The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption
By Dahr Jamail. The New Press, 2019. 272 pages. $25.99.
Alaskans are, or should be, well aware of the Earth’s warming and the very serious problems confronting all life as humans continue to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Entire bookshelves — indeed, libraries — have filled with evidence and warnings since Bill McKibben’s now-classic “The End of Nature” in 1989.
In “The End of Ice,” journalist Dahr Jamail continues the conversation with extensive scientific research and the story of his own journey to speak with climate scientists, political leaders, and ordinary people feeling the effects of climate change and preparing for an uncertain future. A reader seeking a single book about the current state of our warming world should find “The End of Ice” an ideal summary. While it is rich in well-documented, very recent climate research, it never sinks beneath that weight. Jamail’s narrative style, sharing his travels into the mountains and elsewhere, keeps the story personal and lively throughout.
The author begins with a dramatic story about falling into a crevasse in Alaska, establishing that his years of climbing in Alaska “had provided me with a front-row seat from where I could witness the dramatic impact of human-caused climate disruption.” (He uses the term “human-caused climate disruption” throughout the book, preferring it to “climate change” for its greater accuracy.) He then describes a time on Denali, which he’d climbed many times on his own, as a guide, and as a volunteer with the National Park Service. That allows him to present changes he’d personally experienced with snow and ice and to lay out the basic facts of warming. We also learn something of his journalism background, which included a decade of covering the war in Iraq, documenting the plight of the people in news articles and eventually three books.
Much of the early part of the book does, as advertised, focus on ice. Jamail volunteered with the United State Geological Survey in 2016 to measure glacial ice on Alaska’s Gulkana Glacier and later visited other Alaska glaciers and Glacier National Park in Montana to observe them and talk with glaciologists. As glaciers worldwide melt, retreat, shrink, and thin, the implications are disastrous. Glaciers contain 69 percent of all the freshwater on the planet and are essential to human needs, including agriculture — never mind their larger ecosystem services. (Switzerland, we learn, has experimented with covering glaciers with white blankets in summer in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the ice from melting.)
Jamail also travels to St. Paul Island, in the Pribilofs, to consider sea ice and to talk with people there about the changes they’ve witnessed in fisheries and in the seal and bird rookeries. The massive bird die-offs in 2015 and 2016 are discussed here; starvation resulted from very warm temperatures in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska that supported toxic algal blooms and affected the entire food web. Jamail gives extensive attention (here and throughout the book) to the accounts of local and indigenous people, along with scientists.
From the north, the author travels to and witnesses climate disruption in Palau, Guam, and Australia — all places where warm water has bleached and killed coral reefs. Then, in Florida, he notes the discrepancy between rising waters (including the contamination of aquifers) and the lack of urgency on the part of political leaders, developers, and homeowners. Another chapter considers the fate of forests, which, especially in the American West, are drying, dying, and burning. Finally, we come to the Amazon rainforest, where climate disruption coupled with deforestation and political corruption are causing the release of massive amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere.
At the end, Jamail returns to Alaska — specifically to Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow). He discusses sea ice conditions, coastal erosion, and especially the melting of permafrost. (“Estimates of how much carbon will be released by thawing permafrost show that it could average around 1.5 billion tons annually, which is roughly the same amount as the current U. S. annual emissions from burning fossils fuels.”) He also brings in the science of ocean currents and the exchange of warm and cold waters; the currents carrying warm water north are strengthening, while those carrying cold water south are weakening, with serious implications for more northern warming and the release of methane from now-frozen seabeds.
If all of this sounds very grim, the truth is. This is a hard book to read. Over and over, the scientists Jamail interviews tell him that the changes they’re observing are happening faster and are more extreme and disastrous than previously predicted. Scientists are conservative and circumspect by nature, but here they consistently paint a picture of a world already gone past limits — agreeing that we face a future of mass extinction, greatly diminished livability, and dislocation of entire communities and cultures.
In his conclusion, though, Jamail tries to get beyond despair. Using the analogy of a dying friend, he allows himself to grieve while asking “what am I called forth to do at this time?” Just as his hope that reporting from Iraq would bring about the end of that war was not realized, he doesn’t expect that his words here will save the planet. He decides to be “hope-free.” He will instead love the Earth as he would a dying friend and witness its beauty as he can. When he goes into his beloved mountains, he tells us, “my job is to learn to listen to them ever more deeply, and share what they are telling us with those who are also listening.”