A close friend recently shared an extended big-screen masterful photographic record of his trip to Greenland. The next day I was trying to sleep on a trans-Pacific flight, slouching into my economy seat and drifting into semi-consciousness. The catalog of his pictures floated through my awareness in a continuous haunting collage.
I saw ice in an infinite variety of forms sculpted by wind and sea, aged and new, opaque and translucent, craggy, smooth, reflective, geometric or curved. Constantly birthing and melting, transmuting history into form, the basis of life itself in a slow-dance, reflecting our own diversity, the play of biology and culture, human action, messengers across time. Evolution in water.
Ice is disappearing with its historical record of earth’s atmosphere, geological events and temperature changes across eons. Ice is disappearing and along with it not only our future, but also a piece of our past. Sure, there’s the geological record. But ice gives us a unique view. Ice has given us a piece of the specific understanding of the very atmospheric changes that are now increasingly upon us. How ironic that instead of acting upon that information to right our selves with the requisite urgency, this window into deep time is itself disappearing. We are killing the messenger.
I want to build an ice museum across the street from the corporate headquarters of one of the oil giants. Or somewhere in downtown Houston, the coal fields of Wyoming or in the tar sand fields of Alberta. These days, though, it would make more sense to camp out in cyber space. Or better yet, become the portal for Exxon’s intranet.
What shall we find in an ice museum? Land ice and sea ice, the way it reflects the elemental realities of life, our lives, the changes we have brought upon ourselves; the loss of ice fields, ice walls, glaciers, bergs, floes, iced-over lakes and ponds, frozen rivers, all endangered. Ice in captivity, held in frozen time, a time we are losing, a time melting before our eyes.
My museum will have the obligatory shop where you can buy posters of ice, suitable for framing, and even have your own piece of ancient ice you can watch disappear in the privacy of your own home. Even if all the silent futile tears shed in such a museum could be bottled and frozen, they would never substitute for the majesty of a single aircraft carrier-sized iceberg or a glacier calving an ice-island the size of Manhattan.
Can you imagine knowing of such a place? Can you imagine walking into an ice museum with your children, your grandchildren? Explaining what has happened to ice? Can you imagine a place that displays the historic record of its shrinkage, an accumulation of images of ancient glaciers that once graced now denuded mountains? Open seas where no bears or seals now live? No walruses? Can you imagine the stunned silence in such a place, as if one were walking through a mortuary in which a member of everyone’s family lies perpetually in state?
In the ice museum, you can also book your very own ice vacation, because there will come a time when we will not revere the tropical vacation the way we used to. That’s because there will be fewer places to go for a tropical vacation, what with the inundation of beaches worldwide. There will be warm places, all right. But we will instead yearn for an environment that is naturally cold, where ice abounds. Disney will close Tomorrow-land and install Ice-land. Norway and Finland will become the go-to destinations for all of Europe. Let the entrepreneurs note that Reykjavic will become the Arctic Riviera. Siberia will no longer carry the cachet of frozen tundra, though Vladivostok will enjoy a season of renewal. The NFL Packers will move from Green Bay to Prudhoe Bay.
We need an ice museum, a place where humans can contemplate the disappearance of not only iconic species and indigenous cultures who once called it their habitat, but the ice itself in all its magnificent, desolate foreboding, its prehistoric alien beauty. Merely speaking the name—ice museum—itself inflicts a wound. Someplace deep inside contorts at the profound dissonance of it. It is a linguistic spear striking the heart of primal human imagery that resists—no, transcends—all language. The loss of ice will only further separate us from the infinite, from the existential significance of being able to envision a positive future.
Is it too late to truly know how fragile we are, how intimately we are interwoven with everything? How much more will be lost than ice alone if there ever comes a time for an actual ice museum? Can anyone bear imagining a human generation with no memory of polar ice, or of an icy Greenland? What will we tell them? Will there come a day when the Himalaya are the last remaining earth-ice museum? When will we consider the loss of ice to be catastrophic? Can we still forestall that approaching agony?