In the South – by this I mean any part of the earth with trees that grow up instead of sideways – it’s hard to see the climate changing. A severe windstorm here, a warm winter or a drought or a flood there, but haven’t there been severe windstorms and warm winters and droughts and floods before? Plants grow back, they regenerate after die-off, they cover over the scars. Species creep northward, but at least there are species. Things can’t be that bad, you say, as you water your garden: Look how well the dandelions are doing!
In the Arctic it’s different. Everything is so visible. Everything – except the rocks – is so fragile. There are trees, but they don’t convert the limited sun-energy available to them into wood. They spider along the ground, two hundred years old and only a foot wide. Kill one and it won’t be back soon. It’s the same with the ice.
Arctic ice is life-giving. Small organisms grow on the undersides of floating ice pans and icebergs, fish eat the organisms, whales and seals eat the fish, polar bears eat the seals. Ice gets into the sea in two ways: it falls in from calving glaciers, or it forms during the winter. Both kinds are spectacular, and both are essential. But the Arctic ice is dying. You can see it happening. There’s no cover-up.
My partner and I have gone up there now over a four-year span – ‘up there’ being the eastern Arctic, on the Greenland side and also the Canadian side, at lower altitudes, middle altitudes and upper-middle altitudes. We go because we love it, and because we love it we worry about it. Everywhere it’s the same. The Greenland ice cap is still calving into the North Atlantic, the icebergs still travel north to the top of Baffin Bay, then turn south and make their way past Newfoundland. But in the summer of 2004 there were almost no floating ice pans. Other glaciers are in retreat: we could see the rock valleys they used to fill, we could see the line they’d reached even a few years before. The shrinkage has been rapid.
Inuit told us stories about how hard it’s become for polar bears and hunters to get out on to the ice, the only reliable place to catch seals. The ice was forming later and later every fall, melting earlier and earlier every spring. When you can’t depend on the ice, what can you depend on? It would be as if – down south – the highways were to melt. And then what?
The canary in the mine used to be our warning signal: it keeled over and men knew they were in danger. Now it’s the polar bears on the shore, dying of starvation.
The Arctic is an unbelievable region of the earth: strikingly beautiful if you like gigantic skies, enormous landforms, tiny flowers, amazing colours, strange light effects. It’s also a region that allows scant margins of error. Fall into the ocean and wait a few minutes, and you’re dead. Make a mistake with a walrus or a bear, same result. Make the wrong wardrobe choice, same result again. Melt the Arctic ice, and what follows? No second chances for quite some time.
You could write a science fiction novel about it, except that it wouldn’t be science fiction. You could call it Icemelt. Suddenly there are no more small organisms, thus no fish up there, thus no seals. That wouldn’t affect the average urban condo dweller much. The rising water levels from – say – the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps would get attention – no more Long Island or Florida, no more Bangladesh, and quite a few islands would disappear – but people could just migrate, couldn’t they? Still no huge cause for alarm unless you own a lot of shore-front real estate.
But wait: there’s ice under the earth, as well as on top of the sea. It’s the permafrost, under the tundra. There’s a lot of it, and a lot of tundra as well. Once the permafrost starts to melt, the peat on the tundra – thousands of years of stockpiled organic matter – will start to break down, releasing huge quantities of methane gas. Up goes the air temperature, down goes the oxygen ratio. How long will it take before we all choke and boil to death?
It’s hard to write fiction around such scenarios. Fiction is always about people, and to some extent the form determines the outcome of the plot. We always imagine – perhaps we’re hardwired to imagine – a survivor of any possible catastrophe, someone who lives to tell the tale, and also someone to whom the tale can be told. What kind of story would it be with the entire human race gasping to death like beached fish?
What kind of story, indeed? And who wants to hear it?
December 28, 2004
The morning after Christmas in Unawatune, a village on the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka. We got up around 7.20, went swimming at the beach across from our hotel, returned to our room, showered, and by eight we were one of two couples enjoying breakfast in our hotel’s dining room, a small, solid concrete structure with three open sides and a corrugated tin roof on the beach side of the narrow road that runs through the village. Our hotel, the Neptune, was on the other side of the road. By nine we had finished our meal and our final pot of tea and were preparing to leave and go snorkelling, when Parvis, my partner, said, ‘The beach has disappeared.’ The water was nearly at the level of the dining room, which stood about eight feet above the beach and twenty feet from the water. We stood up and went to the edge to look. The water was lapping at the chairs put out for sunbathing. They began to float and risked being swept into the sea. I said, ‘The chairs are disappearing. That’s too bad.’
