How can the sky hold so much water?

Snowfall dominates the watcher, the Brownian dance of crystalline H20 swept by the winds into crevices and peaks, evanescent but hypnotic and alive in the mind’s eye. The UK at the moment is living through its snowiest, and hence whiniest, period for 20 years. The mind is boggled at the immensity of this event – think on this, enough solid material is falling from the sky to cover a whole country to a depth of a foot in one day – and it never looks like it’ll ever run out, just that some random temperature shift has chosen to drop a tiny sample of it on your head at that time. That must be a staggering amount of ice particles just floating around the world in the clouds, right?

Well, it’s not. It’s a fantastically tiny amount of water:  3,100 cubic miles or 12,900 cubic kilometres. That might sound like a lot, but that’s only about 0.04% of the total fresh water in the world, which is itself only 2.5% of the world’s water. It just looks bigger because ice, and in particular the gloriously space-inefficient snow, takes up a lot more room than liquid water and because us anthropocentric humans have a tendency to focus on the tiny part of the environment we inhabit, the exposed skin of the earth, and forget the ocean’s depths.

This air-borne liquid is a tiny proportion of the world’s total water, and an equally tiny element of the world’s fresh water (which, incidentally, is going to be a source of conflict in the parched areas of the world over the next decade.) However, land-based fresh water is essentially one giant reservoir – with insufficient top up from this constantly replenished 0.04% of airborne water, it would empty relatively quickly (look at the disappearance of the Aral sea). If this system breaks down, even slightly, we’re going to have an unimaginable world drought. And it might.

Ships of the Desert
Ships of the Desert
J.G. Ballard’s The Drought (AKA The Burning World) showed effectively and imaginatively what a world would be like if this tiny amount of Fresh Water vanished.  The Drought has several parallels with Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, the most important of which is a theory of chemical polymerisation of water caused by chemical pollution – in Vonnegut’s less-likely theory it’s a new type of water molecule that causes a chain reaction in other molecules, like a catalyst or an exponential reaction, but in Ballard’s book it’s the destruction of the precipitation cycle by industrial waste that stops evaporation. The latter seems equally fantastical but in the last few years ‘neustonic plastic islands have been found covering substantial proportions of the Oceans, including what was once the beautiful Sargasso Sea (a mid-ocean gyre with its own species of seaweed and a key location for ocean-going turtles.) These are mainly tiny particulates that float at the sea’s surface, where evaporation occurs – and concentrates like these slow the speed of evaporation.

So this is just to say: don’t whinge about the snow. If it stops, we’re dead.

Shallow Pool

Gower was the last of the Banteng. His mighty hooves ploughed up the fresh ground beneath trees, his proud horns shed their winter coating against the trees. He was immortal, he was invincible, he was unchallengeable.
A shot rang out. There were no more banteng.
The rangers’ systems registered the death, sent out a patrol. Gower’s headless body was already surrounded by carrion creatures, but the rangers drove them off and checked the corpse, saw that it was indeed Gower. They dug out the bullet for analysis, removed the tracker, took a back-up skin sample of Gower’s flesh and left him to be eaten.
The systems were already in operation though, deep in the savannah station. An frozen clone embryo was brought out of storage and gently warmed up, while an automatic process started the creation of another ten to provide a single replacement. A large immune-deficient cow was selected from the large isolated flock and implanted.
The foetus grew slowly. Elsewhere systems and men analysed the bullet, found the gun, found the owner, dealt with him. The head and the magnificent horns had already disappeared into the black market but for a short time the local chain of supply was removed. Demand would replace it soon enough.
After many months, the host was euthanised and opened up by a team half vets, half butchers. The over-large calf stood up on legs like spindles and wailed and butted. It was led to its Skinner doll for milk and suckled. It had found a mother.
After twelve months the calf, to all intents and purposes, was full grown. He was drugged and, in a great cradle in an all-terrain vehicle, taken out into the spring of the national park. He woke up, was observed for weeks, was terrified, was lost, but slowly adjusted to the nights. One day he woke and there were no more watchers.
Winter went, spring came. His mighty hooves ploughed up the fresh ground beneath trees, his proud horns shed their winter coating against the trees. He was immortal, he was invincible, he was unchallengeable. With only his genes remaining from the mighty Banteng, Gower was, as ever, alone.

Skip To The Next One…

Seeing that someone came up with a list of the most significant Sci-Fi and Fantasy books of the last Fifty Years, I thought I’d have a read over it and see which ones I’d absorbed… it turns out to be about 90% of them, as the following list shows – ones are in bold that I’ve read. I’ve also seen most of the Sci-Fi movies that Wired put in their top twenty. Perhaps I should cut down on the escapism… How’s everyone else doing?


A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Neuromancer, William Gibson

Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
Cities in Flight, James Blish
The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison

Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
Dune, Frank Herbert
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
Gateway, Frederik Pohl
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Little, Big, John Crowley
Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick

Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith

On the Beach, Nevil Shute
Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
Ringworld, Larry Niven

Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
Timescape, Gregory Benford
To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer


1. Blade Runner
2. Gattaca
3. The Matrix
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey
5. Brazil
6. A Clockwork Orange
7. Alien
8. The Boys From Brazil
9. Jurassic Park
10. Star Wars
11. The Road Warrior
12. Tron
13. The Terminator
14. Sleeper
15. Soylent Green
16. RoboCop
17. Planet Of The Apes
18. The Day The Earth Stood Still
19. Akira
20. Barbarella