Another melancholy gathering of climate scientists presented evidence this month that the Antarctic ice shelf is melting - a prospect difficult to imagine a decade ago. Not to be upstaged, climate change skeptics also held a conference in Britain, arguing that the dangers of climate change had been grossly exaggerated.
It may be many years before we know exactly what is happening right now to our planet's climate, and why. But after traveling extensively through the planet's northernmost regions, it seems clear to me that our sense of our power over the natural world has changed forever.
I journeyed from Scotland through Norway, Iceland, Greenland and to Svalbard, mostly in search of the land of Thule - the most northerly place of the ancient world. Thule was an early traveler's yarn, a tall tale about a northern land near a frozen ocean, draped in mist. In the fourth century BC, Pytheas the Greek claimed to have seen it. But his account was lost, and Thule was never identified with any certainty again.
From Pliny to Pope to Edgar Allen Poe, from Strabo to Shelley to Charlotte Brontë, Thule was used to evoke the pallor and purity of the ice, the mysteries of the far north. Columbus claimed he had found Thule, as did the British explorer Richard Burton and the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen.
In modern times, the legend of Thule has given way to a complex story. In the 20th century the most northerly places were mapped by explorers with sledges and planes. The far north became a battlefield during World War II, and in the 1950s the U.S. Air Force established Thule Air Base in northern Greenland, so that bombers could fly across the North Pole to Moscow. The Arctic Ocean became a dumping ground for the nuclear pollution of the Russian Northern Fleet.
Now there are tours running across the far north, cruises along the coasts of Greenland, voyages to Arctic archipelagos. You can fly to the North Pole for champagne on the ancient ice. For all of this, the Arctic wilderness is still beautiful, breathtaking in its vastness. But as I traveled through it, I realized that something fundamental is changing in our relation to the world's frozen places.
In early times, the far north was imagined as a place lying between the worlds of gods and men. Herodotus wrote about the Hyperboreans, an immortal tribe living beyond the north wind, supping with the gods, inviting Apollo round for a dance and dinner. Thule was a land beyond the reach of humans, a place entwined with the outlandish - unipeds, the seven sleepers, a great whirlpool at the Pole, the ocean's navel.
Even the modern explorers, as they struggled across the ice, knew that nature was formidable, that they could do nothing to change the laws of frost and snow. Some of their best ideas were about submitting to the forces of nature - allowing their ships to become trapped in the ice that drifts around the Pole, hoping they would be drawn northward.
Now humans can fundamentally alter the balance of elements, thaw an ice shelf or two, set in progress a chain of reactions that will melt the frozen ocean. We can't stop the reactions once they begin, but we can definitely start them. All the remoteness of the far north can't save it from a shift in global temperature.
The scientists make one sort of argument, about the physical effects and their practical consequences. This is necessary and important. But as I journeyed through the frozen north, I encountered something less tangible, something about our guardianship of the dreams of successive civilizations, the myths of our planet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams, that sort of thing.
There can be no more significant symbol of the loss of Thule - and all the dreams that came with it, all the beauty and strangeness - than the melting of the polar ice. It might be speculation, to be disproved at a later stage; the forecasts of these climate scientists might be mocked by later generations as one more theory of the ignorant. The question that kept running through my head as I wandered through the north, sifting the ideals of lost civilizations, was how we could be so crazy as to risk it. And I kept imagining a time when the frozen ocean and all the creatures that lived in it would be nothing more than fairy tales, stories from a vanished world.
Joanna Kavenna is the author of the forthcoming book The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule.
© 2005 IHT