We’re doomed! Or are we?

A Farewell To Ice by Peter Wadhams

snowOne theme that has emerged in much of my reading of late is that of icy and mostly northern climes. From Beryl Bainbridge’s Titanic novel Every Man for Himself to Midge Raymond’s Antarctic penguins in My Last Continent to Eowyn Ivey’s Alaska in To The Bright Edge of the World, then Stef Penney’s forthcoming Greenland-based epic Under a Pole Star, via The Revenant earlier this year and Marcus Sedgwick’s lovely little book on Snow (right) which I read just last week – there have been a lot!

When I saw a book offered for review about climate change and Arctic ice specifically, being a lover of popular science books, I thought it was time to explore ice in a less literary way – I know very little about environmental science or climatology. I got a copy and was shocked by what I read. I posted the capsule review required and started thinking about expanding on that short piece for these pages.

However, then a chap commented on my review tearing into the book’s author – I responded and we’ve since had a bit of a conversation and I’ve done some more background reading… If you don’t want to read my expanded original thoughts, do jump over it now.

If you’re staying with me, let me introduce the book and its author to you as I first encountered them:

farewell-to-iceAlthough, I imagine, not the easiest book to read for non-scientists, this volume, which concentrates on the effects and mechanisms of the loss of Arctic sea-ice written by the former director of the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge is full of shocking and important information about what’s happening up there that will affect us all. As Wadhams says in the introduction:

“Today, from space, the top of the world in the northern summer looks blue instead of white. We have created an ocean where there was once an ice sheet. It is Man’s first major achievement in reshaping the face of his planet, and it is of course an unintended achievement, with dubious and possibly catastrophic consequences to follow.”

There may be only one equation in the book, but there is also lots of technical information which can be rather dry. As a materials scientist though, I was fascinated to learn about the structure of ice – which has many forms beyond the dendritic snowflake. Water is a very unusual molecule – being roughly 8% less dense as a solid than a liquid. Sea water is denser still, so the difference between pure ice and sea water is around 10% which explains why most of an iceberg lurks below water. We also discover what a ‘gyre’ is: a wheeling current or vortex – not a word invented by Lewis Carroll for at Jabberwocky by the way – which in the North Atlantic, gathers the ice blocks pushing them into each other creating pressure ridges. This was all fascinating stuff to me. We move on to the history of the ice ages on Earth. But it’s not been all cold – in the ‘medieval warm period’ before 10000 AD, the Vikings were able to colonise Greenland and could grow hay.

The next section introduces us to the Greenhouse Effect – and the single equation (which is some thermodynamics deriving from the Stefan-Boltzman law in case you were interested!). From it you can derive the temperature of the earth and we see that without our atmosphere, we would be at -18°C – we’ve protected by the gases up there – until we started really adding to them through our activities. This is where alarm bells start ringing and  you can see the upward trends in the graphs he cites without having to understand the detail, and Wadhams’ summaries and intros in each chapter and section left me in no doubt that we need to act … yesterday.

Next, we travel to the Arctic polar ice-cap itself. Wadhams gives us a little history citing William Scoresby a scientist – and whaler – who wrote the first book on Arctic Ocean conditions (and gave his surname to Philip Pullman’s balloon-flying explorer by the way – just thought I’d add that in). He examines the effect of changing weather due to the jet stream moving around, the ticking time-bomb of Arctic methane hidden deep in the now-melting ice (methane has 23 times the global warming capacity of CO2), the loss of permafrost etc. He also talks about the Earth’s albedo (the reflectivity) which also helps control temperature with ice being much more reflective than water, but with decreasing ice, this effect will also change things. He also pops down to the Antarctic to check what’s happening there.

The book finishes with looking at what we’re doing now. He is saddened that since Margaret Thatcher, there have been no scientists in high political office (which is shocking!).

“Margaret Thatcher, who had been trained as a chemist, showed an immediate understanding of the scientific principles involved and took up the need for international action on climate change as a principal task of the latter part of her premiership.”

His last chapter is entitled ‘Time for Battle’ and in it he is not afraid to throw out some challenges. He urges us all to:

“counter with all the power at your disposal the sewage-flow of lies and deceit emitted by climate change deniers and others who wish us to do nothing and hope that it all goes away”.

Hello again, if you’ve jumped down…

It turns out that Wadhams is inter alia the Dawkins of climate change and, like Richard Dawkins, he is not afraid of using polemic to get his point across, nor has he ever taken no for an answer. Since the chap mentioned at the top, commented on my short version of this review elsewhere, I followed some of the links he posted, and began to see another side to the story.

Then, this weekend in the Saturday Telegraph, there was a big article by its science editor Sarah Knapton. She states that the Arctic sea-ice isn’t disappearing as fast as Wadhams had predicted – he had said it’d all be gone by 2013 and he is widely seen as alarmist by many other climate scientists. However, no-one is denying that it will go eventually, possibly even by mid-century, and we should be extemely worried about that. At the moment, it’s increased again after a low in 2012, but the trend is downwards.

The real thing that becomes clear when you read more widely is that climatology is a young science, and we really don’t understand our planet’s incredibly complex mechanisms yet. We desperately need to pour more resources into research in this area – we need everyone to join together (like that’s gonna happen with Brexit coming!).

Wadhams’ book may only present one side of the picture, but that doesn’t mean it’s without worth. Wadhams does have decades of experience in the Arctic as a scientist and I learned a huge amount. I also had my own understanding questioned every which way by him and other reading on the subject. I’m closer now to achieving a more balanced view but I accept I am a mere novice in this area and need to read more.

We still all need to do our bit too, even more so if a certain person who said this below wins the US election:


WTF!  (Not an expression I use very often).  Can we ratify the Paris Climate Deal in the US by late November – please ???

I’d love to hear your opinions on this subject – and all things interrelated. Do comment.

* * * * *

Source: Publisher via Amazon Vine – Thank you.

Peter Wadhams, A Farewell to Ice (Allen Lane, September 2016) ISBN: 9780241009413, hardback, 256 pages.

4 thoughts on “We’re doomed! Or are we?

  1. Fascinating stuff Annabel, and bearing in mind how cold it is here at the moment I’m not convinced…. But seriously, you’re quite right that we’re still struggling to understand the effect we’ve had on the planet, although what’s clear is that quick action is needed. Alas, like you, I can’t see that happening with the current batch of politicians and vested interests that are about. Mind you, if Trump *does* get voted in I think we’ll have a lot more to worry about than just Global Warming…. :s

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      We can’t deny that climate change is happening though, and if we concentrate wholly on other things, the diaster that will come (just not as soon as Wadhams originally said) will happen…

  2. Goodness, Mrs Thatcher as environmentalist – now that’s not anything I’d known before! I think the future looks pretty bleak in terms of climate change; we just seem to be too apathetic and unaltruistic (if that’s a word) to get our act together and avert the worst. But I hope to be proved wrong!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The Thatcher comment took me by surprise too, but makes sense. What is really shocking is that Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron et al are not scientists and they’ve not really driven major reforms or research in this area forward – and now we have the Hinckley Point problem (I’m pro-nuclear, but not necessarily that model of reactor!). The Sec of State for the Envt etc is Andrea Leadsom – another career financier/politician…. You’re right, we do need to be more altruistic in how we deal with this.

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