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Climate Change Can Also Transform Language


gingerbread80

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gingerbread80

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Language bends and buckles under pressure of climate change. Take the adjective “glacial.” I recently came across an old draft of my PhD dissertation on which my advisor had scrawled the rebuke: ‘You’re proceeding at a glacial pace. You’re skating on thin ice.’ That was in 1988, the year that the climatologist James Hansen testified before the United States Senate that runaway greenhouse gases posed a planetary threat.

 

If I repeated my advisor’s admonition on a dissertation today, the student might assume that I was rebuking them for writing too darn fast. Across all seven continents glaciers are receding at speed. Over a four-year span, Greenland’s ice cap shed 1 trillion tons of ice. Some geologists expect the Glacier National Park in Montana to lose the last of its glaciers around 2033, just as the equatorial glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro are also set to disappear. An Icelandic glaciologist calculates that by the end of the next century Iceland will be stripped of ice.

 

Are we moving toward a time when tourists will visit Montana’s National Park Formerly Known as Glacier? When students will read Hemingway’s story ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (1936) not as realism but as science fiction? And when Reykjavik will be the capital of DeIcedland?

 

This shift reminds us that dead metaphors aren’t always terminally dead. Sometimes they’re just hibernating, only to stagger back to life, dazed and confused, blinking at the altered world that has roused them from their slumber. (Dead metaphor is itself a dead metaphor, but we can no longer feel the mortality in the figure of speech.)

 

During the Little Ice Age, which stretched from the 14th to the 19th century, the median Northern Hemisphere winter was significantly colder than it is today. Glaciers more often advanced than retreated, sometimes wiping out communities as they moved. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Mont Blanc’ (1817) captures the menacing aura that adhered to those frozen rivers of ice:

… The glaciers creep
Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
Slow rolling on …
in scorn of mortal power

Shelley saw glaciers as predatory, immortal forces, eternal beings, before whose might mere humans quaked. But global warming has flipped that perception. We are now more likely to view glaciers as casualties of humanity’s outsize, planet-altering powers.

 

Glaciers in the 21st century constitute an unfrozen hazard, as receding glaciers and ice packs push ocean levels higher. Just as alarming as the big thaw’s impact on sea rise is its impact on the security of our freshwater reserves. For glaciers serve as fragile, frigid reservoirs holding irreplaceable water: 47 per cent of humanity depends on water stored as seasonally replenished ice that flows from the Himalayas and Tibet alone.

 

From the Himalayas to the Alps and the Andes, glacial retreat is uncovering the boots and bones of long-lost mountaineers. But such discoveries involve a haunting, double revelation: each reclaimed climber reminds us of the glacier’s own vanishing. Siachen Glacier, where Indian and Pakistani troops have battled intermittently since 1984, is, for Arundhati Roy, the “most appropriate metaphor for the insanity of our times.” The melting glacier is coughing up “empty artillery shells, empty fuel drums, ice axes, old boots, tents and every other kind of waste that thousands of warring human beings generate.” This ghostly military detritus is being made visible by a more consequential war, humanity’s war against the planet that sustains us, a war that has left the Siachen Glacier grievously wounded.


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