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Tue Feb 7, 02023, 12:30AM UTC

Catherine Walker and Marissa Grunes

Antarctic Ice: Report to the Future

Antarctic Ice:  Report to the Future

A Long Now Boston Conversation exploring the timeless mystery of Antarctic ice, and its possible demise, with writer and historian Dr. Marissa Grunes, currently living at McMurdo Station, Antarctica, and special guest Dr. Catherine Walker (WHOI).

The magic and mystery of Antarctic Ice was brought to life for Long Now Boston members and guests in a spellbinding presentation by Dr. Marissa Grunes, broadcasting from McMurdo Base in Antarctica, with special guest Catherine Walker of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  

Dr. Catherine Walker is a Glaciologist and Planetary Scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution working on polar, ocean and planetary exploration. Catherine saw Apollo 13 when she was 10 years old and decided to be an astronaut, a goal which she has not yet given up. She received a Bachelor's degree in Astronomy (and a minor in Earth Sciences) from Mount Holyoke College, and a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Oceanic and Space Sciences from the University of Michigan. As a postdoctoral scholar at Georgia Tech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Catherine studied ice-ocean interactions on Earth and across the many Ocean Worlds of the solar system. At WHOI, she continues her work to understand these extreme environments using satellites and work in the field, most recently diving to the seafloor in the Human-Occupied Vehicle (HOV) Alvin in 2022.

Catherine Walker
Catherine Walker

Dr. Marissa Grunes is a literary scholar and science writer currently living at McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica. She earned a PhD in English Literature from Harvard University in 2019 and has held postdoctoral fellowships from several institutions, most recently the Center for Public Humanities at Arizona State University. Her articles on the cultural and environmental history of Antarctica have appeared in The Paris Review, Atlas Obscura, Nautilus, The Boston Review, and elsewhere.

Marissa Grunes
Marissa Grunes


The Conversation

The magic and mystery of Antarctic Ice was brought to life for Long Now Boston members and guests in a spellbinding presentation by Dr. Marissa Grunes, broadcasting from McMurdo Base in Antarctica, with special guest Catherine Walker of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  The crowd, estimated at more than 100, included guests from around the US including California and Alaska, and on the National Geographic ship Endurance travelling through the Ross Sea enroute to McMurdo.

The Long Now Boston relationship with Marissa Grunes began in August 02022 after her Boston Review article Endless Ice.  What captured the attention of Long Now Board member George Gantz was the way Marissa explores various perspectives - history - poetry - art - science - to bring a deeper understanding to the reality that is Antarctica.  Fortuitously, Marissa was accepted for an assignment at McMurdo Station this season, fulfilling her dream to visit the frozen continent and providing Long Now Boston with the opportunity of visiting Antarctica through a virtual Conversation Event.

The event opened with a video, written and produced by Marissa and colleagues for Nautilus magazine, featuring reflections and images inspired by Herman Melville’s poem, The Berg (A Dream) (1888).  Marissa also provided a guided photo tour of life at McMurdo and highlights of the austere and beautiful Antarctic landscape.

Other recent articles by Marissa were discussed during the session, including her interview in Nautilusmagazine, and a stunning article in Hakai Journal highlighting the latest findings on the “Doomsday Glacier” (the Thwaites) that anchors the entire East Antarctic ice sheet.  Research now shows that warmer water entering the Pine Island sound has been undermining the deep ocean floor foundation of the Thwaites, a trend which could lead to its collapse.  Estimates suggest that losing the Thwaites and the accompanying East Antarctic ice sheet could raise ocean levels worldwide by over three meters – almost 10 feet.  Coastlines around the globe would be radically altered.

Planetary Ice

Catherine Woods of Woods Hole also joined the conversation, offering insights from the broader perspective of her work on planetary ice, a feature that now seems common both in our solar system and likely in many of the billion planetary systems in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond.  As unusual as it may seem, the first material to be harvested from asteroids (according to Long Now Boston speaker Martin Elvis – see Asteroid Futures) is likely to be water.  Catherine added that the same can be said for mining on the Moon.

While talk of the Doomsday glacier raises fears of impending calamity, Catherine pointed out that timescales matter a great deal.  We know that the Earth experienced relatively ice-free periods in the past, and the science has suggested it is a relative certainty that Thwaites will break up.  But the certainty is rooted in a glacial / geological time frame of thousands or tens of thousands of years.  Human timeframes are something quite different, and the incredible complexity and relatively slower timeframes for glacial evolution make it impossible to know what the short term conditions for the Thwaites.  In fact, the latest data suggests additional snow accumulations are no taking place for the region, temporarily halting the overall trend.

for perception and for Long Now Boston

The Importance of Communication

The extended conversation with Marissa and Catherine, which included questions and observations from the audience, covered a wide range of topics.  One theme that emerged is the importance of good communication on matters of global interest, including the fate of Earth’s planetary ice.  It is tempting to promote hysteria in an effort to motivate changes in human behavior, but this can generate a counterproductive sense of helplessness or panic.  The fact is that people do respond to good information and to practical opportunities to make changes.  They also respond to specific stories that ground the science in things that people can relate to.  Scientists can do better – but so can everyone who writes about these issues, and to those who talk about these issues with friends and family.

That said, the single most important global change necessary to halt human-induced global climate change is a reduction and eventual elimination of fossils being burned as fuels.

Long Now Boston thanks Marissa and Catherine for a delightful and educational evening.

Event Summary

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