published in Change, Environment, God's Country screenplay, Travel by Maryanne | August 13, 2011

What Lies Beneath

Icebergs in Mendenhall Lake, Juneau, Alaska

Did you know roughly 7/8 of an iceberg is below the surface of the water? So what we see jutting out of the water is, literally, just the tip of the iceberg.

This didn’t end well for the Titanic and most of the people on board.

On my recent cruise to Alaska, our captain safely navigated our ship past dozens of icebergs so we could get within half a mile of the spectacular Hubbard glacier, North America’s largest tidewater glacier. Rising more than 300 feet above water and 200 feet below, Hubbard is 7 miles wide, 75 miles long and regularly calves off into the sea 450-year-old hunks of ice the size of small apartment buildings.

Hubbard Glacier, Alaska

“So when you see the ice crashing into the ocean,” the naturalist on board explained, “you’re witnessing the end of a cycle that began hundreds of years ago.”

Hubbard Glacier is currently advancing, which is an anomaly in a warming climate, such as the one we are in (US National Park Service). In contrast, 95% of Alaskan glaciers are retreating, as are most glaciers worldwide.

On a lighter note, I didn’t throw my mother overboard due to bad behaviour. On the contrary, she was remarkably well behaved 🙂

Momma Pope

As were the dolphins leaping alongside the ship and the whales gently cresting to the surface and then submerging again, their magnificent tails the last to disappear. So too were the spawning salmon, having left the sea to return to the streams where they were born. Now bright red, in starvation mode, they were focusing all their energies on either laying eggs or fertilizing them. And then they die.

The bald eagles, too, put on a show. In Hoonah, the small native village near Icy Point Strait, three of us were walking along the road when a store-owner waved us down from across the street.

She pointed to the tree. “Look up!”

We all looked up to see an eagle working away.

“He’s tearing off branches,” the woman across the street yelled, “and then transporting them to the nest.”

Sure enough, a minute later, the eagle flew off from the tree with a large leafy branch clutched in his talons. He circled back a moment a later and landed in a nearby tree, and promptly added the branch to the nest.

“He’s been doing that all day,” said the shop-owner.

Then she went inside and came out a moment later, holding what I assumed were her business cards. She crossed the street and passed the cards to us, through the fence. But they weren’t business cards; they were three small photos of a close-up of the same eagle we had just been watching.

“One for each of you,” she said, “to remind you of this day.”

Back on board the boat, however, not all homo sapiens were so well behaved.

One woman, bald as a billiard ball, sat down beside me. I asked her how she was doing.

“I have cancer,” she said, “and I just finished chemo.”

“Oh boy . . .”

“And radiation,” she continued. “Both were horrible. But I’m doing pretty good now.”

“Great!” I said. “And are you enjoying the cruise?”

She shook her head. “Actually, I’m really disappointed.”

“Why?”

“The ship isn’t big enough.”

I just about fell off the seat. Our cruise ship held eighteen hundred passengers and nearly as many crew members. It had two swimming pools, four hot tubs, two theatres, four restaurants, three huge lounges, a casino, multiple stores, an art gallery, a spa, and a fitness centre. It was a flippin’ floating resort.

“Pardon me?” I said.

“I went on a cruise before and it was a bigger ship. This one’s too small and I’m just really disappointed.”

And I thought to myself: You just don’t get it, do you? You didn’t learn the lesson.

And what might that lesson be, in my judgemental, not-so-humble, opinion?

Gratitude.

Here this poor woman had been so sick and suffered through all the horrible cancer treatments (let’s call this her wake-up call) and yet had recovered enough to go on a cruise (her test, if you will) . . . but, for whatever reason, was unable to appreciate a vacation experience that the vast majority of people on the planet can’t even afford to dream of (she failed the exam).

I speak from experience in the ingratitude department. Ten days before my husband, John, died in 2000, we were on vacation in Vegas and had been walking through the Venetian Hotel. Although I’d been impressed by all the beautiful paintings and architecture, I still nattered on about how the real Venice was so much better.

John had stopped dead in his tracks and turned to me. “Well you’re in Vegas now, Maryanne, and this is pretty damn cool in and of itself. So smarten up.”

Ten days later, he was dead (my wake-up call). One wretched year later, I found myself in New York City, three weeks after the world trade centre had been reduced to a pile of rubble. After walking around Ground Zero and paying tribute to the thousands of lives lost, I went to the opera.

Even though it was a stranger, instead of John, sitting beside me in the opera house, I had a powerful moment of realization that despite all the sadness in my life and so many other people’s lives, when beauty found its way to me again, I better damn well learn to appreciate it.

I would like to think I passed that test.

But back to the boat: on the Alaskan cruise, my mom and I were fortunate enough to be able to afford a stateroom with a balcony. Our room attendant, Edy, was from Indonesia and he was an absolute delight.

Whenever I walked down the hallway towards our room, I would hear him cheerfully call out from whatever room he was working in at the time, “Hello ma’am!”

Every evening my mom and I would return to our room to find a different towel animal waiting for us. One night, it was a sea turtle made out of intricately folded towels. Another time it was a monkey, wearing reading glasses, swinging from the ceiling. A swan, duck, and elephant also made their debut.

I asked Edy if he liked working on the cruise ship.

“Yes,” he said, smiling politely.

“How long have you been working here?”

