Is it possible to reconcile that complicity with loving the automobile? The noise, style, and feedback that make a great car great? Perhaps. But we have to talk about the intersection responsibly and realistically. More to the point, how on earth can we not?
Last summer, as a way to think about all of this, I got in a brand-new Ford F-150 and drove to Glacier National Park. I chose an XLT 4x4 crew-cab model because it is the single best-selling variant of the best-selling vehicle in America and thus the most common automotive experience in the country. Ford will sell around 900,000 F-series trucks in the United States this year, and our test example, fresh from the plant in Dearborn, went to a small corner of northwest Montana, where the land was long ago carved away by ice as broad as a city and as much as a mile deep. And where climate change has caused similar ice to melt in quick and obvious fashion.
I went to view one of America’s largest stashes of glaciers and to acknowledge the conflict of loving a problematic machine. The internal-combustion engine has done a lot of good in the world, but it has also produced at least as much environmental damage as any other human invention. Electric cars are better on this front, but even they require the burning of fossil fuels for the mining of the rare-earth minerals in their hardware, for the construction of their leathers and plastics, for the generation of a portion of their electricity.
The science here is not new, but its conclusions are worth repeating. The chemical bits emitted by automobiles and their production reorganize the atmosphere. As a result, the planet is warming and cooling as it recently has not, and we get increasingly strange and often catastrophic weather. Stretch that timeline out long enough, and coastal cities are underwater and the Earth looks and works a lot differently—generally in ways that will make human existence more costly and difficult.
The irony is obvious: car writer chews on climate change by driving somewhere, consuming nonrenewable resources to visit a place where use of those resources has caused us to consume more nonrenewable resources.
But. How else do you go anywhere in America? Outside a few select corridors, our public transit is patently terrible. And at the risk of sounding like a selfish ostrich, I like driving. You control a satisfying machine. Travel independently and with minimal restriction. In this vast country built by and for the automobile, the machine too often makes sense.
A journalist and a photographer in a truck for two days in one of America’s most spectacular national parks. I found no answers. I didn’t expect to. But the questions got a little sharper.
Seventy-five million years ago, a shifting of plates in the Earth’s crust caused great stacks of rock to shove up from the plains of what is now northwest Montana, the earth folding and cracking skyward. The result was the northern range of the Rocky Mountains.
The Rockies are narrow here, barely 35 miles wide. When the mountains were young, their peaks and deep valleys caught clouds. The region eventually trapped so much moisture that its winter snowfields became glaciers, enormous ice packs capable of surviving four seasons. The largest in the area were almost incomprehensibly vast, but 12,000 years ago, at the end of an ice age, the last of those “big” glaciers melted, and the mountains were once again free. The ice left behind alpine finger lakes, hundreds of feet deep and filled with crystalline glacial melt, along with visible change on the mountainsides. The sharper peaks, hornlike in shape, had been carved by glaciers pushing against them for eons. Their rounder sister peaks are generally older, ground down by water and weather and time. All of these mountains sit above deep, broad valleys, because the glaciers cut the land wider than any river could. This is Glacier National Park. Imagine the Alps with more Aaron Copland.
Even by the heady standards of America’s national parks, Glacier’s beauty is remarkable. In the early 1900s, George Grinnell, a founding member of the Audubon Society, was so enthralled that he dubbed the area the Crown of the Continent. “Crown” carries a double meaning: gemlike landscape, but also the fact that the park’s streams are headwaters, draining into three major North American river systems. Waters from the area flow into Hudson Bay, the Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico, and Glacier is one of the few places on the continent where all native carnivores survive and thrive—more than 70 species of mammals in all, plus 250 kinds of birds and more than 25 species of native fish. It is an idyllic and virtually undisturbed sampling of the old American West, a wilderness ideal come to life.
And like the rest of the planet, it is changing. The United States Geological Survey defines a glacier as a mass of compacted ice at least a tenth of a square kilometer in surface area, or around 25 acres, and large enough to move under the influence of gravity. Glaciers form when deep snow melts and refreezes, in eras when winter snowfall outpaces summer melting. According to the USGS, the area containing Glacier National Park held an estimated 150 glaciers in 1850, each at least 7000 years old. (The park itself wasn’t established until 1910.) By 1966, that number had shrunk to 35.
In 2019, there are 25. The park’s glaciers, like most in the world, are now in general retreat. The aggressive rate of that retreat makes sense, considering the last half-century’s general global increase in average summer temperatures and how the planet’s dominant form of annual precipitation has, in the last century, shifted from snow to rain. Because glaciers are dynamic by nature, their size evolves naturally. But on average, between 1966 and 2014, the glaciers in the park shrank a whopping 39 percent. Some have shrunk by as much as 85 percent.
