The Swiftness of Glaciers: Language in a Time of Climate Change

This article was originally published on Aeon on March 19, 2018.

Language bends and buckles under pressure of climate change. Take the adjective “glacial.” I recently came across an old draft of my PhD dissertation on which my advisor had scrawled the rebuke: “You’re proceeding at a glacial pace. You’re skating on thin ice.” That was in 1988, the year that the climatologist James Hansen testified before the United States Senate that runaway greenhouse gases posed a planetary threat.

Jökulsárlón, Iceland (Source: Max Pixel/Aeons).

If I repeated my advisor’s admonition on a dissertation today, the student might assume that I was rebuking them for writing too darn fast. Across all seven continents glaciers are receding at speed. Over a four-year span, Greenland’s ice cap shed 1 trillion tons of ice. Some geologists expect Glacier National Park in Montana to lose the last of its glaciers around 2033, just as the equatorial glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro are also set to disappear. An Icelandic glaciologist calculates that by the end of the next century Iceland will be stripped of ice. Are we moving toward a time when tourists will visit Montana’s National Park Formerly Known as Glacier? When students will read Hemingway’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (1936) not as realism but as science fiction? And when Reykjavik will be the capital of DeIcedland?

This shift reminds us that dead metaphors aren’t always terminally dead. Sometimes they’re just hibernating, only to stagger back to life, dazed and confused, blinking at the altered world that has roused them from their slumber. (Dead metaphor is itself a dead metaphor, but we can no longer feel the mortality in the figure of speech.)

During the Little Ice Age, which stretched from the 14th to the 19th century, the median Northern Hemisphere winter was significantly colder than it is today. Glaciers more often advanced than retreated, sometimes wiping out communities as they moved. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc” (1817) captures the menacing aura that adhered to those frozen rivers of ice:

… The glaciers creep
Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
Slow rolling on …
in scorn of mortal power

Shelley saw glaciers as predatory, immortal forces, eternal beings, before whose might mere humans quaked. But global warming has flipped that perception. We are now more likely to view glaciers as casualties of humanity’s outsize, planet-altering powers.

Glaciers in the 21st century constitute an unfrozen hazard, as receding glaciers and ice packs push ocean levels higher. Just as alarming as the big thaw’s impact on sea rise is its impact on the security of our freshwater reserves. For glaciers serve as fragile, frigid reservoirs holding irreplaceable water: 47 percent of humanity depends on water stored as seasonally replenished ice that flows from the Himalayas and Tibet alone.

From the Himalayas to the Alps and the Andes, glacial retreat is uncovering the boots and bones of long-lost mountaineers. But such discoveries involve a haunting, double revelation: each reclaimed climber reminds us of the glacier’s own vanishing. Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani troops have battled intermittently since 1984, is, for Arundhati Roy, the “most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times.” The melting glacier is coughing up “empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate.” This ghostly military detritus is being made visible by a more consequential war, humanity’s war against the planet that sustains us, a war that has left the Siachen Glacier grievously wounded.

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. NASA, International Space Station Science, 04/03/07 (Source: NASA)

Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of dead metaphors as “fossil poetry,” noting in an essay in 1844 that “the deadest word” was “once a brilliant picture.” If every metaphor involves a tenor (the object referred to) and a vehicle (the image that conveys the comparison), a failure to visualize once-brilliant pictures can result in a multi-vehicle pile-up. As George Orwell put it: “The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot.”

In “Politics and the English Language” (1946), Orwell laid out six rules for writers, the first of which declares: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” An inert metaphor such as “hotbed of radicalism” conveys very little: we can no longer feel the blazing temperature between the bed sheets, just as – prior to public awareness of global warming – we’d stopped noticing the icy fossil poetry in “glacial pace.”

As consciousness of climate change has grown, a new class of dead metaphors has entered the English language. We speak routinely of carbon footprints, of wiping species off the face of the Earth, and of greenhouse gases, but we no longer see the feet, the hands, the faces and the backyard sheds that were once vivid when those phrases were newly coined. Geologists now talk of searching for the “human signature” in the fossil record. Some geo-engineers want to inject vast clouds of sulphur aerosols into Earth’s atmosphere in the hopes of “resetting the global thermostat.” Many of these coinages attempt to give an intimate, human dimension to planetary phenomena that can seem intimidatingly vast and abstract. Adam Smith in 1759 responded similarly to the massive scale of economic forces by inserting the human body in the form of the “invisible hand” of the market. Today, the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson brings that dead metaphor back to life, complaining that, when it comes to the environment, “the invisible hand never picks up the check.”

