An aerial view of melt water lakes on the edge of an ice cap in Nunatarssuk, Greenland, June 22, 2019.
As climate change becomes increasingly important to the electorate, science journalist Jon Gertner has authored the new book The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future. He explores the history of an ice sheet that he says is critical to understanding the present and future climate crisis.
Alexander Heffner: For those who might not be familiar with Greenland, give us an overview.
Jon Gertner: Most of Greenland is covered by an enormous ice sheet, which is covering I think about 80 to 84 percent of the island. This ice sheet is a remnant of the last ice age and there are only really two remaining ice sheets left on earth. One is in Greenland, and one is in Antarctica. We’re at a critical moment now where both are under stress. They’re both melting from warmer temperatures, warmer ocean waters that are kind of eroding the edges. Greenland is undergoing this incredible transformation as the earth warms from the effects of CO2. On average now Greenland’s lost about almost 300 billion tons of ice per year. And this has been going for escalating, kind of accelerating slightly over the past 20 years.
Heffner: The argument for action on climate is at least historically in the last decade we want to be able to preserve the integrity of the glaciers so they don’t melt.
Gertner: The greatest danger is that a lot of these large glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will destabilize, come into the ocean and raise sea levels dramatically. In Greenland, for instance at the moment when I talked about those 300 billion tons of ice falling into the ocean, what we’re getting out of that is about a millimeter of sea level rise every year. It’s not an immediate threat where we’re going to wake up tomorrow, we’ll have one foot or two feet of sea level rise overnight, but these sea level rises are accelerating, the temperature changes are accelerating and we don’t really know necessarily how fast these glaciers will go. What another worry is, is that they create, they pass maybe what we’d call tipping points where we can’t sort of slow them down anymore.
Heffner: So what’s the latest from your conversations with scientists who are measuring the layers and the melting of sheets?
Gertner: That science is a little better understood than ice sheet models. It’s a little bit of a complicating factor, but to create a model of how an ice sheet might behave, we’re just beginning to understand a lot of that. The warmer it gets, the more the ice will melt. The more CO2 we put in the air, the warmer it gets and the riskier the situation becomes with some of these glaciers that appear to have a tendency towards a deep instability they can move fast.
Heffner: How much now is drilling the most perilous threat to the sheets versus the overall CO2 that’s amassed as a result of planes, trains, automobiles, and daily operations of power plants?
Gertner: There’s nothing very much danger to Greenland’s ice sheet from that immediate commercial or even scientific exploration of Greenland. There’s a belief that there’s a good amount of oil reserves around Greenland, but hopefully they never try and take it out of the ground because that would mean both more CO 2 in the air and greater disruptions to the surface environment.
Heffner: But who governs those decisions about whether or not that that could be undertaken?
Gertner: At the moment Greenland is supported in many ways by the Danish government, which gives a certain amount of funding to the Greenlandic government. And Greenland is on a path towards independence. Greenland is very much looking for kind of other means of economic development. And some of that is not oil exploration, but in mining. It’s believed that Greenland has a very large reserve of rare earth metals in the south and some of those mineral fields are actually being exposed by the recession of the ice sheet.
Heffner: One Exxon Valdez, one Deep Horizon, one Chernobyl could have an enormously costly consequence if there is commercial activity in sufficiently close proximity to ice sheets and icebergs that could cause more expedited melting.
Gertner: I would say the bigger threat from those kinds of activities would be to Arctic ecosystems and to the ultimate burning of the fuel that’s extracted. The ice sheet itself moves by the forces of gravity. Drilling into it, even using explosive, sometimes they use explosives to measure the bedrock underneath, doesn’t threaten the ice sheet in that sense of making it destabilize.
Heffner: So it’s the cumulative effect of the melting.
Gertner: Of CO2 in the air and the warm temperatures. Especially I think warmer ocean temperatures that seem to activate a lot of these coastal glaciers.
Heffner: What would you say in making a fact-based argument on behalf of this planet, and on behalf of Greenland, to climate deniers?
Heffner: In order to try to ensure the planet’s survival.
Gertner: I’m probably of the belief based on my journalism and my work studying and writing about history that understanding the issues sort of precedes any kind of motivation on the readership’s part or the public’s part. And I do think that by understanding how we know, what we know—how we know what the value of this ice is on the top of the world, far from our comfortable lives in cities, both in terms of the dangers of sea level rise and in terms of this sort of pristine Arctic ecosystem. Understanding too the threats that are very real that are already set in motion because we’re measuring it year by year. We’re measuring it every month how much ice is lost.
Heffner: Don’t we need to underscore the stakes?
Gertner: There’s a lot of sort of discussion in the climate community what’s the best way to communicate. How do you get people to know? How do you activate people through fear or hope? I’m trying towards understanding and history. It’s not mutually exclusive. Different readers, different people, different television watchers are activated by different ways of thinking about the climate crisis. My contribution is to tell the story of earth’s ice.