I’m walking the perimeter, checking for an air leak. I know it’s here, I just don’t know where it is. We use a very old-fashioned way to locate leaks. Whenever we get a flag that the air mixture is off somewhere in Jerusalem Ridge, I come out here and prowl around with a candle, using the flicker of the flame to find the leak.
—China Mountain Zhang, Maureen F. McHugh
I was originally going to title this article just “Watchfulness”. I wanted to talk about how Dutch culture includes constant attention to the defenses that keep our feet dry. It’s something I’ve noticed since I moved here in 2007. It’s understated but omnipresent, like the watchful care that I would expect from the population of a space station or a generation ship, forever checking the bulkheads and locks that keep the vacuum at bay.
The explanation for this watchfulness, I thought, was the Watersnoodramp, the great flood of 1953. That’s when the dikes in the south burst and flooded parts of three provinces, killing over 1,800 people and turning thousands more into refugees. It still looms large in the public memory: children learn about it in school, and footage of it has an intense emotional impact.
But then I started looking into the history of the flood. Why did it happen? The common explanation is one that undercuts my whole thesis: they dikes failed because they weren’t maintained. They weren’t a priority. And that turns out to be the case.
In 1934, the service studied the consequences of impoldering the ‘Biesbosch’. Research showed that the consequences for Dordrecht would be disastrous – almost all the dikes appeared to be too low. A report from 1928 had already stated that the dikes in West-Brabant did not meet the safety requirements, but nobody felt like spending a vast amount of money on raising the dikes. Both surveys showed that something definitely had to be done about the condition of the dikes along the rivers.
Despite the article’s tone, the Dutch were not being lazy or feckless. The last serious sea-flood in the south happened in 1820. Since then, water disasters had been inland, like the hurricane-driven floods of the Harlemmermeer in 1836. Or they’d been in the north of the country, like the one in the Zuiderzee in 1916. And the Dutch addressed both of those problems with enormous and expensive efforts. It was a 15-year effort to drain the Haarlemmermeer; it’s now the site of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. And the mouth of the Zuiderzee was closed off by the Afsluitdijk, turning a sea-mouth into a vast freshwater lake. Some of that lake, the IJsselmeer, was then drained to create the new province of Flevoland.
And the Dutch had other priorities in 1953, ones not directly related to flood protection. Seven years before, the country endured the Hunger Winter, which killed an estimated 18,000 people. War damage had slowed the effort to create new farmland in Flevoland, and lost some recent additions to Noord-Holland back to the IJsselmeer. Meanwhile, the groundwater in the southwest had become increasingly brackish, damaging crops. With the memory of the famine still fresh, preserving the country’s agriculture was a higher priority than fixing the sea-dikes.
Then, on the night of January 31, 1953, gale-force winds drove the sea against the Dutch coast. There was no ebb tide that night; the wind kept the water from retreating. The subsequent spring tide brought the water to 4.55 meters over normal levels. Water broke over the dikes and hollowed them out from the unreinforced land side, then burst through entirely. A second flood at high tide the next day did yet more damage. In all, 9% of Dutch farmland—150,000 hectares—was covered in seawater. 1,836 people and 200,000 animals drowned. Another 72,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Many of them lost everything they owned.
The disaster was nearly much worse. The last dike between the floods and 3,000,000 people in Noord- and Zuid-Holland was breached. Water began spilling into the low-lying farmland beyond. The mayor of the nearby town of Nieuwerkerk aan den IJsel commandeered a river ship, De Twee Gebroeders, and ordered the captain to use it to plug the hole. It worked.
Immediately after the flood, there was an enormous volunteer effort to repair the damaged dikes. And shortly afterward, the Dutch government instituted the Delta Works to completely re-engineer the mouths of the three great rivers of the area: the Rijn (Rhine), the Maas (Meuse) and the Schelde (Escaut). The goal was to create a shorter, more defensible coastline and move the fresh water/salt water division west. At the same time, work continued on the Ijsselmeer and Flevoland.
And then interest in water defenses ebbed, despite several small floods in the 1990’s. Had I moved here in 2004, I would not have been struck by this quiet, constant focus on the safety of the dikes and plans for the future. But in 2005, watching the Katrina disaster unfold in the US, the Dutch woke up again. They’ve revived the Delta Commission and started planning how to deal with the sea- and river-level changes that global warming is expected to bring.
All of this story is relevant to De Nieuwe Batavia.
First of all, I think the history of life in space will have much the same cycle of watchfulness and distraction, particularly about air. A long-running station, or a generation ship, will have a pattern of blowouts, each followed by a long period of watchful care. But then something else will happen—a persistent infestation of mold in hydroponics, one too many meteorites through the solar panel array, water-borne diseases from inadequate waste treatment—and the crew’s attention will shift. Fewer and fewer people will walk the hull perimeter with candles, take the time to pressure-test the locks, and do external structural reviews. Everything will be fine for a while. And then the next blowout will happen.
Ship designers will have to plan for blowouts, with multiple bulkheads to confine breaches, automatically closing doors (plenty of room for drama and tragedy there), and redundant safety systems. Whoever chooses the crew of a generation ship should allow for the loss of genetic variety and specialist knowledge that several serious disasters en route will produce. Space stations, still in contact with planetary populations, can take more people on board, but traveling ships may not be able to.
And techniques for air management will change from generation to generation. They’ll try lower-pressure spaces near the hull and higher-pressure ones in the core of the ship, and equalizing the pressure throughout it. Doctrines and dogmas will form about whether to have a periodic pressure-balancing exercise, or just let the differences build up and evolve. People will experiment, argue, form hypotheses, and draw conclusions, both in the command sectors and over dinner tables.
Another important part of ship culture is that these things will leave their mark on both the infrastructure and the people. Some disasters will be serious enough to leave permanent damage: sectors that leak chronically or are never reclaimed from the vacuum. If vessels are traveling or orbiting in company, chances are that over the centuries at least one will be completely gutted by a blowout. These disasters will be the basis ship traditions and family stories: how great-grandma, then fourteen, was the only survivor of the Great Split when her mother thrust her in the airlock and cycled it; she saw everyone die through the porthole. There will be customs, superstitions, special days, school trips to the site of the disaster.
There will also be heroic myths and folktales. Kids will tell ghost stories and sing little songs whose meanings will be slowly lost in time. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, conspiracy theories will spring up, particularly where one group suffered disproportionate losses. Too many mishaps at once and people will suspect sabotage. They may even lynch suspects.
Had just reached easement lock thirteen when I heard and felt a sound that scares a Loonie more than anything else—a chuff! in the distance followed by a draft. Was into lock almost without undogging, then balanced pressures and was through, dogged it behind me and ran into our home lock—through it and shouting:
“P-suit, everybody! Get boys in from tunnels and close all airtight doors!”
—The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein
Expect conditioned responses to blowouts or potential blowouts in crew members. Individuals on the ship will vary in sensitivity and anxiety, but everyone will be a little tense about drafts and breezes. If someone leaves a station for planetside life, in addition to galloping agoraphobia, they’ll find windy days stressful and exhausting.
The crew won’t notice any of this, of course. This is their normal. But visitors will note that the handles of airlocks are always shiny, because everyone who passes an open one gives the wheel a little spin, just to be sure the mechanism is moving freely. Or they’ll see how crew members always glance round a room when they enter, noting where the locks and bulkheads are. Or they’ll see one kid severely punished for fanning air at his sister, more so than if he’d hit her.
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Photo credits: Abi Sutherland