Notes - A World Without Ice - Henry N. Pollack

A World Without Ice - Henry N. Pollack (2009)



The polar circles in the Arctic and Antarctic are at 66.6º north and south latitudes, respectively. The polar circles define the areas around the poles that experience round-the-clock daylight at least one day each summer, and total darkness at least one day each winter. The number of days of such illumination (or the lack thereof) increases toward the poles. The distance from the polar circles to the poles is 23.4º, equal to the tilt of Earth’s rotational axis away from being perpendicular to the plane of Earth’s orbit about the Sun.


This extract from Cook’s journal is from Captain James Cook, by Richard Hough (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994).


Ernest Shackleton, The Heart of the Antarctic (New York: Signet, 2000), 44.


An image of the world before humans put their signature on it, and as it would return to a natural state after a hypothetical departure of humans from it, can be found in Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007).


F. A. Worsley, Shackleton’s Boat Journey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), 104-5.


The close juxtaposition in time of the International Polar Year and the Berlin Treaty displayed a tenuous thread of consistency—cooperation among the nations of Europe when it served their national self-interests.


“Arctic Breakthrough,” National Geographic 191, no. 2 (1997): 36-57.


T. C. Moore and the Expedition 302 Scientists, “Sedimentation and Subsidence History of the Lomonosov Ridge,” in J. Backman, K. Moran, D. B. McInroy, L. A. Mayer, and the Expedition 302 Scientists, Proc. IODP, 302 (Edinburgh: Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Management International, 2006), doi: 10.2204/iodp.proc.302.105.2006.


Among T. H. Baughman’s books are Before the Heroes Came: Antarctica in the 1890s (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994); Ice: The Antarctic Diary of Charles F. Passel (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1995); and Pilgrims on the Ice: Robert Falcon Scott’s First Antarctic Expedition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999). He has also published a short popular biography, Shackleton of the Antarctic (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2009).


The Nansen expedition to reach the North Pole relied on an untested concept: drifting over the pole while locked in moving sea ice. It is described in more detail in chapter 2.


M. C. Kennicutt, “Oil Spillage in Antarctica: Initial Report of the National Science Foundation- Sponsored Quick Response Team on the Grounding of the Bahía Paraíso,” Environmental Science & Technology24 (1990): 620-24.


W. R. Fraser and D. L. Patterson, “Human Disturbance and Long-term Changes in Adélie Penguin Populations: A Natural Experiment at Palmer Station, Antarctic Peninsula,” in B. Batta glia, J. Valencia, and D.W.H. Walton, eds., Antarctic Communities: Species, Structure and Survival , Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR), Sixth Biological Symposium (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 445-52.


The changes taking place in Antarctica, indeed all around the world, are laid out and discussed more fully in later chapters.


New York Times, February 13, 1886.


Tom Mueller writes about the baby mammoth and Dan Fisher in the article “Ice Baby,” which appeared in National Geographic magazine in May 2009.


Some other frozen substances are also called ices, with perhaps the best known being frozen carbon dioxide, which is also called dry ice.


This extract from Cook’s journal is from Hough, Captain James Cook, 236-37.


Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).


This is somewhat reminiscent of a story about the mid-nineteenth-century pioneer wagon trails across America. Where the California and Oregon trails diverged into two well-worn paths on the high plains of western Nebraska, there was posted a sign that read, “Choose your rut carefully—you’ll be in it for the next two thousand miles.”


Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1959), 37.


J. W. Holt et al., “Radar Sounding Evidence for Buried Glaciers in the Southern Mid-Latitudes of Mars,” Science 232 (2008): 1235-38.


R. Pappalardo, J. Head, and R. Greeley, “The Hidden Ocean of Europa,” Scientific American, October 1999.


C. Porco, “The Restless World of Enceladus,” Scientific American, December 2008, 52-63.


We speak much more about the climatic history revealed in the Vostok ice core in chapter 6, but for the moment it is enough to realize that Lake Vostok has been covered with ice for a long time.


Much interesting material about Lake Bonneville and Great Salt Lake can be found at, a site of the Utah Geological Survey.


J. C. Hill et al., “Iceberg Scours Along the Southern U.S. Atlantic Margin,” Geology 36, no. 6 (2008): 447-50.


We will revisit the topic of climatic instabilities in chapter 8, which includes a discussion of tipping points in the global climate system. In particular, the question of destabilizing the Gulf Stream will be reexamined in the context of contemporary climate warming that is leading to the rapid loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.


J. Jouzel et al., “Orbital and Millennial Antarctic Climate Variability over the Last 800,000 Years,” Science 317 (2007): 793-96.


