Life below zero: building the Ice Age

As I write this post, parts of the US are digging themselves out of a massive snowstorm. (Locally, of course, the anti-snow bubble was in full effect, and the Tennessee Valley area got only a dusting.) Lots of snow, cold temperatures, and high winds create a blizzard, a major weather event that comes around once every few years.

But our world has gone through extended periods of much colder weather. In fact, we were basically born in one. I’m talking about ice ages. In particular, I’m referring to the Ice Age, the one that ended about 10,000 years ago, as it’s far better known and understood than any of the others throughout the history of the planet.

The very phrase “Ice Age” conjures up images of woolly mammoths lumbering across a frozen tundra, of small bands of humanity struggling to survive, of snow-covered evergreen forests and blue walls of ice. Really, if you think about it, it paints a picturesque landscape as fascinating as it seems inhospitable. In that, it’s no different from Antarctica or the Himalayas or Siberia today…or Mars tomorrow. The Earth of the Ice Age, as a place, is one that fuels the imagination simply because it is so different. But the question I’d like to ask is: is there a story in the Ice Age?

Lands of always winter

To answer that question, we first need to think about what the Ice Age is. A “glaciation event”, to use the technical term, is pretty self-explanatory. Colder global temperatures mean more of the planet’s surface is below freezing (0° Celsius, hence the name of this post), which means water turns to ice. The longer the subzero temps, the longer the ice can stick around. Although the seasons don’t actually change, the effect is a longer and longer winter, complete with all the wintry trappings: snow, frozen ponds and lakes, plant-killing frosts, and so on.

We don’t actually know what causes these glaciation events to start and stop. Some of them last for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. The worst can cover the whole world in ice, creating a so-called “Snowball Earth” scenario. (While interesting in its own right, that particular outcome doesn’t concern us here. On a snowball world, there’s little potential for surface activity. Life can survive in the deep, unfrozen oceans, but that doesn’t sound too exciting, in my opinion.)

If that weren’t bad enough, an Ice Age can be partially self-sustaining. As the icecaps grow—not just the ones at the poles, but anywhere—the Earth can become more reflective. Higher surface reflectivity means that less heat is absorbed, dropping temperatures further. And that allows the ice to spread, in a feedback loop best served cold.

Living on the edge

But we know life survived the Ice Age. We’re here, after all. The planet-wide extinction event that ended the Pleistocene period came at the end of the glaciation event. So not only can life survive in the time of ice, it can thrive. How?

Well, that’s where the difference between “ice age” and “snowball” comes in. First off, the whole world wasn’t completely frozen over 20,000 years ago. Yes, there were glaciers, and they extended quite far from the poles. (Incidentally, the glaciers that covered the eastern half of America stopped not that far from where I live.) But plenty of ice-free land existed, especially in the tropics. Oh, and guess where humanity came from?

Even in the colder regions, life was possible. We see that today in Alaska, for instance. And the vagaries of climate mean that, strangely enough, that part of the world wasn’t much colder than it is today. So one lead on Ice Age life can be found by studying the polar regions of the present, from polar bears to penguins and Eskimos to explorers.

The changing face

But the world was a different place in the Ice Age, and that was entirely because of the ice. The climate played by different rules. Hundreds of feet of ice covering millions of square miles will do that.

The first thing to note is that the massive ice sheets that covered the higher latitudes function, climatically speaking, just like those at the poles. Cold air is denser than warm air, so it sinks. That creates a high-pressure area that doesn’t really move that much. In temperate regions, high pressure causes clockwise winds along their boundaries, but they tend to have stable interiors.

Anyone who lives in the South knows about the summer ridge that builds every year, sending temperatures soaring to 100°F and causing air-quality and fire danger warnings. For weeks, we suffer in miserable heat and suffocating humidity, with no rain in sight. It’s awful, and it’s the main reason I hate summer. But think of that same situation, changing the temperatures from the nineties Fahrenheit to the twenties. Colder air holds less moisture, so you have a place with dry, stale air and little prospect for relief. In other words, a cold desert.

That’s the case on the ice sheets, and some thinkers extend that to the area around them. Having so much of the Earth’s water locked into near-permanent glaciers means that there will be less precipitation overall, even in the warm tropics. That has knock-on effects in those climates. Rainforests will be smaller, for example, and much of the land will be more like savannas or steppes, like the African lands that gave birth to modern humans.

But there are still prospects for precipitation. The jet stream will move, stray winds will blow. And the borders of the ice sheets will be active. This is for two reasons. First, the glaciers aren’t stationary. They expand and contract with the subtle seasonal and long-term changes in temperature. Second, that’s where the strongest winds will likely be. Receding glaciers can form lakes, and winds can spread the moisture from those lakes. The result? Lake-effect precipitation, whether rain or snow. The lands of ice will be cold and dry, the subtropics warm (or just warmer) and dry, but the boundary between them has the potential to be vibrant, if cool.

Making it work

So we have two general areas of an Ice Age world that can support the wide variety of life necessary for civilization: the warmer, wetter tropics and the cool convergence zones around the bases of the glaciers. If you know history, then you know that those are the places where the first major progress occurred in our early history: the savannas of Africa, the shores of the Mediterranean, the outskirts of Siberia and Beringia.

For people living in the Ice Age, life is tough. Growing seasons are shorter, more because of temperature than sunlight; the first crops weren’t domesticated until after the ice was mostly gone, when more of the world could support agriculture. Staying warm is a priority, and making fire a core part of survival. Clothing reflects the cold: furs, wool, insulation. Housing is a must, if only to have a safe place for a fire and a bed. Society, too, will be shaped by these needs.

But the Ice Age is dynamic. Fixed houses are susceptible to moving or melting glaciers. A small shift in temperature (in either direction) changes the whole landscape. Nomadic bands might be better suited to the periphery of the ice sheets, with the cities at a safe distance.

The long summer

And then the Ice Age comes to an end. Again, there’s no real consensus on why, but it has to happen. We’re proof of that. And when it does happen…

Rising temperatures at the end of a glaciation event are almost literally earth-shattering. The glaciers recede and melt (not completely; we’ve still got a few left over from our last Ice Age, and not just at the poles), leaving destruction in their wake. Sea levels rise, as you’d expect, but they could also sink, as the continents rebound when the weight of the ice is lifted.

The tundra shrinks, squeezing out those plants and animals adapted to it. Conversely, those used to warmer climes now have a vast expanse of fresh, new land. Precipitation begins to increase as ice turns to water and then evaporates. The world just after the Ice Age is probably going to be a swampy one. Eventually, though, things balance out. The world’s climate reaches an island of stability. Except when it doesn’t.

Our last Ice Age ended in fits and starts. Centuries of relative warmth could be wiped out in a geological instant. The last gasp was the Younger Dryas, a cold snap that started around 13,000 years ago and lasted around a tenth of that time. To put that into perspective, if it were ending right now (2016), it would have started around the time of the Merovingians and the Muslim conquest of Spain. But we don’t even know if the Younger Dryas was part of the Ice Age, or if it had another cause. (One hypothesis even claims it was caused by a meteor striking the earth!) Whether it was or wasn’t the dying ember of the Ice Age doesn’t matter much, though; it was close enough that we can treat it as if it were.

In the intervening millennia, our climate has changed demonstrably. This has nothing to do with global warming, whatever you think on that topic. No, I’m talking about the natural changes of a planet leaving a glacial period. We can see the evidence of ancient sea levels and rainfall patterns. The whole Bering Strait was once a land bridge, the Sahara a land of green. And Canada was a frozen wasteland. Okay, some things never change.

All this is to say that the Ice Age doesn’t have to mean mammoths and tundra and hunter-gatherers desperate for survival. It can be a time of creation and advancement, too.

Colonization and the New World

It’s common knowledge that the Old World of Europe, Asia, and Africa truly met the New World of the Americas in 1492, when Columbus landed in the Caribbean. Of course, we now know that there was contact before that, such as the Vikings in Newfoundland, about a thousand years ago. But Columbus and those who followed him—Cortés, Pizarro, de Soto, Cabot, and all those other explorers and conquerors Americans learn about in history class—those were ones who truly made lasting contact between the two shores of the Atlantic.

