Kelpie Wilson: Climate Shock - We're on Thin Ice
Climate Shock: We're on Thin Ice
By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Review
Friday 30 December 2005
Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains
By Mark Bowen
Henry Holt, 2005
"In Sanskrit, Himalaya means 'abode of snow,' but as crops and people die from lack of water while watching the highest mountains on Earth turn from white to black, that name may soon seem grotesquely inappropriate."
-- Mark Bowen, Thin Ice
Climate shock comes from the realization that climate change is not only real, but huge; it is not only huge, but it is now; and it will affect your life very shortly. Not your grandchildren's lives. Not your children's lives. Your life. Soon - if it hasn't already.
If you have not experienced climate shock yet, you will when you read Thin Ice by Mark Bowen. Thin Ice is the story of the scientific team from Ohio State University, led by researcher Lonnie Thompson, that has spent the last two decades drilling ice cores in tropical mountain glaciers. Their aim is to retrieve information about climate history from the ice, but there has been a race against time as these glaciers melt, making new history.
Thin Ice is an exciting adventure story. The logistics of transporting the scientists and their drilling equipment into the most inaccessible places on Earth bring hair-raising tales. The team members struggle with altitude sickness, windstorms destroy the solar panels that power their drill, crampons get stuck in ladders deployed over widening crevasses, and the crew tries to float ice core samples off the mountain with a hot-air balloon.
The scientists are awed by their surroundings as they camp for weeks at a time on the top of the world, absorbing "the brown earth and the blue sky and the white ice..." until it seeps into their skins and they bond emotionally with the mountains. Bowen quotes researcher Mary Davis saying that she has a "soft spot" for the Dunde Ice Cap in China's Qilian Shan mountain range. Drilling engineer and ice physicist Bruce Koci confesses to Bowen that it is not just a job for him, it is about "being out there," and he would do it even if he didn't get paid.
The scientific detective work is just as thrilling. Thompson's team has made a number of surprising additions to climate theory and shaken some deeply held establishment views. One surprise was the discovery that a few of the mountain ice cores went as far back in time as any yet recovered from the polar regions. Why? Because when ice gets thick enough, as it does at the poles, pressure and temperature build up, and the ice actually starts to melt from the bottom, destroying the sediment layers and air bubbles that yield all the historical information. But tropical mountains have only scant annual precipitation, so the ice layers are thin, making a longer time-horizon possible. Hence the book's title, Thin Ice.
Another surprising result is some convincing evidence that the Gulf Stream and African currents that help to warm northern Europe are a less powerful influence on climate than previously thought. The climate change horror flick, "The Day After Tomorrow," was based on this "thermohaline convection theory" that says melting ice could disrupt the flow of the warming current and actually cause Europe and New York City to freeze (though not nearly so fast as in the movie).
Thompson's work shows that tropical influences, particularly the El Niño and monsoon cycles (which are related), are the bigger drivers of climate change. This suggests that in the future, the Earth's climate may resemble what we see in El Niño years, but much more extreme. Depending on where you are, your climate shock could show up as either flood or drought or both in rapid succession - a permanent El Niño from Hell.
My own climate shock came in 2002 when the 500,000-acre Biscuit Fire raged through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in southwest Oregon. I sat in my yard and watched a huge mushroom cloud of smoke boil up out of the wilderness. A freak wind was blowing from the east, full of dry, hot, desert air that pumped up the fire like a bellows. The Kalmiopsis was a place that I deeply loved and it will never be the same again - not just in my lifetime, but forever. Climate change is likely to favor new growth of chaparral and brush over the kind of deep fir and pine forests that got their start in a cooler age.
Gulf Coast residents got their climate shock this past hurricane season as warming oceans spawned the strongest storms on record. Alaska natives are getting their climate shock as retreating sea ice ruins their hunting, and melting permafrost topples their homes. Pacific Islanders are getting it too as their atolls flood and they flee to higher ground. And this is just the very beginning.
Trying to anticipate the climates of the future is impossible without understanding those of the past, yet as Bowen conveys in this book, the past is extremely complicated and hard for someone who is not a climate researcher to fully understand. Given the difficulties, Bowen does a remarkable job both of explaining it and keeping the story interesting and fast-paced. But for a little help getting a better grasp on Earth's history and the timescales involved, I turned to a 1991 book by scientist James Lovelock called Healing Gaia.
Lovelock believes that the best way to think about the Earth is to see it as an organism that goes through phases of sickness and health, or instability followed by equilibrium. Earth's medical history is a long story, for she is an older lady. Her life is now at least 3.5 billion years old.
Conditions change on Earth, and one is that the sun has grown hotter. For most of the age of mammals (the age that followed the dinosaurs and their asteroid demise) the Earth was warm and no ice formed at the poles. But as the sun grew ever hotter, by about 2 million years ago, polar ice caps formed and the Pleistocene began - the ice ages. This sounds odd, but Lovelock explains it: the Earth began to pull more CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it in rocks and plants. Less CO2 in the atmosphere lessened the greenhouse effect and temperatures dropped. But because of cyclical changes in Earth's orbit over time, the ice ages have see-sawed back and forth between glacial and interglacial in a series of 100,000-year cycles. A system with this much dynamism is prone to getting knocked off balance, and there is little doubt that that is what is happening now: climate shock.
A funny thing happened 2 million years ago on the way to the ice ages. The ice caps sucked moisture from the African forests, which withered and withdrew from the plains. An arboreal ape came down from the trees and began to make tools and lose its hair. When its descendants multiplied and started to burn fossil fuels, they became a fever-inducing planetary infection. They (we) are the cause of climate shock.
Thin Ice is really the story of the "planetary physicians," as Lovelock calls them - the scientists like Lonnie Thompson who have devoted their careers to taking the planet's temperature. And now the world is getting so warm that anyone can hold a hand to the patient's forehead and get a sense of what is happening.
Besides being a physics PhD from MIT, Thin Ice author Mark Bowen is also an avid recreational climber. He was able to add to his story of scientific discovery the eyewitness accounts from climbers all over the world of rapid ice-melting over the last ten years. A glacier that was a stone's throw from Sir Edmund Hilary's first camp on Mt. Everest has retreated three miles since Hilary's 1953 historic ascent.
An international commission predicts that there is a high likelihood that all of the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035. The Himalaya will turn black, and the Ganges and other rivers that flow from it will dry to seasonal streams. The 500 million people in India who depend on water from these rivers will have no other source. As mountain glaciers and snow packs melt everywhere, China, the Andes and California will face the same climate shock - no water.
Meanwhile, the melting ice will raise the seas. Lonnie Thompson and other researchers are discovering that once glaciers start to melt, they can melt all the way to bedrock very rapidly. If all of the Earth's mountain glaciers were to melt, it would raise the sea level by a foot and a half and that would be the end of places like Bangladesh and Louisiana's bayou country. But the polar ice caps are showing the same tendency for rapid melting, and a mere two degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperature could be enough to cause a complete disintegration. Sea levels could start rising by 3 feet every 20 years. We will have to act quickly and drastically to avert this inundation.
Reading Thin Ice and exposing yourself to climate shock could help prepare you for your new role in the greenhouse world. We will need more planetary physicians to diagnose and prescribe, and there will also be a need for planetary nurses, orderlies and volunteers to pitch in around the clock to keep the dear old lady alive. What does this mean? Probably it will mean changing everything about the way we live, starting by reducing our fossil fuel consumption now.
But how on Earth can we train ourselves to change everything, all at once?
Let's face it: We are more like monkeys than like gods, and we learn best by imitating whatever we think is admirable. For most of our evolutionary history we were a prey species - a scruffy primate just recently evolved from a rodent. And so, in our hominid phase we have fancied ourselves a glorious predator, in the same league with the lion and the eagle. In the future, if we want to survive, we will become symbionts - life forms that live in partnership with others. We may become like the rhinoceros bird that pecks parasitic ticks (and blood) from the rhino's back and warns it of approaching danger.
As successful symbionts we will adapt to the warmer Earth by
living modestly and learning all the tricks and trades for
storing carbon away in forests, fields, soils and rocks.
We'll blow sweet breezes on the lady's brow, soothe her hot
flashes, and cool the Earth again. In return, if luck and
tides are with us, she will continue to sustain us until our
time on Earth is done.
Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. She is also a mechanical engineer and does technical writing for the solar power industry. She has been a leader in the campaign to protect ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest and was the executive director of the Siskiyou Regional Education Project. Her first novel, Primal Tears, has been published by North Atlantic Books.