David Archer’s The Long Thaw may just have the best symbolic cover graphic of any recent book on climate change: a human fingerprint, 90% submerged in true iceberg fashion, beneath a cloudy sky. One scarcely needs the subtitle—How Humans Are Changing The Next 100,000 Years Of Earth’s Climate.
Archer, an oceanographer and professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, is a master of the “Plain Style”—informal, and given as much to the simple declarative sentence as to the factual. (To take one example, it’s hard to get much pithier than the unadorned statement that “Satellites are expensive.”) He is also very much the verbal architect, carefully structuring his argument, and his book is the stronger for it.
The Long Thaw
The Long Thaw is laid out in three large sections--Present, Past, and Future--working in each case from the relatively immediate to the more distant. Chapters 1 through 3 examine the present, beginning with the scientific basis for the greenhouse effect, examining human climate impacts so far, and laying out the forecast for the next century.
Professor Archer does a good job of addressing common questions about climate and the problems of understanding and forecasting it. For example, in Chapter 1 he addresses the question of how climate can be forecast when accurate weather forecasts are only possible over spans of a few days:
Perhaps this is as good a definition for the word “climate” as any: those aspects of the weather that can be predicted far in the future, in spite of the fact that weather is chaotic.
Another question involves possible alternate explanations for the warming we have experienced over the past three decades. Could some factor other than human activity explain it? Could it be natural?
It is true, says Dr. Archer, that natural factors (“forcings” in the jargon) affect climate now and in the past. However,
The bottom line is that there are no competing theories or models for climate that can explain the climate record but do not predict serious global warming. The range of uncertainty that we have about the real world does not encompass the possibility that there will not be global warming from continued CO2 release.
What does this mean for us? After all, 3-5 degrees C doesn’t seem like a large change. But it would mean that:
The climate in my home city of Chicago is expected to come to resemble that of present-day Texas or Arkansas. . .
Just to illustrate: November 10-11, 2006 in Chicago and Northwestern Arkansas
The past is discussed in Chapters 4 through 7. This portion of the book offers a great deal of information on "paleoclimatology" (the study of ancient climate states.) We learn about the Little Ice Age and Medieval Optimum (often called the “Medieval Warm Period”) of the relatively recent past, go deeper into the more distant past of the Ice Ages, and then, in Chapter 6, learn about geologic climate cycles.
The author tells us that on timescales of 35 million years and more the Earth actually “breathes,” exhaling carbon dioxide from volcanoes and hot springs (many of the latter undersea), and inhaling it from the atmosphere into the oceans and forests--and eventually into the rocky crust, or even the fiery mantle beneath.
Chapter 7 examines the past record from the perspective of its lessons for the present—and gives us some of the most unsettling pages of the work:
. . .the global warming event is not unprecedented in Earth history. Climate changes through the glacial cycles were probably as severe as global warming has the potential to be. The Earth and the biosphere will survive.
Viewed in the same time perspective, however, human civilization is also totally unprecedented in Earth history. Culture. . . arose about 40 thousand years ago, in the depths of the glacial climate. . . Civilized humanity has never seen a climate change as severe as global warming.
Part Three turns to a detailed consideration of future possibilities. Chapter 8 discusses the intricate dance of carbon among air, land, sea, and living creatures, and how this dance might change in a warmer, more CO2-rich future. The fertilization of trees and plankton by CO2 and other chemicals plays a role, and so does the slow interaction of carbon dioxide and calcium carbonate. There are many uncertainties, Professor Archer tells us, but it is clear that the CO2 we release into the atmosphere will affect the climate for millennia.
Chapter 9 explains the issue of ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid, H2CO3; this substance then reacts with calcium carbonate, which is the building block used by many marine organisms to build their shells or exoskeletons. (This includes corals, which are doubly at risk since they are stressed by warming waters as well as the more acidic water.) Past hot episodes may also have involved ocean acidification, and this acidification may be a partial explanation of extinctions that occurred.
Our CO2 acidity storm could be harsher [than] those in the past, because atmospheric CO2 concentration is increasing more quickly.
Partially Bleached Coral
Chapter 10 considers the possibilities for future carbon cycle feedbacks. Currently, the carbon cycle is damping human-induced climate changes, but there are ways in which this could change. In past climate changes, warming temperatures produced increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, unlike today, when humans release CO2 which is partially absorbed by plants and by seawater.
But CO2 release in response to warming could easily happen again, if any of the things acting today as carbon sinks--the oceans, for instance, or the great boreal forests--begin instead to emit CO2 as they warm. For instance, the ocean waters grow less able to hold CO2 as temperatures warm. Permafrost can melt, releasing CO2 or methane, and the massive amounts of methane held as hydrates buried in oceanic sediments could melt and bubble up through the water column to enter the atmosphere.
It is not possible to predict which, if any, of these things will happen, or when. But if they do, it is possible that the warming effect of CO2 could quickly double.
Chapter 11 examines the much discussed issue of sea level rise. Dr. Archer is quite clear that the long-term potential rise is enormous: at least tens of meters. But not so certain is how quickly the ice of Greenland and West Antarctica--which would contribute the greatest share to such a rise--can melt.
The "conventional wisdom" sea level rise prediction is currently for about 1-1.5 meters by 2100. But the “Heinrich events” 30 to 70 thousand years ago saw the Laurentide Ice Sheet (which then covered North America) collapse into “armadas” of icebergs. These melted quickly, raising sea levels “several meters within a few centuries.” We are unable to say whether such events could happen to today’s great ice sheets. But if similar events were to occur in the near, the conservative predictions of the IPCC would be utterly eclipsed--and millions would be in the way of the rising waters. Dr. Archer asks:
Is this possibility a fair trade for cheap and convenient energy in the short term?
Larsen B Collapse (2002), Compared to Rhode Island.
Chapter 12 considers the possibility that we could prevent—or may already have prevented—the next ice age. We are, after all, living in an interglacial period, a respite from the cold of the Great Ice Age that still continues its slow rhythms. It seems from a variety of calculations that this is possible, and that:
. . .humankind has the capacity to overpower the climate impact of Earth’s orbit, taking the reins of the climate system that has operated on Earth for millions of years.
If so, there may be a silver lining to all the clouds we have brewed—though if our descendants don’t survive the chaos of climate change, it may be that other organisms will be the only ones to enjoy the warmth we will have provided for them.
Mauna Loa Observatory--home of the "Keeling Curve" record of CO2 concentrations.
The Long Thaw concludes with an extended epilog which considers “carbon ethics and economics.” Archer lays out the scale of the challenge we face, technologically and economically, in constructing a sustainable future economy. We will need to develop massive sources of clean energy, and deploy many techniques to avoid excessive emission of CO2. These strategies are usually referred to as “stabilization wedges,” because each takes a wedge-shaped piece out of the projected graph of future emissions.
But Archer doesn’t give technology and technique the last word:
Ultimately the question may come down to ethics, rather than economics. . . it didn’t matter whether [slavery] was economically beneficial or costly to give up. It was simply wrong.
The costs and benefits of fossil fuel use are not shared fairly. . . the benefits. . . accrue mostly to the industrialized nations in the temperate latitudes [while] the costs. . . will be paid most dearly in the tropics. . . The benefits to using fossil fuels accrue now and into the coming century until the fuel runs out, while the costs will last for millennia.
Ethics and fairness are a lot to ask of the political process, especially when most of the people affected by the decision. . do not have a voice in the decision. . .
No book can be all things to all people, of course. For some, The Long Thaw may be a little too sober, a little too judicious, a little too plain. As noted above, the language is straightforward, and though the graphs and charts are both apt and informative, they do not attempt to excite. But Archer is, after all, being a scientist. For him, the physical data speaks loudly enough; he does not seem to think that its interpretation is helped by authorial "shouting."
