Chad Perrin: SOB

13 November 2008

looking for ideas, re: environmental disaster

Filed under: Geek,Writing — apotheon @ 12:23

I’m writing a novel that takes place well in the future. In this future, planet Earth has somewhere along the way experienced an environmental disaster:

All the world was a grainy smear, gray and brown and indistinct, and strangely alive looking. In silence, it seemed almost to shimmer with a protean quality in putrid shades of dull, lifeless, earthy color. Only gradually did some sense of shapes begin to resolve into something almost recognizable, when one stared at it long enough. Gradually, one could dimly make out the blockish, darker impression of a flat surface with sharp edges and sharper corners, obscured by the nearly horizontal streaking of gray and brown. This was how Outside looked, winds never less than a hundred kilometers per hour pouring a constant scouring sheet of grit sideways through the atmosphere at surface level. This was how the world looked in a monitoring screen, because nobody went Outside for long.

A few paragraphs further along:

Two cowled rotors, located opposite each other across the fuselage of the hopper and mounted in the rounded “wings” of the thing, were canted forward enough so that the rotorcraft roared through the headwind as quickly as it could move. The armored fuselage shuddered and vibrated with the force of the perpetual sandstorm Outside, taking incredible punishment. A bright yellow and burgundy shield emblem on each side of the craft was being quickly scoured away: today’s grit was more corrosive than usual, and the alkaline abrasive was making short work of the fresh Enforcement Service logo. It was always worse for the paint job when the winds came from inland.

So . . . I’m looking for the kind of environmental disasters that could lead to constant high winds carrying heavy, constant loads of highly corrosive alkaline grit, worse when the winds came from inland. Bonus points for an ironic explanation, like some environmental protection legislation leading to these unintended consequences. Results of rare events like widespread use of a “weapon of mass destruction” or a supervolcano eruption is good, too.

Can anyone out there help me?


  1. Yellow Stone’s supervolcano would be a good start, a North American disaster sparked by too much drilling in the wrong places or the release of pressure on the crust in the wrong places due to excessive mining/deforestation. Maybe add into it a global thermonuclear war and you really do have a good beginning for such a disaster, I believe.

    Comment by Joseph A. Nagy, Jr. — 13 November 2008 @ 03:32

  2. I’m afraid that’s not very helpful. I need some actual “Yes, these events could lead to that particular outcome,” not “Ooh, these events are great for poorly defined environmentalist alarmism! It’s fun to say that so and so happened, and led to terrible bad outcomes, without having any scientific basis in mind for that specific outcome occurring.” I’m not exactly looking to rewrite The Day After Tomorrow.

    Comment by apotheon — 13 November 2008 @ 06:29

  3. Go for grey goo – it can cause anything you choose.

    Comment by Bill — 13 November 2008 @ 07:08

  4. It’s a bit heavy too – read some Hemingway – Keep it simple.

    Comment by Bill — 13 November 2008 @ 07:12

  5. Ooh — the grey goo thing might be exactly what I needed. I’ll have to look into that. It’s especially enticing as an option because I’m already dealing with some nanofactory related stuff in the context of the story.

    Thanks, Bill!

    Comment by apotheon — 13 November 2008 @ 08:09

  6. The grey goo could be something that was originally engineered to handle pollutants, but it got out of control.

    I always though that it would be interesting to have an antitechnology bioweapon, something that eat all kinds of plastic, for example. Not metal, etc. Just plastic and maybe some forms of rubber.

    The taliban would go for this, as it destroys the “great satan”, and returns the world to a state they desire.

    Comment by Sickmind Fraud — 13 November 2008 @ 10:18

  7. sun spots

    Comment by Justin M. Keyes — 13 November 2008 @ 10:44

  8. Sickmind Fraud:

    The grey goo could be something that was originally engineered to handle pollutants, but it got out of control.

    That’s pretty much exactly where my mind was headed when I saw Bill’s reference to grey goo. I have realized, though, that I’m going to need to work out some more detail about why the weather’s so drastically changed if I go with the pollutant consumption idea.

    The antitechnology weapon is an interesting idea, too. I’m not using it in this story (totally the wrong direction), I think, but I might use something like that in the future.


    You’re a riot, you are.

    Comment by apotheon — 13 November 2008 @ 11:02

  9. Don’t know if you’re still looking for ideas, but this sounds like something that could be caused by the mother of all Dust Bowls–a situation caused by extreme drought and bad farming practices. Bonus points if you can work in an analogue for ethanol–something heavily promoted and subsidized by government, which leads to farmers ignoring their own best practices and precipitating ecological disaster. Perhaps something that left a lot of salt or some other mineral that can cause highly alkaline soil, which is then picked up by the winds. Not sure how you’d explain why winds are stronger in one direction though–perhaps there are inland mountains?

    Comment by Anonymous — 15 November 2008 @ 08:51

  10. That’s excellent, Anonymous. I can probably use that information in concert with the “nanotech gone awry” approach to build a really good explanation for what happened.

    I think maybe I should rewrite the section talking about the weather that I quoted above (for a number of reasons, right now I’m talking about its clarity). I meant more that the corrosive effects of the grit in the air is worse when it comes from inland, rather than that the wind is stronger. Going with something like a dustbowl effect would be great for that purpose, since highly alkaline soil would produce more corrosive effects when the winds come from the direction of that soil — inland.

    The analog to subsidized ethanol production is a great way to look at it, too.

    If I get more good ideas here, I might find something to use in them as well. Even if I don’t, though, I’ve got quite enough inspiration to work with from the answers I received so far. Thanks for the ideas, folks.

    Comment by apotheon — 16 November 2008 @ 11:31

  11. The grey goo is a good idea, and I’m sorry mine was so vague but I’m not big on details when I only have a vague understanding of what’s going on myself. If I’m writing a story I’m not looking to teach myself into a PhD in <insert-field-here>, just telling a good story.

    Anyway, back to the grey goo. If you go with the kind that eats plastic, I will point you back to the Andromeda Strain, a “virus” that seemed to “eat” rubber/silicon/plastic. Back to the point, if the grey goo was engineered to handle spills like oil, since oil is a hydrocarbon in the absence of it’s food source perhaps it evolved to eat things with simpler chains, or anything with hydrogen or carbon in it, not just a hydrocarbon molecule. There you have an antagonist and a reason for your global, dust bowl disaster.

    Comment by Joseph A. Nagy, Jr. — 17 November 2008 @ 11:48

  12. I looked into the possibility of doing something involving hydrocarbons for agricultural fertilizer production, inspired by what you brought up, and found out something interesting: all the talk about how critical hydrocarbons are to nitrogen based fertilizer production are, basically, nonsense. In fact, the most common source of energy used to fuel fertilizer production is natural gas, which is basically methane gas plus impurities (some of which do happen to be hydrocarbons, but that’s to be expected, since natural gas is mostly harvested from oil fields and the like).

    Well . . . anyway, now that I have a direction to take this stuff, I have time to think about it. Some of the specifics have yet to be worked out, of course, but I don’t have to explain the whole thing within the story, since it’s not a “disaster movie” kind of tale. I just need some background.

    Thanks to everyone for the suggestions.

    Comment by apotheon — 18 November 2008 @ 10:23

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