While winter will likely blanket New England over the next several weeks, the season’s long-term forecast is bleak. Strictly speaking, Earth’s seasonal cycle isn’t going anywhere, not unless we get our axis straightened out, but winter as we have known it— freezing, icy, and snowy — could one day become yet another casualty of climate change.
Ample evidence of our precarious future is there for any who care to acknowledge it, starting with raging wildfires in the West, intensifying storms in the South and East, and extreme drought spreading into the Midwest. The end of winter doesn’t often enter into the broader climate change conversation, but as Porter Fox’s alternately alarming and adventurous “The Last Winter” makes unambiguous, these crises are all connected.
Fox has amassed a truly anxiety-inducing blizzard of data, at one point facetiously likening his book to a “flaming bag of apocalyptic dog feces.” And he’s not entirely wrong. There is a lot of gloomy research on display here: “The occurrence of large forest fires in the US West [has] increased by 500 percent since the 1980s.” “The movement of nearly every glacier in the world is now synchronized — backward — as they melt at a historic rate.” “The Arctic has not been as warm as it is now in millions of years.” “Since 1990, the rate of sea level rise has nearly tripled.” And on and on. If the book were nothing more than a litany of doomsday data points, it would be important reading, though hard to recommend to any save masochists.
But Fox is a seriously terrific writer and an utterly madcap reporter, qualities that allow him to leaven the weighty with the whimsical, the threatening with the thrilling. He is not content to simply interview leading scientists in their labs, but instead follows them to where they work, which when you’re trying to document the end of winter means going to some very out of the way places, including the North Cascade Mountains, Alaskan glaciers, the Dolomites, and Greenland.
Once there, Fox isn’t sitting in chalets sipping brandy in front of a fire either. In the Cascades, he hikes into a “geological war zone” during a windstorm to help study the interaction between snowmelt and forest growth. On the Juneau Icefield, he visits students taking teaspoon-sized samples of snow “on what seemed an infinite strata of ice.” In the Alps, he heads out on the 25-mile Sellaronda trail, which to be fair does have some rather swanky sounding rifugios, or mountain huts, complete with bartenders and menus featuring venison ragù. And in Greenland, he embarks on a week-long dogsled expedition up the island’s east coast, a journey that gets cut short by the pandemic shutdown of, well, everything.
Fox has assembled an entertaining cast of characters to help tell his tale, any of whom could carry a standalone profile. Some are scientists, like Allie Balter, a Columbia University PhD who has studied what Antarctic ice was like millions of years ago. Some are not, like ski pro Michael “Bird” Shaffer who “speaks human, but everything else about him is bird,” including his use of avian puns like “kawfy” in his text messages.
A couple of the colorful nonscientists stupefyingly seem not to believe in climate change. It’s unclear whether Fox pushed back in person or not, but he does address such denialism in the book with the thinly veiled disdain it deserves, noting that “human-caused climate change — which is also very real — takes place alongside natural climate change and even intensifies it.”
As for the scientists, Fox is an able interpreter of not only their research, like the self-sustaining cycle of forest fires, but the consequences of what they have found. It’s not all immediately comprehensible though, with talk of “cosmogenic nuclides created by high-energy particles” and scientists using “layers of frozen dust in ice cores […] to help determine climate, rainfall, wind strength, and wind direction” half a million years ago.
There are micro-history lessons scattered throughout, on ancient skis and on the so-called Little Ice Age, triggered in part by “a massive volcanic eruption on the Indonesian island of Lombok in 1257.” And there are autobiographical anecdotes too, from Fox’s high school days on Sugarloaf Mountain with his “group of teenaged skiing hooligans” to his start as a cub freelancer for Powder magazine, which paid him $2,000 to fly to India and ski the Garhwal Himalayas.
Fox’s reporting has another unapologetically personal note to it, one echoed by many of the scientists he interviews, which is that as a parent, he doesn’t want his daughter to lose winter. Yet that is an increasingly likely possibility, with the length of winter “projected to decline across the United States, in some locations by more than 50 percent by 2050 and by 80 percent by 2090.” And, as Fox documents so starkly, that decrease will have a (sorry, not sorry) snowball effect.
And while this future is not yet inevitable, Fox is correct that humanity is pretty much “incapable of calculating distant danger; our cognitive system responds only to risks right in front of us.” It’s a common refrain not only in books about climate change but also when listening to activists warning about the future. Thankfully so many of those voices belong to young people though, people who, like their parents, don’t want their kids to grow up without winter.
The Last Winter: The Scientists, Adventurers, Journeymen, and Mavericks Trying to Save the World
Little, Brown, 320 pages, $28
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.