The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and our Perilous Future
Jon Gertner, Random House, 448 pages, 2019. $28
The recent news was both alarming and, given all we’ve been known for many years now, hardly surprising. The rate of annual melting from the massive ice sheet covering most of Greenland has increased by over seven times since the 1990s, from 33 billion tons in 1992 to an average of 254 billion tons a year over the past decade.
Ice once stored atop one the planet’s largest islands is now water drawn by the inexorable force of gravity into the world’s oceans. Across the globe, this will result in higher tides, higher storm surges and ultimately, higher sea levels. With 40% of the Earth’s population living within 100 kilometers of the coast, this will have massive economic and social impacts. As scientists have warned for decades, the loss of the Greenlandic ice sheet would be perhaps the most devastating result of climate change. And after years of efforts at calculating how fast it might recede in the future, the end result has been to learn that most of the forecasts erred too far on the low side.
So the timing could not be better for publication of “The Ice at the End of the World,” a comprehensive examination of European exploration and discovery in Greenland by historian and science journalist Jon Gertner.
Examining the impacts of climate change on Greenland, and the resultant effects on the rest of the world, provided the primary motivation for this book. But what’s also important to know is that some of the most profound understandings of the planet’s climate history have come from research undertaken in Greenland. With that in mind, Gertner goes back to the beginning to show how this happened.
The earliest native inhabitants of Greenland are gone now. So are the earliest European immigrants, Norse settlers who arrived around 985 C.E. and lasted until around 1425, when they vanished for reasons still unknown. The Inuit, now considered indigenous to the island, didn’t show up until about 1200.
It was in the late 1800s that Europeans and Americans seriously turned their attention to Greenland, and in successive chapters in the first half of this book, Gertner recounts the tales of the most well known among them.
The Norwegian polymath Fridtjof Nansen was first to lead an expedition across the ice sheet, traversing the narrow southern end of the island in 1888. This marked the initial arrival of humans on the sheet itself. The Inuit saw no value in going there.
Nansen was followed a few years later by the highly competitive and ethically adrift Robert Peary, who honed his skills in northern Greenland before launching his attempts at the North Pole.
Early in the 20th century, Knud Rasmussen set out across the ice in the first of many Arctic excursions that made him the most accomplished polar explorer of his age, and one of the finest ever.
Over the first half of the book, Gertner recounts these expeditions and others with marvelous storytelling skills, and for this reason alone the book is worthy of inclusion in any decent library of Arctic history. But here the stories of the pioneers are only setting the stage.
Over the course of the second half of this book, Gertner tells of the researchers who came in the wake of the initial explorers, retracing their paths in search of scientific knowledge. They wanted to know how the ice functioned, and discover its history.
This was a process that involved decades of data gathering by a long procession of individuals, each of whom built on what had been found before. A huge boost was provided by the United States Air Force. During World War Two it established the Thule Air Base on the island’s northwestern coast, expanding it tremendously in the first decades of the Cold War.
The need for knowledge of how to construct buildings on the ice meant that scientists were able to hitch rides along with the military and conduct research. Much of it was related to defense purposes, but among the projects largely outside of the military’s concerns was the drilling of ice cores, which subsequently proved to be the best means ever found to study the Earth’s climate history.
Gertner goes into great detail without ever overwhelming the reader. His ability to explain the complexities of atmospheric and physical sciences in easily grasped language is admirable. A lot of discoveries are discussed in this book, but the two biggest findings are the cores and the ice loss.
The cores themselves are windows into the past. The type of snow that falls on the ice sheet differs between summer and winter, making each year visible in the cores as a distinct ring. From this can be found a number of things. Historic dust counts, precipitation data, and, from trapped air bubbles, precise measurements of CO2 levels in the atmosphere going back thousands of years.
The most dramatic finding from these cores was that major climate shifts, long thought to be slow processes, can happen in little more than a decade, not centuries. With enough atmospheric drivers, a tipping point is hit and things can change dramatically and suddenly. And every time the planet has heated up, heightened CO2 levels have been a corollary.
This is possibly what is happening now. The ice is melting rapidly, and under the worst case scenario, global sea levels will rise several meters, wiping out many of the world’s major cites and creating as many as a billion climate refugees. And to reiterate, scientists have traditionally lowballed the likely ice loss. The worst case scenario appears to be exactly where we are.
There’s much more to this fascinating, well-written, and extremely timely work. “I’ve come to see Greenland’s ice as an analog for time,” Gertner writes. “It contains the past. It reflects the present. And it seems capable, too, of telling us how much time we have left.”
Greenland is the canary in the global climate mine. As it goes, so goes the world.