The Aztecs did not count time on an infinite scale, as we do, but in cyclical 52-year periods, and at the completion of each cycle, life and the world would begin anew. To initiate the start of a new cycle the New Fire ceremony was held, the most important Aztec ritual. Every 52 years the inhabitants of Tenochtitlán discarded the images of their gods and all their domestic utensils and extinguished any fires in their homes and temples. As the city sat in complete darkness, priests would leave the Templo Mayor and travel to Huixachtlan (Cerro de la Estrella, or Hill of the Star), and at the summit they would perform a ceremony to light a new fire. The ritual was surrounded with uncertainty and fear because it was believed that if the new fire was not successfully lit, the world would end and the stars would turn into monsters that would devour humanity. During the five days prior to the ceremony, the people let their fires go out and destroyed their household goods, and then they waited, fasting and lamenting, pondering the possibility of the collapse of the world. That moment was beautifully re-created in 3D by Kole.
“The really hard part was gathering all the information and then trying things out,” explains Thomas Kole. “How do you create a city when you don’t really know anything about it? How do you start gathering that information? That was really difficult and involved throwing out a lot of things when I found different sources with conflicting information. That’s part of being a pioneer, venturing into the unknown, into what no one has done before, but that’s also very difficult because it takes a lot of time. Also, I don’t speak Spanish and I’m not an academic, so I really approached this as an outsider,” Kole says.
“The year is 1518. Mexico-Tenochtitlán, once an unassuming settlement in the middle of Lake Texcoco, is now a bustling metropolis. It is the capital of an empire ruling over, and receiving tribute from, more than five million people. Tenochtitlán is home to 200,000 farmers, artisans, merchants, soldiers, priests, and aristocrats. At this time, it is one of the largest cities in the world. Today, we call this city Ciudad de Mexico—Mexico City,” reads the site, which opens with a stylized Tenochtitlán glyph, made by Mi Corazón Mexica.
Because Burning Man chooses to situate its event in the Nevada desert, resources, including food and generators, need to be trucked to the site—a challenge given heavy rain has made roads impassable. It’s this, in part, that explains why Chris Rock decided to abandon the event: In an Instagram Story, he posted that he understood portable toilets couldn’t be emptied, supplies delivered, and extra generators sent because of flooding.
But others haven’t given up. For Anya Kamenetz, who attended her first Burning Man in 2003, the rainfall hasn’t fazed her—or her fellow campmates. “We’re really prepared,” she says, though she admits that the weather’s impact means “you can’t get around the city at all.” Vehicles are banned from traveling around for fear of making the ground worse or getting stuck and blocking routes earmarked as exit routes for when it’s safe to leave. Those who choose to walk around the site can still party as always, but some have decided against doing so. Kamenetz and her campmates are continuing as normal, with some significant alterations. “We don’t know when we’re going to get drinking water—or if—or portapotty services, or fuel, or gray water services,” she says. As a result, they’re conserving as much water as possible. They’re not urinating in the portapotties, but on the ground. “We’re not rationing food, but we’re just trying to make [sure] everyone is as thoughtful as possible,” she says. Showers are out—as is dishwashing.
The rainfall began on the afternoon of September 1 around 1.30 pm, and didn’t stop for around nine hours, Kamenetz says. “At first you’re like, ‘Well, it’ll clear up and we’ll go out more later.’ But then we were making dinner and [it] was like: ‘Wow, this is going to be impossible.’” By nightfall on September 2, with the ground turning from desert to quagmire, Kamenetz had resigned herself to being stuck on site. For how long that will be, she’s less sure. “Every time it rains more it sets the clock back a little bit,” she says. However, when there are breaks in the rain, the timescale gets expedited. On September 2, people were uncertain they’d get to leave before September 7; now they’re hopeful to be free sooner.
Kamenetz has been surprised by how well the 70,000-strong community has taken the weather’s impact on their party. “Burning Man people really pride themselves on first of all being prepared to confront the elements, and secondly, being co-operative and being in a good spirit,” she says. She has seen a few confrontations between those who are demanding to leave, getting into their cars and making a break for it, and other “Burners” (as attendees are called), who are stopping them, but mostly Kamenetz has seen people accepting their fate.
An annual getaway for hedonists and a particular subsection of the ultra-rich Silicon Valley tech community has always been a bit of an odd sell: Pitch up a vast, temporary city of 70,000 people every year, with attendees jetting in from all four corners of the globe to party. Some attendees of the event have repeatedly highlighted concerns about the impact the festival has on the planet. The event reports its carbon footprint to be 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide, more than 90 percent of which is accounted for by travel to and from the site. By comparison, Glastonbury’s carbon footprint is net negative, according to one analysis. Burning Man looks likely to miss its 2030 target of being carbon negative.
Not long after the deadliest wildfire in modern American history swept through Lahaina, Maui, on August 8, speculation began swirling about a notorious igniter of out-of-control blazes: electrical equipment.
Although investigators have yet to officially determine the cause of the wildfire, witnesses reported power poles snapping in the 60-mile-an-hour winds that were pouring down the nearby mountains, showering dried vegetation in sparks. And last week, the County of Maui hit Hawaiian Electric with a lawsuit, accusing the utility of neglecting its duty to power down its infrastructure, given the known risk of such high winds sparking wildfires.
On Sunday, the utility responded with a press release, saying that at 6:30 am, a morning fire “appears to have been caused by power lines that fell in high winds.” Firefighters extinguished that blaze, the press release continues, but another fire popped up in the same area at about 3 pm, when the utility says its lines had been de-energized for more than six hours. That fire then spread into Lahaina.
“Hawaiian Electric has now admitted to starting the Lahaina Fire on August 8th,” said John Fiske, the counsel representing the County of Maui, in a statement provided to WIRED. “In its recent release, issued Sunday night before the markets opened, Hawaiian Electric appears to have suggested there could be a possible second ignition source in the afternoon of August 8th without providing any supporting information.”
Investigators have yet to determine if there were two separate ignitions, or if the afternoon fire was a flare-up of the one earlier in the morning. Hawaiian Electric declined to answer questions for this story, referring WIRED to its press release.
If investigators ultimately conclude that the fire’s cause was electrical equipment, the Maui fire will join other recent city-razing blazes in the American West that were started—and then powered—by fierce winds rattling the power infrastructure. But even if utilities are able to prevent their equipment from sparking blazes—like by “undergrounding” lines, meaning enclosing them in piping and burying them in trenches—there are lots of other ways to start an epic conflagration on a warming planet.
Wind is essential to whipping up the biggest, fastest, deadliest wildfires. And electricity can be a dangerous add-on: If gusts down trees into power lines, or utility poles snap or fall over, all that jostling can send sparks into the vegetation below. Winds fan the growing flames, driving the blaze across the landscape with such speed that people in the way don’t have time to evacuate. (Strong winds also loft embers into the air, and can carry them perhaps 2 miles ahead of the main fire, creating new fires and making it harder for firefighters to manage.) Towns like Lahaina in the “wildland-urban interface,” where unkempt vegetation butts up against structures or intermingles with them, are especially vulnerable to such fast-moving fires.
America’s aging grid wasn’t designed for today’s climate, with its warmer atmosphere, intense, longer-lasting droughts, and increasingly dry landscapes. So electrical-sparked, wind-driven fires are growing more destructive and deadly. In 2017 the Tubbs Fire destroyed over 5,600 structures and killed 22, and in 2018 the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85. In 2019, the California utility Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, reached a $13.5 billion settlement for wildfires linked to its equipment, including both of these fires. Both have now been eclipsed by the Lahaina fire in terms of the human cost: At least 115 people have been confirmed dead, with hundreds still missing.
That has created a problem. Around 2010, soon after meeting this big, new predator that could outcompete and eat them, South Florida’s mammal populations collapsed. Large and medium-size mammals have been scarce for almost a decade, leaving mostly smaller mammals, like rodents.
Some ecologists thought the pythons would become victims of their own success. “They were supposedly out of food,” says Paul Taillie, a wildlife ecologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But Taillie’s research has shown that pythons just switched to eating the smaller mammals instead, causing those populations to drop too. In 2021, Taillie reported disappointing proof that mammals were not bouncing back. “There’s exceedingly little sign of any mammal activity” in South Florida, he says.
The only resistant species has turned out to be black rats—but they’re also invasive. Black rats arrived in the Americas from Europe centuries ago onboard the ships of explorers and colonizers. They’re resistant because they reproduce a lot and don’t compete with the pythons or large mammals for food: They can scavenge carcasses and eat plants, insects, and scraps from humans. This is the reason they thrive all over the world.
So can anything curb the python’s takeover? First, there are teams like Kirkland’s, which employ contractors to track and capture the snakes year-round. Every capture and kill follows ethics guidelines and federal laws about transporting illegal pets. “They need to be respected as the beautiful living creatures that they are,” Kirkland says. “They’re here through no fault of their own.”
And for six of the past 10 years, Florida has tried to educate the public about invasive species and the folly of keeping pythons as pets, thanks to the Florida Python Challenge, a 10-day event for amateur python hunters, in partnership with the state’s wildlife agency. Participants catch the snakes, which they euthanize. This year, at least 840 participants registered for a shot at $17,500 in prizes. The tally for this year’s hunt hasn’t been released yet, but each of the last two hunts yielded over 200 captures. “It really does a lot to educate the public,” Kirkland says, “to teach about the importance of why you shouldn’t allow an invasive exotic pet to get out.”
But scientists also want to know if the nonhuman denizens of the Everglades are pushing back against the python—specifically, to see if pythons have their own “prey naivete.” Could other species be preying on young pythons?
To answer this question, in 2020 and 2021 a team of USGS researchers implanted 2- to 3-foot-long pythons with radio transmitters and released them back into Big Cypress National Preserve. The transmitters tracked movements down to a 3-meter radius, and each transmitter had a “mortality sensor” that was triggered if the animal hadn’t moved in 24 hours.
Nineteen young pythons died during the study period. Team members waded into the swamp to find out exactly where and how. They snooped for every sign imaginable: paw prints, fur, bite marks, scrapes, and scat. Dead snakes and transmitters turned up in soil, in trees, and underwater. The team brought any carcasses they could find back to the lab for necroscopies. Twelve of the 19 cases had enough evidence to point to a killer, according to results published earlier this year in a study titled “Natives bite back.”
So much on this planet depends on a simple matter of density. In the Atlantic Ocean, a conveyor belt of warm water heads north from the tropics, reaching the Arctic and chilling. That makes it denser, so it sinks and heads back south, finishing the loop. This system of currents, known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, moves 15 million cubic meters of water per second.
In recent years, researchers have suggested that because of climate change, the AMOC current system could be slowing down and may eventually collapse. A paper published yesterday in the journal Nature Communications warns that the collapse of the AMOC isn’t just possible, but imminent. By this team’s calculations, the circulation could shut down as early as 2025, and no later than 2095.
That’s a tipping point that would come much sooner than anyone thought. “We got scared by our own results,” says Susanne Ditlevsen, a statistician at the University of Copenhagen and coauthor of the new paper. “We checked and checked and checked and checked, and I do believe that they’re right. Of course, we might be wrong, and I hope we are.” But there’s vigorous debate in the scientific community over just how quickly the AMOC might decline, and how best to even figure that out.
It’s abundantly clear to researchers that the Arctic is warming up to four and a half times faster than the rest of the planet. Arctic ice is melting at a pace of about 150 billion metric tons per year, says Marlos Goes, an oceanographer from the University of Miami and NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory who was not involved with the new paper. Greenland’s ice sheet is also rapidly declining, injecting more freshwater into the sea. That deluge of freshwater is less dense than saltwater, meaning less water sinks and less power goes into the AMOC conveyor belt.
The consequences would be brutal and global. Without these warm waters, weather in Europe would get significantly colder—more like that of similar latitudes in Canada and the northern United States. “In model simulations, the collapse of the AMOC cools the North Atlantic and warms the South Atlantic, which may result in drastic precipitation changes throughout the world,” Goes says. “There would be changes in storm patterns over the continental areas, affecting the monsoon systems. Therefore, a future AMOC shutdown could bring massive migration, impacting ecological and agricultural production, and fish population displacement.”
Ditlevsen did her team’s calculation by using measurements of Atlantic sea surface temperatures as a proxy for the AMOC. These readings go all the way back to the 1870s, thanks to measurements taken by ship crews. This meant researchers could compare temperatures before and after the start of the wide-scale burning of fossil fuels and the ensuing changes to the climate.
Because the AMOC system involves warm water heading north from the tropics, if the circulation is slowing down, you’d expect to find cooler temperatures in the North Atlantic over time. And indeed, that’s what Ditlevsen’s group found, once they compensated for the overall warming of the world’s oceans due to climate change. “When it is established that the sea surface temperature record is the fingerprint of the AMOC, we can calculate the early warning signals of the forthcoming collapse and extrapolate to the tipping point,” says University of Copenhagen climate scientist Peter Ditlevsen, coauthor of the new paper. (The Ditlevsens are siblings.)