The rest of the story should not be news. Current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—greenhouse gases—are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. The effects of those concentrations are without parallel in millennia and extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of observed warming since the middle of the last century. The transportation sector alone is estimated to have accounted for 14 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions originating in human activity.
Some people believe that the majority of climate science is simply incorrect, that humanity cannot have been responsible. You have to wonder if the scientific community grows tired of the back-and-forth. While researching this story, I asked a respected American climatologist for help parsing a thick report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the United Nations–appointed body tasked with analyzing recent credible climate science. And while the climatologist asked to not be named in print, she did allow as how controversy surrounding the subject has prompted extreme caution in public comment.
“The panel,” she said, “they’ll argue for hours on word choice in their reports—on single words! And their reports are the most inarguable science we’ve got.” When I told her that the National Park Service hadn’t returned R&T’s requests for comment on glacial change in Glacier, she didn’t sound surprised. “It’s not politically…”—and here she paused, watching her words—“…they have to be careful.”
It can seem more than a little strange that much of the scientific community believes one thing and much of humanity believes the opposite. But then, much of humanity once held that the world was flat and that dragons lived at the edges of maps.
When I drove to Glacier in the Ford, emitting carbon for personal purpose, I was not alone. Lines of cars at every turn, thousands of visitors on an otherwise ordinary summer day. On that first morning in the park, idling in line at the gates and waiting to pay to enter, I looked around the F-150’s interior, with its screens and plastics and gadgets. It seemed irresponsible, or at least a little unfriendly, to not at least consider the possibility that scientific consensus is wrong. That maybe there are dragons.
A moment later, I found myself making a mental tally of people throughout history who famously did well by betting against science.
You can walk into Glacier, but almost everyone drives. The park saw more than 2.9 million visitors in 2018, and many took the primary scenic route, a two-lane designed to be driven eastward. The 50 miles of asphalt on the aptly named Going-to-the-Sun Road comprise one of the country’s most famous drives, a sort of greatest-hits package of Glacier’s beauty. Much of the area is only reachable by hike or horse and empty much of the year, but Going-to-the-Sun is almost never barren. Summers bring lines of barely moving traffic and roadside bathrooms with wait lines stretching down the shoulder.
The F-150 did that thing that all good trucks do and got out of the way. It seemed to plane over the road at highway speed, up on its heels, like a Sixties Ford Galaxie with better damping. It was happy carrying two people and their luggage, though we were also wasting three seatbelts, thousands of pounds of tow capacity, and an entire truck bed. We could have done the trip in a Honda Fit, we just didn’t. Much of what America does in a pickup, we could do in a Honda Fit, if we’re being honest.
Does it make me a bad person, wanting a truck because I like driving them yet have no practical need for one? Am I ushering in the apocalypse because I take long drives in sports cars in the evening as a way to unwind? Because much of my life has rotated around the enjoyment of the automobile? Why do those questions feel both crucial and slightly ridiculous to type out?
Most of the park’s glaciers are buried in the interior, but a handful are visible from Going- to-the-Sun. Jackson Glacier, the seventh largest of the 25 remaining, is the largest visible from the road. Since many visitors don’t venture much beyond their cars, Jackson is likely the most viewed piece of ice in the place.
You could drive right by without noticing. Many of the park’s glaciers simply blend into the astounding vistas, drowned out by the visual scream of the surrounding mountains. I grabbed a map in a ranger station because it held scale illustrations of the region’s ice, indicating change in size over time; later, I went searching for Jackson and drove to it, only to spend a minute wondering if I was in the right place. There was snow, but nothing like you’d expect. I pictured landed icebergs. The books show landed icebergs.
This is the problem in a nutshell. Jackson began the last century bridging two mountains, a 316-acre ice sprawl like a snow-covered island. What remains covers just 187 acres and sits quietly in the notch between those mountains, a stripe of icing on a pile of lumpy rock. The view is pristine and immensely beautiful but can also seem oddly empty, as if the various local signs and maps had been accidentally set up to point you toward a homely stack of leftover winter.
We drove on, basking in the silence and landscape. Other glaciers appeared in the distance, dirty-white smudges on the land, exactly where the map said they would be, smallish and forgettable. We poked around, chasing the other ice visible from Going-to-the-Sun, parking the Ford where convenient and standing in the bed to gape. A park ranger in one of Glacier’s gift shops told me that you really have to hike to see the remaining big ice. But we had brought no gear, and for our purposes, leaving the truck seemed like cheating.
