David Archer's "The Long Thaw": A Summary Review

Reviewed 10/14/09

David Archer’s The Long Thaw may just have the best symbolic cover graphic of any recent book on climate change: a human fingerprint, 90% submerged in true iceberg fashion, beneath a cloudy sky. One scarcely needs the subtitle—How Humans Are Changing The Next 100,000 Years Of Earth’s Climate.

Archer, an oceanographer and professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, is a master of the “Plain Style”—informal, and given as much to the simple declarative sentence as to the factual. (To take one example, it’s hard to get much pithier than the unadorned statement that “Satellites are expensive.”) He is also very much the verbal architect, carefully structuring his argument, and his book is the stronger for it.


Image courtesy Global Warming Art.
Image courtesy Global Warming Art.

The Long Thaw is laid out in three large sections--Present, Past, and Future--working in each case from the relatively immediate to the more distant. Chapters 1 through 3 examine the present, beginning with the scientific basis for the greenhouse effect, examining human climate impacts so far, and laying out the forecast for the next century.

Professor Archer does a good job of addressing common questions about climate and the problems of understanding and forecasting it. For example, in Chapter 1 he addresses the question of how climate can be forecast when accurate weather forecasts are only possible over spans of a few days:

Perhaps this is as good a definition for the word “climate” as any: those aspects of the weather that can be predicted far in the future, in spite of the fact that weather is chaotic.

Weather is chaotic in the mathematical sense that similar conditions can diverge drastically as the system evolves (illustrated in the Wikipedia diagram, above background.)  It can also cause chaos, like this.  (November 6, 2006, near Mt. Rainier.)
Weather is chaotic in the mathematical sense that similar conditions can diverge drastically as the system evolves (illustrated in the Wikipedia diagram, above background.) It can also cause chaos, like this. (November 6, 2006, near Mt. Rainier.)

Another question involves possible alternate explanations for the warming we have experienced over the past three decades. Could some factor other than human activity explain it? Could it be natural?

It is true, says Dr. Archer, that natural factors (“forcings” in the jargon) affect climate now and in the past. However,

The bottom line is that there are no competing theories or models for climate that can explain the climate record but do not predict serious global warming. The range of uncertainty that we have about the real world does not encompass the possibility that there will not be global warming from continued CO2 release.

What does this mean for us? After all, 3-5 degrees C doesn’t seem like a large change. But it would mean that:

The climate in my home city of Chicago is expected to come to resemble that of present-day Texas or Arkansas. . .


Just to illustrate: November 10-11, 2006 in Chicago and Northwestern Arkansas

Danville-Mickles Bridge, Arkansas, on November 11, 2006.  Image courtesy Frederick Garcia.
Danville-Mickles Bridge, Arkansas, on November 11, 2006. Image courtesy Frederick Garcia.
Rock Island-Pacific track near Mickles, AR, November 11, 2006.  Image courtesy Frederick Garcia.
Rock Island-Pacific track near Mickles, AR, November 11, 2006. Image courtesy Frederick Garcia.
Chicago, IL, from space, on November 10, 2006.  Image courtesy Terraprints & Wikipedia.
Chicago, IL, from space, on November 10, 2006. Image courtesy Terraprints & Wikipedia.

The past is discussed in Chapters 4 through 7. This portion of the book offers a great deal of information on "paleoclimatology" (the study of ancient climate states.) We learn about the Little Ice Age and Medieval Optimum (often called the “Medieval Warm Period”) of the relatively recent past, go deeper into the more distant past of the Ice Ages, and then, in Chapter 6, learn about geologic climate cycles.

The author tells us that on timescales of 35 million years and more the Earth actually “breathes,” exhaling carbon dioxide from volcanoes and hot springs (many of the latter undersea), and inhaling it from the atmosphere into the oceans and forests--and eventually into the rocky crust, or even the fiery mantle beneath.

Chapter 7 examines the past record from the perspective of its lessons for the present—and gives us some of the most unsettling pages of the work:

. . .the global warming event is not unprecedented in Earth history. Climate changes through the glacial cycles were probably as severe as global warming has the potential to be. The Earth and the biosphere will survive.

