Falling Thermometer

This is the English version of a short story by me which has also recently been published in a new anthology, Vildsint Skymningslandet (the English and Swedish versions differ a little bit, not much - a sentence here and there, etc). The anthology (title means "Ferocious - Land of Dusk") can be seen here, as sold by the SF Bookstore in Stockholm:

The little chartered regional jet had seen better days. The paintjob was spotty and partly gone on the tail. After take off the aircraft took an extra turn over Arvidsjaur’s gloomy, virtually deserted airport. In the cold early summer it was almost entirely covered in snow and ice, though it wasn’t long ago this Lapland outpost would have blossomed in the Midnight Sun at this time of year. The mountain flowers, the fresh young grass and the dwarf birch trees would have generously spread their colours. But not anymore.

The two somewhat important passengers had asked for that extra glimpse of the Scandinavian mountain range, by the locals known as The Keel. The spreading glaciers already reached into the valleys. A snowstorm that soon would hit their point of departure was building up among the mountain peaks. It didn’t even smell like spring. It smelt like decay.

“It’s the first step,” Professor Smythe said. The elderly, lightly built one in the couple adjusted his glasses and gazed through the frost-bitten cabin window, with colours almost matching his very light-grey hair. “The glaciers practically cease melting during the increasingly shorter summers. And then they expand even further during the next winter. Soon the separate glaciers will merge and we face the beginnings of an all-year around ice sheet, that grows and grows. Arvidsjaur will be lost.”

“How long will that take?” his colleague Doctor Ljung asked. He was considerably younger, red-haired and impatient in a way you wouldn’t expect from a scientist. Well, he was on his way up - in his career and in the aeroplane.

“A few decades, perhaps. And in a few centuries the ice sheet will reach the Gulf of Bothnia, as well as moving further south.”

Doctor Ljung sighed and reached for the air vent above his head. He turned up its heat and said:

“Well, it wasn’t too many years ago that many believed in global warming. But here it was so cold and snowy – in June! - that our electronic weather equipment refused to function properly. Very irritating.”

“I have learned the hard way to always bring backups, Ljung. Good old regular thermometers don’t need electronics. They’re good at least down to minus 39 Celsius before the mercury freezes, but it won’t get that cold even here at this time of year – yet. Alas, our equipment bag couldn’t be properly locked due to all the ice. Zippers safe for the Arctic would be a heavenly sent invention.”

“It was a close shave that we could take off at all, Professor. It took hours to plough the runway, de-ice the plane and get permit to take off. They are short on personnel since they consider closing Arvidsjaur airport for good. Is only open during summers, as it is. Many have already moved to southern Sweden, and the town is almost entirely covered in deep snow during winter.”

But as soon as Doctor Ljung had said that, the chartered jet plane began to shake and rock. For a few moments the woollen scarves of the Professor and Doctor lifted into the air due to being temporarily in free-fall near zero-G. The two scientists from the meteorology office SMHI would themselves have floated out in the cabin if they hadn’t been still been strapped into the little jet’s worn seats.

Some loose bags freed themselves from the floor and seats, however, and then landed with loud bangs a bit further away. Soon there was a message in the loudspeakers from the captain. He was sorry they had encountered heavy turbulence and advised the passengers – all two of them - to keep their seatbelts on.

“Heavier storms and weather is a sign of the global cooling,” Professor Smythe said. “The polar areas become colder. This means that the temperature difference between them and the equator increases, and the weather gets more energy. Warmer poles and a colder equator would on the other hand make weather milder. The second law of thermodynamics. It’s the temperature difference that drives the weather. It is always differences in energy levels that release energy, and with more energy available weather becomes more intense.”

“And there’s not much we can do about it, Professor. The CO2 that was so ‘hot’ a few years back can’t help, and it never did much anyway. It’s the sun, minor shifts of the Earth axis, orbit and things like that. By the way, did you see this? Hm, where’s that media release…”

Doctor Ljung flipped his finger across the screen of his little universal unit. He had to stretch the flexiscreen a bit before he found it:

Advertising in the Sky May Save the Planet

Sam Branson, CEO of Virgin Galactic, today announced a new scheme in the company’s thriving space business.

“Using an extended version of our space transportation system, we propose to send up fleets of thin mylar mirrors to reflect more sunlight back to Earth. We can save the climate and make money from it!” Mr Branson said on a press conference in a chilly London.

The mirrors will orbit in formations and by flipping some of them so they become dark it will be possible to show advertising messages.

“Company logotypes, short slogans, anything can be shown,” Mr Branson said. “And it’s the best advertising spot you can imagine! It will generate all the revenue needed to go through with the project.”

A new company will be formed, Virgin Reflective, and R&D is already underway to adapt the Virgin Galactic orbital shuttles – already giving thousands of people both thrilling and relaxing vacation experiences – to the new tasks.

The thin reflective plastic also work as sun sails which gives manoeuvrability, to create the formations and to stay in or change orbit. The first test launches are expected within a year.

“No, I hadn’t seen it. Very interesting, Ljung,” the Professor said. “It will take a lot of mirrors to have some effect, and I wonder if the advertising will be all that profitable when the sky is littered with it. Still I think –“

Suddenly the little jet machine shook and jerked again. And the scientists’ bags took another little flight. Their landing sounded heavy. Things seemed to break inside.

“Professor”, Doctor Ljung remarked, “we should have strapped our luggage or put it in the overhead compartments.”

“Yes, Ljung, but it was easiest to just throw it on empty seats, which we have plenty of. I hope nothing of value is damaged. Some of our equipment is a bit expensive, and climate research doesn’t attract too many grants nowadays.”

“Sad indeed. Everyone knows it’s getting colder, but we can’t only hope the trend changes. I wonder if this Virgin guy can give us some money?”

“They are more into space and commercial stuff, Ljung. We can only confirm what everyone already see is happening. There’s not much business in that. And we knew about it all along, but didn’t read the signs correctly! Milankovitch charted his famous climate cycles already in the 1930’s. From the Greenland ice cores we could clearly see we’ve had an unusually long warm period, so it couldn’t become anything but colder...”

“Politicians, activist groups and other jerks were so hooked on fighting ‘global warming’ that they became blind, if you remember, Professor. Despite that the computer models were sagging spaghetti code, that the water vapour didn’t follow predictions, the upper atmosphere refused to cooperate, the sea temperature wasn’t...”

“It’s like when you’re in England, dear Doctor Ljung. When you cross the street you expect cars from the left, and don’t expect the English cars coming from the right - since they drive on the left. You don’t watch out for what you don’t expect.”

The turbulence continued. The bags jumped once again and crash-landed once more.

“I hope they de-iced the plane thoroughly”, said Doctor Ljung. “Rough weather and changed aerodynamics of the wings is not a pleasant combination.”

“Hope so,” the Professor said. He sighed. ”You know, in the long run, Scandinavia may be doomed, covered in kilometres of ice. But we will be long dead by then.”

But their doom would come sooner than they thought.

Bad de-icing can’t be the reason for the crash, noted the senior accident investigator Karl Johnsson and made some adjustments to his plastic protective suit. His unsuitably generous belly wouldn’t fit it very well, and his brown and too long hair flowed outside the cap. According to the airport the plane was de-iced, he noted, and the black box said de-icing equipment in the wings had worked perfectly.

The black box – orange in reality – had been found almost immediately and via the undamaged USB contact it had been emptied to provide a first, preliminary analysis. Arvidsjaur had reported that they had been aware of the harsh weather conditions. So flight plan, de-icing, pilot briefing, everything had been done by the book.

It was lucky that there had only been four onboard the old, charted jet that now lay as scattered debris in Greater Stockholm’s northern periphery. Pilot, co-pilot and the two scientist passengers had all been killed instantly. Few flew to the increasingly cold and deserted Norrland region. Other destinations would have had more passengers and another crash would cause many more fatalities.