It would have been less than enough if we hadn’t kept driving. Almost randomly, with no plan, as most people do in parks. Eventually we arrived at a lodge on Glacier’s east side. The building sat in a breathtaking notch in the land, at the base of yet another cobalt alpine lake. The water was deep and eerily still. Poking around the lobby, I stumbled onto a wall of photographs, an exhibition documenting a century of the park’s change. Poster-size black-and-white images of glaciers from the early 20th century were hung above modern images taken from the same vantage point.
The difference was staggering. The same shots over and over: Half a mountain covered by a wall of sloping ice in grayscale. The same mountain almost bare, but in color. Rivers where there had once been vast expanses of white. Small peaks that had been buried in ice for millennia, newly exposed, shading old valleys that had spent thousands of years filled and hidden from sun.
I stood in front of that wall, barely blinking, for a long while, unaware of time passing until the dryness burned my eyes. Then I walked outside and stared at the ground for a bit, surrounded by mountains but somehow unable to look up.
That United Nations panel publishes a summary of its findings every few years, a sort of high-altitude analysis of the relevant international science on all things climate. Each report is hundreds of pages, whole sections on subjects like warming-mitigation cost and greenhouse-gas scenarios and atmospheric C02 change rate.
The glut of information can be overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at it. Before heading to Glacier, I dived into the most recent report, published in 2014. After an afternoon of boggling at data, I fell into the panel’s 40-page “policymaker” summary, a CliffsNotes of speaking points aimed at politicians. Its graphs and charts paint a long and ominous curve, the numbers getting larger as the years go by, the only noticeable decrease being the chance of change. Of doing anything about it.
The problem can seem so large, so distant. And on a personal level, what can we do anyway? Tell people to go home? To walk up those mountains? To move to an overcrowded city they can’t afford, simply to give up cars and ride the subway?
There are no easy answers. We have made the automobile so much a part of our lives and our landscape for so long that it’s sometimes difficult to acknowledge that roads cannot expand forever, that traffic and pollution left unchecked will inevitably worsen as the world’s population grows. It’s equally difficult to adore the machine while recognizing its problems, acknowledging that you can love what the device does for us while also despising much of what it has done to us. The ways in which it has made us dependent.
Going-to-the-Sun peaks at the Logan Pass visitor center, 6646 feet high and smack in the middle of Glacier’s eastern range. The center perches on a ridge overlooking a long circular valley, a west-east scoop in the land. On the second day, we woke at 3:30 a.m. and headed to the pass to watch the sunrise. The Ford ate Going-to-the-Sun in the way that modern live-axle turbocharged things tend to eat anything mountainous, which is to say, quickly and with fun motion over bumps, and there was, for once, almost no traffic.
The Logan Pass parking lot was nearly empty when we arrived, so I parked near its edge and walked to an outcropping. The glow broke first over a ridge to the north, a wash of orange and blue pastels. The light grew whiter and brighter every minute, bubbling and flowing into the valley’s necks, refracting off airborne dust and filling the pass with a warmth and gauzy light that poured over the hills and rapidly deepened. It was like watching God sketch.
An Eighties Dodge Ram longbed pulled into the lot and rolled up nearby, idling, its exhaust breaking the silence. A small group had gathered—about 10 campers and hikers—and a few of them glanced instinctively at the noise. The driver seemed to notice, shutting off the truck.
The Ram was well-maintained but thick with patina: faded paint and crusty steel wheels that appeared to have spent life in a riverbed. On any other day I would have walked over and said hi, asking about it, but I couldn’t remember wanting to be near a vehicle less.
A small part of my brain acknowledged the irony and put it away for later. The parking lot filled up, maybe 100 cars in all, people and chatter. And then it was over, the lot warming in direct sun, the magic and silence gone.
Friends who have gone through drug rehabilitation say that climate change is like any other addiction. That human culture is currently in the period before rehab, where you realize your problem but have yet to kick it. The analogy is cliché and probably inadequate, but apt in one sense: addictions generally end one of two ways, and one is more dire than the other.
What either of those ends means for the automobile isn’t yet clear. But we undoubtedly have a choice. There is a path out of this problem, one that contains the freedom and goodness of one of the 20th century’s greatest machines and some sacrifice but none of the downsides. If we can suss a moon landing and the affordable pocket computer, we can suss this.
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Sussing it means admitting the problem exists, even when you don’t want to, even in a place and time when you would rather be doing anything else.
As we packed the Ford and prepared to leave, I glanced down the mountain. The road up the ridge was still shrouded in purple shadow, the valley so deep that the rising sun had yet to find its way in. A chain of distant headlights twinkled back from that pocket of twilight, climbing toward us, pair after pair.
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