Viewed in the same time perspective, however, human civilization is also totally unprecedented in Earth history. Culture. . . arose about 40 thousand years ago, in the depths of the glacial climate. . . Civilized humanity has never seen a climate change as severe as global warming.

Ice Age Premonition, by George Grie.  Probably not how "culture arose. . . in the depths of the glacial climate."  Image courtesy George Grie and Wikipedia Commons.  More images at: http://www.neosurrealismart.com/
Ice Age Premonition, by George Grie. Probably not how "culture arose. . . in the depths of the glacial climate." Image courtesy George Grie and Wikipedia Commons. More images at: http://www.neosurrealismart.com/

Part Three turns to a detailed consideration of future possibilities. Chapter 8 discusses the intricate dance of carbon among air, land, sea, and living creatures, and how this dance might change in a warmer, more CO2-rich future. The fertilization of trees and plankton by CO2 and other chemicals plays a role, and so does the slow interaction of carbon dioxide and calcium carbonate. There are many uncertainties, Professor Archer tells us, but it is clear that the CO2 we release into the atmosphere will affect the climate for millennia.

Chapter 9 explains the issue of ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid, H2CO3; this substance then reacts with calcium carbonate, which is the building block used by many marine organisms to build their shells or exoskeletons. (This includes corals, which are doubly at risk since they are stressed by warming waters as well as the more acidic water.)  Past hot episodes may also have involved ocean acidification, and this acidification may be a partial explanation of extinctions that occurred.

But ominously:

Our CO2 acidity storm could be harsher [than] those in the past, because atmospheric CO2 concentration is increasing more quickly.

Partially Bleached Coral

 Image courtesy Global Warming Art.
Image courtesy Global Warming Art.

Chapter 10 considers the possibilities for future carbon cycle feedbacks. Currently, the carbon cycle is damping human-induced climate changes, but there are ways in which this could change. In past climate changes, warming temperatures produced increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, unlike today, when humans release CO2 which is partially absorbed by plants and by seawater.

But CO2 release in response to warming could easily happen again, if any of the things acting today as carbon sinks--the oceans, for instance, or the great boreal forests--begin instead to emit CO2 as they warm. For instance, the ocean waters grow less able to hold CO2 as temperatures warm. Permafrost can melt, releasing CO2 or methane, and the massive amounts of methane held as hydrates buried in oceanic sediments could melt and bubble up through the water column to enter the atmosphere.

It is not possible to predict which, if any, of these things will happen, or when. But if they do, it is possible that the warming effect of CO2 could quickly double.

There are few correlations as clear in nature as that in the ice core records between temperature and CO2 levels.  Image courtesy Global Warming Art.
There are few correlations as clear in nature as that in the ice core records between temperature and CO2 levels. Image courtesy Global Warming Art.

Chapter 11 examines the much discussed issue of sea level rise. Dr. Archer is quite clear that the long-term potential rise is enormous: at least tens of meters. But not so certain is how quickly the ice of Greenland and West Antarctica--which would contribute the greatest share to such a rise--can melt.

The "conventional wisdom" sea level rise prediction is currently for about 1-1.5 meters by 2100. But the “Heinrich events” 30 to 70 thousand years ago saw the Laurentide Ice Sheet (which then covered North America) collapse into “armadas” of icebergs. These melted quickly, raising sea levels “several meters within a few centuries.” We are unable to say whether such events could happen to today’s great ice sheets.  But if similar events were to occur in the near, the conservative predictions of the IPCC would be utterly eclipsed--and millions would be in the way of the rising waters.  Dr. Archer asks:

Is this possibility a fair trade for cheap and convenient energy in the short term?

Larsen B Collapse (2002), Compared to Rhode Island.

 Ice shelves do not raise sea level when they melt, but do seem to accelerate the flow of land-bound ice into the sea--one of the "unknowns" of global warming.   Image courtesy Global Warming Art.
Ice shelves do not raise sea level when they melt, but do seem to accelerate the flow of land-bound ice into the sea--one of the "unknowns" of global warming. Image courtesy Global Warming Art.
The ice melted from McCarty Glacier, on the other hand, has contributed its lost mass to the global sea level rise measured over the last century.  Image courtesy Robert Rohde & Global Warming Art.
The ice melted from McCarty Glacier, on the other hand, has contributed its lost mass to the global sea level rise measured over the last century. Image courtesy Robert Rohde & Global Warming Art.

Chapter 12 considers the possibility that we could prevent—or may already have prevented—the next ice age. We are, after all, living in an interglacial period, a respite from the cold of the Great Ice Age that still continues its slow rhythms. It seems from a variety of calculations that this is possible, and that:

. . .humankind has the capacity to overpower the climate impact of Earth’s orbit, taking the reins of the climate system that has operated on Earth for millions of years.

If so, there may be a silver lining to all the clouds we have brewed—though if our descendants don’t survive the chaos of climate change, it may be that other organisms will be the only ones to enjoy the warmth we will have provided for them.

Mauna Loa Observatory--home of the "Keeling Curve" record of CO2 concentrations.

Aerial view of Mauna Loa Observatory.  The high-altitude, isolated location was chosen to facilitate the measurement of "background" CO2 levels.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.
Aerial view of Mauna Loa Observatory. The high-altitude, isolated location was chosen to facilitate the measurement of "background" CO2 levels. Image courtesy Wikipedia.
Solar Observatory domes at Mauna Loa Observatory.  The Solar observatory is a fitting companion to the main atmospheric observatory.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.
Solar Observatory domes at Mauna Loa Observatory. The Solar observatory is a fitting companion to the main atmospheric observatory. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The Long Thaw concludes with an extended epilog which considers “carbon ethics and economics.” Archer lays out the scale of the challenge we face, technologically and economically, in constructing a sustainable future economy. We will need to develop massive sources of clean energy, and deploy many techniques to avoid excessive emission of CO2. These strategies are usually referred to as “stabilization wedges,” because each takes a wedge-shaped piece out of the projected graph of future emissions.

The "Stabilization wedge" strategy involves using multiple available solutions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  See: http://nextbigfuture.com/2006/08/global-climate-stabilization-wedges.html
The "Stabilization wedge" strategy involves using multiple available solutions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. See: http://nextbigfuture.com/2006/08/global-climate-stabilization-wedges.html

But Archer doesn’t give technology and technique the last word:

Ultimately the question may come down to ethics, rather than economics. . . it didn’t matter whether [slavery] was economically beneficial or costly to give up. It was simply wrong.

The costs and benefits of fossil fuel use are not shared fairly. . . the benefits. . . accrue mostly to the industrialized nations in the temperate latitudes [while] the costs. . . will be paid most dearly in the tropics. . . The benefits to using fossil fuels accrue now and into the coming century until the fuel runs out, while the costs will last for millennia.

Ethics and fairness are a lot to ask of the political process, especially when most of the people affected by the decision. . do not have a voice in the decision. . .

The Third World will suffer most as climate warms.  With more extreme rain events likely, and higher sea levels, the future is likely to hold many more scenes such as this image of the 2007 flooding in Bangladesh.  Image courtesy New Nation.
The Third World will suffer most as climate warms. With more extreme rain events likely, and higher sea levels, the future is likely to hold many more scenes such as this image of the 2007 flooding in Bangladesh. Image courtesy New Nation.

No book can be all things to all people, of course. For some, The Long Thaw may be a little too sober, a little too judicious, a little too plain. As noted above, the language is straightforward, and though the graphs and charts are both apt and informative, they do not attempt to excite. But Archer is, after all, being a scientist. For him, the physical data speaks loudly enough; he does not seem to think that its interpretation is helped by authorial "shouting."

For this reader, his approach works. Perhaps at times the tone seemed a little too directly out of the lecture hall--as in the quip, "I will go out on a limb here and predict that the impacts of this sea level rise will be most noticeable in the low-lying coastal regions." At others, Archer's faith in this reader's ability to read not just the text, but "the facts" themselves, was just a bit too great, leaving this reader wishing for just one more sentence to help clarify the meaning.

Yet any loss on these accounts is more than balanced by the authenticity of "voice." Dr. Archer convinces, not only because he presents solid data; not only because he considers both sides of the question; and not only because he has organized his presentation so clearly. In the end, he convinces by speaking as himself--reasonable, careful, conservative--and concerned.

