In light of who became president elect last week, I find myself searching for patterns to understand what might be happening, and what’s next. I don’t presume unrelated processes mirror each other, but there are uncanny resemblances. In this case, I believe Trump is the end of the Ice Age. He is — I believe, I hope — bad news wrapped inside of much better news.
Metaphors are going to start mixing. Go with me on this, it might just make some sense.
Ice ages generally end with a bang. The last one is no exception. The Wisconsin Ice Age, a 100,000-year-long cold spell that covered half of North America in giant glaciers, started falling off the rails about 18,000 years ago. Gradual warming began to melt away the majority of the ice. Paradise was coming, fresh water abundant, permafrost retreating, the continent greening. By 13,000 years ago, paradise was out of control, freshwater coming in the form of enormous glacial outburst floods, which were dumping into the oceans, messing with thermohaline balances, teetering climates toward the edge of radical change.
Twelve-thousand nine hundred years ago, the belts and gears of oceanic and atmospheric circulation flew apart. What had been a warming northern hemisphere in perhaps as short a time as ten years jumped back to full glacial conditions. It appears that the Gulf Stream reversed. Where it had been shuttling warm water into the North Atlantic, now it was bringing cold water south. In an event known as the Younger Dryas (YD on the chart), the Ice Age engine turned back on. Permafrost began expanding, grasslands became tundra, and formerly retreating ice caps started growing.
What could this possibly have to do with Trump? Everything.
Our nation has been gradually warming and greening. We’ve become more globally oriented, more socially open, statistically less violent. Suffrage, civil rights, gay marriage…we have many historic indicators of progressive, liberal change. Meanwhile, the Ice Age has begrudgingly collapsed, white supremacy finding itself on the wrong side of history. Obama was elected to two terms, a warming trend that would have immediately preceded the Younger Dryas (in the Pleistocene, this warm spell was the Bølling-Allerød interstadial, B-A on the chart).
Then, boom: Trump. The return of the Ice Age. A minority of voters (only slight) and majority of electoral votes struck back. Liberal meltwater had become too much and the system backfired.
The Younger Dryas cold spike lasted more than a thousand years and was devastating. Already pressured toward extinction by the rise of the hunting human, megafauna such as mammoths and sabertooth cats were weakened. Sudden climatic change pushed them over the edge. By the time the Younger Dryas was over, these animals and the rest of their Rancholabrean kin were gone.
In the case of Trump, the deepest chill may only last four years. That’s long enough to do some serious damage that could last generations, from public lands to the safety of anyone not straight, white, and male (not safe for them either), but not enough to turn back a tide already in progress.
Looking through the earth’s records, other ice ages have ended the same way, gradual warming leading to a sudden spike in cold, a former age asserting itself one last time. What happened after that? Those ice ages ended. They fought, but were ultimately finished. After the Younger Dryas fell away, the earth returned to warming and greening. I believe that’s what lies ahead for us, a hard road that will eventually open wide.
This is why we have to protect the seeds of better times. We find refuges. We gain strength. We defend the land and what lives on it, the water that flows through it, as well as civil liberties, and a need for truth, which might otherwise go extinct. Soon the Ice Age will be over, and a greener course needs to already be in full swing to take its place.
As for the Anthropocene…there’s a whole different future out there waiting for us.
Image: E. C. Pielou, Plankton, from the last ice age to the year 3007, ICES J. Mar. Sci. (2008) 65 (3): 296–301