the dunes, darkness holds sway, save for a few guttering palm oil lamps in the sleeping favela and the pinpoint flickers of campfires on the distant wolds. Shutting out emerging thoughts of Ruth’s candlelit smile and a past life that – like Ruth – is dead and buried, I do my best to look purposeful. I increase my stride so that Bea has to trot to keep up, and fix my gaze on the ferry and the future.

 

   By now, the returning incomers have passed through the checkpoint. A few have paused to sink a glass or two in one of the tumbledown bars, but most have followed the winding path through the dunes to bed and welcome oblivion. Already a sizeable crowd has gathered at the jetty, awaiting embarkation for the return journey. Some talk in barely audible murmurs. Others slap their faces to shock themselves fully awake; readying body and mind for another shift of grindingly hard physical work for a paltry handout and the chance to win the residents lottery, which – for one in a million – will guarantee citizenship and transform their lives. Most stand silent; yawning and scratching. I am surprised and shocked at the number of children, some very small. They rub sleep from their bleary eyes with tiny fists or just stand there; pitifully thin arms hanging limply at their sides; pinched faces drawn. Many clutch at the legs of an adult, desperate for a last drop of parental companionship before they are siphoned off to pick clean the filters of the desal plants or to reach those difficult places in the air-con ducts. Neither size nor age are barriers to work in the great city of London Max.

 

     We join the back of the queue just as one of the guards opens a low gate allowing the early arrivals to pile on to the boat in a stampede to grab one of the few benches in the prow, upwind of the filthy engines. The queue quickly dissolves into a melée, and we are swept towards the boat in a scrummage of elbows, fists and frayed tempers.  At last we are at the gate and I hand our idents to the guard. The network of cooling tubes that criss-cross the outer surface of his red light-armoured suit makes him look like some sort of alien being. No – not an alien – a flayed human; arteries and veins exposed to full view. Features and expression hidden behind the reflective visor of his air conditioned helmet, the guard gives the thin metal plates little more than a passing glance. He looks us up and down – a thin, prematurely grey, man and a scrawny little girl in a torn and grubby dress –  then waves us on. I lift Bea over the shallow gunwale onto the packed deck and follow behind. The guard snaps the gate shut, the ferry’s engines launch into an ear-splitting roar, a couple of shoremen toss the hawsers to the crew and we are off amidst a fugg of palm diesel smoke.

 

     Forced up against the gunwale at the back of the boat by the press of bodies, I hold Bea close and she clutches at my waist, burying her face in my crotch. The journey to the Seagate is short but unpleasant; the salty tang of the sea air compromised by overtones of none-too-clean bodies marinating in the night’s damp heat and the ever-present stink of the palm diesel. As it always does, the smell takes me back to the day Ruth died. A day like any other until the kids appeared.

 

     They seemed friendly enough; half a dozen or so in all; a few girls amongst them. They were seeking food, but didn’t appear armed or dangerous. Still, I should have known not to let my guard down. I only turned my back for an instant, but the next thing I knew I was lying on the ground in the hut; head-splitting; hands tied in front. Bea was next to me, screaming. Ruth was slumped in the far corner, also bound and very still. There was smoke and a strong smell of the palm diesel that we used in our small generator, and flames were already licking at Ruth’s feet. The fire spread with unbelievable speed. By the time I managed to struggle to my feet, Ruth was hidden by a curtain of flame and chunks of burning wood and straw were falling from the roof. There was nothing I could do for her. I kicked at the wall closest to us; the rickety corrugated iron sheets requiring little effort to batter down. As best I could, I grabbed Bea’s ankles with my bound hands and dragged her through the gap and away from the hut. A minute or so later, there was nothing left of it but a smouldering heap. Bea didn’t stop screaming for a long, long, time and hasn’t spoken since.

 

     Eventually, I managed to free our hands. We needed shelter and food, and there was no reason to stay, so we headed for Darbee. Up until then we had kept well away from the wreckage of the city because of the collectives, but our situation now was desperate and I had Bea to think of. Luckily, I am pretty handy with a crossbow, so the Rustlers – one of the less psychopathic collectives – took us under their wing. Most of the time, my job was to provide some muscle on scavenging trips and to pot any live meat wandering around, but there was inevitably some involvement in less savoury episodes, which I am not proud of. But there was little choice if I wanted to accumulate enough valuables to barter for the forged idents, and by then I had decided that if Bea was to have any life to speak of, we had to get inside the Bulwark.

