Life seems as if it’s becoming a dystopian sci-fi or apocalyptic novel, with headlines like “Warming Climate Pushing Desperate India Farmers to Suicide” and “Elon Musk Publishes Plans for Colonizing Mars.” Luckily, cannibalism hasn’t become a mainstream diet fad yet, but according to renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, the future is bleak. In a BBC documentary coming out this year, Stephen Hawking: Expedition New Earth, Hawking predicts that humans will need to colonize another planet within the next 100 years or face extinction. Billionaire businessman Musk shares the same sentiment, although with slightly more optimism.
“I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually history suggests there will be a doomsday event,” Musk writes in his paper “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species,” which outlines his SpaceX program’s plans on how to move to the red planet.
“You hear people say we should leave Earth and go to Mars—that’s a ridiculous thing to say, because even with global warming, even with pollution, it’s still a far, far better place than Mars.”–Henry Sun, DRI microbiolgist
Dr. Henry Sun is a microbiologist at the Desert Research Institute, a nonprofit environmental research organization in Nevada, who studies extreme environments such as the exposed mountaintops of the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. He uses the harsh environment as an analog to Mars to determine if life there is possible. “Life is not going to be ubiquitous like it is on Earth, because Earth is such a good place,” Sun says. “You hear people say we should leave Earth and go to Mars—that’s a ridiculous thing to say, because even with global warming, even with pollution, it’s still a far, far better place than Mars. So we should try our best to preserve this planet.”
But some may still want to leave Earth and take a chance as interstellar pioneers on a planet possibly devoid of natural life—a particularly enticing option for Las Vegans wanting to escape the heat. Conjuring images of Las Vegas nearly a century from now means taking a number of factors into consideration: politics, population growth and displacement, technology, wars and diseases, to name a few. But based on climate research, there are a few scenarios we can anticipate.
“We can survive here. Other cities survive even higher heat, but it is going to make it certainly less enjoyable in the summer.” –Michael Lachneit, UNLV climate scientist
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading voice on the topic, collected data from atmospheric and climate modelers around the globe. The average of those models suggests an increase of 4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 (some estimate an increase as low as 2 degrees and others as high as 7 degrees). “That puts us past Phoenix temperatures, pushing close toward Death Valley temperatures in Las Vegas by the end of 2100,” says Matthew Lachniet, a UNLV climate scientist. “We can survive here. Other cities survive even higher heat, but it is going to make it certainly less enjoyable in the summer.”
Dr. Lynn Fenstermaker, research professor at the DRI and director at Nevada Space Grant and Nevada NASA EPSCoR, says that from an ecological point of view, the city wouldn’t look much different than it already does. Unlike the Joshua trees in surrounding areas of the Mojave, casinos and shopping centers can withstand the hotter and drier weather. “I think we are going to be coming up with the technological advances,” Fenstermaker says, such as more efficient solar panels, wind turbines and battery storage on buildings used to generate power. Some cities are already thinking of ways to stay cool and reduce the heat island effect—an increase in temperatures in urban areas because of human activity.
In a recent Los Angeles Times article, “L.A.’s Mayor Wants to Lower the City’s Temperature. These Scientists are Figuring Out How to Do It,” there are certain methods mentioned that L.A. is already considering, such as using “high-tech materials” on the pavement and on roofs that reflect sunlight and stay cooler. A simple and effective way to reduce heat is to increase canopy coverage.
Increased temperatures could lead to using more power in the summer to run air conditioning. “I am hoping we will see more microgrids of renewable power instead of these big solar farms out in the desert [where power] has to be transmitted [to other places] over long power lines,” Fenstermaker says.
“One of the biggest things that I have learned from my work here is when it gets hot in Nevada, it gets a lot drier.”–Lachniet
But there is a larger ramification to rising temperatures than keeping the air conditioning on. Lachniet studies past climatic changes, testing stalagmite layers to determine hot/cool wet/dry years. “One of the biggest things that I have learned from my work here is when it gets hot in Nevada, it gets a lot drier,” he says. “Those things go hand in hand in Nevada, so there is no reason for us to expect that [an] increase in temperatures is ever going to make things wetter.”
With this in mind, the Southern Nevada Water Authority will actively pursue the region’s water resources for the next half century. According to SNWA public information officer Bronson Mack, the Colorado River, Southern Nevada’s primary water supply, will continue to meet water needs for the next 50-plus years. “Now, looking in that crystal ball as far as what the Colorado River is going to look like in the next 80 to 100 years, well, that crystal ball gets a little cloudy,” Mack says.
The water authority knows that “nearly all of our eggs are in that Colorado River basket,” so a possible solution is to diversify those water resources. “Assuming that climate change and population growth continue over the next century, I would anticipate that we may see increased use of desalinated water,” Mack says. “Desalinated ocean water could provide drought-proof supplies to various areas of the country.” But he adds that desalination opens up “a host of questions that need to be resolved,” such as funding, energy use and environmental impact, questions that he says are solvable.
The two major climate-change effects that are expected to have a direct impact on Las Vegas—more heat and less water—seem to be manageable for the next 100 years with new technologies, proper planning and innovation. But the larger issue is global sea level rise and the displacement of hundreds of millions of people from coastal cities. “If it happens very rapidly, it is going to be harder to absorb,” Lachniet says. Hawking and others project this could lead to global famine, disease, economic collapse and nuclear war.
So while Hawking is suggesting our only option is to leave it all behind, some are still hopeful. Years ago, Fenstermaker met with Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s son. “We asked him about what is going to happen to the continental shelves, what is going to happen in the oceans,” she says. “And he said we might likely hit a point of crisis, but the human mind can overcome.”