Some Xmas Reading: Wadhams, Peter. A Farewell to Ice (Allen Lane, 2016)


Peter Wadhams’ book title is a play on words from the famous Hemingway novel, as also is the last chapter of the book ‘A Call to Arms’. Wadhams is an ice expert who has spent his whole life studying ice and has made more than 50 trips to (and in the case of the Arctic, under) our polar regions.  He has been warning for some time that a summer ice free arctic ocean is approaching rapidly and is critical of the conservative ‘consensus’ projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that predict this event may not occur until 2100.  According to Wadhams this event is imminent.

In his one mathematical formula in the book Wadhams calculates the ‘equilibrium temperature’ of the earth without the greenhouse effect at -18C making the earth a ball of ice with no life possible as we know it. He then identifies carbon dioxide as the ‘villainous molecule’ in the greenhouse effect and noted “adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere inevitably causes a temperature rise.  And the more you add, the greater the temperature rise.” (p.52) As we have noted in this column many times previously Arrhenious produced the first theory and calculations of increasing carbon dioxide on the earth’s temperatures in the 1890s. The steadily rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been measured at Mauna Loa and Cape Grim for more than 50 years and is now above 400ppm and well above the pre-industrial level of 280ppm.

After examining the warming evidence Wadhams identifies a number of ‘tipping points’ in the Arctic that could lead to catastrophic warming. The overused term ‘tipping point’ has been defined by Wadhams: “the tipping point occurs when a system which has been stressed beyond a certain level does not return to its original state when that stress is removed but migrates to a new state.” (p.85) He uses the analogy of stretching and overloading a wire spring (another analogy by a friend suggests slowly pushing a full wine glass away from you until it suddenly overbalances and crashes). Of the number of tipping points Wadhams identifies he singles out two – the albedo affect and methane hydrates – with runaway ‘feedback’ consequences that, if unchecked, will be catastrophic. The tipping point to save the summer arctic ice, he notes, is well past.

In the ‘Call to Arms’ chapter Wadhams pessimistically examines a number of options including geoengineering, but makes a call for the improvement of climate science. He also calls on readers to condemn what he call the ‘black tide of denial’ of the climate sceptics.  He notes that their “insidious opposition to taking action on climate change is now being fomented by well financed groups of malevolent people and organizations. These organizations focus on planting stories in the media and persuading timid or ignorant politicians that we cannot afford to do anything about global warming, even if it actually exists”(p.199) – a position we well understand here in Oz. A Farewell to Ice is easy reading, has colour plates of maps, diagrams and photos, illustrating various aspects of the text. It should be great Xmas reading or perhaps could be a present for your favourite climate change denying uncle or politician.