WE ARE MELTING, like the Wicked Witch of the West. Soon there will be nothing left of us but our hat. From Chile to Alaska to Norway to Tibet, glaciers are going in reverse. Artifacts buried since the Stone Age emerge intact from the ice; in British Columbia, sheep hunters passing a glacier find protruding from it a prehistoric man, preserved even to his skin, his leather food-pouch, and his fur cloak. All across the north, permafrost stops being perma-. In the Antarctic, some penguin populations decline. In Hudson Bay, ice appears later in the year and leaves earlier, giving polar bears less time to go out on it and hunt seals, causing them to be 10 percent thinner than they were 20 years ago, causing them to get into more trouble in the Hudson Bay town of Churchill, where (as it happens) summers are now twice as long. One day in August of 2000 an icebreaker goes to the North Pole and finds not ice, but open ocean. The news is no surprise to scientists, who knew that the remote Arctic in summer has lots of ice-free areas. For the rest of us, a disorienting adjustment of the geography of Christmas is required.
Globally, there's a persistent trickling as enormities of ice unfreeze. The Greenland ice sheet loses 13 trillion gallons of fresh water a year, contributing a measurable percentage to the world's annual sea-level rise. Every year, the level of the sea goes up about the thickness of a dime. Other meltwater, and the warming of the planet, which causes water to expand, contribute too. A dime's thickness a year doesn't worry most people, so long as it doesn't get worse, which most scientists don't think it necessarily will any time soon, though who can say for sure? The first nation to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change is the island of Fiji, one eye on the Pacific lapping at its toes.
And every year, first attracting notice in the seventies, picking up speed in the steamy eighties and steamier nineties, giant icebergs begin splashing into the news. Usually they arrive in single-column stories on an inside page: "An iceberg twice as big as Rhode Island has broken away from Antarctica and is drifting in the Ross SeaÉIt is about 25 miles wide and 98 miles long." "The largest iceberg in a decade has broken off an ice shelf in AntarcticaÉas if Delaware suddenly weighed anchor and put out to sea."
Over the years, a number of Rhode Islands and Delawares of ice, and even a Connecticut, drift into type and out again. The more notable ones are sometimes called "celebrity icebergs," and in the cold Southern Ocean (all the biggest icebergs are from Antarctica) an occasional berg has a longevity in the spotlight that a human celebrity could envy. Iceberg C-2—as scientists labeled it—drifts for 12 years and 5,700 miles, nearly circumnavigating Antarctica, before breaking into pieces of non-newsworthy size.
Glaciologists say there's probably no connection between global climate change and the increase in the numbers of big Antarctic icebergs. They say the ice shelves at the edge of the continent, from which these icebergs come, have grown out and shrunk back countless times in the past. Our awareness of the icebergs has mainly to do with satellite technology that allows us to see them as we never could before. Still, when you've recently been through the hottest year of the past six centuries, and suddenly there's a 2,700-square-mile iceberg on the loose—well, people talk.
IN RECENT TIMES I did a lot of reading about icebergs, some of it at the library of a western university where the air outdoors was so full of smoke from forest fires that people were going around in gas masks. To the old question of whether we will end in fire or ice, the answer now seems to be: both. Fire's photogenic, media-friendly qualities may cause us sometimes to overlook its counterpart and to forget the spectacular entrance ice made onto the modern apocalyptic scene just 90 years ago. Ice plus the Titanic spawned nightmares of disaster that never seem to fade. There was a song people used to sing about the Titanic, part of which went:
It was on her maiden trip
When an iceberg hit the ship...
Of course, the iceberg didn't hit the ship, but the other way around. So forcefully did the iceberg enter our consciousness, however, we assume it must have meant to. Looming unannounced from the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912, it crashed the swells' high-society ball, discomfiting Mrs. Astor, leaving its calling card in the form of a cascade of ice on the starboard well deck, slitting the hull fatally 20 feet below the waterline, and then disappearing into the night. In an instant this "Shape of Ice," as the poet Thomas Hardy called it, had become more famous than all the celebrities on board. In its dreadful individuality, it had become The Iceberg.
An inflatable toy version of it is sitting on my desk. It came with a Titanic bath toy some friends gave my children a while ago. The inflatable iceberg is roughly pyramidal, with three peaks—two of them small, and a larger one in the middle. Whoever designed the toy must have seen the widely published photograph supposedly showing The Iceberg, or perhaps saw a cinematic iceberg based on the photo. Hours after the sinking, observers on a German ship reported an iceberg of this shape near the scene, and one of them took the famous photo. Two weeks later, another transatlantic steamer said it saw a different-looking iceberg surrounded by deck chairs, cushions, and other debris in a location where The Iceberg could have drifted. As is the case with many suspects, no positive identification could ever be made.