Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Black Cloud

"The autumn was stormy and the skies in England were overcast. So although by October the Cloud had obscured a portion of the constellation of Lepus no alarm was given until November. It came from the clear skies of Arabia. Engineers of a large oil company were drilling in the desert. They noticed the concern with which their men were examining the sky. The Arabs pointed to the Cloud, or rather to a blackness in the sky, which by now was about seven degrees across, looking like a yawning circular pit."
"They said the pit should not be there, and that it was a sign in the sky. What the sign meant was not clear, but the men were frightened. Certainly none of the engineers remembered any such blackness, but none of them knew the disposition of the stars well enough to be certain. One of them had a star map back at base, however. When the drilling expedition was over he consulted the map. Sure enough, something was wrong. Letters to newspapers in England followed." (Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud)
 I've just been re-reading "The Black Cloud", Fred Hoyle's science fiction apocalyptic novel in which an cloud of interstellar dust comes into the solar system. The descriptions of how scientists work has hardly been bettered anywhere in the literature, and certainly not in a realistic setting of contemporary earth.
Obviously aspects of the novel have dated, such as the electronic computer, in which instructions are laboriously punched as holes in a tape, later read into a tape reading machine, and which is presented as a marvellous time saving device, with its millions of calculations over hours where human beings would have taken years.
"[Kingsley] had to convert the letters and figures he had written into a form that the machine could interpret. This he did with a special kind of typewriter, a typewriter that delivered a strip of paper in which holes were punched, the pattern of the holes corresponding to the symbols that were being typed. It was the holes in the paper that constituted the final instructions to the computer. Not one single hole among many thousands must be out of its proper place, otherwise the machine would compute incorrectly. The typing had to be done with meticulous accuracy, with literally one hundred per cent accuracy."

I remember the teletype terminal in which we used to do precisely that in the early 1970s. It was at Highlands, and we would work on programs during the late afternoon, and after 6 pm, when cheaper phone rates prevailed, connect to a Honeywell computer in Manchester. Then we would type "load program", and feed the tape into the machine. Printouts were all on paper; there were no monitor screens in those days. And just as in Fred Hoyle's book, accuracy had to be 100%, although you could "erase" a letter by backtracking, and putting an "erase" signal - a row completely punched out.
The heating of the atmosphere caused by the cloud initially has a major impact on high locations, and Hoyle has a wonderful touch of cynicism in his description of how governments react:
"The evacuation of Tibet, Sinkiang, and Outer Mongolia was left to the Chinese. With cynical indifference nothing at all was done by them. The Russians, on the other hand, were punctilious and prompt in their evacuation of the Pamirs and of their other highland areas. Indeed genuine efforts were made to shift the Afghans, but Russian emissaries were driven out of Afghanistan at pistol point. India and Pakistan also spared no effort to ensure the evacuation of the part of the Himalaya south of the main watershed."
That has dated, but the effect of the cloud obscuring the sun, and at other times reflecting extra solar radiation on the earth, would, I suspect be pretty much the same. Both ourselves, and other species of plant and animal life on our planet have actually a very limited range of temperatures in which we can survive.
And as the temperature rises, we get some grim fact and figures, which are just as frightening today, as we live in the shadow, not of a "black cloud" from space, but of climate change, where temperature extremes seem set to increase:
"By June it became clear that the temperature of the Earth was likely to be raised everywhere by some thirty degrees Fahrenheit (17 centrigrade). It is not commonly realized how near the death temperature a large fraction of the human species lives. Under very dry atmospheric conditions a man can survive up to air temperatures of about 140°  Fahrenheit (60C). Such temperatures are in fact attained in a normal summer in low-lying regions of the Western American desert and in North Africa. But under highly humid conditions, the death temperature is only about 115° Fahrenheit (46C). Temperatures at high humidity up to 105° (41C) Fahrenheit are attained in a normal summer down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and sometimes in the Middle West. "
"Curiously, temperatures at the equator do not usually run above 95° Fahrenheit (35C), although conditions are highly humid. This oddity arises from a denser cloud cover at the equator, reflecting more of the Sun's rays back into space"
"It may be added that death results from the inability of the body to get rid of the heat that it is constantly generating. This is necessary in order to maintain the body at its normal working temperature of about 98° Fahrenheit (37C). An increase of body temperature to 102° (39C) produces illness, 104° (40C)produces delirium, and 106°(41C) or thereabouts produces death."
"It may be wondered how the body can manage to rid itself of heat when it happens to be immersed in a hotter atmosphere, say in an atmosphere at 110° (43C). The answer is by evaporation of sweat from the skin. This happens best when the humidity is low, which explains why a man can survive at higher temperatures in low humidity, and indeed why hot weather is always pleasanter when the humidity is low."
And as the cloud settles around the sun, here is the effect described on the earth:
"Throughout the rest of June and July temperatures rose steadily all over the Earth. In the British Isles the temperature climbed through the eighties, into the nineties, and moved towards the hundred mark. People grumbled, but there was no serious distress."
"The death-roll in the U.S. remained quite small, thanks largely to the air-conditioning units that had been fitted during previous years and months. Temperatures rose to the lethal limit throughout the whole country and people were obliged to remain indoors for weeks on end. Occasionally air-conditioning units failed and it was then that fatalities occurred."
"Conditions were utterly desperate throughout the tropics as may be judged from the fact that 7,943 species of plants and animals became totally extinct. The survival of Man himself was only possible because of the caves and cellars he was able to dig. Nothing could be done to mitigate the stifling air temperature. The number who perished during this phase is unknown. It can only be said that in all phases together more than seven hundred million persons are known to have lost their lives. And but for various fortunate circumstances still to be recounted the number would have been far greater still."
"Eventually the temperature of the surface waters of the sea rose, not so fast as the air temperature it is true, but fast enough to produce a dangerous increase of humidity. It was indeed this increase that produced the distressing conditions just remarked. Millions of people between the latitudes of Cairo and the Cape of Good Hope were subjected to a choking atmosphere that grew damper and hotter inexorably from day to day. All human movement ceased. There was nothing to be done but to lie panting, as a dog pants in hot weather."
Could we be facing conditions like this? Among older people, even in Europe, high temperatures have produced fatalities, as the old are less able to adjust their body temperature. In 2003, a summer heatwave led to a death toll of around 14,800 people in France, according to official figures. Figures for estimated dead were:
France - 14,800
Italy - 4,200
Netherlands - 1,400
Portugal - 1,300
UK - 900
Spain - 100
And most of the deaths were among the elderly.
During the heat wave, seven days with temperatures of more than 40 °C (104 °F) were recorded in Auxerre, Yonne during July and August 2003.
We have not yet had quite such a recurrence, but the changing weather patterns may well bring a return to increases in heat related deaths. If the extremes of temperature continue, we may well face the same kind of fatalities described by Fred Hoyle in "The Black Cloud", and unlike his novel, there will be no end in sight. There is still a very black cloud on our horizon.

1 comment:

Mark Forskitt said...

Oh goodness yes I remember those paper tapes etc. Also splicing bits togther to make changes to logic.

We might be getting closer to those temperature changes than feared. We were very lucky the expected El Nino didn't materialise. However the news of methane plumes in the Arctic reaching the surface is not welcome. That might just be the start of a tipping point.

Azimov's A choice of Catastrophies is a good read too.