This excerpt comes from the Introduction to Dahr Jamail‘s book, The End of Ice. Dahr Jamail is an award winning journalist and author who is a full-time staff reporter for Truthout.org. His work is currently focusing on Anthropogenic Climate Disruption.
Featured image: a rapidly melting glacier on Tahoma (Mt. Rainier), by Max Wilbert.
By Dahr Jamail
Our planet is rapidly changing, and what we are witnessing is unlike anything that has occurred in human, or even geologic, history. The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane, both greenhouse gases, has been scientific fact for decades, and according to NASA, “There is no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response.” Evidence shows that greenhouse gas emissions are causing the Earth to warm ten times faster than it should, and the ramifications of this are being felt, quite literally, throughout the entire biosphere. Oceans are warming at unprecedented rates, droughts and wildfires of increasing severity and frequency are altering forests around the globe, and the Earth’s cryosphere—the parts of the Earth so cold that water is frozen into ice or snow—is melting at an ever-accelerating rate. The subsea permafrost in the Arctic is thawing, and we could experience a methane “burp” of previously trapped gas at any moment, causing the equivalent of several times the total amount of CO2 humans have emitted to be released into the atmosphere. The results would be catastrophic.
Climate disruption brings with it extreme weather, too, such as hurricanes and floods. For instance, a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, leading to an increase in the frequency of severe major rain events, such as Hurricane Harvey over Houston during the summer of 2017, which dropped so much rain that the weight of the water actually caused the Earth’s crust to sink two centimeters.
Earth has not seen current atmospheric CO2 levels since the Pliocene, some 3 million years ago. Three-quarters of that CO2 will still be here in five hundred years. Given that it takes a decade to experience the full warming effects of CO2 emissions, we are still that far away from experiencing the impact of all the CO2 that we are currently emitting. Even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions, it would take another 25,000 years for most of what is currently in the atmosphere to be absorbed into the oceans. Climate disruption is progressing faster than ever, and faster than predicted. Seventeen of the eighteen hottest years [now, eighteen of the nineteen hottest years] ever recorded have occurred since the year 2001. The distress signals from our overheated planet are all around us, with reports, studies, and warnings increasing daily. Every single worst-case prediction made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the rise in temperatures, extreme weather, sea levels, and the increasing CO2 content in the atmosphere have fallen short of reality. Countless glaciers, rivers, lakes, forests, and species are already vanishing at a pace never seen before, and all of this from increasing the global mean temperature by “only” 1°C above preindustrial baseline temperatures. According to some scientists, it could rise as much as a 10°C by the year 2100.6
A study led by James Hansen, the former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, warned that even staying within a 2°C temperature-warming limit has caused unstoppable melting in both the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. This will raise global sea levels by as much as ten feet by the year 2050, inundating numerous major coastal cities with seawater.7 New York, Boston, Miami, Tampa, New Orleans, Jakarta, Singapore, Osaka, Tokyo, Mumbai, Kolkata, Dhaka, and Ho Chi Minh City are only a few examples of cities that will, sooner or later, have to be moved or abandoned to the sea.
Mountaineering in today’s climate-disrupted world is a vastly different endeavor than it used to be. Glaciers are vanishing before our eyes, having shrunk to the lowest levels ever recorded, and they are now melting faster than ever. In North America, 70 percent of the glaciers in western Canada are projected to be gone by 2100. Montana’s Glacier National Park will most likely not have any active glaciers by 2030. The Matanuska Glacier’s ancient ice is, by now, rapidly vanishing. Dramatic changes are occurring even in the planet’s highest and coldest places. Even Mount Everest (Sagarmatha/Chomolungma) is transforming, as thousands of glaciers across the Himalayas will likely shrink by up to 99 percent by 2100. A child born today will see an Everest largely free of glaciers within her lifetime.
Before embarking on this book, I already knew the extent to which human-caused climate disruption had advanced. I had lived in Alaska for a decade beginning in 1996 and had spent time on the glaciers there. As early as the late nineties, large portions of the holiday season would go by in Anchorage without any snow on the ground, the waterfalls that my climbing friends and I had used for ice climbing barely froze some winters, and we could see the glaciers we used to traverse to access peaks shrinking from year to year. But I wasn’t aware of what was happening in the oceans and the rain forests. I wasn’t aware of the rise in sea levels and the changing climate’s impact on biodiversity.
