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Data on Ice

Martin Siegert

The Ice Chronicles: The Quest to Understand Global Climate Change. Paul Andrew Mayewski and Frank White. xx + 233 pp. University of New Hampshire, published by University Press of New England, 2002. $24.95

The science of climate change is a funny business. Some people (Paul Mayewski, for example) prove it happens, show the impact it has had in the past, and use this information to judge the future. Nonetheless, others (President George W. Bush, for example) remain reluctant to acknowledge the seriousness of what global climate change has meant for society in the past and will mean in the future. There is clearly an information transfer problem.

Mayewski, who led the National Science Foundation's Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2), has made some of the most important discoveries about past weather shifts and has published widely in the scientific literature. The Ice Chronicles is an attempt to get his message across to a broader audience. He and his coauthor, science writer Frank White, cleverly interweave political history and explanations of the underlying science with Mayewski's personal experiences to tell the story of how we have come to know what we do about global climate change.

It becomes obvious early in the book that Mayewski has long reflected on the potential significance of his work. That he regarded the instant when the GISP2 ice core drill on Greenland hit bedrock (on July 1, 1993) as a "historic moment" is testament to this mindset. Mayewski was initially inspired to look for the applied value of his research, he tells us, by a comment an unnamed U.S. Senator made to him in 1970 (Mayewski, then a graduate student, had been selected to show the senator around the Transantarctic Mountains near McMurdo Station in Antarctica): "In twenty-five years, what you are doing will turn out to have practical value for all of humanity." Although he doubted the truth of the remark, Mayewski says, he was "driven by the hope that I could make it be true." Thus this book is in part a manifesto for making science socially relevant.

At the center of Mayewski's story is GISP2—a massive program involving a large number of scientists and administrators, a great many of whom are named here. Unfortunately, in too many cases the names flit in and out of the text without enough real description of personalities for readers to keep them straight. The story of how GISP2 came about is fascinating, yet we are led to believe that no significant setbacks were involved, which I'm sure was not the case. I would have loved to hear about some of the difficulties of building a large-scale research program—the tensions prior to the announcement of full funding, the personalities (good and bad) that add to the complexities of such an organization. But we don't get a behind-the-scenes story here, merely a description of the operations. However, wonderful anecdotes and information boxes help round out the account and offer intriguing glimpses into Mayewski's personal history.

After establishing how the GISP2 project was set up, the authors describe the data acquired and its significance. Anyone in doubt as to whether climate change affects society should read chapter 4, an account of the rise and fall of civilizations (the Mesopotamian Empire around 2200 B.C., Mayan civilization around 750 to 900 A.D. and the Norse Colonies in Greenland around 1400 A.D.) at the whim of the climate oscillations recorded in the Greenland ice core.

Having provided background, theory and context, the authors next examine the climate change of the last century—with considerable effect. First they explain how it is that cores recovered from the center of the Greenland ice sheet can provide information about climate elsewhere on the planet. Next they scrutinize the recent record of global climate, making a convincing argument that the world has yet to come out of the Little Ice Age. Then comes a debate on what future changes may mean to our society; lessons learned from the past are used to judge what may happen in the future. The authors do not appear to be pushing any preconceived agenda; their predictions are well thought out and based on the science. In sum, the book offers a balanced account of how, over a period of 30 years or so, scientists have realized the influence humans have had on the Earth's climate.-Martin J. Siegert, Bristol Glaciology Centre, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol, England

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