Part of my desire to travel to the Arctic was to see a melting glacier up close. You can read about glacial melt. You can watch videos of ice shelves breaking free from glaciers, but until your own eyes have seen something, how can you really know something to be true? The truth of our unfolding climate catastrophe has always been available through math and science, realms that are supposed to require no belief, but in the final tally, what human relies on mathematical projections to guide their lives? While I believed that climate change was as severe as what I read, I wanted to know it, I wanted to witness disappearance itself. Knowledge isn’t complete until it’s embodied. I needed to feel it to call it true.
On the second to last day of our voyage, we landed at the Nordenskiöldbreen glacier. Roughly 16 miles long, it is a massive presence in Isfjorden, the largest fjord in Spitsbergen. Approaching the shoreline, a large portion of the glacier looked healthy. A blue and white ice wall spread across our view of the coastline. Despite the dull, somber light of the day, its numerous ridges, shaped like the suddenly frozen surface of a turbulent sea, were colored by bright blue hues. Staring at all this ice, it seemed impossible that it could melt fast enough to drown the world. Yet every minute of everyday, five gallons of water are added to the oceans from human activity. Every year, Americans lifestyles melt 10,000 tons of Antarctic ice.
To look at a glacier up close is to be confronted with the conditionality of appearances. From a distance, each glacier we saw on our journey was stunning. Their diamond cut facades cast off hues of brilliant whites, and mesmeric, brilliant, green blues. But as we came closer, the beauty faded. At every glacier we visited, whether Esmarkbreen at Ymerbukta or the glaciers at Fjortende Julibukta, Fuglefjorde, and Bockfjorden, to get close was to see through a kind of illusion. To see the glaciers up close, was to see how they were dying. Soot colored ice covered in drab, grey, frozen meltwater that formed along the edge of their bodies. Water that dripped onto muddy ground. Sheer rock walls stripped bare by retreating ice. The final surprise - you can hear the seas rise. It’s the pleasing, gentle, trickling sound of a garden fountain. Running water at the base of a glacier.
Time is the passing of heat. That which melts marks what cannot be undone. Molecules vibrating further and further apart.
That there was a large stretch of beach for us to land on should have been a giveaway to the health of Nordenskiöldbreen. Standing on the shore, we were surrounded by naked, whale skin gray rock that had been exposed by retreating ice. The thickly pebbled beach gave way to muddy, stone dotted ground. With the edge of the glacier in front of us, its ice retreating up the slope of the hills around the shore, it felt as if I was looking at a wound that had only recently scabbed over. Up one of the exposed hills, an enormous cavern bore through the rock. A thick layer of aquamarine colored ice covered the upper walls and roof of the womb like hole. Water dripped from the cold ceiling, each drop visible, all falling with a hypnotic rhythm. We were allowed to walk up to the mouth of the cavern, but could not enter. The air coming from inside was cold and wet, yet it felt pure and refreshing against the skin. All of this melting ice. How many centuries had it lay dormant, frozen, and unseen?
Droplets fell like water off a stalagmite to the ground below, forming trickling, thin streams as they slowly slid down the slope of the hill. These slivers of water began to join together half-way down the hillside, gaining speed and mass, like water released from a faucet. These ran over the dirty grey, frozen bodies of former waterfalls that would have flown freely in the summer, before joining together at the base of the slope to form more significant streams that wound their way through the pebbles and smooth worn rocks that lined the shoreline, carving out shallow creek beds as they made their way to the bay. The sight was made strange by the multiple, frozen beds that branched out from the bottom of the hillside, icy veins jaggedly coursing along the dark surface of the beach. Some remained frozen solid. Others gently trickled over rocks and sand. The largest body of water was flowing with the force of a quick moving, high mountain river, yet it was channeled in-between and beneath paper thin sheets of frozen surface water, before finally breaking free and draining out into the water of the bay. With the elevated perspective that came from standing on a hillside, the landscape appeared like a frozen delta tributary that was beginning to thaw. Here was the result of our heat, a vast body of water traveling out into the big, wide, world.
