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Games in a time of climate change

We're well into the first week of August, and the summer's hottest days could be just ahead. There's still a debate being waged over climate change policies proposed to help curb its effects, but in some video game that debate is over and the effects of climate change lead to a bleak future. We speak to Dr. David Robinson, New Jersey State Climatologist and Professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University, to find out if these video games' vision of a post climate change future holds more fact or fiction.


Fracture (2008)

Fracture takes place in the year 2161, and the United States is split into two side: The East and West coast. Global climate change was irreversible by the 22nd century. The United States deformed the terrain on its coastal states to battle the rising sea levels, but a great body of water still rose up in the midwest, turning it into a wasteland and dividing the nation in half. The split eventually took its toll, with people from both sides of the divide developing their own cultures. The East Coast focused on high technology, while the West Coast relied heavily on genetic engineering. Eventually, the United States government declares genetic engineering illegal, which sparks a civil war.

Is it possible that, after a century of unchecked climate change, that a body of water could rise up and cut the nation in half?

No, not in this time frame. Sea level would have to rise by a few hundred feet, meaning most land ice, including the Antarctic Ice Sheet, would have to mostly melt. Several tens of millions of years ago, there was no ice on land. In fact, there was a huge sea in central North America. So, there is some minor realism here.

In the game, terraforming technology is used to raise up land and protect the East and West Coasts against the rising sea level. Is there a more realistic technology?

If terraforming means raising the land artificially, then that idea has been proposed by a New Jersey Bayshore Community (Highlands, NJ) as recently as two years ago, following the extensive flooding from Sandy. Even at a small scale, the costs would be enormous. More realistic approaches in the short term (battling feet, not tens of feet, of sea level rise) include beach replenishment, sea walls, raising bulkheads, elevating critical infrastructure (e.g. roads, rails, water and sewage treatment plants, etc.), and natural means (e.g. creating or restoring coastal marshlands and beach dunes).

If left unchecked, will global warming and climate change be irreversible by the 22nd century?

Yes, that is the general consensus, at least when looking at centuries ahead. Though the magnitude of "permanent" changes remains unknown. I like to say that in some respects, the "train has already left the station," meaning that what has already been done to the atmosphere, oceans and land is, in some respects, irreversible.


Battlefield 2142 (2006)

Global Warming and its effects become undeniable by 2106, and by then it's too late. A new Ice Age dawns on the world, with snow and storms sweeping down from the north. Habitable space is swallowed up by the ice, and the remaining soil is not enough to feed Earth's population. So, with national borders completely redrawn, a global battle for survival and dwindling resources begins and reaches its height in 2142.

So, everyone has heard the term "Global Warming" and how the polar ice caps will melt. What are the chances that warming will flip into a new Ice Age?

Were humans not altering the environment, it is likely that within the next several tens of thousands of years, earth would be found slipping into a new Ice Age. One that might culminate at least 100,000 years from now with ice sheets again covering much of North America and Europe. This is the result of changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun, which happens periodically, and have led to a long series of Ice Ages over the past two million years - the latest culminating 20,000 years ago.

What is the likelihood that a 36 year old Ice Age would bury almost all of the habitable land on earth, considering how the last known ice age lasted thousands of years and marked by slow-moving glaciers?

Incredibly unlikely. However, the movie "The Day After Tomorrow" did a good portion of this work in a week, so 36 years seems like a snail's pace in comparison!


Anno 2070 (2011)

In the year 2070, global warming completely melts the polar ice caps, which raises sea levels and floods the world's coastal regions. Many of the old cities are lost beneath the sea, and areas that were considered highlands become island chains. As a result, defining qualities like nationality, race, and religion lose their meaning. Instead, humanity's factions are defined by their ability and approach toward producing energy. The player operates from a gigantic mobile ship base called an Ark, and can choose to slowly develop sustainable eco-friendly colonies and economy, or use up whatever resources are left to quickly build up industry and make a big profit before it's all gone.

At the current rate, is it possible for the polar ice caps to be completely melted by the year 2070 (56 years away)?

At the current rate, absolutely not. Current rate estimates are somewhere near three feet of rise from today to the end of this century, with perhaps a foot of that by 2050.

About how much of the world would be submerged if the ice is gone?

This goes back to the earlier question regarding central North America [Fracture]. Sea level would rise upwards of 250 feet should the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melt. That would inundate huge coastal areas around the world (e.g. Florida, up the Mississippi Basin, and Southeast Asia). However, the vast majority of currently exposed continental landmasses would remain above sea level.

Would human life on earth be sustainable without the ice caps to reflect the sun's rays back into space?

Yes, though this would result in a warmer world. Still, it would be quite habitable, even with the warming and changes in circulation patterns with their influence on precipitation.


