“The Last Winter: The Scientists, Adventurers, Journeymen, and Mavericks Trying to Save the World”
By Porter Fox; Little, Brown and Company, 2021; 305 pages; $28.
Porter Fox, a journalist who’s written a great deal about snow, skiing and the ski industry, has in his latest book adventured more completely into the world of ice and snow to consider its future. “The Last Winter” is a beautifully written and intriguing combination of travel adventure, history, scientific reportage and personal response to the climate changes that are affecting the cryosphere — the frozen water part of the Earth system.
Divided into four sections, the book begins in “The Fires” with the author’s investigation in the North Cascades of the connection between climate change, disappearing snow, and fire. In the second part, “The Icefield,” he visits the Juneau Icefield to report on the scientific studies being conducted there. In the third part, “The Alps,” he traverses mountain ranges while considering the culture and economy built around Europe’s ski industry. The last section, “White Earth,” centers on a dog sled trip in Greenland’s far north.
Each section involves significant adventure on Fox’s part, close portraits of various people he meets and interviews, and considerable research not just about climate science but about the history and cultures of the regions. It’s a lively read, taking readers right into the author’s experiences, discoveries, joys and concerns. Fox plays a major character role — curious, energetic, sometimes a bit of a fool, always entertaining.
What develops from Fox’s journeys is a compelling portrait of the effects of a rapidly changing climate on the cryosphere. In short, the Earth’s ice and snow have greatly diminished just in the last few decades, and the future is bleak, not just for those who enjoy winter sports, but for everyone who depends on snow packs, glaciers, sea ice and permafrost — which is everyone in the world. As Fox puts it early on, … “winter, snow, and ice are more than sources of seasonal fun — they are fundamental components of the planet’s heat and water cycles that we might not be able to live without.”
In the fire section of his book Fox notes that, “Since the 1970s, the rate of winter warming in the West has tripled, replacing snow with rain, and reducing Western snowpacks by 50 to 70 percent — drying out boreal forests in the process.” He quotes a glaciologist; the loss of snow affects “not just forest fires but the growing season, pollination, hydropower, freshwater supply, river habitat, and myriad other effects because climate affects everything.”
When Fox visits the Juneau Icefield, he profiles Seth Campbell, a man he describes as “an Arctic ice hustler who has been on sixty polar expeditions in his young career, teaches at the University of Maine’s renowned School of Earth and Climate Sciences, and now directs the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP) on the fastest-melting glacier system in the world.” On the ice field, Fox joins students conducting research in their “freezing laboratory” — research that includes ice core drilling, sample collecting and measuring such things as snow depth and glacier movement. JIRP, begun by Maynard Malcolm Miller in 1950, is the second-oldest glacial monitoring program in the world and is a major player in understanding past climates in order to prepare for the future.
In the Alps, Fox sets off on a 25-mile ski and hike from village to village “to document Alpine winter life for a week in February, deduce how it had evolved, and project what would happen to it when winter was gone.” The Alps, he points out, is one of the fastest-warming ranges on Earth, with snowfall in some ski towns cut in half in the last 40 years. (In a study published just two weeks ago, researchers concluded that the glacier volume in Switzerland halved between 1931 and 2016.) “The Great Melt,” as Fox refers to it, is obvious to those who live in the region, which hosts 1,100 ski resorts. The effects of losing snow and ice, he explains, extend well beyond winter tourism. As an example, where glacier meltwater has already decreased, nuclear power plants that depend on river water to cool reactors have had to reduce production. Melting permafrost is loosening and collapsing mountainsides.
A larger picture emerges. “If Europe was the case study I had come to see — challenges for the developing world were daunting. I couldn’t imagine what would happen in places like Nepal, India, Kazakhstan, and to the billions of people who had unknowingly wrapped themselves around the outflow of the cryosphere.” Around the world, just 78 glaciers — all melting — provide fresh water for two billion downstream people.
In Kulusuk, Greenland, Fox joins a week-long dog sled expedition — one he narrates with considerable humor as he also discusses Arctic amplification, sea-level rise, Inuit knowledge and mythology, early exploration by Nansen and Rasmussen, and, at the end, his own rapid retreat to catch the last plane out of Greenland when COVID-19 shut down international travel.
Fox has said in an interview that he intended a final section to the book centered on a planned trip to Siberia to examine the landscape and the science and consequences around permafrost thaw, but that the pandemic ended his travel.
There are numerous books documenting the reality of the climate crisis we face, but “The Last Winter” stands out for its very current climate research, often from the author’s own interviews with prominent scientists, woven into what can only be called a charming personal adventure story. If you read only one climate-related book this year, this should be the one.