A Little of the Story Behind the Story

Crevasses at Neko Harbour, Antarctica. Photo: Dan Linehan.

My defining moment with climate change came from a NASA report in 2002 about the breakup of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

At 1,255 square miles, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island and several times larger than the Monterey Bay, Larsen B had disintegrated with shocking speed. In 35 days it was gone.

In early 2006—before Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out—I decided I was finally ready to do some serious writing about climate change. Antarctica was warming five times faster than the rest of the world. Its temperature had increased by 4.5°F over the last 50 years.

Antarctica was one of the major battle lines, so I arranged a 36-day expedition to Antarctica, Subantarctic islands, and Patagonia that began late December 2006.

Due to my extraordinary experiences on the expedition (ok, some really, really crazy stuff happened), I extended my entire trip to over 60 days.

I found that to tackle such a critical issue as climate change, it was important to spread the message using multiple mediums. In addition to documentaries and presentations, things like music, art, film, and literature can make strong connections with people.

Some approaches can better reach people who would ordinarily tune out something about climate change. This is when my writing about what I faced in and around Antarctica transitioned from nonfiction into a novel.

Claving of Risting Glacier, South Georgia Island. Photo: Dan Linehan.

However, the summer of 2006 was when I got my book deal for SpaceShipOne, and then the sequel followed. They were fantastic opportunities, so I wanted to do a great job on them in order to help the publication of The Princess of the Bottom of the World. And time goes by so, so much faster than we want it to.

In August 2012, I trained in San Francisco with Al Gore and his Climate Reality Leadership Corps. On September 27, 2012, I published a five-page cover story in the Monterey County Weekly about severe weather caused by climate change, which appeared less than a month before Superstorm Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard. I grew up in New York. The CBS studio where my brother worked was destroyed, etc.

After rewatching Midnight in Paris, it really struck me that the work of the writers and artists in the film was about Paris and they were in Paris. So, I decided to return to Argentina to work on my novel.

In early January 2013, I was accepted into Residencia Corazón, an artist residency program in La Plata, Argentina, for work on The Princess of the Bottom of the World. I was the first writer ever accepted.

My trip was supposed to last 90 days. But I ended up returning to the US after 1-1/2 years.

The Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentine Patagonia. Photo: Dan Linehan.

On April 2, 2013, only two weeks into my residency, the most deadly and destructive tormenta (storm) in the history of La Plata hit. In a 6-hour period, over 12 inches of rain fell. Over 15 inches fell during the entire day.

I watched as the city streets and intersections in front of me turned into rivers and lakes. The cars that risked navigating splashed through like boats. During this time as I walked through the city, I crossed washed-over roads filled with rapids and felt wetter than if having fallen overboard from a ship at sea.

When compared to the amount of precipitation La Plata gets annually, the storm’s resulting deluge was even more startling. The city normally receives 43.0 inches of precipitation during a year. A year is 8,766 hours long. During this storm, 15.4 inches fell in 24 hours. In such a relatively short period of time, it was an enormous 35.9% of the city’s annual rainfall.

This storm occurred in one of the typically drier months and amounted to an astounding 465% of the average rainfall for the month of April.

La Plata, the capitol of Buenos Aires province, is a modern planned city, which means that it didn’t grow out from a village sprawling into a town and beyond. It was carefully designed to be a city from the start. But even so, flood water rose to above 6 feet in places.

When the flood water finally receded, streets had cars stacked on top of each other. Many, many people had lost their lives. The death tolls were underreported. I had a friend there who was a premed student. He told me that the morgues in the city were overflowing. To this day, it is uncertain just how many died.

The TV reads, “La Plata: At least 46 confirmed dead. An unprecedented tragedy.” Photo: Dan Linehan.

One thing that made the flooding much worse was that a nearby oil refinery closed floodgates to protect itself from flooding. Since the oil refinery was downstream of the city, this restricted the flood water flowing out of the city by normal waterways. The oil refinery had sought to save itself at the expense of the city—a bloodcurdling metaphor for what’s happening on a global scale.

So when the storm hit La Plata, I felt like I had just gone through something like this already with Superstorm Sandy.

After all the emergencies were addressed, the people of La Plata sought answers. I was invited to talk about climate change along with a professor from the National University of La Plata and a local environmentalist. They covered more of the local aspects, whereas I covered more of the big picture stuff.

Right after my talk I was invited to give another lecture about climate change, but this time directly to the university. What was supposed to be only a 45-minute presentation turned into a talk that lasted over 2 hours.

One of the local language institutes also arranged for me to give a four-part course on climate change.

And things continued to happen. Many stories came, such as writing for the Smithsonian Institution, for educational companies, and even for Relix music magazine about the first time Argentina hosted the music festival Lollapalooza. But during all this time, I continued doing outreach and writing my novel.

By the time I left Argentina in 2014, after 18 months instead of 3 months, I finished the first complete draft of The Princess of the Bottom of the World. The novel now includes my experiences with the deadly storm in La Plata. It closes with this punch!