Johnsson could on his universal unit read that the scientists had been north to study the ice age expected to break out with full force within a few decades. It was colder than expected even down here in the Stockholm suburb of Norrtelje. Patches of snow were still around despite it being several days into June.

Johnsson thought it felt like the Aprils he remembered from his youth. It was spring but it should be summer. The sun shone but seemed powerless and bleak. Twisted pieces of aluminium lay about, but there hadn’t been any fire. Remaining snow and the cold had probably reduced the fire hazard. And the plane had minimal fuel left, since it crashed near its destination, the Arlanda airport. Johnsson came to think that there was a motion in the parliament, yet undecided, to rename Stockholm’s major airport the Alfred Nobel Airport, inspired by the American craze of naming airports after famous people.

You could smell the jet kerosene that was slowly evaporating. Everyone had received orders to be careful with electrical equipment, not to generate sparks. The medics had already begun to take the bodies away, covered in yellow, plastic blankets. Death is always a tragedy and unceremonious. And silent.

The accident spot was dominated by a stunning silence. The investigators walked about with faces of deep concentration. If anyone spoke, it was in a low voice.

“We got reports that the flight was subject to heavy turbulence,” Johnsson murmured into the microphone of his UU. “Could the heavy turbulence have played a part?”

The activity on the crash site was hectic. The investigative team Johnsson lead had received their instructions and worked almost mechanically. A couple of firemen squirted foam here and there on small pools of jet fuel. Police patrols kept a few journalists or bloggers – whatever the difference was – at a proper distance.

“Boss!” one of Johnsson’s co-workers shouted with unexpectedly loud voice and rushed towards him in huge strides. “We have a witness here who says that the plane seemed to begin breaking up already in the air. If you follow me…”

Johnsson began interviewing the witness as he caught his breath, a middle-aged lady who had been walking her dog at the edge of the field where the major parts of SKC 471 had hit the ground. Yes, the aircraft had began to split up in mid air. Parts had fallen off. She seemed rather shaken by being a witness to the dramatic accident. Meanwhile her shaggy cocker spaniel couldn’t care the least and sniffed around her legs.

That the plane was old may have been a factor, Johnsson thought. Aluminium was barely used in aircraft construction these days. Now we had carbon fibres and composite materials that were lighter and stronger.

The investigators soon found important parts of the tail end half a kilometre away. Lots of the debris lay spread out over a considerable distance, for instance much of the luggage.

The tail may had fallen off first, and from that moment, the plane was doomed. At least that sounded like a reasonable preliminary conclusion.

But why did the unfortunate plane’s tail fall off? Johnsson strolled slowly along the track of wreckage. A light breeze brought in a salty sea grass smell from the nearby Baltic Sea. Here and there he saw the yellow reflective suits from his fellow investigators. They took pictures and collected the debris, which would be important evidence in the crash analysis. The position of every piece was recorded down to the last millimetre through GPSIII.

“Hey, Boss,” an investigator said suddenly. There was traces of triumph in his voice. “Look at this piece of aluminium. It seems it has somehow been tampered with, eroded or something. Could it be a sabotage? Terrorists perhaps?”

Johnsson stopped and looked at the piece he was shown. It could be environmental terrorists. There were still fanatics left who were totally stuck to the old idea of “global warming”. The dramatically colder weather didn’t impress them. It was just temporary and they knew best. But since nobody listened to them any more they had gone from previous non-violent actions to more direct terrorism.

One breakaway group called themselves Real Greenpeace and blew up bombs to “save the polar bears”, the species that was more numerous than ever these days. Single animals had even migrated down to Swedish Lapland.

The environmental terrorists hated climate scientists, who they considered to be traitors. Another group went under the name Provisional IPCC, a splinter group from the body that now studied the global cooling. The corrupt gang of old pals – that had done their darndest to hide the decline - within the earlier IPCC had been kicked out long ago, but there remained a fundamentalist support group to them which now was very keen on disrupting air traffic. P-IPCC was infamous for air sabotage, since they considered flying “a huge environmental crime, with enormous emissions of carbon dioxide which make Earth constantly warmer” (as their homepage announced in mockery of logic and empirical data).

Brrr. Johnsson shuddered – from being cold or out of resentment, he wasn’t sure. He continued walking and almost stumbled upon a big, square, dark-brown bag. ”Scientific Equipment – handle with care” it said, stencilled across the imitation leather. The bag was quite damaged and lay open, zippers gleaming like teeth of a crocodile. The contents were remnants of scientific equipment, still strapped to the insides. There were plastic and wires from electronics. There were cracked sample containers. Broken thermometers of the old non-digital type. Notebooks. Scientific tables. Wind meters, with small cups on a three-finned rotor. Tools of different sorts, topped with broken glass.

On the ground lay the raison d’etre of the dead scientists’ expedition northward. The keys that would open the door to understanding the climate. Would the sunspot minimum continue and the north eventually be totally covered in ice? Was there hope for some change in the trends? Would the ice cover southern Scandinavia too?

Johnsson stood still in thoughts. A minute. Two minutes. Something seemed to elude him.

And there it was. The solution. The light bulb of his sudden inspiration was both screwed in and lit. He now knew what caused the crash.

Further tests and studies were needed to confirm his hunch, but he felt pretty sure.

The press conference a few weeks later wasn’t too well-attended. “Press”, by the way – actual newspaper, as in printed ones, weren’t neither fashionable nor profitable, though a few struggled on with UU editions You had bloggers, naturally. Johnsson thought he saw at least one familiar face, from Wikileaks Corp. And of there were course HD/3D TV stations, as well as the Media Cloud Reporters, from write-it-yourself-news. But there were only a dozen journalist physically present. At least a couple looked young enough to be from school publications.

And why bother to turn up in person, when you could follow it through any of the HD stations setting up cameras in the room? Anyway, people were there. The accident had been in the news and there had been some speculations as to the cause. Time to clear the air. Johnsson cleared his throat. The mint lozenge he took a few minutes ago still left a smell and made his mouth feel a bit cold. He opened the prepared file on his UU, synchronised with a big 3D screen behind him, and so he began:

“Welcome to the presentation of the Air Safety Board’s report on the SKC 471 crash. As you know, this flight crashed near Norrtelje north of Stockholm, while on final approach to Arlanda. According to witnesses the plane broke up in mid air. And the flight control, weather reports and the so called black box all indicated that it had during its flight been subject to very heavy turbulence. However, this was not by itself the cause of the crash. We have been able to rule out acts of terrorism.

"At the accident site we found a bag with scientific equipment. Two of the deceased were scientists, Professor Smythe and Doctor Ljung, who had been north to study the ice sheet beginning to form. In the bag we found old thermometers of the mercury type. The bag show traces of not having been shut and locked properly.”

On the screen behind Johnsson a detailed picture of the bag showed up. It turned slowly in excruciating details, almost seeming to be alive in full 3D. Johnsson continued:

“These days most aeroplanes are to their structural parts built of carbon fibres, titanium and different composite materials, and old safety rules seem to have been forgotten or relaxed. It is still said in Regulations for Air Traffic (12:82B) that mercury thermometers may not be taken onboard an aircraft without special permission, and then only after being very carefully packaged and sealed.

The conclusion of the crash investigation is that as SKC 471 met heavy turbulence, the bag with the mercury thermometers were thrown around, they broke and the contents of the thermometers were spread out.

The mercury then flowed down to important parts of the aircraft hull and began to erode the aluminium. It was an old aircraft, which already had some weak spots and it didn’t take much to reach the limits of structural integrity. Mercury, which we find in old thermometers, reacts aggressively with aluminium. Our conclusion is consistent with data from the flight recorder, witnesses and tests we have performed. Now I will take some questions. Anyone?”

--Ahrvid Engholm (ahrvid@hotmail.com)