Tuesday, November 3, 2009

O Ye Ice and Snow

“A grand cosmic vision” is the way Robert Alter describes Psalm 148 in a footnote to his translation of the psalm. (The Book of Psalms, trans. Robert Alter) This psalm of praise, one of the Evening Psalms for the Daily Office yesterday on All Saints Day, begins with the heavens and the heavenly beings, the angels, and then moves on to the Earth and the creatures of the Earth, including human beings.

I thought of the middle part of this psalm – “Praise God from the earth, you sea-monsters and all deeps; Fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing God’s will” – when I happened across three different news stories about ice and snow today. Psalm 148 in turn reminded me of Canticle 1, The Song of Creation, in The Book of Common Prayer. This canticle is familiar to those of us who grew up with Morning Prayer as the principal service most Sundays: “O ye ice and snow, bless ye the Lord; praise him and magnify him forever."
The three news stories were similar in talking about places where ice and snow are melting at extraordinarily rapid rates. They are about three different locations: Mount Everest, Mount Kilimanjaro, and the Arctic region, including the North Pole. A story from the Associated Press tells about plans for the Nepali cabinet to meet on Mount Everest as a way to increase awareness of the threat from global warming, which is causing glaciers to melt in the Himalayas. The melting ice is forming lakes whose walls could burst and flood villages below. The second story, from CNN, tells about how the glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro are melting at an increasing rate. The ice cap at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro could be gone within two decades at the current rate of melting. The third report, from Reuters via MSNBC, is about the ice covering the Arctic Ocean. David Barber from the University of Manitoba spoke to the Canadian Parliament last week and told them about the disappearance of “old ice”, ice that has formed over a number of years, in the Arctic. The ice that is left is thinner new ice, ice that is easily broken. The multiyear ice reached thicknesses of 260 feet; the new ice is 20 inches thick. This story reports that “An increasing number of experts feel the North Pole will be ice free in summer by 2030 at the latest, for the first time in a million years.”

This means that by 2030 there may be no ice at the North Pole in the summer and no ice cap on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. The same year has often been mentioned as the limit for glaciers in Glacier National Park in the United States, though some scientists now believe 2020 is a more accurate prediction for the disappearance of those glaciers.

The loss of ice in these places and many other spots around the world have effects on entire ecological systems, including economic effects on the people who live near these places. Concern for people is enough of a reason for us to care more about the accelerated melting of glaciers and ice packs.

But I suspect part of the sadness I experience when I read about and reflect on what is happening is grief at the loss of a piece of that cosmic vision, the great expanses of ice and snow that, along with all of creation, are bidden to praise God. Somehow the diminishment of glaciers -- and the loss of many species of plants and animals, the acidification and pollution of the oceans, and all the damage done to creation, some of it soon to be beyond the point of restoration -- diminishes the fullness of the praises we offer to God. However, this is not surprising when we think about the disconnect between praising God with our voices while ignoring and even contributing to the destruction of God’s creation. Our spiritual health as well as our physical well-being depends on our acknowledging the harm we have done to the Earth, and repenting and changing. For the glaciers at least, the time left to do this is short.