For this reader, his approach works. Perhaps at times the tone seemed a little too directly out of the lecture hall--as in the quip, "I will go out on a limb here and predict that the impacts of this sea level rise will be most noticeable in the low-lying coastal regions." At others, Archer's faith in this reader's ability to read not just the text, but "the facts" themselves, was just a bit too great, leaving this reader wishing for just one more sentence to help clarify the meaning.
Yet any loss on these accounts is more than balanced by the authenticity of "voice." Dr. Archer convinces, not only because he presents solid data; not only because he considers both sides of the question; and not only because he has organized his presentation so clearly. In the end, he convinces by speaking as himself--reasonable, careful, conservative--and concerned.
We believe him when, speaking of the ice core data, he exclaims, "What I as an oceanographer would give for comparable ancient seawater samples!" We believe his carefully listed reasons to believe that humanity has indeed acquired the ability to affect our planet on a grand scale, and not merely developed delusions of grandeur.
And we believe him not least when, at the end of his sober consideration of carbon ethics, he leaves us with an almost gentle wish:
May we use our newfound powers wisely.
Climate Science Books:
Read other reviews by Doc Snow
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You've been lied to. The first decade of the new millennium has been the warmest ever--yet you are being told that the world is cooling. . . Here's part of the story how that lie is told.
- "Fixing Climate": A review
Dr. Wally Broecker is no fan of large bureaucracies, which is why, though he is a grand old man of contemporary climate science, he has never participated in the International Panel on Climate Change...
I loved the book, and I'd love to hear from you, too!
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on February 14, 2019:
You are very gracious!
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 13, 2019:
Thanks Doc, for making it more clear and obvious.
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on February 13, 2019:
Thanks for your, comment, Umesh.
I think the thing to remember about climate change is that it is analogous to smoking and cancer, in that the damage is done before it is perceived. A smoker may have lung cancer or emphysema developing well before the time he or she notices any symptoms--even though they have been ingesting carcinogenic compounds for a long time before that. But when they do notice symptoms, it is of limited help to quit smoking. The damage is done.
Similarly with climate change. We are doing damage now, and have been for many decades. In fact, the intensity of our carbon pollution is still worsening. But, although we are starting to notice some symptoms--where I live, in South Carolina, we have had many record-breaking floods in recent years, which are likely attributable to climate change--there is still time to reduce our carbon pollution and make a meaningful difference to our future.
But not much time. The goal, simply put, is to get to a carbon-neutral society by 2050 at the latest. Many people think that to do that we should be decreasing our global carbon emissions by 2030. Some nations are doing so now, but it is of course harder for developing nations to do that at the same time as they build up their economies.
(Although avoiding some of the more destructive choices made historically is sometimes possible.)
As to a new glaciation, you are right that that would be enormously destructive. But it would be slow, and there is some reason to think that we may have postponed the next glaciation already by the carbon pollution we have put in the atmosphere. If so, that would be a silver lining to the cloud that is climate change--if we as a society survive the 'cloud' itself, that is.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on February 13, 2019:
An excellent summary review of the impending danger of global warming.
Thanks, I enjoyed reading it.
Today we are perceiving global warming as per the data and research done on the geologic past and the correlation of atmospheric CO2 with temperature. So the projections for the future could be very well true.
At the same time we should not forget that there are major events in the nature of catastrophe which can bring such doom day earlier then predicted.
So global warming is a threat in the coming 70-100 years and the major catastrophe and ice ages are another thing which may repeat after thousands of year. It is difficult to predict them and if that happens global warming will be an insignificant phenomena in comparison to those giants.
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on April 06, 2011:
Couldn't agree more, kettyo. Thanks for checking out my take on "The Long Thaw."
kettyo on April 05, 2011:
Very great book. I also recommend Mr. Archer's free publications. They are always fully scientific yet easy to read and understand by non-experts. I also really like the way he always sticks to the facts and make forecast based on all possible evidences and factors counted in. And i never feel him to be neither an alarmist nor a downplayer of the situation. And never i feel any kind of political influence which is the best. This topic is so much influenced by politics and lobbies so it's hard to find material without any hint of it which tries to be loyal only to the truth maximally. Archer's works definitely belong to this small group.
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on May 13, 2010:
Easy to say, noah--but do you have anything to substantiate your assertions?
If by "debunked" you refer to the so-called "Climategate" affair, then I think you are very greatly mistaken. A number of allegations were made; basically they amounted to "Oh, this sounds bad, it PROVES the whole thing is a fraud." In none of those cases was any of the scientific evidence affected--though there was no shortage of ungrounded assertions to the contrary.
As to the IPCC report, it is a widely misunderstood document. (Actually documents, since there have been now four Assessment Reports, each with attendent supplementary material.) The IPCC does not conduct research themselves; they collate and evaluate the relevant published research--peer-reviewed where possible, using published non-peer-reviewed reports where necessary.
Each of the four reports so far summarizes literally thousands of papers. Very few of them have even been responded to, let alone "debunked." The weight of evidence supporting the mainstream science is quite overwhelming--but one has to be willing to look at it.
Are you open-minded enough to do so? Or will you stick to the safe confines of "science" blogs (many of which might better be called "anti-science" blogs, unfortunately) which can be counted upon to do everything possible to reinforce the false complacency you now enjoy?
As to sea level rise, here is what one of the most eminent authorities today, Prof. Cazenave, has to say about it in a recent scientific publication:
noah on May 13, 2010:
The theory of anthropgenic global warming has been pretty much debunked in recent years. Further, the IPCC report on climate change has been exposed as outright fraud. These apocolyptic fears are more millenialist driven than based in science. The seas are not rising. Our ancestors have adapted to much worse with much less technology, and we should focus our energies on real problems.
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on May 11, 2010:
Thanks, Monique--I'll be on the lookout for your next! I've been missing your stuff!
MoniqueAttinger from Georgetown, ON on May 11, 2010:
Doc Snow - a fascinating book review, which has me very interested in the book itself! Thanks for this... And while I haven't been around hubpages much lately, I am back in the saddle and hopefully will be giving you some interesting reading as well! ;-)
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on October 20, 2009:
Thank you, euro-pen! You give me some encouragement that perhaps my photos are an effective enhancement to the basic review, after all.
And thanks, too, for the pointer to the time-lapse film you mention. I'd heard of this, but have yet to see it, so a prompt to check it out is very welcome.
euro-pen from Europe on October 20, 2009:
Very interesting and some awesome photos. There is a film somewhere over in the web showing the retreat of some glaciers based on time-lapsed photos (it is by James Balog if I remember correctly). I guess you might be interested in this film.
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on October 17, 2009:
Thanks for taking a moment to comment! I appreciate it.
I think your point is good--it seems that the book tends to be thought of in terms of the paleoclimate information (and certainly it's very strong in that regard.) But it really does paint a pretty comprehensive picture in many ways.
Deech56 on October 17, 2009:
Doc, very nice review. I read this book a while ago and agree with your assessment. I found the early chapters to be among the clearest explanations of the greenhouse effect and the role of CO2.
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on October 15, 2009:
Thanks, Ralph. It sure gave me a lot of food for thought--which of course was why I wanted to write about it. And thanks for passing it around!
I want to have a look at the Greg Craven book next. From what I've heard, it has a unique approach to the topic, and I'm intrigued to find out more.
Ralph Deeds from Birmingham, Michigan on October 15, 2009:
I agree with David. Fine review of an interesting book. I sent it two of my denier friends.
Doc Snow (author) from Camden, South Carolina on October 14, 2009:
David B. Benson on October 14, 2009: