The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Glacial Time

Posted by | January 5, 2014

Compare these two snapshots from the South Cascade glacier official USGS long-term monitoring site in Washington state:

The following was published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 1/5/2014.

Quite possibly the best movie l saw in 2013 didn’t open in 3,000 theaters, didn’t have a Morgan Freeman voiceover, didn’t follow a hobbit and his ring.

The stunningly beautiful, award-winning documentary “Chasing Ice” was a simple story of a hero on his quest. But no princess needed rescuing, no pirates were fought. The hero, National Geographic photographer James Balog, was attempting something even more difficult: to photograph climate change by capturing the movement of walls of ice as long and high as aircraft carriers.

The word “glacial” has traditionally been an analogy for “extremely slow.” Based on what I saw in “Chasing Ice,” that definition may need to be replaced (I suggest “Congressional”). At great cost to his health and comfort, Balog and his team trek through some of the world’s most grueling terrain to install time-lapse cameras to document the retreat of glaciers.

And retreat they do, hundreds of feet or more per year. Historically, it used to take decades and even centuries for glaciers to pull back up their mountain valleys. Now, a couple seasons is all it takes for any one of the majority of the world’s ice walls to quite obviously shrink. The glaciers are melting as fast as the Wicked Witch in the “Wizard of Oz,” but there is no joy in Munchkinland to accompany their demise.

Why is this important? I think it’s because the environmental movement has always struggled with the incremental pace of regional or even global disasters. The massive changes we humans are forcing on our planet too often occur in the background, under the radar, and at a snail’s pace. For our minute-to-minute, 24-hour-news, “gotta run” culture, climate change has been too slow, too widespread, and too complicated.

That’s how I felt, anyway, until I saw “Chasing Ice.” This is not a movie about slowly migrating species, silent extinctions, or incrementally rising seas. Near the end of the film, Balog’s assistants camp out for three weeks overlooking one of the largest glaciers in the world. As if on cue, the glacier collapses. Only when the camera pulls back to reveal that an island of ice THE SIZE OF MANHATTAN has just flipped over does the full weight of the movie hit. (Editor: Factchecking... that should be "an island of ice the size of lower Manhattan" -- but it's still impressive and unprecedented filmmaking. Click the link to watch the clip.) This is what a warming world looks like, made massive, visible, and terrifyingly sudden.

The largest steps forward by the environmental movement have happened when catastrophes like burning rivers, acid rain, oil spills, and superstorms have made themselves impossible to ignore. The creeping “hockey stick” graph of carbon dioxide levels from NOAA’s Mauna Loa observatory just “didn’t do it” for most folks. I say: look to the ice now if you want to know what’s happening.

This is usually a week when we marvel at how the past year has flown by. To glaciers, each new year now brings nothing less than amputation. My resolution is to ponder that, and this: when the canaries start keeling over, it’s time to leave the coal mine. Except that leaving this mine called Earth isn’t an option, so we’ve got to figure out Plan B. Let’s get to it.

Happy new year!

Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday Journal Tribune column, "Between Two Worlds," ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, time and space. More at wellsreserve.org/twoworlds.

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