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I stood in the center of the frozen Arctic lake, chipping at the ice with an ice chisel, a sharp-edged piece of steel attached to a five-foot-long handle. It was the middle of May, and the ice was still about a meter thick. I made an indentation large enough to hold a bundle of six explosive cartridges.
One cartridge in the bundle was primed with a number 6 electric blasting cap. I attached the lead wires to the cap, placed the cartridges in the crater I had made, then scraped the ice chips back into the hole to cover them. The afternoon sun would warm the surface and melt the snow a little. In the chill of the evening, it would refreeze, sealing the charge in place.
I walked north on the ice, unrolling the lead wires. The spruce trees that surrounded the lake tilted this way and that, leaning on each other like drunks at closing time. A drunken forest. The trees had grown in the permafrost, the permanently frozen soil of the Arctic Circle, and their roots were shallow. As the frozen soil had melted, the trees had abandoned their upright posture, beginning a slow motion fall toward the ground. As the permafrost melted, it released methane, the main component of natural gas.
I stopped to brush snow off the ice and chip another crater. Beneath the black ice I could see thousands of white blobs, as numerous as stars in the sky. Some were as big as my hand; some as big as my head. Each one was a bubble of methane released by the melting permafrost and trapped beneath the ice.
I looked up when I heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow. My friend Anaaya grinned at me. “You’re slow, Doctor Maggie. I’ve already finished the other side of the lake.”
Anaaya was the only person who insisted on the honorific. She was an old friend. We had been roommates in our freshman year at University of Alaska. She had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering; I had gone on to get a doctorate.
“Of course you’re faster,” I told her. “You actually know what you’re doing.”
“I’ll help you out, Doctor Slowpoke.”
It was a small lake, but it took us three hours working together to plant all the charges. When we were done, we surveyed our work from the lakeshore. The afternoon breeze was already blowing snow across the lake, erasing our footprints. The charges and the connecting wire were invisible beneath the snow and ice.
“No sign that we were ever here,” I said.
“We were never here,” she said. “Who would ever stop at this lake? No one. No fishing here, no hunting—no reason to stop. You’re on your way to check on a methane monitoring station; I’m looking into some reports of illegal trapping for my aunt.” Anaaya’s aunt was involved in tribal management. “All official business.”
Looking out over the lake at the drunken forest, tilted trees as far as the eye could see, I didn’t hesitate. “Of course.”
We returned to our snowmobiles and headed north to accomplish our official business.
Two weeks later, the lake exploded. Our charges had cracked the ice and ignited the rising methane.
I wasn’t there to see it happen. No one was. But three satellites were perfectly positioned to capture the show. Two aerospace engineers—friends of friends who could not be traced to me—had independently calculated the orbits and set the ideal time for the explosion. They had done a good job. The satellite images were spectacular. A very impressive mushroom cloud. Trees for miles around the lake were blasted with ice shards.
An ecoterrorist, JollyGreen, took credit for the explosion, releasing a lengthy manifesto about the melting of the permafrost and the release of methane. JollyGreen was a sock puppet, of course. Not my sock puppet. The sock puppet of a friend of a friend of a friend with no connections back to me.
JollyGreen’s basic message was this: Earth’s average global surface temperature was increasing and the Arctic was heating up faster than the rest of the planet. The permafrost was melting and releasing methane, which was twenty times better at trapping the sun’s heat than carbon dioxide. More methane meant more warming. That meant more permafrost melting, which meant more methane and more warming . . . and so on in a positive feedback loop with negative consequences.
“The human race is already screwed because of climate change,” he wrote. “There’ll be flooding, famine, drought, and more. Too late to turn all that around, but it can get worse. If all the permafrost melts, we are royally screwed. Mass extinctions, mass die-off of phytoplankton and disruption of the ocean’s ecosystems, wildfires on land. Nowhere to run; nowhere to hide.”
For the next few days, news programs featured Arctic researchers explaining the consequences of climate change north of the Arctic Circle. Some of my former colleagues at the University of Alaska were quizzed on camera about the permafrost and methane in Arctic lakes. Several cited my work. Yes, they said, the permafrost was melting, methane constantly bubbled up under Arctic lakes. None of this was secret information.
I was not among the scientists interviewed. I heard that a couple of reporters trying to find a way to contact me put pressure on the PR department at the university, but no one gave me up. They just said I was no longer affiliated with the university.
A month later, after the explosion had faded from the news cycle, the National Science Foundation called me. I was about 100 miles away from the exploding lake, making coffee over a driftwood fire in Ivvavik National Park, Canada’s least visited national park. I had spent the month living in a qarmaq, a sod-roofed hut built decades before by an Inuit family to serve as a winter camp. It was just large enough for me, Claire, and Marina—grad students who had elected to spend the summer getting a little field experience working with me. The qarmaq was conveniently situated right beside the one-acre plot where I was testing a unique method of capturing methane released by melting permafrost.
