Though the event was clearly progressing from east to west, the Prime Meridian, being a line of longitude, runs north and south from Greenwich all the way to both poles.
Above the UK, the Meridian crosses the North Sea, the Norwegian Sea, the Greenland Sea, and the Arctic Ocean, terminating at the north pole. Unlike Antarctica, which is a continent, there is no land mass at the north pole. Rather, it is covered by an extensive ice sheet some one to four meters thick in most places and up to twenty meters in depth at pressure ridges. The size of the ice varies by season, covering all the water between Canada and Russia during the winter and, with global warming, shrinking enough to allow open navigation around the edges by September.
At the exact moment the athletic man arrived at the Observation Deck, the Russian government lost communication with two Dolphin Class and one Borey-A Class nuclear submarines traveling under the cap together at a cruise depth of two hundred meters as part of the year’s Umka (Polar Bear) artic exercise being held in the vicinity of the Franz Josef Land archipelago.
In a previous year’s effort, the pack, as part of a contingent of more than six hundred military and civilian personnel had become the first to simultaneously break through the artic ice from below within a radius of three hundred meters and sought now to duplicate the achievement. Communication was never reestablished.
Southward from London, zero degrees longitude stretches over the English Channel and then through France, Spain, the Mediterranean Sea, over another leg of Spain, and back into the Mediterranean Sea.
Along this span, Bordeaux in France and Valencia in Spain bore the initial brunt of the event in their respective countries, but unlike the situation in London, zero degrees longitude falls just east of those two cities, so rather than bisecting them, both metropolitan areas were completely demolished in the same manner as the English capitol within moments of inception.
In each case, therefore, there was no immediate support network directly to the east, and the entire infrastructure had been removed in an instant. With no prior warning, more than one million urban dwellers and two million more in their extended metropolitan areas fell naked into a stone age equivalent world filled with the dead and injured and with no means of protecting, clothing, or feeding themselves, much less assisting others.
The Meridian ran more than thirty kilometers to the east of what had been the city center of Bordeaux, and without any means of communication there was no way to know that safety lay in that direction. Panic quickly ensued, exacerbated by the dissolution of the three major psychiatric hospitals that surrounded the downtown.
Though this report strives to include only descriptions of specific scenarios witnessed first hand by those who had experienced them, from time to time it serves to diverge from that restriction to outline the larger narratives in play that day.
Therefore, in order to understand the extraordinary forces that worked against our response to the disaster, for a moment imagine yourself as one of the citizens of Bordeaux – instantly surrounded by a barren landscape, absent of all familiar landmarks, feeling in a very real sense as if you had been transported to another planet: no resources, no sense of what to do, no explanation of what had happened.
And then, in scant moments when the initial shock wore off, to realize you were surrounded by heaps and mounds of writhing, screaming people. And even if you were uninjured or even at home, your spouse might be at work, your children at school, your mother at the care center. You had no idea how to get to them or to check on them, no idea what was going on, and no way of finding out.
Returning to eye-witness accounts, in Valencia, the situation was even worse, though that seems beyond imagining. Like London, Valencia was built by the Romans and had become Spain’s third largest city, three times the size of Bordeaux, and generated more than half the GDP of the country through its port at which the entire infrastructure had just vanished. Boats, trucks, trains, planes, and cars had ceased to be in an instant and thousands of people were plunged into the water both near and very far from shore.
The event line was more than twenty kilometers east of the coast, so not only was there little hope for those in distress, but no rescuers from the safe side could reach them. Those few ships in the area that tried, crossed the line and sank, adding to the tragedy. Incredibly a few strong swimmers were able to make their way to ships in the safe zone or back to shore toward the west, which did not substantially improve their situation.
Valencia was also home to Spain’s largest prison at Picassent, and in that community to the south of the city center, inmates and guards without uniforms to identify them mingled with each other and eventually with the general population. There were several reports of violent attacks there on uninjured survivors which may have been perpetrated by those whose mindless rage had caused them to be incarcerated in the first place.
From the Mediterranean below Valencia, the Meridian heads into Africa, across Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana, Togo again, and Ghana once more before plunging into the Atlantic Ocean.
The initial incursion of the event along the Prime Meridian in Africa fell largely in sparely populated areas. Still, tribes of nomads and many small villages in the Sahara were struck.
Perhaps one of the most fortunate was the oasis of Tabelbala in southwest Algeria. With a population of just over 5,000, it was an agricultural community in which more than ninety percent of the homes had drinking water and electricity.
Though hit hard by the loss of their infrastructure, the readily available water and crops (more than 100,000 date palms) as well as an estimated 3,500 sheep, 10,000 goats, and 5,000 camels, left the settlement well positioned for survival and some degree of continuity in its social and economic traditions.
As we shall later see in South America, those tribes and villages considered least advanced by the developed world often fared far better than their more modern brethren.
To the south of Ghana, the line plunges into the Southern Ocean for more than ten thousand kilometers before concluding its arc at the south pole. The only landmass the Prime Meridian touches in the southern hemisphere is Antarctica.
And it was there, at the bottom of the world, that a minor phenomenon would eventually provide the first small insight into the event process.
The United States had maintained a base at the geographic south pole since 1956, though the original base was abandoned in 1975, due to drifting snow. It was replaced in that year by a geodesic dome that was itself replaced in 2008 resulting from a crack in the dome caused by pressure on the foundation. Since 2008, the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station has maintained a summer population of approximately 150 with a few dozen “winter-overs” usually totaling around 40.
The geographic south pole is the common termination of all lines of longitude which meet at the point where the axis of the earth’s rotation intersects its surface. This is not at all the same as the south magnetic pole, which has slowly meandered over the continent in a roughly east to west direction and currently resides off the coast.
There is a third south pole as well – a cute candy cane striped post with a round silver ball on top – that sits just a few yards in front of the station as a photo opportunity for visiting dignitaries who do not wish to make the trek out to the actual geographic pole some distance away.
Relative to the station, the geographic pole shifts at approximately ten meters per year, as the ice cap slowly flows over it like a glacier. In fact, the location for the station had taken into account this drift so that it would pass directly over the pole. At the time of the event, that latitudinal nexus has already moved through to stand some four hundred meters from the ceremonial pole and was getting father away every season.
To commemorate that spot for those intrepid enough to make the trek, a sign was erected and then moved as needed for accuracy, leaving markers of its previous positions to illustrate the path of the ice cap.
As it was a point of interest, several engineers had set up a year-round wireless web cam to broadcast the sign in sun and storm while documenting hardier polar tourists who made the effort to see it.
Being exactly at the pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station was graced with six months in which the sun never sets and six months of complete darkness. While London was celebrating the summer solstice, Antarctica was enduring its winter solstice.
Though no tourists are allowed during the winter, the web cam engineers had equipped the sign with a low-power LED just bright enough to make it readable, but dim enough not to overpower the spectacular Aurora Australis, commonly known at the Southern Lights. This provided a captivating view and at any given time of day several hundred internet viewers were tuned in to enjoy the show.
Immediately after the event initiated in London, comments posted on the web cam’s page claimed an unusual occurrence was visible on screen: one edge of the sign appeared to be gradually disappearing – so slowly in fact that the progression at the edge of the disruption was barely discernable.
The communications officer on duty noticed the increased comment traffic on the web cam page and examined the image for himself. He had no explanation for what he saw. There was no disruption of the image of the aurora and the rest of the sign appeared as it should. But the one edge was continuously, almost imperceptibly, vanishing.
He quickly reported this discovery to the web cam crew who, after viewing the video, set about donning their winter gear for a trek to the pole to see for themselves. Later, their actions would come to provide one of the contributing factors to our survival.
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