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A co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize offers a clear-eyed explanation of the planet’s imperiled ice.
Much has been written about global warming, but the crucial relationship between people and ice has received little focus—until now. As one of the world’s leading experts on climate change, Henry Pollack provides an accessible, comprehensive survey of ice as a force of nature, and the potential consequences as we face the possibility of a world without ice.
A World Without Ice traces the effect of mountain glaciers on supplies of drinking water and agricultural irrigation, as well as the current results of melting permafrost and shrinking Arctic sea ice—a situation that has degraded the habitat of numerous animals and sparked an international race for seabed oil and minerals. Catastrophic possibilities loom, including rising sea levels and subsequent flooding of lowlying regions worldwide, and the ultimate displacement of millions of coastal residents. A World Without Ice answers our most urgent questions about this pending crisis, laying out the necessary steps for managing the unavoidable and avoiding the unmanageable.
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Henry Pollack, Ph .D., and his colleagues on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former vice president Al Gore. Pollack has been a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan for more than forty years and now serves as a science adviser to Al Gore's Climate Project training programs. He is also the author of Uncertain Science . . . Uncertain World.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around;
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
In late May of 1768, Lieutenant James Cook, a young officer in the Royal Navy of King George III of England, received an unusual assignment from the British Admiralty. He was to sail to the South Pacific on HMS Endeavour to make astronomical observations of the planet Venus as it passed directly between the Sun and Earth, an orbital event that would take place in early June of the following year. Such a passage, known as a transit of Venus, eclipses a very small circular area on the face of the Sun that appears like a shadow moving across the solar disk. This astronomical phenomenon offered a method of estimating the distance between the Sun and Earth, by simultaneous observations of the moving dark spot from different points on Earth. Cook was to make his observations on the island of Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean, on the opposite side of the globe from England. The ostensible motivation for this undertaking lay in the suggestion that an accurate determination of the Earth- Sun distance was important for reliable navigation at sea. The complexities of the motions of Earth and Venus about the Sun make transits relatively rare events, coming in pairs separated by eight years, but with more than a century separating one pair from the next. After the 1761/1769 pair, the next chances to observe a transit would come in 1874/1882 and 2004/2012. Cook had been selected for this scientific undertaking because of his skills in surveying and charting, honed a decade earlier on the St. Lawrence River, during the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France for control of the territory that would become Canada. Endeavour was a small ship, just a little longer than a modern railway coach, but home to eighty- five seamen and another dozen officers and accompanying naturalists, plus their equipment, water, provisions, and grog. The voyage from England to Tahiti followed a route south through the Atlantic, around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and thence west into the Pacific to Tahiti. The full journey totaled roughly twelve thousand miles, equivalent to about half the distance around the globe. Under sail it took almost exactly eight months to reach Tahiti, including provisioning stops in Madeira and Rio de Janeiro, and some specimen collecting in Tierra del Fuego.
Cook was meticulous about the health of his crew, as the scourge of scurvy was already well known on long voyages. He knew that diet was important to health, and he carried an ample supply of sauerkraut to ward off scurvy. The crew, had they known of it, would have lobbied hard for the anti- scorbutant that Dutch sailors preferred: white wine. It is not clear whether Cook was aware of the prophylactic powers of wine, but he clearly knew the perils of having alcohol- incapacitated seamen. Christmas Day of 1768, celebrated off the coast of Patagonia, was marked not by religious services, but by a crew pursuing total inebriation. One of the naturalists remarked that they were lucky the Christmas winds were light.
Endeavour arrived in Tahiti in mid- April of 1769, in ample time to prepare for the astronomical observations. Cook selected a place to conduct the measurements— on a sandy beach not far from the present- day city of Papeete. He called the place Point Venus. When I visited Papeete a few years ago I was keen to see this famous scientific spot, but I worried that in the more than two centuries since Cook was there, the place might have lapsed into nothingness. I asked a taxi driver if he had ever heard of Point Venus. Yes, he replied, he knew it well. Skeptical that it would be so easy to find this historic place, I queried him further. Yes, yes, he knew the spot. So I asked him to take me there, and fifteen minutes later we arrived. It was Point Venus all right— but today well known as a popular nudist beach! Incidentally, there is also a small monument to Captain Cook’s 1769 visit.