Here there were no spruce trees to betray the softening of the soil beneath the surface. Low grasses and shrubs grew in a boggy landscape. Nestled among the plants were carbon fiber tubes, woven together to make a very loose mat. In some areas, the fibers had been trampled into the soil by a passing herd of reindeer.
A year before, I had submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation about this pilot project. I had called this tangle of carbon fiber tubes a ‘methane sequestering mat.’ When NSF turned down my grant proposal, I had posted the project on a crowdfunding site, where I referred to it as a ‘fart catcher.’ Crowdfunding had financed my one-acre pilot project.
It was a warm day by Arctic standards—slightly above freezing. I wore hiking boots with two pairs of wool socks, rather than the large white bunny boots—rubber inside and out with thick insulation between the waterproof layers—that were necessary in the winter. I could breathe without a filter to warm the air before it reached my lungs. Practically balmy.
I was talking with Claire and Marina about plans for the day when the satellite phone rang. The call was from an NSF program officer, the same guy who had turned down my grant proposal. But that had been before the lake exploded, before permafrost became—ever so briefly—the star of the 24/7 news cycle, before some members of Congress began calling for zero methane emissions in the Arctic.
NSF was adding a new initiative that focused on methane emission from the melting permafrost. The program officer had called my house in Fairbanks and persuaded the house sitter to give him the number of my satellite phone. He wanted to discuss my proposal for a methane-sequestering mat.
Sitting on a camp stool by the driftwood fire, looking out over the tundra and the tangle of carbon fibers, I told the program officer about results to date from my crowdfunded prototype. Knowing that this program officer had an engineering background, I focused on how the project made use of recent innovations in nanotechnology—the carbon fiber tubes, the low pressure methane-hydrate storage tank made possible by advances in carbon nanotube technology. I recited numbers—emission rates, kilograms of methane recovered. It was a cordial and productive conversation.
Nine months later, I landed at Franklin Research Station. Built of recycled shipping containers and located on the coastal tundra just outside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the station was a low rust-colored box surrounded by ice. To the north, the Beaufort Sea—a plain of ice stretching away to meet the blue sky. To the south, the Brooks Range—mountains that looked as if they had been sculpted from snow, not just covered by it. I had been lucky to fly in during a calm spell. March was the start of the Arctic research season, but the weather was always dicey.
“Welcome to your home away from home,” the pilot called out as he turned the plane’s nose into the wind and brought it down smoothly on the ice-covered runway.
“Happy to be here,” I said sincerely.
A few hours later, after unpacking my gear, I repeated that sentiment as I met with Jackson Hanks, the head of operations at the station. I had done my research on the man. He was twenty years my senior. A biologist by training, but he had been head of operations here for more than a decade, while station managers had come and gone.
A former colleague from my university days who had spent a summer at Franklin Station provided me with more detailed information than Google ever could: “That guy? He’ll never go rogue. He knows how to work the system. He’s never the leader but always in charge. He keeps his head down and knows where all the bodies are buried.”
Oki, the head cook at Franklin Station, was a distant cousin of my friend Anaaya. He had provided even more important information: what Jackson Hanks liked to drink.
I arrived in Jackson’s office with a bottle of bourbon. “A gift from the south,” I said, as I set it on his desk. “My sources say it’s your favorite brand.”
Jackson smiled, opened the bottle, and brought two glasses out of a drawer. “A pleasure to meet you, Dr. Lindsey.”
“Maggie,” I said. “Nobody calls me doctor.” I accepted a glass of bourbon and sat across the desk from him. We engaged in the usual small talk of the Arctic, discussing the weather, the state of the sea ice, my good luck in getting in before the wind picked up. At that moment the wind was blasting the triple-paned office window with ice crystals and making the station vibrate with a steady hum.
Jackson sipped his bourbon, then told me they’d been having problems with polar bears of late. That led to a story about a grad student who had come to the station to study the population decline of polar bears. “He thought they were cute until he got trapped in a remote observation blind for three days when a couple of young bears decided he’d make a good snack. After that, he switched to studying the decline of the parrotfish population in coral reefs off the coast of the Yucatan.”
“He could have switched to Arctic foxes,” I suggested. “They’re plenty cute and not at all menacing unless you’re a lemming.”
Jackson shook his head. “He’s better off in the tropics. He didn’t belong up here.”
“So you condemned him to sweltering on the beach and watching the sea level rise.”
