About the Author

Alanna Mitchell

JOHN GEIGER is a co-author of the international bestseller Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition and the author of six other works of non-fiction, including The Angel Effect and The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. His work has been translated into fourteen languages. Geiger is chief executive officer of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Canadian Geographic Enterprises, and a fellow of The Royal Geographical Society. He is also a senior fellow at Massey College in the University of Toronto.

ALANNA MITCHELL is an internationally award-winning science journalist and author whose latest bestseller is Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis. She has recently transformed the book into a one-woman play and is performing it across Canada. In 2014, the play was nominated for a Dora Award. She is a contributor to CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks and freelances for Canadian Geographic magazine and The New York Times. She has travelled to each continent and most parts of the ocean doing research and giving talks on marine science.

THE HONORABLE LEONA AGLUKKAQ is the member of Parliament for Nunavut. In 2008, following an extensive career in government, she became the first Inuk to be sworn into the Federal Cabinet, as the Minister of Health. She now serves as Minister of the Environment, Minister responsible for Parks Canada, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, and Minister of the Arctic Council for Canada. Ms. Aglukkaq was raised in Thom Bay, Taloyoak and Gjoa Haven.

Books by this Author
Franklin's Lost Ship

Franklin's Lost Ship

The Historic Discovery of HMS Erebus
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Malignant Metaphor

Malignant Metaphor

Confronting Cancer Myths
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Sea Sick

Sea Sick

The Global Ocean in Crisis
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From the Prologue
Tim Flannery was barefoot the evening I met him, pants rolled up to below his knees. It was dusk and we had found each other in the unlikely town of Whyalla, South Australia, where, it is said, the outback meets the sea.

Our meeting was sheer serendipity. The two of us had happened to fly into this remote town of 22,000 on the same plane the night before and he had been at meetings all day with the town’s steelmaker, continuing his international tour de force of explaining global climate change to the public, business leaders and politicians.

His book The Weather Makers: How We Are Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, Al Gore’s book and movie An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, and the report by Sir
Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, on the financial consequences of ignoring climate change have been the one-two-three punch that has convinced the public that global climate change is more than, well, hot air.

Their combined effect–in concert with Hurricane Katrina’s devastating tear through New Orleans in August 2005–has been remarkable. As I researched this book across five continents and over two and a half years, everyone I spoke with could pinpoint the moment that the public discourse changed from whether or not global climate change was real to what humanity needed to do about it: the third quarter of 2006, after the cumulative effect of Katrina, Flannery, Stern and Gore.

[. . .]

When we met he was longing to walk on the beach, so out we went to the sandy shore of the Spencer Gulf that runs in front of the Foreshore Motor Inn, Whyalla’s finest accommodation, where the steel company had put him up.

I talked and talked, telling him about this book, the stories of my travels around the world, the scientists I had met, the questions I still had, and, above all, why it matters so much to me that all the things I have found out become part of this new, informed public discourse for which he helped lay the groundwork.

I told him of my worries.

The global ocean makes up 99 per cent of the living space on the planet, thanks to its immense depth. If you add up all the land surface and the narrow band of the atmosphere that supports creatures who breathe air, the total represents just 1 per cent of the areas where life can survive on the planet. The rest is in the ocean, covering more than seven-tenths of the earth’s surface.

Even more significant than the ocean’s breadth and width is its depth, or third dimension. That total volume, with its immense biological importance, is what I came to think of as the deeps, both the source of life and the future of life on the planet.

The issue is that all over the world ocean scientists, in groups of specialists who rarely put their information together, are finding that global climate change and other human actions are beginning to have a measurable effect on the ocean. The vital signs of this critical medium of life are showing clear signs of distress.

That’s because roughly a third of the carbon dioxide that humans are putting into the atmosphere has entered the ocean. In addition, about 80 per cent of the extra heat being created by climate change has been absorbed by the ocean.

These two phenomena–carbon dioxide and heat–are changing the ocean’s acidity, patterns of saltiness, temperature, volume, ice cover, function within the planet’s carbon and oxygen cycles, and possibly the physical structure of the currents as well. And these are just the ones we happen to know a bit about.

