A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World is a monthly column about the future of climate change.
MY MOTHER IS DYING and the world is warming.
Both occupy my thoughts, though neither as much as you might think they would. In fact, the two subjects share this: I prefer not to think about them. Repression is my business.
And yet I can’t close out the world entirely. The latest headlines say a large chunk of Antarctica is melting. I try not to think about this too much for the moment. But I read the article anyway.
The line that stays with me is the one that says this: there is movement beneath the ice.
OVER THE LAST WEEK I have decided to give my life the gluey cohesion of theme. My theme? I follow the water. More specifically, I have, whenever I can, stayed close to the Colorado River, the lifeblood of the American West. Every day I get up and follow the river, sometimes in a small plane, sometimes in my rental car, sometimes by foot, sometimes diving right in it.
It is December 2021 and water is on everyone’s mind. This now decades-long drought is currently exhibiting a new and terrifying symptom. This year is the latest recorded first snowfall ever on the front range in Colorado. As of today there has been no snow. None. Not an inch.
So much depends on snowmelt.
IT IS STRANGE HOW WE DISTANCE ourselves from our grief. Strange but necessary, for some of us. My mother doesn’t really believe she is living in the assisted living wing of the Senior Care Facility in Winston-Salem, and who can blame her?
Meanwhile no one is talking about the massive chunk of ice that broke off Antarctica.
And I get it. It’s just too depressing. We have our lives to live after all…. Our things to do.
In 2019 a Yale study concluded: “About six in ten Americans (63%) say they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ discuss global warming with family and friends.” Is this really a surprise?
Two of my closest friends often respond to my book suggestions with a question: “Is it depressing?” I don’t blame them. We bury. We hide. We learn to ignore. To take deep breathes and buy coffee cups that tell us not to panic. We don’t go down in the basement.
For the most part it works. For the most part we couldn’t function otherwise. We focus on our jobs, our stocks, our portfolio. Only the maladapted continue to focus on the darkness.
But here is a question for myself and my fellow storytellers out there: How will people look back on the literature of our time if it does not address our major existential issue?
“LAKE POWELL IS THE POSTER CHILD for aridity,” I hear Chris saying in my headset. “It is the melting glacier.”
We are following the Colorado River in Chris’s tiny plane, a two-seat Cessna.
Today Lake Powell is operating at 26% of capacity, 168 feet below its full elevation of 3,700 feet above sea level. When the reservoir was full, the water backed up so that the river to the north of the reservoir also became a lake. What I didn’t know until today is how far the “lake” extended up the river, and what its withdrawal has left behind as it dries up, basically a world of mud and sediment.
We fly over the Hite Marina, which is so far away from the water, it no longer merits its name. A boat ramp to nowhere. Down below, where the lake once was, flows a slow, stagnant “pseudo river,” in Chris’s words, winding through mud banks and mud canyons. Chris estimates that there are now thirty to forty miles of pseudo river.
We fly above a delta of mud. What we see below looks more like a dry map image of a delta than an actual delta. A corridor of sludge.
A friend of mine tells me that the canyons south of here have rebounded beautifully and even here, from a river runner’s perspective, the changes are not entirely depressing since the river is returning as the lake withdraws. New rapids in places they have not been seen since the 1960s, when the Glen Canyon Dam was built, are emerging from the mud. Soon this may be glorious, but at the moment it’s a mess. Rafting guides are not just dealing with a new river, but with a paucity of places to camp, since spending the night on a ledge of sludge is less than romantic. “It smells like dead fish,” Chris adds.
The Park Service doesn’t know what to do. They would act, maybe build new boat ramps, but they are not dealing with a stable situation and the river could morph into something else tomorrow, something unexpected.
“Every month it looks different,” Chris says.
THERE ARE MORE THAN 400 lakes below the Antarctic ice.
Lakes! How can that be? How can there be water below? Why doesn’t it freeze? Part of the answer is pressure: all the weight of the ice allows the water below to remain liquid below the normal freezing point. The ice actually insulates the water.
Like snowmelt, much depends on this water that resides a mile or two below the ice cap and above the rocky bed of the continent. It lubricates; it determines how the mass above will move and flow. And how it flows could mean everything.
Wouldn’t you say it is still a beautiful world?
THE DAY AFTER I FLY WITH CHRIS, I sit in the passenger seat of my friend Mark Karger’s truck as he points it up from his home outside of Denver and back toward the place he fished as a kid. Even up here at the top of the world, the snow is sparse. Our goal is to hike in as close as we can to the source of the Colorado River, something that would be impossible or at least require snowshoes in a normal December, but that we think we can pull off in just our boots today.
We park at the trailhead. Before leaving the truck, Mark opens the console and unearths a bag of mushrooms. My mushroom days are long gone, or so I thought until now. It occurs to me that, given the circumstances, a small nibble on a stem or two might enhance the day’s quest.
This December day at 9,000 feet is warm enough at first that we don’t wear gloves or hats. The river, which we come upon fairly quickly, is iced over in places. We stop at a small bridge and watch it flow elegantly both over and under a thin layer of ice, listening to its fine burbling music. The mighty Colorado is about twenty feet wide at this point. It is hard to imagine the same stream quenching the thirst of Los Angeles.
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During the hike in we see an American three-toed woodpecker, chickadees, the prints of moose and elk. The trail grows steeper and icier as we close in after four miles. In the meadow where we re-encounter the river, the snow is deeper. On the side of the mountain above us is the drainage that feeds the river. The Colorado flows down the mountainside and through these fields, mostly below a layer of ice, but then emerging to slide over frozen rocks and crusty snow. The sheen of ice reflects diamond patterns in the sunlight as the water runs and gurgles and races below, burbling back up. That most beautiful of sounds, cold pure water over rocks, sounds even better this high up.
“I love all things that flow,” said James Joyce.
At one point the Colorado is so narrow I can straddle it.
LAST YEAR AN ICEBERG THE SIZE of Rhode Island broke off of Antarctica. It floated off into the Weddell Sea, where explorer Ernest Shackleton lost his ship, the Endurance. Interest in discovering that lost ship is high, while that in the berg is low. Ho-hum.
The good news is that the iceberg won’t really affect sea level much due to the old melting ice cube theory, but, according to Scientific American, the “ice shelves help to slow the flow of glaciers and ice streams into the sea; so indirectly, the loss of parts of an ice shelf eventually contributes to rising seas.”
I understand why people prefer thinking about the Endurance. Despite the tragedy it is a heroic human story. What could be less human than ice?
I read the article about the iceberg in the morning and have mostly forgotten it by the afternoon.
MARK WARNS ME THAT WE CAN’T stay long. It may be a mild and climate-altered winter, but it is still winter, and it is unlikely now that we will get out before dark. Right after he says this, the wind fires a warning shot. It blasts over the mountains as the sun dips behind some swollen pink and purple clouds moving rapidly from west to east. It is time to go, but I am not ready to go. Not yet. I walk downstream to see more of the river. When I crunch across the snow, shadows paint my footprints blue.
It all seems so improbable. That this ice corridor running through this meadow is what provides much of the American West with its drinking water. Thirty-six million people or so in seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Hard to believe it all starts here. Right below this silvery layer of ice.
Wallace Stegner asked the essential question: How to make an arid region that is in large part desert or semi-desert into a livable space? What I am looking at right now has long been the answer to that question. And it has been a reliable source. Until now.
I stare greedily at the white peaks above us, the rushing water, the crystalline sky. How perfect that our overly-virtual civilization is built on something so starkly real. So vibrantly un-virtual. So purely primal.
Yes, I know that what this over-engineered river goes through over the next 1,700 miles or so is decidedly unwild. Yes, I know that the rights to it are so doled out, argued over, and divvied up that states have gone to war over them and that a whole branch of law has sprung up around the question of who has rights to what. I know all this, and understand that my subjective take, colored perhaps by nibbling those mushroom stems back at the truck, means little compared to all those other uses and needs. But right now, staring at the river working its way over and under the ice, I can’t help but feel a kind of joy. One simple fact about what I am witnessing here astounds: It is the snowpack, gone missing so far this year, that will later, in its time-release fashion, feed the river in spring and summer.
More poetically: Nature is the source.
I know of nothing more inspiring than this. Nature is the source! We, in our twisted arrogance, are blinded to that simple truth.
This is the great bounty we have been given, the great bounty we have squandered.
But I’m not going to let myself go there right now. No jeremiads or lectures. Instead, I am going to revel in this primal place. I am going to enjoy being close to the source.
I HAVE SPENT THE LAST YEAR asking scientists what the world will be like when my daughter is my age. On the subject of melting ice, the experts are all over the place. Some say the ice will hold and the seas will rise only a few inches. Others, like Hal Wanless, a professor of geology at the University of Miami, are much bolder. “By the time your daughter is your age,” he says, “most East Coast cities will be flooded. We are talking about an eight-to-ten-foot sea level rise by the end of the century. Maybe eleven to thirteen.”
Ten feet?! Impossible. Right?
Three months after our trip to the source, an ice shelf in Antarctica nearly the size of Los Angeles will disintegrate. It will do so after a period of extraordinary warmth, more than forty degrees Celsius higher than normal, on the Antarctic continent. The Conger Ice Shelf will be approximately 460 square miles.
The glaciers continue to melt. How we feel about them seems to have little effect on this fact. It’s like we have made a deal. We ignore them; they ignore us.
I don’t think I am alone in this. As Covid and climate have become more intertwined, so have the personal and the political. Deaths of those close to us. Death of the planet. Out of necessity, many of us have become masters of repression.
We repress to live. The end of the world can barely hold our attention.
We learn to “be adults.” To callus over. We learn not to panic. We learn to stay calm despite the circumstances.
But every now and then something breaks through.
FOR ME IT HAPPENS EARLY on the morning that Mark Karger and I hike to the source.
The night before our trip, I find myself sleeping up the canyon in Boulder’s Adventure Inn. I wake to a spectacular sunrise and take my coffee out to the picnic table in front of my room. Blazing orange patches of clouds light up the morning sky. I wonder, not for the first time, “Why don’t I live here?”
I drive down to Boulder, listening half-seriously to Rocky Mountain High (twice) before letting the playlist move on to other songs. Thank God I’m a Country Boy follows Take Me Home, Country Roads. And then Annie’s Song comes on.
Annie’s Song which just happens to be the favorite song of Barbara Gessner. The same Barbara Gessner who gave birth to me sixty years ago and who is now sitting in a nursing home in North Carolina, scribbling down what look like ancient runes, not even decipherable to her, in the same sort of wire-rung notebook she has filled with to-do lists for more than half a century. The same Barbara Gessner who doesn’t really believe that she is in assisted living, but thinks she is either in a prison or a scary prep school where people plot against her, and where each night “they” take her to a place called “the windowless house.” The same woman who lives in a state of constant agitation, as though there were something to do and, if she could only remember what it was and do it, would solve everything. Who once signed letters to her firstborn son, “Your Ever-Lovin’ Mom.”
That son of hers has built up some pretty thick calluses over his sixty years, and though he knows that he’s witnessing a tragedy, he never gets too emotional about it. He deals with it, with her, the problem of her, as though it were just another problem on his own to-do list. He can say things to his sister like, “It would be better if she died,” and mean it.
Until Annie’s Song. Suddenly my chest is throbbing and tears are flowing, and it won’t stop. It carries on through Sunshine On My Shoulders, through Leaving on a Jet Plane. And still I keep crying, a few miles short of Karger’s house, where I pull over at a neighborhood park. “My poor mom,” I wail into the rental car. “My beautiful mom. My mom. How can this be?”
It takes about half an hour to pull myself together. To stuff the tragedy back down where it belongs. To carry on with my day. To get “back to normal.”
A few hours later Mark Karger and I will be walking alongside the Colorado as we hike toward the source. But the truth is, there are long stretches where we won’t be able to see the river at all. It flows beneath the ice.