The most melancholy of all the euphemisms: “The new normal.”
– Zadie Smith
The glaciers are melting. They’ve always been melting, of course, but now it’s worse. Now the temperatures are warmer, and the ice is melting faster, and the seas are rising. Every month, it seems, a new record-breaking weather event. Every day, another species flickers out. Every year, the glaciers diminish.
Fifteen thousand years ago, toward the end of the last glacial period, ice sheets covered large areas of Canada and the northern U.S. The seas were lower then. Florida was bigger, and the Tampa Bay wasn’t a bay at all; it was 200 kilometers inland. But the ice up north was starting to melt, and the people of Beringia (the land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska) were moving south as the retreating ice sheets allowed. As the climate warmed, the Bering land bridge became a strait, and the people of Eurasia and the Americas were separated for thousands of years.
Glaciers have always ebbed and flowed, and the climate has always been changing. For glaciers to impact human history is nothing new. But now the pace of the ice’s subsidence is anything but glacial. The cascading effects of global warming may not be unprecedented in the history of the earth, but they are unprecedented in recorded human history.
Normally I turn to history to give me a sense of grounding when the present seems incomprehensible and the future a dark cloud. “There’s nothing new under the sun” and so forth. But glacial history leaves me feeling more unmoored than ever. They once were giants to us, and now they’re not. There is nothing so big, it seems, that we can’t take it down.
In 1915, three years after the Titanic sank, Thomas Hardy published “The Convergence of the Twain,” an eerie poem retelling the meeting of the ship and the iceberg. The poem contrasts the ocean liner, a product of “human vanity,” with the iceberg, a creation of a mysterious power indifferent to humans. “The Immanent Will,” Hardy intones,
Prepared a sinister mate
For her—so gaily great—
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history.
The poem portrays the wreck of the Titanic as a fated confrontation between human engineering and inhuman nature, a battle humans must lose. Like the statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s poem, the Titanic has become for Hardy a decaying ruin, a testament to human smallness.
Hardy was one of the first to think about the history of the iceberg as well as the vessel. He imagined it growing and lying in wait as the ship was built. Experts today believe the iceberg originated in the Greenland glaciers, that it would have cleaved from the ice sheet in 1910 or 1911 and spent a year drifting south on the west Greenland current, ever shrinking in size as it entered warmer waters. Not long after its collision with the Titanic, it would have melted altogether.
Reading “The Convergence of the Twain” today, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Hardy got something wrong. He had read Darwin and saw the human species as a tiny blip on the geological timeline. He wouldn’t have realized that even in 1915, the gears of the fossil fuel economy were already spinning, and the mechanisms that would warm the planet had already been set in motion. The Industrial Revolution had created a new society built on cheap fossil fuel energy. Even the Titanic burned coal. Hardy couldn’t have known that a century after his poem was published, scientists would be warning that the Greenland glaciers were rapidly melting into the sea.
And it’s not just Greenland. At Glacier National Park in Montana, only 25 large glaciers are left of the 150 that were present when the park was created in 1910. More will disappear in the coming years. In western Antarctica, too, the ice sheet is collapsing, threatening to raise sea levels by four to eleven feet. The Himalayan glaciers are receding, and the Spitsbergen glaciers, and the Icelandic ice cap. When Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Mont Blanc in 1816, the Mer de Glace, its most famous glacier, stretched all the way to the valley of Chamonix. Today, it has retreated by two kilometers and is still shrinking.
For Shelley, Mont Blanc exemplified the sublime—that is, the awe- and terror-inspiring greatness that the Romantics were drawn to, over and above the merely beautiful. He describes the alpine scene as a magnetic landscape, simultaneously attractive and repulsive:
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene;
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone
Like Hardy a century later, Shelley perceived the ice forms as strange natural forces rebuffing human approach.
The poet Marianne Moore, on the other hand, saw human fingerprints on the glaciers. “An Octopus,” her 1924 poem about Mount Rainier, does not altogether dispense with the sublime aspect of the park’s glaciers, but it foregrounds their transmutation into a tourist attraction. The icy mountain in Moore’s poem is impressively alien: “it lies ‘in grandeur and in mass’ / beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes”; it is “Distinguished by a beauty / of which ‘the visitor dare never fully speak at home / for fear of being stoned as an imposter.’” It seems at first glance a cousin of Shelley’s remote, majestic Mont Blanc.
But note the quotation marks. “An Octopus” is a collage poem composed of Moore’s own words interspersed with fragments of a National Parks guide book. The lines that most strongly denote Mount Rainier’s sublimity are marked as quotations, suggesting that the mountain’s “grandeur” and unspeakable beauty have become selling points in a tourist economy. When Shelley visited Mont Blanc, it too was a tourist hotspot, but you would never know it from reading his poem. In Moore’s poem, by contrast, the park is a playground for “business men who require for recreation / three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year.” Mount Rainier is a
where ‘guns, nets, seines, traps, and explosives,
hired vehicles, gambling and intoxicants are
disobedient persons being summarily removed
and not allowed to return without permission in
If it seems pristine and untouched, it is not really so; it is just that strict park rules are in place to create that illusion for visitors.
Today, though, the illusion of unspoiled wilderness is harder to sustain. Mount Rainier’s glaciers, which actually grew larger during the mid-twentieth century, have now begun to retreat. Like the Mer de Glace, they have become, in their decline, an icon of climate change and the loss that accompanies it.
When an iceberg breaks off from a glacier, it’s called calving, and it happens more often as temperatures increase and the ice becomes more unstable. “Calving” is a zoological metaphor, and glaciologists aren’t the only ones using zoological figures to describe these forms. Glaciers seem to inspire animism in those who look upon them. They are not inanimate objects. They are slow giants, creeping and dividing at a normally imperceptible pace.
The poets saw glaciers as strange predatory animals. Moore called Mount Rainier’s glaciers “an octopus of ice.” Shelley wrote that on Mont Blanc, “The glaciers creep / Like snakes that watch their prey,” a simile Moore also picks up when she describes the mountain ice “killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python.” Even Hardy imagined the sinister iceberg “growing” as a creature might.
For the poets, the glaciers were subtly threatening animals. “Calving,” on the other hand, connotes something at once more familiar and more vulnerable: warm-blooded baby mammals and the mothers that birth them. Today, knowing what we know about global warming, it’s hard not to see glaciers as an endangered species, a relative of the polar bears, giant pandas, Siberian tigers, and other charismatic megafauna that we perceive as beautiful and doomed.
I’ve never seen a glacier, except in pictures. And photos don’t quite seem to do them justice—it’s hard to grasp the scale of them in my mind. I can read that they span 5 kilometers, or 65, or 400, but I can’t wrap my mind around it. I live in Florida, a state that didn’t really experience a winter at all this year. Instead, we got warm wet weather. The streets of my South Tampa neighborhood flood every time it rains hard. When you live at sea level, there aren’t a lot of places the water can go.
When the West Antarctic ice sheet collapses into the sea, or the Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland melts away, or any number of other glaciers disappear, sea levels will rise, possibly very quickly. Miami Beach, Sanibel Island, Key West, Anna Maria, St. Augustine Beach, so many of the places I love… any or all may go in the next century. We don’t really know. What happens at the icy latitudes matters to us living three thousand miles away, at a scale we cannot really grasp.