Prehistoric Disaster Can Help Us Find a North Star for Climate Severity (& Prevention)

I really enjoy camping, hiking and occasionally taking out an electronic bike for a pleasant ride in the mountains. It would take a really dull mind not to start wondering, even a little bit, what caused the terrain to form as it did. Since college, I’ve known enough about geology to get to what people call the “Peak Mountain Peak” on the Dunning-Kruger chart. Fortunately, realizing that you know almost nothing is enough for you to fall into the depths of the “Valley of Despair”, where you realize that you know nothing and can continue only by learning from people who know more than you.

So, in my spare time, I tried to do that while looking at the landscapes, like the one in the featured picture. I know that many millions of years ago parts of this landscape fell as the area expanded. When I took that photo, I was standing on the edge of one of those runoff zones. Far ahead, in the distance, you can see the Mesa Knoll, a really flat area that has a few salt pans far to the left (hidden by mountains. To the right, you can see some lower flat areas, but this other camera angle will give you a better view from below:

At the bottom, you can see White Sands National Park. This area was formed by lakes that formed in the area, with much of the white sand coming from gypsum that came out of the mountains. As the glacial lake dried up (this happened several times), the winds blew that gypsum into giant piles in the basin floor. At its height, the lake filled almost the entire lowland, and even merged with other lakes fed by the Rio Grande (on the other side of the distant mountains) to form a truly gigantic lake that flooded the entire lowland region.

But this changed fairly quickly one day between 750,000 and 900,000 years ago, when this giant lake found a weak spot in the mountains that served as the side of the bowl in which it sat. First, it flowed out. Then, it managed to cut the side of that weak spot down until the entire lake splashed out, quickly cutting a deep canyon and sending all that water into the Gulf of Mexico.

That was not the end of the region’s crazy water problems. Even after people moved into the area, the river continued to change course and create some pretty bad flooding every time the glaciers emitted a large explosion of melting water in Colorado. This theme continued through the valley (not shown in these pictures) until a large dam was built around 1916. an older video that explains much more about this here.

The Megacaster About Few Knows

This seasonal and perennial flood cycle was not something that Indians could not endure. The region has had people living in it for tens of thousands of years, and there have not been any extinctions, but people in the area have come uncomfortably close once: the Young Dryas period, beginning about 12,800 years ago.

While there is debate about the causes, one theory is that the entire episode was caused by a comet that split up before hitting Earth in a number of different locations. Whatever the cause, all this happened long before any known writing systems, so we can know about it only from geological records and human artifacts (and the interpretation of that data leaves room for debate).

What we do know is that the lowlands saw regular catastrophic flood events as glaciers melted rapidly. Even worse, some areas ended up flowing with broken ice dams, and saw absolutely insane floods that destroyed everything and searched the bedrock. So if you belonged to a tribe that lived in the lowlands or spent a lot of time there, that was problematic to say the least.

You’d think that maybe going up into the mountains from where I took the photo would be a good refuge, but the comet fragments and then rapid climactic changes set the forests on fire. This, as we know, makes the forests not very hospitable to life. What about between the forest and the desert, like the mountain shelves or the Knoll Mesa? Yes, these were full of thick grass, which would also burn if it was not flooded by unusual rain and burn scars.

Scientists estimate that between 30% and 60% of the human population died during this period. In the southwest, Clovis Culture arrowheads only cease to appear in the soil, and just above them is a thick layer of black soot and melted minerals. Not everyone died, but enough that the whole culture stopped doing things, so they must have taken a brutal blow from this.

What Can We Learn From This For Today’s Climate Change?

While we probably won’t see such climactic changes, thinking about the unthinkable is a good way to inspire action. I don’t mean to say this either. Telling people to prepare for things is much more than what we really expect to see and not telling them that it is unlikely will only result in people thinking they are lying or that someone is crying wolf.

Instead, let’s honestly tell people what’s going on, like the CDC did with its zombie campaign a few years ago. Sure, that campaign got a lot of attention, and it did probably did not inspire much preparation for public health crises, but at least we know now how to alert the public to emergency preparedness. So, catching distant scenarios is good, but only as a first step towards more realistic actions for more realistic threats.

Perhaps more importantly, making people aware that climate change has killed about half of the world’s population, and probably well over half in the United States, could cause people to be reluctant to experience such a problem. Preventing major climate problems is probably where most efforts should lie. Giving people something to aim for (or aim for) would be a good way to accomplish that.

Images by Jennifer Sensiba.


 


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