Jon Gertner

The Story of Climate

Air Date: July 29, 2019

Science journalist Jon Gertner discusses his new book “The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future.”

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is science writer for the New York Times Magazine. Jon Gertner. His first book “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation” chronicled the exploits of a generation of scientists at the world’s greatest laboratory. Gertner is here to discuss his newest book by Random House “The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future.” He explores 150 years of exploration and investigation on the Greenland ice sheet, which he says has led to a profound understanding of our current climate crisis. In his investigation of Greenland, Gertner traveled to the island six times and interviewed scientists in Europe and around the United States. “In the Arctic he slept by glaciers, drank from melt water streams, joined with NASA teams, measuring the ice sheet and cruised through iceberg waters in the strange light of Arctic midnight.” Wow. That’s poetic. Welcome, Jon. Thank you for being here.

GERTNER: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: Just to give our viewers an overview, who might not be familiar with the climate science or the northern hemisphere, Greenland in the Arctic, which people might confuse,

GERTNER: Right.

HEFFNER: What is the basic geological evolution of those of those two landmasses, and the ice that is in peril now that is melting, at least we think in part due to climate change.

GERTNER: Sure. I mean, one common reaction I get is, you mean Iceland? And I said no, Greenland. Greenland is the largest island in the world, actually not including Australia is a continent and most of Greenland is above the Arctic Circle.

Most of Greenland is covered by an enormous ice sheet, which is covering I think about 80 to 84 percent of the island. This ice sheet is, it’s really a remnant of the last ice age and there are only really two remaining ice sheets left on earth. One is in Greenland, and one is in Antarctica? And we’re at a critical moment now where both are under stress. They’re both melting from warmer temperatures, warmer ocean waters that are kind of eroding the edges. The Arctic in particular in Greenland in particular, are kind of undergoing this incredible transformation as the earth warms from the effects of co2, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the earth. So we talk a lot about how the earth has gone up one degree on average centigrade from a kind of preindustrial level.

Well in the Arctic, it’s more like two degrees centigrade and scientists call this Arctic amplification. And the question is, you know, why does that matter? Well, it matters in the Arctic for two reasons, really. One is the cover of Arctic Sea ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean really at the North Pole is declining drastically. It’s lost, maybe a third to half the ice as it had a 20 years ago. And when that happens, it exposes the seawater which absorbs more solar radiation and it warms up even more. So it creates this feedback loop. The ice on top of Greenland when it melts really falls into the ocean and raise sea levels. And on average now Greenland’s lost about almost 300 billion tons of ice per year. And this has been going for escalating, kind of accelerating slightly over the past 20 years. So we’re at this point now, I think really where these ice sheets like Greenland, like parts of West Antarctica are at this critical and very vulnerable moment.

And at least for me as a journalist, this is relatively new science trying to understand these places. And it drew me to Greenland in particular because it was a kind of rich story of discovery and I think real urgency.

HEFFNER: How was it discovered?

GERTNER: Greenland was first settled by a guy named Eric the Red. And he came from Iceland. He committed murder and he was cast out of Iceland and he brought a band of followers in the late, in the late nine hundreds. And he said I’m going to a place I’ve discovered called Greenland. There’s a little bit of fuzziness about whether he called it Greenland to try and entice his followers to come to an even colder, more forbidding place than Iceland because Greenland really is, you know, a colder more, you know, it’s, it’s a treeless place. But what happened was they set up a couple settlements that became known as the eastern and Western settlements and this became the most outpost of what they call Medieval Christendom.

And from about the year 1000 to the year 1400, the Greenland Norse, as they came to be known, settled there and really probably a community of what we think is about 2,500 people.

HEFFNER: How did the further excavation and later discovery, how was that at all informed by what those first 2,500 people did once they were there?

GERTNER: It’s an interesting question because their absence I think is what began the exploration of Greenland. The Greenland Norse disappeared. It’s one of the great mysteries of European history. What happened to them? We know that they were alive or some people were alive in the early 1400s, and then a period of cooling known as the Little Ice Age, trade with Europe sort of ceased and communication stopped. And for hundreds of years there was actually no communication and no commerce between Scandinavia and these Greenlanders. And prior to that there had been kind of exchanges of goods and letters and people. To this day there are different theories of what happened to them.

HEFFNER: So there are no descendants?

GERTNER: There are no descendants. They’ve disappeared and there is no, what there are really are there, there are archeological sites with piles of bones and there are middens these, these sort of artifacts of what they ate and clues to what they might have been doing.

HEFFNER: So what was the next stage of discovery?

GERTNER: The next stage was a minister who wanted to go back and find out what had happened and possibly, you know, set up a church set up a ministry in Western Greenland. And that happened in the 1700s. And that began this sort of slow migration, I think of a few Danes and Norwegians back up to Greenland. It also began this exploration of the ice sheet in the middle. I joke about it a little but Greenland’s like a kind of cupcake where the, the frosting doesn’t go to the edge, it’s just a large dome of ice. And to get from the west coast to the east coast, you can’t really, or at least back then, you couldn’t go over the ice. You had to kind of go around the bottom of Greenland through these ice choked waters. But to find what had happened to these ancient settlements, they began to think, well, maybe we can cross the ice. And that’s when the investigations of the ice really began with these very kind of initial forays into this ice sheet. And people didn’t really get very far because it was formidable and they would turn back after 10 or 15 miles and they said, there’s no way, the ice sheet in Greenland can’t be crossed. This isn’t a place for human beings to go.

HEFFNER: In a profile that you wrote, you said that the destabilization of glaciers is not necessarily cause for alarm in your words cause for alarm in so far as that does happen. And sometimes there’s not necessarily a convenient answer as to why it’s happening. But the argument for action on climate is at least historically in the last decade has been we want to be able to preserve the integrity of the glaciers so they don’t melt.

GERTNER: There’s a lot of different complicating factors with, you know, what we know about glaciers is a lot of science that that is, I think relatively new in terms of the last 50 years and trying to understand how they move and why they move.

HEFFNER: But do we know that we want them to stay relatively the structures that they are now?

GERTNER: I think the, you know, the greatest danger is that a lot of these large glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will destabilize, come into the ocean and raise sea levels dramatically. And in Greenland, for instance at the moment when I talked about those 300 billion tons of ice falling into the ocean, what we’re getting out of that is about a millimeter of sea level rise every year.

And Antarctica, the contribution at the moment is smaller. What we also know from models and really common sense I think too is that, you know, in a hotter world there’s going to be more melting. And part of that is what they call surface melting. That in just the warmer air in the summertime, will create these sort of melt water lakes and streams that literally just run off the ice sheets and into the oceans and raise sea levels. There’s also ocean waters that kind of hit the edges of these glaciers and sort of accelerate their movement into the sea. And it’s hard for us to sort of say, okay, well I live thousands of miles away from Greenland or, and even farther from Antarctica so do I really have to worry about what’s happening to glaciers there? And certainly in a city like New York or any coastal city, I think the answer is clearly very clearly yes. I mean, it’s not an immediate threat where we’re going to wake up tomorrow, we’ll have one foot or two feet of sea level rise overnight, but these sea level rises are accelerating, the temperature changes are accelerating and we don’t really know necessarily how fast these glaciers will go. What another worry is, is that they create, they pass maybe what we’d call tipping points where we can’t sort of slow them down anymore. And there are a couple of glaciers in Greenland, for instance. One in particular Jakobshavn, and that has traditionally been one of the fastest glaciers in the world. There’s one in Antarctica called Thwaites that’s even larger. And the immensity of these glaciers, the amount of ice that they have and that they can dump into the sea, kind of boggles the mind. Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is about the size of Florida and Jakobshavn is smaller, but it creates a sort of steady, steady procession of icebergs that are about the size of the Empire State Building that just keep falling into the ocean.

HEFFNER: So what’s the latest from your conversations for the book, with scientists who are measuring the layers and the melting of sheets?

GERTNER: Sure.

HEFFNER: And the glaciers. What is the most up to date information as of summer 2019?

GERTNER: For sea level rises?

HEFFNER: What are they saying about their fears, and we’ve had people here like James Hansen who are quite alarmist.

GERTNER: Yes.

HEFFNER: And I don’t say that pejoratively. I mean alarmist in fearing the consequence of like you’re saying a uncontrollable melt.

GERTNER: I mean, my feeling is that those are those fears are grounded in science and they are a possibility. They’re one of many possibilities that the models for atmospheric changes when we talk about how the earth might warm up over the next 50 years or a hundred years. That science is a little better understood than ice sheet models, so to say and it’s a little bit of a complicating factor, but to create a model of how an ice sheet might behave, we’re just beginning to understand a lot of that.

HEFFNER: But those two things are correlated, right?

GERTNER: They are correlated…

HEFFNER: They are part of the same equation?

GERTNER: They are indeed. Right. So the warmer it gets, the more the ice will melt. And, I think that’s an excellent point too, in the sense that the more Co2 we put in the air, the warmer it gets and the riskier the situation becomes with some of these glaciers that appear to have a tendency towards a deep instability they can move fast.

