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Q&A: What an Author’s Trip to the Antarctic Taught Her About Climate—and Collective Action

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From our collaborating partner “Living on Earth,” public radio’s environmental news magazine, an interview by host Steve Curwood with Elizabeth Rush, author of “The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth.”

The so-called “doomsday” glacier in Antarctica known as Thwaites holds enough ice that its melting could raise sea levels worldwide by two feet. And seas could rise 10 feet or more if the loss of Thwaites destabilizes the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet that it’s holding back. But because the climate is entering uncharted territory in human history, most climate models don’t account for that amount of sea level rise.

In 2019, to help fill the data gap, a few dozen scientists and crew made the long and stormy journey to Thwaites. Also on board their ship were a couple of journalists and the expedition’s writer-in-residence, Elizabeth Rush.

Her 2023 book, “The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth,” chronicles the two-month expedition. But the book also weaves in Rush’s personal story of another epic journey—toward motherhood.

“The amount of paperwork you have to do to go to Antarctica is astronomical, and I can still remember getting this huge packet in the mail and reading one line in it that said, ‘pelvic exam,’” Rush said. “And it turns out that pregnant people aren’t allowed to deploy to the ice. I had really wanted to start trying to get pregnant around this time.” 

Putting that off would mean Elizabeth would be 35 when she could finally start trying for a baby—right on the edge of the supposed “fertility cliff,” though she points out that’s somewhat of a myth. But the ice was calling, and she sensed it had a story to tell about what was happening to our rapidly changing planet, the very world she hoped to someday bring a child into.

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STEVE CURWOOD: The subtitle of your book calls Antarctica the “ends of the Earth.” And you have a pretty strong telling of how difficult it is to get to the Thwaites Glacier. Talk to me a bit about the geography of this place and what makes it so difficult to get to.

ELIZABETH RUSH: I remember when I accepted the invitation from the National Science Foundation, my program officer said to me, “You know, it’s going to be easier for us to get help to folks at the space station than it will be for us to get help to you guys when you finally reached Thwaites. Are you sure you still want to go?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course I want to go!” I really had no idea how far away this place would be. It literally took us a month to arrive. 

We were on an icebreaker called the Nathaniel B. Palmer that set sail from Punta Arenas in Chile. The Palmer is about the length of a football field, so you can walk it from end to end in under a minute. From southern Chile, we sailed out the Strait of Magellan, and then started to cross the Drake Passage, which is considered the wildest ocean in the world. Basically, it’s kind of the choke point between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula. All of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current that swirls around Antarctica gets squeezed right there, so you tend to get really heavy high seas and big storms. 

Our crossing was pretty eventful. We had regular 25-foot swells. At one point a gigantic refrigerator in the lab became untethered from the ship, slammed across the lab and we had to strap it back down. Most people got really horribly ill during our crossing. 

When you get across Drake Passage, suddenly, you’re in iceberg territory. Our ship, an icebreaker, is made to ride on top of ice floe, which is relatively flat sea ice, and then it kind of causes the ice floe to crack beneath it. It’s not made to run into an iceberg. We had to cross sea ice fields for days. And right when we first arrived at Thwaites, we had a medical emergency on board that caused us to have to reroute to Rothera Base for 10 days, and then come back. It took us a month to arrive, which was wild.

Elizabeth Rush’s 2023 book, “The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth,” chronicles the two-month expedition to Thwaites glacier. Photo credit: Stephanie Ewens

CURWOOD: Given how difficult it is to get an expedition down to this part of the world, why were so many scientists keen to go there—and writers, too?

RUSH: Thwaites really is considered ground zero for the possibility of accelerated sea level rise this century. And yet, no one in Earth’s history before us had ever been to the place where the glacier discharges ice into the sea. We don’t know basic, basic things like, how warm is the water circulating beneath Thwaites? How strong are the currents pushing that water under the ice? 