As our planet’s cryosphere thaws, we can detect all kinds of stirrings in the cemetery of dead metaphors. At Austrian and Swiss ski resorts, the natural “blankets” of snow have become so threadbare that resort owners are shielding them with actual isothermic blankets. And in the Arctic, the threat looms of impermanent permafrost from which climate-altering methane will bubble free.

Planet-wise, we’re all skating on thin ice.

“Calving glaciers” is shorthand for the seasonal rhythm whereby glaciers amass winter ice, then shed some of that accumulation each summer in the form of icebergs and growlers. When scientists refer to “calving glaciers,” we do not typically visualize a Wisconsin dairy herd: as the phrase became routine, the calves have vanished from view. Now that climate change has thrown the balance between glacial accumulation and shedding out of whack, the dead metaphor reasserts itself as a living image. Is the prolific calving we’re now witnessing a fecund or a fatal act, a birthing ritual or a symptom of the death of ice?

Before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in 2015, the sculptor Olafur Eliasson and the geologist Minik Rosing travelled to Greenland, where they lassoed some ice calves that they transported to the Place du Panthéon. There they created Ice Watch, an arrangement of mini-icebergs in the shape of a clock face. Over the duration of the conference, the public could watch time, in the form of ice melt, running out.

Greenpeace, too, has sought to mobilize people through art to act against accelerated calving. More than 7 million people have viewed the Greenpeace video in which the composer Ludovico Einaudi performs his “Elegy for the Arctic” (2016) on a grand piano balanced on a fragile raft. As the raft drifts through the ice melt pouring off a glacier in Svalbard in Norway, the pianist’s plangent chords reverberate in counterpoint with the percussive booming of massive chunks of ice crashing into the ocean.

Have we reached a linguistic tipping point where “glacial pace” is incapable of conveying meaning with any clarity? Under pressure of a warming world, does ‘glacial’ need to be decommissioned and pushed over the climate cliff?

Abrupt climate change challenges not just the capacity of the living to adapt, but also the adaptive capacities of human language. The “glacial” scrawled in the margins of my 1988 dissertation isn’t the “glacial” of 2018, any more than the polar bear that starred in Coca-Cola commercials (tubby, sugared-up, a cheerful icon of the good life) is interchangeable with today’s iconic polar bear – skinny, ribs bared, a climate refugee adrift on a puny platform of ice, impossibly far out to sea. In symbolic terms, the two bears scarcely belong to the same species.

Many years ago, as a graduate student, I encountered and delighted in Franz Kafka’s exhortation that “A book should be the ice axe that breaks open the frozen sea within.” But now I hear his words quite differently. I want to say: “Hey Franz, lay down your axe. Go easy on that fragile frozen sea.”

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Roundup: Mt. Kilimanjaro, a Glacier Ride, and Rescued Migrants

Climate Mode Activity on Kilimanjaro’s Glaciers

From Journal of Climate: “Using a case study of Kilimanjaro, we combined twelve years of convection-permitting atmospheric modelling with an eight-year observational record to evaluate the impact of climate oscillations on recent high-altitude atmospheric variability during the short rains (the secondary rain season in the region). We focus on two modes that have a well-established relationship with precipitation during this season, the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Zonal Mode, and demonstrate their strong association with local and mesoscale conditions at Kilimanjaro.”

Read more about how climate mode variability contributes to changes in Kilimanjaro’s glaciers here.

Part of the rapidly receding glacier on the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, Africa (Source: Sarah Skiold-Hanlin/Flickr).

 

Glacier Ride Cycling Event

From Climate Ride: “Glacier Ride is a 6-day charitable cycling event spanning two spectacular national parks and two countries — Glacier National Park on the U.S. side and Waterton National Park on the Canadian side. Glacier National Park captures the essence of what the pristine, undisturbed Rocky Mountain region has been like over thousands of years. This bike ride explores some of the wildest land in the lower 48 and an ecosystem threatened by development, climate change, and exotic species. By fundraising and participating in Glacier Ride, you are raising awareness of the issues facing Glacier and seeing first-hand what is at stake.”

Discover how you can participate in this exciting trip here.

Glacier National Park, Montana, USA (Source: Edward Stojakovic/Flickr).