 

     I am shaken out of my retrospective as the ferry is struck side-on by the wash from a monstrous tanker, encroaching too close and moving too fast in its urgency to return to its Asian roots. The boat bucks violently, causing the passengers to surge as one to port; the sudden redistribution of weight tilting the deck dangerously. From the small cabin amidships a string of profanities drifts in the direction of the rapidly retreating ship.

 

     The Seagate is close now. The entry lights remain red following the tanker’s hurried exit, so the helmsman throttles back the engines, and the ferry bobs uncomfortably just outside until a row of green lights grants passage. As the ferry crosses the Bulwark’s threshold, I gape upwards at the immense slab of concrete and steel that hangs fifty metres overhead. Despite its impregnable appearance, the gate shows its age; the surface scarred and crumpled by the increasingly savage storm surges that assault the Bulwark during the winter months, when the gate is almost permanently closed.

 

     Even more astonishing than the gate itself is the enormous bay that opens up beyond. Along its entire length, countless spider-like cranes are in constant motion; sliding up and down their rails beneath brilliant arc lights like a troop of meticulously choreographed dancers. Around the clock, in an unending ritual, container after container is scooped from the decks of a stream of gargantuan freighters, to be added to the many thousands that cram the dockside. More luxuries for the inhabitants of London Max awaiting onward transport to the stores, boutiques and restaurants; more material distractions to keep guilty minds turned inward, away from the awful reality of the world beyond the Bulwark. Far to the left, a fleet of palm oil tankers pumps out the lifeblood that keeps the extraordinary gigacity functioning and its 200 million residents cocooned from the chaos and despair outside.

 

   Minutes later our ferry is enveloped in an army of boats of every shape and size, jostling for a berth at a battered jetty matching the one across the water. Every available patch of quayside is occupied by an enormous souk; a profusion of stalls, sheds and pre-fabs; grocers, bars, knocking shops and small businesses, which cater to the basic needs and desires of the incomer horde. But I have no eyes for these. My gaze is fixed above and beyond, at the multitude of brilliantly-lit towers of glass and steel that hem in the port like some bastardised surrogate of a primaeval forest.  Many are so high that I have to crane my head far back to see their upper levels. Some even penetrate the cloud base; their pinnacles fading into Stygian gloom. The spectacle is so overpowering; so beyond anything I have ever experienced that, for a brief time, I forget Ruth; forget Bea; forget even why I am here.

 

     The battle for a berth won, the helmsman cuts the engines and the ferry is secured. The incomers queue to exit the boat and shamble slowly along the jetty to where four city protectorate guards cluster around the entry checkpoint. Two officers in red – one tall and lanky, the other short and squat – man the rapID portal that checks the DNA of incomers against the DNA profiles stored on their idents. Nearby, two green-clad subordinates slouch against a railing, helmet visors open, contemplating the throng with a mixture of boredom and disdain. I wait until most of the others have disembarked before stepping carefully onto the slippery wood of the jetty and reaching back for Bea. I feel sick; partly a conspiracy of palm diesel fumes and the ferry’s motion, but mostly due to the growing realisation that this is it; the culmination of everything I have worked towards for the last year. In a few minutes, we could be in. Either that or facing two years hard labour before being ‘repatriated’ to the so-called northern hinterland. I look down in anger and frustration at Bea, clutching at my thigh and trying desperately to fight off sleep. She would never survive the ordeal.

 

     The more I try to stay calm; the twitchier I get. My heart is thumping in my chest and my breathing shallow and rapid. My bowels feel watery. Bea is blind to my torment and to the cardinal importance of the moment. She is unfazed by the wonders of London Max; her demeanour unchanged; her thoughts trapped in the past – in a burning hut far to the north.

 

     Progress along the jetty is slow as incomers enter the portal one by one to have their idents verified. There are maybe twenty or so ahead of us in the queue when my attention is drawn to a scuffle ahead, where three lads are awaiting ident confirmation and entry. The light above the portal flashes red, and the grating sound of an alarm flags the interception of yet an illegal. Now, one of the youths – a skinny red-head – is shouting, one arm raised in an attempt to snatch back his ident, which the lanky officer holds just out of reach. Lanky says something; the sound coming out harsh and metallic through his helmet mic. The youth is not to be mollified, and throws himself forward to make another grab. Lanky is far too quick, jabbing him hard in the kidneys with the fingers of a gloved hand and bringing him to his knees. In seconds, his shorter colleague has the youth’s hands behind his back and securely tied. Stirred from their torpor by the commotion, the green-clad guardsmen are quick to respond to events; their bolt rifles swiftly unslung and trained on the youth’s two companions. All three are bundled to one side and forced to hunker down close to the jetty’s edge under the watchful gaze of the greens. The remaining incomers in the queue have seen it all before. They stand sullen and patient; eyes averted; awaiting their turn.