Entire volumes have been written over the last five centuries about the exploration, the conquest, the invasion of the Americas. There’s no need to repeat any of it here. But the subject of the New World is one doesn’t seem to get a lot of exposure in the world of fiction, with the notable exception of science fiction. And I think that’s a shame, because it’s an awfully interesting topic for a story. It’s full of adventure, of gaining knowledge, of conflict and warfare. Especially for American writers (not limited to the United States, but all of North and South America), it’s writing about the legacy we inherited, and it’s odd that we would rather tell stories about the history of the other side of the ocean.

Written by the victors

Of course, one of the main reasons why we don’t write many stories about exploration and colonization is political. We know a lot about the Spaniards and Englishmen and Frenchmen that discovered (using that term loosely) the lands of America. We have written histories of those first conquistadors, of those that came after, and of the later generations that settled in the new lands. We don’t, however, have much of anything from the other side.

A lot of that is due to the way first contact played out. We all know the story. Columbus discovered his Indians (to use his own term), Cortés played them against each other to conquer them, and smallpox decimated them. Those that survived were in no position to tell their tale. Most of them didn’t have a familiar system of writing; most of those written works that did exist were destroyed. And then came centuries of subjugation. Put that all together, and it’s no wonder why we only have one side of the tale of the New World.

But this already suggests story possibilities. We could write from one point of view or the other (or both, for that matter), setting our tale in the time of first contact or shortly after, in the upheaval that followed. This is quite popular in science fiction, where the “New World” is really a whole new world, a planet that was inhabited when we arrived. That’s the premise of Avatar, for example.

Life of a colony

Colonization has existed for millennia, but it’s only since 1492 that it becomes such a central part of world history. The Europeans that moved into the Americas found it filled with wonders and dangers. For the Spanish, the chief problem—aside from the natives—was the climate, as Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean mostly fall into the tropical belt, far removed from mid-latitude Spain.

The English had it a little better; the east coast of the United States isn’t all that different from England, except that the winters can be harsher. (This was even more the case a few hundred years ago, in the depths of the Little Ice Age.) It’s certainly easier to go from York to New York than Madrid to Managua.

No matter the climate, though, colonists had to adapt. Especially in those times, when a resupply voyage was a long and perilous journey, they had to learn to live off the land. And they did. They learned about the new plants (corn, potatoes, tomatoes, and many more) and animals (bison and llamas, to name the biggest examples), they mapped out river systems and mountain chains. And we have reaped the benefits ever since.

Building a colony can be fun in an interactive setting; Colonization wouldn’t exist otherwise. For a novel or visual work, it’s a little harder to make work, because the idea is that a colony starts out exciting and new, but it needs to become routine. Obviously, if it doesn’t, then that’s a place where we can find a story. Paul Kearney’s Monarchies of God is a great series that has a “settling new lands” sequence. In the science fiction realm of colonizing outer space, you also have such works as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (and its colorful sequels).

Terra nullius

Whenever people moved into new land, there was always the possibility that they were the first ones there. It happened about 20,000 years ago in Alaska, about 50,000 in Australia, and less than 1,000 in Hawaii. Even in the Old World, there were firsts, sometimes even in recorded history. Iceland, for example, was uninhabited all the way through Roman times. And in space, everywhere is a first, at least until we find evidence of alien life.

Settling “no man’s land” is different from settling in land that’s already inhabited, and that would show in a story with that setting. There are no outsiders to worry about. All conflict is either internal to the colonists’ population or environmental. That makes for a harder story to write, I think, but one more suited to character drama and the extended nature of books and TV series. It doesn’t have to be entirely without action, though, but something like a natural disaster would be more likely than war.

This is one place where we can—must—draw the distinction between space-based sci-fi and earthly fiction or fantasy. On earth (or a similar fictitious world), we’re not alone. There are animals, plants, pests everywhere we go. We have sources of food and water, but also of disease. In deep space, such as a story about colonizing the asteroid belt, there’s nothing out there. Nothing living, at least. Settlers would have to bring their own food, their own water, their own shelter. They would need to create a closed, controlled ecosystem. But that doesn’t leave much room for the “outside” work of exploration, except as a secondary plot.

