Growing up in the Norwegian Arctic—one of the coldest places on Earth—journalist Bjørn Vassnes became fascinated with the natural sciences. Today, he pens a science column for one of Norway’s most popular daily newspapers and hosts the television science program Schrödingers katt (Schrödinger’s cat) on the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. But it wasn’t until he began reporting from South Asia—a region with a climate nearly opposite of that in his home country—that he learned just how important snow and ice are to all living things on Earth. In South Asia, for example, nearly one billion people depend on the region’s rivers, which flow from glacier meltwater.
The discovery inspired his latest book, Kingdom of Frost: How the Cryosphere Shapes Life on Earth, which finds other, similar connections all over the planet. Moving from South Asia to Northern Europe to South America to California to Greenland, Vassnes shows how Earth’s cryosphere—the planet’s collective ice and snow on land and in water—brings freshwater to highly populated areas, stabilizes land for farming and travel, and keeps plant and animal ecosystems in delicate balance.
He also looks back in time to show how the cryosphere was largely responsible for human evolution as well as the invention of agriculture. In short, he says, “the cryosphere created us.”
But in an age of global warming, the cryosphere is melting with catastrophic consequences: water and food are becoming scarcer, ecosystems are being disrupted, and Indigenous peoples are finding that their traditional ways of life are difficult to maintain in a world with less snow and ice. Earther spoke with Vassnes about his book. The interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Earther: What drew you to the topic of the cryosphere?
Bjørn Vassnes: The Kingdom of Frost is many topics woven into one. My interest began some years ago while I was doing TV reporting on the glacial rivers in South Asia, how the meltwater from those glaciers were keeping the rivers in that region alive. At the time, I didn’t know the glaciers were diminishing. But once I discovered that, the question became what will happen to the hundreds of millions of people in northern India, China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, who all depend on that water. I wondered why more people weren’t talking about this and figured it was because the consequences are too huge and mind boggling. That realization set me off thinking about the importance of the frozen world more generally. Not only mountain glaciers, but snow cover and sea ice and how they’re connected to the rest of the planet.
Earther: Let’s dive into those connections. I don’t often associate warm areas with ice. What does the cryosphere have to do with, say, India and Bangladesh?
Vassnes: The cryosphere in that region serves as a kind of water storehouse. Rivers there—such as the Ganges and Indus—come from glaciers, and it’s those rivers that bring water to the billion people who live there. Many months of the year there is no rain, so if it weren’t for glaciers, those areas would become very dry and would not be able to support agriculture. People couldn’t live there.
Earther: There’s a similar connection between the cryosphere and places in the U.S., like California, right?
Vassnes: Yes! California is struggling with drought and wildfires, which are both connected to the state’s problem with mountain water. Most of the precipitation that has come to the Sierra Nevada mountain range has come as snow. But as temperatures rise, more and more of that precipitation comes as rain, and rain runs away, causing more intense floods. And then it dries up quickly. Snow, on the other hand, stores water.
Earther: What are scientists predicting for the future of places that rely so intensely on snow and ice?
Vassnes: There are many consequences. For people in India, the prediction is dire: There are already more floods, but in a few decades, maybe by the middle of this century, glaciers will have diminished so much that the water systems there won’t work well at all, and water will become scarce. The consequences of that involve over a billion people and are almost too much to think about.
On a smaller scale, a similar situation will happen around the Andes, affecting Chile and Argentina. We will also see water shortages in California and maybe in areas immediately east of the Rocky Mountains, because those people are also hugely dependent on meltwater. In other places, like in the Alps, the consequences are different—the land itself is becoming more dangerous. As the temperature grows warmer, the permafrost is melting. Permafrost has kept the ground stable, and as it melts, more landslides are occurring.
Earther: What about the consequences of melting ice in the Arctic?
Vassnes: The consequences of a melting Arctic are very difficult to predict. One big question is whether fresh meltwater coming off Greenland’s ice sheet will flow over and cover salt water, a phenomenon that could make the Gulf Stream stop. This has happened many times throughout history and has resulted in ice ages.
Earther: Let’s talk more about ice ages. You write in your book about how the ice ages have affected not only biological evolution in humans, but also social and cultural evolutions.
Vassnes: You could say the cryosphere created us. When the ice ages started approximately 2.5 million years ago, the climate in Africa, which used to look like a rainforest, became drier and grassier. This triggered a change in animal ecosystems, making it possible for an especially strange creature to evolve: us. Additional ice ages proved to be very good for creatures like us with large brains, because we were able to adapt to new ways of living. For example, the short, 1,000-year ice age that occurred 11,000-12,000 years ago jump started agriculture. The Gulf Stream shut down, and the land became colder and drier. Agriculture helped us to survive.
Earther: And then came the Little Ice Age of the Middle Ages, which affected not only the world’s population but its geopolitics.
Vassnes: Yes, what we call the Little Ice Age may have started around the 1300s, though some say it began in the 1700s. But it finished by the middle of the 1800s. For us in northern Norway, the period had huge consequences. For example, Norwegians had by this time colonized a part of Greenland—maybe 5,000 people lived there. But they died out due to the climate change. The same thing happened in Iceland and in many parts of Northern Europe. In Norway, there was almost no growth in population during this period.
The Little Ice Age also had political consequences. At the time, Norway was under Denmark rule, and Sweden had a powerful army. Denmark, however, had a powerful navy that protected the sea between it and Sweden. But in the 1650s, when the climate became so cold the sea froze, the Swedish army walked over the water and conquered the Danish capital, Copenhagen. The siege ultimately shaped the borders between those countries into what they are today.
Earther: As a Norwegian, how do you see the shrinking cryosphere affecting your home country in 2020?
Vassnes: I grew up in the coldest part of Norway and lived close to the Sami, an indigenous people who rely very much on snow. Their ways of life are being completely changed. Our economy has also been affected. Here in Norway snow sports are very popular, and just yesterday, I read that Norway’s biggest sports chain closed because people aren’t buying winter sports equipment anymore. So, yes, I see lots of changes. The cryosphere continues to affect economies and cultures everywhere.
Amy Brady is the deputy publisher of Guernica magazine and the editor in chief of the Chicago Review of Books.