 

Rescuing Migrants Fleeing Through the Frozen Alps

From The New York Times: “Vincent Gasquet is a pizza chef who owns a tiny shop in the French Alps. At night, he is one of about 80 volunteers who search mountain passes for migrants trying to hike from Italy to France. The migrants attempt to cross each night through sub-zero temperatures. Some wear only light jackets and sneakers, and one man recently lost his feet to frostbite. “If the Alps become a graveyard, I’ll be ashamed of myself for the rest of my life,” Mr. Gasquet said. The migrants often head for Montgenèvre, a ski town nestled against the border. France offers them more work and a chance at a better life.”

Learn more about the refugee crisis here.

Migrants travel through mountain passes trying to hike from Italy to France, heading to the small ski town of Montgenèvre, 20 km from Glacier Blanc at Barre des Ecrins. (Source: Stéphane D/Flickr).
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East African Glaciers at Risk from “Global Drying”

In the tropical climate of East Africa, glaciers are an unexpected, yet vitally important part of the ecosystem. Since 1900, African glaciers have lost a staggering 80 percent of their surface area, contributing to regional water shortages.

While rising temperatures may seem like an obvious cause of global glacier retreat in many regions, the glaciers of east Africa are a unique exception. A study published in Cryosphere earlier this year has found that the largest glacier on Mount Kenya, the Lewis Glacier, is melting because of decreasing atmospheric moisture rather than increasing temperatures.

Snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya (Source: Valentina Strokopytova)
Snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya (Source: Valentina Strokopytova)

African glaciers have all but disappeared, except for three locations in East Africa: Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mount Kenya in Kenya, and the Rwenzori Range in Uganda. Scientists have been studying the few remaining African glaciers in hopes of preserving what is left of the rapidly melting ice. While headway had been made in understanding the causes of melting on Kilimanjaro, the melting on Mount Kenya, Africa’s second tallest mountain, has remained a mystery until now.

The complex climatic features of Mount Kenya, combined with the lack of observational data, has made it difficult to pinpoint an exact cause of Lewis Glacier’s retreat. Lindsey Nicholson, a researcher at the Institute of Atmospheric and Cryospheric Sciences, led a study in 2013 that concluded a combination of causes was responsible for the melt, rather than one factor in particular.

Building on  her previous work, the team, led by University of Graz’s Rainer Prinz and Lindsey Nicholson, set out to collect the data they needed to gain a more accurate understanding of why Lewis Glacier was melting. They installed an automatic weather station on the glacier at an elevation of 4,828 meters, and collected 773 days of data over the course of two-and-a-half years.

Glacier lake on Mount Kenya (Source: Cheyenne Smith)
Glacier lake on Mount Kenya (Source: Cheyenne Smith)

In conjunction with the data from the weather station, the team used a model to predict how much Lewis Glacier would melt under a range of different scenarios. By manipulating variables, including precipitation, air temperature, air pressure, and wind speed, in the model, the team was able to see which factors played the biggest role in glacier melt.

The team found that moisture had the biggest impact on Lewis Glacier’s surface area, rather than air temperature or a combination of other climatic factors. Despite differences in location and elevation, the glaciers of Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro are melting for the same reason: East Africa is getting progressively drier, and the lack of water is impacting much more than just the glaciers.

The glaciers on the peak of Kilimanjaro lie significantly above the regional freezing point—year round, the peak is cold enough to maintain its ice levels, even as surface temperatures in East Africa have steadily increased. Yet, Kilimanjaro’s glaciers continue to retreat and are projected to disappear completely by 2020. Temperature changes fail to explain the severity of the mountain’s glacier retreat.

Observational studies have showed that Kilimanjaro is receiving less cloud cover that leads to increased radiation from the sun, and less precipitation, causing infrequent snowfall. The IPCC has projected a 10% decrease in rainfall during the already dry season from June through August, amplifying the impacts of regional dryness and drought.

crop fields at the foot of Mount Kenya--the mountain serves as a major watershed for surrounding agriculture and livestock (Source: Cheyenne Smith)
crop fields at the foot of Mount Kenya–the mountain serves as a major watershed for surrounding agriculture and livestock (Source: Cheyenne Smith)

The impact of a drying climate has greatly impacted Kilimanjaro, and caused its glaciers to retreat from sublimation–a process by which the ice changes directly into water vapor rather than melting into water. The theory that moisture is the main factor impacting glacier melt on Kilimanjaro has, up until now, been assumed to be a product of the mountain’s height and not generalizable to all East African glaciers. Prinz and Nicholoson’s findings suggest that drying may be the main reason for glacier melt throughout the region as a whole.

Mount Kenya’s glaciers are at lower elevations compared to Kilimanjaro’s, and lie much closer to the regional freezing level. It was therefore expected that rising temperatures would affect the glaciers of Mount Kenya, and no scientific studies had proved or disputed this assumption.

Droughts, desertification, and crop failure have become increasingly common in tropical Africa, and according to the study this is primarily caused by shifting ocean conditions that are preventing moisture from circulating over East Africa. The lack of moisture means there is not enough precipitation—either as rain over the savannas or snow on the mountain peaks—to sustain the glaciers or the populations that rely on them. In order to preserve the last remaining African glaciers, it will be necessary to understand and prevent changes in water, rather than only changes in temperature.

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Photo Friday: Mt. Kilimanjaro

The UN designated December 11th as International Mountain Day. This year, at COP 21, a side event was held, ‘International Mountain Day: Celebrating International Cooperation on Climate Change Adaptation in Mountain Environments – from Rio to Lima to Paris

In honor of this celebration of mountains, this week’s Photo Friday features images of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. There is one main glacier on the mountain, at the peak, the Furtwängler Glacier. Much of the ice on Mt. Kilimanjaro has disappeared over the past century, and the small glacier is what is left of this ice. Some scientists predict that this glacier could disappear by 2030.

[slideshow_deploy id=’7447′]

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Mt. McKinley’s Name Changed Back to Denali

Denali (source: National Park Service)
Denali (source: National Park Service)

United States President Barack Obama announced this week he would officially change the name of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak, back to Denali, the original Native American name for the mountain.

Mount McKinley was named after Republican President William McKinley more than a century ago, but the name Denali has older roots in the language of the Athabascan people of Alaska. The name means “the high one,” or “the great one.” Denali’s summit reaches 5,500 metres and is covered by five large glaciers.

Disputes over the mountain’s name began in the 1970’s when the Alaskan legislature requested that the mountain’s official name be changed back to Denali. A stalemate was reached in 1980, when, as a compromise, McKinley National Park was renamed Denali National Park and Preserve, but the mountain’s name remained unchanged. Now, 40 years later, the renaming remains controversial. Though many Alaskans celebrate the name change, politicians from Ohio — President McKinley’s home state — are not happy. In a tweet, Ohio Governor John Kasich said Obama had “overstepped his bounds.”

In defense of Obama’s decision, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said President McKinley had never visited Alaska, adding that the deceased president had no connection to the mountain. Native Americans across the country have applauded the decision.

“Yes, we are truly excited about it- it’s a long time coming since Alaskans have wanted the change for  a long time,” Malinda Chase, from the Association of Interior Native Educators, told GlacierHub. “On the home front, it’s a definite celebration for our People, our Languages, and the ever-present guiding strength of our Ancestors, whom I’m sure will be celebrating in all their glory in the early morning sunlight shining on the high and stunning peaks of our wondrous Denali!”

First publication of "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (source: University of South Carolina library)
First publication of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (source: University of South Carolina library)

Other major glaciated peaks have also had their indigenous names restored. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in East Africa, had a German name, Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze (Emperor William Peak) from 1889 to 1918, the date at the end of World War I when German East Africa became the British colony of Tanganyika, though some Germans kept using the name until 1964, when the colony, together with the island of Zanzibar, became the independent country of Tanzania. Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” first published in Esquire Magazine in 1936, may have contributed to removing any lingering attachment to the mountain’s German, rather than its KiSwahili, name.

Aoraki-mount-cook-header-image
Commemorative New Zealand dollar (source: NZ Post)

New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook, was given a double name in 1998, Aoroki/Mount Cook, placing the indigenous  Maori  name first.  This decision came after some decades of negotiation, in which the indigenous groups of southern New Zealand pressed their land claims under nineteenth century treaties. A commemorative non-circulating dollar coin was issued some years later.

And some mountains have names which remain unresolved. Mount Everest is known as Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan, and many have pressed to eliminate the colonial name. The highest peak in Tajikistan seems unlikely to retain its principal Soviet name, Pik Kommunizma, or its alternate Soviet name, Mount Stalin, but several others names are in use, including  Garmo and Ismoil Somoni, the latter being a leader of a 9th and 10th century dynasty in the region. The complex topography and difficult access of the Pamir Range contribute to the multiplicity of names which individual mountains receive.  

Nonetheless, a number of glacier-covered mountains around the world continue to be internationally known by the name given by colonial explorers. It seems likely that they will join Denali and Kilimanjaro in shaking off their colonial names–names used, it must be remembered, for only a small fraction of the history of human settlement in these mountains, or, at least, like Aoraki/Mount Cook, their double, hybrid status could be acknowledged.

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