Go forth

I’m not ashamed to admit that I could read an entire book about nothing but the early days of a fictional colony, whether in the Americas or on an alien planet. I’ll also admit that I’m not your average reader. Most people want some sort of action, some drama, some reason for being there in the first place. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But let’s look at that question. Why does the colony exist at all? The Europeans were looking for wealth at first, with things like religious freedom and manifest destiny coming later on. The exploration of space appears to be headed down the same path, with commercial concerns taking center stage, though pure science is another competitor. Even simple living space can be a reason to venture forth. That seems to be the case for the Vikings, and plenty of futuristic stories posit a horribly overcrowded Earth and the need to claim the stars.

Once you have a reason for having a colonial settlement, then you can turn to its nature. The English made villages and towns, the French trading posts. Antarctica isn’t actually settled—by international agreement, it can’t be—but the scientific outposts there point to another possibility. If there are preexisting settlements, like native cities, then there’s the chance that the colonists might move in to one of them instead of setting up their own place. That’s basically what happened to Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City.

Colonies are interesting, both in real history and in fiction. They can work as settings in many different genres, including space opera, fantasy, steampunk (especially the settling of the Wild West), and even mystery (we still don’t know what really happened at Roanoke Island). Even just a colonial backdrop can add flavor to a story, giving it an outside pressure, whether by restless natives or the cold emptiness of space. A colony is an island, in a sense, an island in a sea of hostility, fertile ground for one’s imagination.

Alternate histories

For a lot of people, especially writers and other dreamers, one of the great questions, a question that provokes more thought, debate, and even argument, is “What if?” What if one single part of history was changed? What would be the result? These alternate histories are somewhat popular, as fictional sub-genres go, and they aren’t just limited to the written word. It’s a staple of Star Trek series, for example, to travel into the past or visit the “mirror universe”, either of which involves a specific change that can completely alter the present (their present, mind you, which would be our future).

What-if scenarios are also found in nonfiction works. Look at the history section of your favorite bookstore, digital or physical. You’ll find numerous examples asking things like “What if the D-Day invasion failed?” or (much earlier in the timeline) “What if Alexander had gone west to conquer, instead of east?” Some books focus on a single one of these questions, concocting an elaborate alternative to our known history. Others stuff a number of possibilities in a single work, necessarily giving each of them a less-detailed look.

And altering the course of history is a fun diversion, too. Not only that, but it can make a great story seed. You don’t have to write a novel of historical fiction to use “real” history and change things around a little bit. Plenty of fantasy is little more than a retelling of one part of the Middle Ages, with only the names changed to protect the innocent. Sci-fi also benefits, simply because history, in the broadest strokes, does repeat itself. The actors are different, but the play remains the same.


So, let’s say you do want to construct an alternate timeline. That could easily fill an entire book—there’s an idea—but we’ll stick to the basics in this post. First and foremost, believability is key. Sure, it’s easy to say that the Nazis and Japanese turned the tide in World War II, eventually invading the US and splitting it between them. (World War II, by the way, is a favorite for speculators. I don’t know why.) But there’s more to it than that.

The Butterfly Effect is a well-known idea that can help us think about how changing history can work. As in the case of the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane, small differences in the initial conditions can grow into much larger repercussions. And the longer the time since the breakaway point, the bigger the changes will be.

I’m writing this on September 21, and some of the recent headlines include the Emmy Awards, the Greek elections, and the Federal Reserve’s decision to hold interest rates, rather than raising them. Change any bit of any of these, and the world today isn’t going to be much different. Go back a few years, however, and divergences grow more numerous, and they have more impact. Obviously, one of the biggest events of the current generation is the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Get rid of those (as Family Guy did in one of their time-travel episodes), and most of the people alive today would still be here, but the whole world would change around them.

It’s not hard to see how this gets worse as you move the breakaway back in time. Plenty of people—including some that might be reading this—have ancestors that fought in World War II. And plenty of those would be wiped out if a single battle went differently, if a single unit’s fortunes were changed. World War I, the American Civil War (or your local equivalent), and so on, each turning point causes more and more difference in the final outcome. Go back in time to assassinate Genghis Khan before he began his conquests, for instance, and millions of people in the present never would have been born.

