What would people want to salvage from ruins of the global warming?
March 7, 2015 8:49 AM   Subscribe

This is a question for a story: So let's say that rising waters make a metropolitan area uninhabitable to the extent that there are abandoned buildings. I'm making a living finding things in this ruin of civilization and selling them. But would there be much to salvage in an area that has been inundated with water to the extent that it is uninhabitable? Would it be copper wire? Or is there more than that?

THANK YOU from angrycat and future inhabitants of the global warming apocalypse.
posted by angrycat to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: How high are the flood waters? If only the ground floor is submerged, upper floors of homes would have medicine, jewelry, etc.
posted by bac at 8:58 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Plumbing pipe, I think. Much more metal involved. You could probably spend weeks per high-rise building scavenging pipes. Also plumbing fixtures like faucets and metal sinks.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:59 AM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: I have to disagree with bac. Water rise wouldn't be very rapid, and previous occupants would have plenty of time to pack and move. They aren't going to leave behind anything valuable and portable.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:00 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hmmmmmm.

I think the first question is, how much water, and where is this city?

Global warming that hits FL may involve water covering most or all of a city full-time; FL is very flat and has a relatively low tidal range. Global warming hitting a city like Boston will be much more variable in how much of the buildings are covered, and also in how often they are covered -- Boston has a much wider tidal range, and it's also a fairly topographically varied city.

How much water covers the city (and how often it covers it -- are buildings fully submerged at low tide, or are they within the tidal variance, or are only some areas of the city flooded?) will greatly affect how the physical objects within the area survive the water.

If only some of the buildings in the city are fully inundated, some of the buildings on higher ground may still hold art and artifacts and books and digital media storage devices that could be usable.

If the buildings are periodically partially inundated, but are still standing and aren't subject to ocean waves, more durable valuables like jewelry, silverware, vintage items, etc. and ordinary household goods might survive in good enough shape to be worth salvaging. (Part of that will also depend on what's left on higher ground -- do they have decent energy sources and plastics and so on? If so, something like a dish drainer won't be worth much. But if the outside world has lost the technology to make a dish drainer, maybe it would be worth something.)

If the buildings are fully underwater, there will be a lot of damage to any remaining materials -- think about how quickly things get damaged during a major coastal storm and multiply that by many years. I think metals might be one of the only things to still be worth salvaging, but they will be hard to find. Given the wave and tidal exposure involved in a city being swallowed by an ocean, it's not like the houses will just be standing underwater -- they're not designed to take that pressure. Masonry/stone buildings might be partially standing, but I suspect not all of those even.

As noted above, having valuables left for salvage assumes that people don't take them with them. I think you could make a case for this, though. Seawall breaches happen FAST and it's not always safe to go back in once they happen -- hell, I have heard that one of the neighborhoods in a town not far from Boston is standing vacant right now because of a utility failure that can't be fixed until spring. I could see something like a dike or a seawall failing catastrophically, and not everyone making it back to save their stuff in time. However, the houses this applies to will mostly be the ones taking the brunt of any storms and associated storm surge flooding already.
posted by pie ninja at 9:08 AM on March 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Rooftop radio and telecommunication equipment. Radar and other electronics from airport towers.
posted by bac at 9:10 AM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: At the clear risk of stating the obvious, this was addressed to a minor extent in the classic film Waterworld. The protagonist mostly took trinkets and was able to impress people by showing them dirt.
posted by ftm at 9:15 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Things become valuable because they are rare. You need to think hard about what people would leave behind because they expect it to be abundant, and so it therefore becomes rare. If I have to leave in a hurry, I grab my family and pets, then medicine, then camping supplies. Tent, stove, gas, basic food stuffs. I leave behind the stuff that I think will be available everywhere else or that only gets used once in a while so I forget I need it. Tea. Salt. That special brand of hot sauce. Things that everybody will use up pretty quickly. Things that would comfort me in times of stress. Light bulbs. What are things that people in cities are more likely to have? Those old lady pull carts. Umbrellas. LPs. Cockroach traps. Art supplies. Famous works of art.
posted by one_bean at 9:19 AM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: How about following the thread of materials that are transformed by nature of being submerged in seawater, and in turn become valuable as a result?

I read that human bones when submerged undergo a chemical substitution of hydroxylapatite which itself has industrial uses.

Maybe there would be some chemical or structure that tends to attract large amounts of marine creatures that themselves have a high value.

The same could be considered for high humidity conditions in sealed concrete structures above the water line, where some molds or other organic processes would take place that could produce a harvestable commodity.
posted by CaptainZingo at 9:25 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Books. One could become a sort of broker of a certain version of history by the books they saved, allowed to be saved, withheld or publicized.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 9:27 AM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: Maybe luxuries like paper, pencils, toys for children, LEGOS. Books? Since they were so likely damaged and now, years later, people realize how important they are. You could salvage many things but have a specialty like toys or books.
posted by beccaj at 9:31 AM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: Also the things that you say are rare will be more about the world you are building than the things themselves. If it's a year after the flood, every supermarket in the Midwest will have salt. If it's a hundred years, the supermarkets will be picked over. If people have found a way to generate electricity, a nice old record player and records could be the best, warmest thing anyone has listened to. If people are just struggling to survive, maybe copies of those Worst Case Scenarios books will be valuable (and tend to be more abundant on city book shelves).
posted by one_bean at 9:31 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Honestly, my first thought is that the answers could very well depend on the context of your fictional universe; for example:

1) How long has the stuff been underwater? 5 years will have much less effect than 50; (like, say, some electronic tech stuff could be worth salvaging for parts if it's been underwater a relatively short time.)

2) Salt water or fresh water? Are we talking Cleveland under Lake Erie or Miami under the Atlantic? The different chemical compositions of the water could have a strong effect on what survives (and for how long) and what doesn't.

3) How bad is the situation overall? (Which kinda might tie in to the question of how long has the city been underwater.) Are you talking about a scenario where the coastlines have moved inwards by a couple hundred miles but society is largely unchanged, or are you talking about a more cataclysmic event? Because, for example, if it's a "milder" situation, I could see people pulling things like pipes and wire to use as pipes and wire (because they would be regionally valuable while new manufacturing plants get up and running) but leaving more high-tech stuff, because boats are still arriving from China on a regular basis. OTOH, if you're in a more drastic situation, the local (isolated) society would be interested in things that could be broken down into raw materials, plus maybe trinkets and souvenirs because people will still like bright and shiny things and things that are rare just because they're rare.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:32 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oops. I should have hit post faster! Or what Emperor SnooKloze said....
posted by beccaj at 9:33 AM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: If you're talking about this from an eco-catastrophe kind of story perspective, all I can suggest is a lead rather than facts because I know almost nothing about the science that goes with it, but if your world is also post-peak-oil then the now-valuable thing people might well have left behind as not worth salvaging might be large quantities of plastic.
posted by Sequence at 9:35 AM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Maybe think about what items' production would be disrupted. Wine grapes? Corn scarcity or use for ethanol (canned corn, whiskey)? What about things made partially of oil? Are people burning old tires to stay warm? How is wood production -- submerged logs or timbers?
posted by salvia at 9:40 AM on March 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: IRL, my understanding is that we are currently salvaging old growth trees from the bottoms of rivers that have been there for decades. You can't get that width of wood anymore and it is well preserved in the bottom of cold rivers. It is very valuable for, as I understand it, things like authentic restoration of historic homes where modern woods just don't match the kind of flooring and what not typically went into home construction of a certain era. It is also valued by people who don't want wood that has been treated with modern chemicals.

The pyramids of Egypt were mostly stripped of their top layer of construction material by people looking for construction material of that sort.

Currently, archaeologists do a reasonable amount of retrieving things from sunken ships and what not to learn about history. My understanding is that during the Dark Ages in Europe, people who had access (through books) to "lost" knowledge had significant advantages (and this may be where we get images of wizards and their books and researches -- this was, in some sense, real at one time). So archeological artifacts for people studying history and/or items that people no longer know how to make and are trying to reverse engineer by studying what's left of the old world.

Some of the more valuable things for archaeological purposes might be preserved photos, diaries and other records -- which might mean hard drives from tablets and the like, where the data is preserved.

Did anyone particularly rich/famous/accomplished live in this specific city? If so, anything from that individual's estate might be particularly valuable, either because of their fame or because it provides clues to their work that people are wanting to recreate and/or extend.

Was their a university? Did the flooding happen quickly enough for it to not be possible to completely evacuate all records? If so, the library there on campus may be a treasure trove of not just books but other artifacts. (IRL, the Geisel Library at UCSD holds the Dr. Seuss Collection as well as some kind of federal records, I forget exactly what. It is open to the public in spite of being a college library because of the federal records it contains.)

Was there some kind of special or relatively unique scientific installation? Think NASA or The Marine Science Institute at Port Aransas or the Large Hadron Collider. If there isn't anything else like it, studying the remains of it may be critical to trying to recreate something similar and raise society back up out of the dark ages, especially if there was a lot of loss of life and therefore knowledge was lost not just due to physical things being lost but due people dying who had the requisite knowledge.
posted by Michele in California at 10:14 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have to disagree with bac. Water rise wouldn't be very rapid, and previous occupants would have plenty of time to pack and move. They aren't going to leave behind anything valuable and portable.

I think that depends. I picture sea level rise having the largest impact during storm inundation or dams breaking like with Katrina. In which case, folks wouldn't have that much time, and might be more likely to leave behind some pricey belongings. Check out the National Climate Assessment for some inspiration.
posted by Toddles at 11:19 AM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If I recall correctly, there are some chapters in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (I'm not sure which book, but probably the second or perhaps the third) that deal with this topic, i.e., scavenging from cities flooded due to rising sea levels.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:03 PM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: How about you look for items that would have sentimental significance to the former owners - photo albums, art, jewelry. You could then create an online database and sell them online (if there is still an "online") to the former occupants who presumably now live further inland. If there is no "online", you could drag your post-apocalyptic cart through the vast refugee camps and loudly advertise the neighborhoods that you looted that day to find the former owners.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 12:45 PM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Porn?
posted by univac at 1:00 PM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: Yeah, I hit up a room full of climate scientists (all complete strangers to me) with the question "Did Kim Stanley Robinson do his research? Is the depiction of the rate of inundation of coastal cities after the Antarctic ice sheet thing in the Mars trilogy accurate?" The immediate answer, as in not even a pause to think about it, was about eight voices chorusing "Yes."

I think maybe they'd heard that question before.

Edit: Said rate of inundation was approx 12 meters in a space of some weeks, I think.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 1:19 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is such an interesting question. One thought- here in the DC metro area, there is a high concentration of apartment buildings that feature an in-unit washer and dryer combo unit.

In Arlington/Alexandria alone, there are: 1) A good number of these high-rise units that would not be severely damaged by water; and 2) Whether the sea level rise happened slowly or quickly, the washer/dryer unit is too bulky and impractical to carry (or bolted to the unit floor), compared to more important items like medicine and weapons.

Here is a link showing a number of ways to repurpose a washing machine, including- making a fire pit, using it as a planter, and building an off-grid, energy-generating machine. All very valuable in chaotic, post-apocalyptic world.
posted by invisible ink at 4:51 PM on March 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Of course, how your character will retrieve the washer/dryer is another logistical matter in itself. That's where your creative genius will have to come into play:)
posted by invisible ink at 4:58 PM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: And keep in mind that even though only a portion of the building is under water, the upper floors will be much mor susceptible to mold. So if the first floor is submerged, everything on the second will be totally ruined by moisture, with the damage lessening the higher you go. But not lessening much, the mold will grow upwards.
posted by raisingsand at 5:23 PM on March 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is the above-mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson short story on this very topic...it centers on tourists trying to remove artworks (murals) from a submerged Venice.
posted by daisystomper at 9:18 PM on March 7, 2015

Best answer: That depends on what is valuable to the future society. Copper wire is only useful if you're building electric circuits. The future society might have no use for such things. Otherwise, building materials like concrete might become very valuable for constructing bridges, monuments, and other large structures.
posted by deathpanels at 9:21 PM on March 7, 2015

Response by poster: oh man this is such food for thought. thanks so much, everybody
posted by angrycat at 4:20 AM on March 8, 2015

Best answer: I would expect it depends on different post-apocalyptic stages, but items of higher importance for self-survival would be fuel/petrol, batteries or energy sources to run vehicles, tools possibly weapons and of course food. "Things We Didn't See Coming" by Steven Amsterdamn was a pretty good read in regards to this theme.
posted by Under the Sea at 4:35 AM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, I'll second porn, if you're talking about a post-apocalyptic scenario. (Though in that case, it'd be easier to salvage non-flooded zones for almost anything of value.) This comment from a legendary old thread still amuses me and is very wise!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:49 AM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Depending on the weather severity, rapidity of water rise, and subsequent post-apocalypticness of your scenario, how about boats?
posted by deludingmyself at 10:21 AM on March 8, 2015

Best answer: And boat-related things, for that matter. Any major coastline with harbors is going to have a ton of leisure boats, both powered and unpowered, plus things like life jackets, fishing gear, sails, rope, waterproof jackets, oars, nets, etc. You'd find some of that in a general sporting goods store, but you'd find a lot more at a specialty store near a dock or a shed on a dock. Or washing around or up on the new shoreline, after a fast flood event.

I would think small sailboats with outboard motors might be extremely useful for salvage operations, because they'd give you a lot more access to the shoreline and to areas now covered by water, and they'd be prone to scarcity because both rising sea levels or an extreme weather event would mess them up something serious.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:29 AM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another fictional book that deals with a similar situation is Sand by Hugh Howey. Obviously it deals with rising sand not water but the book focuses on sand divers who scavenge from skyscrapers and so on.
posted by poxandplague at 12:30 AM on March 9, 2015

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