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The Sword of Damocles

ISSUE:  Spring 2009
Richard Westall, The Sword of Damocles, 1812 (Ackland Art Museum).

Last month, a team of geophysicists at the University of Toronto released a report, published in the February issue of Science, predicting the effects should rising global temperatures cause the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse—an event many scientists now believe may occur this century. The report’s most shocking prediction is that the sudden shift of weight would alter the angle of the Earth’s axis by about half a kilometer. That may not sound like much, but it would shift much of the newly displaced seawater to the Northern Hemisphere, so that the resulting sea-level change would be much more localized than scientists have previously calculated. Most of South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia, for example, would be largely unaffected, while the Ganges Delta and the low-lying regions of Europe would be flooded. But, if the report is correct, the East and West Coasts of the United States would suffer most. Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the nation’s capital would be submerged. Likewise, most of the California coast—from San Francisco to San Diego. Most of southern Florida—Orlando, Tampa, Miami—would simply vanish into the sea, as would the cities of the Gulf Coast—Corpus Christi, Houston, New Orleans, Mobile. As many as half of our forty most populous cities would face catastrophe.

It’s hard to imagine how the prediction could be more dire—for us as a people and for the future of our nation. (Picture the aftermath of Katrina magnified and multiplied across twenty coastal American cities; how long could our country withstand such strain?) And, yet, we look out our windows onto the last dregs of winter snow, and it’s hard to believe these scenarios to be anything more than science fiction. Though parts of America have been hit by drought or stronger-than-usual Atlantic storms, our daily lives have changed little amid the reports of coming disaster, so it’s not only hard to believe; it’s hard to change, or even want to change. To many of us, apocalyptic prognostications about global warming seem like the kind of morbid kitsch we associate with the Cold War era’s infinite dreams of our own atomic undoing or the Chicken Little panic about the Y2K bug.

Other people in other parts of the world, however, don’t have the luxury of regarding all this as elaborate figments of our imaginations. In high mountain ranges around the world—the Andes, Himalayas, Canadian Rockies—and at the poles, scientists are recording appalling rates of glacial melt. Worse still, all studies indicate that the rate of melting is accelerating, despite more than two decades of warnings. In assembling this issue, we dispatched our writers and photographers to these most threatened regions to report, but our goal was not an encompassing, fact-burdened tally of the planet’s woes. We chose, even, to avoid worthy discussions of threatened wildlife due to habitat loss. Instead, we hoped to put human faces on the crisis of the world’s vanishing glaciers and icecaps, to focus on the cultures facing extinction because of forces beyond their control.

Ted Conover joins a group of students as they walk the thinning ice of the frozen Zanskar River, the only winter road for a swath of Kashmir and the sole path to Western education and opportunity for the young people who have grown up in those Himalayan villages. Carolyn Kormann travels to Qoyllur Rit’i, the Andean glacier revered by the Quechua of Peru, who believe that the ice’s disappearance signals the end of the world but also long for the trappings of modern life like cell phones and plasma screens. Tipper Gore contributes a series of beautiful and shocking photographs of Bishop Glacier in the mountains north of Vancouver, as portions of its ice calve and reveal rock that has not been exposed for tens of thousands of years. Though this glacier appears remote, it forms part of the critical Lillooet Icefield that feeds a half-dozen major rivers on Canada’s southwest coast—the rivers that provide drinking water for Vancouver and surrounding towns. On the opposite side of the continent, Paul Reyes accompanies a crew of resourceful Newfoundlanders who—as their fishing stocks disappeared—retrofitted their fishing boat to haul in icebergs floating south from Greenland, using shotguns to break them down to manageable size. Jason Anthony, who spent close to a decade working on the ice of Antarctica, contemplates the immensity of the continent, a place so vast, so inhospitable it virtually prohibits human habitation, but, Anthony worries, might prove the last redoubt for humankind.

If, even after reading all of these pieces, you still doubt that global climate change is a serious concern or, like me, you’re optimistic that science will find an escape hatch, then consider Pat Joseph’s essay on efforts to geoengineer a solution to rising temperatures. Somehow, reading the arguments for and against scattering volcanic ash into the upper atmosphere, as a way of (hopefully) diffusing the sun’s radiation, brought the debate into final focus. Some would argue that climatologists who favor geoengineering are peddling an easy but dangerous solution to a complex problem, a security blanket that allows the world’s polluters to sleep easier, but aren’t these scientists, in fact, suggesting something far darker about the human condition? Aren’t they implying that we won’t take heed of the climate crisis until there’s no safe way out?

I’m reminded of the parable of Damocles. In Greek legend, Damocles lusts after a life of power and wealth, feasting in the king’s chair, until he realizes that a sword hangs over his neck, suspended only by a single horsehair—a revelation that finally curdles his appetite. Aren’t climatologists worrying that, like Damocles, the world’s top polluters won’t believe in the need to change until the West Antarctic Ice Sheet hangs by a final thread, poised over us all like a bright, shining sword? 


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