This post begins a new series on Aftermath. This one will deal with different aspects of what might happen, and quite probably will happen, during the crash. It is based on the best data I have available. Please keep in mind that what is discussed here is possibility, not a guarantee. If you want a guarantee I'm sure your favorite local retailer would love to sell you something you don't need. This post discusses the big picture, subsequent posts will deal with more specific instances like costal cities, flood planes, desert plateaus, etc.
Between 2010 and 2020 many of the problems that we have been watching develop over the past fifty years will come to a head. While individually each problem might be solvable, in a combination that makes each of them far worse than they would be individually, they will likely be insurmountable.
The first problem is the old favorite: climate change. Climate change is a general term referring to any large alteration in the general weather patterns of a given region. In this case we are looking at every region on Earth changing in such a fashion. The details of that change vary from region to region, as one would expect. Also, predicting things in that amount of detail is very difficult. But, as climatologists have been aware for years, climate is much easier to predict than the weather. There are several major features of this shift. First, humans are releasing carbon into the carbon cycle that has been dormant for over 100 million years in the form of fossil fuels. This release has received a large push recently due to the industrialization of China and India. The last time all of this carbon was active in the carbon cycle the planet consisted of a single global rain-forest. The second feature is that humans have been systematically removing forests from around the world for millennia. What this means is that the global carbon sink has been crippled. The carbon sink, mostly consisting of rain-forests, refers to the well known feature of green plants called photosynthesis. Basically, we have been pushing more and more carbon into a system that we are simultaneously making less and less able to use it. As temperatures rise, due to the heat-trapping properties of carbon, other elements of this problem are coming to light: for instance, the Siberian permafrost holds many tons of methane gas, a carbon molecule that is more effective at blocking heat than carbon dioxide. As the permafrost melts, which is occurring even as you read this, that methane will be released into the carbon cycle. This indicates what climatologists call a tipping point. A tipping point is a spot after which a steady change turns into a rapid change. The tipping point for climate change is usually put between 2010 and 2020, if not before. In the end, this means that climate zones on Earth will shift pole-wards by a significant, but difficult to calculate, amount. The low end projections place Virginia in the climate zone currently occupied by South Carolina and the high end projections include tropical polar regions and an otherwise uninhabitable planet. The first is probably closer to the truth.
A second major problem coming to a head is less well known, but is becoming increasingly mainstream: peak oil. There is nothing modern civilization makes that is not dependent on oil in a fundamental way. Plastics, transportation, and even food are completely dependent on petroleum. The problem with this is that oil is a finite resource that replenishes at a rate somewhere along the lines of one field per geological epoch. In the 1950s an oil geologist by the name of Marion King Hubbert discovered something that is now called Hubbert's Peak. Essentially, when an oil field is approximately half depleted its value 'peaks.' This peak occurs because of the nature of oil as an energy source and the processes used to extract that energy. A barrel of oil has an energy value and it takes energy to use that oil. The deeper the oil is, the harder it is to extract. When a field peaks the energy that is needed to use the oil is equal to the energy that oil is worth. After this point the oil is no longer an energy source, but an increasingly expensive resource. This is a bad thing. Currently, for every calorie of food we ingest, ten calories of energy was expended. The difference is made up using oil. When the total global production value of oil peaks, oil will no longer be sufficient to make up this difference; indeed, oil will create a new deficit that will need to be made up if we are to continue using oil-based chemicals and plastics. No other energy source currently available, or on the drawing-board, is capable of making up this difference. Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and nuclear power are all incapable of generating sufficient energy individually or in tandem, and certainly not in the time frame being discussed. Hydrogen is not even a power source, but a power carrier. And a very poor one as well. There is a substantial amount of disagreement about the timing of peak oil, but most people studying the issue put the date before 2020, and most of them before 2015.
The next major problem coming to a head is the least well known of them all: the water shortage. The world is running out of potable water. On a planet where 75% of the surface is water this might seem odd. But it is important to remember that the vast majority of that water cannot be drunk. And to further that problem, desalination and purification is an energy intensive proposition. To be more specific, it is oil energy intensive. To make it worse the places that will be hit hardest by water shortages first are places that are the most densely populated, the poorest regions, and the places that grow much of the world's food. Water shortages are very easy to plot, at least compared to the previous two problems. It is already pretty bad in Africa. It will be increasingly worse and reach a tipping point between 2010 and 2015.
This adds up to a fairly unpleasant picture. When the three are added together the picture becomes worse. Each of the three elements exasperates the problems that the other two cause. The water shortage makes it harder to get water to oil workers, who mostly work in desert climates. Water infusion, the act of pumping water into an oil field so that the water pushes the oil up, thereby delaying the peak of that oil field, is not an actual solution to the problem of the oil field peaking, and is made more difficult by the water shortage. And the lack of oil makes it a lot harder to alleviate the problems of water shortage using the typical brute-force methods, which are very energy intensive. And a changing climate makes any action difficult to undertake for fairly obvious reasons. Solar and wind power are made particularly difficult.
One of the key problems here is that all three work together to cause a third problem that will end up being worse than the other three alone or combined. A lack of water. A climate changing in unpredictable ways. A lack of fuel to transport goods. A lack of material to build and maintain roads. A lack of pesticides. A lack of fertilizers. And more all add up to one thing: crop failure. We're looking at a massive food shortage. When this is coupled with a shortage of potable water we are left in a very precarious position indeed. Within the next ten years will be unable to feed over six and a half billion people. We might not be able to feed even one billion.