May on the Greenland ice sheet, a small cluster of tents was the only color, the only solid thing to be seen. Otherwise, the white was pure and unbroken to every horizon. On this western side of Greenland, the ice is 5,000 feet deep, and below is buried a mountain range that causes the surface to slowly, almost invisibly undulate across the miles.
As snowmobile teams arrived at camp from checking remote data stations, they all had the same report. The stations were either wrecked or they simply couldn’t be found. Some had been toppled by storms where sturdy metal poles had been bent horizontal by winds. Others had collapsed from unprecedented melt the previous fall as their 30-foot anchors thawed out of the ice. One was just gone, perhaps swallowed by freshly opened crevasses now covered in a layer of solid winter snow.
Stomping off inside the tight kitchen tent, stripping down layers, the discussion of these lost stations was not alarming. It wasn’t as you might hope in the Hollywood sense where a small team of scientists hundreds of miles into desolation realizes that something dire has happened, the earth sending out its final warning signals. Instead, the scientists grumbled. This meant more work. New anchors had to be drilled. Data had been lost. It was unusual to have every station go down, but what are you going to do? Things are shifting out there. The world is not stable. How unstable, how shifting, from what causes, and where the shifts lead are questions this camp was helping to answer. Now, if the ice would just stop swallowing data.
In the tent was a circular plywood table with folding chairs set up around it. While wind sounded like it was tearing the world apart outside, José Rial, an abrupt climate change researcher out of North Carolina University, talked about the remote but chilling potential of climate instability pitching the earth into a new ice age.
“The earth by itself makes these jumps, even without us,” said Rial. “Right now we are tinkering to the point we could initiate a jump on our own.”
Rial studies chaos. He has audio recorders set up around the camp, from which he listens to pops, creaks, and ice quakes shivering through this white, polar mass. What most scientists disregard as background noise, Rial studies for hidden patterns, insights into how our planet functions. From these sounds, he hopes to understand the inner workings of one of the major climate indicators for the planet, a polar ice sheet.
Rial continued, “A jump could go substantially higher or lower, both possibilities exist. There are some computer models that say global warming can lead to another ice age by disrupting climates.”
A French grad student across the table said, “But are they using Mac or PC?”
Laughter broke out where five others were working on laptops, scribbling in notebooks. Models are useful, but they do not say what will happen, only what might happen. They are based on the best knowledge. Rial, who listens to white noise, says our best knowledge is not all knowledge. There are still important pieces to the puzzle not yet recognized.
Konrad Steffen, a lead cryosphere author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, looked up from his notebook and said, “If we’ve done anything, we’ve stopped the next glacial period from happening by warming the earth.”
“Science is not about common sense,” Rial added. “It is about uncommon sense. It is about seeing what is not obvious.”
The French grad student, a big shouldered guy who could out-shovel us all in the snow, looked up again and blurted, “In a hundred years we’re f-----. I guarantee you.”
In his sage, Swiss-German accent, Steffen said, “What do we know in a hundred years?”
A lot is made of scientists disagreeing about climate change. As you travel among researchers, however, you learn the differences are often minor. There is agreement that heat is generally rising and climates are misbehaving, becoming erratic. It is cause for concern at a time in human history where most of civilization is gathered along fragile coastlines, our industry and agriculture worldwide dependent on this world being a level playing field, environments continuing as they are now.
The disagreement between scientists is often where change leads and how fast it takes to get there. Steffen believes we do not have enough of a data set from the ice to say if we’re truly seeing runaway melt and collapse right now, while others looking at the same data say we are at the point of no return, the world we knew is coming to an end.
Steffen was preparing notes for later in the summer when he would be heading to Europe to meet with more than 300 cryosphere scientists from around the world. They would be talking about what exactly is happening out there, where erratic climate changes might be taking us. Regional knowledge is no longer enough.
That night a storm socked in the camp. In ghostly polar light, everyone went to their sleeping tents. Wind wrapped around each tent around 60 miles per hour, forming shark-finned drifts that unraveled across the ice. All night, the snow thickened.
The next day, a Twin Otter ski plane landed at camp, gliding up to the edge of half-snow-buried sleeping tents. Pilots had found a window in the storm and managed to drop down through it. The cargo door opened in a strong wind, and out piled men in heavy cold weather gear. They climbed down the plane’s ladder as if stepping onto the face of the moon. The plane carried the crown prince of Holland, the head of the European Space Agency, and the head of the Norwegian Academy of Science followed by a pack of photographers and videographers. They were here for a debrief, seeking from Steffen a report on the state of the world, and the film crew was along for PR. The prince wanted to know what is happening to our planet. Steffen had not missed a season on this ice for 30 years. If anyone knows the state of the earth, it is him.
There was not room for everyone in the kitchen tent around the round table, just Steffen and his guests. The rest of us had to wait outside in diffuse storm-light, sky soft and bright as the ground so you couldn’t tell the difference between up and down.
I stood with Rial at the door of the kitchen tent, but could not hear inside. Small snowdrifts wound around our boots. It felt odd to have strangers at our far-flung camp, especially kicking us out of our own kitchen tent where night after night we had shared stories and tried but perhaps failed to solve world problems. Some of the visiting photographers were out shooting pictures of our sleeping tents and the tailfin drifts that had formed around them.
“They’re taking pictures of our tents,” I said, almost disgusted. I was feeling possessive of our ephemeral home in this infinite white place.
Rial smiled at me from under his hood. “If there’s one behavior that causes our demise it is that. Darwin says there are some instincts that kill us.”
I’d been talking with Steffen on tape, asking him about the state of the world, so I had some idea of what he was telling his visitors. He was saying not to panic, that people don’t make good decisions when they panic. He was probably saying that major, unprecedented changes are afoot, and if they continue at the current pace for more than a decade or two, or maybe a century, we will be living on a very different planet. Ice is melting at rates remarkable to the human eye, which lubricates the movement of glaciers and ice sheets to the sea, effectively changing the balances civilization and most of the species on this planet have enjoyed for thousands of years. The ramifications to sea level and marine dynamics, not to mention weather patterns and the loss of fresh water sources in mid-latitude locations from Asia to the Alps are not insignificant. A world with dwindling ice is different than the world we know.
Steffen had once complained to me at his round table that when he talks to politicians, policy-makers, it’s hard to get them to think beyond their own campaigns. He said, “They think only in two years, election cycles. What is two years?”
I suppose the prince came out here to have a glimpse of what lies beyond the short years we tend to believe are forever. There is a far bigger world going on around us.
What is the future of that world? Both Steffen and Rial told me you probably won’t know until after it has happened. Too much is unknown to say for sure. But enough is known to say the change is not only coming, it is here.
What can be done? So many scientists have told me you cannot stop the change at this point. But I also come away with the sense that you can alter the direction of the change. Because we don’t entirely know how it works, no option can be discounted. Every small thing counts.
Since I couldn’t hear the conversation inside the tent, I set off walking around camp. At the ragged edge of a storm, you don’t want to go far, so I just walked a slow circle around drifted gear boxes, oil barrels, propane canisters. Blades of anemometers spun wildly as I pulled my hood forward to block the wind. Looking out from here, I could no longer see the world, earth and sky gone, everything I ever knew carried away.