How should we pre­pare for the end of ice?

As global tem­per­a­tures rise, shriv­el­ling glaciers and thaw­ing per­mafrost threaten yet more cli­mate dis­rup­tion. How should we con­front what is hap­pen­ing to our world?

The Guardian - Journal - - Front Page - By Dahr Ja­mail

A child born to­day will see a Mount Ever­est largely free of glaciers within their life­time

The fall lasts long enough that I have time to watch the blue ice race up­ward, aeons of time com­pressed into glacial ice, flash­ing by in frac­tions of sec­onds. I as­sume I’ve fallen far enough that I’ve pulled my climb­ing part­ner, Sean, into the crevasse with me. This is what it’s like to die in the moun­tains, a voice in my head tells me.

Just as my mind com­pletes that thought, the rope wrenches my climb­ing har­ness up. I bounce lan­guidly up and down as the dy­namic physics in­her­ent in the rope play them­selves out. Some­how Sean has checked my fall while still on the sur­face of the glacier.

I brush the snow and chunks of ice from my hair, arms and chest and pull down the sleeves of my shirt. Find­ing my glacier glasses hang­ing from the pocket of my climb­ing bib, I tuck them away. I check my­self for in­juries and, in­cred­i­bly, find none. As­sess­ing my sit­u­a­tion, I find there’s no ice shelf nearby to ease the ten­sion from the rope, so Sean will not be able to be­gin set­ting up a pul­ley sys­tem to ex­tract me.

I look down. Noth­ing but black­ness. I look at the wall of blue ice di­rectly in front of me, take a deep breath and peer up at the tiny hole I made when I fell through the snow bridge span­ning the crevasse – the same bridge Sean had crossed with­out in­ci­dent as we made our way up Alaska’s Matanuska Glacier to­wards Mount Mar­cus Baker in the Chugach Range.

“You get to look down one more time, then that’s it,” I tell my­self out loud.

Again, there’s only the black void yawn­ing be­neath me, swal­low­ing ev­ery­thing, even sound. My stom­ach clenches. I re­mind my­self to breathe.

“Sean, are you OK?” I yell as I clamp my me­chan­i­cal as­cen­ders to the rope in prepa­ra­tion to climb up.

“Yeah, I’m all right, but I’m right on the edge,” he calls back. “I can’t set up an an­chor, so we’re just go­ing to have to wait for the other guys to catch up.”

Time passes. The on­set of hy­pother­mia means I can’t con­trol my body from pe­ri­od­i­cally shak­ing. To ig­nore my fear of dy­ing, I gaze med­i­ta­tively at the ice a few feet in front of me as I dan­gle.

The minia­ture air pock­ets found in the whiter ice near the top of the glacier have long since been com­pressed, pro­duc­ing the mes­meris­ing beauty of cen­turies-old turquoise ice. Slightly deeper into the crevasse is ice that has been there since long be­fore the Ne­an­derthals.

I hang sus­pended in si­lence, mind­ful not to move for fear of dis­lodg­ing Sean. Giv­ing my full at­ten­tion to the ice im­me­di­ately within my vi­sion, I fo­cus on how the gently re­fract­ing light from above seems to pen­e­trate and re­flect off the per­fectly smooth wall. Star­ing into it, the blue seems in­fi­nite. De­spite the dan­ger of my sit­u­a­tion, the glacier’s beauty calms me.

Even­tu­ally our two other teammates ar­rive and work to ex­tract Sean from his perch just six inches from the edge of the crevasse. The three of them set up a three-way pul­ley sys­tem. La­bo­ri­ously, my teammates be­gin to haul me up, inches at a time, out of what nearly be­came my tomb. I con­tinue to fo­cus on the del­i­cately shift­ing shades of blue in the ice as I draw closer to the sur­face.

My teammates pull me up to the lip of the crevasse. I re­peat­edly plunge the pick of my ice axe into the snow and haul my­self out, never be­fore as grate­ful for be­ing on top of a glacier. I stand and gaze up at a moun­tain to the west, be­hind which the sun has just set. Snow plumes stream off one of its ridges, turned into red rib­bons by the set­ting sun. Snowflakes flicker as they float into space.

As re­lief floods my shiv­er­ing body, I roar in grat­i­tude. Ut­terly over­whelmed by be­ing alive and sur­rounded by the beauty of the moun­tain world, I hug each of my three climb­ing part­ners. Now that I am safe, it sinks in just how close to death I’ve been.

That was 22 April 2003 – Earth Day. In hind­sight, I be­lieve the emo­tion I felt then stemmed in part from some­thing else – a deeper con­scious­ness that the ice I had seen was van­ish­ing. Seven years of climb­ing in Alaska had pro­vided me with a front-row seat from where I could wit­ness the dra­matic im­pact of hu­man­caused cli­mate dis­rup­tion. Each year, we found that the toe of the glacier had shriv­elled fur­ther. Each year, for the an­nual early sea­son ice-climb­ing fes­ti­val on this glacier, we found our­selves hik­ing fur­ther up the crusty frozen mud left be­hind by its rapidly re­treat­ing ter­mi­nus. Each year, the park­ing lot was moved closer to the glacier, only to be left far­ther away as the ice with­drew. Even sec­tions of De­nali – the high­est moun­tain in North Amer­ica, which stands more than 20,000 feet tall and is roughly 250 miles from the Arc­tic Circle – had al­ready un­der­gone star­tling changes in 2003: the ice of its glaciers was disappearing quickly.

Our planet is rapidly chang­ing, and what we are wit­ness­ing is un­like any­thing that has oc­curred in hu­man, or even ge­o­log­i­cal, his­tory. The heat-trap­ping na­ture of CO2 and meth­ane, both green­house gases, has been sci­en­tific fact for decades, and ac­cord­ing to Nasa, “no ques­tion that in­creased lev­els of green­house gases must cause the Earth to warm in re­sponse”. Ev­i­dence shows that green­house gas emis­sions are caus­ing the Earth to warm 10 times faster than it should, and the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of this are be­ing felt, quite lit­er­ally, through­out the en­tire bio­sphere.

Oceans are warm­ing at un­prece­dented rates, droughts and wild­fires of in­creas­ing sever­ity and fre­quency are al­ter­ing forests around the globe, and the Earth’s cryosphere – the parts of the Earth so cold that wa­ter is frozen into ice or snow – is melt­ing at an ever-ac­cel­er­at­ing rate. The sub­sea per­mafrost in the Arc­tic is thaw­ing, and we could ex­pe­ri­ence a meth­ane “burp” of pre­vi­ously trapped gas at any mo­ment, caus­ing the equiv­a­lent of sev­eral times the to­tal amount of CO2 hu­mans have emit­ted to be re­leased into the at­mos­phere. The re­sults would be cat­a­strophic.

Cli­mate dis­rup­tion also brings with it ex­treme weather such as hur­ri­canes and floods. For in­stance, a warmer at­mos­phere holds more mois­ture, lead­ing to an in­crease in the fre­quency of se­vere ma­jor rain events, such as Hur­ri­cane Har­vey over Houston in sum­mer 2017, which dropped so much rain that the weight of the wa­ter ac­tu­ally caused the Earth’s crust to sink by 2cm.

Earth has not seen cur­rent at­mo­spheric CO2 lev­els since the Pliocene epoch, some 3m years ago. Three­quar­ters of that CO2 will still be here in 500 years. It takes a decade to ex­pe­ri­ence the full warm­ing ef­fects of CO2 emis­sions. Even if we stopped all green­house gas emis­sions, it would take an­other 25,000 years for most of what is cur­rently in the at­mos­phere to be ab­sorbed into the oceans.

Cli­mate dis­rup­tion is pro­gress­ing faster than ever, and faster than pre­dicted. Seven­teen of the 18 hottest years ever recorded have oc­curred since 2001. The dis­tress sig­nals from our over­heated planet are all around us, with re­ports, stud­ies and warn­ings in­creas­ing daily. Worst-case pre­dic­tion made by the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change about the rise in tem­per­a­tures, ex­treme weather, sea lev­els and CO2 lev­els in the at­mos­phere have fallen short of re­al­ity. Count­less glaciers, rivers, lakes, forests and species are al­ready van­ish­ing at a pace never seen be­fore, and all of this from in­creas­ing the global mean tem­per­a­ture by “only” 1C above the prein­dus­trial base­line. Some sci­en­tists pre­dict it could rise by as much as 10C by 2100. A study led by James Hansen, the for­mer di­rec­tor of Nasa’s God­dard In­sti­tute for Space Stud­ies, warned that the rise we have seen so far has al­ready caused un­stop­pable melt­ing in both the Antarc­tic and Green­land ice sheets.

Moun­taineer­ing in to­day’s cli­mate-dis­rupted world is a vastly dif­fer­ent en­deav­our from what it used to be. Glaciers are van­ish­ing be­fore our eyes, hav­ing shrunk to the low­est lev­els ever recorded, and are now melt­ing faster than ever. Seventy per cent of the glaciers in west­ern Canada are pro­jected to be gone by 2100. Mon­tana’s Glacier Na­tional Park will most likely not have any ac­tive glaciers by 2030. The Matanuska Glacier’s an­cient ice is al­ready rapidly van­ish­ing. Dra­matic changes are oc­cur­ring even in the planet’s high­est and cold­est places. Even Mount Ever­est is trans­form­ing, as thou­sands of glaciers across the Hi­malayas are likely to shrink by up to 99% by 2100. A child born to­day will see an Ever­est largely free of glaciers within their life­time.

I lived in Alaska for a decade be­gin­ning in 1996, and spent time on the glaciers there. As early as the late

90s, large por­tions of the hol­i­day sea­son would go by in An­chor­age with­out any snow on the ground. The wa­ter­falls that my climb­ing friends and I had used for ice climb­ing barely froze some win­ters, and we could see the glaciers that we used to tra­verse to ac­cess peaks shrink­ing from year to year.

In Nepal the sa­cred moun­tain Macha­puchare rises abruptly on the eastern bound­ary of the An­na­purna Sanc­tu­ary. As a child I came across a pho­to­graph of this peak in a ge­og­ra­phy text­book and was im­me­di­ately cap­ti­vated by its majesty. Shaped like a fish’s tail, the knife-edged ridge that forms its sum­mit is a seem­ingly pa­per-thin line of rock that drops pre­cip­i­tously on ei­ther side, caus­ing the apex of the peak – which is nearly half a mile higher than the top of De­nali – to be one of the more dra­matic sum­mits any­where. It is a mas­ter­piece of na­ture.

When I was 10 years old, I saw the Rocky Moun­tains of Colorado for the first time, their sil­hou­ettes against the set­ting sun, and I was awestruck. Years later I trav­elled to Alaska and drove a short way into De­nali na­tional park and pre­serve. When the af­ter­noon clouds parted to re­veal the majesty of De­nali’s sum­mit, my first in­cli­na­tion was to bow in won­der­ment. A year af­ter that I moved to Alaska, and be­gan train­ing my­self in the moun­taineer­ing skills I needed to ac­cess these sanc­tu­ar­ies that stand far from the vi­o­lence, speed and greed of so­ci­ety. John Muir, the Scot­tish-Amer­i­can nat­u­ral­ist, au­thor, philoso­pher and early wilder­ness-preser­va­tion ad­vo­cate, cap­tured my feel­ings pre­cisely: “I am los­ing pre­cious days. I am de­gen­er­at­ing into a ma­chine for mak­ing money. I am learn­ing noth­ing in this triv­ial world of men. I must break away and get out into the moun­tains to learn the news.”

A glacier is es­sen­tially sus­pended en­ergy, sus­pended force. It is, in a sense, life frozen in time. But now they are them­selves run­ning out of time. The planet’s ecosys­tems, pushed far be­yond their ca­pac­ity to adapt to hu­man-gen­er­ated trau­mas and stresses, are in a state of freefall. Just as I watched hun­dreds of years of time com­pressed into glacial ice flash be­fore my eyes in a mat­ter of sec­onds as I fell into the crevasse, swathes of the nat­u­ral world are, in the blink of a ge­o­log­i­cal eye, fall­ing into obliv­ion.

Modern life has com­pressed time and space. You can tra­verse the globe in a mat­ter of hours, or gain in­for­ma­tion in nanosec­onds. The price for this, along with ev­ery­thing we want, on de­mand, all the time, is a to­tal dis­con­nec­tion from the planet that sus­tains our lives.

I ven­ture into the wilds and into the moun­tains in large part to al­low space and time to stretch them­selves back to what they were. The fre­netic pace of con­tem­po­rary life is hav­ing a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on this planet. Hu­mans have trans­formed more than half the ice-free land on Earth. We have changed the com­po­si­tion of the at­mos­phere and the chem­istry of the oceans from which we came. We now use more than half the planet’s read­ily ac­ces­si­ble fresh­wa­ter runoff, and the ma­jor­ity of the world’s ma­jor rivers have been ei­ther dammed or di­verted.

As a species, we now hang over the abyss of a geo­engi­neered fu­ture we have cre­ated for our­selves. At our in­sis­tence, our vo­ra­cious ap­petite is con­sum­ing na­ture it­self. We have re­fused to heed the warn­ings Earth has been send­ing, and there is no res­cue team on its way.

At the end of July 2017 I flew to Alaska’s north­ern shore. A cou­ple of days af­ter my ar­rival I took a morn­ing walk along the Arc­tic Ocean. The only thing that was a con­stant was the shore be­neath my boots and the crunch­ing sound of the tiny stones as I walked. Up here, only 1,300 miles from the north pole, the sun never sets in sum­mer, and time stretches un­til it loses its mean­ing.

Utqi­agvik (for­merly known as Bar­row), one of sev­eral an­cient vil­lages in the area, is the north­ern­most in­cor­po­rated point in the US. The indige­nous peo­ple here, the Iñu­piat, have learned to live on the edge of the tun­dra and the seas, with the whales, the birds and the ice floes.

I met 55-year-old Marvin Kanayu­rak, who was born and raised here, as were his par­ents. He is a whaler and vol­un­teers do­ing res­cues. He tells me how there used to be pres­sure ridges in the sea ice (formed when two ice floes are forced to­gether) dur­ing the win­ter that were 50 or even 60 feet high, but now they are “lucky” to find any even 20 feet tall. Head­ing out across the ice to find open wa­ter in the spring used to take them two weeks of plot­ting and mak­ing a trail. Now it takes them only a cou­ple of days be­cause the open wa­ter is so much closer.

Kanayu­rak had told me that he was a vol­un­teer gravedig­ger. The per­mafrost used to be 10-12 inches be­low the sur­face, so it would take three days of chip­ping with an ice pick to dig a grave. Now the per­mafrost is sev­eral feet be­low the sur­face, and softer, so he can dig a grave in a few hours.

Per­mafrost is a layer of ground that is con­tin­u­ously frozen for a pe­riod of two years or more. It con­tains dead plants that ab­sorbed CO2 from the at­mos­phere cen­turies ago, and then froze be­fore de­com­pos­ing. When it thaws, mi­cro­bial ac­tiv­ity con­verts a large por­tion of that or­ganic ma­te­rial into meth­ane and CO2, which is re­leased back into the at­mos­phere. Ac­cord­ing to a Nasa re­port, over hun­dreds of mil­len­nia, “Arc­tic per­mafrost soils have ac­cu­mu­lated vast stores of or­ganic car­bon” – an es­ti­mated 1,400-1,850 gi­ga­tonnes, com­pared to

850 gi­ga­tonnes of car­bon in Earth’s at­mos­phere.

That’s equal to around half of all the es­ti­mated or­ganic car­bon in Earth’s soils, with most of it lo­cated in the top 10 feet of thaw-vul­ner­a­ble soil. Sci­en­tists, along with oth­ers, are learn­ing that the Arc­tic per­mafrost is less per­ma­nent than its name im­plies. Es­ti­mates of how much car­bon will be re­leased by thaw­ing per­mafrost show it could av­er­age around 1.5bn tonnes an­nu­ally, which is roughly the same amount as cur­rent US an­nual emis­sions from burn­ing fos­sil fu­els. Dr Kevin Schae­fer, a re­search sci­en­tist for the Na­tional Snow and Ice Data Cen­ter who stud­ies per­mafrost car­bon feed­back (PCF) – the warm­ing of the sur­face of the planet that would re­sult from the re­lease of car­bon from the per­mafrost – es­ti­mates that PCF by it­self will in­crease tem­per­a­tures by 0.2C by 2100, and even more be­yond that. This means PCF will have a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect on the longterm cli­mate, even if the goal of lim­it­ing at­mo­spheric tem­per­a­tures to 2C is reached.

While I was in Utqi­agvik I spoke to Dr Vladimir Ro­manovsky, a pro­fes­sor of geo­physics at the Univer­sity of Alaska Fair­banks, who also spe­cialises in per­mafrost. His lab has been col­lect­ing tem­per­a­ture data each year in many lo­ca­tions around the world, but mostly across Alaska, Canada and Rus­sia.

“If it comes closer to thaw­ing point, then it be­comes un­sta­ble,” Ro­manovsky said. “For any per­mafrost re­search, that is the cru­cial data: what is the tem­per­a­ture and how sta­ble is it?”

We hang over the abyss. We re­fused to heed the warn­ings Earth sent, and there is no res­cue team

His lab is unique in that it now has nearly 40 years of data records from a va­ri­ety of lo­ca­tions, and he gen­er­ates per­mafrost tem­per­a­ture mod­el­ling to ex­plain how the tem­per­a­tures are chang­ing.

The changes in the per­mafrost hap­pen­ing across Alaska’s North Slope are due to some of the most dra­matic tem­per­a­ture in­creases in the world. In

35 years of mea­sure­ments here, the tem­per­a­ture at 20 me­tres be­low the ground has in­creased by 3C since Ro­manovsky’s first mea­sure­ment, and at the sur­face of the per­mafrost one me­tre be­low the ground, the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture has in­creased by a stag­ger­ing 5C since the mid-1980s. Even small in­creases bring the tem­per­a­ture of the per­mafrost closer to 0C. Cross­ing that line means the per­mafrost will start to thaw.

Sci­en­tists used to be­lieve the per­mafrost was sta­ble across the North Slope, and that it would not be­gin to thaw this cen­tury. Ro­manovsky said: “If you look at our records, how­ever, and ex­trap­o­late into the fu­ture an­other 30 years, as­sum­ing changes con­tinue as they have been for the last 30 years, the per­mafrost on the North Slope will hit 0C by 2050 or 2060 at the lat­est. No­body was ex­pect­ing this, and most peo­ple would be sur­prised to see this hap­pen so soon.”

Schae­fer also ex­pressed con­cern about the im­pact that thaw­ing per­mafrost will have on the in­fra­struc­ture and peo­ple of the Arc­tic. “Thaw­ing per­mafrost rep­re­sents a rad­i­cal change to the en­vi­ron­ment and way of life in the Arc­tic, with un­known so­cial costs,” he said. I asked if he thought it would be nec­es­sary to re­lo­cate most, if not all, of the coastal vil­lages in north­ern Alaska. He said that as sea lev­els go up and per­mafrost thaws, “there is risk the thaw­ing will de­stroy crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, which will re­quire re­pair or mov­ing it, and that in­cludes en­tire vil­lages. If you built your vil­lage right next to the ocean and it starts to melt, you have to move. This is hap­pen­ing in in­te­rior Alaska along rivers, and it’s also hap­pen­ing across the en­tire Arc­tic zone.”

Roads, rail­roads, oil and gas in­fra­struc­ture, air­ports, sea­ports – all these things were built across the Arc­tic on the as­sump­tion that the per­mafrost would stay frozen. “When it is frozen it is solid, but it thaws out and turns to mud, so it’s easy to see this caus­ing a lot of dam­age to in­fra­struc­ture,” Schae­fer said.

Dr Leonid Yurganov, a se­nior re­search sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Mary­land Baltimore County physics depart­ment and the Joint Cen­ter for Earth Sys­tems Tech­nol­ogy, is an ex­pert in the re­mote sens­ing of Arc­tic meth­ane lev­els. He told me his team of re­searchers had al­ready de­tected long-term in­creases in meth­ane over large ar­eas of the Arc­tic, and warned that the fast lib­er­a­tion of meth­ane would in­flu­ence air tem­per­a­ture near the sur­face and ac­cel­er­ate Arc­tic warm­ing. “The dif­fer­ence in tem­per­a­tures be­tween the poles and the equa­tor drives our air cur­rents from west to east,” he said. “If this dif­fer­ence di­min­ishes, the west-to-east air trans­port be­comes slower, and north-south air cur­rents be­come stronger. This re­sults in fre­quent changes in weather in the mid­lat­i­tudes.”

It would change the cli­mate, he says, “ev­ery­where in the world”.

Two days af­ter leav­ing Utqi­agvik, I flew from An­chor­age to Seat­tle on my way home. Forty-five min­utes be­fore we landed, while fly­ing at 35,000 feet, the plane en­tered a cloud of brown­ish-grey smoke ris­ing from the 146 wild­fires scorch­ing Bri­tish Columbia be­neath us. At that point, they had burned more than 600,000 acres and forced 7,000 peo­ple from their homes. We de­scended into the brown cloud un­til we landed in Seat­tle, which was also en­veloped in the smoke.

A cou­ple of days later, a leaked draft re­port from US sci­en­tists across 13 fed­eral agen­cies warned of a worstcase sce­nario of 18F warm­ing over the Arc­tic be­tween 2071 and 2100. The re­port also noted that the Arc­tic was los­ing more than 3.5% of its sea ice cover­age ev­ery decade, that the ex­tent of the Septem­ber sea ice had de­clined more than 10% per decade, that the land ice was disappearing at an in­creas­ingly rapid rate and that the sever­ity of win­ter storms was in­creas­ing be­cause of warm­ing tem­per­a­tures.

The grim news seemed end­less: the snow-free sea­son on Alaska’s North Slope is length­en­ing. The year 2016 ex­pe­ri­enced the long­est snow-free sea­son in 115 years of record-keep­ing – roughly 45% longer than the av­er­age snow-free pe­riod over the pre­vi­ous four decades.

The Oc­to­ber tem­per­a­ture at Utqi­agvik in­creased by a stag­ger­ing 7.2C be­tween 1979 and 2012.

We are al­ready fac­ing mass ex­tinc­tion. There is no re­mov­ing the heat we have in­tro­duced into the oceans, nor the 40bn tons of CO2 we pump into the at­mos­phere ev­ery sin­gle year. There may be no chang­ing what is hap­pen­ing, and far worse things are com­ing. How, then, shall we meet this?

Like so many peo­ple, I have won­dered what to do at this time. Each of us now must find our own hon­est, nat­u­ral re­sponse to the con­di­tions that we have brought upon our­selves.

I am heart­ened by peo­ple like my friend Ka­rina Miotto in Brazil, who has de­voted her en­tire life to pro­tect­ing the Ama­zon. Each time a re­port is pub­lished about in­creased de­for­esta­tion in her beloved rain­for­est, I watch Ka­rina be­come con­sumed in grief. But each time, she goes deeper within her­self and her com­mu­nity, fur­ther strength­en­ing her love for that por­tion of the planet where she lives, and re­pur­poses her­self into her next ac­tion to pro­tect the Ama­zon. I find so­lace in the fact that there are mil­lions of oth­ers like Ka­rina, par­tic­u­larly among the younger gen­er­a­tions, who have drawn their lines around their re­spec­tive por­tions of the planet clos­est to their hearts and are mak­ing their stands.

I find my deep­est con­vic­tion and con­nec­tion to the Earth by com­muning with the moun­tains. I moved to Colorado and lived among them when I was in my early 20s, and it was there I be­gan to deepen my re­la­tion­ship with them, and to re­ally lis­ten to them. I would hike out and just sit among the peaks, watch­ing them for hours, and write about them in my jour­nal. To­day I know in my bones that my job is to learn to lis­ten to them ever more deeply, and to share what they are telling us with those who are also lis­ten­ing.

While west­ern colo­nial­ist cul­ture be­lieves in “rights”, many indige­nous cul­tures teach of “obli­ga­tions” that we are born into: obli­ga­tions to those who came be­fore, to those who will come af­ter, and to the Earth it­self. When I ori­ent my­self around the ques­tion of what my obli­ga­tions are, a deeper ques­tion im­me­di­ately arises: from this mo­ment on, know­ing what is hap­pen­ing to the planet, to what do I de­vote my life? •

This is an edited ex­tract from The End of Ice by Dahr Ja­mail, which will be pub­lished by The New Press on 15 Jan­uary


A glacial pool in De­nali na­tional park

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