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“This book is, simply put, a modern classic. If you read it, you'll never forget it. Prophetic, terrifying, uplifting.” —Stephen King
From the bestselling author of Ohio, a masterful American epic charting a near future approaching collapse and a nascent but strengthening solidarity.
In the first decades of the 21st century, the world is convulsing, its governments mired in gridlock while a patient but unrelenting ecological crisis looms. America is in upheaval, battered by violent weather and extreme politics. In California in 2013, Tony Pietrus, a scientist studying deposits of undersea methane, receives a death threat. His fate will become bound to a stunning cast of characters—a broken drug addict, a star advertising strategist, a neurodivergent mathematician, a cunning eco-terrorist, an actor turned religious zealot, and a brazen young activist named Kate Morris, who, in the mountains of Wyoming, begins a project that will alter the course of the decades to come.
From the Gulf Coast to Los Angeles, the Midwest to Washington, DC, their intertwined odysseys unfold against a stark backdrop of accelerating chaos as they summon courage, galvanize a nation, fall to their own fear, and find wild hope in the face of staggering odds. As their stories hurtle toward a spectacular climax, each faces a reckoning: what will they sacrifice to salvage humanity’s last chance at a future? A singular achievement, The Deluge is a once-in-a-generation novel that meets the moment as few works of art ever have.
Release date: January 10, 2023
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Print pages: 944
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The Phase Transitions of Methane Hydrates
One of the grad assistants had left the mail in a pile by the lab’s primary computer. The first envelope Tony Pietrus opened was a confirmation letter from the American Geophysical Union for an appearance at the annual AGU conference to present initial research findings. The second envelope would change the way Tony felt about the world. He never got around to the rest of the day’s mail.
He opened this letter with his eyes diverted, still on the screen, lunch settling in his stomach and his dad’s advice—“Grants can’t read denser than the actual science”—still irritating him. He’d often do his best thinking when he let his mind go, perhaps while playing with his daughters or after making love to Gail, so he tried to grasp the gist of this latest round of data without diving too deeply into the morass. Reading over the cluttered integers cross-stitched onto the screen, he found himself compelled by the data set the way his kids might anticipate a lesser holiday, like Easter, and he couldn’t resist a peak at the chocolate eggs. The issue of his dwindling NSF funds and failure, thus far, to secure another grant also nagged at him. As if competing for money, lab space, and computational resources at Scripps wasn’t already pain enough in the ass, he and Niko had no “charismatic megafauna” involved. Only the maddening mystery of methane hydrate phase transitions.
To him, the obviousness of studying deep-sea methane molecules felt like a bright red elephant walking down La Jolla Shores Drive, but explaining it to the layperson required a convoluted story, especially as to why hydrates deserved to take money from vanishing schools of tuna or adorable chirping dolphins. It began with the model his eyes crept over now: He and his fellow researcher, Niko, had concocted a Monte Carlo simulation to predict the behavior of clathrates under changing conditions of temperature and pressure. He and Niko spent so much time in the lab playing with the input parameters that they sometimes forgot this could all sound unbearably tedious and impossible to grasp. Gail lent her more poetic mind to the task of making the clathrates’ story cogent.
“So you’re trying to figure out when some ice will melt,” Gail said at dinner the night before.
“I’m bored,” groused their youngest daughter, Catherine, while smushing her face in her hands. “Stop talking about this.”
“Ah. ‘Ice.’ Yes, very funny.” He stabbed at Gail’s chicken. “You’re more of an a-hole than the porpoise folks dropping a few hundred grand on new sonar equipment to measure dolphin clicks.”
“I know what that word means, Daddy,” Holly scolded.
In between his daughters’ complaints, Gail helped talk him through a more “user-friendly” description of molecular interactions, specifically the ones that governed phase transitions. Warmer temperatures were one variable that could trigger the abrupt transition from ordered to disordered states: solid to liquid, liquid to gas. The Monte Carlo method—so named for its resemblance to random dice rolls—allowed scientists, economists, and mathematicians to perform all kinds of experiments to model natural phenomena that have irregular and unpredictable inputs.
