When we splurged on an Alaska cruise more than a decade ago, one of our ‘land excursions’ was to the Mendenhall Glacier. Still huge. Still impressive. Still imposing.
But a fraction of the size that it once was.
This is what we saw:
And then there’s this image – comparing the glacier as it looked back in what must have been the dawn of photography, and some two or three years after we went there:
There is open water now where no open water ever was before. There is bare rock which used to be under a ton of ice. And this wasn’t the only glacier we met on that trip which was in retreat, vanishing, dying. Someone on the Internet wrote recently, “My friend who lives in Juneau was … showing me pictures of their glaciers. The ice floes in the river are massive, and there is zero snowpack at the high elevations.”
There is a glacier in Iceland, Okjökul, which has officially the first glacier to be declared ‘dead’ by climate change. They put a plaque up on the mountain where it used to be, in Icelandic, and in English. It reads:
A letter to the future
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.
I recently watched a documentary about the effects of global warming on permafrost in the high latitudes – on how deep frozen ground is melting and buckling infrastructure built upon it (roads looking like melted spaghetti), and land literally melting away into the sea as it crumbles away eaten by rising waters and warming temperatures eroding it from the heights down with mudslides and water undercutting cliffs. People are losing everything up there – a way of life, their culture, their homes. And that’s just the Canadian north; in Siberia melting permafrost is releasing anthrax, and possibly other diseases dormant for thousands of years.
I saw another picture someone gleefully shared on social media, a polar bear cavorting in a sea of pink wildflowers. Very pretty. The bear stood out like a sore thumb. It might have taken a moment to play, and then it will take much longer… to starve.
I know – I KNOW – that I will be alive to see the last polar bear alive in the wilderness. The last elephant. The last giraffe. The last lion. The last wolf. A billion animals are already said to have perished in the cataclysmic fires ravaging Australia in 2019. We’ve already lost so many others.
We just had the hottest summer on record. And then we had record rains in places where such had never been before.
And then … I came across the news about Mont Blanc.
Forgive me for this. I have heard the news from Iceland; I have seen the glaciers of Alaska; I have heard and understood the stories about the dramas and tragedies unfolding in the polar regions. But this. This. This is Europe. This is the heart of Europe. This is home. These are the Alps that are familiar to me, the mountains I have grown up with. Mont Blanc may not be Everest but it is one of the most iconic peaks of Europe and this… feels like I’m watching it dying.
It was a gut punch – everything else was a deep ache, a throbbing pain, but this… this was a stab. For the first time it is something I KNOW. Everybody probably has some geography that they carry inside of them as their own, and Europe has been mine, has always been mine. The cobbled old cities which feel as though they’ve always existed, as though they were old when history was young; the cafés that spill out onto pavements in Paris; the deep old woods (well, what remains of them…); the backbone of the Alps rising above it all in their glory. The Alps. This. Mont Blanc. The mountains whose names I know, whose shapes I recognize.
Maybe this is what is necessary – to wake up a world too long, too deeply, asleep. I don’t know. I don’t know if something can be born without pain. But this is a high price to pay. The crumbling of something that has always seemed to be eternal is hitting me unexpectedly hard, and I feel like I should light a candle or something, in mourning. In mourning both for the past which I am losing, and for the future that can never now be – and perhaps for the present in which I live which permitted all that.
I keep on thinking back on Greta Thurnberg and her thundering accusation to the men in power: HOW DARE YOU. Oh, glorious girl, why could you not have come to shake the plinths of power a generation ago? I am so afraid that all of your heart and all of your passion – everything that I love about you – has come too late. Because you are screaming a warning, and behind you a mountain is on the verge of forever changing its face, of crumbling away into a welter of ice, a drowning of water.
Tonight, I think about the glaciers, about the mountains, about the world which I may live to see drive itself blindly into ugliness and tragedy and extinction. Tonight, I think about the glacier which may be about to die – and to take from me something that I would have never believed possible to vanish.
When the mountains start to fail and fall… is it just over…?
Icelandic Glacier Lost to Climate Change HERE
Collapse of Mont Blanc Glacier HERE
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