Book review: In sobering detail, Porter Fox describes the destruction wrought by climate change

At the corner of Boyd and Fox streets in Portland, a mural depicts a classic winter landscape with the message, in large letters formed by chunks of ice: STAY POSITIVE. It was a useful, if fortuitous, warning as I came to the end of Porter Fox’s book on climate change, “The Last Winter.” In the face of the terrifying statistics he cites page after page, positivity, if not optimism, is the only way.

Think of climate change in terms of seasons, a leading glaciologist tells Fox. Summer overtakes winter; spring is coming earlier and earlier, permanently shrinking the cryosphere, that world of mountain glaciers and continental ice caps. This is what drew the attention of the author, a lifelong skier, to the terrible threat of global warming.

Fox, who grew up on Mount Desert Island, is a travel writer who traced the Canada-US border in his previous book, Northland; his main reference for tackling this terrible subject is his passion for winter sports, reinforced by his ability to find an intriguing cast of characters “studying what the earth will look like when winter is over”. He enthusiastically tracks them down as he continues the story “from wildfires to disappearing snow to a warming planet”. At the same time, it traces the decisive influence of ice and its fluctuations on the history of the world from the beginning.

It begins in the North Cascades, following the massive wildfire known as the Carlton Complex Fire. A rancher gives him a detailed account of losing his home, then complains that the media is trying to link the growing number of fires in the West to “fucking climate change”. The Pacific Northwest won’t have any glaciers in a hundred years, says a researcher working on an already retreating glacier. The snow is like a reservoir in the mountains; without it, forests dry up, fires spread and 40% of the West is heading towards desertification. Reflecting on all of this on his flight home, Fox writes, rather fondly, “Then I reached the screen and looked for a movie, a football game, a comedy, any possible distraction.”

Halfway through the book, Fox describes the author’s “black hole,” where “the meat of the story…is such a hodgepodge” of ideas and research that he despairs of putting it all together. The rescue comes in the form of a hard-fought interview at the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) in Zurich, Switzerland. It might not be a coincidence, that’s about when “The Last Winter” really takes off.

On a large flat screen, WGMS Director Michael Zemp keeps an eye on the planet’s ice inventory, “blobs of magenta and white” on a largely green and blue world map. The cryosphere faces a triple climate change: warming is faster at higher altitudes, at higher latitudes and in winter. In many places, the transition from winter snow to rain, from white to brown peaks, will be far from major population centers, and there will be no “mass protests”.

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Switzerland is different. It is defined by the Alps and is the most densely populated mountain region. The consequences of alpine snow loss are being felt across Europe in all sorts of fascinating ways. One of the most curious – and potentially deadly for the villages below – comes from the fact that many peaks in the Alps are cemented by permafrost and are at risk of collapsing as the temperature rises.

At a conference in Bern, Fox observes “the slowness of science trying to catch up with the rapid pace of climate change”. And, “with the end of winter in sight”, he visits “The Lost and Found Memories Office”, an exhibition intended to commemorate the short but romantic history of winter sports in the Alps.

Skiing a 25-mile circle in the Italian Dolomites with a talented Italian mountaineer offers many opportunities for history, from the Little Ice Age to the elite Italian Alpini regiment in World War I.

His last expedition is to Greenland with a Royal Marine Commando and three Inuit fighters. Here, Fox excels in his descriptions of landscape and light. “Night (in the Arctic) is a beyond of ghostly shapes and distant sounds, like opening your eyes underwater.”

The end of his quest comes suddenly with a text message: GET HOME NOW. While enjoying Greenland’s white trash, COVID-19 began to strangle the world, and the president had just closed the country’s borders. It’s a fitting ending, trading one global catastrophe for another, though “not as harsh as the end of winter will be.” Unless the nations of the world take climate change seriously and act quickly, our civilization will die with it.

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Thomas Urquhart is the author of “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands”.


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