HEFFNER: What story from this book would you like to convey to people who think they may have no occasion to visit Greenland or the Arctic and that may entice them…

GERTNER: A lot of my book sort of tells the story of these epic explorations in the early part of the century. But I wouldn’t recommend anybody try to cross the ice sheet by foot or by dog sled any more unless you’re extremely well trained and people do still try and do that. And they ski across the ice sheet like they did in the 1800s. But, there aren’t a lot of American tourists who go to Greenland. I think what you people I’ve met up there are more European tourists who go up there. What you can do is really land in their international airport and you can go to the ice sheet, you can take a trip on a 22-mile road that winds up through these mountains. There are no trees in Greenland, so it’s a kind of sparse, austere, very beautiful world. And you go through places where the ice sheet has kind of receded over the years and you’ll get to see that.

I think both the power and the grandeur of this place. You also, I think going to Greenland, it’s, it’s one of the few places I’ve ever been where you feel very small, and you feel the natural forces I think at work of both, you know, ice and rock and the potential, I think for what this ice sheet and glaciers, you know, could do if they melt and go away. So I think going to Greenland and visiting these glaciers especially that glacier I had mentioned Jakobshavn that calves these very enormous icebergs into the water give you a sense of scale that I don’t think you can get by just imagining it. And I think sort of, you know, that flight over to Europe sometimes passes over Greenland. If you go to northern Europe and you can get a flavor for the immensity of the ice sheet, but actually being on it, standing on it, thinking I’m on this piece of ice that’s two miles thick and 15, you know, 1500 miles long, 700 miles wide, that if it all melted and fell into the ocean would raise sea levels 24 feet. That’s not going to happen soon. But this idea of, of, of what immense sort of relic from another age this is, and basically how it’s important to our lives even though it feels far away.

HEFFNER: Well, why don’t you tell us about the character of some of those adventures, how they were conceived and what the result was? I mean, if we look at the last three centuries of exploration, how much of it was motivated by science and how much of it was motivated by daredevils and, just kind of naturalism that’s not connected from the science. And maybe there’s a third and enriches.

GERTNER: You know, it’s, it’s, it’s quite interesting in that sense when, when I wanted to, to write this story, you kind of sort of struggle with this idea, well how, where does the story begin? You know, does it begin with the Greenland Norse who came here in the 900s or does it begin later? What I eventually settled on was that it began with these explorers who decided they wanted to cross the ice sheet and, you know, we think, I think today of this sort of, well there are explorers and then there are scientists and you know, they, they’re separate camps. But, what I think I found as a historian and journalist, it’s like when you, when you actually read their stories, it’s not so clear. A lot of those early explorers really were scientists and Fridtjof Nansen who was the first person to actually cross the ice sheet.

He decided that this was something he wanted to do. He was an expert skier. He thought it had never been crossed. It was an adventure, but he also was a scientist. He was more sort of geared towards oceanography and actually neuroscience. But he was a student of all the sciences and of glaciers as well. And his epic sort of crossing in the 1880s, really sort of gives you a flavor and I began the book that way. It was when the first person actually succeeded in getting across. It gives you a flavor for how difficult it was. And after Nansen, sort of a string of Americans and others followed. That dividing line of when exploration turned into science is a little tricky to locate, but I think it begins with the German scientist, Alfred Wegener who came there in 1929, 1930 and he wanted to set up a station in the middle of the ice sheet to study the weather as well as to have a couple of his scientists drill into the ice to sort of study these layers of the ice sheet.

And, I don’t want to give a spoiler for what happens, but it was a very, very dramatic expedition. But Wegener too was sort of an explorer as well as a scientist, somebody who did literally almost crazy things like trying to cross the ice sheet several times before that, almost dying several times. And really these were matters of life and death where they were in these really incredibly harsh dangerous environments, but also doing science and collecting data too.

HEFFNER: Well, when the iceberg is your laboratory, you need more physical preparedness.

GERTNER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Not just the mental preparedness and being in a laboratory at a university. So what was the extent of the physical preparation?

GERTNER: I mean Nansen for instance, the first to cross the ice, was a gifted natural athlete. He was young too. And there’s, there was a kind of feeling with Alfred Wegener for instance, as he got older. Am I really am I; maybe I’m too old to go back there because it’s so grueling. So they would condition themselves. Sometimes they would do test kind of crossings in Iceland before they got to Greenland. Iceland’s glaciers are much smaller and the weather there is not nearly as forbidding as in Greenland. There was also in I think the era after Wegener, when the era of science really began it also coincided with an era of mechanization. So it was when we started bringing not just planes but you know trucks and other, you know, mechanical devices onto the ice sheet. And it’s sort of this idea of the heroic explorer changed. You didn’t have to be superhuman, you didn’t have to have dogs, you didn’t have to live on, you know, 10 calories, you know, and you didn’t have to starve. You didn’t have to tempt death. You could sort of bring a lot more supplies. You could bring radios, you can, communication devices, you could get airdrops. So that changed in the forties and 50s, right after World War II. And I think that began this sort of modern age of where we could really do science over sustained periods of time without that same level of danger in that early period.

