Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Standing on a Glacier

tanding on a glacier is a geographer’s dream. It is rather like stepping through a time portal... not like a door that takes you to another age, but one that allows you to observe the scale of geologic time. The earth is constantly in motion, the landscape churns with activity, but we humans cannot see it, not until you stand on atop a melting ice river, and you know what to look for.

Terminal end of Sólheimajökulsvegur Glacier, Iceland

The terminal end of a glacier is much like I imagined it to be, perhaps not much different that the surface of a comet. There is a lot of grit, in this case, black and grey ground from lava and basalt. Moving ice is eroding the sides of this volcaninc range quite effectively. Streaks and splotches interrupt the deep, dull grey with minerals from broken veins, rusty red, vibrant ocre, and turquoise in color.

An iceberg floats along the far end of a small lake. By the glacier, mounds of till merge with geometric ice forms. Glaciers leave behind an assortment of moraines as they fade, hills of cleaved and scoured boulders, pebbles, sand, silt and clays.  Further up the glacier the ice becomes more apparent.  Most is gritty and white, more typical of summer. A few geometric windows of smooth, aquamarine blue peak out from hidden places, remnant shadows of winter ice.

A guide leading a flock sojourners walk past me. Their climber’s gear speaks of adventure.  My desire to follow is just slightly less compelling than my judgement to heed the signs warning of danger.  Despite an apparent solidity, the ice can shift quickly, brittle crust covers pits and chasms. I can’t help myself, I climb a bit further, so that my feet are perched on what looks like ice rather than the sooty regolith. I watch the hikers, in their spiky crampons, claw their way up through a snaking, black gully and disappear.
Though I have read many scientific articles on climate change and ice dynamics, standing on the glacier teaches me new things. The way great ice melts is surprisingly complex and not fully understood. There may be no issue of greater importance, certainly to people who live along the seas and oceans of this world. The ice is melting. I see that now with greater clarity. There is little room for doubt when the heart and mind insruct as one.

As I gaze upon the sculpured landscape, I can see in my mind's eye slabs of ice on rising landscapes growing thicker and heavier from year to year. Their weight lends power to gravity’s everpresent work on the earth. Below, mounds of corrugated regolith line the valley. They brace the ice firmly into the hill creating formidable barriers. I imagine this struggle between friction and gravity, a crescendo of waves, a cycle of forward and retreat. As I peer into the geologic now, I see other variables are also in play. The temperature warms. It rains. Liquid water finds its way through to the boundary of ground and ice and undermines the force of friction, like the slick blades of an ice skater. The ice river flows, faster still.  Solid converts to liquid. Waters warm. Currents go deeper, melting the ice from below. The glacier gives way, slowly, in stages. It calves into more and larger slices, that melt as they float away. Vast volume of land ice pushes into the oceans. The level rises. It is a self-feeding cycle, a feedback, an epic battle between friction and gravity and it is happening in all the icy places of the earth.

Here, in Sólheimajökulsvegur, Iceland, the river of ice receeds, as is the case in more than 90% of the world’s glaciers. To touch the dying glacier, I had to walk a half mile up the canyon, from a parking area that sat next to the ice thirty years ago. It is a relatively small feature, a thin finger of a much larger sheet of ice nestled between mountains. It will likely melt fully in my lifetime. Nine percent of the planet is still covered by ice, a remnant of the last glacial maximum that occurred roughly about twenty thousand years ago. Many times in the last three million years the seas rise and fall by several hundred feet. Though it generally happens over millenia, there are also rapid pulses, in the scale of decades, when the waters diluge the earth's shores.

I see my son exploring on the edge of the scree and time shifts back this more human scale. It is almost time to go. I press the tips of my fingers against a streak of aquamarine ice shaded from the everpresent rays of the Islandic solstice sun.  I feel the heat of my skin softening the crystal matrix just ever so slightly.
Ice melts in surprising ways, it seems. There are many variables to consider. It is the anthropocene, the age of humanity a new chapter. Standing on a glacier, I see myself and everyone I know as a part of it all.

Friday, March 31, 2017

My own Search for Spock


If you really want to know...

I'm a very flighty person, never satisfied with the view.  I like to explore, look beyond the next hill. That's why I became a geographer. This is particularly true of the mental realm, the landscape of ideas. It's gotten me in trouble.

The problem is, unlike the material world where the ground feels solid beneath me, it didn't take me long to realize the landscape of my mind is quite different. I can simultaneously be situated in completely contrary ideas and not even know it for years.  When I discovered this apparent flaw, I didn't take it well.
Most of my really important finds, have come in stages, like for example, the notion that belief itself has much to do with the physical.  My body, through feelings and emotions, shapes my thoughts in a way that counter what I was taught in school. The physical and mental, are not separate realms, rather they connect through my body. To live and be healthy one needs certain things from the physical world.  Science tells us the human mind developed as an evolutionary strategy to insure those needs are met. My feelings (pleasure, discomfort) and emotions (desire, fear) shape my beliefs far more powerfully than I ever imagined. Yikes!
My initial understanding of the biology of mind made me question many things. Our society, economics, politics, the law, science are based on the premise that we are fundamentally rational beings.  I asked myself, is a search for pleasure and comfort all there is? Is rational free will largely a cruel delusion?
There had to be more to life than a self-serving venture aimed at survival and comfort. I dove head first into religion and spirituality... a search for meaning.  Being quite the science geek, a problem arose right off the top.  I had no idea how to reconcile spirituality and science. My only option was to leave the latter behind and go off half-cocked into the realm of the metaphysical.  I can't tell you how much fun this was - ESP, ghosts, higher beings, and of course, God. I was raised Catholic but because of my flighty nature I had to seek out as many gods as possible. What a wild ride.
In the mental landscape of religion and spirituality there are many countries and many continents. My search began in the capital cities: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc... Not having much luck, I broke orbit and headed for the realm of the occult, spirit healing and ultimately mysticism. Somewhere along the way I rediscovered earth, that is, I began to embrace science again. This time, however, I felt more optimistic that it was possible to bridge the gap, to reconcile science and spirituality.
It has been my own personal search for Spock. Did I mention in all that time I never stopped being a geek? For those of you who don't share that predisposition, Spock's rebirth represents an integration of the logical and the mystical.
At their best, science and mysticism are both transcendent endeavors. Through exploration and the acquisition of knowledge, they take us beyond the self and help us embrace greater realities. They are both ultimately interested in fundamentals, in truths.  Their seeming incompatibilities mostly come from method and the way knowledge has been categorized historically.  Using slightly more erudite lingo, the reductionist/holism paradigm stems from a false dichotomy that established itself in Western thought as science challenged the hegemony of the Church. (please excuse the jargon).
If you want my advice, don't get hung up on the terms god, spirituality, logic, rationality or whatnot. These concepts are like imposed national borders on an integrated biosphere. Their only purpose is to divide for political and administrative reasons.  Like any boundaries, you can't simply ignore them, but I suggest paying at least as much attention to the view of the astronaut gazing at the earth from high above.
And in that spirit, I hope you enjoy this blog, the Wonders of Nature.