“Five months, ma’am. I used to be a high school teacher in Indonesia.”

“Do you have a family?”

“Yes ma’am. Three children . . . eleven, nine, and seven.”

“You must miss them.”

He nodded. “Very much, ma’am.”

Back home in Sidney again, I was in the post office and mentioned to one of the women behind the counter that I’d been on a cruise to Alaska.

She grinned. “And you just can’t get tired of hearing ‘Yes, ma’am,’ can ya?! All those people waiting hand and foot on me . . . I loved it!”

I thought of Edy and how time spent making towel animals for my family was time away from his own.

“As for Alaska itself,” she went on to say, “the stops aren’t very interesting. You’ve seen one t-shirt shop, you’ve seen them all . . . you could be anywhere in the world, really.”

I turned to the other lady behind the counter, as she had gone on the same cruise as me two months earlier. “I walked past the t-shirt shops in Juneau,” I said, “and went on a hike in the woods that was absolutely amazing.”

“Oh,” she said, lowering her voice, “I would have loved to have done that!”

Juneau, Alaska

It takes all types to make the world go ‘round . . . but let’s hope there are more of the latter than the former.

There I go, judging others again. My brother Doug loves to remind me that whenever I’m pointing a finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at me.

As such, I shall return to the matter of the retreating glaciers.

‘It’s completely beyond what any of our models had predicted.’ … ‘I never expected it to melt this fast.’  – Such were the comments among scientists at a recent symposium on the Arctic. There still may be debate in a few quarters about global warming, but not in Arctic Alaska: it’s here.

— Joe Upton, The Alaska Cruise Handbook

“The tidewater glaciers up and down the Alaska coast had been receding slowly for years even before global warming was a household word,” writes Upton, “but recent events in the Arctic and implications for the future, especially for species dependent on wide areas of sea ice like the polar bear, are sobering.”

From 1997-2000, the average area of ice in the Arctic was around 3 million square miles. In August of 2007, that number had shrunk by half, a truly staggering reduction.

— Joe Upton

The Arctic could be totally ice-free by 2030. But it may happen sooner, explains Upton, “For as the ice melts, the darker ocean absorbs much more heat than the white ice which reflects the sun’s rays, further increasing the melting.”

Just as the bulk of an iceberg lies below the surface of the water (and therefore we can’t see it), the part we do see above the surface is an indicator of what lies beneath. Likewise, what we are witnessing in some places on the planet, such as the Arctic, is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the effects of climate change.

However, rather like the sad souls on the deck of the Titanic, listening to the orchestra play as the ship sinks, the human race is rapidly running out of time to effectively address climate change. But instead of facing the facts and changing our behaviour — individually and collectively — we are choosing instead to simply entertain ourselves on the way down.

And that includes me.

I first learned about global warming and the negative impact that decreasing sea ice is having on polar bear populations in Canada’s Hudson Bay area more than a decade ago.

“In Western Hudson Bay,” explains Dr. Ian Stirling, Senior Research Scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, “the ice breakup is now about 3 weeks earlier on average than it was only 30 years ago. As a result, in this region the polar bears are able to feed less at the most important time of year (late spring – early summer) when freshly weaned seal pups are most abundant.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund, by 2050, polar bears are likely to be extinct in Canada’s southern Hudson Bay region.

Polar bear, Churchill, MB

 

The possibility of a planet without polar bears was my environmental wake-up call. I knew we needed to face this future, if there was to be any hope for changing it.

But despite my good intentions of launching an environmental campaign, entitled Face the Future, that raises awareness about simple ways we can reduce our individual environmental footprint, I still rolled over and went back to sleep.

If you read my article, Throw (My) Momma from the Train Ship, you may recall it ended with my mom phoning to tell me she’d heard on the news that a cougar had been sighted in Sidney. The cougar was shot later that day because the conservation officer deemed the situation too dangerous to tranquilize him.

From the perspective of public safety, I understand this. But it is a powerful example of yet another voice from the wilderness being silenced. The polar bears — through loss of habitat — are soon to follow and although I’ve slept through my personal alarm, I hope I haven’t missed the boat in terms of doing my small part to bring about change.

On a final note, just as the ice calving off the Hubbard glacier represents the end of a natural cycle that began 450 years ago, a glance back at that time period in human history takes us to the birth of Galileo (1564). Galileo challenged the church on the widely held belief that the earth was the centre of the universe and the sun and other planets revolve around it — an idea we now consider ridiculous.

Instead, Galileo supported Copernicus’ theory that the sun was the center of the universe. Galileo was put on trial for heresay and eventually died under house arrest . . . for believing what we now know to be fact.

I suspect we, too, have now come to the end of an era where we believe we can continue with business as usual in the ravenous pursuit of growth at all costs, while seriously altering the earth’s systems — forests, oceans, atmosphere, etc — without significant long-term consequences.

Or put another way, despite the human confidence in the Titanic’s inability to sink, reality proved otherwise. We may wish to remember this the next time we hear someone claim climate change is a myth. For contrary to popular belief, we are sinkable . . . and we’re sinking fast.

Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening and the playwright of Saviour. She is currently working on a screenplay about the Alberta tar sands, entitled God’s Country. Maryanne is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc and the Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. To receive Maryanne’s Weekly Words of Wisdom blogs, please subscribe here. To sign up to receive the Mothering Matters weekly blog, here’s the link.   

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