HEFFNER: How much now is the drilling, the most perilous threat to the sheets versus the overall CO 2 that’s amassed as a result of planes, trains, automobiles, and daily operations of power plants, whether it’s in Europe or North America. How much of the direct threat is actually more attributable to drilling or operations, commercial operations in and surrounding Greenland and the Arctic?

GERTNER: Yeah, there’s nothing very much, I would say, danger to Greenland’s ice sheet from that immediate commercial or even scientific exploration of Greenland. I mean there’s a belief that there’s a good amount of oil reserves around Greenland, but hopefully they never try and take it out of the ground because that would mean both more CO 2 in the air and greater disruptions to the surface environment.

HEFFNER: But who governs those decisions about whether or not that that could be undertaken.

GERTNER: It’s, at the moment Greenland is supported in many ways by the Danish government, which gives a certain amount of funding to the Greenlandic government. And Greenland is on a path towards independence. Greenland is very much looking for kind of other means of economic development. And some of that is not oil exploration, but in mining, it’s believed that Greenland has a very large reserve of rare earth metals in the south and some of those mineral fields are actually being exposed by the recession of the ice sheet, if that makes sense. So,

HEFFNER: But, my question is really premised on this idea that one, Exxon Valdez, one Deep Horizon, one Chernobyl,

GERTNER: Right.

HEFFNER: Could have enormously costly consequence if there is commercial activity undertaken in sufficiently close proximity to ice sheets and icebergs that could directly cause more expedited melting.

GERTNER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Is that not, is that not possible.

GERTNER: I would say the bigger threat from those kinds of activities would be to Arctic ecosystems and to the ultimate burning of the fuel that’s extracted. The ice sheet itself is, moves by the forces of gravity. Drilling into it, even using explosive, sometimes they use explosives to measure the bedrock underneath, doesn’t threaten the ice sheet in that sense of making it destabilize.

HEFFNER: So it’s the cumulative effect of the melting

GERTNER: OF CO 2 in the air and the warm temperatures. And especially I think warmer ocean temperatures that seem to activate a lot of these coastal glaciers.

HEFFNER: What would you say in making a fact based argument on behalf of this planet and, and Greenland?

GERTNER: Right.

HEFFNER: In order to try to ensure it’s survival.

GERTNER: I think I’m probably of the belief based on sort of my journalism and my work studying and writing about history that understanding the issues sort of precedes any kind of motivation on the readership’s part or the public’s part. And I do think that by understanding how we know what we know, if that makes sense, how we know what the value of this ice is on the top of the world, far from our comfortable lives here in cities, both in terms of its dangers of sea level rise, both in terms of this sort of pristine Arctic ecosystem. And understanding too the threats that are very real and I think that are already sort of set in motion because we’re measuring it year by year. We’re measuring it every month how much ice is lost.

HEFFNER: Let me put it this way. The scientists with whom you spoke that you interviewed for the book, did they give you any insight into how the storytelling could best capture their work, their goals in pursuit of protecting the planet?

GERTNER: No, they didn’t. Well, they, I would say that nobody has kind of convinced me that they’re going to tell me how to tell my story after collecting facts. I mean, it’s

HEFFNER: But it must have occurred to you writing this that you wanted to not just inform people of, of very fascinating history, but you, you clearly in your writing in general, right do underscore the stakes so that’s why I ask.

GERTNER: You know, I think one thing about Greenland’s sort of sweeping large history and even the science that’s happening now it’s so large and so diverse that you get a piece of the larger picture from a lot of different scientists and a lot of different sort of episodes in history. So I saw it as my goal, my job I think to connect a lot of those stories together to create one narrative I think was my job as a writer.

HEFFNER: Yeah.

GERTNER: And I think, you know, there’s a lot of sort of discussion in the climate community what’s the best way to communicate? How do you get people to know? How do you get, how do you activate it do you do through fear or hope or maybe I think with this book at least I think I’m trying towards understanding and history. It’s not a mutually exclusive, I think, different readers, different people, different television watchers are activated by different ways of thinking about the climate crisis. So I think in some ways, you know, my contribution would be, let’s, this is the story of really the earth’s ice. And this is the story of how we came to understand it as well as how we came to understand its value and the danger, I think of losing it.

HEFFNER: There’s been a huge surge in tourism in Iceland as far as I understand. So maybe your book, Jon, will create new opportunities for people to see it in the flesh. Thank you for your time today.

GERTNER: Thank you Alexander,

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @ OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.