The reason Antarctica, and in particular, West Antarctic glaciers are so vulnerable to our changing climate is not because they’re melting because of atmospheric warming. They’re melting because there’s this warm water that’s circulating beneath them, eating away at the ice from below and causing it to become physically unstable, which just has the potential to give you a rate of retreat and collapse that outpaces significantly glacial retreat, as we normally think of it, where you have kind of atmospheric warming above causing the ice to melt. 

Thwaites is sort of like a house of cards. And we’re concerned as we lose some of the base, or the underside of the glacier, you’re taking cards out of that house, and you could cause it to become so unstable that the whole thing falls apart really quickly. 

One last nerdy thing that’s useful to know is that we know from studying different geologic records that in Earth’s history—15,000 years ago, roughly—there were rapid pulses of water into the ocean that caused sea levels to rise 50 feet over a couple hundred years. These events are called meltwater pulse 1A and 1B. The supposition is that a significant portion of the ice that’s causing that rapid, accelerated sea level rise is coming from Antarctica. But no human beings have ever lived through or recorded those events. 

We know that they happened, but we don’t really know what caused them. We don’t know the drivers or the mechanisms behind that change. In the scientific community, at this deep level, there’s a question, like, if we lose Thwaites, are we in the meltwater pulse 1A territory? Are we thinking about a rapid acceleration of sea level rise that’s not really in our models yet?

CURWOOD: Take me to the moment that you first set eyes on Thwaites. It’s in your book on page 200. Can you set that up? 

RUSH: This is just a short passage that’s really about the morning of our arrival. It starts a few hours before we arrive. I remember this evening really well, and I remember almost feeling like a kid on Christmas. You know, when you wake up and you’re like, Is it Christmas yet? And you’re like, No, it’s 11:15 at night, I gotta go back to bed. And then you wake up two hours later, and you’re like, Is it Christmas yet? That was what this night was like for me: 

“That night, sound sleep eludes me. I wake often, each time hopeful that we have arrived. Finally, around 5 o’clock I rise, shuffle up the four flights of stairs, undo the door by the ice tower and walk out onto the bridge wings. Thwaites’ gray margin wobbles in the gloaming. We wind alongside, entering small coves and rounding odd promontories, our pace slow to hold this precarious line. The ice face is soft as dunes. The night’s new hint of darkness gives way to the bruised light of dawn, and many others appear to watch what each of us has been working toward, for weeks, for years, and in some cases, for decades, come into sharp focus. 

“We don’t talk. When someone wants to say something they whisper, as though we’re in a giant, roofless cathedral. We, who have been at sea for so long, finally gaze upon the glacier that has already given us one another. Rick, the chief mate, stands attentive at the ship’s helm, the captain next to him, steering us along the edges of Thwaites’ unfathomable fracturing, its hemorrhaging heart of milk.”

CURWOOD: After navigating through previously unnavigable waters, there’s a huge collapse of ice and you’re witness to a radical and rapid change that happened before your eyes. Tell me about that.

RUSH: We worked for about six days nonstop. When you’re on one of these scientific missions, once you get to your field site, there’s no off switch; the ship is really just cranking on all cylinders at all times. We were doing science 24 hours a day. 

And then, suddenly, there were more icebergs in the bay; the waters became a lot less easy to navigate. Everyone was wondering what had happened or what had changed. 

It turns out that a piece of Thwaites 25 miles wide and 15 miles deep had literally broken apart alongside us and was basically discharging these massive icebergs into the very bay that we were sailing in. We got these aerial satellite images of our study area and indeed it looked like this ice shelf was solid one day and the next day it looked like a belligerent teenager had taken a baseball bat to a car windshield and shattered it into hundreds of pieces. 

I ran up to the top deck to try to see this process unfolding right in front of me. And I stood up there for hours. On the one hand, part of me when I saw that was like, “This is why we’re here, right? We are really getting the right data right now. This will be really useful.” Then that’s coupled with a deep sense of, what I wouldn’t give for none of this to be happening. What I wouldn’t give for this to not be falling apart in front of me. 

