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A Mountaineer Writes A Firsthand Report From The World's Melting Glaciers


In another bleak sign of climate change, last week, the National Academy of Sciences published a report stating that Antarctica's ice mass is melting six times faster than was previously thought. Disappearing ice is an indicator that author Dahr Jamail returns to time and again in his new book about our climate. It's called "The End Of Ice: Bearing Witness And Finding Meaning In The Path Of Climate Disruption." Dahr Jamail has reported from conflict zones in the Middle East. But it is his passion for mountaineering that drives this book, which begins with him dangling from a rope after having fallen into a crevasse while climbing in Alaska. Dahr Jamail joins us now from our New York bureau.

Welcome to the program.

DAHR JAMAIL: Thank you - good to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's start with you explaining to the non-climber your deep affinity for something so inhospitable as an icy glacier. You seem to find the beauty in it even as you dangle above a bottomless pit.

JAMAIL: (Laughter) Well, I have always been drawn into the mountains. I think that's my favorite place and where I feel most called to go, really connect in with the Earth and keep the perspective that we get from going out into majestic places like that. And in that particular instance, I had to really focus that experience in to really appreciating the blue ice that was in front of me when I was unable to do a self-rescue and had to wait for my buddies while I dangled over the abyss. So it was kind of a concentrated form of meditating on what was exactly in front of me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to start with Denali in Alaska because that is a place that you have a connection to. You've been going there for years. What have you seen?

JAMAIL: I made it a point to go there in the book as well as a couple of the other places because I wanted to find places that I had been to before and had an intimacy with because it's in that way we can really, really understand the gravity of the changes and really see them and know them personally. And so my first time on Denali, for example, was back in 1997. And to go back and be on that mountain 19 years later in 2016, I saw really dramatic evidence of what was happening - things like mosquitoes in base camp and Denali at 7,200 feet on a glacier, which seems preposterous, but that was happening - rockfall high up on the mountain in an area where the temperature in the summer at night still gets down to regularly -15, -20 degrees Fahrenheit. But now it's melting out at times on some of the days that you have to wear a helmet because of rockfall. Even in these wildest places, that's, actually, where we're seeing some of the most dramatic changes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But not only - you traveled to Miami, where wet sidewalks on a sunny day can have scary implications.

JAMAIL: Exactly, where it's called sunny day flooding there, instead of - what it actually is is the oceans are now starting to already make themselves very apparent right there in parts of downtown Miami and certainly in Miami Beach. And so here, we have a huge city that, literally, is already losing the battle to kind of remain there despite rising seas. And so spending a lot of time in Miami Beach on that trip with the - Bruce Mowry, the then-city engineer, going around talking about how they're trying to raise the levels of some of the streets and other projects they're working on to try to buy time. But that's even just preparation to buy them a little time for the kind of mid-level projections of, here's what happens if we manage to do some pretty serious mitigation on a global level of CO2 emissions. Not even to speak of the worst-case scenarios.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed. You, in the book, introduce us to Harold Wanless, chair of the Department of Geological Science at the University of Miami. And he makes the point that we better start moving things we value to elevations above 150 feet now.

JAMAIL: That's exactly right. And this is a world-renowned expert that is talking about how things like the Turkey Point nuclear plant outside of Miami, that needs to be decommissioned. And all of that needs to be moved. Toxic zones need to be moved. Museums and other important sites that hold important historical information and value for us, all of that needs to be relocated, including the tens of millions of people that live there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a reworking of the world as we know it.

JAMAIL: It literally is. And I think that as more and more of this data becomes available to people as well as the realities that are now sinking in - you know, the extreme weather events, of course, that we're all too familiar now with this country - is these become the norm and not extreme weather events, if you will. We are living in a new era of a climate-disrupted planet. And this is how it's going to be. And it's a situation where, really, today is better than tomorrow in that these impacts will keep getting more severe no matter what, even if pretty intense mitigation measures do start to be taken on a global level. We already have a large amount of change already baked into the system, to use the term many of the scientists are using.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you tell people who might hear this and say, well, you know, it's already happening, nothing I can do about it. Just - we'll adapt as humans have always done to whatever comes our way.

JAMAIL: Well, we will have to adapt. There's no question about that. But I think there is always the X factor. We - as bleak as things may appear, we don't know what's going to happen because we've never been here before as a species. And if there's even the slightest possibility that somehow, some way, this doesn't go worst-case scenario, that in itself is reason to throw everything we have behind, trying to do the right thing today. Plus, we're going to be answerable to future generations. And so sort of in a selfish way but albeit somewhat selflessly, I want to be able to say that I did absolutely everything I could to try to work for the betterment of the planet at a time when we still had glaciers in the lower 48 states, when we still had the better part of the Amazon rainforest, while there still was a South Florida that wasn't submerged yet. I want to be able to say that I did the right thing and I did everything I could.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dahr Jamail is the author of "The End Of Ice." Thank you so much.

JAMAIL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.