R. B. Alley, The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).


J. Eudald Carbonell, J. Pares, et al., “The First Hominin of Europe,” Nature 452 (March 27, 2008): 465-69.


D. M. Behar et al., “The Dawn of Human Matrilineal Diversity,” American Journal of Human Genetics 82 (2008): 1-11.


M. T. P. Gilbert et al., “DNA from Pre-Clovis Human Coprolites in Oregon, North America,” Science 320 (2008): 786-89.


T. D. Dillehay et al., “Monte Verde: Seaweed, Food, Medicine, and the Peopling of South America,” Science 320 (2008): 784-86.


T. Goebel, M. R. Waters, and D. H. O’Rourke, “The Late Pleistocene Dispersal of Modern Humans in the Americas,” Science 319 (2008): 1497-502.


Brian Fagan provides a very readable account of this period in The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization (New York: Basic Books, 2004).


S. Levitus et al., “Warming of the World Ocean,” Science 287 (2000): 2225-29.


S. Huang, H. N. Pollack, and P.-Y. Shen, “Temperature Trends over the Past Five Centuries Reconstructed from Borehole Temperatures,” Nature 403 (2000): 756-58.


H. N. Pollack and J. Smerdon, “Borehole Climate Reconstructions: Spatial Structure and Hemispheric Averages,” Journal of Geophysical Research 109 (2004): D11106, doi: 10.1029/2003JD004163.


See Ross Gelbspan’s Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis—And What We Can Do to Avert Disaster (New York: Basic Books, 2004).


Euan Nesbit, “Cinderella Science,” Nature 450 (2007): 789-90.


Anthony DePalma describes the Mohonk Mountain House weather station and the dedicated observing corps in an article in the New York Times, September 16, 2008, D1.


Cornelia Dean describes this three-generation family endeavor in her New York Times article of May 6, 2008.


Darcy Frey describes George Divoky’s three-plus decades of research on Cooper Island in an article in the New York Times Magazine of January 6, 2002.


Jim Nugent, a horticulturalist in the Michigan State University Extension Service, kindly provided the Grand Traverse Bay freezing statistics.


J. J. Magnuson et al., “Historical Trends in Lake and River Ice Cover in the Northern Hemisphere,” Science 289 (2000): 1743-46.



This technique is analogous to the determination of ocean depths using sound transmission.


E. Rignot et al., “Recent Antarctic Ice Mass Loss from Radar Interferometry and Regional Climate Modeling,” Nature Geoscience 1 (2008): 106-10.


For readers interested in knowing more about peer review, please see a fuller discussion in my earlier book Uncertain Science... Uncertain World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).


IPCC, “Summary for Policymakers,” in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ed. S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K. B. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H. L. Miller (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007).


Henry Stommel and Elizabeth Stommel, “The Year Without a Summer,” Scientific American 240 (1979): 176-86.


The author of these words is uncertain. They are likely from John of Ephesus, but have also been attributed to Michael of Syria. See the discussion in M. R. Rampino, S. Self, and R. B. Stothers, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 16 (1988): 73-99.


L. B. Larson et al., “New Ice Core Evidence for a Volcanic Cause of the A.D. 536 Dust Veil,” Geophysical Research Letters 35 (2008): article L04708.


C. Sagan and G. Mullen, “Earth and Mars: Evolution of Atmospheres and Surface Temperatures,” Science 177 (1972): 52-56.


If the sun were hotter and sending us more energy, it would shift its radiative peak to shorter wavelengths (we would then have evolved to see ultraviolet “colors”), and if it were cooler and sending us less energy, it would shift its radiation toward the infrared. In radiation physics, this relationship is called Wien’s Law of Displacement.


J.C.G. Walker et al., “A Negative Feedback Mechanism for the Long-term Stabilization of Earth’s Surface Temperature,” Journal of Geophysical Research 86 (1981): 9776-82.


Counting sunspots day by day is yet another example of “Cinderella” science referred to in chapter 4. It is routine work, and yet the four-hundred-year archive provides valuable data for understanding solar variability.


Professor Iain Couzin, a mathematical biologist with appointments at both Princeton University and Oxford University, describes army ants in much the same way: “No matter how much you look at an individual army ant, you will never get a sense that when you put 1.5 million of them together, they form bridges and columns [with their own bodies]. You just cannot know that” (New York Times, November 13, 2007, D1).


The term watt, honoring James Watt, describes the rate of energy use. One watt is equal to one joule (a unit of energy in the metric system) per second.


The short article “On the History of Humans as Geomorphic Agents,” by Roger LeB. Hooke (Geology 28, no. 9 [September 2000]: 843-46), provides a very readable summary of the human shaping of Earth’s solid surface.