This change is happening all over the world. And this is having a profound effect on many of the creatures that live in the ocean. At the same time, our search for food from the sea has resulted in the removal of massive quantities of creatures from the global ocean. In itself, that’s a problem. And it’s exacerbated by the changes we’re also causing through carbon dioxide and heat, because life in the sea helps regulate the sea’s physical and chemical properties. When we remove so much life, we’re also removing one of the ways in which the ocean can keep its systems stable.

This is so important–and so different from the way that most of us see the issue–that some scientists I have met argue that instead of calling this the age of ‘global climate change’, we should call it the era of ‘global ocean change’ or ‘marine climate change’. These terms are both much more accurate and more worrisome.

The ocean is built to withstand change. It has layers of safeguards that the atmosphere and the land systems do not, and yet even these are being breached. It is a larger and more serious problem than atmospheric change.

However, we are not hearing much about it, or about the implications for life on the planet–not just human life and civilisation, but life in general. We hear from time to time about overfishing, or about the cities that would flood if the sea level rose, or about coral bleaching, but rarely everything put together.

[. . .]

One of my greatest shocks as I researched this book was that as I travelled from country to country, topic to topic, research boat to research boat, and told each new group of scientists what I had been finding, each group was surprised. In other words–and with some notable exceptions–even some of the planet’s top research scientists didn’t have the full picture of what’s going on. Each has a specialty, isolated from the larger context for the most part, without a systemic understanding of how the pieces fit together. [. . .]

About 250 million years ago, during the time known as the Great Dying at the end of the Permian period–the biggest mass extinction the world has yet known–the ocean’s oxygen ran out. There are a couple of theories about why this happened, but a leading candidate is that the surface layer warmed up enough and became salty enough to disturb the currents. Currents feed oxygen from the atmosphere into the ocean and move nutrients around. When the oxygen vanished, most life on land and in the sea–more than 90 per cent of the species then alive–died.

The point of the story, [Flannery] said, is that it is clear that the ocean contains the switch of life. Not land, nor the atmosphere. The ocean. And that switch can be flipped off.

We know it’s happened in the past, he told me. We just don’t know the trigger.

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The Spinning Magnet

The Spinning Magnet

The Force that Created the Modern World and Could Destroy It
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Jacques Kornprobst, the man who can read the secrets of the rocks, was agitated. He had arrived twenty minutes early to pick me up at the hotel in Clermont-Ferrand, an ancient French university town perched on an annealed crack in the planet’s crust. He had the entry code at the ready to get into the free parking lot behind the building. The code had failed him.

Some drivers cruise the streets nonchalantly, certain that the perfect parking spot will open up at just the right time. Kornprobst was not among them. Parking in this city of 150,000 had become trouble- some over the decades he had lived there, and as he had mapped out the day’s tightly choreographed itinerary he had made intricate plans about where to park. And now, the first parking spot of the day had fallen through.

Inside the hotel he sprinted, red-faced, fingertips frigid in the spring chill.

“Kornprobst!” he rapped out as he met me for the first time. Then he turned swiftly to the reception desk to let off a stream of injured French, explaining to the bewildered woman sitting there—she had been so friendly earlier, solicitous about replenishing the croissant basket and tinkering with the café-au-lait machine—about the affront. He had called the day before to secure the code. And now, today, he said, chin thrust slightly forward, it was malfunctioning.

Abruptly, she left through a back door. He darted out front to a tiny blue Renault car that was parked haphazardly on a curve at the corner, performed a roundabout U-turn through the city’s tortured roads, and then nosed up to the gate with its uncooperative code. The receptionist stood there, punching in numbers, shivering. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. Finally, the barrier be- gan to rise and the receptionist, without so much as a glance behind her, returned inside to her desk. Kornprobst smiled grimly, thrust the little car into gear, gunned the engine, and zoomed triumphantly into a parking spot.

He was watching the clock. He was on a mission to memorialize the life and work of Bernard Brunhes, a French physicist who, along with his research assistant Pierre David, made an astounding, violently unsettling, and controversial find at the turn of the last century. Brunhes, whose name is pronounced “brune,” discovered that the planet’s two magnetic poles—north and south—had once switched places. In the decades following his discovery, his colleagues, originally aghast at Brunhes’s finding, proved that the poles have reversed not just once, but many times on an unpredictable, or “aperiodic,” schedule. The last time was 780,000 years ago.