Building a history

It’s not just the ways that things would change, or the people that wouldn’t have lived. Those are important parts of an alternate history, but they aren’t the only parts. History is fractal. The deeper you go, the more detail you find. You could spend a lifetime working out the ramifications of a single change, or you could shrug it off and focus on only the highest levels. Either way is acceptable, but they fit different styles.

The rest of this post is going to look at a few different examples of altering history, of changing a single event and watching the ripples in time that it creates. They go in reverse chronological order, and they’re nothing more than the briefest glances. Deeper delving will have to wait for later posts, unless you want to take up the mantle.

Worked example 1: The Nazi nuke

Both ways of looking at alternate timelines, however, require us to follow logical pathways. Let’s look at the tired, old scenario of Germany getting The Bomb in WWII. However it happens, it happens. It’s plausible—the Axis had a lot of scientific talent that defected around that time, including Albert Einstein, Werner von Braun, and Enrico Fermi. It’s not that great a leap to say that the atomic bomb could be pushed up a couple of years.

But what does that do to the world? Well, it obviously gives the Axis an edge in the war; given their leaders’ tendencies, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that such a weapon would have been used, possibly on a large city like London. (In the direst scenario, it’s used on Berlin, to stop the Red Army.) Nuclear weapons would still have the same production problems they had in our 1940s, so we wouldn’t have a Cold War-era “hundreds of nukes ready to launch” situation. At most, we’d have a handful of blasts, most likely on big cities. That would certainly be horrible, but it wouldn’t really affect the outcome of the war that much, only the scale of destruction. The Allies would likely end up with The Bomb, too, whether through parallel development, defections, or espionage. In this case, the Soviets might get it earlier, as well, which might lead to a longer, darker Cold War.

There’s not really a logical path from an earlier, more widespread nuclear weapon to a Nazi invasion of America, though. Russia, yes, although their army would have something to say about that. But invading the US would require a severe increase in manpower and a series of major victories in Europe. (The Japanese, on the other hand, wouldn’t have nearly as much trouble, especially if they could wrap up their problems with China.) The Man in the High Castle is a good story, but we need more than one change to make it happen.

Worked example 2: The South shall rise

Another what-if that’s popular with American authors involves the Civil War. Specifically, what if the South, the Confederacy, had fought the Union to a stalemate, or even won? On the surface, this one doesn’t have as much military impact, although we’d need to tweak the manpower and supply numbers in favor of our new victors. (Maybe France offered their help or something.) Economically and socially, however, there’s a lot of fertile ground for change.

Clearly, the first and most obvious difference would be that, in 1865 Dixie, slavery would still exist. That was, after all, the main reason for the war in the first place. So we can accept that as a given, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be the case 150 years later. Slavery started out as an economic measure as much as a racial one. Plantations, especially those growing cotton, needed a vast amount of labor. Slaves were seen as the cheapest and simplest way of filling that need. The racial aspects only came later.

Even by the end of the Civil War, however, the Industrial Revolution was coming into full force. Steam engines were already there, and railroads were growing all around. It’s not too far-fetched to see the South investing into machinery, especially if it turns out to be a better, more efficient, less rebellious method of harvesting. It’s natural—for a Yankee, anyway—to think of Southerners as backwards rednecks, but an independent Confederacy could conceivably be quite advanced in this specific area. (There are problems with this line of reasoning, I’ll admit. One of those is that the kind of cotton grown in the South isn’t as amenable to machine harvesting as others. Still, any automation would cut down on the number of slaves needed.)

The states of the Confederacy depended on agriculture, and that wouldn’t change much. Landowners would be reluctant to give up their slaves—Southerners, as I know from personal experience, tend to be conservative—but it’s possible that they could be wooed by the economic factors. The more farming can be automated, the less sense it makes for servile labor. Remember, even though slaves didn’t have to be paid, they did have costs: housing, for example. (Conversely, slavery can still exist if the economic factors don’t add up in favor of automation. We can see the same thing today, with low-wage, illegal immigrant labor, a common “problem” in the South.)

