The Breath of a Dying Glacier

The Breath of a Dying Glacier

Seeing it for myself (July 2018)

Last summer, high in California’s John Muir Wilderness, I was drawn to a death watch. While checking for air mattress leaks and jamming an extra snack into my backpack, I had no idea this expedition would become a pilgrimage. Miles above me, the Palisade Glacier lay dying among the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada. I needed to be there.

To my kids I’m a “planet nerd,” fascinated with arcane measures of the earth’s vital signs. Our world now has concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere unseen since the Pliocene epoch, about 3 million years ago. Back then, temperatures were warmer, seas were 20 meters higher and trees grew in polar regions. There were few glaciers – and no humans. Our climate is heading back to such a state at breakneck speed.

Indeed, human civilization evolved in a climate that is now essentially gone. That stable world, where temperatures varied by only 1°F over ten thousand years, has been replaced by a world that has warmed by almost 2°F in just two hundred years. In this new world our climate, weather and ecological support systems are changing rapidly, and they will continue to do so in ever more disruptive and dangerous ways. Glacial retreat is one of many long-predicted indicators of the enormous forces of nature we have unleashed.

As an environmental scientist and climate educator, I pore over measurements and stories that document the enormous transformation underway. This work is ecologically fascinating, often alarming and ever-more frightening. Putting one foot in front of the other as I ascended the trail under the weight of my pack, I acknowledged my compulsion to bear witness to these changes. This would require a vertical climb of 4,500 feet into a mountain wilderness. My brain wasn’t sure my sixty-something body could go the distance. My heart wasn’t sure it wanted to.

That glaciers are dying before our eyes is no surprise. The physical laws governing our climate were known before the U.S. Civil War. In 1859, John Tyndall concluded that gases in the atmosphere help heat the planet. Scientists have warned every President since Lyndon Johnson that human emissions of carbon dioxide would threaten national security by raising sea level, interfering with food production and displacing human populations. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1979 that if emissions continued there was “… no reason to doubt that climate changes will result, and no reason to believe these changes will be negligible.”

This classic piece of scientific understatement proved to be no match for the systematic effort of lies and deception funded by the fossil fuel industry that continues today. Nor was the direct (and courageous) Senate testimony of Dr. James Hansen of NASA in 1988 that the impact of human emissions on global temperature had been detected.

From a promontory at Fifth Lake that offered a 360-degree view of the evening’s fading alpenglow, I reflected on the testimony I myself have delivered at least once a month for the last 12 years. At Rotary Clubs, places of worship, businesses and universities – even on a cruise ship in Antarctica – I’ve explained the physics of our predicament to anybody who will listen. I present the facts to engender action, insisting that we are responsible for repairing the world for our children and grandchildren.

Leaving camp the next morning, I climbed through brilliant assemblages of wildflowers, continuing up a dwindling trail that eventually gave way to a vast expanse of desolate granite. The historic evidence of glacial power was visible everywhere as polished rock and towering arȇtes. Cresting a lateral moraine at 12,000 feet, the Palisade Glacier came into view below me, just a shadow of its former self. The rocks beneath the glacier poked through it in many places, like the ribs of a starving animal that has reached the point of no return.

Resting in the vast mountain silence, I considered the ancient ice that may be gone before I am.

An extraordinary sadness wells up when bearing witness to a dying glacier. Sadness for the loss of our special places and traditional livelihoods – and for the end of our innocence regarding the profound and painful side-effects of our fossil-fueled lives. I fear for my children, and feel enormous guilt as they realize those who nurtured them are bequeathing a future filled with smoke, disease outbreaks, rising waters, half-empty reservoirs and human tragedy.

A cold wind snapped me to attention. I turned away from the glacier to descend to camp, taking stock of the hard work that lies ahead of us. We’re not goners – the world we get will still be the world we choose. But we can no longer choose the world we had. This realization is leading many to retreat into denial and complacency to avoid the fear and sadness. Instead, we must acknowledge these feelings, as only then will we have the freedom to act with the speed, scale and vision needed at this time of crisis.

This difficult task is harder because so many American politicians refuse to tell the truth. The President’s ignorant proclamation that the climate “will change back again” reflects this horrifying failure of leadership, as it discourages everyone from coming to grips with a reality that already has us in its grasp.

That cold wind on the ridge, the breath of dying glacier, is now a constant companion when I speak about climate change. I want my audiences to feel as viscerally as I do that our moment of reckoning has arrived. We either act with urgency and ambition, or suffer the consequences in infamy and regret. It is time to choose.