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Ice Ages and 'carboniferous states of thought'

Updated Friday, 30th June 2006

Kathryn Yusoff reveals how story of the interdependent world is told in ice and coal

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Antarctic iceberg

Ice and carbon have emerged as defining materials of the 21st Century.

If human civilization emerged through the Bronze and Iron Age, then our modern and industrialized society has given rise to a Carbon Age. But this Carbon Age, as it turns out, has contributed to significant changes in the climate since the last glacial period 10,000 years ago.

The expansion of carbon technologies has spawned a plethora of industries that have shaped our lives, from the synthetic worlds of the chemical industry that produce everything from dyes to rockets, to the oil industry that shapes financial markets, environments, wars and our daily commutes.

Yet after much carbon-based expenditure, it has come to light that the same fossil fuels that have provided the foundation for industrial societies now threaten their very existence. Our everyday use of carbon has led to the alteration of global temperatures and the melting of ice at the poles.

This condition is revealed, ironically enough, deep within the ice that is now melting. Ice cores drilled from within the Antarctic continent exhibit startling and challenging discoveries about the climactic changes brought about through our use of carbon. These ice cores are environmental archives—they contain a record of past weather for tens of thousands of years. They contain the historic geographies of carbon.

The most important information found in these ice cores is the exchange, movement and accumulation of carbon within the earth’s atmosphere. The temporal inscriptions of CO2 in ice cores give visibility to the accelerated mobility of human-activated carbon in the atmosphere, and the effect this carbon has on the stability of polar ice.

In dynamic interplay, these two materials interact to challenge our prevailing sense of time scales, our knowledge of material circulation, and our co-existence with terrestrial systems. This interplay of ice and carbon suggests interdependencies that are at once historic and open-ended.

Information extracted from ice cores is fed through climate models to predict future weather scenarios. But these scenarios may not account for the full range of interdependent effects that climate change may bring about. Supercomputers predict climate change scenarios and plot speculative futures that in turn inform contemporary political and cultural relationships to the ‘everyday materials’ of carbon.

It has been shown that these very ordinary everyday practices have resulted in extraordinary accumulations in the atmosphere, which can trigger disastrous climate-related events. In contrast to the seemingly ephemeral states of carbon consumption (the combustion of oil, gas, coal, and the disposability of petroleum based plastics), ice communicates planetary atmospheres on the scale of geological epochs.

The geographies of the polar environments from which this information comes remain largely remote from the everyday materials of western populations. For most of us, retreating glaciers and ice shelf collapses are dramatic events witnessed through the media and models. These stories and models inform our relations to material usage and our actions.

Yet, focusing on the interdependence of ice and carbon can illuminate some of the unforeseen ways in which our material engagements have shaped our physical and social worlds, at both global and local scales.

This is not the first instance of a meeting of coal and ice. On the Antarctic Polar Plateau in 1907, caught in raging blizzards, explorers on Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition discovered coal. In the barren Antarctic desert, these explorers found what they never would have expected: the remains of fossilized plants. Coal is formed through the sedimentation of wet vegetation. Antarctica, in other words, was once a coniferous forest. With this knowledge, the explorers stumbled on the realization that the climate of the continents was not stable.

As the explorers held coal in their frostbitten hands, they must have realised that the ice possessed a secret to the earth’s history, its weather, and the circulation of life forms.

This Antarctic wasteland, with the lowest levels of biota on earth, once flourished with a diversity of species. The discovery of coal in Antarctica, which was itself dependent on the use of coal-powered ships that could break through icy barrier surrounding the continent, turned out to be a crucial piece of evidence for the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener’s (1880-1930) proposal of Continental Drift.

His book, Origin of Continents and Oceans, calculated that 200 million years ago the continents were originally joined together, forming a large supercontinent, which he named Pangaea, meaning "All-earth".

Wegener referred to the jigsaw-fit of the continents, the distribution of fossils found in the Antarctic, and the apparent wandering of the Earth's polar regions to support his idea. For Wegener, the drifting of continents after the break-up of Pangaea explained not only the occurrences of matching fossils across continents, but also displayed evidence of dramatic climactic changes.

Today, the scientific community agrees that before 2050, atmospheric CO2 will cross the 500 ppm threshold, a level last seen during the Eocene, 55 million to 36 million years ago, when the occurrence of wet vegetation forests formed coal in the Antarctic.

At the same time, it is estimated that by 2100, nearly half the world’s energy supply is projected to come from coal. Without intervention in existing trends the climate problem will, above all, be a coal problem.

Detectable climate change is already occurring in the Antarctic. Over the last 50 years, annual mean temperatures have risen by 3°C, making the Antarctic one of the fastest warming regions in the world. In the Antarctic Peninsula, significant impacts have been seen in the retreating of glaciers, reduction in snow cover, and the collapse of ice shelves. Antarctica is often referred to as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ because of its ‘indicator’ status in global climate systems; and as one climate scientist, Robert Bindschadler has said, “right now the canaries are chirping an alarm.”

Climate change is projected to lead to some major, if unknown, feedbacks. It is argued that climate change may proceed faster because of ‘surprise’ positive feedbacks not included in current models. These could include a shift in ocean currents, a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet or shifts in monsoon patterns in Asia. The IPCC found that ice-core records indicated the existence of significant positive feedback, which shows a clear correlation between CO2 emissions and global temperatures. The behaviour of the Antarctic ice sheet in response to warming is one of the central issues of concern.

