A World Without Ice (2009) is about our planet, its climate, its human residents – and ice. Ice has always been a major player in Earth’s climate. These blinks explain why we may soon see a world without ice, why that would a have dramatic consequences for Earth and humans alike, and how we can cope with climate change.
In 1768, young English naval officer James Cook was assigned the position of captain on the search for Terra Australis Incognita. This was rather daunting, given that some didn’t believe that this southern continent existed at all.
Ancient Greek philosophical writings show the first arguments for the existence of a landmass in the southern hemisphere matching those in the north, for reasons of symmetry. But it wasn’t a mass of land that Cook first discovered. It was mass of ice.
Given that Earth has masses of ice at the North and South Poles, the Greeks were right about the planet’s symmetry. But even though the poles might seem rather similar, they actually have very little in common.
The South Pole is located in the continent of Antarctica, around 850 miles inland from the nearest coastline. The North Pole, on the other hand, is located in the waters of the Arctic Ocean, around 450 miles away from the nearest landmass. Both poles are set in ice, but in varying ways. The South Pole lies below more than 10,000 feet of ice, while the North Pole floats on top of a relatively thin 10- to 20-foot sheet of frozen ocean water.
The ice in both polar regions is constantly shifting, but at very different rates. The South Pole’s ice masses move at a pace of 30 to 40 feet each year. At the North Pole, by contrast, the ice averages a speed of three to four miles each day.
These differences aside, humans have found the North and South Poles equally fascinating throughout history. Explorers, adventurers, whalers, sealers, scientists and soldiers have all made their way to the poles. Today huge numbers of tourists also journey to the Arctic and Antarctic. Arctic tours offer excursions to glaciers and wildlife tours where people can observe reindeer, walrus and polar bears in their natural habitat. Penguins are one of the main attractions in the Antarctic, with some 45,000 tourists heading south each year to experience these marine birds firsthand.
So should we be concerned for the safety of Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems given the rise of tourism at the poles? Actually, it only poses a marginal risk. Because what really damages the poles is what we do at home.