The only things holding Dr. Paula Larson in place along the vertical, uncompromising pitch of the crevasse that plummeted into an endless cavern of darkness, were two tiny cleats at the toes of her crampons. Anchored to a precarious ice sheet above, the rope she clenched was as illusory in its support as the non-weight bearing harness digging at her hips. Looking down, she could hear the unseen bottom heralding its warning in the echo of fast moving water. If the fall didn’t kill her, the water would—fatal hypothermia, drowning, forced under by the weight of her gear or the rush of the current, all before anyone could reach her if they could reach her at all.
She had already lost two fingers and three toes to frostbite years ago on another excursion when a gale of biblical proportions had sent tents, hundreds of pounds of gear, food, and vital equipment on a tour of the belted tundra never to be found. Dr. Larson and her team had bivouacked, surviving the storm without anything but the snow clothes on their backs. The loss of digits made the high wire act she was on now that much more difficult, not to mention the searing, breathtaking pain in both her knees as she negotiated each step. The rope strained.
A sobering, popping crack under her toes halted her movements. Her icepicks were dripping with thaw, creating splitting lines several layers into the ice wall with each stab. She glanced up, reassuring herself of the buttressed ledge several meters up and the brilliant sky emanating outward from it. The two familiar, and familiarly concerned, faces were also looking down on her. Her Greenlander guide who had led them here, an Inuit boy of 16, blinked. His knowledge of the land was so endemic it was as if he had been forged from the crystalline fields and fjords themselves. Her field assistant, a graduate student and happenstance protégé whoshared Dr. Larson’s fervor for science and love of the ice, was also looking down with a similar expression.
“Maybe you should climb back up,” Laurie, the grad student said.
“I haven’t gotten my sample yet,” Dr. Larson said. She lowered herself in small increments, the ice moaning and protesting her movements. “The deeper I go, the better.” And it was true. She was taking a coring in the seam of the recently broken glacier. It hadn’t fully calved, or split off and there was a possibility that it could at any moment. The farther down, the older the sample, the more history she could examine. It was the air bubbles caught in the ice she was after—the orbs of atmosphere captured hundreds of thousands of years ago, preserved and measurable like iridescent time capsules.
“They do have machines for this sort of thing, you know,” Laurie called down.
“Oh? You got one on you? No? Maybe you should be writing the grants,” Dr. Larson said.
Then a nubbin of ice cleaved underfoot and she dropped. Ramming her icepick into the wall, clenching her fist against the line, she kicked her foot to find another hold. Jolted to a stop, the pain in her knees blared. An electricity slashed through her lower back and shot down her legs. After a private moment of wincing, she looked up and gave the ‘ok’ signal.
“I really think that’s far enough,” Laurie said.
“Yes, Dr. Larson. You should not go farther,” Kaataq said.
Dr. Larson nodded, the agony still screaming in her joints. She pulled the battery powered bore from her pack, held it against the face of the ice, and drilled a perfect cylinder into a temperature controlled, vacuum packed receptacle.
It had been the middle of the night when Paula Larson and her husband, Everett awoke to the wailing calls of their seven-year-old daughter. Rushing from sleep, flying down the hall, she shot into her daughter’s bedroom. The little girl projectile vomited beyond the foot of her bed where she was sitting up. Lifting her, a stain of excrement and urine remained on the bedding. Arriving with sleep and confusion and alarm in his eyes, Everett entered looking like he was ready for a brawl.
“The sheets!” Paula called as she whisked her daughter into the bathroom and into the tub. She wrenched the faucet on. Angled away from the cold water, her daughter, Sophie’s bald head lolled as more bile and refuse sprayed across the pristine porcelain. “Come on, let’s get this off,” Paula said tugging at the pajama shirt, soaked in sweat and sick. She felt Sophie’s forehead, incendiary with fever. Everett reappeared. “Call the hospital,” Dr. Larson said.
Paula and Everett trotted alongside the gurney as Sophie was wheeled from the ER into Oncology. “We’re here, honey,” Everett said.
“We love you, Sophie,” Paula said.
Later when Sophie lay unconscious in the radial glow of a hospital room, Paula sobbed into her husband’s embrace. Everett strong-jawed his tears, until he could fight no more and wept in silence. In the morning, Sophie’s doctor addressed the bleary eyed couple in quiet, simple tones out of earshot from their daughter.
“I’m going to stop the chemotherapy,” Dr. Watasa said.
“No, you can’t,” Paula said.
“If I give her anymore chemo, I will kill her.”
Out of the breach, Dr. Larson stood on frosted bedrock overlooking the massive glacier the size and shape of Manhattan. On the horizon, the sky was blackening with a volatile swath of storm-ridden clouds. Anton and Bjorn, the pilot and support respectively, heaved rime rimmed Pelican cases and duffle bags into the dormant helicopter. Somewhere the blood of Beowulf flowed in these men’s veins. But something different flowed in Paula Larson’s of a more resolute potency.
