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3 October 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 3:40pm

What melting sea ice means for the future of the Earth

A Farewell to Ice reveals the sad truth: one day Arctic ice, our planet's air con, will be gone.

By John Burnside

In a poem entitled “State of the Planet”, from his 2007 collection, Time and Mat­erials, Robert Hass imagines the kind of ecology textbook that might be given to a schoolgirl he sees in passing from his car, a child walking to school in unseasonably heavy rain, who, sooner or later, will demand an explanation for the damage our generation has done to the Earth. That book would tell of the trapped emissions from millions of idling cars – including Hass’s own – and go on to say that, although the study of climate is a complex matter, it is strongly possible that “we may be doing this”. If we are, however, we are doing it “quite accidentally”.

A decade later, it is harder to agree with that last point, and reading the poem’s inventory of harms that “we” have inflicted on Planet Earth, from the loss of topsoil, through the “fouled rivers”, to great tribes of cod and haddock “about fished out”, one feels that accidental does not come into it. By the time Hass published Time and Materials, we were already quite aware of what we were doing and certainly those who make the more important decisions in industry and government had enough evidence of species loss, ocean and soil degradation and climate change to know what the risks were of continuing with business as usual.

One of the reasons they knew was that, for decades now, Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge from 1992 to 2015, has been alerting us all to the damage being caused to the Arctic Ocean and the consequent imbalance of winter and summer ice. Between 1976 and 1987, his measurements in the Arctic showed a 15 per cent loss of thickness in the ice layer; by 2000 this had reached 40 per cent. Today, he says, the picture is even gloomier.

The Northwest Passage is now easily navigable, and by the end of 2015 a total of 238 ships had sailed through it. In September 2012 sea ice covered only 3.4 million square kilometres of the Arctic Ocean’s surface, down from 8 million square kilometres in the 1970s. It is difficult to overstate what this means in terms of planetary change. Our planet has actually changed colour . . . Today, from space, the top of the world in the northern summer looks blue instead of white. We have created an ocean where there was once an ice sheet. It is Man’s first major achievement in reshaping the face of his planet . . .

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A Farewell to Ice is, necessarily, a compendium of facts and figures, and although there is nothing that the average reader cannot follow with a little application, the story of sea ice is a complicated matter of tectonic shifts, variations in temperature and atmospheric gas concentrations and the changing chemistry of seawater. For dedicated scientists, data and equations are the bread-and-butter of conversation and debate; for a wider public, however, the statistics and graphs, though illuminating at the time of reading, quickly slip into vagueness and inaccurate recollection. How many times greater is the greenhouse warming effect of methane than that of carbon dioxide? How much have glacier mass balance figures varied over several continents since the 1960s? The information can be fascinating but it does not stick – and concerned scientists must find new ways of expressing the urgency of our predicament, and the beauty of what is being lost. This Wadhams does wonderfully, as in a passage where he explains the structure of very cold water:

We normally think of liquids as having no structure and being composed of random molecules swirling and tumbling around one another. But cold liquid water contains some of the short-range order of ice, with the crystal-like bonded structure remaining within groups of molecules for seconds or minutes at a time until it is destroyed by thermal motion. It is like a group of people at a busy railway station trying to stand together and talk but being split apart by eddying crowds.

This kind of analogous thinking opens up the science so that anyone can picture it – and at the same time reminds us of the many fundamental assumptions we make that have no basis in nature.

A few lines before that passage, the author explains how skating is possible (like so many natural phenomena, such as the behaviour of icebergs, it depends on water being “very unusual among molecules in that the solid form is less dense than the ­liquid”; were it not so, there would be no life as we know it on this planet). The pressure of a skate on the ice “lowers the melting point and the ice just under the skate melts, lubricating it”.

Wadhams’s writing sparkles when he focuses on his favourite topics: the beauty and complexity of ice, and the ways in which frozen water, very cold water and cooling water regulate planetary systems (not just weather systems). As we follow him across the frozen land, it would be difficult not to delight in the taxonomy of ice and in the pithy, often engaging or humorous descriptions of the various taxa (for instance, “the randomly shaped pieces of crystal” that form “a suspension of increasing density in the surface water, like a white slurry, or the medicine known as Milk of Magnesia”, a state designated as “frazil”, or grease ice).

He is also very good at embedding the mathematics of his subject in visual imagery, as in his description of what happens when a thin layer of water freezes on a windowpane to form the delicate tracery that every child knows: “The first ice crystal to form sends arms shooting out across the glass at angles of 60 degrees to one another, then fills in the gaps with new arms like the branches of a tree. In every case the angle is 60 degrees and the growth of the arms is very fast – this is called dendritic growth, from the Greek word for tree.”

What this passage does, simply and rather elegantly, is to return the reader to a time in childhood when, standing at a window or a glass door, perhaps bored and waiting for something else to happen, he or she made these same observations, noticing though not measuring patterns and consistencies, and not at all conscious of doing “science”.

On the science side as such, not only is A Farewell to Ice a clear and engaging account of how the physics and chemistry of ice work, but it also offers what may be the best chapter-length, reader-friendly account of the greenhouse effect available to date. Both the writing and the fine colour photographs that support it tell a frightening tale of the present and future consequences of Arctic ice retreat. Yet the purpose of a book such as this one is not to talk to other scientists, but to provoke fresh thinking among a wider readership – which is why, like the poet Hass, Wadhams provides his own “State of the Planet” address, combining factual data, suggested next steps in “buying precious time while we seek permanent solutions to the climate crisis” and political observations that, by now, should have become clear to everyone.

Economically the world’s rickety financial structure still requires perpetual growth in order to retain stability, with a banking system which is more and more obviously parasitic upon society. Within the present capitalist system, as practised by everyone including China, there is no way that a sustainable equilibrium society can be tolerated. Everyone knows that exponential growth in everything cannot continue and will lead only to disaster, yet every finance minister seeks to encourage economic growth to get his country out of the financial difficulties which he or his predecessors have created.

None of this is new, and we can find more detailed analyses of the problem of growth in earlier commentaries (say, André Gorz’s work on “zero growth” theory), but Wadhams’s particular combination – of scientific passion, a lyrical sense of wonder at the natural world, an ability to pluck clear analogies from the air, and outspoken analysis of consumer-capitalist politics – marks out A Farewell to Ice as essential reading, even if some of the data in the book seems to go in one ear and out the other. If nothing else, making the effort to follow the finer points of his argument might lift us from the ­passive condition into which those of us who have sufficient for the day have sunk, becoming mere consumers. “So long as we can consume luxuries, drive our cars and fly to holiday beaches for a few more years,” Wadhams writes, “we are quite willing to close our eyes to the certainty of future disease, poverty, warfare and crime.”

Even those who deplore the workings of consumer society seem unable to act, mostly because we have yet to accept, in real terms, that sustainability and growth do not go together, and that one day the Arctic ice – our planetary air-conditioning system – will be gone, if not for good, then for a very long time to come.

John Burnside is a poet, novelist, memoirist and nature writer. His collection “Black Cat Bone” (Jonathan Cape) won the 2011 T S Eliot Prize for poetry

A Farewell to Ice by Peter Wadhams is published by Allen Lane (320pp, £20)

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This article appears in the 28 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories