[Marxism] Climate Shock: We're on Thin Ice, By Kelpie Wilson (book review)

Mike Friedman mikedf at amnh.org
Mon Jan 2 08:58:40 MST 2006


      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.


      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 Nino 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 Nino 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 Nino from 

      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.


      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.


      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 

      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 


Michael Friedman
Doctoral Candidate in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior
City University of New York

Molecular Systematics Laboratory
Department of Invertebrate Zoology
American Museum of Natural History
79th Street at Central Park West
New York, NY 10024

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