 

     The next in line – a tiny boy – is waved into the portal by the short officer. I watch as he takes the boy’s ident, inserts it into a slot on a small panel and makes a few taps on an adjacent screen. The boy places a thin forearm facing upwards on a metal plate above which hovers a robot arm holding a needle. A sudden downward movement and the needle pierces the skin and extracts a miniscule sample of blood. In just a few seconds, the boy’s DNA profile has been determined and compared with that stored on his ident. A light flashes green above the portal and the boy is ushered through; waiting patiently on the far side while his father takes his turn.

 

     A thought strikes me like a sledgehammer and I have to stop myself groaning out loud – the needle! The incomers have their blood sampled every day. Over the months and years their forearms have become pockmarked with a diffuse pattern of tiny but obvious red dots. According to our idents, Bea and I have worked as incomers for two years, but our arms are unmarked. My knees sag and I am overwhelmed by a wave of despair as the awful implication strikes home. The guards can’t fail to notice. Despondency turns quickly to anger. Why didn’t DB tell us? He must have known. Dog Breath was far from agreeable to look at, or to be near, but I trusted him. Now this. Maybe the idents were no good either? I knew the Rustler’s forging facilities were primitive andfar from biologically secure, so there was always a risk of contamination that would result in a poor DNA match. Looking down at the two idents in my hand, I can’t help but wonder if they are nothing more than worthless pieces of scrap. I would find out soon enough.

 

     The queue shuffles forward a little more. I am dimly aware that my face has taken on a hunted look, eyes darting left and right of their own accord, but there is no possibility of escape. At last, there are just two incomers between us and the portal. The light flashes green, and again, and then it is our turn.  The corps-commander’s insignia on one shoulder marking him in charge, shorty signals us forward with an impatient flick of a red-gloved hand. I detach Bea’s arms from my leg, whisper reassurance in her ear and gently usher her forward. She places  an arm on the plate, and a new needle rotates into position. Before it falls, I screw shut my eyes and wait for the exclamation from the guard that will signal the loss of all hope.

 

     My eyes fly open at the expected outburst, but it comes from an unanticipated source. The bound red-head who, for some time, has been muttering expletives to himself, suddenly aims a blast of invective at the guards and attempts to get to his feet. Momentarily distracted, shorty turns away as the needle jabs Bea’s arm. As she lets it fall back to her side unnoticed, I dare – for a moment – to hope. My renewed optimism lasts barely a second as a flashing light on the touchscreen flags a mismatch between Bea’s DNA and her ident profile. Designed, it seems, to humiliate; to broadcast our misfortune far and wide; the light above the portal flashes red and the screech of the alarm reverberates across the quayside. Bea turns to look at me, wide-eyed and terrified. I stretch out my arms, ready to embrace away her fear, when events take an unlooked-for turn.

 

     The flashing light and the alarm have spurred the red-haired lad to struggle to rise again; his snarling mouth spouting a concoction of obscenities and spittle. A green-clad guard stretches forwards to club him down with the butt of his bolt-rifle. Seeing an opportunity, one of red head’s companions, crouched on the jetty-side, trips the off-balance green and upends him into the scummy water. By the time the two officers have unslung their rifles and taken aim, the third lad – this one tall and dark-skinned – has ripped the helmet off the second green, and holds the point of a short but wicked looking knife to his throat. Shorty’s response is to send a fizzer close by knifeman’s right ear; its thin trailing filament crackling in the still air and the bolt sending up a puff of steam as it shatters the rainbow sheen on the water’s greasy surface. Knifeman neither moves, nor speaks, but his intention should another bolt be forthcoming is clear. Pressing harder with the knife point, he breaks the unfortunate guard’s skin, launching a trickle of blood that runs slowly down his neck and drips onto the front of his green suit’s chest armour. Stand-off. Lanky covers the still- bound red head and the second lad, while shorty’s rifle sight never deviates from knifeman. The captive guard’s eyes are closed; his lips working rapidly as if in silent prayer. No-one speaks.