Fuel (2009)

Fuel is an open-world racing game set in a post apocalyptic America caused by global warming. The United States is laid to waste by powerful storms, marked by extreme rain, ice, and snow, force mass evacuations. Multiple super tornadoes sweep the landscape. However, a band of crazy racers see it as a good thing, and turn the post-apocalyptic world into their personal playground. They race across the wasteland and use the extreme weather as a great addition to their extreme sport.

What parts of the US would be hit the hardest by extreme weather events like super tornadoes or mega snowstorms?

More northerly areas and those at higher elevations would feel the impact of such snows. The traditional tornado regions of the US - the Great Plains and the Southeast - would feel the wrath most greatly. However, oftentimes, it is the areas that least expect these types of weather events that are impacted most greatly when a rogue weather event occurs.

What areas would be the safest?

Coastal areas can be the safest from the storms mentioned, but then there are hurricanes and sea level rise. It's hard to say that any area would escape, though perhaps some southern mountainous regions (including one of my favorite areas around Asheville, NC) would escape the worst of the worst.

Can things really get so bad that people would have to evacuate areas, perhaps entire states, just to escape the extreme weather conditions?

This is highly unlikely. Folks began to feel this way when four hurricanes impacted Florida in 2004, but you can see how that turned out. Though frequent occurrences of such storms might be a major impetus for large scale relocations from extreme weather, we're not talking about sea level rise here.


Fate of the World (2011)

Fate of the World is a strategy simulation game based on the work of Dr. Myles Allen of Oxford University. In it, the player leads an international organization tasked with dealing with climate change. They do so by using funding to pass policies and research different technologies. Alternatively, the players can decide to embrace industry, speed up climate change, and let the world hurtle toward its demise. Since there are no specific scenarios, our questions for Dr. Robinson deal with the likelihood and impacts of certain "tipping point" events that occur within the game.

Ice sheet collapse: The ice sheet in Greenland melts, followed by the polar ice caps. It's possible to completely melt the Antarctic sheet, but that takes an extremely long time (at least several hundred years).

You mean the Greenland ice sheet, followed by the Antarctic ice sheet. These are the true polar ice caps. Simply melting sea ice in the polar regions doesn't raise sea levels at all. I don't think you can rule out a major reduction of the Greenland ice sheet and the west Antarctic ice sheet within several centuries (not this century!). The bulk of glacial ice is within the east Antarctic sheet, and it is difficult to see this disappearing in this millennium, and likely beyond.

Arctic methane release: Rising global temperatures cause large pockets of methane to be released from the arctic, which starts a self-perpetuating cycle of ever increasing temperature. Once the global temperature reaches 3 degrees above the pre-industrial levels, it is almost impossible to reverse the warming of the planet.

Wish we knew more about polar methane to determine if this is a plausible scenario. I think for now, it is safe to say that there is a threat of increased polar methane being released, which would exacerbate what is called a positive feedback within the climate system. One that might not be reversible.

Amazon Collapse: Rising temperatures irrevocably destroy the Amazon rainforest. Although conservation measures might slow down the global impact, it is impossible to stop the collapse once it starts. The loss of forestry causes a major spike in atmospheric carbon.

Another contributor to atmospheric CO2 increases. Alone, I don't think it can cause conditions to fully spiral out of control.

Famine: Drought causes a steep decline in agricultural production. There can be regional famines, or (what's called in the game) genuine famines. A genuine famine happens when both regional and global food production falls below a certain point.

This is a major concern, even in this century. We are somewhat buffered by global food transport, where it can be afforded. But drought is a major concern of mine and others, and would certainly lead to regional famine in some locations, worse than what is experienced today.


Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri (1999)

In the 22nd Century, a human spacecraft reaches a habitable planet named Chiron, located in the Alpha Centauri system. Upon reaching the planet's orbit, the ship breaks apart, and several different factional leaders, driven by ideology, land on different parts of the planet and then try to win dominance over the world. Excessive pollution will raise sea levels, which could submerge colonies and destroy resources on low elevation tiles. To further complicate things, Chiron is a living planet with a growing sentience, and indigenous creatures called Mind Worms act as its immune response system. These psychic creatures emerge in huge swarms towards later parts of the game and attack colonies that produce the most pollution.

Since Dr. Robinson specializes in the climate and geography on Earth, we didn't ask him any questions about extraterrestrial weather patterns or the likelihood of Mind Worms. However, the game suggests that global conflict and unrest on Earth leads to its eventual downfall. In the upcoming spiritual successor, Civilization: Beyond Earth, humanity takes to the stars after Earth suffers catastrophic event called "The Great Mistake." So, perhaps that serves as kind of warning that humanity should take care of this world before it is forced to turn toward distant worlds for refuge... and make all the same mistakes of the past while fending off Mind Worm attacks.