“Drinking warm beer because there’s no ice. Battening down for hurricanes. Battling giant tropical spiders.”
We lifted our glasses and toasted the guy who couldn’t cut it in our environment of choice.
“When I found out you were coming to the station, I asked a few sources of my own about you,” he told me.
“Find out anything interesting?”
“The station manager at McMurdo says you passed his test, and that’s good.”
When I was in grad school, I’d spent a summer at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, helping with a study of the microbiome of Antarctic soils.
“What test was that?” I asked. I didn’t remember a test.
“He watches what people do in the cafeteria. He looks for people who are just as comfortable in a group discussion as they are sitting by themselves. You passed.”
I nodded. “I get along with people,” I said. “And I can get along alone.”
He leaned back in his chair, studying me. “Tell me—why did you leave the university? You were teaching, doing research, on a tenure track.”
“One too many committee meetings,” I said lightly. He laughed, and I added, “I like to get things done.”
“I can understand that,” he said. “So tell me about this methane sequestering mat of yours. Or do you prefer ‘fart catcher’?”
I shrugged. “Either one.” Since Jackson was a biologist, I launched into an explanation of the biology of the system. “The mat’s made of carbon fiber tubes, but what makes it work is the colony of bacteria in those tubes.”
It turned out that Jackson knew quite a bit about Methylomirabilis oxyfera, the bacteria that made the mat work. Amazing critters those—they thrive in stinking black mud without light or oxygen, digesting methane and nitrogen oxides for their energy. In the tubes of the mat, they consumed enough methane to create a concentration gradient that kept the methane flowing into the tubes and rising into a storage tank.
“A biological methane pump?” he said. “That’s clever. And you want to cover a square mile with this fart catcher? That’s ambitious.”
“A square mile is just a start. We have to move fast, you know. With the current rate of methane emission . . . ”
He held up a hand to stop me. “Hold on. I don’t need to hear another manifesto on Arctic warming. I live here, remember?”
“Having that lake blow up gave your permafrost research quite a boost, didn’t it?”
“I suppose it did.”
“I can understand the motives of whoever did it. No one pays any attention to what happens up here unless it’s involves something cataclysmic or cute. Polar bears get press; permafrost usually doesn’t.”
I didn’t say anything. I just waited.
He studied me, then smiled, ever so slightly. “I assume that safety protocols will ensure that there will be no explosions associated with your project.”
I nodded quickly. “I can assure you of that.”
He poured another glass. “I’ll give you a crew to lay out this fart catcher of yours. I trust you’ll supervise the work.”
I did more than supervise. I worked alongside the crew that rolled out the fart catcher. It was nasty tedious work. The crew described it as hellacious, and I had to agree.
My test plot in Ivvavik National Park had been a flat grassy area. It had been easy to push the carbon tubes down so they made contact with the soil. On the coastal plain surrounding Franklin Station, the land was flat, but the vegetation was less cooperative. The fart catcher had to lie flat against the soil, so we had to clear away tough shrubs—willow and Labrador tea. We had to pound down dense tussocks formed by sedges and grasses. In a month and a half, we managed to install less than a quarter of the projected area.
I contacted some friends about the problem. It takes a team to save the world, after all. I had many friends and they had friends and their friends had friends. Social media was wonderful that way. My friends (and their friends) often had creative solutions. Some people talk about thinking outside the box. Many of my friends had never seen the box. They were unaware that the box existed. I sent out the word and waited to see what would happen.
A month later, as the crew and I were clearing yet another patch of willow, I heard someone call to me. I looked up to see a herd of shaggy beasts lumbering over the tundra toward us.
Muskoxen—Pleistocene megafauna at its most charismatic. They’re called oxen, but they’re actually more closely related to goats. Their ancestors had survived the mass extinction event that occurred during the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene. The herd stopped at the edge of the carbon tube carpet, eying me myopically as they stood shoulder to shoulder, ready to dispatch any predator with their large pointy horns.
“Hello!” Someone in a lavender parka came around the side of the herd and waved to me. “We’re here at last.”
That was Jenna, leader of the muskoxen herders. There were five muskoxen herders, two Royal Canadian Mounties, and a dozen cows and six calves. They had traveled from a muskoxen farm some 150 miles to the south.
I escorted the people and their shaggy charges to Franklin Station. While the ox herders found a patch of good grazing for the beasts, the Mounties met with Jackson and presented him with the official paperwork. Apparently, a Canadian muskoxen farm had donated the animals to Franklin Station—a donation approved by a top level official in the US agency responsible for polar research. It was unclear where the request for this donation had originated.
