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Updated: May 20, 2021

Redistributions: From Atmospheric Carbon to Melting Cryospheres to the World Ocean

with Cymene Howe

Glacier. Fláajökull, East Iceland.

Accumulation figures prominently in the environmental concerns of the twenty-first century. Greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere. Toxins accumulate in biomes. Plastic accumulates on land and sea and in avian and aquatic forms of life. Waste accumulates on the margins of settlements and industry. These forms of accumulation are closely tied to the northern capitalist modernity whose world hegemony was achieved through colonialism and imperialism. Accumulation marks this modernity’s relentless work to constitute and drain resource frontiers, its making of things wildly in excess of need, its solicitation of avid and restless consumption, and its obscuring of the limits and consequences of a growth- and luxury-oriented economy.

Accumulation originated as a concept in early modern Europe as part of a new lexicon related to the growth of the thingly world. Literally, “accumulation” meant the act of making heaps. Our contemporary concern with heaping maintains this broader attention to thingly amassment—beyond environment, we live also in a time of mounting awareness of the efficacy of growing heaps of capital, weapons, income, and power. Yet as much as some heaps are coming together, other heaps are coming apart. And still other things are undergoing phase shifts in reaction to other modes of physical and social accumulation. For if there is one thing not accumulating in the twenty-first century, it is ice.

Ice. Okjökull, Western Iceland.

Dis-accumulation by Accumulation

Over the last two decades, ice has become a climatological signal, rendering visible the rising temperatures of anthropogenic climate change. In melting ice both heat and its carbon source are made visible. Diminishing cryospheres have become observable, materialized sites of atmospheric accumulation, as greenhouse heat works its way across and through the bodies of ice forms. Put another way, accumulation in the atmospheric domain creates dis-accumulation in the cryosphere.

Polar ice melt is widely understood as the key index that temperatures at the planet’s axes are increasing dramatically. And ice is melting nowhere faster, and faster than expected, than in the Arctic region.1 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) considers glacial diminishment to be the “highest confidence temperature indicator in the climate system.”2 Scientists have also concurred that the rate of melt in polar zones has been considerably underestimated.3 The transformation of the world’s ice, and the implications of this cryo-human outcome are vivid indicators of what Timothy Morton has called the “Age of Asymmetry.”4 However, the asymmetrical distribution of climate crises, and the skewed centers of power and resource exploitation that have created them, also reveal a kind of symmetry: an equation between melting cryospheres and carbon intensive modernities.

Few places on earth have experienced the great melting more dramatically than Iceland, where ten percent of the island’s surface is covered by over 400 glaciers and ice caps. Since human settlement in 874, glaciers have played an important role in Icelandic culture and history, most often as ominous presence, threatening to displace villages with encroachment or destroy homes and farms with glacial outburst floods.5 Iceland’s glaciers are now losing 11,000,000,000 tons of ice per year, and scientists predict that by 2170 all of the country’s glaciers will be gone.6 In their disappearance, Icelandic glaciers index atmospheric temperature elevation. As they recede, failing to re-grow and re-accumulate their mass, they become observable signs of atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation that global capitalist modernity has abetted and accelerated.

Glacial lagoon. Jökulsárlón, East Iceland.

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