WHILE THE TRANSIT of Venus was the announced scientific rationale for this voyage, Cook’s sailing orders from the Admiralty had another component, designated as secret and not to be opened by Cook until he was at sea. These orders addressed Endeavour’s assignment after the astronomical observations had been completed. They revealed that Cook was to search for Terra Australis Incognita, a hypothetical southern continent that had supposedly been dimly sighted in high southern latitudes by earlier mariners. The notion of a southern continent had been promoted through philosophical and aesthetic arguments by Aristotle and later Ptolemy two millennia before the Age of Exploration. They believed that symmetry and balance were inherent characteristics of the natural world, and that Earth, as a natural object, must surely display these qualities. Such beliefs required the existence of landmasses in the Southern Hemisphere to balance the extensive landmasses of the Northern Hemisphere. Not long after the transit was over— only six hours after it began— Cook took Endeavour southward in search of a southern continent.
Sailing south in the peak of the Southern Hemisphere winter quickly led to cold encounters with widespread sea ice, and it did not take long for Cook to realize that it was not the right season for a course into high latitudes. In September he headed west and encountered today’s New Zealand. He proceeded to circumnavigate and chart the coastlines of both the North and South Islands, demonstrating that they were not a large southern continent, as had been surmised by earlier explorers. The return to England was by way of Australia, where Endeavour narrowly avoided disaster on the Great Barrier Reef, then onward to the East Indies, where several crew contracted malaria, and around Africa to the Atlantic, before heading north on the last long leg home. In the Atlantic he encountered some American whalers, and stopped to get news of the last three years— he learned that Europe was, for a change, at peace. Cook arrived in England in the summer of 1771, with no sighting of Terra Australis Incognita to report.
The return of Endeavour was celebrated and acclaimed widely, but the focus was not on Cook, the modest master of the vessel. In the limelight was the young patrician naturalist Joseph Banks, well versed in manipulating the press to his advantage. Within just a few weeks, Banks had worked up a frenzy of public adulation in the press that culminated in his announcement that there would soon be a second voyage of exploration and scientific discovery, under his leadership. Incidentally, Banks would insist that Cook undertake the maritime duties, and there was little Cook could do to decline. Within a month of his returning home after an absence of three years, Cook was already planning the next sailing. His wife, Elizabeth, was not too pleased.
In 1772, by then promoted to captain, the rank by which he is best remembered, Cook sailed again for the Southern Ocean aboard a new ship, HMS Resolution, once again in search of Terra Australis Incognita. On this voyage he headed toward the Pacific by turning east around Africa into the Indian Ocean, and pushing to ever higher southern latitudes as ice conditions would permit. In 1773 he crossed the Antarctic Circle1 three times, at longitudes 40º east, 140º west, and 105º west; each time he encountered impenetrable ice, and came away without sighting a southern continent.
His eastward course across the South Pacific, never far from the ice, brought him to the southern tip of South America just as 1774 ended. Early in the new year, he sailed eastward into the South Atlantic, and discovered South Georgia Island, a banana- shaped glacier- striped island that, at first sighting, he thought might be the long- sought southern continent. But when the distal tip of the banana came into view, he knew it was just an island. He named it Isle of Georgia, in honor of King George III. Continuing eastward, Cook reached the cape of southern Africa, intersecting his path around Africa three years earlier. He had now circumnavigated the globe in the southern high latitudes, seldom very far from the edge of the ice. Cook noted in his journal2:
I had now made the circuit of the Southern Ocean in a high latitude and traversed in such manner as to leave not the least room for the possibility of there being a continent, unless near the pole and out of reach of navigation. . . . The greatest part of this Southern Continent (supposing there is one) must lie within the Polar Circle where the sea is so pestered with ice that the land is thereby inaccessible. . . . I can be bold to say that no man will ever venture farther than I have done, and that the lands which may lie to the south will never be explored. Thick fogs, snowstorms, intense cold and every other thing that can render navigation dangerous one has to encounter, and these difficulties are greatly heightened by the inexpressible horrid aspect of . . . a country doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, but to lie for ever buried under everlasting snow and ice.
Cook had clearly disproved the hemispheric “balance” of landmasses postulated by Aristotle, but he demonstrated symmetry of a different type, symmetry not of land but of ice. He had shown that there was a daunting ice barrier in the high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, similar to that encountered in the Arctic. His predictions about the inaccessibility of the polar latitudes in the South, however, did not stand. In the early nineteenth century several sailing ships did indeed sight the Antarctic continent...
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