Billions of years ago, a massive single land mass contained all the continents we know today. Through force of internal pressures such as volcanism, the shove and pull of plate tectonics and the mechanism of sea floor spreading, all the continents we in the world were distributed around the globe.
One of those chunks of land wound up sitting in the northern hemisphere far above the more habitable climates of the earth. That giant spit of land is still mostly covered in ice. But somewhere along the way the human race titled it Greenland in a strange little word game that seems ironic to many.
Thanks to the impact of human-induced global warming through climate change, that sub-continent northeast of North America may one day become the most habitable place on earth. Greenland may one day live up to its literal name while desertification takes over the much hotter beltline of the planet.
Scientists warn that when the icepack currently covering Greenland someday melts, the seas will rise by feet, not inches. That will inundate entire nations and submerge valuable coastline property under less-than-forgiving saltwater. The profiles of our supposedly immutable continental outlines will be radically changed.
It is hard to imagine such events until you actually fly over the land mass of Greenland and see how covered in ice it truly is. This past Sunday our flight back from Munich, Germany took us straight across the snowy guts of Greenland. We were chasing the sunset for six to eight hours, so there was ample time to study the peaks of mountains jutting up from the surface of Greenland. We could see glaciers too, rivers of ice with terminal walls where sediments were dumped.
This is how the Great Lakes were formed in North America. Billions of tons of water was left in the wake of glaciers that once stood a mile high and scoured the earth flat where there had once been hills.
I grew up running on the flatlands of Illinois. But I also attended college in northeast Iowa, a geography known as the Driftless Region. The glaciers left that part of southwest Wisconsin and Iowa alone.
So I have an intimate sense for what ice can do to the surface of the earth. I’ve run thousands of miles across flat Illinois topography and have climbed hills and cross country skied in the Kettle Moraine where terminal glaciers dumped gravel and emptied water down the gullet of the earth. These are evidence of how massive the force of the earth and nature can be.
And human beings tend to forget all that. It is far more convenient and often necessary to live entirely in the present. But that outlook has a price.
We all have a carbon footprint of one kind or another. Yet as I stared down at the surface of Greenland covered in ice and snow, it was hard to imagine it looking like anything else. Yet below that skim of ice and snow are fossils locked in stone that can be traced far back into earth’s history, long before the human race ever existed. That is the Greenland we need to imagine in order to understand the brevity of the human predicament in terms of consumption and sustainability.
The world we live on is both a patient son-of-a-bitch and a chronicle of the discipline dished out by Mother Nature over the ages. Whatever we know of God is a combination of these two things. We had better respect that. Both science and religion tell us that life on this earth is frail.