While Jackson chatted with the Mounties about their journey, I helped his assistant research the situation. The path of official approvals was an insane tangle, involving at least three agencies on the US side and the same number on the Canadian side. But in the end, it didn’t really matter who had approved what. The muskoxen were an official gift from Canada to the US. Officials on the US side made it quite clear that sending the muskoxen away would cause an international incident.
Besides, news of the gift was already trending on all news feeds—it was the warm and fuzzy story of the day. A muskox calf is not nearly as cute as an Arctic fox, but they do have a certain charm. In those days of doom and gloom and climate change, cheery stories associated with polar science were hard to come by.
So Franklin Station gained a herd of muskoxen. Jackson found temporary quarters for the Mounties and the ox herders and arranged for a crew to set up a paddock for the beasts. To help out, I volunteered to take charge of the care of the muskoxen, mentioning that they could be an asset to my project. Muskoxen would happily devour tundra shrubs. Their hooves would break up and flatten the lumps and bumps in the soil, making it easier to roll out the fart catcher.
When the visitors headed to their quarters, Jackson asked me to stay. “So tell me,” he said. “How did you make this happen?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t make it happen.” After a moment’s pause, I went on. “I talked about the problems we’ve been having with laying out the fart catcher with a friend who studies muskoxen. He reminded me that large ruminants were great at modifying the environment. I did say that it was a pity I didn’t happen to have any of those. He must have mentioned it to someone who decided to help out.”
Jackson shook his head, looking incredulous.
“I’ve found that if you put the word out to enough people, useful stuff happens. You never know what it’s going to be. But sometimes, it’s just what you need.”
“That’s nuts. That’s no way to manage a project.”
I leaned forward in my chair. “Those beasts will make a big difference to how much mat we can install before winter. And you know this project is important. You’ve seen the changes in the Arctic over the last decade.”
“Of course I have.”
“Reduction in the sea ice. Steadily increasing temperature. Changes in wildlife patterns. Changes in weather patterns. When will the climate reach the tipping point? How long do you think we have? Another decade or two? Then what?”
“You think you’ll save the world with a square mile of fart catcher and a dozen muskoxen?”
I shrugged. “It’s a start. Baby steps, but it’s a beginning. I promise there’ll be no explosions. I’ll take care of the herd. They won’t bother you a bit.”
Over the next few weeks I worked with the ox herders to learn the ways of the shaggy beasts. The herd grazed in the area around the station, returning to their paddock at night for special muskox treats—carrots mostly. A muskox will follow you anywhere for a carrot.
The head of PR at the station shot photos and video: muskoxen grazing with the research station in the background, muskoxen in their newly built paddock, muskox calves sleeping by their muskox mamas. It was great PR for the station, and that earned Jackson some points with the administration. All good.
After a couple of weeks, the ox herders headed back to their farm, promising to return in the spring to comb out the qiviut, the muskoxen’s underwool. It was a great cash crop, eight times warmer than wool and softer than cashmere. As a farewell gift, the ox herders gave me a set of long johns knit from qiviut—the warmest, softest, and most expensive underwear I’ve ever owned.
So that was my first summer at the station—laying carpet, bringing in some muskoxen, collecting some 30 metric tons of methane. Calculations for required storage had been spot on—the storage tanks were almost full. It was a good start, but it was time to move on to the next phase, one that was not covered in my grant application: disposing of the methane without adding it to the atmosphere and in the process funding a significant increase in the methane harvest.
In the Fall, I left the station to get some business done in the lower forty-eight. I presented a paper at the American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco and met with a few research teams from Siberia, Norway, Greenland, and Canada who were engaged in similar projects. While I was there, I also met with a German research group that was working on methane cracking.
Here’s a quick chemistry lesson. Methane is made of carbon and hydrogen. In methane cracking, hydrogen is separated from carbon to make hydrogen gas and carbon. Hydrogen is a great fuel. Think of the Hindenburg: a big bag of hydrogen and a major explosion. If you burn hydrogen, you get water. No carbon dioxide, no greenhouse gas problem.
And here’s a bonus. What’s left when you take away the hydrogen is pure carbon. Perfect for making more carbon tubes to capture and store methane and valuable on the commodities market for use in manufacturing. Many companies from car makers to aircraft builders were switching from steel to lighter stronger carbon fiber to make their products. You can see why I was interested in methane cracking.
I met the Germans at a restaurant in Drowntown. That was the name San Franciscans had given to the area of downtown that flooded when the tide was high, a result of rising sea levels. It was low tide that evening. The streets were dry, but there was a whiff of salt and seaweed in the air.
The lead German researcher was Katrin, an earnest woman who asked—politely but with a slightly baffled tone—about the American politicians’ continued stress on carbon emission targets. “All research has indicated that stopping emissions will not stop the change in climate,” she said earnestly. “Even if we stopped today, the world’s temperature will continue to increase for half a century. They do not seem to understand that.”
“Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic,” I said. “It’s a popular pastime in political circles. I’m seen as the voice of doom and gloom because I recognize that the permafrost is melting at an increasing rate and that methane capture should be a top priority.”
“And you are successfully capturing methane. What is your current capture rate?”
We drank beer and made calculations. Katrin estimated expenses on the back of a napkin as we worked out a plan for a pilot project involving methane cracking. During the Arctic summer, I could use solar power to crack the methane, and then cool and compress the hydrogen gas. I hoped to find a manufacturer to process the carbon into more carpet. Katrin had some ideas there—and some excellent contacts in the German manufacturing community.
“I understand that NSF regulations require you to purchase your materials in the US,” she said.
I waved a hand, dismissing the problem. “I have private funding as well,” I explained. The presence of the muskoxen had been an enormous help in crowdfunding efforts. Charismatic megafauna has its uses.
“Very good,” she said. “Then I think I can assist you.”
That was the first stop in a long winter of hunting and gathering. So many technical problems to solve, with little time and not enough money.
The hive mind found me a way to store the hydrogen that my pilot project would produce: a decommissioned tank from NASA, originally built to contain liquid hydrogen fuel for the space shuttle. It had never been used. For decades, it had been stored at NASA’s New Orleans manufacturing facility on the far eastern edge of New Orleans—still above water, but just barely. The facility was being decommissioned—the last hurricane had come close to wiping it out—and they were happy to find a home for the fuel tank.
I set up a relationship with a German manufacturing plant that would make some of my pure carbon into fart catcher carpet and methane hydrate storage. I’d compensate them for their service with the rest of the carbon, which they could use or sell for a fat profit.
The rest of my time was spent retrofitting the hydrogen fuel tank for my needs and arranging for transport. Everywhere I went, I could see the effects of the changing climate. But people were doing what people always do—complaining about the weather and adapting to it where they could. Many politicians still doubted that change was underway even as some religious leaders were preaching about the end times.
I was happy to return to the Arctic for another summer of work. The carpet from the previous year was functioning beautifully. Arctic grasses and other plants were growing through the loose weave of the mat, making it a part of the landscape. Trampling by the muskoxen had smoothed out the cursed tussocks and laying the next section of carpet was considerably easier than the first section had been.
Of course, there were problems. On top of the usual sleet storms and blizzards, we had to be alert to changes caused by warmer temperatures. Whenever we were outside the station, we were armed against starving polar bears that thought Arctic researchers might substitute for their usual diet of walrus and seal. We almost lost part of the carpet-laying crew when a sinkhole opened up in the area where we were working. Fortunately, the fart catcher carpet was strong enough to act as a safety net. It supported us and let us climb back up out of the hole.
I won’t pretend there weren’t difficulties with the hydrogen tank (delivered a month late) and the pilot methane cracker. But we got it all working eventually.
I also expanded the research station’s greenhouse, something that I’d discussed with Oki and kitchen crew the summer before. The original greenhouse was quite small—just big enough to grow a few vegetables. But with the hydrogen I was producing, I had energy to burn—so to speak. In my scavenging at the NASA manufacturing facility in New Orleans, I had run across a prototype greenhouse designed for Mars. The warehouse supervisor gave me a great deal on it. He said it would be abandoned within the month along with anything else left in the facility.
I set the Martian greenhouse up as an extension of the existing greenhouse. A hydrogen-powered heater allowed me to warm the air with no impact on the station energy budget and a cushion of carbon nanotubes insulated the permafrost from the greenhouse and collected the methane that outgassed.
Down in the lower forty-eight, things were getting worse faster than anyone had expected. Changes in polar temperatures had caused perturbations in the polar jet stream that wreaked havoc with global weather patterns. There was drought and wildfire in the western US, severe flooding in the South, historic blizzards along the eastern seaboard, and tornadoes where tornadoes had never been before.
By the end of the summer, I had quadrupled the land covered with fart catcher and I’d made plans to cover ten times that area in the following year. The research teams in Siberia, Greenland, Canada, and Norway were also having success.
That winter, my efforts focused on acquiring hydrogen transport and figuring out how to roll out more carpet with the same crew.
Well, not exactly the same crew. I had been in touch with a robotics team that worked in an abandoned warehouse in São Paulo, Brazil.
They called themselves the Ant Factory, a non-profit collective of entrepreneurial engineers. Well . . . some of them were engineers. Some of them were artists. All of them were scavengers, retrofitters, people who knew how to make do, people who simultaneously thought in the long term and the short term. My kind of people.
“We’re old school,” the head engineer told me. At least, he seemed to be in charge. His name was Renaldo and he had a seemingly infinite supply of black T-shirts emblazoned with cryptic sayings. My favorite read ‘Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.’
Renaldo claimed that was the best approach to projects like mine. “You know how the US space program works,” he said. “They triple check everything and build safeguards into their safeguards and redundancies onto their redundancies. We’re the opposite of that.”
In the warehouse parking lot, the Ant Factory had created an obstacle course where they held robot trials. Some parts of the course were constant—broken pavement, loose rocks, a pile of sand that could bury a bot in an avalanche. Other parts changed every day—the team was constantly adding booby traps and barriers. A slick of ice, a small mountain of melting snow, a sticky patch of some sort of goo—I thought it might be something toxic, but it turned out to be molasses.
The Ant Factory built me a robot that could traverse the course while rolling out fart catcher carpet. Actually, they built me a hundred robots—Renaldo called them “pequeninos peidos”—Little Farts. With a hundred robots, he said, it wouldn’t matter if a few of them failed. “Power in numbers,” he said.
Powered by hydrogen fuel cells, designed for rough terrain—originally the Little Farts were agribots designed to roll over just about any lump, bump, or tussock.
On my last night at the Ant Factory, I sat on the old loading dock and watched a dozen Little Farts navigate the course, towing and unrolling a large carpet that Renaldo assured me was heavier than the fart catcher. The team was celebrating. I had sprung for pizza and beer—a pilsner from a local brewery called Drown Your Sorrows. The label showed an ocean wave washing down Sao Paulo’s main street.
“I don’t know how I can thank you for all this” I told Renaldo as we watched one bot climb the slush mountain, trailing black carbon fibers. I wasn’t paying the Ant Factory much. I’d almost exhausted my crowdsourced funding.
He sipped his beer, surveying the rubble-filled yard. “You know those Hollywood movies where a few people save the world. We’re those people. We’ll make a difference.”
Renaldo knew someone who knew Katrin, so he already knew about my success with methane cracking. “What are you doing with the hydrogen you’re producing?” he asked me. “I have a friend who would be happy to purchase it.”
“Technically, I can’t actually sell the products of my work,” I told him. “That’s against NSF regulations.”
He nodded. “I understand. I am confident my friend would accept any hydrogen you chose to give him. He would offer goods and services in exchange.”
“That could work. Of course, there is the problem of transportation.”
“No problem. My friend Hehu lives in the Raft. He can take care of transportation.”
The Raft was a seasteading community, a loose affiliation of over a hundred vessels that had been converted to floating farms and cities by climate refugees from small island nations that had been wiped out by rising waters.
“Let me contact him on your behalf.”
I returned to the Arctic with Renaldo’s bots. Jackson didn’t ask questions about where I got them. He and I had developed a fine working relationship. He was glad that I needed a smaller work crew. The muskoxen were spooked by the bots at first, but they got used to them.
Renaldo’s friend Hehu came through. He reached the research station with two ships—a former Arctic cruise ship, now modified as a floating farm and residence for a few dozen people, and a former navy ship, now modified for hydrogen transport.
Hehu was from Woleai Atoll, the first island group to be swamped by the rising sea. I liked his team of engineers—the head of the group was from JPL and he knew one of the aerospace engineers who had calculated the satellite orbits for me. He had, like me, gone rogue, and we had a fine time discussing the advantages and disadvantages of leaving the confines of the university.
It was a fabulous summer. There were the usual problems with sinkholes and sleet storms and polar bears, but the robots worked well and I successfully expanded the area covered with the fart catcher to about twenty square miles. As autumn approached, it was all going very well. Until it all went very wrong.
I should have paid more attention to the news. While I’d been setting up partnerships and laying carpet and dodging polar bears, there had been a presidential election, a major change in congress, and a shift in national priorities. Hurricanes had wiped out New Orleans and a few other southern cities. Storm-driven waves were eroding beach bluffs and flooding US cities. Funding was being diverted to disaster relief. Franklin Station would shut down at the end of the season.
And somehow my work had come to the attention of new political appointees in charge of climate research. They were upset by my dealings with Renaldo and the Germans and Hehu and . . . oh, just about everybody who had been helping me out. Some of my partners were apparently on terrorist watch lists.
At least, that was one story. Some of my friends suggested that the concern about terrorism was a cover. What had really pissed people off was the success of my methane cracking—steel manufacturers did not like the possibilities offered by cheap availability of pure carbon.
Whatever the cause, I was in trouble. Jackson told me that navy personnel who came to close down the station would be taking me into custody and charging me with a list of offenses including theft of government property and conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism. Jackson had been ordered to confine me to the station.
The day before the Navy ship was due to arrive, I left. At my request, Oki had packed a box of supplies—including all of the fresh carrots that were left in the greenhouse. Before hugging me goodbye, he quizzed me on my equipment. He listened carefully to a long list: silk long johns, qiviut underwear, a layer of wool, windproof coat and pants, parka, bunny boots, hat, hood, air filter to warm the air before it entered my lungs, rifle for the polar bears, a pop-up shelter, and on and on.
“All right,” he said at last. “Stay warm, stay dry. Don’t get dehydrated and eat as many calories as you can stuff in your face—and you’ll be fine.” He hugged me goodbye.
It was a sunny day with a light wind. Two Little Farts accompanied me, dragging my gear on an improvised sled made of a plastic pallet I had found on the beach among the driftwood. In addition to the food and gear I had listed for Oki, I had a fiberglass kayak that had been left in the station’s storage by a seal researcher.
I took no satellite phone, no GPS, no electronics that might be used to find me. Such a strange feeling, leaving all that behind.
The muskoxen followed me—not out of affection, but in return for carrots that I dropped along the way. Their hooves completely obliterated my tracks and the marks left by my improvised sled and the Little Farts.
The hike to the shore was about a mile. When I reached the shore, I reset the Little Farts to return to the station. The muskoxen followed them, hoping for more carrots.
I abandoned the plastic pallet on the beach where I had found it, loaded the kayak, slid it into the water, and headed west for a place I knew.
A few years back, I had decided to retrace the steps of my favorite Arctic explorer, Ernest de Koven Leffingwell, a guy who never got a lot of press. Everyone paid attention to Peary and Amundsen and Scott. Big voyages, big funding. Leffingwell never had much funding and didn’t give a damn about reaching the North Pole.
He came up here in 1901 and fell in love with the Arctic. He spent nine summers and six winters up here, traveling around, making observations, keeping meticulous records. No fancy equipment—he had Inuit guides; he used dog sleds and small boats. He made the first map of the coastline worth looking at. He was the first person to explain ice wedges and the very first to pay any attention to the permafrost.
A few years back, I spent the better part of a summer retracing his journeys in this area. On that trip, I spent a week in an old prospector’s house where Leffingwell had wintered. Half sod-hut, half log cabin, it was still in pretty good shape. Good shelter, well-concealed, near the coast, and so obscure that only a dedicated permafrost researcher would know about it.
The wind was with me, but even so it was a long paddle down the coast to the small inlet where the cabin was located. I beached the kayak and dragged it and all my gear into the cabin. The wind had picked up and I knew it would erase my tracks.
Inside, out of the wind, I made myself at home and waited for the search to come and go. It was a long wait. When weather was calm, I could hear the search helicopters from miles away—the distinctive whup, whup, whup of their rotors warned me to take cover so searchers couldn’t spot me.
When the wind was blowing, the helicopters didn’t fly. Then I would listen to the wind. Sometimes a gust would make the hut shudder so the boards creaked and groaned. More often a steady wind would make the walls vibrate, so I felt like I was shivering even when I wasn’t. The wind had been trying to tear the hut down for more than a hundred years.
In the first week, a bear found my hiding place, but I had my rifle. Bear meat, while not fine dining, is a good source of protein.
The nights grew longer and longer until the sun never rose. When the sun was just below the horizon, it wasn’t completely dark. It was like that time right after the sun sets, when the sky is the deepest possible blue. Imagine that deep blue moment stretching on and on. The blue light colored the entire world, reflecting from the snow and the water. I felt like I was swimming in the sky.
For me, that was the important moment. Not the brilliant golden flash of the lake’s explosion, but rather the cool, blue, liminal light where nothing seemed real and I was not sure what would become of the world.
I had to wait a long time for the searchers to give up and leave, but eventually I stopped hearing helicopters. I returned to the station for the winter, a long paddle followed by a long walk over the pack ice. It was so cold that I could feel the mucus freeze in my nose when I took a breath without my air filter on. The very act of breathing put me at risk of dehydration—since every bit of water vapor froze instantly, the air was bone dry.
The station had been stripped down, but my friends had left behind everything I needed. There was a stash of canned food in the kitchen. The hydrogen-powered generator in the greenhouse was still there.
The winter was cold and long and lonely. I grew potatoes under improvised grow-lights. I set up a still and perfected the finest hooch ever made in the Arctic Circle. Arctic Fire, I called it.
Satellite communication had been shut down when they closed the station, but I rigged a ham radio. When the ionosphere cooperated, I could catch news broadcasts. The news was never good: heat waves, drought, hurricanes, flooding, famine, disease.