 

     I stand rooted to the spot, arms enfolding Bea, both of us stock-still and forgotten. Hardly daring to believe our extraordinary fortune, I put a finger to my lips, take Bea’s hand, and walk with her through the portal. I don’t dare look behind me, but the hairs on the back of my neck bristle with fear and the anticipation of a fizzer. As we near the quayside and safety, a scream and a series of crackles forces me to turn in time to see knifeman fall backwards into the water; his senseless body jerking and flailing. The second youth is down too; heels drumming vigorously on the wooden slats of the jetty. Red head crouches, bound arms held awkwardly above his head; a dripping green guardsman – breaker of the stalemate – patting him down for hidden weapons. The tall officer is bent over, listening impassively to an animated shorty, whose body language spells anger and frustration. Shorty points in our direction and lanky turns his head to look.

‘Run!’ I urge Bea forward.

‘Run, sweetheart – as fast as you can! Daddy’s behind you.’

 

     Countless experiences since we were burned out of our home have taught Bea to recognise desperation in my voice, and she needs no further urging to take off along the jetty as fast as her small legs can manage. I follow close behind; my body protecting her; my progress hobbled as I am forced to match Bea’s pace. We are almost at the end of the jetty when the first fizzer misses my shoulder by a fraction. I can smell the ozone as the electric charge ionises the air, but the bolt thuds harmlessly into the quayside ahead of us; the attached filament drifting onto the wooden jetty. We leap the few steps down onto the quayside as two more bolts fizz overhead, one embedding itself in the jetty’s wooden gateway. Seconds later, we are enveloped in the noise and smells of the market; our passage slowed by the crush of sweaty, ripe, bodies, but our safety assured by the sheer number of people who jam the narrow spaces between the stalls and shacks.

 

     I usher Bea onwards; hands on her shoulders as we shuffle through the crowds. I have no idea where we are headed or what we are going to do, but I can’t keep a wide grin off my face. We have made it; we are in! Even while I shake my head in disbelief and sheer delight, a small part of my mind is already picking away at our predicament. Where will we sleep tonight? Where will we live? How will we live? I’ve heard that illegals can easily find work; no questions asked. I am under no illusion. It will be hard, but it can’t be worse than trying to survive in the savage and lawless world beyond the Bulwark. Involuntarily, one hand reaches into a pocket and fidgets with a scrap of paper; a contact supplied by DB that, until now, I have not tempted fate by thinking about.

 

     Wading onwards, we find ourselves at the maglev loop, its sleek carriages slowing, but never stopping as they cart the incomers speedily and efficiently to work and return them, sucked dry of spirit and stamina, to the ferries. Keeping Bea close, I forge a way across the powerful current of humanity and into a narrow jitty. Its pitted and potholed surface is littered with rubbish, and worse, but the food smells from the stalls that jostle close along either side are too enticing to ignore. I collapse into a battered rattan chair outside a baker and hoist Bea onto my lap. Neither of us has eaten for more than twenty-four hours and I know Bea must be desperately hungry and thirsty, though she never indicates as much. Installing Bea on the chair, I walk a few paces to the shack’s serving hatch. Moments later a scruffy little boy, no more than eight year’s old, is ushered out from the back kitchen by an apparently disembodied pair of very hairy arms. Barely able to see over the counter, the boy says nothing but stares at me expectantly. So much of the food on display behind the serving hatch is new to me that I struggle to make a choice. On the young boy’s recommendation, I plump for a pasty filled with some sort of meat, and choose a couple of jam-filled tarts for Bea. Ingrained wariness of cholera, which rages unchecked beyond the Bulwark, prompts me to turn down an offer of a jug of water and two smeared glasses, instead taking a couple of rusty cans of a fruit-flavoured drink. Like the favela, the port market is alienated from the city’s cashless monetary system, and I am relieved when a small, silver earring is accepted in payment.

 

     I swallow half my pasty in one go; cramming it into my mouth and savouring the tingling warmth of its spicy meat filling. I place the cans and the jam tarts on a small table and, remaining standing, watch as Bea reaches tentatively for the nearest tart. She picks it up and examines it closely, touching a finger to the jammy centre and placing it to her lips. For a few seconds nothing happens, then the corners of Bea’s mouth start to lift in the beginnings of a smile; the first for far too long. I realise that I have been holding my breath and expel it in a long, shuddering sigh; purging from my body the pent-up fears and doubts of the last few days; the last year. I smile as Bea takes a huge bite of the tart; her upper lip jam-smeared and her eyes brighter than I have seen them since the fire. Even as she eats, tears trickle down her cheeks and mix with the red goo. It’s as if she too has been holding her breath – ever since her mother’s death; holding everything in until this moment; this first flicker of light in a dark and desperate year. I lean forward and hug Bea close; my eyes wet; my food forgotten. Everything would be alright now. They were going to be fine. They were in.

 

This story was originally published in Knock Twice: 25 modern folk tales for troubling times.