Tuesday, January 25, 2011


January 25, 2011

I was sitting in the car in the King Kullen parking lot waiting for Lorraine, who was inside buying bananas and milk, and large flakes of snow were falling onto the window beside me. I have an interest in snow, dating from my work on my book The Man Who Ate His Boots, in which snow and ice figure prominently, and I remembered that the great British whaler and Arctic scientist William Scoresby had been the first to make detailed drawings of snow crystals and had revealed the great diversity in their structure. So I put on my reading glasses and looked closely at these particular snowflakes, which were very large and composed of any number of smaller snow crystals, not formed in the usual variations on star shapes but as spikes of ice, and as they started to melt they collapsed in on themselves in sudden implosions, as if melting were an instantaneous process. Where there had been ice there was now only a drop of water, running down the glass.

Spikes of ice. In the Arctic, when it's very cold, thirty or forty below, and clear outside, tiny spicules of ice will fall out of the air as if it were snowing. The cold freezes the moisture in the air and it falls as these spicules, and can gather on the snow underneath to a depth of an inch or more.

To amuse and amaze his sailors, Scoresby would take a piece of clear ice--only fresh water makes clear ice--and cut it into the shape of a lens, then use the lens to focus sunlight on something, a sailor's pipe, say, which he would proceed to light using only this lens, or he would start a wood fire, or make some other demonstration. He found that he could melt lead by this means. Then he would ask the men to touch the lens while he was using it to light up the world in this way, and, most amazing of all, the lens remained ice cold.

For a long time no one thought that ocean water, salt water, in other words, could freeze; what was found in the Arctic as sea ice was, it was believed, fresh water flowing off the land that had frozen and lay on top of the sea water underneath. Where there was no land to provide the fresh water, there could be no ice. These theories prevailed in the science of the day well beyond Scoresby's time; they were still being propounded as late as the 1880s. Scoresby, of course, knew otherwise; he had watched sea ice form to a depth of a foot even while the seas themselves were rough and stormy; he had dodged ice floes that were ten feet thick; he had melted sea ice and come up with salt water. But he was a whaler, a commerical fisherman, in other words, and not learned as the learned were learned, so his knowledge was discounted. In 1820 he published a book in two volumes on the Arctic that became the founding document of Arctic science, and one of the great scientific books of its time. It is now exceedingly scarce. But he was, as I say, a whaler. Who could give credence to a whaler?

Reading the NYTimes this morning I came across a map of the Arctic showing the extent of sea ice in September 1979, and its extent in September 2010. Thirty percent less in the latter year. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the period covered by my book, the average thickness of sea ice in the high Arctic measured about ten feet. It now averages about four feet, and the Northwest Passage is opening up every summer. Still, large numbers of people do not believe the scientists about global warming. They are watching the Arctic melt, but they're only scientists. What do they know?

Human intelligence has not evolved to keep pace with human technology. The plain fact of the matter? We are too stupid to deserve the earth.