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Is the End of Ice the End of Us?

“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

Wendell Berry

Dahr Jamail is one of my heroes and I don’t use that word lightly. To be a hero is to be heroic and to be heroic is to do something extraordinarily brave that puts one at risk and benefits others. That’s Jamail. Something in him early in his life and development led him to feel a responsibility beyond himself, his family and friends, even beyond humans.

Dahr Jamail

How else do you explain his decision in 2003 to abandon his passion as an Alaskan mountain-climber and guide and place himself in an active war zone in Iraq to see and report the truth as the Iraqi people were experiencing it? He made his own press pass, and with nothing more than an email address, laptop and a camera, became one of the only unembedded, freelance, independent journalists of that war. Hero.

Jamail spent over a year in Iraq between 2003 and 2005 and quickly became a trusted source for reporting the reality of war that embedded, corporate media reporters could not and would not see or tell. His stories appeared at his website, the Inter Press Service News Agency, The Asia Times, The Nation, Democracy Now! (where I first saw him), TomDispatch, Truthout, The Sunday Herald in Scotland, The GuardianLe Monde, The Huffington Post, The Independent, Al Jazeera, NPR and the BBC. Jamail has also reported from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and reported extensively on veterans’ resistance against US foreign policy, a story the mainstream media ignored. He spent ten years in the region.

And he wrote books, like Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and The Mass Destruction of Iraq: The Disintegration of a Nation: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible (an e-book co-authored with William Rivers Pitt).

And he won a slew of awards including the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism, The Lannan Foundation Writing Residency Fellowship, the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage, five Project Censored awards and the 2018 Izzy Award for his “path-breaking and in-depth reporting in 2017” exposing “environmental hazards and militarism.”

After a decade as a war reporter, Jamail returned to the states and his first love of mountaineering, “only to find that the slopes he had once climbed have been irrevocably changed by climate disruption.” He began writing his Climate Disruption Dispatches for Truthout and began traveling around the planet, just as he had done in Iraq, as a courageous unimbedded reporter telling the story that corporate media is unable or unwilling to tell.

And earlier this year, Jamail published another book: The End of Ice, Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption. Jamail takes us to Denali, the highest mountain peak in America and “arguably the largest mountain on the planet when measured from its edges,” a mountain he has “spent many months” of his life on and a mountain on which one can clearly witness the ravages of our rapidly warming planet. Here on one of the coldest places on Earth, even here, the ice is rapidly melting thanks to human-caused climate disruption.

Jamail writes, “It was difficult for me to fathom that even the Alaska Range was melting, and rapidly at that.” He talks about wanting to climb Denali again out of respect and love, like “wanting to be at the bedside of an ailing friend, wanting to share time with them while we are both still here.” Mourning the rapid and irreversible changes assaulting the majestic cathedral of ice, Jamail writes, “I began to feel the deep toll climate disruption was taking on Denali. The glaciers were melting underneath my skis, my crampons, and my ice ax. I could feel the cataclysmic impact of the human race’s industrial-scale consumerism on the Earth. We had defiled the biosphere and we were past the point of no return.”

Jamail takes us to the Gulkana Glacier in the eastern part of the Alaska range where we have one of the longest continuous records “in the Northern Hemisphere of a glacier’s mass balance – the difference between the amount of snow it accumulates in the winter and the amount of snow and ice that melted over summer.” The World Glacier Monitoring Service surveys conducted since 1980 have found continuous “negative mass balances for glaciers around the globe. In other words, the majority of the world’s glaciers are melting, and the trend has accelerated rapidly in recent years.”

Jamail quotes, Louis Sass, a USGS glaciologist and former Denali guide who said, “On average we’re probably losing fifty (Alaskan) glaciers each year now. And that number will increase if we continue business-as-usual emissions.” He quotes Dr. Mike Loso, a physical scientist with the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve who said the rapid warming in Alaska is easily ignored by the outside world. Loso said, “If this was happening in California, every one of these changes would be front-page news. That is why you’ve had no idea that Alaska’s glaciers are losing an estimated 75 billion tons of ice every year.”

Jamail takes us to Montana’s Glacier National Park where for the first time in 7,000 years, the glaciers are disappearing. Where we once had 150 glaciers in 1850, covering over 60 square miles, we now have 26, covering only 9 square miles, an ice decline of 85 percent. The rest of the ice is expected to all melt in a little over a decade. All alpine glaciers on Earth are expected to be gone within the next eighty years.

Why should we care? Jamail tells us why. “It is clear that mountain ecosystems are highly sensitive to climate disruption, and those very ecosystems provide up to 85 percent of all the water humans need, not to mention other species. Globally, glaciers contain 69 percent of all the freshwater on the planet.”

And it is all going away. And it is too late to stop. Even if we ceased all emissions today, it is too late to stop glacial melting. These mountain glaciers have served as our natural water towers as long as humans have lived. And we are draining them as fast as we can. And at the same time, we are sucking up all the precious water lying beneath us in aquifers at unsustainable amounts and rates. All of this means less water for agriculture, higher food prices, and millions of climate refugees fleeing areas of the planet that no longer possess sources of free, fresh water.

This is the story across the Earth. European glaciers in the Alps are half what they were a hundred years ago. The Himalayan Mountains, home to Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, contains “the third largest deposit of ice and snow in the world, after Antarctica and the Arctic.” It “has lost billions of tons of ice” in the last two decades, “double the amount of melting that took place from 1975 to 2000, revealing that the ice loss is accelerating with rising temperatures. It’s also threatening water supplies for hundreds of millions of people downstream across much of Asia.”

Remarkably, very little warming is needed to push the planet’s glaciers to give up their ice. Temperatures in the Himalayas have risen nearly two degrees Fahrenheit (about one degree Celsius) since 2000, which seems miniscule to some. But, according to Joerg Schaefer, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory “A one degree C increase is a huge change. In the middle of the last ice age the mean annual temperature was only 3 degrees C (5.4°F) cooler.” And meanwhile that one degree of human-caused warming has been enough to remove as much as twenty-five percent of the region’s ice since 1980.

According to Jamail, glaciers are “melting faster than anywhere else on Earth” in West Antarctica. He writes, “the rate of ice loss in Antarctica increased a staggering 50 percent in just the first decade of the 2000s.”

And Greenland’s ice sheet, which “has existed for 2.4 million years and is 2.1 miles thick at its deepest point…is melting six times faster than it was in the 1980s. If it melted entirely, sea levels would rise by 24.3 feet.” Greenland has lost 5.6 trillion tons of ice since 1980.

And with melting ice, we get rising seas, which Jamail reports is bad news for anyone who lives near the ocean. Reporting from Southern Florida, Jamail writes that four national parks, the Everglades, Biscayne, Dry Tortugas and Big Cypress National Preserve, a total of 2.46 million acres “will be completely submerged in seawater in my lifetime (Jamail is 51).”

Jamail writes, “Most U.S. government projections estimate between 4.1 and 6.6 feet of sea level rise by 2100.” Dr. Harold Wanless, professor and chair of the Department of Geologic Science at the University of Miami predicts we will easily see two feet of sea level rise within the next 30 years which means “Miami-Dade County alone will lose 38 percent of its land, and much of the area of the Turkey Point Nuclear plant on the coast will be submerged.” And Wanless said, “And for every foot of sea level rise, the shore will shift further landward five hundred to two thousand feet.”

Jamail takes us to the Rock Islands of Palau in the western Pacific Ocean, Guam’s Tumon Bay and Queensland, Australia to visit some of the world’s remaining coral reefs and to talk to scientists about the future of this critical ocean species. What he learns is startling.

For example, we know that the oceans absorb over 90 percent of the carbon dioxide we emit, which means they have been saving us from ourselves. To fully grasp how much heat we are adding to the oceans, Jamail writes, “If you took all of the heat humans generated between the years 1955 and 2010 and placed it in the atmosphere instead of the oceans, global temperatures would have risen by a staggering 97°F.” We would all be dead of course.

He further explains that between 1963 and 2013, the rate of human-generated warming in our oceans was “fifteen times faster than what had occurred during the past ten thousand years.” He writes, “Oceanic warming had escalated to a rate in excess of twelve Hiroshima bombs detonating per second.”

And all of this heat means the death of coral. And what happens to coral will affect the entire ocean ecosystem. Dr. Dean Miller, a marine scientist and director of science and media for Great Barrier Reef Legacy believes the coral in the world’s oceans will be bleached and dead well before 2050.

Why should we care? Jamail expalins, “Coral reef ecosystems cover less than 2 percent of Earth’s ocean floor yet are home to one-quarter of all marine species.” Also, coral reefs “are responsible for producing fish that contribute significantly to what is 17 percent of all globally consumed animal protein. One estimate has valued the biodiversity of coral reefs at $9.9 trillion.”

Miller explains that once the coral is gone, “we lose habitat for all of the marine life that depends on it.” He continues, “We might see ecosystem collapse as we know it. We’ll lose the reef fish from the bleaching, then all of the fish that depend on them, all the way up the food chain to the biggest fish. Everything is affected.”

Jamail takes us to the forests of North America, the rainforests in the Amazon Basin, the Pribilofs, a group of islands that lie in the Bering Sea and to “the top of the world,” near the Arctic Circle, all to bring us close-up news about our future and the fate of the Earth and all its inhabitants. There is no doubt that one species – human – has brought on “the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with between 150 and 200 species going extinct daily,” a rate one thousand times greater than before we arrived. Attention must be paid.

The climate crisis calls out to all of us to be honest with ourselves and one another about what we have done, what we are doing and what we will most likely continue to do. It calls for humility, integrity, and conscious awareness. We have a decision to make, all of us, to be as heroic as we can be or to continue to be fearful and oblivious, avoiding the terrible truth that we are actively and earnestly destroying the life-giving capacity of the Earth that gave us life.

And as Jamail laments, it is time for grief; individual and collective, sincere and heart-felt. Jamail suggests we ask ourselves, “How shall I use this precious time?” And perhaps heed Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice to be present with what is happening to our loved one, the natural Earth: “When your beloved is suffering, you need to recognize her suffering, anxiety, and worries, and just by doing that, you already offer some relief.”

My one-hour interview with Dahr Jamail will be broadcast on my Wake-Up Call radio program on KKRN at 88.5 FM on Tuesday, July 16 at 4:00 pm and can be accessed anytime in the archives at kkrn.org.