Crunching on ice is a bad habit of mine. Watching ice crunch and crumble into the sea is a bad habit for everyone.
James Balog, founder of the Extreme Ice Survey, was honored as a Missouri Medalist last week. He has documented receding glaciers from Bolivia to Alaska to Iceland. I first encountered his work a few years ago, reading about him and his audacious plan in National Geographic.
He shared his stunning photographs in a presentation, speaking of human tectonics and the current anthropocene era. “People have become the dominant agents of chnge on the geologic surface.”
It takes quite a bit to impress me. I considered myself well-informed and well-traveled (for my age). I was blown away. Balog began with a time-lapse animation showing the sunlight moving across a global map, as streams of dots represented plane lights crisscrossing the world. It incorporated the Icelandic volcano eruption to demonstrate how nature can still disrupt our busy lives.
Then he switched to the Gulf oil spill. “This was like the Battle of Midway gone wrong.” Describing how we have created a “military industrial might” to drill for resources, he contrasted the cleanup technology as an “equivalent of 3 millennium BC” to combat our own devastation.
“I’ve always recognized that oil is with us, but this stuff is basically a poison. It’s a cemetery of old plants and animals.” Balog recounted the excruciating headaches he and his crew suffered after spending days in and around the thick, gooey crude.
And this all led to the capstone, the crest, the peak.
Why do glaciers matter? “They are the canary in the global coal mine,” Balog said.
Subtle processes happening, not happening; appearing, not appearing. It’s a result of global climate change.
It is here where I must insert some of my own soapboxing. Too many uninformed citizens write off climate change because it started with the name “global warming.” People complain about the record snowfalls or the more frequent wildfires.
It’s not warming in the dictionary-definition sense of the word. It is climate change. It’s higher rainfalls and warmer summers and record snowfalls and stronger hurricanes. It is an unbalancing of the intricate processes of planetary health.
As Balog succinctly stated, “Nature isn’t natural anymore.” Any good argument leaves readers and listeners with a least a few points of correction or some solutions. Balog’s answers?
Question economies: we don’t know what energy costs truly are
Think like a mountain: we don’t think long term enough
Truth prevails: in spite of distortions and proponents of the status quo
Perception matters: people are complacent
What were you doing? future generations will be “aghast” at our actions when we look back at what action this generation did or did not take “in the midst of the breakdown of global ecology”
Balog’s presentation ended with a time-lapse video of snowpack peeling back and shrinking, a melancholy scene set to a beautiful opera solo. Massive chunks of glaciers plunged into the ocean as the aurora and stars passed overhead. Three or four years worth of damage was reduced to a poetic three minutes, as mammoth ice floes beat a steady retreat from the camera’s lens.