To read more about mountaintop removal mining, see “Mining the Mountains,” by John McQuaid, in the January 2009 issue of Smithsonian.


The illustration is after a photo of this excavator by Dermot McArdle, Fleet General Manager, KMC Mining.


Bruce H. Wilkinson, “Humans as Geologic Agents: A Deep-Time Perspective,” Geology 33, no. 3 (March 2005): 161-64.


B. H. Wilkinson and B. McElroy, “The Impact of Humans on Continental Erosion and Sedimentation,” Geological Society of America Bulletin 119 (2007):140-56.


D. R. Montgomery, “Is Agriculture Eroding Civilization’s Foundation?” GSA Today 17, no. 10 (2007): 4-9.


J. C. Neff et al., “Increasing Eolian Dust Deposition in the Western United States Linked to Human Activity,” Nature Geoscience 1 (March 2008): 189-95.


Philip Micklin, “The Aral Sea Disaster,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 35, no. 4 (2007): 47-72.


The worst of the Aral Sea decline may be in the past. The diversions of water have recently been partially reversed, and the lake level shows signs of stabilizing.


For the fascinating story of this trip, read John Pollack’s Cork Boat (New York: Anchor Books, 2004).


Robert J. Diaz and Rutger Rosenberg, “Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems,” Science 321 (August 15, 2008): 926-29.


Ironically, today wind turbines are being installed on the plains to generate the electricity for irrigation pumps—a return of wind power to a setting where it had been largely neglected for half a century.


Haberl, H., K.-H. Erb, and F. Krausmann, “Global Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production,” The Encyclopedia of Earth, 2008, accessed at


B. Worm et al., “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services,” Science 314 (2006): 787-90.


J. Schipper et al., “The Status of the World’s Land and Marine Mammals: Diversity, Threat, and Knowledge,” Science 322 (2008): 225-30.


James Gustave Speth, “Environmental Failure: A Case for a New Green Politics,” Yale Environment 360 (2008), accessed at


Verlyn Klinkenborg, an occasional columnist for the New York Times, provides a brief but very good discussion of light pollution in “The End of Night: Why We Need Darkness,” National Geographic, November 2008.


“Natural Resources Defense Council vs. Winter,” New York Times, November 13, 2008.


New York Times, November 1, 2008.


A concentration reported as a few hundred parts per million can be visualized by a big bag of rice containing a million grains—nearly all are white, but a few hundred are black. A representative sample containing a million molecules of Earth’s atmosphere will have a few hundred molecules of CO2.


Ralph F. Keeling, “Recording Earth’s Vital Signs,” Science 319 (2008): 1771-72.


G. De’ath, J. M. Lough, and K. E. Fabricius, “Declining Coral Calcification on the Great Barrier Reef,” Science 323 (January 2, 2009): 116-19.


A geological epoch is part of a hierarchy of geological time subdivisions. A geological era comprises several periods, which in turn comprise several epochs. For example, the Pleistocene epoch occupies the interval of time between 1.8 million years ago up to 11,000 years ago, and is part of the Neogene period (23 million years ago to the present), which in turn is part of the Cenozoic era (65 million years ago to the present).


Anthropocene etymologically derives from the Greek anthropinos, meaning “human,” and cene, signifying “new” or “recent”; the latter root relates to the fact that the epoch is part of the Cenozoic era, the geological era comprising the most recent life, in contrast to the earlier Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras.


P. J. Crutzen and E. F. Stoermer, “The Anthropocene,” International Geosphere Biosphere Newsletter, no. 41, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, 17-18.


P. J. Crutzen, Nature 415 (2002): 23.


W. F. Ruddiman, “The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago,” Climatic Change 61 (2003): 261-93.


For an interesting discussion of the Tuvalu flooding, see “A Sinking Feeling,” by Samir S. Patel, in Nature 440 (April 6, 2006): 734-36.


Christoph Marty, “Regime Shift of Snow Days in Switzerland,” Geophysical Research Letters 35 (2008): article L12501.


T. P. Barnett, J. C. Adam, and D. P. Lettenmaier, “Potential Impacts of a Warming Climate on Water Availability in Snow-Dominated Regions,” Nature 438 (2005): 303-9.


A. L. Westerling et al., “Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity,” Science 313, no. 5789 (2006): 940-43.


Jim Robbins, “Spread of Bark Beetles Kills Millions of Acres of Trees in West,” New York Times, November 18, 2008.


Natalie M. Kehrwald, Lonnie G. Thompson, et al., “Mass Loss on Himalayan Glacier Endangers Water Resources,” Geophysical Research Letters 35 (2008): article no. L22503.


