Though much attention has been given to global warming, the crucial relationship between humans and ice — and what that means in a warming world — has been somewhat sidelined, until now.

In A World Without Ice (Avery, $26), author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry N. Pollack explores ice’s contribution to humanity and to the Earth itself: from sculpting mountains and carving valleys to providing drinking and agricultural water for more than a quarter of the world’s population.

Ice has the ability to do all these things and more because, as Pollack notes, “ice is a common material with uncommon properties: it can flow downhill like a river, carve rock like a chisel, reflect sunlight like a mirror, float on water like a cork.”

Through startling facts and attention-grabbing prose, the author deftly illustrates the importance of ice and how it has helped shape, literally and figuratively, life on Earth.

Ice has the power to “excavate, bulldoze, break, crush and pulverize rock as it moves over the terrain, the power to sculpt mountains and carve valleys. There is almost nothing in the terrain that can withstand the prolonged passage of ice or forestall its reshaping of the landscape,” writes Pollack.

And because ice has the ability to slice through mountainous regions like butter, people can find remnants of ice’s past in the form of rocks and boulders.

In addition to shaping the land, ice has other significant abilities that are essential to the survival and understanding of mankind. Its ability to act as a refrigerant has helped preserve not only food, but also historic specimens like wooly mammoths and ancient human remains, providing a window into our past.

The formation of great sheaths of ice has also opened pathways for migration, allowing humanity to make its journey out of Africa and into the far corners of the world.

In Pollack’s skillful (though sometimes tedious) outline of ice’s many impacts on humanity, it’s easy to see why the possibility of its mass exodus is so alarming for the human race.

In the second half of the book, Pollack first examines the human activities that have caused rapid ice melt and then details the actions that must be taken to adapt to a world that is quickly losing its ice.

Though the predictions of a world without ice are dire, Pollack’s methodical, no-nonsense writing style leaves readers with a sense of hope because he doesn’t sidestep the task at hand: averting climate catastrophe. Instead, he faces it head on, asking tough questions and providing realistic solutions.

He ends the book in the same no-nonsense way, by asking, “Will later intelligent life forms judge our brief time on Earth, the Anthropocene, only as an excessive New Year’s Eve party, which ended at midnight? Or will we humans enter a new era, perhaps with a hangover, but also with a sober resolve to find a sustainable path to the future? The choice is ours.” 

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