For climate scientists working in the Antarctic, an urgent realization is taking place, which mirrors realizations in the global community. Namely, we are actively situated in an interdependent relationship with Earth systems that is placing demands on us to act on our knowledge.

The implications for environmental futures as detected through the ice are binding scientists into new kinds of ethical responses and responsibilities. But what is the nature of these new ethical responsibilities that emerge from the histories of ice? The discovery of coal in the Antarctic revealed the existence of plate tectonics and abrupt climate change, but contemporary ice cores reveal that what fuelled this culture of ‘discovery’ also feed backs into dynamic earth systems. Out of the same coal-fuelled discovery comes two very different relations with the future: the conditions for new knowledges of climate change and the conditions for instigating abrupt climate change.

‘A heap of wrecked maps’

Climate change is one of the most pressing realities of the twenty-first century, and may even come to define this epoch. What we know of climate change is that it happens on a global scale, yet will affect specific localities in different ways. In this way, it creates a global commons, yet the geographical forms of response will be markedly different. We know this, but how can we imagine and model the global commons as global citizens?

For example, some people have protested against the current use of “carbon budgets,” or pollution quotas that place global atmospheres under the auspices of nations. In the global commons, we know that we are all participants, but how do we find paths of participation that are not just about our negative contribution to a global commons in crisis? How should we start to make new maps for carbon mobility?

Carbon culture is increasingly kinetic, an active shaping force in the physical and cultural world. Carbonbased products hasten our world through the consumption of fossil fuels, oil for cars, coal for electricity, gas for cooking. The kinetic potential of the material world has been transferred and transformed into the reality of our cultural lives. We jump on a plane, in a car, we make dinner in five minutes, we tune in to fifteensecond sound bites of news.

Carbon culture instigates a certain proliferation of noisy interactions, speeding up and using the kinetic potential of people and materials. It has been demonstrated that it is only possible to convert a limited amount of potential energy stores without descending into a form of climate chaos.

All the potential energy that rests in carbon deposits risks in its conversion to kinetic energy the future potential of an untenable kinetic response, an accumulation of kinetic outpouring on scales that ‘move’ other parts of the system. What ice core data suggests is that this flow of materials has reached a critical state of mobility, which promises landslide-like changes. As ice is being released into the sea with the carving of large new icebergs, such as the Larsen B and Prince Gustav ice shelf, and carbon is being released into the atmosphere how do we map these forms of mobility?

What is important about the sedimentation of the records of climate in ice cores is that it has revolutionised the view of the earth. Rather than continuing with the idea of climate as a relatively stable and robust entity, ice cores have revealed that climate systems are very sensitive and that small ‘tipping points’ in the system have caused the earth’s climate to flip into a whole new mode of operation in only a few years or decades rather than over geological time frames.

What this means in very simple terms is that although we have a geological timescale over which to view the earth’s climate, we are required to become very attentive to relatively critical activities over short time spans. The ‘timing’ of abrupt climate change actually points toward the importance of actions that happen within the decade rather than over one hundred years, as was presupposed by earlier theories of climate change. This tells us that we live on an animated earth, that has in its history gone from one dramatic geological (and subsequently biological) outpouring to another with rapid and excessive changes in between that have resulted in mass extinctions and ice ages.

While these dramatic makings and re-makings of our earth and environmental systems are known to geologists, who consistently have to think in geological time scales to reassemble past continents, ice knowledges have added a further layer of drama to those massive environmental upheavals.

What these abrupt changes signal is dramatic, high intensity events, usually referred to as disasters. This in turn forces a consideration of exploring the conditions of change, innovation and creativity necessary to deal with such abrupt change. Abrupt climate change can present considerable problems for mapping, but the momentum of such abrupt change can also make and build certain things.

While large databased models have an important part to play in environmental research, it is advantageous to consider alternative modeling methodologies which overtly acknowledge the poorly defined and uncertain nature of most environmental systems. What extreme climate change enacts is tectoniclike shifts in the ordering of our physical and conceptual geographies. While climate change has serious consequences it can also open windows of opportunity to respond, as was the case with the discovery of the ozone hole that prompted the Montreal Protocol which phased out chloroflurocarbon compounds, or the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, which helped strengthen an argument for the 1988 Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty.

Often it is the ‘gift’ of imminent disaster to quicken responses and clarify the potential risks of not taking action. Modelling these climate surprises can be done on supercomputers, but this imaging needs to be accompanied by a corresponding act of imaginative comprehension. Often the use of global models makes it difficult to map everyday practices and do not draw us into an imaginative or participative relationships. They are often models generated ‘out there’ by scientists.

And while they are very important, they do not provide the conditions for generating a more intimate science or responsibility. This is not to suggest that we do nothing, or do not put in place political and economic regulations, but that responding to climate change requires a more exuberant form of engagement. This might include understanding the circulations and returns of our everyday materials in extraordinary events, and looking towards the extraordinary to see how it is possible to change the topography of a debate.

Consideration of the ‘openings’ in systems of knowledge might be one way in which to encourage such creative remapping. What this ‘openendedness’ signals is not doubt about the scientific validity of climate change, but that within the predictive maps we make there must be models that incorporate open-ended knowledges and practices.

As the material mobilities of coal and ice ‘hasten’ in their interdependence, it becomes important to consider how those blind spots in our visible relations may ‘open’ onto potentially generative forms of awareness. Recognising these creative opportunities, we might practice forms of response to these ambiguities and develop an art of responsibility towards the uncertain futures that abrupt climate change promises.

This article was part of the OU / New Economics Foundation event - Interdependence Day - held in July 2006.





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