Fractals in the Hall of the Mountain King: Entanglement, Global Climate, and Us

Julia_set_fractal Many years ago, I sat in a windowless school room, awash with the dull, flickering ache of fluorescent lights that sucked the moisture from my eyes and sapped my 14-year old will to live.  It resembled many other days in the twelve year stretch of an American Public School education.  It was, however, different in a single respect.  On that day, whose date has long since been smudged by life, I learned about the existence of fractals.

The Strange Tricks of Memory

BLUEDIVEMrs. Palmich, a stoop-shouldered veteran, who’d spent decades in the trenches of Maths Education, clicked through slides brilliant with the swirling maelstroms of Julia and Mandelbrot Sets.  As she spoke, raising her voice over the protestations of overworked AV equipment, something she said stuck in my brain. This is one of those memories that glows with the light of ultimate creation–a strange golden thread in my tapestry.

Explaining the principal underlying fractal equations, she said,

“It’s a repetition of pattern, with increasing and decreasing size.” Her voice rumbled like gravel in a rock tumbler, “The shape of the mountain is written in its smallest pebble; the shape of the pebble determines the form of the mountain.

Poetry, Mrs. Palmich.  The song of the Universe itself.  Why is a relatively simplistic explanation of fractals from two decades ago important, and what could it possibly have to do with climate shift or the human species?

It’s Funny You Should Ask…

Air Currents and Biomes

First, that memory is what I tie to when I think about interrelatedness between factors–small or large, similar or disparate.  Second, because it influenced how I thought about large and small aspects of my own world.  It allowed me to understand concepts on both a global or macro level, and to break down how the details of such concepts worked together.  Lastly, it allowed me to study complex systems, such as planetary climate, in such a way that many analytical tools drawn from other fields could be used to understand it.

Global Ocean Currents

Climate, on a planetary scale, is both a unified system of currents, pressures, geophysical factors, and solar radiation absorbed or reflected by the planet’s surfaces during various phases of tilt on its axis.  For me, that’s pretty big and broad–difficult to distill into only a phrase or two.  But it’s also a patchwork of many individual systems, events and factors that are seemingly discrete.  These individual aspects are, however, in a constant relational dynamic with all other systems and events–both impacting every other local feature and being impacted by them. There is nothing that is not touched and changed by every other thing.

The Strange Things Science Told Me

As a species, we’re relatively new when you look at the planet’s life span.  We missed out on most of the epic events that shaped the world our earliest forebears came to know–mega continents, snowball earths, the death of almost every living thing several times.  We were born into a world of fruits and flowers.  A place some of us are foolish enough to believe was created for us, inscribed with a sacred alphabet of immutable forms.encnat1b

In fact, angiosperms, or flowering, fruiting plants, didn’t appear until about 140 million years ago.  One of the most oft repeated forms in human art and philosophy, water lilies , may well be the first type of angiosperm to appear anywhere on the planet.  Before that, there were no fruiting trees, no blossoming plants as we might recognize them. Forest of giant ferns and a plant type known as cycads were generally the norm, and the ecology was quite different.  Think of all the winged creatures that rely on modern angiosperms for food. They did not exist as they do now or at any time in human history.


Delta, A Shorthand Constant

What am I trying to say here–fractals, water lilies, climates? Perhaps the central point I’m driving towards is that the only constant in everything I have seen, read, experienced is change itself.  I’ve studied human beings from a variety of angles and across many disciplines in the past decade.  That I do not have all the answers is irrelevant in this light.  What I have seen is that human cultures and groups–as diverse and multifaceted as they are across time and space–have one trait upon which their success or failure always hinges: Adaptability.

When we are capable of reading the signs of impending change and altering our habits, approaches to existence, and even the very philosophies of science, subsistence, and governance to meet the needs such changes inevitably raise, we thrive.  When we do not, and instead dig in our heels, cling to outmoded concepts such as man’s dominion over all the earth or the farce that we have the ability to control events or trends on a global scale, we sign our own death warrant.  Evidence of past cultural collapse gives me reason to believe it will not be a quick end, but a long, painful subsiding, as we go again to the earth from whence we came.

To Flout the Evidence is to Whistle in the Dark

Am I one of the criers of doom?  Not specifically.  I believe that we, as a species, can survive what is ostensibly a massive climate shift on a planetary scale.  No, not in our present numbers, nor in our current mode of mass consumption–but survive, yes.  Moreover, we have the tools with which to do it and the intelligence to implement change now. We could have done it before my birth.  What we must do is set aside concepts of immediate gains.  I’m not advocating widespread communism or even classical socialism.  Nope.

However, we seriously need to redress the balance of power, taking it from the companies and individuals who would not only hide their heads in the sand, but insist that you do as well.  We need innovation on a massive scale and a sharp tangential path away from the idea that we have any power to bend the planet to our will.  We are within the System, and while we most certainly have an impact upon the overall design, we often forget that that System has our strings in its hands.  We are not immutable.  We are not impervious. We are not immortal.  To believe that in part or full is folly of the first water.

A Plea for Conservation

I suppose what all this boils down to is the idea that we don’t need to sit idly by and watch the biodiversity of our only home wither like a drought-stricken plant.  Nor are we powerless against those who would cull the genetic bounty for their own enrichment.  Our strength is in our ability to act responsively as well as proactively.  Every scientist that has any dealings with climate has seen the writing on the wall.  And any scientist worth their salt recognizes the integrity of the data being collected by organizations such as NOAA.

They follow the tenets of good scientific practice, collecting and interpreting data. Then, they make it available to the public in the least-processed form through the National Climate Data Center (NCDC).  Recently, they reported that July held the hottest temperatures around the globe since we began recording these things on a broad scale.  I have news for you.  Every month from here on out is probably going to be a record breaker of some variety, and if you know anything about the delicate balance of the planetary ocean and air currents, that should disturb you.

Those Damnable Details

People who cannot understand why warmer land and ocean temperatures are a problem obviously don’t grasp the severity and enormity of our current position.  Even those relatively intelligent individuals who cite theories and statistics of past climate change in support of the idea that we’ll be fine or that our present activities have no bearing on global climate, are sadly missing the point. Raise the global temperature of the ocean by a single degree–life begins to die out at the most basic level(i.e. plankton and other microorganisms.)  Reefs fail, become graveyards for coral stalked by an explosion of invasive, predatory species.  The fish–and pelagic species that can–go elsewhere, but eventually their numbers fall as well.  Warmer ocean and air temperatures lead to glacial melt; rising sea levels are the least of our worries–and more than half the world’s total populations lives within 60 miles of the ocean or a large body of water.  Any of this densely packed, low-lying land would be inundated and uninhabitable.

Where the real trouble begins is when all those glaciers melt, they release fresh, cold water into the warm, very salty sea.  This disrupts the chain of a current like, say, the Gulf Stream, and the current, which brings warm water up from the equator is broken.  That may not mean a great deal to you, if you live in Florida and think that a congressman bringing a snowball into chambers is a good showing up of all us Environmental Crybabies.  But I’m pretty sure that Great Britain would be dismayed, to say the least.

Then, since we’re on the subject of interconnectedness, consider the shift in air currents.  I’m not a climatologist, but even I know how to read the data.  Ocean and air currents are bound. Consult the maps above to see how they correspond.  When the conveyer belts of the Gulf Stream and the major Pacific currents are disrupted, the weather is going to get dicey.  If you thought the El Nino-driven droughts on the West Coast were bad, but didn’t know why they were happening, here’s why: The weather patterns for the year that ordinarily provide plenty of snowfall and rain over the mountain ranges in the west haven’t been happening.  No snow pack, no water, or at least not nearly enough to support the massive population centers in the Western states.

Bringing It Back Around

MayamapAs an archaeologist, I’ve seen trends in past climate data and read studies about drought strategies of indigenous populations in the Southwest.  There have been other mega droughts like the one that is currently developing in that region.  Humans survived.  Cultures managed to squeak by, but not unscathed.  It’s become apparent that the collapse of the Maya civilization in Mesoamerica was the result of a prolonged and severe drought that stretched many decades.  And their story, while particularly spectacular, is not unique.

sw-cultural-areas_C-GilmanThose civilizations and cultures that controlled vast territories, participated in thriving trade networks, and supported an elite class on a broad base of peasant labor, crumbled in the face of prolonged and terrifying climate shift.  This occurred, often because they were too entrenched in their patterns of consumption and cultural tradition to move out of the way of such a juggernaut.  Naturally arid and semiarid regions simply do not have the bioavailable resources to support large populations in the absence of intensive infusions of moisture, nutrients, or outside assistance.

What becomes glaringly apparent is that, in spite of many differences, the behavior doesn’t seem to change overmuch across cultures–we get comfortable, we get used to the way things are, and eventually, we fool ourselves into believing that a certain pattern of life can be sustained indefinitely, no matter what the natural landscape is telling us.  Don’t believe me?  Go ask Ozymandias how he feels about all of this.  Better yet, let’s take a trip back to the mid-Holocene. Imagine the Sahara as a lush grassland, well-populated by our human ancestors.

About 7,000 years ago, that started to change–not because humans were destroying the planet, but because the planet itself was changing.  Archaeologists believe that those nomadic and semi-sedentary groups slowly moved east, and may have intermixed with other groups to form the genetic foundations of the Ancient Egyptian culture.

But the water didn’t leave entirely.  Geological data shows vast aquifers of what’s known as fossil water beneath the desiccated sands of Northern Africa. The most recent indication that the current global zeitgeist will be our undoing are the voices arguing to tap these aquifers dry immediately. Like all other precious, limited resources–once that water’s gone, it’s gone. There’ll be no more, and then the growth and prosperity it fueled will shrivel in the unremitting desert sun. Sound familiar? It’s the driving force to consume. We have undergone a cultural transformation–locusts goaded into an orgy of consumption and reproduction. Before the rains fell and the desert bloomed, we were grasshoppers.


We in America have largely distanced ourselves from our means of survival.  We live in a state of cushioned ignorance about where things come from, how food is processed, and how everything fits together.  And it’s human to want things to remain stable, known, accustomed.  But it is not natural, and it cannot last.  If we’re to give credence to our self-proclaimed intelligence, we need to take stock, look back, look around, and decide what we can drop and what we cannot live without.  We may find that it’s the latter category that we stand to lose first if we do not.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Percy Bysshe Shelley



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