By 2009 I had been working full time as a professional climate advocate for over 10 years. I had been aware of the global warming threat and calling it out in my writing since the 1980s. I had written many articles and papers on climate science and solutions, even co-authored a book. But the Jersey shore trip with its visceral sense of death and inevitable loss opened a new dimension. I started writing poetry and songs for sunken cities. The shore inspired a Springsteen-ish lyric I called “Dead Cities Walking.”
Seen the rotting casino towers
fall before the rising tide
Their salt corroded skeletal remains
relics of a reckless age
crumble into the sea
Seen the rising tides devour
the Trump and Harrah towers
One day the ocean got an urge
sent the shore a big storm surge
Where the lights were once so pretty
now a real Atlantic City
Where the city now the sea
Wrecked remains now underneath
We take tours out there by submarine
to see what’s left of the gambler’s dream
Cruise old shore town Ocean City to Cape May
Drowned boardwalks where they used to play
Where they used to tour old homes of ghosts
now we tour the ghosted coast
They’re building New Atlantic City
up north there on Kitantitty
They’ve moved the roulette wheels
and one-armed bandits
beyond the reach of the sea
New Philadelphia rises out toward Phoenixville
They’re building New New York
where Yonkers used to be
now that the City’s submerged
They’ve saved the Lady
Put her back together up there
in New Times Square
We see the old skyline
dying in the sunset
Driving down ghost highways
Garden State Parkways
Memories of former days
Old Led Zepp playing
Signs are saying
Ocean City Cape May
Driving on my way
to dead cities walking
My venture into the poetic was partly inspired by an incident driving down the Garden State Parkway to the shore. Flipping the radio dial we caught Don McLean’s “America Pie,” the obtuse one-hit wonder about ‘60s rock. It is the subject of intense hermeneutical debate over which lyrics refer to which stars. As I listened it recalled an epiphany that came to me flying over the west coast of Greenland one August afternoon in 2000 on the top-of-the-world route from Amsterdam to Seattle.
I had been in Europe at the Ardennes Forest summer retreat of Ecola, the Green Party of French-speaking Belgians, to speak about global Green Party statements to the Kyoto and Buenos Aires U.N. climate summits. As a co-chair of the U.S. Association of State Green Parties, predecessor to today’s Green Party of the United States, I had been asked in 1997 by Ralph Monoe, chair of the European Federation of Green Parties, to lead author the Kyoto document. With signatories from six continents it was the first global statement ever by the world’s Green parties. I was asked back to do the same for the follow-up conference in Buenos Aires in 1998. In the region where the great World War II Battle of the Bulge took place, I spoke to the Belgian Greens about the statements and the great struggles that would face us to overcome the political corruption that held back needed action to address the climate crisis (and still does today).
Returning home, some six or seven miles above the west coast of Greenland jagged fjords stretched hundreds of miles north out the window to the horizon beneath a deep blue sky. Rocky brown earth along the coast pushed back miles to the white line of the ice pack. On this late summer day fleets of icebergs were sailing in lines out of the fjords into Disko Bay west of Godhavn and then into the Davis Strait, the passage between Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea. Dozens of white glacial fragments freshly calved from the ice pack were sharply outlined against in the dark blue waters. Though they seemed small from six miles up, their fractal, crystalline shapes were clearly visible, indicating just how massive these immense ships of ice were at ocean level.
|Iceberg in Disko Bay, Greenland, by Peter Prokosch|
Aboard the plane the last moments of the movie were playing, “American Pie” with Madonna. The memory of that moment came back while listening to the original McClean version riding down the Parkway. Her version formed the soundtrack to the scenes unfolding outside the plane window.
“Bye-bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
But the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die.”
By coincidence, or synchronicity, I’d been reading Brian Fagan’s Floods, Famines and Emperors. Waiting at Schipol Airport before the flight I had just gone through his narrative about cold snaps that ensue when too much fresh water suddenly invades the Labrador and Greenland Seas. The saltiness of waters flowing north makes them heavy and causes them to sink to deeper levels, thus pulling water north and driving the North Atlantic circulation. Too much fresh water shuts down the Gulf Stream circulation that brings that warm water to the Jersey shore and far north of it. This happened during a great glacial outflow flood at the end of the last ice age, plunging the planet back into cold conditions for many centuries.
Was I seeing the modality for the end of the world as we know it? Scientists now tend toward the conclusion the planet is overall too warm for a new The Day After Tomorrow-style ice age to break out, but that does not mean a shutdown of North Atlantic circulation would not have serious impacts, mucking with weather systems in ways that bring drought across the planet and make Superstorm Sandys a common event.
As the jetliner winged forward and Greenland faded to the rear the tune was concluding:
“And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.”
The soundtrack keyed to the sight of the Greenland coast slowly receding to the rear, framed by the wing and engines determinedly plowing forward across the curvature of the Earth
“And they were singing bye-bye Miss American Pie . . . “
”This’ll be the day that I die ....”.
As the thrum of the jet engines drove beyond the Greenland coast making their own full complement of greenhouse gases I thought about rock’n’roll, automobiles, the fossil fuel age, the exuberant expressions of our technological adolescence mostly made in U.S.A., and all the excrescences of that time now up here inexorably warming the atmosphere and melting those glaciers. How much we are at the end of that age, I thought. Bye Bye, Miss American Pie indeed. The day the music died, the day our happy world of pleasant summer days at the shore began to end.
Flying over Greenland in August 2000 I was indeed seeing the early onset of ice melt that has only accelerated since. I was flying just north of one of its ground zeros, the Jacobshavn Isbrae glacier, one of Greenland’s three biggest. Jacobhavn, the largest, is a 400-mile long ice river that drains seven percent of the subcontinent and “for some decades . . . the world’s most prolific producer of icebergs,” Fred Pearce notes in his With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change, cover appropriately decorated with a picture of ice falling from a polar glacier front and splashing into the sea. My beach reading at Ocean City. See, I told you I was a curmudgeon.
“Jacobshavn was the likely source of the most famous iceberg of all – the one that sunk the Titanic in 1912,” Pearce reports. “But is has been in overdrive since 1997, after suddenly doubling the speed of its flow to the sea. It is now also the world’s fastest moving glacier, at better than seven miles a year.” The white stream could now be dumping the equivalent of a Nile River into the sea every year. It is sending a message that polar ice does not behave in a gradual manner, but abruptly change.
Thought responsible for four percent of 20th century sea level rise, Jacobshavn’s flow shot up two times between 1997 and 2003, dissolving its floating ice shelf into icebergs such as the fleet I saw out the plane window. Scientists such as Pennsylvania State University glaciologist Richard Alley are discovering that glaciers are being speeded up and sent on their way by rivers of meltwater flowing beneath their base.
“Greenland is a different animal from what we thought it was just a few years ago,” Alley says. “We are still thinking it might take centuries to go, but if things go wrong, it could just be decades. Everything points in one direction, and it’s not a good direction.”
The watchword is feedback. As the Arctic becomes warmer it promotes processes that add to the effect. White ice and snow repel sunlight, send it back toward space. Blue water absorbs it. Ice melt water plunges water deep into the heart of the ice, melting it yet more.
There was a time 14,000 years ago, Mark Lynas notes in Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter World, when “the giant ice sheets of the last glacial age crumbled and gave way to the Holocene.” Every 20 years sea levels escalated by over three feet. That went on for 400 years. This was the result of climate feedbacks generated by small changes in sunlight due to orbital fluctuations. Humanity today is also changing the degree to which the planet absorbs sunlight at a rate several times greater. “Just as they were in the past, ice-sheet changes in the future could be, to use (James) Hansen’s phrase, ‘explosively rapid.’”
As I viewed those iceberg fleets sailing out the fjords, I sensed even in August 2000 it was already too late to prevent a severe level of climate change. Between the physical reality of accumulating warming and the human reality of a politics blocked by self-interested avarice, there was too much inertia locked into the system, rolling like an unstoppable juggernaut or an accelerating glacier. Nonetheless, I thought to myself, it was important to keep doing everything I was doing. It would all be needed. Perhaps the real project would be something other than I immediately conceived.
Diffuse, ambiguous, it rested at the edges of my consciousness. But I sensed it would be about planetary survival, about coming to a fundamental awareness of our new position on the planet and making a start on the tools to work with that new awareness. If solar panels, wind turbines, clean vehicles, better ways of building human settlements and using the land, could not now prevent severe global change, they could at least mitigate its consequences and form the foundation for a way of life fitting to new conditions.
And that is the point for all of us who care and work for the future of our children and our planet. We cannot pretend we have not left a legacy of climate disruption to our coming generations. We cannot stop either in trying to leave the best inheritance we can of human societies and economies prepared to take the battering. Despair is not an option. The more we understand the conditions we have created, the more motivated we must be to act, to do the best we can.
In those bergs that day over Godhavn and Disko Bay, I sensed the end of the world as we knew it. Now, another August nine years later I felt the approaching of that darker day driving along highways to places where that melted ice water would come. It somehow felt fitting to be reminded by the car radio of a song I rarely hear about the end of youthful innocence, the day the music died. The day the Jersey Shore of my younger days would go under the waves. For weeks after that flight I experienced life as a temporariness. Driving through standard, autofied urban/suburban development, the sense of passing came with an immediacy, as if this will not be here tomorrow.
The feeling of immediacy passed, but the apparition remains. Life is impermanent. There is wisdom in accepting this. Nothing lasts long but Earth and Sky, goes the Native American saying. Holding on to what must inevitably change causes suffering, as the Buddha said. We must accept the passing of things. But I cannot do so without a certain sense of grief, cannot take the realities of climate change into my soul without feeling a leaden heaviness of dying pasts. All things must pass, and we must too. But what shall we leave, above all to our children? From that question I cannot be detached.
Erika’s generation will know a changed world of drowned cities and possibilities past. At least I had a chance to share with her a little of the joy I felt in my youth’s warm summer waves and boardwalk playfulness. I will work for her generation, to leave the best I can, as we all should. It’s the least we can do.
Postscript – In March Stefan Ramsdorf, one of the world’s leading scientists studying the North Atlantic circulation, wrote in Real Climate:
“The North Atlantic between Newfoundland and Ireland is practically the only region of the world that has defied global warming and even cooled. Last winter there even was the coldest on record – while globally it was the hottest on record. Our recent study attributes this to a weakening of the Gulf Stream System, which is apparently unique in the last thousand years . . .
“It happens to be just that area for which climate models predict a cooling when the Gulf Stream System weakens . . . That this might happen as a result of global warming is discussed in the scientific community since the 1980s – since Wally Broecker’s classical Nature article 'Unpleasant surprises in the greenhouse?' Meanwhile evidence is mounting that the long-feared circulation decline is already well underway . . .
“Another new aspect is the importance of the increasing mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet, which causes extra freshwater to enter the North Atlantic that dilutes the sea water . . . The ice loss amounts to a freshwater volume which should have made an important contribution to the observed decrease in salinity in the northern Atlantic.”