A lot of Bogus to Bubbly, the Uglies guide I’ve been working on, has to do with the real-life science behind the series. So I’ve been refreshing my research on hoverboards, nanos, and mag-levs, to see how much present-day technology has changed since I started working on the series six years ago.
The crazy thing is how many of the technologies in the books are already here, or almost here. It seems like every time I open a newspaper, I get a little dose of Tally’s world.
But here’s a scary one for you. You’ll probably remember a plant in the books called “the white weed.” It was a genetically modified orchid that grew rampant in the post-Rusty-Crash world, choking other vegetation and leaving vast fields of arid land in its wake.
Well, a brain-rattling article in the NY Times today suggests that an age of weeds may be a lot closer than 300 years from now, and won’t even require any genetic engineering mishaps to occur.
Here’s why in a nutshell:
1) The crops we grow and eat these days have very little genetic diversity. Why? Because we’ve bred them that way. We want them to grow quickly and at exactly the same rate, so we can cut them all down and ship them at the same time. Commercial processes love sameness. (Modern-day crops are more like Pringles than old-school, random-looking potato chips.)
2) Weeds are not all the same. They’ve evolved tremendous variety while taking advantage of every little crack in the sidewalk. And as we attack them with herbicides, we actually increase that diversity. They evolve and adapt under our constant barrage.
3) The climate is changing. In 1957, the CO2 level in the atmosphere was 310ppm. These days it’s 385 ppm. (Yes, the climate has changed before, but in the geological record, swings like that usually take thousands of years. Our Rusty ways have managed it in 50 years. Last year alone, the carbon level went up almost 2.5ppm.)
4) Here’s where it gets freaky. Weeds thrive in changing climates, because they are a diverse population. Our food crops hate change, because they’re all the same. (Like, if you put Pringles in the wrong-shaped can, they’d all break. You can chuck those old-fashioned random chips in any old bag and they’re fine.)
5) So . . . if we change the climate quickly enough, the weeds win.
To test this hypothesis, a scientist named Lewis Ziska did an amazing controlled experiment. He transfered big blocks of the exact same soil to several locations and let them go fallow and weedy. Out in the country (with average 385ppm air) the weeds grew six to eight feet tall. But in downtown Baltimore (which, thanks to all the cars, has air with about 440ppm CO2) the same weed species grew ten to twelve feet tall!
The weeds love our Rusty ways.
Ziska’s weed lab, ganked from the NY Times. Photo by Rochard Barnes.
The most brilliant thing about this experiment is Ziska’s use of an urban center, with its hotter, CO2-laden air, as an analog for our planet 30-50 years in the future. Go hang out in downtown Baltimore sometime in August and you’ll see the world we’re leaving our grandchildren. (Oh, wait, only 30 years? I mean our children. Oh, wait . . . I mean you.)
The good news in the article is that weeds may be beneficial in some ways. Growing quickly means they suck up CO2, and maybe we can use them in biofuels, which would take some of the pressure off food prices. And the other good news is that although the funding for Ziska’s work (along with all climate change research) has been repeatedly cut over the last seven years, the folks who cut it are relinquishing power on January 20, 2009.