P. Schwartz and D. Randall, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security,” October 2003.


See the article by Adam Wolf about Sergei Zimov and the methane bubbling out of Siberia that appeared in Stanford Magazine, September/October 2008, 63-69.


K. M. Walter, S. A. Zimov, et al., “Methane Bubbling from Siberian Thaw Lakes as a Positive Feedback to Climate Warming,” Nature 443 (2006): 71-75.


M. Rigby et al., “Renewed Growth of Atmospheric Methane,” Geophysical Research Letters 35 (2008): article no. L22805.


A polynya, first mentioned in chapter 4, is an open area created and maintained by unusual combinations of wind and ocean currents.


J. C. Comiso et al., “Accelerated Decline in the Arctic Sea Ice Cover,” Geophysical Research Letters 35 (2008): article no. L01703.


Julienne Stroeve et al., “Arctic Sea Ice Decline: Faster Than Forecast,” Geophysical Research Letters 34 (2007): article no. L09501.


Quoted in Alexandra Witze’s “Losing Greenland,” Nature 452 (2008): 798-802.


James McClintock, Hugh Ducklow, and William Fraser, “Ecological Responses to Climate Change on the Antarctic Peninsula,” American Scientist 96 (2008): 302-10.


R. J. Rowley et al., “Risk of Rising Sea Level to Population and Land Area,” Eos Transactions American Geophysical Union 88, no. 9 (2007).


R. Oren et al., “Soil Fertility Limits Carbon Sequestration by Forest Ecosystems in a CO2 enriched Atmosphere,” Nature 411 (May 24, 2001): 469-72.


H. J. Zwally et al., “Surface Melt-Induced Acceleration of Greenland Ice-Sheet Flow,” Science 297 (2002): 218-22.


I. Joughin, W. Abdalati, and M. Fahenstock, “Large Fluctuations in Speed on Greenland’s Jakobshavn Isbræ Glacier,” Nature 432 (2004): 608-10.


E. Rignot and P. Kanagaratnam, “Changes in the Velocity Structure of the Greenland Ice Sheet,” Science 311 (2006): 986-89.


P. F. Hoffman et al., “A Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth,” Science 281 (1998): 1342-46.


A. de Vernal and C. Hillaire-Marcel, “Natural Variability of Greenland Climate, Vegetation, and Ice Volume During the Past Million Years,” Science 320 (June 20, 2008): 1622-25.


Other definitions of the “climate commitment” have been tied to stabilization of greenhouse gas emissions at some level, as opposed to the more common reference to stabilization of the atmospheric concentration level.


For a good discussion of agricultural adaptation, see Nathan Russell, “The Agricultural Impact of Global Climate Change,” Geotimes 52, no. 4 (April 2007): 30-34.


See Adele Airoldi, “The European Union and the Arctic” (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers, 2008), ANP 2008:729.


Anita Jones, “An Icy Partnership,” Science 317 (September 14, 2007): 1469; Andrew C. Revkin, “Experts Urge U.S. to Increase Icebreaker Fleet in Arctic Waters,” New York Times, August 17, 2008.


Stephen H. Schneider, “The Worst-Case Scenario,” Nature 458 (2009): 1104-5.


Emanuel Derman and Paul Wilmott, “Perfect Models, Imperfect World,” BusinessWeek, January 12, 2009, 59-60.


Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).


Henry N. Pollack, Uncertain Science... Uncertain World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).


Robert J. Lempert, Steven W. Popper, and Steven C. Bankes, Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative Long-Term Policy Analysis (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2003).


New York Times, April 6, 2008. Data from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Livermore, California.


United Nations Population Division, The World at Six Billion, 1999.


R. B. Alley, M. Fahenstock, and I. Joughin, “Understanding Glacier Flow in Changing Times,” Science 322 (2008): 1061.


U.S. Climate Change Science Program Synthesis and Assessment Report 3.4, “Abrupt Climate Change, Chapter 2: Rapid Changes in Glaciers and Ice Sheets and Their Impacts on Sea Levels,” 2009.


Quirin Schiermeier, “Gas Leak!” Nature 423 (June 12, 2003): 681-82.


P. Blanchon et al., “Rapid Sea-Level Rise and Reef Back-stepping at the Close of the Last Interglacial Highstand,” Nature 458 (2009): 881-85.


I first saw the idea of compressing all of geologic time into a single year in Geologic Time, by Don L. Eicher (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968). Here I have modified Eicher’s compression a little, but it remains true to his “year of years.”


H. Pollack, S. Huang, and P.-Y. Shen, “Climate Change Record in Subsurface Temperatures: A Global Perspective,” Science 282 (October 9, 1998): 279-81.