“Wait. I want to wait a couple more hours. We could be really close to a calving event. I need to set up cameras,” Dr. Larson said.
“We can’t. There’s a storm coming. Bad one. We have to get off the rock,” Bjorn said.
“We need to wait a few more hours,” Dr. Larson said.
“The storm, miss—er, doctor. We won’t make it if we don’t leave in the next hour,” Anton said.
“Then we will stay another hour.”
Laurie and Bjorn, Anton and Kaataq paired up, staking cameras and tripods into the snow. The fury in the sky was closing in, one big shadow carrying a cargo of punishment. With two on each side of one camera and Dr. Larson holding down a third lighter one, she called to them. “Start recording!”
Hunkered down, Dr. Larson trained the camera on the 40 and 50-story high spires of the jagged surface that resembled a bright white city, a disorganized civilization. Then something happened. A rumbling. A disturbance. Powder and snow tumbled off the serac, like the beginnings of a rockslide. The buildings of ice toppled and quaked. A section that could be measured in the miles snapped, the sound crescendoing to the throttle of a fighter jet. A gash of iceberg came away, rolling, paying out the snow covering it. The fissure spread, transmogrifying the glacial mass and more structures collapsed along the line. Dr. Larson’s eyes went wide.
With the camera rolling, she no longer felt the biting cold, the wind that had started to whip her face, the pain in her back. She trembled at the miracle of this destruction, the sanctity of the horror, the uncommon wonder.
A clap of thunder detonated in the near distance, inspiring panic and escape with its sound and proximity. The four others retreated to the helicopter screaming for Paula to do the same. She stayed, aiming the lens on the scene before her. Rounded pieces of ocean rose up like the dark backbone of a waking monster before coming down smashing the ice floes into smaller and smaller fragments.
“Am I going to get better, Mommy?” Sophie asked.
“Of course you are, sweetheart. The doctor took you off Chemmy because you are getting better,” Paula said searching Sophie’s opaque face. Veins, the same color as the sapphire tones of the ice in the northern hemisphere, ran along the girl’s forehead and temples, disappearing into the back of her hairless head. Sophie coughed, spewing blood. Fumbling for a towel, Paula wiped her daughter’s mouth.
“I’m so tired, Mommy.”
“Why don’t you sleep? I’ll be here,” Paula said.
Sophie closed her eyes, drifting off. The tubes and breathing apparatus slithered over her hospital gown. Paula pulled the blankets tighter around the frail, young girl.
The nurse appeared in the doorway. “Does she need more morphine?”
“She’s sleeping now,” Paula said.
“Well I need to know if—.”
“No! She doesn’t need morphine right now. She’s had enough.”
The nurse’s eyes went wide. “Oh-K,” she said, letting her tone linger on the ‘O’ in a way that irritated Paula, and disappeared.
Paula let out a breath, stifling tears. She stared at her daughter feeling utterly powerless, devoid of action to take. Constrained to this exile of frustration and anger that threatened to explode within her, she would pace the room making unspoken deals with an entity she did not know.
The ruins of the city of snow and ice and frost laid crushed, pulverized, and half swallowed by the ocean. The glacier settled, diminished and bereft. A broken crown of snowdrift and a strafed, pale cliff face remained. A tear froze to Dr. Larson’s cheek. The storm gathered above as she dashed to the helicopter. Anton fired up the rotors. One misstep and her footfall twisted in a rut. She felt a snap in her spinal column and her knees buckled. Hugging the camera like a newborn baby, Paula went down on her shoulder, protecting the precious footage. Bjorn and Kaataq, bent low, hurried to her. The boy took the camera while the burly man lifted Dr. Larson, the aching in her back everlasting and immitigable.
When Paula went down the hall to meet Everett, she could say nothing to him. She could not remember the last time she slept in her bed, slept through the night, slept in any kind of solid way. She didn’t care. They stared at each other without saying a word, the space between them charged with fatigue, desperation, and mutual resentment towards the health of the other. An alarm sounded and the nurses poleaxed down the hall. Paula turned to face the direction they were running and saw they entered Sophie’s hospital room. Whether she sprinted or levitated, she did not know but there she was at the doorway. And there was Everett, panting lightly with soft, warm breath as he stood next to her.
The squall chased them as they flew south. There was a celebratory feeling in the hold. They had done it. They had captured the severity of what was happening. At the same time, they had witness the death of something magnificent, a behemoth brought to its knees. The wordlessness spoke of an irretrievable sadness they all felt. Kaataq had never known a time when the ice was not dying, yet he felt the tragedy of it. The chopper shook and the feeling turned to fear. Stall-warnings flashed in the cockpit as Anton fought the stick and maneuvered them through forceful gusts. Paula’s stomach crawled into her mouth as she looked to Laurie with as much ca and assurance as she could muster.
