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The Icy Planet

20 March 2024

What a rich and engrossing book! Having been Director of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, Summerhayes has spent much of his life at the crossroads between the cryosphere, oceans, underlying rocks, and human exploitation of fossil fuels that threatens to melt what he calls ‘Earth’s refrigerator’. He has distilled the lessons he has learnt into this many-sided account of the Earth’s icy regions – past, present, and future.

The book is part travelogue, taking the reader through the different expressions of the cryosphere – the great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, glaciers of the world’s mountain ranges, frozen tundra, and sea ice – much of which he has personal experience of. It is the kind of travelogue, though, that goes beyond landscape description and digs deep into the history of these regions, the processes that have made them what they are, and the scientific programmes that deciphered them. It is part Earth history, too, looking at the deep roots of our current Ice Age, and at previous ice ages too.

There are clear explanations of the controls on climate, which lie at the heart of maintaining substantial amounts of ice on this planet, or that cause it to melt away, with resulting impacts on sea level and on the biosphere. Of course, there is also focus on one of the most urgent questions of the day – of any day – which is the rapid, astonishing, disturbing ice loss that has occurred in recent decades. This ice loss is one of the key signatures of the Anthropocene, the proposed new epoch of Earth history that is driving conditions away from those of the Holocene. Summerhayes soberly tots up the amount of ice lost: 28 trillion tons between 1994 and 2007, which is roughly four thousand tons for each of the humans who have been alive on Earth during that time. Some of those humans have been more responsible than others for this ice loss, as he emphasises in a final section that shows another side of his scholarship: a clear and hard-headed analysis of the social and economic forces that have begun to dismantle Earth’s refrigerator. Summerhayes also appraises the kind of measures that might help prevent further damage and perhaps might ultimately repair it. Whichever viewpoint is taken in this book, Summerhayes has important things to say in this read, which I highly recommend.

Reviewed by Jan Zalasiewicz



BY: Colin P. Summerhayes (2022). Oxford University Press. 472 pp. (hbk).

ISBN: 9780197627983

PRICE: £29.99 https://global.oup.com