A World Without Ice

Why ice matters—and how humans are upsetting the delicate geological balance between Earth and this critical component of our environment.

A World Without Ice

Much has been written about climate change, but one of the most overlooked pieces of the environmental puzzle is ice. This is mildly surprising, as in its own unspoken way, ice has plenty to say about the extent of global warming. As University of Michigan geophysicist Henry Pollack notes in his new book “A World Without Ice” (Avery), “Ice asks no questions, presents no arguments, reads no newspapers, listens to no debates. It is not burdened by ideology and carries no political baggage as it crosses the threshold from solid to liquid. It just melts.”

In the book—and the following Failure interview—Pollack gives ice a voice, explaining in easily accessible terms why it is melting so rapidly, and how we might manage the unavoidable consequences. Along the way, he also floats a few thoughts about climate change skeptics, Climate Gate and the prospect of tens of millions of climate refugees.

Why is ice so important to the climate system?
Because ice is so reflective, it sends most of the sunshine falling on it right back to space. Therefore, when there is more ice on Earth, there is less solar energy available to warm Earth. When there is less ice, more sunshine is absorbed by the darker surfaces of Earth—the ocean, the land, and vegetation—and accordingly the planet warms. Additionally, the thick polar ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica spawn wind systems that influence the climate well beyond the margins of the ice.

Has there been an acceleration in terms of ice melting, and if so, why?
The annual summertime melting on Greenland, historically confined to the margins near sea level, has over the past two decades been climbing higher and spreading more widely. Today summer melting occurs at elevations greater than 2000 meters, and takes place over almost half the island.

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