“Fifty years ago, most of the glaciers we looked at were slowly growing in length but since then this pattern has changed. In the last five years the majority were actually shrinking rapidly.” Scientists estimate the glaciers are losing 250 cubic kilometres of ice to the seas each year – about 60% more than they gained through snowfall.
British Antarctic Survey report – 22 April 2005.
On the late afternoon low tide Alice slid her kayak into Hans Place, just behind Harrods, lifted the paddle from the dark, swirling waters, drifted to a half submerged first-floor window, floating twenty feet above street-level, checked as she always did that the darkened room behind the glass was abandoned and empty of decaying corpses and their unquiet ghosts, clung onto the window struts under the wide dark-red brick lintel, where she all but disappeared from view, stopped breathing – and listened.
Alice Whitaker was now turned nineteen. And although she had the best of everything that she had ever wanted or, in her wildest shop-a-holic fantasies, had ever dreamed of having, after three years of creeping inundation and recurrent plagues, Alice’s face, and her character, had changed from being outgoing, confident, innocent and in full bloom to being pale, set, paranoid and wary. She wore her fair hair tied up tightly into a top-knot and pony tail, not for the pleasing appearance it gave but to lift the hair clear of her ears – ‘all the better to hear you with, my Dear’ – and out of her eyes – ‘all the better to see you with, my Dear’. Survival depended on being always alert.
The tide was on the turn and grey-brown, threatening water was already pouring inwards, rushing through broken windows, along alleyways and narrow streets, and surging dangerously around corners of buildings, lampposts and pillars. Alice bobbed in her camouflaged double-handed Aluet Sea 11 kayak and clung on. After a long, long silence, while her ears heard nothing but the water slapping against stonework and cries of gulls scudding high in the grey skies above the sheltering canyon, she whispered into a Walkie-Talkie handset, billed on its convincingly hi-tech, shiny designer box as “Spy-Con – Inexhaustible Battery and Wind-Up-Power. Range Two Kilometres – Defies interception as it auto-cycles through Four-Thousand wave bands per minute. Privacy Guaranteed” and, as she whispered into the very expensive mouthpiece, her privacy and her transmission were, despite the promise on the box, breached and intercepted.
“I’m coming in…” she whispered, “…OK?”
“OK” confirmed a husky reply – also whispering.
High above the water with views over much of London, in the Executive Suite and Restaurant of the two-hundred-and-forty-foot, seventy-four-metres high Post Office Tower, latterly BT Tower, on Cleveland Street, south of the Marylebone Road; an ordered chaos of electronic telecoms boxes nested in a bewildering maze of wires and fed signals from near and far into recording equipment and, of particular threat to Alice’s preference for secrecy, into the headphones of one of several middle aged men who bent tensely over a control panel – and listened with fierce concentration to Alice’s “Privacy Guaranteed” conversation.
Mount Kilimanjaro, (Kilima Njaro, Shining Peak) at 5,895 metres (19,340 feet) Africa’s tallest mountain, has lost its famous snow cap. Fifteen years earlier than the most pessimistic global-warming forecasts, the volcanic tip of the mountain is visible for the first time in 11,000 years, testifying to the devastating speed of climate change. G8 Energy and Environment Summit, London, March 2005.
“Avian Flu found in migrating geese. Tens of thousands of birds that could be carrying the H5N1 avian influenza virus are due to leave the reserve…”
The Guardian Thursday July 7 2005.
Three years earlier, in 2017, on government advice which in turn the government obtained from the very best scientific authorities, the population of central London, north and south of the river, had dutifully stayed put when the waters rose and spilled over the Embankment in the Spring Tides.
About two million souls, including Alice, hopeful, dark-eyed, slim, pretty, seventeen and dating, and her family among them; all imbued with the same stubborn and stoical spirit as the people of the London Blitz, humming Land of Hope and Glory and appropriate sea-shanties, simply decamped from their ground floors, abandoned their cellars, delicately ignored the politely named ‘reflux’ that washed back up the lower lying lavatory pans, basins and bathtubs, donned waders to go shopping, rescued what precious belongings they could, watched the filthy waters rise and invade their buildings and then, with their families and household pets, moved upstairs.
“Protect your property from looters.” Was the sensible and sound advice issued by London’s Emergency Services Council, in turn taking their advice from HM Government, which in turn relied heavily, as they often repeated, on the best available scientific advice, “You may be uncomfortable for a few days; but don’t lose a lifetime’s assets for want of a few days of vigilance.” Nobody could be sure that their Household Contents Insurance would remain valid if they ignored the government’s advice – and so they stayed – for the duration.
The duration was far longer than Londoners expected. At high tide The Thames rose several feet above the pavements in Parliament Square, flooded Guy Fawke’s cellars under The Palace of Westminster and, nudging forwards a margin of mostly unmentionable flotsam and jetsam, it crept up Whitehall, made a left into Downing Street where Number 10 was protected by the very latest home-flood barrier, and, after spilling ten feet deep at the end of the street down into Horse Guards Parade, it edged up Whitehall towards Nelson, the greatest of all English Admirals, who had been raised high enough to ignore the mess which had been advancing for some weeks in his direction and who could therefore turn a blind eye to it with haughty disdain.
The salty tidal waters rose and fell twice a day, the tides flushed out the sewer rats and all the other sewer contents and, over several weeks, the sea sank deep into the ground, down through fissures and abandoned pipes to pollute the famous artesian wells that had reliably supplied the city with fresh water for more than two thousand years.
But as the tap water became bitter and diseased, Lady Porter and Lord Sainsbury showed their true metal, buried their political differences, rose nobly to the occasion and directed vast supplies of bottled water from Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s supermarkets respectively, discreetly charged at only ten times the usual price, to the stricken areas below and East of Teddington Lock. From the west the Thames above the lock still flowed with fresh-water which was piped, in rapidly laid yellow plastic mains, to cleaning and pumping stations above the shore line in Chelsea, which in turn supplied the affected buildings.
During the Easter Spring Solstice, when the Sun and the Moon line up their gravitational fields to tug in tandem at the Earth and lift the mighty oceans into a higher than usual bulge – the North Sea had flooded up the river estuary, unobtrusively flowed across the Swanscombe and the West Thurrock Marshes and had spilled down into the Dartford Tunnel – fortunately at night when there were no gridlocks of queuing vehicles – then swamped the Dartford Marshes and flooded up the River Darent to Dartford town. Some seventy thousand homes between Dartford and Eltham awoke to find their feet in freezing cold salty water, with human waste floating on the surface. And most of the brave inhabitants, as advised, stayed put.
That same night The Woolwich Ferry had found its slipway and jetty was suddenly twenty feet below water and was unable to dock on either side of the river. City Airport and the Royal Docks became part of the Thames as did New Charlton – and the North Sea flowed effortlessly around the Thames Barrier. The Blackwall Tunnel was flooded through its airshafts – again, Thanks Be to God, without anyone being trapped inside under the water – and Bow Creek expanded from being an interesting narrow channel into a broad, unpredictable, swirling, dangerous tidal surge. Canary Wharf and other fabulous high rise office buildings on the Isle of Dogs, at sunrise found that they had no island to stand on, and were ankle deep in the sea.
With the dawn of the next day, joy riders packed the Overhead Light Railway to Docklands from Minories at the edge of The City just for the novelty of seeing the sea below them, sweeping past the rails’ pillars and supports as the tide inexorably advanced on London Town. The Cutty Sark at Greenwich was disgraced when, as the North Sea liberated the famous ship from its dry dock on a mighty swell, it failed to float for more than a few minutes and sank back, elderly and incontinent, to its tourist geared mooring with water flooding over its decks and up its wooden masts. The first single-handed, world circumnavigating yacht, Gypsy Moth, in contrast, bobbed happily about on the choppy surface like a puppy let out to play.
The sea had flowed to the north up the Lea Valley and tens of thousands more homes were marooned. River Police and local boating clubs rushed to aid the families and carry them to higher ground. Wapping and Shad Thames, long the favoured film location for Jack the Ripper movies, went underwater. But it was south London that suffered more than the higher north side. The Elephant and Castle traffic gyratory system became a large boating pool to the joy of Alice’s younger brother Alex and hundreds of other teenaged school children who, oblivious to the dangers, brought rubber boats, home-made rafts and every sort of vessel to play with, making a welcome improvement to the built landscape; and the whole area back to the river was inundated.
New Concordia Wharf on Jacobs Creek and Joseph Conran’s huge Butlers Wharf development, taking in the old brewery by Tower Bridge, had been surprised by tidal flows twenty feet higher than the previous records, which reached high over the puddle-clay skirts, which had kept the submerged basements of those early Victorian masterpieces in baked bricks completely dry for nearly two centuries. The ground floor apartments were soaked, the basements filled and many of the occupants were forced to go out for lunch to expensive restaurants – also as it happened – owned by Joseph Conran. While on the north bank at the other end of Tower Bridge, The City stood proud of the first floods and, apart from the Traitor’s Gate in the Bloody Tower being overwhelmed, had looked down with effortless superiority upon the plight of its poor south bank cousins.
But, higher up the River Thames at the royal end of London, in the Boroughs where the Royal Court had first settled in an uneasy truce with the wealthy and fiercely independent City, at Westminster and along the Victoria Embankment, it was the north bank that the North Sea had first breached, before it leaked along the southern walk and into the National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall, swamping the electric drives of the Millennium Wheel and stranding people who had been curious and brave enough to want to go up aloft in the Wheel’s observation cars to view the scene of creeping and insidious devastation for themselves. They were eventually rescued by Royal Engineers with back-up from Royal Air Force helicopters. It was estimated that more than seventy-thousand more homes, mostly in Pimlico, Lambeth and Battersea had been flooded to a depth of up to four feet on their ground floors – obliging residents to move up to the next floor.