Vivid storytelling and equally vivid photography combine in MIT Press’ new The Fate of Greenland, making for a page-turner climate change experts and those relatively new to the field can both enjoy. 

Greenland, a new and beautifully illustrated book reminds us, “matters.”

It’s that simple: “Greenland matters.”

To illustrate the authors’ point, consider just the rationale they provide before reaching that conclusion: “Greenland appears to be poised at the edge of another rapid climate change, which in the past has propagated climate changes across both hemispheres.”

With crystal clear writing, expert story-telling, and superb other-world photography, the respected authors of The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change, published by The MIT Press, provide a gripping rationale for their simple plea — “Pay attention to Greenland.” (Also see related posting.)

With few commercial flights into the island’s only airport capable of handling aircraft of substantial size, Kangerlussuaq on the southwest coast, paying attention to Greenland does not come easily for many people. Ninety percent covered by ice sheet, it’s actually a place more people recognize for having flown over it at 36,000-plus feet than for having stopped by for a chat and a visit. That’s their loss.

In The Fate, Philip Conkling of The Island Institute in Maine, glaciologist Richard B. Alley of Penn State University, oceanographer Wally Broecker of Columbia University, and geologist George Denton of the University of Maine do their utmost to inform the world of what we’re missing. They do so with the strength of exquisite photography done mostly by Conkling and by the late Gary Comer, the transoceanic sailor and founder of Lands’ End whose climate change legacy lives well beyond his death in 2006.

… The Incredible Whiteness of Being …

The clarity of writing under Editor Philip Conkling comes through on virtually every page, making the book an ideal point of entry for those relatively new to the climate change issue and yearning to improve their understanding. A quick example, this one from page 53:

The snow on Greenland or Antarctica does not pile up higher and higher until the world becomes top-heavy and rolls over …. But if you have a 3-kilometer-thick pile of ice covering a continent, or the world’s largest island — Greenland — the pile will spread. This is actually fairly easy to measure. Put a stake in the surface somewhere up on the ice sheet, and use a GPS receiver to figure out where the pole is. When you come back with your GPS receiver a year or two later, you will find that the stake has moved.

More easily said than done, of course, but it could hardly be more clearly explained.

There are numerous other examples, effective uses of similes and metaphors, and just superlative story-telling, in one case talking of “reading history with a glorified meat thermometer stuck in the ice sheet … Fortunately, several other techniques … are harder to explain, but not harder to apply.”

From the early 1960s efforts at first collecting deep ice cores from the Greenland ice sheet to the importance of discovering in Greenland ice cores that the Younger Dryas was not unique but rather the most recent of some two-dozen climate reversals …

From understanding the uppermost two-thirds of a glacier as the accumulation zone, where snowfall exceeds melting, and the lower one-third as the ablation zone, where melting exceeds snowfall …

From Broecker’s extraordinary findings on the “Great Ocean Conveyor” looping currents worldwide and all the twists and turns of that phenomenon …

From explanations of climate feedbacks: “The important point is that the feedbacks are very unlikely to be negative overall, and because the different positive feedbacks amplify each other, the slight chance of a really big change cannot be excluded entirely …”

To the authors’ conclusions on prudent risk management decisionmaking in the face of inevitable uncertainties: “Based on a preponderance of good science, including economic analyses, the wisest response appears to include both the reduction of CO2 emissions … together with helping people handle the changes, in part by raising the standard of living of poor people. Screaming panic is not recommended … but neither is business-as-usual, which is highly likely to bring very large costs for this generation and especially for future generations.”

And to what may be the authors’ single take-home message involving what they call “the lop-sidedness of the uncertainties. The future could be better than the mainstream scientific projections, but ‘a little better’ is balanced against ‘a little worse’ or ‘a lot worse.’”

“Global warming is physics, not a hoax,” they counsel.

But if it’s the words and the narrative that are poetic, which they are, it’s the photography that makes for a real page-turner. Image after image of stunning glaciers and icebergs, haunting aerials and panoramas.

What the authors refer to at one point, as viewed from a small plane over “the endless desolation of snow and ice in the high summer light” as “an experience in the incredible whiteness of being.”

The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change, 2011, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. ISBN 978-0-262-01564-6.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...