It’s been a little over four months since I flew home from a 10-day trip to England. My very first! I attended an interdisciplinary conference at Oxford on “Religion, Women and History” (and noted the ironic lack of Oxford comma in the title), developed satisfactory left-hand lane driving skills (with stick shift and without destroying the clutch), toured special places I’d long dreamed of visiting (Ah, Kelmscott! I love you even more, William Morris), discovered the delights of “a pitcher of Pimm’s with all the trims,” and enjoyed an all-around good time. The British are delightully polite, witty, friendly people. Old Oxford feels like an academic’s paradise: fortunate are they whom the gods have favored with full-time study or employment there. I would go back to Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds in a heartbeat. If only.
Even flying, which I generally dislike, was tolerable because the airline’s route to London took us north, over other places I had never before seen: far north into Canada, over Hudson’s Bay and the southern tip of Greenland, skirting the northern coast of Ireland, before landing at Gatwick. Sunset on the way to England lingered for what seemed like hours, a tight band of vivid red light hugging the northern horizon. Regrettably, the flight attendant demanded “Shade down!” so that other passengers could have darkness for sleeping. Spoil sports.
Thus, I missed seeing Greenland as we flew over during the early, early morning hours. Going home on a morning departure from Gatwick, however, provided the perfect midday opportunity to study the glaciers. Good old iPhone recorded some stunning landscapes despite the pitted glass of the airplane window. This image, in particular, continues to haunt me.
You are seeing, in the foreground, a small section of the southeast shore. Barren rock has been exposed near the water, as well as further back where the ice’s bright white appearance suggests the glacier remains thick/deep there. The ice seen along the top and right edges of the water is different, slushy gray, and a careful eye can find the innumerable bright blue puddles formed in the slush’s wrinkles and crevices at the image’s lower-right corner. Perhaps more troubling, three distinct sets of flow lines reveal where ice melt from the bright-white areas is seeping through the slush to the bay. How wide do you think each water flow is on the ground, given that the photo was taken at 35,000 feet of elevation? How many gallons of fresh water might be running off the glacier, into the North Atlantic Ocean?
These are but intellectual questions. What haunts me are the personal conundrums presented by the act of discovering glacial melt and global warming from the privileged perspective provided by a jet-fueled Airbus. Was my epiphany worth my share of the billions of greenhouse gas molecules this passenger jet spewed into the atmosphere? The point is not that I could have, should have taken advantage of the guilt-greening market mechanism—buy “carbon offset credits”—that airlines and other carbon-intensive industries offer their consumers. A “better than nothing” trade in feel-good carbon credits dodges the real issue: How much longer can our planet tolerate our fossil-fuel fueled mobility? Cutting closer to the bone, now that I have seen the environmental effects of my life-style choices, what can I do to reduce my carbon burden? I had hoped to do more world traveling after retiring from teaching, but now, it seems, this recent trip to England must remain my farthest and last international trip. What, then, of my twice-yearly flights between Las Vegas and the US East Coast to visit my aging parents and other family members? The geophysics of climate change care not that I have these emotional attachments nor that, 30 years ago, I chose to move away from “home” because I believed I could always visit whenever I wanted. When 19th-century pioneers dragged their futures in Conestoga wagons across a wild continent, they accepted that they were, in fact, severing familial ties with those left behind. Can I live with the compromise of abandoning siblings and cousins after my parents die? Can I, instead, expect Amtrak to save my future Thanksgivings and Easters by building a transcontinental mag-lev train system? In my lifetime?
Dear thoughtful Reader, you must know that my questioning does not end here, but this blog post must. I have no answers, and I must weep.