All of our concerns of rising oceans that will someday drown the centers of our civilization spring from small drops like the ones I saw in that cavern. On their own, these melt streams seem harmless and incapable of disrupting the geographic order of our planet. But to take in the situation at Nordenskiöldbreen reveals the impact these seemingly insignificant melt offs are having. Standing on a slope of a hill next to the cavern entrance that I was filming, Marte told me that the beach beneath us had been covered by ice just a few years ago. She spread her arms out towards the bay, “all of this water you see used to be covered by the glacier. Only three years ago we used to land out there,” her hand indicating an area of open water that contained a large rock outcropping about 200 yards from the shoreline. Another 100 yards or so behind the rock, the Antigua was anchored.
From Greenland to Antarctica, similar scenes are now visible. That so many innocuous drips of melting ice gradually coming together as one and running out into the seas could cause the enormous bodies of water that are the oceans to rise may sound unbelievable. Yet standing on top of a glacier a few days earlier at Bockfjorden, our guide Kristin had reflected on these changes.
“In seven years, I can't say I've seen climate change. I've seen a lot of different weather. But when you sit down and you read the trapper’s diaries from the 1920s, his experience of the land, where he traveled, how he traveled, which routes he took – it is completely different than what I'm experiencing.” Her voice began to pick up, rising in intensity as she launched into the next set of facts.
“If you then take what I see now and you go back 20 years, 30 years, 100 years, if you look at those ice maps and the trip descriptions and the route descriptions, I can't even imagine going for those trips because it's always just been open sea when I've seen it. Before, the easiest way of getting to the northern side of Isfjorden in winter would be to take your snowmobile and go straight across. The last time you could do that was 2006.”
To stare at hills that were once covered in ice, now partially naked, their ungainly, primordial surfaces stripped of the aesthetic pleasure the glacier provided, surrounded by water where there once was ice, is to be confronted with a horrible truth. Over time, as this process accelerates, the coastlines we know and the cities and towns which sit among them will disappear like the ice that once covered the bay in front of me, leaving behind no trace of where the land met the water. We live in a drowning world.
What is often ignored in the media is how little sea rise it takes to become critically disruptive to coastal infrastructure. The ocean does not need to rise in some cataclysmic style before it renders coastal communities uninhabitable. High tides combined with rising seas are already causing regular flooding in Miami and other cities along the eastern US coastline. This flooding is not dramatic. Like the single drops of water at Nordenskiöldbreen, these visually unthreatening bodies of water add up to more than their appearance.
This flooding is the creep of a thin layer of water that gently bubbles up from the ground, or slides over existing seawalls and into the streets during high tide. It is water that washes over front lawns, that blocks a popular intersection, that sends sewage up out of the drains. It is salt water that rusts pipes, killing the grass and trees and soil it comes into contact with. All of this creeping water and the constant toll it takes on infrastructure it comes into contact with has a price tag attached. Insurance payouts, increased taxes, retirement accounts that were supposed to be left untouched - whatever form it takes, the water comes with a bill. How long can individuals and municipalities continue to afford to pay to live in flood zones that arrive with ever increasing frequency? How often and how high can you keep raising your house? How many times can a city council issue funds to build new roads or protect existing ones when every few decades the seas will grow higher and higher? The US is facing $900 billion in interest payments on its national debt, annually, within a decade. How will the federal government finance various flood mitigation projects while keeping up with these payments, on top of military and welfare spending? In Europe, a new report puts the cost of flooding at $1 trillion annually by 2100.
Long before we’re faced with the crisis of how to move entire cities from our coastlines, we’ll be faced with a slow war of attrition waged by the ocean that will leave our collective bank accounts dry. This is already happening in places like Norfolk, Virginia, Charleston, South Carolina, and Miami, but in the next few decades, this trend will spread as the waters continue to rise.
To experience what this future might look like we only had to travel across the bay from Nordenskiöldbreen to the Soviet-era town of Pyramiden that lay on the opposite shore.