If you’re interested in global warming and climate change, you’re probably aware of how politicized the area has become, and how much hot air has been spewed by proponents and opponents of the idea that we humans are changing the climate, perhaps to a dangerous or catastrophic degree. In The Ice Chronicles, climatologist and arctic explorer Paul Mayewski and author Frank White bring cooler heads and cold, hard facts to the controversy.
The book, published in the fall of 2002, centers on the findings from the two-mile long ice core that Mayewski’s team pulled from the center of the Greenland Ice Cap. This ice core, labeled GISP2, allowed scientists to track a wide range of climate variables in exquisite detail over the past 100,000 years. It produced many important findings that can help clarify the highly politicized climate controversy. The core reveals that Earth’s climate is far from steady. Even without any contributions from manmade greenhouse gasses, ozone-depleting chemicals or particulates, regional and global conditions have swung from hot to cold and wet to dry many times, often with dramatic suddenness. Mayewski repeatedly makes the point that the climatologically calm, benign Holocene–the time period during which human civilization appeared and has developed–is a myth. The ten millennia or so since the end of the most recent ice age have been marked by two large global climate shifts, the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period, and many less drastic but still potent changes. He also presents intriguing evidence that some of these changes contributed to the downfall of several ancient civilizations, including the Mesopotamian Empire around 1200 BC, the Mayan Civilization around 900 AD, and the Norse colonies in Greenland around 1400 AD.
My only real criticism of the book is that it may present more of the nitty gritty history and findings of the GISP2 project than most readers want or need. Still, most of this is put into boxes which readers can dive into or skip as they choose.
While the research findings and their implications are fascinating, perhaps the most important contribution the authors make is their perspective. The data Mayewksi himself uncovered show that the climate is a complicated and sensitive system, pushed from regime to regime by a variety of natural forces. But Mayewski is equally clear that human activities, most notably the marked and well-documented increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, have joined the party, and must be considered in order to understand current conditions or predict future climate change. And he is clear that unless we take sensible steps to reduce our impacts on the system, we risk not just global warming and whatever changes that would bring, but increased climactic instability and unpredictability. To the authors’ credit, they attempt to bring some calm into the climate debates by propounding ten realistic, commonsense principles. The reflect that, “No matter what we do, the climate will change.” But they also admonish, “We should strive more for climate predictability than control,” and “If we cannot have global control of climate policy, we must at least have global cooperation.”
The Ice Chronicles is well worth reading, both for the hard-won scientific facts it presents and explains so clearly, and for the constructive, down-to-earth perspective it provides.
Robert Adler, author of Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation. (John Wiley & Sons, September 2002).