Book Review: The End of Ice by Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail’s The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption is at once a memoir of the author’s experiences in nature and a report of the state of the planet amid rapid climate change. This well-researched, passionate book is about the end of more than ice—Jamail takes us into the oceans and into the forests as well—and the tapestry of the author’s firsthand experiences woven among interviews with experts, from international scientists to local leaders, reveals a planet facing unprecedented challenges.

Jamail deliberately uses the term anthropogenic climate disruption instead of climate change because, as he writes, “Without question, the human race is responsible.” And among the recurring themes of this book is the lack of both awareness and action toward ameliorating climate disruption and its effects; the dedicated scientists and researchers featured in The End of Ice often express dismay over the lack of action, from political leaders to ordinary citizens. “You don’t have to look far to see who is most to blame for warming the planet,” Jamail writes. “For nations, the United States is second only to China in carbon dioxide emissions … For corporations (including state-owned entities), only one hundred of them are responsible for 71 percent of total global CO2emissions.” 

The End of Ice does begin with ice—on Denali in Alaska, only 1,800 miles from the North Pole, where the “glaciers were melting underneath my skis, my crampons, and my ice ax.” Alaska is losing about fifty of its 100,000 glaciers every year, and this number will increase without human action to prevent it. In the past fifty years, glaciers in Alaska’s national parks have by retreated by 8 percent, and the state’s glaciers are losing 75 billion tons of ice per year.

Still, too little is being done, perhaps in part because Alaska is remote and undeveloped (“If this was happening in California,” said glacial geologist Mike Loso, “every one of these changes would be front-page news.”) As Jamail writes, many “may think melting glaciers won’t affect them. But they would be wrong.” He points out that the disappearance of glaciers will affect food prices everywhere, in addition to displacing millions of people worldwide.

Likewise, the disappearance and bleaching of coral reefs (22 percent of the Great Barrier Reef was killed during the 2015–2016 El Niño, and other areas in the Pacific lost up to 90 percent of their coral reefs) reverberates far and wide: coral reef ecosystems may cover only 2 percent of the ocean, but they are home to 25 percent of all marine species. As marine scientist Dean Miller tells Jamail, “We might see ecosystem collapse as we know it. We’ll lose the reef fish from bleaching, then all the fish that depend on them, all the way up the food chain to the biggest fish. Everything is affected.”  

Jamail doesn’t simply cite statistics and quote experts; he relays how and why sea levels change due to climate disruption, illuminating for readers what often goes unseen. For example, when explaining the amount of heat we have added to the oceans, he writes, “If you took all of the heat humans have generated between the years of 1955 and 2010 and placed it in the atmosphere instead of in the oceans, global temperatures would have risen by a staggering 97°F.” 

He references change in ways that are personal (when he travels to Florida, we learn that 2.46 million park acres, including the Everglades, will be underwater in his lifetime) as well as universal (pointing out that continued disruption in this region will affect everything from water supplies to sewage systems to home prices to the ability to get insurance).

The End of Ice also takes readers into forests, where climate change has already led to drought and wildfires, and where logging has done its own part: 90 percent of the trees in the western U.S. have already been cut down (in some places not once but twice). And all these human impacts will eventually double down on disruption: “instead of forests regularly pulling one-third of our excess CO2out of the atmosphere each year, they could well become a net contributor of CO2to the atmosphere within a couple of decades due to fires, droughts, and ongoing deforestation.” 

It will come as no surprise that rainforests, too, are suffering, from massive clear-cutting for farming to a devastating loss of species. In the Amazon are “thousands of species of trees, an estimated 2.5 million species of insects, thousands of species of birds, and at least three thousand species of fish in the Rio Negro alone.” One study notes that a new species is discovered every two days in the Amazon. Yet ornithologist Vitek Jirinec has been watching some bird species decline by as much as 95 percent, and he is concerned for all species worldwide. “How many European brown bears are there in Italy’s Abruzzo National Park? Not enough. How many Florida panthers in Big Cypress Swamp? Not enough. How many Asiatic lions in the Forest of Gir? Not enough … And so on. The world is broken in pieces now.”

The question that remains is how we might put the world back together. The End of Ice offers no solutions, no calls to action (in fact, despite such notes as the pressure on the Brazilian government to continue deforestation “including clearing trees for cattle ranches that produce beef sold in the United States and Europe,” there are no suggestions to, for example, do one’s part by consuming less meat). The book doesn’t offer hope or ideas for change but is rather dirge for a dying planet, a meditation in grief. In his conclusion, Jamail writes of our obligations, to others and to the planet, and the question he asks is the one we should all ask ourselves: “From this moment on, knowing what is happening to the planet, to what do I devote my life?” 

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