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.