Reflections in the Ice

Reflections in the Ice

8/8/08

Kenneth Burchfiel

It was the Arctic Ocean’s off season, but she still put on a memorable show.

The clouds lifted just as our plane began to scrape the northern edge of Alaska. I saw the barren grey of the tundra, the pale blue of the Arctic; and then, in a hue so white that it could not be mistaken for anything else, the polar ice. Together, the three encompassed a memorable portrait of the North, this realm of past pioneers and present long-haul flights. (It almost seems unfair to watch this from seat 39J, warm, well-fed and free from polar bears. What would Roald Amundsen have thought?)

But it was not the latitude that made the biggest impression on me. It was the ice, bobbing 30,000 feet below like chunks of Styrofoam. In the wake of global warming reports and foreboding satellite photography, I felt a great deal of sympathy for the endangered spread of white below. This, in essence, is our Earth’s freezer: the one thing keeping the Northern Hemisphere’s temperature in check. Alas, the icebox had begun to show a little wear. I expected a vast, frozen plateau off the northern coast of Alaska; instead, what I got were disembodied chunks that floated unaware of one another. One had to look towards the horizon to see the real ice pack.

The plane shot fearlessly across the Bering strait. Historian say that man (and woman) arrived in North America by means of a giant ice bridge. Theory disproven: there is no ice under me.

Times have changed since the last ice age, as everyone from Al Gore to Michael Crichton can agree. If it weren’t for the shrinking of those two massive polar ice caps, I wouldn’t be here to write about the lack thereof. Warming periods increase the spread of arable land, open up transportation routes, improve living conditions… and yet, push the climate seesaw too far, and the other side sinks in the water. These shrinking ice reserves have contributed to floods, hurricanes and droughts alike.

One doesn’t need to watch Gore’s movie to see what happens when the North Pole heats up; they only have to visit Sudan, where drought conditions are turning farmland into desert, or Inuit communities up north whose literal foundation of their homes and villages—permafrost—has begun to melt.

I remember a day when the Earth, viewed from an aisle seat or a deck chair, appeared unchanging. Not anymore. If my children get a chance to fly from Washington to Tokyo (provided there’s enough kerosene to fill the tanks), I wonder if they’ll even see the white in between the Alaskan coastline and the sky. Granted, I managed to see ice in August, but there’s no predicting what two decades of change will bring.

From Azerbaijan to Zaire, the polar ice is a fundamental yet fragile means of balancing the climate seesaw. Ironic that this northern region, isolated from humanity save for a few villages and planes, should make such an impact on our daily weather.

I took one more look out the window as we neared Siberia. The ice had already disappeared from sight.

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