Japan experiences a major volcanic eruption
In the early 21st century, Japan was among the most geologically energetic regions on Earth, with frequent earthquakes and 110 active volcanoes – nearly 10% of the total number in the world. This country was 70% mountainous and positioned on the so-called "Ring of Fire" in a zone of extreme crustal instability at the junction of four tectonic plates: the Pacific, Philippine, Eurasian and North American plates.
At the southwestern corner of Japan was Sakurajima, an active composite volcano (stratovolcano) and former island. The lava flows of an earlier eruption in 1914 had caused the former island to be connected with Osumi Peninsula. This eruption was the most powerful in Japan of the 20th century and generated substantial lava flows that lasted for months. The island grew, engulfing several smaller islands nearby, and eventually became connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge of land. Parts of Kagoshima Bay became shallower, and tides were affected, becoming higher. At least 58 people were killed by the disaster.
Sakurajima lay inactive for the next 44 years. In 1955, it started to become more prominent, with small explosions on a regular basis. This continued into the early 21st century. A number of more significant eruptions began to occur during the 2010s. In August 2015, Japan's meteorological agency issued a level 4 emergency warning, urging residents to prepare for evacuation. This happened again in February 2016.
Less than four miles from the base of the volcano lay Kagoshima, the largest city in the prefecture by some margin. There was increasing concern that a much bigger eruption was due, posing a serious threat to the 605,000 inhabitants of Kagoshima. Research published in September 2016 combined GPS deformation measurements with other geophysical data and 3D computer models, to reconstruct the magma plumbing system under the Aira Caldera – the enormous cauldron-like depression surrounding Kagoshima Bay. This study found that magma was being supplied to the system at a faster rate than was being erupted from Sakurajima, causing the ground to swell as the reservoir expanded below the surface. A volume of 14 million cubic metres was being added each year, equivalent to 3.5 times the size of London's Wembley Stadium.
Based on the rate and volume of magma supply and accumulation below ground, it was calculated that a major eruption would take place at some point between 2041 and 2046.* Sure enough, Sakurajima undergoes a spectacular explosion during this time, the biggest since the 1914 event, with a major lava flow and substantial amounts of ash and debris raining down on the city. Thankfully, preparations have been made for this, minimising casualties and allowing the city to recover more easily.*
Credit: Sakurajima Volcano Research Centre
average temperatures have risen by 2°C
At the UN Climate Change Conference of 2009, a rise of 2°C was agreed as the maximum "safe"
limit for the global average temperature, beyond which it would start to become uncontrollable and catastrophic. In the early 2040s, this danger point is passed.* This occurs despite the ongoing decline in fossil fuel production, since emissions
from earlier decades are yet to have their full effect on the climate system.* In other words, while a transition
to clean energy is being achieved, global warming remains a deadly
threat to civilisation. The cumulative impact of greenhouse gas emissions is enormous, with hundreds of gigatons requiring sequestration from the atmosphere and oceans.
be noted that 2°C is merely the average global increase.
In some regions, such as the poles, the rise has been far greater already. The Arctic is now completely free of sea ice for most of the year,* while Greenland will soon be approaching
a tipping point of irreversible melting.
the arid conditions in the Southwest have continued to worsen. They are now spreading to Southeastern
states, where soybean production has been slashed by half, and a similar
yield decrease has occurred for sorghum.* Meanwhile, invasive species of insects are migrating to new latitudes,
driven by the increasing temperatures. Bark beetles, for example, are moving north
and killing off huge areas of forest that provide food to grizzly bears
and other fauna.
the Alps are becoming largely devoid of snow, for the first time in millions
of years.* Having served a role as the
"water towers of Europe", this is having a serious impact
on water supplies. Major rivers, like the Rhine, Rhone and Danube, have
until now relied on snow and glacial melt from these mountains. Switzerland
is being especially hard hit, with much of its electricity based on hydroelectric
power. In addition, record heatwaves are causing gigantic wildfires the
likes of which have never been experienced before. The Mediterranean has
lost a fifth of its rainfall and now has an additional six weeks of heatwave
conditions each year. At the foot of the Alps, rockfalls triggered by
melting permafrost have caused widespread destruction to villages and
towns. With skiing impossible in many areas, tourism is being hit hard.
America, a similar situation has occurred. Melting glaciers in the Andes Mountains have led to water shortages for tens of millions of people, resulting in large-scale displacements.* These refugee movements are now a major issue for the region. In Columbia, there
has been a marked decline in coffee production – one of the country's
main exports – accounting for a significant percentage of world harvests.*
Asia too has a water crisis. Pakistan's major rivers – the Indus, Jhelum and
Chenab – are delivering under half their historic supply. The nuclear-armed
country is now at war with neighbouring India, after conflicts over
territory and resources.* Monsoon rainfalls have become
increasingly unpredictable in the region. Meanwhile, sea level rises have caused
further devastation to Bangladesh, which has yet to recover from the disasters
of earlier years.
regions are disproportionately affected by climate change, and Africa
is the worst-hit location of all. Biblical-scale droughts are becoming
the norm here, with much of the continent hit by serious declines
in agricultural yields. In Mali, three-quarters of the population is starving.*
In the Western
Pacific, Tuvalu is now sharing the same fate as the Maldives: much of
the island nation has been inundated. The evacuations from here and other low-lying regions are now a regular feature on the news.*
Annual deaths from cardiovascular disease have reached negligible levels in the U.S.
Cardiovascular disease refers to any disease affecting the cardiovascular system, principally cardiac disease, vascular diseases of the brain and kidney, and peripheral arterial disease. The causes are diverse but atherosclerosis and/or hypertension are the most common. Additionally, with aging come a number of physiological and morphological changes that alter cardiovascular function and lead to subsequently increased risk of cardiovascular disease, even in healthy asymptomatic individuals.
In the early years of the 21st century, cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of mortality worldwide – responsible for nearly 30 percent of total deaths annually. In low- and middle-income countries it was increasing rapidly with four-fifths of cases occurring in those regions.
In high-income nations, however, cardiovascular mortality rates had been falling since the 1970s, due mainly to public health efforts and improved medical treatments. A dramatic reduction in tobacco use (which included smoking bans) – alongside recommended limits on alcohol, fat and sugar intake – as well as recommended minimum daily exercise, were among these prevention methods.
This trend began to accelerate as a range of new treatment options became available in the 2010s and 2020s. These included stem cells* and heart muscle regeneration,* microRNA inhibitors to prevent heart enlargement,* gene therapy and drugs to treat obesity, 3D printed organs and vessels,* nanoparticles and nano-robotics. By the early 2040s, mortality rates for cardiovascular disease have dropped to negligible levels in the U.S. and many other countries.*
Oil spills in the Niger Delta have been cleaned up
The Niger Delta is the delta of the Niger River that drains into the Gulf of Guinea off the coast of Nigeria. For millions of years, organic sediments were deposited from the river into the Atlantic, which became crude oil. During the early 21st century, this region was among the world's top oil and gas exploration hotspots.
The first drilling operations began in the 1950s, undertaken by multinational corporations that provided Nigeria with the necessary technology and financial resources for extraction. In 1971, Nigeria joined the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). From 1975 onwards, the Delta region accounted for more than 75% of the country's export earnings. Nigeria became Africa's biggest producer of petroleum and was ranked among the top 10 nations globally in terms of proven reserves. At its peak, nearly 2.5 million barrels were being extracted a day.* It was estimated that 35 billion barrels lay waiting to be discovered, enough to last several decades.
However, the Niger Delta became a centre of controversy over pollution, corruption and human rights violations. Many citizens of Nigeria felt exploited and unable to see the economic benefits of oil companies in the state. Production was affected by political instability and sporadic supply disruptions, attacks on infrastructure and crude oil theft, as local groups sought a share of the wealth. Most of the oil fields were small and scattered. Nearly 160 were found across Nigeria – of which 78 (almost half) lay in the Delta. As a result of the numerous small fields, an extensive pipeline network had been engineered to transport the crude oil and this was vulnerable to sabotage. Many sections of pipeline were also poorly maintained and badly aging. Pipeline explosions killed thousands of people and left many others with serious burn injuries in the 1990s and 2000s.