I managed to contact a few friends and I told them I was all right. They told me that the Navy team had searched for me in all the safety huts and all known emergency shelters. They fixated on the largest of the sinkholes—the one that almost swallowed my crew. They spotted some marks at the edge that could have been made by a rope and figured a sinkhole offered a great hiding place. Down there, there’d be no wind, no bears.
It had taken their team a week to stage an expedition to the bottom to look for me. I’m glad they all got in and out all right. Dangerous place, a methane sinkhole. Not somewhere I’d like to spend a lot of time.
Come spring, finding me was no longer a priority for the US government. The Arctic winter was summer in the Antarctic, and there had been some major developments down south. The Western Antarctic ice sheet, which scientists had thought would remain stable for several more decades, had started collapsing in a most spectacular fashion. The top layers of the sheet had been melting each summer, exposing long-buried crevasses. One of those crevasses broke through the bottom of the ice shelf, and an iceberg the size of Connecticut broke loose. A few weeks later, another one, just as big, broke free. Then another.
The icebergs were dramatic, but they weren’t the real problem. The Western ice shelf held back the glaciers on the Antarctic continent. Without it, those glaciers would flow into the sea. All told, that could add 30 million cubic kilometers of water, give or take a few million, to the world’s oceans. Faced with this threat, politicians were turning their attention to immediate construction projects to hold back the sea. A rogue scientist eating potatoes and polar bear meat in a closed research station was way down on anyone’s list of concerns.
With the return of the spring, Hehu arrived with ships laden with fart catcher net, methane cracking equipment, and empty tanks to be filled with hydrogen. That was thirty years ago.
Now we have the world as it is.
I sit in Jackson’s office. I still think of it as his, though he hasn’t been here for thirty years. I use it as my office now.
Hehu sits in the chair on the other side of the desk. It’s spring again and he has sailed north just as he has each spring for the last thirty years. But he hasn’t come alone. Each spring, a fleet of ships comes north to spend the summer in the Beaufort Sea. It is a ragtag fleet of cruise ships and barges and freighters and navy ships, all repurposed for this new world, all laden with food and supplies for the station, all carrying folks eager to work on the annual methane harvest.
Some ships are equipped with methane cracking facilities; others carry empty hydrogen tanks or empty holds. Each ship has its own unique community and culture—some grow tanks of algae; others grow forests; some grow pot farms. Some are environmentally-based communities with overtones of Native American cultures; some are party boats with overtones of Burning-Man culture.
They call themselves the Sunseekers. I call them the summer people. The winter doesn’t exist for them—not really. It is always summer where they are.
I pour Hehu a glass of my Arctic Fire. “You make the best hooch in the Arctic Circle,” he says.
I smile. I didn’t make this hooch by myself. The station staff, all of them young and smart, do the hard work to keep the station running, monitoring the fart catcher, tending the muskoxen and reindeer, making high octane booze, and preparing for the Sunseeker fleet’s arrival.
When the ships arrive in the Arctic, there is a great celebration with much singing and dancing. They celebrate the summer methane harvest and they treat me like a hero.
All summer long, the Sunseeker ships crisscross the ice-free Arctic ocean, visiting fart-catcher projects in Norway, Greenland, Siberia, Canada. Each autumn, the ships take away tanks of hydrogen and holds filled with pure powdered carbon.
The Sunseekers are a cheerful lot. And why wouldn’t they be? This is a fine new world, a utopian future, a happy ending. As the permafrost melts, they capture the methane. As the oceans rises, they build more ships.
To them, it seems so natural that half the world’s remaining population lives in nomadic floating colonies. Most of them didn’t know any of the people who died in droughts and floods, heat waves and blizzards. They didn’t know all those who suffered disease and famine.
Jackson died of dengue fever when disease-carrying mosquitoes brought that disease to the American South, a shift made possible by warmer temperatures and increased rain. Katrin starved in the European famine—caused by unseasonable snowstorms resulting from the slowing of the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift, ocean currents that kept Europe warm. Renaldo drowned in a flood that wiped out Sao Paulo, the result of a monster storm. Just one extreme weather event among hundreds.
They all died. Billions of people died. Not millions—billions. It took all those deaths to bring the world population down to a more sustainable level and let us reach this happy ending.
This isn’t the way I thought it would work out when I set out to save the world. All those square-jawed heroes of the old science fiction stories had it wrong. You can’t save the world as we know it. I did what I could, and I did some good in the world. But you can’t save the world without changing it.
“A toast,” Hehu said, lifting his glass. “To the future.”
I nodded and lifted my glass. “To the future. There’s no stopping it.”
Originally published in Bridging Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan.