Columnist Marty Nathan: The power of glaciers

  • In this Aug. 16, 2019, photo, NYU student researchers sit on top of a rock overlooking the Helheim glacier in Greenland. Summer 2019 is hitting the island hard with record-shattering heat and extreme melt. Scientists estimate that by the end of the summer, about 440 billion tons of ice, maybe more, will have melted or calved off Greenland's giant ice sheet. Helheim glacier has shrunk about 6 miles (10 kilometers) since scientists visited in 2005. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana) Felipe Dana

Published: 1/2/2020 8:32:33 AM

When you visit grandchildren you get to roll on the couch with their wiggly selves, hoist them from bar to bar on the jungle gym and receive hand-made love notes before your jet-lagged eyes are even open delivered by giggling bedroom micro-invaders. In exchange you are obligated to accompany them to the latest Disney Pixar extravaganza at the local movie theater where they suck up all the memes of popular culture Hollywood can pump into their receptive little brains, for a small price.

I’ve gotta say that this year’s choice, Frozen 2, got me to thinking about the concerns of younger generations and how those concerns are being confronted and portrayed on screen. I liked Frozen 2 — strong young women saving the world from the angry natural elements disrupted by a mega dam built by the dominant Europeans to erode indigenous land rights. And the heroines ultimately collude with those elements to de-develop that destructive dam and restore nature’s balance. Boy, they didn’t make movies like that when I was 6. Back then the heroic cowboys killed the Indians and got the girl. We’ve made some progress in our cultural conversations with our children about who and what are the threats and what a happy ending looks like.

Small children’s movies are made for their young parents, and what I saw on the screen seemed to me to be a real shift in what the moguls think those parents will accept and pay for. Concerns about environmental destruction and indigenous rights are on the agenda whether today’s feckless politicians want them to be or not. The rolling climate crisis and leadership by native Americans in South Dakota and the Canadian Rockies to stop the pipelines that reinforce the threat are now a part of our discourse. There is well-founded anxiety about a future threatened by a distorted natural world. Many, particularly younger people, are rethinking unleashed development with its often-destructive consequences.

But I spent a long time thinking about the underlying theme, the super-power of the heroine: ice. Elsa’s touch makes ice, and we find out in Frozen 2 (spoiler alert!) that her magical ability comes from a glacier. My daughter, the parent of those delectable grands and a much savvier critic of popular culture than I, argues probably rightfully that it is pure coincidence that ice and “water’s memory” are the foundation of this most profitably popular of all modern movies. Maybe so but casting the power to freeze whatever one wants as a positive at a time when hundreds of millions of people in low-lying coastal areas around the world are in jeopardy of rising sea levels due to melting glaciers seems odd happenstance.

Reports of record glacial melting appear with an ever-increasing frequency and volume, the Bolero of climate science. Two weeks ago, researchers at the University of California Irvine found that Greenland glaciers are losing ice mass at a rate seven times faster than that of the 1990’s. The melt was more rapid than anticipated and consistent with the exposure of 400 million people around the world to coastal flooding rather than the mere 360 million projected at risk in the midrange warming scenario. Today’s melting is extreme.

Then last week the Global Forecast System of the National Centers for Environmental Protection announced that around 15 percent of Antarctica’s surface ice had melted on one day, December 24, the greatest daily melt recorded since 1979. Melting from Nov 2019 until December 27 was also declared a record, 230 percent higher than average.

Evidence suggests that a key coastal glacial area of West Antarctica, the Amundson Sea Embankment, may have already hit a tipping point, and may be retreating irreversibly, independent of human’s cutting emissions and limiting further warming. The loss of that area could destabilize the massive remaining West Antarctic ice sheets, leading to about 3 meters [9.8 feet] of sea-level rise. Asked whether climate change was responsible, the Belgian scientist who tweeted the report replied, “As for most of the anomalies observed on these last months over the Earth, the signal coming from global warming cannot be ignored here.” Less sanguine in his analysis, another climatologist retweeting the new information wrote bluntly, “We are in a climate emergency.”

Scientists just don’t say things like that unless they mean it. Emergency means emergency. Oh for Princess Elsa’s powers to stop the melting and refreeze the glacial ice that has withstood the climatic vicissitudes of the last million and a half years. What a wonderful, timely fairy tale.

Unfortunately, a fairy tale. Our options are much more problematic and require engagement by all of us on many levels. We need to pass through an intransigent state legislature bills for 100 percent renewable energy mandating massive investment in solar and offshore wind power. The Transportation Climate Initiative has a good chance of passing, but it must be both strong and meet the needs of working and poor people in our state. And we need a just fee for carbon to reinforce and complement the renewable revolution.

But we are one state. We are not doing enough but if we were it would not be enough. We need a Green New Deal as demanded by the youth of the Sunrise Movement. And only the strongest of the several proposals by Democratic candidates can possibly prevent the tipping points that stare at us from closer range than ever predicted. 2020 is the year when, for my grandchildren and yours, we must throw our all into a bold, revolutionary plan to stop climate change. Anything else spells untold suffering.

Marty Nathan, MD, is a physician, mother and grandmother and serves on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW and the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition. She may be reached at

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