Oil spills were frequent in the region and often devastating to communities based around fishing and farming. A report by the United Nations (UN) found that in one community, families were drinking from wells containing benzene, a known carcinogen, at 900 times the recommended levels. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation reported an average of 300 individual spills annually. However, as this amount did not take into account "minor" spills, the World Bank argued that the true quantity of petroleum spilled into the environment could be as much as ten times the officially claimed amount.
In addition, gas flaring was a major issue and contributed vast volumes of air pollution and greenhouse gases. Much of the excess waste from the Delta was immediately burned, or flared, at a rate of approximately 70 million m³ per day – enough fuel to provide the combined annual natural gas consumption of Germany and France. Despite regulations introduced to outlaw this practice, it continued for decades at many drill sites.
As the largest wetland in Africa, the Delta was an incredibly rich ecosystem containing one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet and supporting abundant flora and fauna, arable terrain and a wide variety of crops. The numerous oil spills and gas flaring in much of the Delta were taking a heavy toll on the environment. Pollution was affecting the air, water, soils, animals, vegetation and even physical structures.
Ken Saro-Wiwa – a Nigerian writer, TV producer, and environmental activist – brought attention to these problems by leading a nonviolent campaign against the degradation of land and waters by the multinational petroleum industry, especially Royal Dutch Shell. He was also an outspoken critic of the Nigerian government, which he viewed as reluctant to enforce regulations on foreign companies operating in the area. He led the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), an indigenous group living in the Delta. In 1993, MOSOP organised peaceful marches of 300,000 Ogoni people, more than half of their population, drawing international attention to their plight.
Shell withdrew from Ogoniland, in a major victory for the local residents. However, Nigeria's government had recently occupied the region militarily and took decisive action against what it saw as an increasing threat. Thousands of Ogoni people were tortured and killed, and dozens of villages destroyed. Ken Saro-Wiwa himself was tried by a special military tribunal at the peak of his non-violent campaign and charged with masterminding the murder of Ogoni chiefs at a pro-government meeting, in a trial widely criticised by human rights organisations.*
In 1995, he was hanged, along with eight other activists, by the military dictatorship of General Abacha. Many of the supposed witnesses later admitted they had been bribed by the government to support the criminal allegations. Two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved in the murders later recanted, stating that they were offered money and jobs with Shell to give false testimony, in the presence of Shell's lawyer. The executions provoked international outrage and resulted in Nigeria's suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations.
Saro-Wiwa's death was a major setback for the environmental movements, but their efforts to seek justice and compensation would continue over the subsequent two decades with ongoing lawsuits and other actions. While social and political unrest persisted into the early 21st century, Nigeria moved to a more democratic, civilian federal system. In 2011, a UN report was funded in part by Shell after a request by Nigeria's government. This stated that Nigeria's Ogoniland would take 30 years to fully recover from the damage it had sustained, at a cost of $1bn.* Then, in 2013, a Dutch court ruled that Shell was liable for pollution in the region. The company was sued repeatedly by local communities with claims running into many millions of dollars.
A major breakthrough in resolving the situation was finally achieved when the Nigerian government – in partnership with oil companies – agreed to act on the recommendations of the UN report. In 2016, a full-scale cleanup and restoration plan was officially launched by President Buhari. This initiative, lasting for approximately 25 years,* would start with $200m of funding over a period of five years, focussed on a 1,000 sq mile (2,600 sq km) area of land and water near Port Harcourt, the capital and largest city of Rivers State. A factory would be constructed to process and clean tens of thousands of tons of contaminated soil. Alongside this, a mass replanting of mangroves would be undertaken.
After this initial phase, the project would gradually expand over the next 20 years with more funding and resources. This would fully restore all of the remaining land, creeks, fishing grounds, mangroves, swamps and other areas devastated by Shell, the national oil firm and other fossil fuel companies. Thousands of jobs would be created for engineers, manual workers, project managers and inspectors. In addition to ecological repair, a side benefit would be that young people in the Ogoni region (many of whom had rebelled against and sabotaged the oil infrastructure) could now be put to work doing productive and rewarding tasks. In the medium to longer term, it was hoped that a healthier environment would create a more socially and politically stable region – leading to economic progress and sustainable development. This would improve the overall living standards of Nigeria, one of the most rapidly growing countries in terms of population.
The plan was not without its problems, of course, with ongoing conflicts in the region, alongside concerns over corruption. However, there was a certain momentum and inevitability to the process, as oil production was declining regardless of any cleanup operations. Solar was becoming so cheap and widespread that it rapidly gained a foothold in many African nations including Nigeria, forming a substantial percentage of energy capacity within just a few decades. By the early 2040s, restoration efforts in the Niger Delta have been largely completed, while economic diversification has allowed Nigeria to transition away from its older fossil fuel industries and to attract foreign investment in new areas.
Nigeria is now facing an even greater threat, however, in the form of climate change. Between the years 1900 and 2000, average annual rainfall in the country declined by 10%, from 1400mm to 1255mm. This trend continued in the 21st century and has dropped another 5% to below 1200mm by 2041. The next challenge for Nigeria – and indeed much of Africa – is to increase its access to water. Thankfully, new technologies such as nanofiltration and other extraction techniques are now making this easier. Although Nigeria still faces environmental problems and overpopulation, its outlook is less doom-laden than some had previously feared. Africa as a whole is becoming an increasingly important part of the global economy.
Orbital solar power is commercially feasible
After decades of development, energy generated from space-based solar power is now being added to many grids. This concept has been around since the 1970s – but advances in nanotechnology and transmission efficiency have only recently made it both commercially and technically feasible.**
The system involves placing several large satellites into geosynchronous Earth orbit. Initially, this is financed and carried out jointly by government agencies and private corporations. Very large, nanotech-based surfaces on each satellite's solar array (typically 1 to 3 kilometres in size) capture the energy of sunlight, which is then beamed down to Earth via microwaves or lasers. Large collecting dishes on the ground receive the energy and convert it to useable electricity. There are several benefits to this approach:
• Higher collection rate: In space, transmission of solar energy is unaffected by the filtering effects of atmospheric gases. Consequently, collection in orbit is 144% of the maximum attainable on Earth's surface.
• Longer collection period: High above the Earth, orbiting satellites can be exposed to a consistently high degree of solar radiation, generally for 24 hours per day, whereas ground-based panels are restricted to around 12 hours per day at most.
• Elimination of weather concerns: Orbiting satellites reside well outside any atmospheric gases, cloud cover, wind, rain and other potential weather events.
• Elimination of plant and wildlife interference.
• Redirectable power transmission: Satellites can direct power on demand to different surface locations based on geographical baseload or peak load power needs.
The climate benefits from orbital solar power as well, since there are no greenhouse gas emissions (though the energy beamed down to earth is eventually lost as heat). These projects are initially expensive though, due to the hostility of the space environment. Panels require high-strength shielding to protect against space junk* and their huge surface areas can make them vulnerable to incoming debris. Some of the more hi-tech stations feature nanotechnology-based composites that can self-heal. Degradation of the solar panels comes close to making them uneconomical at first, though further advances in technology later solve this issue.
Though far from a perfect beginning, space-based solar power grows to become a hugely successful industry in the late 21st and 22nd century. Satellites also begin to appear in orbit around the Moon and Mars, greatly boosting the energy available on manned bases. It continues to grow around Earth for almost two centuries, until virtually all of the sunlight falling on the planet is being captured and harvested in some way.*
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Supercomputers reach the yottaflop scale
By the early 2040s, the world's most advanced supercomputers have reached the yottaflop scale – a magnitude of processing power that enables a trillion trillion floating-point operations per second. This is 1,000 times faster than a zettaflop machine of 2030 and a million times faster than the exaflop machines of 2019.
In earlier decades, experts had expressed concerns that Moore's Law – the trend of exponentially increasing computer speeds – was beginning to slow. However, these fears proved to be overstated. While it was true that a slowdown occurred in the 2010s, this was only a temporary blip, as new breakthroughs were being achieved in a number of areas. For example, traditional silicon microchips would soon be replaced by a new paradigm in the form of carbon nanotubes, able to be scaled down to even smaller sizes while greatly improving the speed and energy efficiency of transistors.*
Other novel concepts were emerging – such as optical computers,* based on photons instead of electrons, creating a new generation of dramatically cooler and more energy efficient systems. Quantum computers and related technologies** were also providing new ways to overcome barriers to speed and power. All of these innovations paved the way to exaflop, zettaflop and eventually yottaflop computers.
By 2041, the available processing power is sufficient to model thousands of human brains, in real time, at the neuron level. In recent years, the level of simulation model scale has also reached into electrophysiology, with metabolomes and proteomes soon to follow, and the states of protein complexes during the early 2050s.* This produces major insights with regards to the study of mental illness, for example, and other aspects of human neurology.
These advances continue to increase by orders of magnitude through the remainder of the 21st century – culminating in truly accurate brain simulations and mind uploading in the early decades of the 22nd century.
Cases of lung cancer have spiked in New York
During the terrorist attacks in New York on 11th September 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre collapsed into a pile of rubble. A huge volume of debris was pulverised and scattered over the surrounding area. This included 400 tons of asbestos within each tower. Asbestos was banned in New York in 1972, shortly after the construction of each tower. Mid-way through their completion, it was known that a ban would be coming into force in the near future. Nevertheless, the decision was made to retain the hazardous material throughout 20 floors of the buildings.
It was estimated that 410,000 people – more than one in twenty of the city's population – were exposed to asbestos and other toxic substances embedded in the towers' drywall, insulation, fireproofing and steel structures. The massive cloud of smoke, dust and debris released from Ground Zero affected mainly emergency crews and other rescuers, along with those responsible for clearing the site. However, many others were exposed too, including those in the immediate vicinity who were unable to flee the clouds in time, and local residents living or working nearby.
In the months and years following the attacks, growing numbers of New Yorkers reported symptoms of Ground Zero respiratory illnesses. The dust and debris had been "wildly toxic", according to one air pollution expert. Studies found more than 2,500 contaminants from the towers: 50% in non-fibrous material and construction debris; 40% from glass and other fibres; 9.2% in cellulose; and 0.8% from the deadly asbestos, as well as lead and mercury. There were also unprecedented levels of dioxins and PAHs from the fires which burned for three months. Many of the dispersed substances (asbestos, crystalline silica, lead, cadmium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) were carcinogenic; others led to kidney, heart, liver and nervous system deterioration. A case report funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) identified carbon nanotubes in dust samples and in the lungs of several 9/11 responders.
This led to increasing numbers of debilitating illnesses among the surviving rescue and recovery workers, as well as some residents, students and workers of Lower Manhattan and nearby Chinatown. In 2006, it was reported that dozens of recovery personnel had developed cancer – with doctors and epidemiologists confirming these cases as linked to the Ground Zero exposure. The following year, the pulmonary fibrosis death of NYPD member Cesar Borja was reported.
In 2010, a study of 5,000 rescue workers found that all had impaired lung functions, with an average impairment of 10%. Up to 40% of these workers were reporting persistent symptoms and 1,000 of the group studied were on "permanent respiratory disability." Another study in December 2012 showed that incidences for prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, and multiple myeloma were significantly elevated among the rescue and recovery workers. More and more deaths were being reported as linked to 9/11, along with lost pregnancies numbering at least ten. Many people were filing lawsuits to seek monetary compensation. There were psychological effects too, in addition to physical problems: studies were finding that exposure to the attacks was a predictor for the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Longer term, new health impacts emerged. For some illnesses related to asbestos exposure, the full effects and symptoms would not be felt for decades. This was the case with certain types of cancer, such as mesothelioma and lung cancer. By 2021, a significant uptick in cases was being observed and this trend continued to worsen, reaching a peak in 2041 – a full four decades after the 9/11 attacks.* Although some advances have been made in treating lung cancer by now, survival rates have improved at a slower pace than most other types of cancer.*