But despite the fact that our current magnetic epoch is named after him, Brunhes has largely slipped out of the scientific memory. He does not even rate his own entry in the Encyclopedia of Geomagnetism and Paleomagnetism, the bible of the discipline of reading patterns in the Earth’s magnetic fields. Nor is he lionized in France, usually so careful to honor its own. In fact, he’s all but unknown even in his homeland, along with his grand scientific finding that the poles can switch places, that up can become down.

Kornprobst, a fellow physicist, felt that he must right this wrong. He was so committed to Brunhes’s memory that some years ago he took the trouble to find the spot in the countryside where Brunhes hacked a piece of crumbly terracotta rock—similar to the stuff of Greek vases—out of a roadcut and made his great discovery. Kornprobst painstakingly pieced together the clues about where it could be and is one of a handful of people in the world who can usually find it. The first time he made the pilgrimage to the site, he left frustrated, having failed to identify the right seam of rock. He’s found it several times since, but it’s so overgrown, so unmarked, that success is al- ways touch and go.

Kornprobst thought that Brunhes should at least have a commem- orative panel at the university in Clermont-Ferrand, so he sweated through a couple of years writing to geological agencies and eminent physicists all over the world jostling their elbows about Brunhes’s contribution to science, raising the money to erect it. Then he arranged for a ceremony and lecture to accompany its inauguration at the university in 2014. It was through that ceremony that I found Kornprobst. He wrote an article about it for Eos, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. I read it and sent him an email asking him if he would help me understand why Brunhes was so important and maybe even find that seam of terracotta. He wrote back thirteen minutes later to say he would be delighted. I was at the hotel in Clermont-Ferrand two weeks later.

Sporting a thick, off-white cable-knit sweater the same hue as his rakish hair, Kornprobst left the car in the lot and we set off briskly on foot from the hotel through the back streets of Clermont-Ferrand. It is one of the oldest cities in France, founded more than two millennia ago on the site of what was then a sacred grove of trees. And so we were marching through time, across the history of science. Up the road named after Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest and paleontologist who deeply offended the Vatican for asserting that the book of Genesis is more allegory than fact. Past the geology depart- ment of the downtown campus of Université Blaise Pascal, named after the seventeenth-century mathematician and physicist whose seminal experiment on barometric pressure was conducted a few kilometers outside the city by a brother-in-law (“There is the belief that Pascal experimented with pressure here,” Kornprobst declaimed, pointing vigorously down the street, “but it’s not true!”). Across a road named after the nineteenth-century zoologist Karl Kessler. And finally, to rue de Rabanesse, named after the tiny pale stone Renaissance castle that was Brunhes’s home and first observatory.

Kornprobst gestured to it triumphantly, eyebrows raised, as if it explained a great deal.

It looked like nothing out of the ordinary. It was standing forgotten on an overgrown patch of land across the street from a busy art school, surrounded by two layers of forbidding wire fence. Many of its lower windows—once elegant—were partially filled in with cement blocks. The parging that had covered the volcanic fieldstone that made up its walls had decayed, leaving gaps along the seams so you could see how it had all been fitted together. Its turret, where Brunhes collected meteorological information beginning in 1900, was still sturdy, reaching six floors into the sky, fifteenth-century iron fretwork still robust.

This observatory is where the tale of Brunhes begins. And where the tale of Brunhes begins, so too does the story of the discovery of the planet’s long string of pole reversals. And that story, in turn, contains the tale of the mysterious magnetic organism in the core of the planet and how it has become deeply disturbed once more, yet again deciding whether to reverse.

It was here that Brunhes, whose name means “brown” in the Occitan language of the ancient troubadours of this land, began to dream of understanding magnetism, the Earth’s secret power. We never feel it and rarely see it, but all the same, scientists and philosophers have been trying to understand it for thousands of years. For most of that time, people have imagined it to be local and transient. Magic, even. And fickle magic at that. In fact, magnetism is one of the few essential powers of the universe. To understand it, you have to go back in time to the birth of the universe, to see how the universe is arranged. And you have to do that in the company of theoretical physicists, who have developed the most precise mathematical laws so far to describe reality.

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