Friday, December 2, 2011

Oh, the Places We Will Go -- Polar Cities, Here We Come!

By Denial Oberbyte

Toward the end of the exhibition “Beyond Climate Change: The Future of Polar Cities,” which is on now at the American Museum of Natural History and will likely stay up for a while, if visitor traffic dictates, a visitor is confronted with a chance to help make ''polar cities'' in the far north (and far south, too -- think Tasmania and New Zealand) livable. Time frame? 2100 to 2200. Prepare for a wild adventure, the show seems to be saying.

Using an interactive screen the size and shape of a Ping-Pong table, you can play God and direct the future in places like Alasaka, Canada and Russia when global warming's impact events have made the Lower 48 unlivable. Ask James
Lovelock in Britain. He knows what the museum show is all about. In a way, he helped curate it.

The first task is to site your polar city, design it and then start building it, all on the interactive screen.
All of made me feel like a delightfully naughty 7-year-old boy.

"Wow, polar city life will be exciting, yet scary at the same time," I exclaimed, eliciting sage chuckles from the museum staff members nearby. After all, we’ve been preparing for this scenario over the past 2500 years on Earth.

The idea of the polar cities museum show seemed wildly and gloomily appropriate when I first heard about it. We think of museums as being for old dead things, and polar cities seem just too doomsdayish to think about. But the museum has
made the exhibit fun to walk through, and it's thought provoking at the same time.

The idea of the exhibition is to look forward 50 or 100 years, said Sarah Michaels, the curator of the show. “We’re at a crossroads,” she said. “We have to decide what to do when the shit hits the fan. Where is the vision?”

In this case, the vision is solely Dr. Michaels, she admitted, arrived at by picking the brains of climate experts. Lest you get too excited, it does not yet represent the official agenda of the CIA or any other agency.

The world sorely needs some kind of polar city blueprint going forward, if indeed we are to go forward and survive the coming Long Emergency in a world made by hand, and though one can quibble with many details, this one is as good as any. One can fantasize that this show could have the same long-range impact on shaping public expectations about climate chaos as magazine articles and television shows did in the 1950s. In that case, I hope it travels to the other countries that are now preparing thei own climate agendas, like Japan, like Russia, like China.

Those who think that global warming is a leftwing conspiracy shored up by Al Gore and that any efforts to deal with it, and humankind's future, is ridiculously expensive, wasteful, dangerous and unscientific — a group that includes a lot of scientists I know — might want to stop reading right here. The exhibition plays shamelessly to those of us are not afraid to face reality and what climate chaos might do to our planet -- and our descendants 100 to 200 years down the road.

“Somebody will do these things,” Dr. Michaels said. “Maybe not the U.S.”

The times being what they are, there is an iPhone app to go with the show. Point your phone at one of several special stations and extra information is downloaded into your hand; you can collect it and e-mail it. And the exhibits faithfully refer to climate prophets like Lovelock and Hansen, not to mention Lynas and Bloom. The uplift the show gives to a weary sci-fi boy like me
is beyond words.

Sooner or later — in the year 2080, it says here — humans will be forced to migrate north to polar cities in search
of food, fuel and energy sources. “It won't be a pretty picture,” the show notes in travel-brochure language.

We find ourselves in the Polar City Red, for example, where there's a war going on between residents, mostly scientists
and government officials, and scavangers or marauders living in the tundra regions away from the climate refuges.

Getting there is also going to be interesting. By then, Dr. Michaels figures, we will have had enough of the violence that climate chaos will provoke and we will yearn for peaceful lives in polar cities.

Around the corner from Polar City Red, a scale model of Polar City Blue explains to visitors the various alternatives they
will have in the 100 or so polar cities envisioned in the far north by 2080 -- or sooner.

There is a psychological test you can take to see if you can tolerate the level of detail, stress and loneliness needed to survive life in a polar city some 100 years from now.

A full-scale model of the U.S.-administered Polar City Red dominates the scene. Built along side a mountain outside
Fairbanks, Alaska, it looks like some prehistoric creature with an overdeveloped head browsing the ground.

Some climate scientists think that polar cities could serve as lifeboats for humanity and in the words of Lovelock as "breeding
stations for future generations on Earth."

The cost? Accoring to CIA estimates, “trillions of dollars.” Only trillions?

Not everybody agrees that such a scheme would work, nor that we even have the need to do it. But like it or not,
polar cities, here we come. This eye-opening musem shows paves the way.

The journey has still only begun.

Step “Star Trek” style into the hologram at the end of the exhibit and you are beamed effortless into a real polar city,
to experience first hand what life might be like in one.

“That’s where we can go, where we must go, if we are to survive as a species,” Dr. Michaels said, “and the focus.”

The show, “Beyond Climate Change: The Future of Polar Cities", is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, in Manhattan. Information: (212) 769-5100 or

Climate denialists and global warming skeptics are welcome, too.

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