I started reporting on the environment and climate in 2010, and since then I’ve published more than one hundred articles about climate disruption and given many lectures and radio interviews on the subject. This work established the foundation of my research, so by the time I began my field research for this book, I knew what to expect: that humans had already altered planetary climate systems. That is why, rather than the more commonly used “climate change,” I prefer to use the term “anthropogenic (human-caused) climate disruption.” Without question, the human race is responsible.
My original aim with this book was to provide a view of what was happening around the world: from the heights of Denali to the Great Barrier Reef; from the remote, windswept islands in the Bering Sea to the Florida coast. I wanted to explore how the forests across the western United States were impacted by drought and wildfire and investigate what was happening to the Amazon, the largest rain forest on Earth. Knowing that most people will likely never visit most of these places, I hoped to bring home to the reader the urgency of our planetary crisis through firsthand accounts of what is happening to the glaciers, forests, wildlife, coral reefs, and oceans, alongside data provided by leading scientists who study them.
The reporting in this book has turned out to be far more difficult to deal with than the years I spent reporting from war-torn Iraq. But I have come to realize that only by sharing an intimacy with these places can we begin to know, perhaps love, and certainly care for them. Only by having this intimacy with the natural world can we fully understand how dramatically our actions are impacting it.
In Nepal, the sacred mountain Machhapuchchhre rises abruptly on the eastern boundary of the Annapurna Sanctuary. As a child, I came across a photograph of this peak in a geography textbook and was immediately captivated by its majesty. Shaped like a fish’s tail, the knife-edged ridge that forms its summit is a seemingly paper-thin line of rock that drops precipitously on either side, causing the apex of the peak, which is nearly half a mile higher than the top of Denali, to be one of the more dramatic summits anywhere. It is a masterpiece of nature.
The Nepalese believe Machhapuchchhre is sacred to Shiva, one of the primary deities of Hinduism, who is known as both “the Destroyer” and “the Transformer” and believed to be without form—limitless, transcendent, and eternally unchanging. The mountain is forbidden to climbers, and to this day no human has ever stood atop that summit. I believe this is a just decision, and I have always wished more parts of Earth could be placed out of human reach.
Staring at that picture as a youth, time would cease to exist. I fell in love with Machhapuchchhre, and in the process I became enraptured with all mountains. When I was ten years old, I saw the Rocky Mountains of Colorado for the first time, their silhouettes against the setting sun, and I was awestruck. In the fall of 1995, I traveled to Alaska and drove a short way into Denali National Park and Preserve. When the afternoon clouds parted to reveal the majesty of Denali’s summit, my first inclination was to bow in wonderment. A year later I moved to Alaska and trained myself in the mountaineering skills I needed to access these sanctuaries that stand far from the violence, speed, and greed of our increasingly dystopian industrial society. The Scottish American naturalist, author, philosopher, and early wilderness-preservation advocate John Muir captured my feelings precisely: “I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.”
A glacier is essentially suspended energy, suspended force. It is time, in that sense, life, frozen in time. But now, these frozen rivers of time are themselves running out of time. The planet’s ecosystems, now pushed far beyond their capacity to adapt to human-generated traumas and stresses, are in a state of free fall. Similar to how I watched hundreds of years of time compressed into glacial ice flash before my eyes in a matter of seconds as I fell into the crevasse, Earth’s species, glaciers, rivers, lakes, and forests are, in the blink of a geologic eye, falling into oblivion.
Modern life has compressed time and space. Through air travel or instantaneous communication and access to information you can traverse the globe in a matter of hours or gain knowledge nanoseconds after a question is posed. The price for this, along with everything we want, on demand, all the time, is a total disconnection from the planet that sustains our lives.
I venture into the wilds and into the mountains in large part to allow space and time to stretch themselves back to what they were. The frenetic pace of contemporary life is having a devastating impact on this planet. Humans have transformed more than half the ice-free land on Earth. We have changed the composition of the atmosphere and the chemistry of the oceans from which we came. We now use more than half the planet’s readily accessible freshwater runoff, and the majority of the world’s major rivers have been either dammed or diverted.
As a species, we now hang over the abyss of a geoengineered future we have created for ourselves. At our insistence, our voracious appetite is consuming nature itself. We have refused to heed the warnings Earth has been sending, and there is no rescue team on its way.
The term “Anthropogenic Climate Disruption” is used to highlight the origins of current climate change in human activities, as opposed to other climate changes that have occurred in human history. Melting of the glaciers is one such effect of the Anthropogenic Climate Disruption. It can, in turn, cause problems like climate migration, rising sea level, etc. Learn more about the issue in Dahr Jamail’s book, The End of Ice.