Melting Glaciers And The End Of Civilization

These are the days of grim warnings about climate change, about an overheated, crowded, polluted planet, slowly cooking in a noxious stew of greenhouse gases, its rivers and oceans clogged with plastic and crude oil, its animals dying, its cities drowning, as floods and famine and hurricane and arctic freezes deliver blow after blow to its staggering frame, bringing it slowly to its knees, to an undignified and premature death.

I have become used to these warnings, to the visions of catastrophe and desolation they induce. Rather, my imagination has tried and failed to reckon with the dimensions of the disaster that is supposedly foretold.  It has retreated to lesser challenges, to conceptualizing and grasping situations more easily brought within its confines.

There are times though, when the evidence for climate change strikes the right chords, when its associated images stand out, brighter and starker than ever. A few days ago, as I watched a documentary on the Alps, I learned once again about the phenomenon of The Receding Glacier: that sad, familiar tale of how these mighty rivers of ice, which once filled valleys and crept up their walls with their accumulated mass, dragging millions of tons of ice, mud, rock, and assorted debris hundreds of miles, forming striated bands of grey, black, and white visible from space, before terminating in lakes and bays and calving off into icebergs. were now melting, drying, and receding, becoming diminished and marginal and pathetic versions of themselves, forced back up the valleys that held them, slowly threatening to disappear, leaving behind scars and tracks of their once mighty presence.

I had heard this all before. It was happening in the Himalayas, in the Andes, in the Rockies. Every mighty mountain range on this globe was diminished. But that was not all.

As I watched the mouth of a glacier give birth to a small stream, which thanks to all the tributaries from other melting points joining it slowly turned into a mighty, frothy cataract speeding down one rapid after other, bringing life and seed and color to mountaintop and meadow and down-valley field, I realized what had happened. The glacier had given birth to a river, one which would become grand and ponderous, heading for its flood plains and delta flats before flowing into the ocean. On the way, it would play its part in sustaining the human communities it made its way through.

And those communities and lives and cultures would be the first ones to go when the rivers that had so animated their regions, watered and fed them and brought them to life, would die once the glaciers and the snowpacks that gave birth to them, and which resupplied them every year, would dry up and vanish. Somehow, I had not realized, when listening to stories of receding glaciers, that I was also being told about rivers drying up. It was only then, when I made the leap from rivers to cities that I also made the most uncomfortable connection of all: the end of glaciers sounded like the end of civilization. 

 

On Almost Drowning

I’ve almost drowned twice. Once during the whitewater rafting trip I described here a while ago. The other occasion came many years before, on a school trip in India, close to a river known for its fearsome flooding, for the toll it often extracts when its swollen waters disdain its banks and make their way over the neighboring lands: the Teesta.

In my high-school sophomore year–the tenth grade–I traveled to Kalijora in West Bengal on a schoolboy expedition. We were to spend a weekend in a forest service bungalow, swimming in the local rivers, hiking through the forests nearby, cooking our own food. It would be three days of blessed relief from school discipline and regulation.

When our bus dropped us off at our digs, close by the Teesta, situated on a cliff next to its banks, we stopped to stare at it in some awe. The summer rains had turned it into a beast. Readers of George Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire will be able to imagine what we saw if they remember this passage from A Storm of Swords when the Hound, Sandor Clegane and Arya Stark are confronted by the river Arya takes to be the Blackwater Rush – on their way to Walder Frey‘s castle:

The tops of half a hundred trees poked up out of the swirling waters, their limbs clutching for the sky like the arms of drowning men. Thick mats of sodden leaves choked the shoreline, and farther out in the channel she glimpsed something pale and swollen, a deer or perhaps  a dead horse, moving swiftly downstream. There was  a sound too, a low rumble at the edge of hearing, like the sound a dog makes just before she growls.

Years later, when I would see the Cheat River–in flood–in West Virginia during the rafting trip I described in the post linked to above, I thought of the Teesta again.

The Teesta was fed by a tamer tributary that ran below our bungalow; our plan was to use its considerably more inviting waters for our aquatic escapades. We strung up two ropes across its banks, separated by about fifty yards or so; our hope was that anyone knocked off his feet and carried downstream would be able to use the ropes to arrest his otherwise swift passage to a watery death. We stayed above the first rope; we had two shots at being rescued.

Those ropes saved my life. On the first afternoon, rather foolishly, long after my mates had gone left the tributary and climbed back up the rocky flight of steps to our kitchen for a cup of tea, I stayed on, swimming and wading, reluctant to leave its cool waters for the all-enveloping muggy heat that awaited me once I stepped out from them.

And then, suddenly, I was tumbling. I was knocked off my feet and carried downstream in a flash. As I frantically tried to regain my balance to stop being washed out to the frighteningly visible Teesta, I stuck my hand up, and miraculously grabbed the second of the two lifelines.

The tributary’s current was fast, and my body was now strung out, my legs ahead of me, with my arm hanging on to the rope for dear life. I could not stand up; I could not pull myself back up over the rope to get my head and torso out of the water. I felt water flowing over my head and down again. I could raise my head if I tried and when I did so, I would catch a glimpse again of the Teesta’s brown, furious, roiling waters. They might have been a hundred yards away but they felt frighteningly proximal. I might have shouted a couple of times but to no avail. No one was around; I was alone. If I was washed out to the Teesta, it would be a while before my absence would be noted; I doubted my body would ever be found.

I don’t know how long I stayed in that position; it could not have been too long for I surely would have been exhausted and let go. But somehow, I rolled over and pulled hard on the rope to become upright. Incredibly enough, I found a foothold nearby from which I pushed off into slightly calmer waters, from where I made for shore.

Exhausted and beat up, I walked quietly back up for my tea. No one asked me where I had been; I hadn’t been away that long.

It had felt like a lifetime though.