“The Ice at the End of the World – An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and our Perilous Future” by Jon Gertner, Part II

Scott 1107- International Geophysical Year- MNH 3c 1958- unused mint stamp

This post honors the International Geophysical Year. The wonderful IGY “Planet Earth” documentary series made me decide (at age 13) to become a scientist. My work never resembled that of the IGY, but the inspiration was invaluable.

(See October 14 for review of Part I.)

Part II of The Ice at the End of the World is entitled “Investigations”. It begins in 1949, the year I was born. I grew up in the Fifties, with the Cold War looming. As geophysical research (interrupted by the Depression and World War II) resumed, it was driven (or at least financed) by the perceived military need to guard against aggression from Russia across the frozen North Pole.

So much had changed during the almost 20-year hiatus in research enforced by the Depression and World War II. Airplanes and helicopters enabled access to remote sites. Better shelters and protective clothing were available.

After WWII, some scientists were still assuming that earth might soon enter a new Ice Age (including “deadly glaciers”), and that cooling might threaten civilization.

A non-scientist reading this account needs to remember that, if you are looking for stability, NEGATIVE feedback is good, and positive feedback is troublesome. An example of climate related positive feedback is the reflectivity of ice. If ice melts, the (less reflective) underlying material absorbs more solar radiation, making the area warmer, so more ice melts. This is the kind of feedback loop that worries climate scientists.

One of the early findings (based on ice core analysis) of the Postwar era was that climate (or at least temperatures) could change SUDDENLY. Some changes shown by ice cores were so abrupt that initially it was thought the data was in error, due to faulty equipment or recording mistakes. Comparisons of multiple cores made it clear that really erratic behavior did happen. Climate scientist James White says “When it comes to climate change, speed kills”. About his early work on climate change, he commented “…I naively thought society would latch onto this and do something about it.”

We’ve known about climate change for a long time. Gertner lists the many scientists and publications that warned of the danger we face.

I, like many scientists of my generation, are now facing the issue translating what we know into public policy. This requires us to learn new ways of acting in society.

Recently, I’ve been asked (as a scientist) whether we are doomed. “Worst case” doomed means the end of life on earth. Sometimes I worry about that. At other times, I think life is highly resilient, and we may make it to a future.

Why haven’t I spoken out, agitated, demonstrated? I really don’t have an answer.


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