“Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude”
(From “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare, Act II, Scene VII)
In past eons, the earth without ice was not a particularly habitable place for humans. It was a scene of relentless volcanism, vast continental swamps and humid rainforests that extended as far south as Antarctica. We are currently in a very different age, the Holocene, represented by the ebb and flow of massive ice sheets. This age may rapidly be coming to an end, replaced by something many scientists call the Anthropocene. Recent books examine both the influence of the ice age on human culture and also what its absence portends. It may soon be a very strange world indeed.
Our planet is warming at an alarming rate. “The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption,” by Dahr Jamail, is a superb example of modern investigative journalism. Jamail presents a grim prognosis, especially in regard to rising sea levels. “At least 30 million people in Bangladesh alone will be displaced by a one-meter rise in sea levels, given that a fifth of the entire country will flood with only that amount.” Rising seas alone are predicted to cause profound disruptions to our planet. “The numbers are mind-bending for 2100,” Jamail says. “The minimum global sea level rise is already three feet, but it could be as staggeringly high as eight feet.”
Ice has uniquely shaped the destiny of humankind and that of the United States and Europe in particular. Early North American exploration by Europeans, especially the Spaniards, was marked by frequent and catastrophic failures, many of these dire mishaps caused by extreme weather. Several recent books speak to the influence of what some call the “Little Ice Age” on the development of Western civilization. “A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter With North America” by Sam White recounts the harrowing weather-related difficulties that early explorers and settlers in the United States and Canada encountered. Indeed, the thwarting of the early mostly Spanish colonies in America because of extreme winters had profound consequences for the future of our continent: “There was nothing inevitable, or even probable, about the Spanish Empire’s failure to colonize eastern North America before England.”
Philipp Blom’s fine environmental history “Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present” describes life in the 1600s as a rapid progression away from the horrors of plague, extreme provincialism and superstition. “Within two generations, a formerly feudal continent of landowners and peasants was on its way to becoming a region of market power, urban energy and Enlightened political and moral ideas.” Blom argues that this evolution can be partly attributed to migrations and societal solidarity due to food scarcity and failed harvests caused by extreme cold. He is not optimistic, however, about our future in the face of global warming: “There will be no moment when its effects have naturally disappeared to reveal societies that have grown not only in economic success but in wisdom.”
Climate scientists and paleontologists have for half a century attempted to describe the history of the earth during the last ice age. In doing so, they have mapped out a past that would appear wholly unfamiliar to humans living today. During the height of our last ice age, when nearly half of the earth’s land was covered in massive ice sheets, strange and giant predators coexisted with early homosapiens, all engaged in unceasing wandering. In “Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America,” Craig Childs describes this vanished world in vivid detail. “Humans would have entered this maze of animal migrations. Like a dye added to swirling currents, our species would have been picked up and carried onward, propelled by dire wolf packs, cycles of mastodons, and the arcs of rivers.” Likewise, Jon Gertner’s “The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey Into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future” traces the history of early Greenland settlement and exploration and reveals some of the ancient secrets that are contained in its deep ice sheets.
All these books have a common strand: the message that climate change in the past was caused by variations in solar activity, the slight shifting of ocean currents and small changes in the earth’s orbit. Most of these climatic cycles eventually brought about remarkable societal change, much of it positive. The irreversible nature of man-made global warming and most especially the disappearance of our ice caps, however, represents environmental catastrophe that no human civilization has yet faced.