The bizarre thing was that it was actually one of the most beautiful days of our expedition. The sun had finally come out, the air was crisp and cold. And all of a sudden, there were these like lavender-faceted icebergs in the bay, and I could only see them as icebergs. I could only see them for the first time, not as a sign of significant change. So I stood up there for many hours and kind of tried to witness what was happening. I felt like I fell a little short of being able to  actually perceive it.

CURWOOD: This was a journey for you, Liz, in understanding life, motherhood, our place on the planet. And for the scientists, there was a lot of data for them to gather. What were the big scientific takeaways from this expedition to Thwaites?

RUSH: One of the most significant things that we were able to accomplish at Thwaites is that we sent a submarine beneath the ice shelf. That submarine was able to give us some really important information about the temperature of the water circulating beneath Thwaites. The most significant finding there was that the water beneath Thwaites is actually a little bit cooler than scientists had calculated. Folks tend to want to celebrate that, like, “Oh, the water’s cooler, that’s so great!” 

But just because the water is cooler doesn’t mean that the glacier is moving any less quickly. In fact, the glacier is deteriorating at the same rate, and it’s water that’s not as warm that’s causing that deterioration. In many ways, this proves that the ice shelf itself is actually more physically vulnerable than we had been calculating. 

The other really significant findings from that submarine was that it also drew very close to the seafloor and created these incredibly detailed sonar images. From them, one of the sedimentologists on board was basically able to reconstruct the retreat of Thwaites during a really significant event that happened sometime in the last two centuries. He basically read the ridges on the seafloor. 

Through that information, he was able to calculate a maximum rate of retreat for Thwaites is two to three times faster than we had previously calculated.

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CURWOOD: Tell me about the strong thread of community that’s in your book. You have scientists and crew working around the clock, cooking, measuring, fixing, surviving a nail-biting medevac. It took a lot of time, and it was rather harrowing. Later on, we feel that you’re surrounded by support as you bring your son into this world. How did you witness community on the ship? And how does that influence how you see this world working together on the climate dilemma?

RUSH: There were 57 of us on board this boat, and we came from all over the planet. We’re from the Philippines, from Brazil, from Sweden, from the U.S. And we had this seemingly impossible task, which was gathering information about this place that no one has ever been able to even reach before. And that we were able to do that while existing inside of one of the most extreme environments on the planet, to me, was an absolute testament of what is possible when you work together with other human beings. 

In the climate conversation, it seems like there’s been a bit of a shift in the past couple years away from the blame-game narrative where you’re an individual consumer and your decisions about organic or non-organic tomatoes, and cardboard packaging or plastic packaging, is where your impact on the climate crisis is going to be most profoundly felt. It seems like we’re moving away from that and toward this idea that real climate action is going to be collectively achieved. 

But I don’t think we have a lot of good stories that do justice to the ways that communities come together and are formed around shared concerns. One of my goals in writing this book was to try to create a narrative that is not just about my singular expedition, but more about this community and the way it came together. 

The book has a pretty unconventional format in that about 50 percent of it is narrated in my first person, but my first person is regularly interrupted by the voices of my shipmates, and they’re talking about their experiences on board. If you were to flip open “The Quickening,” it kind of looks like a screenplay half the time. I conducted 213 interviews while on board, and I hand-transcribed them all to create the archive that would build the backbone of this story. 

It’s my hope that the book can be an experiment in storytelling that highlights collective labor. And it definitely made me come home and think about how often I feel powerless in the face of the scale of the climate crisis. But when I feel that, I realize I have tools for combating that kind of desperation. For me, that’s meant becoming much more involved in community organizing around just climate adaptation in Rhode Island. Any kind of collective climate action beyond the individual is where our power really resides.

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