“Don’t worry. Just a bit of turbulence,” Anton said into the headset.
“Who’s worried?” Dr. Larson said and winked at Kaataq who had an odd, mischievous look on his face. Every jerk and jolt of the copter, stabbed at Dr. Larson’s back. Then she shut her eyes, thought of her daughter’s face, and waited for the end.
One of the nurses unplugged the alarm and the long high-pitched scream of the flatlined cardiogram was silenced. The other nurse checked her watch. “TOD, 1:11 am,” she said.
A screaming filled the room, visceral and beastly. Paula cast about in confusion and distress to discover this unidentifiable sound was coming from her.
“No! You have to save her. No!” she shrieked.
Then there were two of them. Hospital staff, each holding Paula’s arms as she fought against them. Somewhere her husband was calling her name.
“She’s gone,” the nurse who unplugged the machine said.
The end, as it happened, was the landing pad of Illulissat. The team touched down right as the storm beat through, pummeling everything with hail and snow. The next day, Dr. Larson was on a flight home with the precious footage and samples.
Sitting on the table in her doctor’s office, she waited. “You have three herniated discs, several tears in both of your meniscuses, and an ACL tear,” Dr. Henley said as she entered theroom.
“How long to get me fixed up so I can go back out there?” Paula asked.
Dr. Henley removed the glasses from her face and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Paula, I’m not just your doctor. I’m your friend. If you keep going out there, you may do severe damage to your body. Hiking, climbing, any and all load bearing activities are out. I’d like to schedule you for arthroscopy for your knee as soon as possible. You may need surgery on your back as well, judging by the MRI.”
“So how soon?”
“We can get you i next week.”
“How soon can I go back to the field?”
“This will be your fourth surgery. Why are you doing this?”
Paula’s eyes brimmed and her sun charred, wind cut face reddened. “Dr. Henley, if you see a baby about to fall, do you stop holding your arms out to catch it just because of a few aches and pains?”
“I respect your tenacity but—.”
“I’m going back out there. Just give me a timeframe when I can go.”
The end of the footage of Dr. Larson’s recorded calving event played out and the lights undimmed. She took the stage, leaning on a cane as she moved.
“That was quite a thrill to see that happen in person. A thrill, I wish had never taken place,” she said into the microphone.
Dr. Larson straightened her notes at the podium. “There have been five known mass extinctions on Earth. The fact that it has happened before means it can happen again. It seems we are helping ourselves along toward that. I am a scientist who has been studying ice and climate change for over 25 years. The temperature of Earth is rising at an unprecedented rate.”
Dr. Larson shifted her weight on the cane as a photograph of a glacier popped up on the screen behind her. “To give you a scale of this pace, this glacier decayed 3 times the distance in the last 10 years than it did in the last 100 years.” A graph showing a crooked line that angled upward flashed on screen. “From my own research and data, this graph shows the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What they were in 1902 and what they are today.
“This concerns everyone and I will tell you why you should care. We think of the Earth as being so big, so resilient that we can do no harm to it. Yet, we know that’s not true. If the glaciers melt, sea levels rise, natural catastrophes will and are becoming more frequent, and the ocean will become more acidic. Many of the oxygen-producing organisms will die with the increased acidity. We get over 75% of our oxygen from the ocean. As we’re pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we are killing the organisms that are making the very air we breathe and we are dooming ourselves to the same fate.
“What do we do about this? The answers are simpler than we think but if we don’t act now, it will be too late.”
Dr. Larson paused, ducking her head for a moment. The audience was silent and still.
She drew a deep breath and exhaled.
“When my daughter was seven years old she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. It was hard to believe that someone so young and vibrant could be ill with no immediately apparent symptoms. It was unbelievable. The reality was that the disease was so advanced, nothing could help her. Not radiation, not chemotherapy. Nothing.”
She leveled her gaze out to the audience. “If only we had caught it sooner. If only we had done something sooner. Then it was too late and none of us could save her in the end. I started thinking about all the children throughout the world and generations on. What are we doing to their future? What will we say to them when they ask, ‘why didn’t you do something?’
“We are at a point right now, where it’s not too late. We can do something. You can. I ask and hope for your help. It could be as small as changing to energy efficient lightbulbs, recycling, and running your heater and A/C less. And you’ll save money, not to mention our lives. Or if you want to be more active, lobby your local representative to establish stricter laws to protect the environment, advance our technology in renewable resources, solar power, and alternative energy. We are inextricably linked to Earth. Health for our oceans, our environments, and the poles of ice that bring balance, means health for us.
“There’s still a chance to turn it around. We haven’t lost the glaciers. We haven’t lost the ocean. That is why it is of the utmost importance to act now. Start when you leave, when you go home. Tell your friends, your family.
“If not us, who? If not now, when? We are the ones and now is the time.”