We believe him when, speaking of the ice core data, he exclaims, "What I as an oceanographer would give for comparable ancient seawater samples!" We believe his carefully listed reasons to believe that humanity has indeed acquired the ability to affect our planet on a grand scale, and not merely developed delusions of grandeur.

And we believe him not least when, at the end of his sober consideration of carbon ethics, he leaves us with an almost gentle wish:

May we use our newfound powers wisely.

I loved the book, and I'd love to hear from you, too! 14 comments

David B. Benson 7 years ago

Fine review.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks, David!


Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 7 years ago

I agree with David. Fine review of an interesting book. I sent it two of my denier friends.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks, Ralph. It sure gave me a lot of food for thought--which of course was why I wanted to write about it. And thanks for passing it around!

I want to have a look at the Greg Craven book next. From what I've heard, it has a unique approach to the topic, and I'm intrigued to find out more.


Deech56 7 years ago

Doc, very nice review. I read this book a while ago and agree with your assessment. I found the early chapters to be among the clearest explanations of the greenhouse effect and the role of CO2.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks for taking a moment to comment! I appreciate it.

I think your point is good--it seems that the book tends to be thought of in terms of the paleoclimate information (and certainly it's very strong in that regard.) But it really does paint a pretty comprehensive picture in many ways.


euro-pen profile image

euro-pen 7 years ago from Europe

Very interesting and some awesome photos. There is a film somewhere over in the web showing the retreat of some glaciers based on time-lapsed photos (it is by James Balog if I remember correctly). I guess you might be interested in this film.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thank you, euro-pen! You give me some encouragement that perhaps my photos are an effective enhancement to the basic review, after all.

And thanks, too, for the pointer to the time-lapse film you mention. I'd heard of this, but have yet to see it, so a prompt to check it out is very welcome.


MoniqueAttinger profile image

MoniqueAttinger 6 years ago from Georgetown, ON

Doc Snow - a fascinating book review, which has me very interested in the book itself! Thanks for this... And while I haven't been around hubpages much lately, I am back in the saddle and hopefully will be giving you some interesting reading as well! ;-)


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks, Monique--I'll be on the lookout for your next! I've been missing your stuff!


noah 6 years ago

The theory of anthropgenic global warming has been pretty much debunked in recent years. Further, the IPCC report on climate change has been exposed as outright fraud. These apocolyptic fears are more millenialist driven than based in science. The seas are not rising. Our ancestors have adapted to much worse with much less technology, and we should focus our energies on real problems.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Easy to say, noah--but do you have anything to substantiate your assertions?

If by "debunked" you refer to the so-called "Climategate" affair, then I think you are very greatly mistaken. A number of allegations were made; basically they amounted to "Oh, this sounds bad, it PROVES the whole thing is a fraud." In none of those cases was any of the scientific evidence affected--though there was no shortage of ungrounded assertions to the contrary.

As to the IPCC report, it is a widely misunderstood document. (Actually documents, since there have been now four Assessment Reports, each with attendent supplementary material.) The IPCC does not conduct research themselves; they collate and evaluate the relevant published research--peer-reviewed where possible, using published non-peer-reviewed reports where necessary.

Each of the four reports so far summarizes literally thousands of papers. Very few of them have even been responded to, let alone "debunked." The weight of evidence supporting the mainstream science is quite overwhelming--but one has to be willing to look at it.

Are you open-minded enough to do so? Or will you stick to the safe confines of "science" blogs (many of which might better be called "anti-science" blogs, unfortunately) which can be counted upon to do everything possible to reinforce the false complacency you now enjoy?

As to sea level rise, here is what one of the most eminent authorities today, Prof. Cazenave, has to say about it in a recent scientific publication:

http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.114...


kettyo 5 years ago

Very great book. I also recommend Mr. Archer's free publications. They are always fully scientific yet easy to read and understand by non-experts. I also really like the way he always sticks to the facts and make forecast based on all possible evidences and factors counted in. And i never feel him to be neither an alarmist nor a downplayer of the situation. And never i feel any kind of political influence which is the best. This topic is so much influenced by politics and lobbies so it's hard to find material without any hint of it which tries to be loyal only to the truth maximally. Archer's works definitely belong to this small group.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Couldn't agree more, kettyo. Thanks for checking out my take on "The Long Thaw."

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