The Great Science Fair Project

I’ve swum in Gitchigumi, though not for long.  It’s cold, even in August, and instead of sand along its shoreline, wave-rounded, head-sized rocks force hardy walkers to choose their steps with care.  In another bay, granite shelves sprawl into the water, and in yet another, sandstone cliffs drop into the crashing waves.  You probably know this body of water as Lake Superior, and if you’ve stood among snowy birches in January looking down at its gray ice, or paddled above its sunken boulders in your wooden canoe, you know you can’t see across it, even on a sunny day.  It’s huge.  It’s the biggest fresh–water lake in the world.

What an opportunity.  Let’s drain it completely dry.  Let’s turn it into Unlake Superior.  Canadian Prime Minister Harper won’t mind, will he?

I’m joking.

More or less.

When I imagined the setting of my novel Birthmarked four hundred years in the future, I was picturing how climate change might affect those of us who will survive it, and so I created an isolated settlement on the North Shore of Unlake Superior.  What is now the Land of 10,000 Lakes has become a wasteland, the weather has become hot and dry, vegetation looks like a combination of prairie and Death Valley’s finest, and people have adapted by closely protecting the hard–won resources that are theirs.

Could it really happen?  My wise uncle Harry Walsh reminded me lately that Lake Superior is spring fed and it’s wicked deep.  But that doesn’t stop my imagination.  Besides, even if Lake Superior isn’t likely to go dry in the near future, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening elsewhere.

Take the Aral Sea in Kazakhastan.  No, wait.  The cotton crops already did.  If you want to see something really cool, check out the photos that show how a huge salt–water lake, almost as big as Lake Superior, vanished to a damp shadow 10% of its original size.  It took less than a decade.  Clueless as I am, I didn’t hear about this situation until after I wrote my novel, and when I saw a YouTube video about it, I was amazed to see a real landscape like the one I’d imagined, complete down to the wasteland and the dust.  All it took was diverting a couple of rivers to create a cotton industry, and an entire region was turned into a dustbowl.

Guess what they’re doing to the Aral now?  They’re trying to bring the water back.  Nice.

I like to think the Aral is a kind of small-scale science fair project, a mini version of how we’re experimenting on the rest of the earth.  It’s interesting to see how the collapse of an ice shelf in Antarctica doesn’t itself raise the sea level, but it allows related glaciers to lower and feed more melt into the ocean.  You might think that from the comfort of my couch in well–elevated Connecticut, it might be hard to get too worked up about the sea rising slowly, but like I’ve already said, I have an imagination.

Let’s consider the Carteret Islanders in Papua New Guinea.  For a thousand years, their peaceful, matriarchal community has lived on an atoll in the Pacific, but now they have to relocate to a nearby island because of changing weather and sea levels.  They’re losing their livelihoods, their culture, and their home.  For them, there’s no going back.

I’ve always believed fiction is a good way to tell the truth.  I’ll admit Superior isn’t an unlake.  But it doesn’t take an imagination to see that the real science experiment is already here, and it’s already about real people.

Caragh O’Brien’s futuristic, dystopian story, Birthmarked, is due out from Roaring Brook Press in April, 2010. It is her first young adult novel.


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