Feedback is Hell

“The undiscovered polar regions are the home of men.” Henry David Thoreau, December 16, 1850.

One day in the not-so-distant future, the imaginative hold of the Polar regions will be largely history, melted away into dreams. Zones of purity and terror, the once mysterious Poles obsessed peoples for centuries. Emily Dickinson, for one. She called the back hall in the Homestead “the Northwest Passage,” and was fascinated by the search for the Erebus and Terror, the fatefully-named ships of the doomed Franklin Expedition of 1845. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein begins and ends in the Arctic, as the creature escapes to the northern ice, promising to immolate himself… but I wonder if he had second thoughts? Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym is lost somewhere towards the South Pole… thought by the addled Poester to be the portal into a Hollow Earth. And, more prosaically, I just finished reading the young Arthur Conan Doyle’s diary of an Arctic whaling expedition, grim, gory work — they only managed to kill a few whales, but butchered thousands of seals — in the cold, from which I clipped this image:"Sampson and the Hunchback whale"
Feedback I:
The north is melting. The ice you know about. But tundra and its permafrost is a huge sink of greenhouses gases that, as it thaws, comes alive at the microbial level. This starts the release of carbon dioxide — there’s more than twice the amount in permafrost than currently in the atmosphere — into the planetary greenhouse. And as old organic matter thaws out enough to rot, methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, starts flowing out as well.

As the tundra warms in summer, dwarf birch and willow grow taller, replacing the hardy mosses which once toughed-out the old, harsher winters. During the winter, the now taller trees anchor snow drifts, which insulate the soil below, allowing the microbes to continue their heedless work. These critters can remain active even in freezing temperatures, but the warmer it is for them the better.

Feedback II:
As the ice melts, the race is on to exploit the fossil fuel and mineral resources of the Arctic, as well as to send more carbon-based fuels through both the fabled Northwest Passage and the eastern route (a supertanker full of LNG is making the first trip this way at this moment) to Asia. This all adds up to more fuel on the fire. The gangster regime of Russia, the Chinese dictatorship, the corporate oligarchy of the U.S.; none of these should be expected to do good here as they race in a frenzy towards the end, deranged creatures clawing each other in madness.

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4 Responses to “Feedback is Hell”


  1. 1 quadsailor December 19, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Not to mention those methane hydrates at the “BOTTOM OF THE SEA”! A sea no longer stabilized by solar-radiation-reflecting pack-ice & subject to atmospheric driving and convection…The runaway feedback (methane a VASTLY more potent global warmer) driving the driving ever faster….

    • 2 mthew December 19, 2012 at 2:58 pm

      You’re “driving” makes me think of Zola’s 1890 La Bete Humaine, which ends with a train hurling towards disaster, the engineer and fireman both dead. The train engine was the then height of technological achievement, and Zola unleashes it, full of soldiers heading to the front of the Franco-Prussian War, in a grim warning against modernity’s various madnesses. Heedlessly, our technologies are like this engine, out of control, knocking the equilibrium of the planet to wildly disruptive ends, ends never seen in human history.

  2. 3 Fork in My Eye December 19, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    Ever read The Terror by Dan Simmons? It’s fictionalized account of what happened to the Erebus and Terror. I thought it was excellent though definitely left me wondering what drove men to keep manning expeditions into the Arctic risking slow horrible death death by scurvy, starvation, and exposure.

    • 4 mthew December 19, 2012 at 9:13 pm

      I don’t know that book. Thank you for the recommendation. And as to your larger question, it is a puzzler. Some were quite obsessed. There were several attempts to find the Erebus and Terror, continuing on in that tradition of scurvy, starvation, and exposure. And the cold! The howling cold. See also Nansen, Shackleton, and Oates walking out to freeze to death, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time” so his mates could make it without having to worry about him. They didn’t make it either, froze to death, too.


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