A waiter in the restaurant tried to help a young girl wearing a fashionable black bathing-suit climb over the wall from the beach, as the water seemed to be engulfing her. But she let go of his hand and tried to climb the stairs instead. She was halfway up when the rising water swept the stairs away, too, and the man helped her up out of the water. She laughed and ran out of the restaurant. Everyone else laughed along with her. A wave splashed over the wall and got us a bit wet. By then all the tables in the restaurant were full of tourists, and everyone laughed, again, amused at this unexpected wave. Within seconds, however, the water had risen above the three-foot restaurant wall; dishes, teapots, silverware fell off the tables, which began to float and overturn. The water was dark, not the clear blue in which we earlier swam. It poured over the top of the wall and small waves lapped at everything inside the room. The Sri Lankan waiters stood as dumbfounded as their customers. In an orderly fashion, without a word being exchanged, everyone rose to leave. No rush here in paradise, which is where I told my friends I was going: a sunny spot in a lazy, friendly beach town on the south Sri Lankan coast.
It is all happening too fast to recognize what is happening. I am helpless as I realize that the waves are going to cover us; the water is becoming a rising wall, not a wave, and simply overtaking us. We, like the others, are not able to escape. I ask myself, is this a tidal wave? Parvis is in front of me and seems to be waiting for others to clear out, not in any particular hurry, unfailingly polite as always. I rush towards the exit and say, ‘Let’s get out, Parvis, don’t wait.’ But he is thinking, he tells me later, don’t panic, take your turn. Seconds later, I am one of the first to begin down the steps to the street, towards the hotel, but an aggressive push by the gushing water on my legs and lower back sweeps me off my feet, and I take a ride down the steps on my ass as if on a water slide. With my left hand I am holding high our guidebook, Lonely Planet Sri Lanka, with all the addresses of places we are going to visit. This is only our fourth day out of seventeen planned in Sri Lanka, and, I think, there goes our itinerary. The water grabs the book from my hand. I sense a middle-aged woman, also sliding on her ass, close behind me. I land on my feet about two yards away, but tables and chairs follow me, threatening to knock me down, so I walk, crawl, stumble quickly towards the wall in front of me, which is part of our hotel. To the left side of the entrance I see two windows above the water, which is rising about a foot every ten seconds. A Sri Lankan girl wraps her arms around my neck. She is light, and I drag her, or she floats behind me, toward the window sill, and a Sri Lankan boy hooks his arm in mine as I begin to climb the wall. Or are we simply floating up the wall?
The window sill provides no purchase, no place to grab on to. I am afraid of falling back into the water, which is not only coming straight at me now but has also formed a river through the village street, a swift river that begins to roar and threatens to carry me to my left towards the other end of the village. I suddenly find my hands are able to grasp on to the wooden lattice work between the upper window panes and I grip it, as do the girl and boy next to me, who are screaming hysterically, their dark, round eyes betraying a deathly fear, and a plea for my help. I am silent, though; Parvis later describes me as ‘bewildered’. I think, just hold on.
The water had broken the windowpanes, enabling us to resist its pull. But it is still rising, and within less than a minute we are submerged. I hold my breath. The water goes down, and then re-submerges us. This pattern repeats. The boy and girl scream loudly every time the water subsides. After our second submersion, the boy suggests we go through the open window into the building, but I notice the low ceiling and think, better to ride the water outside, we might get trapped under the roof. So we climb as high as we can up the wall. Nothing goes through my mind but to hold on, to focus on the immediate task, to stay calm, to relax – no prayer, no thoughts of others, or of what to do next.
I do, however, take note of the absurdity of the moment, as the water waxes and wanes, comes up, goes down. I keep thinking, it won’t stay up forever, it has to retreat, and we will keep rising to the top. But its intensity increases, threatening to pull us into the river and downstream, and it gets louder, competing in my ear with the screams of the boy and girl. My glasses get caught in the girl’s long hair, close to a ribbon that holds her hair in place but is coming loose, and as she turns now and then and struggles to climb the wall, to stay above the water, my glasses nearly come off. I think, if I lose them, I can’t see! ‘My glasses are caught in your hair,’ I tell her, but she is in no state to understand. Perhaps she doesn’t speak English. Eventually I tear them free from her hair. We endure this for what seems an eternity but is more likely less than ten minutes.