The clathrates littering the floors of the world’s oceans were just such a phenomenon. He, Niko, and their team of grad assistants spent their days running these computational algorithms, constantly adjusting variables like temperature and pressure. The idea was to mimic the random real-world fluctuations of molecular behavior.
A scattershot career that began in theoretical physics had taken Tony to Yale, where he ended up in the Department of Geology and Geophysics before finally developing a more permanent interest in oceanography. In the crisp salt air of Scripps’s beachside campus, he’d found a way to apply his theoretical imagination to hard earth sciences. He spent a fair amount of time sunburning on the beaches of La Jolla with his girls, pondering the pore width and cage structures of clathrates while showing his four-year-old how to build a better sand castle.
Now he picked up the tan nine-by-eleven envelope, but his eyes left the screen only momentarily to catch a glimpse of the handwritten address, his name in the center in neat block letters, SCRIPPS INSTITUTE OF OCEANOGRAPHY beneath. It felt light, maybe only a slice or two of paper inside.
Bacterial degradation of organic matter in the oceans produced methane, he’d once told his dad, a math professor without much interest in physical nature. Basically, plants and animals that rotted in a low-oxygen environment became trapped in crystals of frozen water. It took thousands of years for methanogenic bacteria and sediment to do their work and trap the methane molecules where the conditions of temperature and pressure were right, either in the Arctic permafrost, beneath the seafloor, or on its surface clutching the rock in frozen chunks. Every gas hydrate had a similar structure, but methane was the most prolific prisoner, and in some places it was a prominent feature of deep-sea ecosystems, which first drove the interest at Scripps.
When he applied as a postdoctoral researcher, several faculty members had pointed him to Nikolaos Stubos, the Greek wunderkind from Berkeley, who had similar areas of interest. They’d gone from colleagues to friends when that NSF grant had come through. Together, they began plotting how to best understand the strange combination of circumstances that permitted the formation and enduring stability of this particular hydrate. In 2010, the BP oil spill gave their research subject the equivalent of a Hollywood close-up. One of the first schemes BP scientists employed to stop the well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico from five thousand feet below the surface was a containment dome. The idea was to lower this massive dome to collect the oil and eventually cap the well, but as the dome descended through the depths it began to clog with hydrates, formed as methane gas spewed from the breach. He and Niko had to listen to endless media mischaracterizations of their research subject, from the obnoxious “methane ice” to the downright vacuous “ice crystals.” The methane wasn’t frozen; it was just trapped inside a lattice-like matrix of ice. Niko was mystified that journalists could toss off such inaccurate information, while Tony scoffed that given the general state of science education, it was surprising they’d showed up at the right ocean. Lately, methane hydrates had been resurfacing in the news because the oil and gas industry had grown bullish on the prospect of developing hydrates into a fuel source. Estimates always varied, but in the sediments considered part of US ocean territory, there was thought to be roughly a thousand-year supply of natural gas.
“Doesn’t that mean you guys could get some of that sweet, sweet petroleum money?” Gail wondered when he was bitching about grants. “Isn’t that how most geologists get funded?”
Most days they met for lunch at a Panera near campus. He’d show up late and find her curled up in a booth, eyes poring over whatever lit crit text she was abusing for her doctorate.
“Turns out our work puts us at odds with the predilections of the extraction interests.”
Her eyes widened. “Tony, no! Get the girls out of ExxonMobil Little Tots Academy right now.”
He snorted a bit of Diet Pepsi. Her jokes were so dorky.
The envelope’s return address did not pierce his concentration other than the “Louisville, KY” because he recalled that Scripps sometimes bought lab equipment from a manufacturer in Kentucky.
Tony always found himself detouring into the work of his pen pals in Melbourne—a team of researchers attempting to create a more precise estimate of the ocean’s total reserves. The largest reservoirs of hydrates could be found on continental shelves, mostly in coastal zones with high biological production and the right conditions of pressure and temperature. Given this, a map of deposits looked like his youngest, Catherine, had outlined the world’s continents in crayon. Off the East Siberian continental shelf alone lay an estimated 1,400 billion tons. In other words, the stuff was everywhere.
There was also a great deal of historical evidence that hydrates were more prevalent now than at any other time in Earth’s history. Because Earth had experienced a rather cool, temperate climate over the last few tens of millions of years, biological matter continued to form methane, freeze, and accumulate, uninterrupted by the planet’s periodic bursts of heat. Niko, in that assertive, unflappable (“a smidge chauvinist,” according to Gail) Greek way of his, never got tired of pointing out that the study of “how much” was the business of those petroleum geologists, not real scientists. Their only concern was “how warm.” He and Niko spent years mining clues from the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, which Tony now referred to as the “Pet’em” because of his older daughter, whom he usually called “Older One” as a solemn title of nobility.
In her heroic efforts to teach herself to read ahead of schedule, Holly had seen Tony perusing a book on the subject, which had used the common acronym PETM. She’d asked, “What’s a Pet’em?” He explained the Pet’em was the far less famous extinction event, a redheaded stepchild to the die-off that inspired Jurassic Park and the entire dino-subsection of pop culture for little boys.
“To understand the Pet’em,” he told her, “it’s instructive to first look at the end-Permian extinction.”
“What’s a redhead stop-child?” she asked.
The idiom proved more difficult to explain to a six-year-old than the mystery of the end-Permian, the event that wiped nearly all life off the face of the planet. Scientists thought that a million years’ worth of volcanic eruptions in Siberia was the likely culprit, but the math didn’t add up. The volcanoes simply couldn’t have produced enough carbon dioxide in a quick enough time span to raise the earth’s temperature six degrees Celsius. One had to account for all the light carbon found in rocks from the end-Permian. It was like the entire goddamn planet’s supply of coal had suddenly oxidized right into the atmosphere, but there weren’t a lot of coal miners running around back then, mostly just fish and bugs. Yet that light carbon was the reason 96 percent of life in the water and 70 percent of the land-based variety were wiped out almost overnight in geologic terms, clearing the plate for the dinosaurs. There remained only one desperado that could plausibly hold enough light carbon to explain the end-Permian extinction: methane hydrates. This explanation allowed the math to add up.
Cut to approximately 55 million years ago and the PETM, a more minor extinction event than either the end-Permian or the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. Yet the Pet’em certainly mattered to quite a few marine species that didn’t make it. The earth experienced a rapid heating of five to six degrees Celsius in only twenty thousand years. When you looked at sediments deposited during the Pet’em, you saw a massive spike in light carbon, which meant that something injected over three thousand gigatons in two quick bursts that each only took a few tens of thousands of years.
Again, the only explanation for this appeared to be a rapid melting of undersea methane hydrates.
Tony pinched open the metal clasp of the envelope and slid a finger beneath the fold to give it a quick, ineffectual tear that simply created a flap of paper. Nevertheless, there was a hole for his finger to work as he continued to study the data.
“Twice the hydrates melted,” he’d told Holly. “And twice there were catastrophic extinction events.”
So the question became: What caused the hydrates to melt in the first place? By looking at other PETM-like events in the Paleocene and Jurassic eras—and coupled with the end-Permian hypothesis—scientists had established that the hydrates did not melt due to some outside trigger, like a meteor strike, but rather an unambiguous feedback loop.
When the Earth warmed during climate oscillations caused by solar activity, widespread volcanic eruptions, or perturbations in Earth’s orbit, at a certain point the methane release occurred, spiking CH4 and CO2 levels in the atmosphere and raising the temperature even more. The best theory for how that worked involved ocean circulation: During the Pet’em, warmer, saltier water began flowing to the deep oceans, which in all likelihood began melting the top surface of hydrates. This exposed deeper reservoirs of hydrates, which in turn melted, exposing more. Why ocean circulation changed during these periods was still a mystery, but you didn’t need a doctorate from Yale to guess that the two-to-three-degree Celsius rise in global average temperature prior to the Pet’em probably had something to do with it. Luckily, it only took a little over one hundred thousand years for the carbon cycle to return that excess carbon to the earth, so the mammals of the day could get on with their humping and eventually produce humans.
Last summer he’d found himself on a Gulf Coast beach going mad trying to explain why this mattered to Gail’s obnoxious talk-radio-obsessed younger brother, Corey, who frequently directed his snide country-club snark toward Tony’s “mind-and-dick-numbing” job. On their first date when Gail explained she was adopted, Tony had pictured her younger brother as an enlightened liberal, proudly championing his biracial family. Corey, it turned out, was the type of adult who found it amusing to joke about Tony’s bald spot and old acne scars. Though the sun was setting, he felt his face grow hotter as he explained that given humanity’s little science experiment of pumping all the carbon it could find into the atmosphere ten times faster than during the PETM, it was probably worth figuring out how soon the goddamn hydrates might melt and turn Corey’s Sarasota beachfront condo into a pretty shitty fucking investment.
Gail shot him a look over the top of her sunglasses that said Play nice, and he again wondered if it was too late for his wife to un-adopt herself from her dynastic, self-consumed Floridian family.
He was somewhere here—among the numbers from the latest simulation and memories of their last trip to Florida and his brother-in-law and Catherine, whom he always called “Khaleesi” because it suited her magnetism and temper, either of which might be on display at her birthday party this weekend—when two things happened at once.
First, he aggregated what he’d read on the screen in the simulated clathrate analysis. Second, he turned his full attention to the envelope, which he succeeded in opening by using his finger as an impromptu letter opener. There was only one sheet of paper inside, and he pulled it out. The big block letters were similar to those of the address.
AFTER THIS YOU AND YOUR PEERS COLLUSION WILL BE EXPOSED AND YOULL BE CHARGED WITH THE GREATEST FRAUD EVER PERPETRATED IN THIS CENTURY. YOU WILL BE DISCOVERED BUT I FEAR EVEN THIS ISN’T ENOUGH PUNISHMENT FOR WHAT YOU DESERVE.
He snorted a laugh at the missing apostrophe in “youll.”
This was a first for him. He’d certainly heard of other scientists receiving crass and intimidating notes from the right-wing or conspiratorially minded agitators who seemed to take up all the oxygen on the internet. Tony stayed out of all that, though. He hated politics. As far as he was concerned, all this fury directed at people taking passionless, unbiased measurements of phenomena was nothing more than the sad hobby of frustrated losers ranting into the ether. He imagined Gail’s response, some nerdy joke like “At least this balances out all the bras and panties you usually get!” Imagining her voice gave him comfort. Milling outside a Yale lecture hall years ago Tony found himself unexpectedly talking to a young woman, Black and wide-hipped with round breasts stretching a T-shirt with a picture of Lando Calrissian lying seductively on a bearskin rug. He thought she was gorgeous then and would continue to think that past a decade and two children whose faces grew into hers year by year.
This was the kind of woman you needed when the world was teeming with morons, and you got hate mail for studying the phase transitions of methane hydrates.
His eyes crept back to the beginning of the letter. “After this,” it began. After what? Tony wondered if he should call campus security. This seemed silly, though. He wasn’t worried about a guy being camped out in the bushes. Some idiot had scanned the Scripps faculty page on the website and picked his name out of a lineup.
He set the letter down on his desk, ready to forget about it for the rest of the day when he noticed something white with a pale yellowish tint on his right hand. He rubbed the tips of his fingers together and the substance sifted off. Still holding the envelope with his left, he now felt a remaining weight to it. There was something else inside.
Without thinking, he tilted the envelope over the desk to empty the rest of the contents. A powder of the same color, maybe a couple spoonfuls, spilled out onto the marred wooden surface.
It was impossible for Tony to remember how long he sat there staring at it, but it was a very long time. His mind, chaotic and symphonic only moments before, halted entirely.
This obviously wasn’t real. It was likely chalk or some other anodyne substance. This was an easy laugh for a sick crank.
He tried to think of everything he knew about Bacillus anthracis, but it wasn’t much. Cutaneous, pulmonary, or gastrointestinal methods of infection were all possible—but here he was just breathing, just sitting there, staring at his hands, some of it still on his fingers. But what were the odds that a clueless loser who couldn’t spell “youll” somehow had access or the wherewithal to cultivate Bacillus spores? Then again, the historical mortality rate had to be incredibly high. He became aware of a piece of food stuck in his teeth, leftover from lunch, and realized he was still just staring at the powder on his fingers.
As if born back into his surroundings, he looked up and around. He shared the lab in Nierenberg Hall on the east side of the Scripps campus with Niko, but since they only dealt in computer models they treated it as an overflow office. The cabinets that had once held equipment now stored files. The countertops that might have held aquariums of marine specimens now provided a home to mountains of paper flotsam. But there was still a working sink.
Tony stood, wondering if he could inadvertently wash the spores into someone’s drinking water. Because he had no answer to this question, he dismissed it and knocked the faucet on with his elbow. The powder disappeared under the scalding water. He emptied a handful of the pearled gel from the soap dispenser onto his palms and scrubbed until his skin was pink and painful.
When he finished, he dried his hands and dialed 911 from his cell phone. He’d barely explained the situation before the operator was putting him in touch with the FBI.
By the time he hung up, he was confused. The FBI was coming, but what about an ambulance? He remembered from the scares of 2001 that bacillus wasn’t contagious from person to person, so could he just drive to the hospital himself? He didn’t want to go anywhere near the substance, so he took Niko’s desk chair and sat by the opposite wall, as far away from his desk as he could, and wondered if he should lay a piece of plastic over the powder. Then again, he didn’t want to go near it. He perched forward with his arms crossed over his chest, hugging himself. Even though it was surely a hoax, almost definitely a hoax, maybe it wasn’t a hoax. The less he tried to think about this, the more he could only think about it. He felt a tickle in his throat. He wondered if in a few minutes he’d start coughing. Wishing for the antianxiety meds he’d dabbled with as an undergrad, he tried to focus on something else, and he wanted that to be his family.
But that wasn’t where his mind went. Instead, he was overcome by an image of tiny bubbles rising inexorably through dark water. It was what he’d seen just before he pulled the letter from the envelope. With this data set, the trend was becoming unmistakable. And powerful. He and Niko kept fiddling with the simulation, making the stresses milder, but in the end, the hypothetical hydrates kept coming apart. He tried to focus on other things: Gail working on her dissertation in the kitchen of their first rental home in La Jolla while he kept Holly—not Older One yet—distracted in the living room by handing her baby toys to suck on while he read research papers a paragraph at a time. Gail had Holly by day, so he took her by night. They both pursued their careers while they fed and burped this chubby babbling machine, and when she finally began going down at a reasonable hour, they’d watch DVRed episodes of Lost, which Gail claimed offended her as a reader of literature, even though she never let him watch without her.
When Catherine arrived they talked about how their girls would be the most dissimilar siblings, as fundamentally different as Gail and Corey. Older One got the hang of reading by age six, and she seemed in a competition with herself to comprehend the most challenging novel her young mind could follow. Only a first-grader, they had to take books away from her at bedtime. She objected to so little, she threw no tantrums, and yet she almost seemed to carry around a latent fear or stress that she would never manage to finish every great book in the world. He’d swing the door open to her bedroom, and her surprised face and big head of curls would go dark as she snapped off the flashlight she’d sneaked. The ways she put that unrelenting curiosity to work never failed to astonish Tony, like when Gail taught her what it meant to call something “gender essentialist,” and she began identifying everything in the modern world as “gendered essentialist,” including TV commercials, children’s shows, movies, all sports, and everything her uncle Corey ever said.
And her younger sister—Jesus Christ. Even as an infant she had a knack for the bold entrance and destructive tantrum. She was lighter-skinned than Holly, had a splash of spunky red-brown freckles on her cheeks and nose, and a beautiful red tint to her hair. She could charm an entire room or, if she didn’t like the vibe, as Gail put it, “She’d spit at us if she could get her lips to work.” Then she learned to talk, and in complete contrast to Older One, the words never stopped. They just came in an indomitable stream of thoughts, ideas, stories, questions, and wonders. And her crazy streak: When Niko, his wife, and some other friends had come over for dinner once, he and Gail had returned from the kitchen to find their youngest daughter bare-ass naked demonstrating her toddler gymnastics for the assembled guests, causing the rarest of lost tempers from her parents. But then, that was why she was a conqueror, a wild one, fearless and fierce, the Mother of Dragons.
He shut his eyes and tried to grip these memories, but each one became subsumed by the image and weight of a dark ocean boiling. Eventually, there was a knock on the lab door.
He dealt with an FBI agent named Chen, who could not have been more out of central casting. Neat, combed hair, workaday suit over a muscular build, pen, pad, and latex gloves. He was so no-nonsense that after the biohazard unit had put police tape across the door and collected the powder, Tony felt a simmering panic at the man’s calm.
“Should I go to the hospital?”
The agent’s eyes flitted up and back down to a notepad where his hand moved furiously.
“Do you feel any of the symptoms we talked about?”
“No. I mean, my throat tickles a little but it kind of did this morning.”
“Anthrax poisoning tends to produce a little more than a throat tickle. You said you have a change of clothes—put those on, give us yours. Go home, shower, and if you start to feel real symptoms, go to the hospital. I’ll call you tomorrow as soon as the lab looks at this.”
The farther away Tony got from the office and the envelope the less plausible the threat felt. By the time he got home and told Gail, he was behaving as though it was nothing more than the stupidest of pranks, with the entire floor of Nierenberg having to evacuate when the FBI unit descended.
Gail spent a minute staring at him in uncomprehending horror, a minute hurling profanities at him for not going to the hospital immediately, and then several more reading the anthrax Wikipedia page.
“So we’re assuming you haven’t been poisoned? That’s the assumption we’re all operating under?” Her eyes still as wide as when he first told the story.
“The FBI seemed to think it wasn’t worth worrying about unless I felt ill.”
Gail squirted air through the small gap in her top front teeth, a very Gail tell for a snarky comment forthcoming. “I really hope whoever this guy is, he understands the dramatic irony of being scientifically literate enough to use science to make an antiscience terrorist attack.”
“They really didn’t seem to think it was necessary, I swear. If they thought there was a reason to worry I’d be there right now.”
“Fine,” she said, embracing him and tucking her head underneath his chin so that her ear aligned with his heart. “But, Tone, if you die, where am I ever going to find another nerdy white grouch with no meaningful social skills?”
The next day Agent Chen called Tony to tell him he was in the clear. The powder had been cornmeal.
“Cornmeal,” Tony repeated. “To what goddamn end?”
“No cheaper way to put a scare into someone. It’s why we tend not to break out Seal Team Six every time someone gets the idea.” Chen had a conversational presence like he was reading out of a phone book. “We’re still going to try to trace this letter. A powder threat—even if it’s a hoax—is still a felony.”
But they never found the guy who mailed cornmeal and the letter with its big block font. Tony never received another such threat, though when he and Niko secured a grant to finish their work and published their findings a year later, the emails did start to trickle in. These were less death threats and more hateful accusations and childish name-calling. He learned to ignore them. Gail took to calling Tony “Anthrax” every now and again, but she mostly employed the nickname after the speaking offers began to roll in. The story of the letter became a party anecdote.
“I like the way it makes you sound,” she once explained when he asked why she made him tell it. “Brave and fearless.” She cupped his aging butt and winked.
“Why?” he said, smiling. “All I did was shit my pants and call the FBI.”
The story disappeared into the archive of memories that lose all urgency. Except that wasn’t quite right. What he never could have predicted was the part of that experience that did stick with him. That of the image that overwhelmed him as he sat in Niko’s chair waiting for the cavalry. It washed him away for a moment. The walls of the lab had not closed in like a tomb but rather expanded and deepened to almost infinite space and depth. Down there in the vivid blue darkness, in the cold, crushing rapture of the pressure, there was imperceptible warmth. The mounds of dirty yellow ice—the color of urine on snow—were leaking. Other clumps of the whitest frozen latticework, opaque crystals, fizzed like Alka-Seltzer. Or belching up from cracks in the rock, little farts in the dark, that sent schools of pebble-sized bubbles ascending. Or gurgling from invisible pores in the sediment of the ocean floor, beading up, clinging momentarily, an
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