“A World Without Ice”


“Ice everywhere is talking to us,” says Henry Pollack, “in a language that we must understand and heed.  Ice is a sleeping giant that has been awakened, and if we fail to recognize what has been unleashed, it will be at our peril.”  The eminent climate scientist’s new book, A World Without Ice, is a multifaceted narrative of the world of ice and its relationship to humans.  It explains in deeply sobering terms how melting ice on a warming planet may well become “the formidable adversary of life on Earth.”  Pollack cuts through the denial and evasions of those whom the author refers to as “climate contras” and builds to a powerful conclusion that calls for urgent attention from citizens and government.  Reviewed here by Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz.

Web site for A World Without Ice

A review of Henry Pollack, A World Without Ice (Avery/Penguin Books, 2009)

by Rick Piltz

Imagine a warming Earth on which the planet’s ice steadily melts.  How would we experience that?  What would be the implications for civilization?

In his new book, A World Without Ice, Prof. Henry Pollack – University of Michigan geophysicist and what I would term citizen-scientist – answers these questions in lucid, accessible, and at times eloquent prose aimed at a wide audience.  The Earth is, in fact, warming, the ice is melting, and the consequences for civilization along this trajectory are very possibly overwhelming.  The book is a calmly but forcefully-stated work of science education that, along the way, cuts through and tosses overboard the denial and evasions of those whom Pollack refers to as “climate contras.”  It builds to a powerful conclusion that calls for urgent attention from citizens—and, if it can somehow be awakened, clear-eyed strategic planning and leadership from their government.

In the first two-thirds of the book Pollack rolls out a wide-ranging, richly-woven, and absorbing story of the relationship between ice, global climate, human activity and how it is altering the planet, including the ice cover itself.  He leads the reader through the voyages of Captain Cook, the emergence of the starkly beautiful continent Antarctica from the tectonic break-up of Gondwanaland, the meaning of the Antarctic Treaty, the emerging geopolitics of the Arctic sea ice melt, impacts of polar tourism, the geophysics of ice on Earth, ice elsewhere in the solar system, Milankovitch cycles, the onset and retreat of ice ages and the Earth’s changing seasons, how glacial ice shaped the landscape, and human migration during the last ice age.  He introduces paleoclimatology, the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, solar output, volcanic dimming, the impact of human activities on the land surface, lakes, rivers, groundwater, wetlands and oceans, the “unanticipated world-changing pollutant” carbon dioxide, the instrumental temperature record since the 19th century, Mauna Loa and 50 years of measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere, the observational evidence from plants and animals of global climate change, evidence of seasonal change in the formation and break-up of lake ice, the shrinking of mountain glaciers everywhere, melting permafrost on the tundra, satellite remote-sensing measurement of the ice budget of the polar regions, and the accelerating ice loss from Greenland, West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula.  He explains the significance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its scientific conclusion that global warming is “unequivocal,” and of the climate contras and what he terms their four misguided “trenches of denial.” 

We are living in what some scientists have termed the Anthropocene – a new epoch in geological time in which human activity has become an increasingly dominant driver of planetary-scale changes in the Earth system. “Today ice is already retreating because of human activities on Earth, and is perhaps on a trajectory to disappearance,” Pollack says. “Will future generations live on a world without ice? 

In the two chapters that make up the last third of the book, Pollack makes it very clear why we do not want our action, or inaction, to be seen in the future as having been responsble for such an outcome.  Yet changes in climate already underway as a result of human activity are already leading in that direction, with the sum total of today’s and tomorrow’s actions adding inexorably to consequences that will extend literally for centuries into the future.

In Chapter 7, “Melting Ice, Rising Seas,” Pollack lays out a compelling narrative of what is in store for the planet and its inhabitants if unchecked global warming steadily melts even a significant fraction of the remaining ice.  “As snow cover lessens and glacial ice melts, it will not be just the scenery that changes,” he says. 

A multiplicity of changes will differ from place to place.  The melting of snowpack and older glacial ice in the U.S. western mountains, the Alps, the Andes, and the Himalayas will lead to seasonal disruption and loss of water supply for heavily populated areas downstream that depend on it for both urban water supply and food production. Warming at the southern margin of snow cover in the United States and Europe will replace snow with freezing rain and ice storms. Great Lakes water levels are approaching historic lows due to increased evaporation from open water in winter, with costly implications for commerce and coastal property.  Seasonal shift in melting leads to longer dry seasons in the U.S. West and more opportunity for intense wildfire seasons.  Lessened winter freezing that once controlled the population of pine bark beetles has led to the decimation of vast areas of pine forests in the western United States and Canada, thus also adding more fuel for wildfires.  Disappearing glacial ice and snow is changing the features of mountain peaks and valleys. 

The imminent loss of Andean ice is projected to disrupt the water supply for 80 million people within a decade. And in a most extraordinary threat to human security, the water supply for one-quarter of Earth’s entire population is threatened by a well-documented long-term warming trend and accelerating rate of glacial decline in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau.  Seasonally timed meltwater from this ice supplies much of the annual flow volume of seven principal rivers that flow to the sea across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Burma.   

The projections have little upside – melting Arctic permafrost, warming seawater in the Antarctic region disrupting of the marine food chain, from its base in phytoplanton up through the krill that form the diet of penguins and whales.  Then, a passage on “the most dramatic consequence of a world losing its ice… the steady – and perhaps not so steady – rise of sea level.”  That section is a deeply sobering explication of a multiplicity of ways that ice, its temperature raised above the melting point and added to seawater that global warming is already expanding in volume, “will be the formidable adversary of life on Earth.”

“The ark of humanity seems dangerously adrift in the sea of climate change, with no apparent navigational charts, or even a captain, on board.” Pollack begins his final chapter, “Choices Amid Change”  Here he lays out possibilities for mitigation that might lessen the pace and magnitude of global climatic disruption, melting ice and rising seas.  But he also underscores what scientists consider the inevitabilty of significant change due to the thermal inertia of the Earth system vis-à-vis long-lived gases already emitted from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation, and the momentum of population growth and economic activity with current technologies. 

Thus, the imperative for adaptive preparedness to plan for changes that will be unavoidable.  “Adapting successfully to a changing climate will require fundamental and sweeping reassessments,” Pollack says.  That is something most of U.S. government and society have barely begun to think about, let alone act on.

And, given Pollack’s discussion of how scientists look for accelerations and tipping points, we should not assume that “successful” adaptation to unchecked climatic disruption and sea level rise will even be possible.  “Glacial ice from Greenland, the Antarctic Peninsula and West Antarctica is being delivered to the sea at accelerating rates,” a phenomenon that was not taken into consideration in the 2007 IPCC climate change assessment.  If this continues, and is added to the projected thermal expansion of the ocean, it could raise sea level by some six feet in this century, Pollack says.  If computer simulations that show a temperature warming threshold for Greenland melting reaching a point of no return – a tipping point beyond which nothing humans can do will stop it – are correct, and if this is added to the possibility, already being observed in its early stages in both polar regions, of bulk loss of glacial ice sliding directly into the sea prior to melting, the implications are profound.  A rapid acceleration of ice loss could raise seas levels more than 40 feet, causing chaos and social disintegration in coastal regions worldwide.

Reading Pollack adds to our realization that we must have a U.S. political leadership that understands the nature of this problem and demonstrates a collective commitment to deal with it effectively—something that cannot be said to exist at this point.  We need broad citizen understanding of the problem and support for – demand for – government accountability in translating science into effective policymaking.  That, too, is underdeveloped in the United States.

“The reasons why the American public has been slow to grasp the realities of climate change are many and complex, but certainly include the decades of disinformation and propaganda put out by the fossil fuel industry,” Pollack says. “Add to that eight years of the George W. Bush administration in Washington, which deliberately fostered additional doubts about climate change by exaggerating scientific uncertainty and discouraging government scientists from speaking out about the causes and consequences of climate change.”  This affirms the reality of what I and others have observed and discovered and have attempted to document in detail.

“The essential position of denial could be distilled into four main elements,” Pollack says: 

1.  The instrumental record of surface temperature change was flawed. 
2.  The causes of climate change were entirely natural. 
3.  The consequences of climate change would be beneficial. 
4.  The economic cost of addressing climate change would not be worth the effort.

“These four elements were in effect sequential trenches of defense occupied by those ideologically opposed to the concept of anthropomorphic climate change, or blind to its reality.”

Each denialist element “was (and continues to be) well stocked with misinformation, irrelevancies, half-truths, misunderstandings, oversimplifications, and outright falsehoods.”

In trying to defend the first trench, Pollack says, “the climate contras rolled out mortars that lobbed argument after argument to a puzzled and largely scientifically illiterate public, attacking the instrumental record of a warming Earth.”  In just the few weeks since this book was published, the mortar attack of the moment, seeking to undermine confidence in the global temperature data record compiled by the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Britain, involves a “Swift-boating” interpretation of e-mails among climate scientists obtained and publicized after a hacking of the CRU computer system.

“The climate contras viewed the entire climate change argument as a long chain of evidence, and if any link could be broken, then the chain could no longer carry any weight and the climate change concept would fall apart,” Pollack says.  “In reality, the scientific story of climate change is much more like a net hammock of interwoven strands of evidence…”

Pollack is a voice of sanity in a situation that urgently needs a great deal more of it.  Many of his fellow scientists could learn something valuable from this book about how to communicate with nonspecialists, and about the positive role scientists can play when they step out of the technical journals for a time and apply their expertise to speaking to their fellow citizens about matters of public import.  We could use more such articulate and compelling efforts.

Readers will come away from this story with an understanding of why the ice needs to stay frozen.  And perhaps be moved to take action.  One action might be to buy three copies of this book, one for yourself, one for a friend, and one to send to an elected official with a note telling them to pay attention to what Pollack is saying.

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