Just as quickly as the water arrived, it begins to go back, steadily. It reveals the boy’s leg, and he sees a huge gash above his thigh. He whimpers, then stops; his mouth remains open for a long time, silently screaming. The girl looks at his wound, and then looks at me uncomprehendingly. When the water recedes below the window sill, I jump down. The water now stands slightly above my waist. The boy and girl make garbled noises, grunts, whines, pleading that I should take them with me. I say, just stay calm, and motion, wait, wait, the water is going down, I’ll get help. I wade back towards the restaurant, which has collapsed, and I find a concrete slab under the water to stand on, and I survey the scene. Could I make it to our room on the second floor? I notice electric wires in the water. I think, electrocution! The street is empty. Everything is quiet. Risk it, I say to myself. As I move, a young Sri Lankan man emerges from the hotel; he approaches and extends his hand. I say, ‘No, I am okay, get the two people on the window sill.’
Then I hear Parvis calling in a panic-stricken voice, ‘John, John, John.’ I turn the corner and he holds out his arms and rushes towards me. We embrace. ‘I thought I lost you,’ he says, ‘I have been calling for minutes, didn’t you hear?’ ‘No,’ I say. We wade through the water on the fully devastated ground floor. The street is still a river, now shallow instead of ten feet deep, littered with furniture, instruments, the head of a Buddha statue, odd pieces of things. We go upstairs to our room. It is untouched. The bathing suit I had put out on the balcony is now dry. The sun continued shining through this whole thing, whatever it was. Why, I think, do I expect the sun to coordinate its activity with the ocean?
We look out on the balcony, where another couple are standing. Parvis tells them they can stay as long as they like. We think out loud: Should we leave or stay? I sit on the bed to take stock of what happened to me, to us. Parvis gets out his camera. ‘There’s always a second wave,’ he says, and he begins to yell to people as they appear in the street/river below us, ‘Get out. Get out. A second wave. Leave.’ They don’t seem to respond, they look dazed. ‘You wouldn’t believe this,’ he says to me, as he takes pictures, ‘Look at this, come and look at this.’ I join him. ‘Look at the water,’ he says. It had receded to about a kilometre away from the former beachfront. Furniture, house parts, trees, tuk-tuks, cars, clothes, everything human filled the exposed ocean bed.
We discuss what to take with us. Parvis says one computer. I say, ‘Oh no, both.’ We gather our documents, passports, money, leave all our clothes, and go downstairs, planning to go inland. The people on the street appear to be mindlessly wading through the water, though then I realize they are looking for the missing.
Parvis goes back upstairs for some reason and finds the young boy who had shared the window sill with me. He is resting on a bed. Some tourists had bandaged the opening in his thigh. I wait for Parvis, get anxious and impatient – the second wave! I yell for him, he answers the first time, yes, then gets angry at me, and refuses to answer. I go upstairs and find him: he has offered to help carry the young boy, who is in shock and cannot walk, and holding on tightly to a blanket and a pillow. Parvis has given his computer to someone else. I retrieve it. As they carry the boy downstairs, the water tugs at the end of his blanket. He drops it, and then his pillow, saying nothing. Local people are urging everyone to leave; there is higher ground behind the hotel. We begin climbing the mountain, including some large, slippery rocks. We take off our shoes or sandals to scale them.
Halfway up the mountain, women are wailing under an open-sided hut. Men are gathered around a woman lying on her back under a blanket. I realize she is dead. There must be more, I think. Further up, a Japanese nurse is treating people’s wounds with nothing but a bit of cotton and alcohol. I have scraped knees, several deep cuts on the left foot, with glass embedded in my soles, and a few other scratches. Parvis seems to have nothing, though later he discovers a cut on a toe that becomes infected.
