When life brings you collapsing ice sheets, hug your warm baked goods close.
It’s been a while since my last dispatch, which was from Shanghai for the Arctic Circle Forum. I’ve now temporarily left my base of Hong Kong in the “near-Arctic state” of China for the Arctic’s self-described “nearest neighbour”: the United Kingdom. Given the protests in Hong Kong against the extradition law, now is probably a critical time to be there. But alas, sometimes the best laid plans, well, you know the rest.
Thanks to generous support from the Doris Zimmern HKU – Cambridge Hughes Hall fellowship and a Sino-British Outgoing Trust Visitorship, I’m spending the summer as a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge ‘s Scott Polar Research Institute, where I completed my MPhil in Polar Studies in 2013. I’ll be here until September wrapping up a few articles and getting started on a book project I have in mind to write an environmental history of Arctic transportation.
Since I arrived at the beginning of June, it’s been exciting to be part of a community of polar researchers again. In the time that has passed so far, I’ve enjoyed lively exchanges about everything from whether it snows in Antarctica (answer: hardly, since it’s a desert, but since it’s so cold, the snow that does fall on the continent doesn’t melt and builds up over eons) to how Sami people were described before the concept of indigeneity emerged in the 1960s. For the most part, these conversations have taken place over already countless cups of milky tea (with the occasional biscuits and, this still being a university town, leftover potato chips from another event).
People have asked me whether Cambridge has changed in the six years since I completed my MPhil. Coming from a city where restaurants (and booksellers) are there one day and gone the next, it’s somewhat reassuring to be able to say that no, not noticeably so – except for the fact that people appear to be drinking more coffee than before. Every day at 10:30 am and 4:00 pm, the bell from British polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed vessel Terra Nova is rung for tea time, and the tea trolley holds many more pots of coffee than I recall. The caffeination of the world – especially academia – powers on.
This being the Arctic’s “nearest neighbor” – a point of geographic fact since the UK is the country with the land nearest the Arctic Circle (the isle of Unst, in the Shetland Islands, described as having “the northernmost of everything”) without possessing any territory north of 66°33′ itself – I’ve also been able to attend a number of public events on the polar regions already.
Last Sunday, I took the short train ride down from Cambridge to London to attend a literary festival in the hip neighborhood of Stoke Newington, filled with pizzerias, banh mi shops, and a community library. At the ninth-annual festival, an event called “Pole to Pole” brought together my former supervisor at Cambridge, Dr. Michael Bravo, and novelist Jean McNeil. Bravo shared some thoughts from his recent book about the history of the tippy-top of the Earth, North Pole, while McNeil talked about her experiences in Antarctica, recounted in the memoir Ice Diaries. Their hour-long discussion was light-hearted, engaging, and peppered with interesting anecdotes about the “strange geomagnetic journeys” of penguins to Hindu myths of the North Pole.
While the book festival presented the polar regions in a refreshingly unapocalyptic manner (except for a rather melancholy reference to Dutch explorer Bernice Notenboom, who in 2014 became possibly one of the last people to ski away from the North Pole in what Michael called a “tale of ecological loss”), yesterday, I went to a packed hearing in Parliament on the breakup of the so-called “Doomsday Glacier,” known more conventionally as the Thwaites Glacier, in Antarctica. This 3,000-4,000-foot-thick chunk of ice, equal to the size of Great Britain (“or the state of Idaho,” as an American scientist who was one of the presenters helpfully expressed) is melting into the ocean – and fast. It is already responsible for four percent of annual sea level rise. In December 2018, writing in WIRED, journalist John Gertner described the potential breakup as the “kind of event that changes the course of civilization.”
The Thwaites Glacier is so remote that only 28 humans have set foot on it. More scientists will travel there soon, however, for the U.S. and U.K. are teaming together as part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (so named because, according to one of the scientists speaking at the hearing, they couldn’t agree to call it a program(me) due to their division by a common language) to study the terrifying dynamics of this fragmenting block of ice.
Interestingly enough, the two countries stand to be more affected by the sea level rise caused by Thwaites’ breakup than countries closer to it such as Chile and Argentina. That’s because the glacier is so large that its gravitational field pulls the global ocean towards it (and thereby boosts sea level near southern South America). Once Antarctica releases Thwaites from its grip (portending potentially two feet of sea level rise if it all melts), the glacier will no longer be exerting a gravitational pull. This enormous loss to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will cause sea level to rise proportionately more in the mid- and northern latitudes around Britain and America.
More accurate than saying the Thwaites Glacier is melting might be to say that it is rotting like a tooth gone bad. The ice is hollowing out from below and separating from its foundations. In January 2019, a team of NASA scientists announced “one of several disturbing discoveries”: the discovery of an enormous cavity two-thirds the size of Manhattan and 1,000 feet deep. (For comparison, New York City’s Second Avenue Subway lies only 180 feet underground). Most of the 14 billion tons of frozen liquid contained within that hole melted in the past three years.
If William the Conqueror’s eleventh-century survey of the territories he conquered in England and Wales resulted in the Domesday Book, the U.S. and U.K.’s 21st-century study of the Doomsday Glacier will undoubtedly inform less vainglorious tales. What awaits from research on the Thwaites are likely more chapters in the globe-spanning epic of ecological loss that humanity is hastily writing.
While I probably won’t be getting up to much fieldwork this summer, I do hope to do a lot of reading, writing, and hopefully a bit more blogging on the Arctic. Tomorrow I’ll head off to Copenhagen, where I will spend a couple of days looking in the Danish Arctic Institute’s archives. Perhaps I’ll also find the time to write a short post about what I find in the handwritten records of Danish expeditions to Greenland over a warm kanelsnegl (Danish cinnamon bun) and latte. When life brings you collapsing ice sheets, hug your warm baked goods close.