Book review by John Hollins, CACOR Chair, Board of Directors.
A Farewell To Ice, Peter Wadhams; Penguin Books, 2016
2017 September 3
According to John Falkingham of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, Peter Wadhams is a legend in the community of researchers who study sea ice. Wadhams has made more than fifty expeditions to both Polar Regions, working from ice camps, icebreakers (including Canada’s), aircraft, and on six occasions from Royal Navy submarines. He has studied the ice, as Falkingham puts it, from above, from below, and from under his boots.
In this book, Wadhams describes for the intelligent layperson, in a frank and engaging manner, the basic science of ice, the cycle of ice ages, the greenhouse effect, and what he describes as the death spiral of Arctic ice leading to accelerating global warming. He offers a critique on the merit and inadequacy of the Paris Accord, and concludes with a call to arms.
An appealing feature of this author is that he is clear and honest about what is well established and acknowledges frankly areas of uncertainty. He evidently subscribes to Richard Feynman’s observation that It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible, a breath of fresh air amidst the welter of motivated reasoning in this area.
Wadhams’ summary of the astronomical theory of ice ages — the Milankovitch Cycle — and his review of the evidence from ice cores sets the scene for the subsequent discussion of the dramatic current changes in Arctic sea ice. He observes that We are injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere far faster than any known natural event, even an extreme one like an asteroid impact.
In 1989, while he was on a mission in the Antarctic, Wadhams wrote a text for a speech at the United Nations General Assembly by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher:
In the Polar Regions today, we are seeing what may be early signs of man-induced climatic change. … Referring to Wadhams as a British scientist on board a ship in the Antarctic Ocean, Thatcher said He reports that the bulk of sea ice cover is remarkably thin and so is probably unable to sustain significant atmospheric warming without melting. … The lesson of these Polar processes is that an environmental or climatic change produced by man may take on a self-sustaining or “runaway” quality, and may be irreversible.
Richard Dewey, CMOS Tour speaker in 2017, concluded his presentation by observing that humankind is living under the shadow of climate change. The view into the future under this shadow is not, and cannot be clear and precise. But observation of the Arctic today establishes that the globe has already warmed and that acceleration of global warming, as Feynman put it, is highly likely. It is no doubt helpful to understand the basic science of global warming, but all that one really has to do is look at the state of the Arctic, through Wadhams’ eyes or remember that in both 2016 and 2017 the cruise ship Crystal Serenity with some 1,700 people on board sailed the Northwest Passage where the lives of all the men on the Franklin expedition were lost in 1846.
Featured Photo and quote “Katie, want to go out in the zodiac? We found some Ice!” from blog at Crystal Cruises.
Here is a more detailed review of this book by John Falkingham that was published in the 2017 April edition of the CMOS Bulletin.
A Farewell to Ice reviewed by John Falkingham
Within the sea ice research community, the name Peter Wadhams is legendary. Peter is one of a handful of scientists who have studied sea ice extensively from above, from below, and from under their boots. His career spans 5 decades and includes more than fifty expeditions to both Polar Regions. Witnessing first-hand the startling disappearance of Arctic sea ice, Peter has become an outspoken and eloquent advocate of the need to address climate change in a significant manner. The title of this most recent book, which he gives with apologies to Hemingway, is as much a personal good-bye as a lament to a global tragedy.
In the short first chapter, “A Blue Arctic”, Peter recalls some of his early research on sea ice in contrast to observations of the past two decades. This sets the stage for the call to action on climate change with which he closes. The second chapter, “Ice, the Magic Crystal”, is devoted to a brief but accurate description of the physics of ice. Peter accomplishes this with plain language and real-world examples that scientists and non-scientists alike will appreciate.
In the next two chapters, Peter describes the history of ice on Earth from the first glaciations over 2 billion years ago. Over this discussion, he cements the connection between ice ages, global atmospheric temperatures, and greenhouse gas concentrations, laying the foundation for his later conclusions.
Chapter 5 provides a meticulous description of the greenhouse effect complete with graphs and descriptions of the major greenhouse gasses and their impact. He notes the important role of the ocean in temporarily moderating the global temperature rise. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Arctic amplification, which leads into Chapter 6, “Sea Ice Meltback Begins”, a description of the changes in Arctic sea ice since the nineteenth century. Peter includes several personal anecdotes from his field research, many of which have Canadian connections. He recalls flying on the DC-4 ice reconnaissance aircraft of the Atmospheric Environment Service (as the Meteorological Service of Canada was known) complete with mention of the infamous Flyers’ Club in Gander. Peter recounts recognizing the thinning of the Arctic ice during his voyages on Royal Navy submarines (including the tragic 2007 voyage of HMS Tireless). He concludes the chapter with an account of his study of wave-ice interaction aboard the University of Alaska icebreaker Sikuliaq in the Beaufort Sea in 2015.
Chapter 7, “The Future of Arctic Sea Ice – The Death Spiral”, is where Peter introduces his main thesis for the remainder of the book – that we have entered a climate regime where the heating of the Earth is not stoppable without drastic human intervention. He takes square aim at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for failing, in its 5th Assessment Report, to present the true state of Arctic sea ice and downplaying the threat by including an unrealistic climate projection.
In Chapter 8, Peter further supports his thesis by describing the numerous feedback mechanisms and shows how the Arctic sea ice retreat is not just a response but is also a driver of climate change. Chapter 9 expounds on the role of methane as a greenhouse gas and the potential impact of melting permafrost, which he calls a “catastrophe in the making”.
Chapter 10, “Strange Weather”, suggests the link between changes in the Arctic and weather extremes at temperate latitudes with consequences for food production and water supply. Chapter 11 describes the global ocean circulation and the critical role that sea ice plays in convection in the Greenland Sea. He laments the fact that, while “everyone accepts that the thermohaline circulation is a vital part of our climate system”, there has been little support for research to better understand it.
In Chapter 12, Peter changes poles to explain why the Antarctic is different from the Arctic. He recalls his voyages to the Weddell Sea aboard FS Polarstern in describing the physical differences in the ice and the annual cycle of the Antarctic sea ice. He cites well-known researchers to provide plausible reasons for why the Antarctic sea ice appears to be increasing in extent while the Arctic is reducing so rapidly.
After building a formidable argument linking changes in the Arctic to global climate and anthropogenic forcing, Peter presents a rather gloomy outlook in Chapter 13, “The State of the Planet”. He contends that even radical reduction of greenhouse gas emissions cannot alter the disastrous course that has been set. Peter pulls no punches in his criticism of politicians for failing to show leadership. Even Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Foundation are criticized because of their opposition to nuclear energy and geoengineering.
Peter discusses several approaches to global scale geoengineering including cloud brightening to reduce the absorption of solar radiation. However, he feels that the only way the targets of the 2015 Paris Agreement can be reached is by direct removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. He implores the world to mount a massive research programme to develop the necessary technology – while using geoengineering to buy the time needed.
In the final chapter, “A Call to Arms”, Peter doubles down on his theme that “it is not enough to reduce carbon emissions”. He calls for better science to improve the forecasts of climate change impacts while decrying the potential for war and the “black tide of denial”, devoting several pages to rail against those in power who try to dismiss the threat of climate change. He wraps it all up in “A Time for Battle” by giving an itemized account of what individuals and society must do to avert the impending doom.
A Farewell to Ice is a compelling read. There is enough hard science to satisfy experts without intimidating the laity. There are well over a hundred references to scientific literature. Personal anecdotes from Peter’s long career are scattered throughout to lend a sense of reality to the science. Many readers will not welcome his message but he presents it in a well-written, scientifically substantiated manner. It should be required reading for all world leaders.