Further up the hill, everyone had a different and unique story they wanted to tell. I sat at the nursing station and listened. I would have liked to take pictures, but it seemed obscene to photograph people in that state. Some were seriously wounded, others, like me, merely cut and bruised. A young man borrowed a notepad and a pen from me to make a list of the missing: a Czech girl, a Polish boy, Japanese, Australian, Brit – and that was the start of his efforts. He said that nine tourists and twelve Sri Lankans from our village had been confirmed dead. The dark-haired girl in the black bathing-suit showed up, totally in control. She was from Singapore and in Sri Lanka with her boyfriend, who had sustained a few deep cuts and scratches across his chest. ‘You’re the one who climbed out of the water in our restaurant,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ she laughed. As she was being pulled out of the water, the concrete wall of the restaurant was scratching her legs, so she let go, to use the stairs, which then got swept away. ‘I was laughing as it collapsed,’ she said, ‘because I thought, damn, there went my cigarettes!’
We European and Australian and Asian tourists gathered in the villages on the top of the hill, and local people served us tea. The second wave came, and the third, but Unawatune had been evacuated. Some watched the second wave from the hillside. We had water, and a couple of boxes of cookies, but we had no other food. Local phone lines were not working. I ran into a couple of Australians and Brits with cellphones, but their networks only allowed them to call home, which they did, and were told by people at home watching CNN, that a ‘tsunami’ – I’d never heard the word before – had hit, that thousands of people were dead. A few villagers came by and offered individuals beds or floors in their huts to sleep on, but most of us planned to sleep out in the open. Only mosquitoes to fear.
Just before dark, the men from the village returned from their search for the missing. One of them, a middle-aged man, came up to me. He had found the body of his closest friend, who, he said, greeted him endearingly every morning on his way to work. He would miss that. He offered Parvis and me his bed for the night. Anything to avoid the hard ground, I thought. He repeated his offer – I am an honest man, he asserted, a carpenter, and my house is on the way to the bus route.
Parvis felt bad about leaving. He wanted to share the fate of the others. I thought: no food, no communication, no sign of rescue; we’re only a burden; let’s make our way inland. We spent the night at the carpenter’s house. It was late, and there were only candles, no electricity, so we declined his offer of food and only drank tea with him. He gave us his explanation for the tsunami: the culture of the beach, the drugs, the tourists, the sex – the wave was revenge for these pleasures. The last time something like this had happened was 2,000 years ago, he said, as recorded in some mythical texts. I did not sleep a wink that night (though Parvis did fine), it was either a mosquito that got under our net, or the hardness of the bed.
The next morning, we climbed down a steep mountain passage with our luggage and walked along the beach road to Galle amid massive destruction: debris everywhere, upturned buses, uprooted railroad tracks. Eventually we got a bus to Colombo.
When I switched on my computer, nearly a hundred emails awaited me. My friends and students in Syria, where I was teaching in Aleppo as a Fulbright professor, made anxious enquiries. ‘I am really concerned about you and happy new year alsalam alikom bye,’ wrote Abedasalam, a young waiter who had just been fired from his job at a restaurant I often went to. ‘I and rami ask god to you the full health and coming back quickly,’ wrote Husam, a clerk who worked down the street from my apartment in the al-Medina souk. When I replied ‘bruised but alive’ to them and other Syrian and American friends, many wrote back to express relief and joy that their prayers had been answered.
I am not a believer, and the experience of the tsunami only confirmed my agnosticism. It was an arbitrary, capricious event – nature calling. It had nothing to do with my being human, and in that respect was infinitely humbling. To my Syrian friends I wrote, ‘But God sent this tsunami, he tried to kill me.’
For several years before he died my father greeted the arrival of winter with a mixture of joy and apprehension. Joy because winter meant clear, sunny days, hours of soaking up the warmth, sitting out in the afternoons eating spiced tomatoes, radishes and oranges, drinking kanji, the dark fermented juice of black carrots laced with rye that is the Punjabis’ staple winter drink. Apprehension because, as he put it each year, ‘I don’t know if we’ll survive another year.’ The ‘we’ included my mother. They were both getting old. The Delhi winter, sunny and sharp, was also bitterly cold, with great differences between day and night temperatures, and no heating inside homes. My father felt the cold acutely. During one bad winter he asked, with some embarrassment, if he could borrow some brightly coloured woollen leg warmers I’d bought in England. He wore them hidden under his trousers, and was grateful for their warmth.