Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"City of Light" : A Whatcom County Story from the Future

"You should have been here in 1972 Ryan.  You should have been here when fishing and timber were in the dumps and all we had in Bellingham were plaid shirts and dive bars."  (Advice from "Tom" given to me in 2002 when I upon arrival, I complained about the lack of high tech jobs.)
Today is your last chance to vote. Your last chance to put your imprimatur on how your community chooses to look toward the light in a broken world littered with smokestacks, warships, disintegrating communities and hopelessness. Your chance to choose to live in a City of Light. The story below comes from the future. It is science fiction.

 I stood on the newly created beach and sandbar at Boulevard Park yesterday early morning and watched Fairhaven float in the fog. Then I sat on a high stool in Avenue Bread's downtown cafe, ordered a 'gourmet eggenue' and thought about the future.  I can see it all so clearly.  A beautiful city, a clean city filled with green glass, skyline views, clear walkways and pocket parks: A City of Light.   In my City of Light, one fine and crisp spring morning in 2033, I walk through my Columbia neighborhood, down Walnut Street, through a shining and stately Elizabeth Park to Broadway. There I turn and walk toward the water and the magnificent, graceful over rail walkway of iron stairs that descends from the Broadway viewing platform down, down, down to our gorgeous waterfront of parks, merchants, and eco-town homes. Granville Island has nothing on us, I say to myself as I step onto the Waterfront Trail that will eventually lead me to my breakfast at Magdalenas in Fairhaven this morning.

But before I march on, I sit and linger just a bit on a recent replaced bench. On its back is a dedication to a famous Bellingham conductor who helped design the world-renowned, arching, glass-faced Palmer Orchestral Hall that sits where the old polluted ASB lagoon once was.  Last night, in a gala festival, my now twenty-nine year old daughter Isabel returned home from her tour to play to a sold out audience.  As she came to the dramatic end of Bach's Partita No. 2, the last lines of la chaconne intermingled with rays of the fading sunset streaming over the edges of the San Juans. Isabel played those last lines like she owned them. A joyous crowd of nearly 1500 concert goers stood and applauded for nearly five minutes. My daughter was overwhelmed by their appreciation. Yes, it had been a very good night.

The Waterfront Trail was just waking up now. A collection of merchants, bicyclists, joggers, and moms with strollers were greeting what looked to be a beautiful sunny day by the water. In the distance, an occasional spout could be seen from humpbacks feeding off some very healthy herring runs. A family of river otters played and splashed over a the landing of one of the covered pedestrian piers that had been built near the water's edge so visitors could sit and enjoy the views, even during the rain.  Harbor seals popped up their slick heads just to see what us humans were up to this morning. Even Orcas could sometimes be seen in Bellingham Bay now, chasing the Salmon runs that had nearly been destroyed twenty years ago in the aftermath of Fukushima. But today, it was another beautiful morning in Bellingham, WA!

As I turned south down the Waterfront Trail, toward the eco-town homes built on what had been the abandoned Cornwall landfill, I couldn't help but admire what our downtown core had become. Once there was a collection of aging buildings, many accosted by recurring vacancy. Now a magnificent cityscape of varying heights of green and multicolored glass arose before me and reflected the sunlight and water back to the waterfront.  From the Waterfront Trail, I could make out the high-tech city campus of Next-EnerGen, the famous business venture of the two former Bellingham mayors, continually expanding along Ellis and James Streets.  In 2023, Next-EnerGen's scientists, working in a nearly abandoned downtown Bellingham (with help from graduate students from WWU's  Advanced Energy department), had discovered micro-fusion; a form of 'cold fusion' based on solid components readily available in the Earth's crust. Their discovery eventually revolutionized the world.  Oil, coal, natural gas and just about any other conceivable form of carbon derived energy were outliers now; useful only under specific circumstances. Instead, where once was a civilization that warred and fought over the last available drilling or mining rights, the world now reveled in a cooperative peace.

But it had been a difficult transition. In the fall of 2021, it had been entirely unclear that anything positive would ever come again from Bellingham and Whatcom County again. The effects of global warming had steadily been appearing across the globe for some decades now. Strangely, even when wildfires the size of Rhode Island burned through California or Colorado or devastating storms struck the coastal areas of the United States, most Americans who weren't affected simply ignored any possible relationship between their SUV driving habits and natural disasters. That was before the occurrence of OCA or Offshore Cyclonic Activity. Whatcom County, always a confluence point for Northern and Southern outflows, had experienced few of the offshore disasters that had riddled the rest of the world.  That all changed one gray day on October 29th in 2021.

On that day, an unusually warm October and a strong and persistent southern flow had heated the northern part of the Salish Sea. (No one knew it then, but the presence of increased industrial activity off Cherry Point was contributing to that warming.) From the north, came a strong Alaskan storm that was associated with an unusual upper tropospheric cyclonic vortex.  At 8 AM on October 29th in the Salish Sea, the storms met.  Usually, cyclonic activity of tornado or hurricane style intensity requires a reservoir of heat to power their destructiveness. Northern ambient lows almost never translate to such destructiveness because there simply is never enough heat to concentrate them into true cyclones. But climate change had reconfigured that equation.

The cyclone was 1/4 mile wide with winds reaching F5 intensities. Two Panamax freighters awaiting loading at Cherry Point were tossed like matchsticks onto the shore. One of them crashed into the Conoco refinery.  The entire refinery became a raging inferno for days. As the cyclone came ashore, it ploughed directly into a 5 million metric ton pile of coal stored at GPT.  Coal dust rained down on Whatcom County for weeks. Bhammers cynically called this phenomena "black rain". A wall of water destroyed Cherry Point. The cyclone eventually lost power and dissipated somewhere in the Cascades, but before crossing the county it wiped out farmland and literally erased downtown Ferndale from the face of the Earth.  Afterwards, the phenomena of OCAs occurred worldwide near refineries....