The one war that the human species can’t lose [The New Yorker, 20/02/20]
The ice in Antarctica is melting six times faster than it did forty years ago, resulting in more calving of icebergs—with existential stakes.Photograph by Robin Wright
On the final day of my expedition to Antarctica last year, ten of us set out on a Zodiac to tour dozens of icebergs in nature’s wondrous ocean museum. The frozen sculptures glistened in exquisite hues of blue and cyan; iceberg colors vary by the density of air bubbles.
Each was formed after snapping off an ancient glacier. The iceberg that sank the Titanic in the Atlantic, in 1912, was considered a mere “bergy bit,” or a smaller piece of floating ice; it melted within a couple of years. The ones we saw around Antarctica were massive.
Occasionally, we spotted blubbery elephant seals (which can weigh more than four tons) napping on icebergs, or Adélie penguins (so named by a French explorer, for his wife) leaping among them, or a Humpback whale’s blow unnervingly nearby.
As we headed back to the ship, the naturalist steering the Zodiac suddenly turned off the motor. “Listen,” he said. Antarctica is usually a powerfully silent continent except for the gusting winds or the lapping waves on its coastline. He put his finger up, signalling to wait for it. We sat motionless. A thundering crack then ripped through the air, echoing across the water until it felt like it was going off inside my head. We watched a towering slice of the continent break off and crash into the Southern Ocean. It felt cataclysmic.
For almost a half century, I’ve covered wars, revolutions and uprisings on four continents, many for years on end. I’ve always been an outside observer watching as others killed each other. I lamented the loss of human life—and the warring parties’ self-destructive practices—from an emotional distance.
In Antarctica, I saw war through a different prism. And I was the enemy. “Humans will be but a blip in the span of Earth’s history,” Wayne Ranney, a naturalist and geologist on the expedition, told me. “The only question is how long the blip will be.”
Last week, the temperature in Antarctica hit almost seventy degrees—the hottest in recorded history. It wasn’t a one-day fluke. Famed for its snowscapes, the Earth’s coldest, wildest, windiest, highest, and most mysterious continent has been experiencing a heat wave.
A few days earlier, an Antarctic weather station recorded temperatures in the mid-sixties. It was colder in Washington, D.C., where I live. Images of northern Antarctica captured vast swaths of barren brown terrain devoid of ice and with only small puddle-like patches of snow.
The problem is not whether a new record was set, “it’s the longer-term trend that makes those records more likely to happen more often,” John Nielsen-Gammon, the director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies at Texas A. & M. University, told me this week.
“It’s sort of like a forest where trees are constantly growing and trees are dying, but if they start dying faster than they can grow back, then you eventually lose the forest,” he said. “The same thing applies to glaciers. Glaciers flow out to the ocean and break off, but if they break off faster then the glacier retreats and you lose ice—and then the sea level goes up around the world.”