The End of Ice

Gretel Ehrlich
Europe Early Fall 2011

I’m standing in an alpine valley looking toward high mountains where the storytelling tongues of hanging glaciers are pulling back. Ice is time; motion is life or else, loss. The grinding forward movement of ice has stopped. In Switzerland, the Triftgletscher’s tongue of ice is now a lake.

The Glacier d’Argentiere near Chamonix is starving to death. For a glacier to be in equilibrium there must be more snow gain than loss. Basal sliding has caused Greenland’s outlet glaciers to calve so fast they choke on their own debris. Over 136 ice-quakes have been recorded in Greenland caused by masses of ice breaking off, some weighing as much as ten billion tons, and sliding 30 feet in 10 seconds. The glaciers of Peru and Ecuador have lost most of their ice, imperiling the aqueducts that bring meltwater to villages and cities below. Global heating is so severe that black houseflies are being reported on the slopes of Everest. The World Glacier Monitoring Service reports that 90 percent of Austria’s glaciers, among many other countries, are in a stampeding retreat.

A glacier is a body that moves. Its wombs and noses, legs and elbows, fenders and cheeks crush and carve the earth. Once I made a pilgrimage to Perito Moreno, one of the world’s largest glaciers, and from a high perch, looked down into its snout. Two spires tilted forward, their tips touching. They met head to head, but their bodies were hollow. Sun scoured them; they twisted toward light. Now glaciers in retreat are rivers running uphill, back up toward the high peaks.

Glaciers hold 69% of the world’s fresh water. Global heating is drying what we drink. In Greenland I watched how internal streams pour out of a glacier’s foot. North of Siorapaluk, the 100-kilometer-wide face of Humboldt Glacier now has summer waterfalls. Plumes of turbid fresh water fan out across the roof of the inland ice and flows in ravines, moulins, and open channels toward the sea. Surface melt causes more melting: water is the enemy of ice. Mass loss means increased iceberg production. Just south of the town of Ilulissat, Greenland, the Jakobshavn Isbrae Glacier calves 20 billion tons of ice into the water per year.

Fresh water pouring off the Greenland ice cap is changing the salinity of the world’s oceans, which in turn, affects deep-water mixing. The tongues of outlet glaciers snap and melt, and wind waves break up seasonal sea ice in the Arctic that once covered the ocean nine months of the year and was 10 to 14 feet thick. Now, off the coast of northwest Greenland, sea ice is often as thin as seven inches in mid-winter. The albedo effect of ice and snow cover has diminished; dark slopes and open water are heat sinks. The exchange of salt between sea ice and the ocean influences ocean circulation. The warm Gulf Stream may be imperiled. Dead zones now occur within marine ecosystems and the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has increased which means more rain, deeper snow, and more tornadoes, cyclones and hurricanes. Sea levels keep rising. Mountain villages in Asia and South America grow dry. Food production suffers. Billions of people go hungry. Mountain cultures die out. Cultural and biological diversity withers. Climate migrants are on the move.

A glacier is an archivist and historian. It saves everything no matter how big or small, including pollen, dust, heavy metals, bugs, bones and minerals. It holds oxygen isotopes in the delicate way we hold eggs. Ice registers every fluctuation of weather. A glacier is time incarnate, a moving image of time. When we lose a glacier – and we are losing most of them – we lose history, an eye into the past; we lose stories of how living beings evolved, how weather vacillated, why plants and animals lived and died. The disappearance of glaciers means we are burning libraries and damaging the planet. We are burning ourselves.

I’m perched on an outcrop of rock below the Jacobshavn Isbrae Glacier in Greenland. More than six kilometers of ice tongue has crumbled into open water since I first saw it in 1993. Friction creates heat; heat increases glacier sole melt, slipperiness and speed. Because ice melts as it moves and moves as it melts, a glacier is always undermining itself; it lives by giving itself away.

The planet is growing very hot. “Warming” doesn’t begin to describe what’s going on. The melting apron of tundra that encircles the top of the world is outgassing billions of tons of methane gas. Industrial soot from coal plants pockmarks each roof of ice, gathering heat. Our mother ice is going fast, and we are growing thirsty. There are skirmishes in South America over stolen water. Floods subsume fertile land. The mountainwalking stilts of hanging glaciers collapse. Sea levels rise. We roll up our pants; we watch islands and coastlines disappear. Bit by bit, glacier by glacier, rib by rib, we’re living the Fall.

About the Author

In 2007, GRETEL EHRLICH traveled around the top of the world with indigenous Arctic people to document the effect of climate change on their lives. This journey resulted in a book, In The Empire Of Ice, published by National Geographic. Gretel has written 14 books. She lives in Wyoming.