How to Destroy a Megalopolis

Many years ago (more than I care to admit), I went to spend a month at my mother’s house in Florida. She had a nice big back yard but didn’t tend to it very much, so nature had taken over. Part of that included a species common in Florida: fire ants.

They hadn’t just built a nest, they had a complex of nests. In fact they’d formed a “megalopolis,” a group of connected locations with vast numbers of inhabitants. I actually took some measurements and did some minor experiments to estimate the population. I’m no entomologist, and my estimate was rough, but I think it was at least in the ballpark. I came up with a figure of seven million ants.

My mother wanted to be rid of them. She suggested a chemical assault, but I don’t like that idea; I don’t think we know enough about the enviroment to understand the broader consequences of that. I came up with a different plan.

I took a pot of boiling hot water, and poured it on one of the nests. This sent the ants scrambling to repair the damage. They’re efficient, they’re industrious, and they know how to build and rebuild their structures. They got to work.

The next day, I did it again.

In fact I did it every day. One large pot of boiling hot water. The idea wasn’t to kill all the ants, or to eradicate their megalopolis in one crushing blow. The idea was simply to make it too costly, in terms of energy and time, for their complex of ant cities to be sustainable.

It worked.

After about two weeks, the ants were gone. Completely. I believe they just couldn’t stay there any more, it was just too difficult with such regular demands on repair. I don’t know whether the megalopolis died out, or they moved to a different location. But any way you look at it, I succeeded in destroying their megalopolis, because amid the continual assault of disasters, they simply weren’t able to keep up.

This is what can happen to us. Global warming isn’t going to come in one astounding assault and kill us all with one blow. It’s just going to make survival harder — a lot harder — with regular assaults like floods, droughts, heat waves, killer storms. Each time one happens, we’ll start the recovery process.

Perhaps the greates danger from global warming is that amid the continual assault of disasters, we simply won’t be able to keep up.

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38 responses to “How to Destroy a Megalopolis

  1. That theme is evident in Stephen Baxter’s sci-fi works (Flood, Ark), and a few times he’s pointed out how it wasn’t the scale of the disaster that was unfolding (although a world-wide flood is a disaster) but the repeated impacts that destroyed society well before the flood waters covered everything.

    Governments would scramble to help refugees displaced by rising sea levels, only to have to do it again shortly thereafter, and then again, and again, and again, till they couldn’t cope and society began fracturing. It read like a modern day parable.

    In a bit of a darkly amusing twist it is the IPCC that becomes the denialists because they don’t believe that the waters will top Mt Everest and reject the scanty data that shows subterranean waters are now emptying into the oceans and causing them to rise. I did find that part a bit unbelievable (within the context of the story) as there was nothing else that could raise the water levels that fast and it wouldn’t take much to persuade scientists something completely new was happening (they rejected models that showed the ocean rise was accelerating exponentially despite the models later being accurate).

  2. I imagine an exponential growth model would fit the colony’s experience up to the time you started your assault. Over-confident ant economists might well advise that, given continued exponential growth, the occasional disaster is a nuisance, not a real threat to their taking over the earth…(and after that, the entire universe).

  3. It isn’t just infrastructure. Food supply could be adversely affected in some areas too.

  4. I think we will be able to keep up, provided there is some SRM in conjunction with emissions reductions.

  5. That was an unexpected (but oddly interesting and relevant) anecdote. [Not that most people feel empathy for ants, but those were most likely invasive South American fire ants (Solenopsis invicta).]

    An obvious analogy is that you only rebuild a flood-damaged house so many times before giving up and moving. Another is that it only takes one event (accident, natural disaster, untreated disease, etc.) to kill you, and when that happens all your previous successes ring a little hollow.

    • I was across in New Jersey in 2014, just driving along the coast and seeing the abandoned plots and houses that are still derelict after Sandy shows this happening already. I suppose that it is similar in New Orleans after Katrina, areas of the city have been effectively abandoned because of the flood risks.

      • Well, we were in NOLA a couple of years ago, and have good friends who just moved there. It’s complicated; the lower 9th is still pretty much a wreck, AFAIK–certainly it was when we were there–and it’s not hard to find damage elsewhere. Yet people have been moving back, or like our friends, there for the first time, in considerable numbers. Combined with the reduced housing stock, that makes for a hot housing market. Whether the optimism is well-justified remains to be seen, but I’d have felt a bit more reassured about the area’s long-term future had the Corps of Engineers planned for SLR when they rebuilt the levees.

    • I’ve seen both the damage to the lower 9th in NO and the tsunami damage in Sri Lanka. Of the two, Sri Lanka seems to have bounced back more.

      Also, I know it’s silly. I know ants are a nuisance, and fire ants even more than that. However, I admire ants. The biomass of ants and that of humans is nearly the same. And they’ll be here long after we’re gone.

      • Ants and humans had the same biomass once, but it was a long time ago now (as the increasing human mass overtook the ants – they predate humans by a long time, so obviously started ahead). There are very large error bars on the ant mass estimate, but it’s clear that humans are now _much_ more.

      • Now the only animals with equal or greater total biomass are the livestock we’ve cultivated.

    • That was an unexpected (but oddly interesting and relevant) anecdote. [Not that most people feel empathy for ants, but those were most likely invasive South American fire ants (Solenopsis invicta).]

      Heh. Invicta is of course Latin for “undefeated.” That makes Tamino’s anecdote even more unexpected 8^).

  6. I write a Climate Letter five days a week, found at Your stuff is often mentioned. If you have any use for it help yourself.

  7. I assume the ants simply referred to this as ‘nuisance’ flooding, right up until the time it went from nuisance to collapse. On a different scale we get to watch the same effect on Miami itself.

  8. I used to live in Texas for a short time. The neighbors all did the same thing to the fire ants, and they’d just pack up their nest and move to the next yard over. So we’d trade colonies back and forth, the same 6-8-10 colonies moving every couple weeks to the next yard over.



    • It would have been nice to follow the ants and see how they integrated into a new area, were they accepted as ‘refugees’ ? or did they start afresh in a greenfield location ie the neighbor ? The allegory is good for say Miami itself but then where do they all pack up and move to when their current location becomes unlivable ? or a larger scale, 100 Million Brazilians decide to move en masse to Northern USA / Canada ?

      We obviously have no interest in stopping the emissions and therefore the resultant warming in any significant way, so it will be interesting (in a detached sort of way) to watch this unfold.

    • I was in New Orleans a year after Katrina. I had a detailed report on the damage and considered renting a vehicle and doing a post-mortem field trip through the still-ruined Lower Ninth Ward and other hard-hit areas but my sense of decency prevailed over my natural hazards curiosity.

      • We stayed in what was billed as “Bywater”, but was probably really better called the Upper Ninth Ward, not far from the industrial canal that’s the boundary of the Lower Ninth. The rental included bikes–NOLA has become quite bike-friendly, though it’s a work in progress–and one day we biked out to the Chalmette Battlefield on St. Claude Avenue. Lots of very obvious devastation. Google sat view shows a lot of empty lots, and street view some dramatic damage:,-90.01883,449m/data=!3m1!1e3

        Don’t know when they last updated, but likely more recent than our visit two years ago.

        Most surprising legacy, to me: feral chickens all through the neighborhood…

  9. Syria is an interesting example.

    Climate change made a drought worse, and the drought cost a few % of GDP at most. Unfortunately, that few % was enough to trigger internal migration, which was badly handled, leading to unrest and civil war.. And a few years later most of the country is in ruins. And still the effects cascade; a million refugees – 0.3% of the EU population – enter the EU, causing all sorts of political problems.

    Goodness knows what some big climate disasters would do.

  10. This is interesting. I have an old Aunt who lives in Georgia. One day 7 million ant refugees showed up in her backyard.

  11. Hot water to mess up a fire ant nest? When I lived in Atlanta, I used to flood them with water that had a small amount of dish detergent added. The soap reduces the surface tension on the ants’ bodies and they drowned. Here’s how the real pros do it:

    Kids, don’t try this at home, without “adult” supervision…

  12. Is rebuilding/relocating a positive feedback? More construction implying more CO2 from cement production and fossil fuels used in the construction industry and less money available for mitigation.

    • Probably. More deforestation, too, perhaps, at least in places like the Eastern US, where forest has been reclaiming former cropland over considerable areas.

    • A society wise enough to preemptively relocate would be wise enough to use less intensive construction methods.

  13. Hi Andrew
    Syria also hosted 1.4 million refugees from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

    [12] Colin P. Kelleya, Shahrzad Mohtadi, Mark A. Cane, Richard Seager, and Yochanan Kushnir, Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought, PNAS | March 17, 2015, vol. 112, no. 11,

  14. I love this. And the addition about small dish detergent too. Thanks!

    It is a mite troubling if you drove them to a neighbor who is likely unequipped with the commitment to avoid chemical solutions. Bet there is a relatively simple way to prevent a mass migration too!

  15. Today’s pot of boiling water was poured by the ants themselves, as the Australian CSIRO decides that it doesn’t need its climate scientists, oceanographers, hydrologists, and even some of its manufacturing engineers (probably the ones in renewables…):

    This is probably one of the most serious scupperings of cutting-edge scientific capacity ever seen in Australia, and I reckon that it might rate as one of the most gobsmackingly cyncial anti-science ploys in the modern Western world. And so far the public response has been muted apathy – at best.

    On ants, I have used a little mound of derris dust on their entrance holes to great effect. It’s relatively benign biologically, as long as one uses it with care.

    • Thanks Bernard J. I’ve stolen this a couple of times already.

      • Susan, the derris dust treatment also works a treat for European wasps. Decades ago their nests effectively died off here every winter, but with climate change they now remain viable all year and consequently the nests continue to grow – up to a cubic metre for some underground ones. If you can cover each of the entrance holes with derris dust each night, repeating every day over a few days or so, the nest will eventually expire, and with no fuss and practically zero risk of being stung.

      • Thanks, I’ll keep it in mind. My “homes” are Boston and Princeton, could have used the wasp solution a couple years back. It was the bit about Australia, which I see is covered in quite a few places. I do like natural solutions.

        My artist side loves the castings – quite gorgeous! Reminds me of that sculpture” Resurrection” at the Vatican if you ignore the Christ figure at the center:

        What fools we mortals be!

  16. Climate change means migrations. It always has. Think of the anxiety and problems associated with the current Syrian refugee problem. Now make that continuous. From many sources. We won’t even need to get to the 2C threshold.

  17. The actions of the ‘ants’ aren’t always adaptive, of course, and that can be true in multiple dimensions:

  18. FWIW, 20 years ago, professionals I knew used high-pressure steam to cook fire ant nests on federal land in Louisiana. Not sure what’s the current state of the art.

    (Guess I’m not sticking to the allegory here. Maybe a reference to a runaway greenhouse?)