Socially, of course, the ramifications of a Confederate victory would be much more important. It’s very easy to imagine the racism of slavery coming to the fore, even if automation ends the practice itself. That part might not change much from our own history, except in the timing. Persecuted, separated, or disfavored minorities are easy to find in the modern world, and their experiences can be a good guide here. Not just the obvious examples—the Palestinians, the Kurds, and the natives of America and Australia—but those less noteworthy, like the Chechens or even the Ainu. Revolt and rebellion might become common, even to the point of developing autonomous regions.

This might even be more likely, given the way the Confederacy was made. It was intended to be a weak national government with strong member states, more like the EU than the US. That setup, as anyone familiar with modern Europe will attest, almost nurtures the idea of secession. It’s definitely within the realm of possibility that the Confederate states would break up even further, maybe even to the point of individual nations, and a “black” state might splinter off from this. If you look closely, you can see that the US became much more centralized after the Civil War, giving more and more power to the federal government. The Confederates might have to do that, too, which would smack of betrayal.

Worked example 3: Gibbon’s nightmare

One of the other big “change the course of history” events is the fall of the Roman Empire, and that will be our last example today. How we prevent such a collapse isn’t obvious. Stopping the barbarian hordes from sacking Rome really only buys time; the whole system was hopelessly corrupt already. For the sake of argument, let’s say that we found the single turning-point that will stop the whole house of cards from falling. What does this do to history?

Well, put simply, it wrecks it. The Western world of the last fifteen hundred years is a direct result of the Romans and their fall. Now, we can salvage a lot by deciding that the ultimate event merely shifted power away from Rome, into the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire centered on Constantinople. That helps a lot, since the Goths and Vandals and Franks and whatnot mostly respected the authority of the Byzantines, at least in the beginning. Doing it like this might delay the inevitable, but it’s not the fun choice. Instead, let’s see what happens if the Roman Empire as a whole remains intact. Decadent, perhaps, and corrupt at every level, but whole. What happens next?

If we can presume some way of keeping it together over centuries, down to the present day, then we have a years-long project for a team of writers, because almost every aspect of life would be different. The Romans had a slave economy (see above for how that plays out), a republican government, and some pretty advanced technology, especially compared to their immediate successors. We can’t assume that all of this would carry down through the centuries, though. Even the Empire went through its regressive times. The modern world might be 400 years more advanced, but it’s no less likely that development would be retarded by a hundred or more years. The Romans liked war, and war is a great driver of technology, but you eventually run out of people to fight, and a successful empire requires empire-building. And a Pax Romana can lead to stagnation.

But the Dark Ages wouldn’t have happened, not like they really did. The spread of Islam might have been stopped early on, or simply contained in Arabia, but that would have also prevented their own advances in mathematics and other sciences. The Mongol invasions could have been stopped by imperial armies, or they could have been the ruin of Rome on a millennium-long delay. Exploration might not have happened at the same pace, although expeditions to the Orient would be an eventual necessity. (It gets really fun if you posit that China becomes a superpower in the same timeline. You could even have a medieval-era Cold War.)

Today’s world, in this scenario, would be different in every way, especially in the West. Medieval Europe was held together by the Christian Church. Our hypothetical Romans would have that, sure, but also the threat of empire to go with it. Instead of the patchwork of nation-states that marked the Middle Ages, you would have a hegemony. There might be no need for the Crusades, but also no need for the great spiritual works iconic of the Renaissance. And how would political theory grow in an eternal empire? It likely wouldn’t; it’s only when people can see different states with different systems of government that such things come about. If everybody is part of The One Empire, what use is there in imagining another way of doing things?

I could go on, but I won’t. This is a well without a bottom, and it only gets deeper as you fall further. It’s the Abyss, and it can and will stare back at you. One of my current writing projects involves something like an alternate timeline—basically, it’s a planet where Native Americans were allowed to develop without European influence—and it has taken me down roads I’ve never dreamed of traveling. Even after spending hundreds of hours thinking about it, I still don’t feel like I’ve done more than scratch the surface. But that’s worldbuilding for you.