There’s a Welsh legend about our village. Cantre’r Gwaelod. Well, it’s not specifically about our village but because of a glacial projection nearby which extends out to sea as a long, straight wall, historians and storytellers have narrowed the tale’s location down to us.
It goes like this: there was a kingdom so far on the edge of the sea that it needed a wall to keep the water out. The gate was opened at low tide and closed at high tide. One night a party was planned. It was a raucous event. So much that the gatekeeper got drunk, so drunk he forgot to close the gates to the sea. The village was drowned and almost all souls lost. The wall however, still remains. I’ve seen the wall: it’s called Sarn Gynfelyn, and it’s scarily straight – so straight it looks man-made.
With talk of climate change and global sea level rise, I’m finding it a bit confusing whether this story was in the past or a foretelling of our future. With our low-lying, flat surroundings we will surely be one of the villages, one of the coastal communities unlikely to survive a significant rise in sea level. And I’m not one for doom and gloom – I try to avoid the pessimistic stories that characterise climate change narratives. If you’re going to seek the truth though, you have to look in uncomfortable places.
I listened recently to Prof Steven Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist. Pinker argues our current media’s habit of looking at the dark side of things leads us to believe our world has got worse. He points out that, in many ways it hasn’t. When looking at statistics of global poverty and standards of education, it has significantly improved.
He said he asked his friend, the writer Neil Gaiman to find examples where science fiction predicts a better life for humanity in literature. Apparently Neil Gaiman had enthusiastically taken up the challenge but couldn’t find any real examples in the end. Even The Jetsons cartoon has a sense of irony to it. From a behavioural point of view, we seem programmed to predict the worst case scenario. Pinker concedes when it comes to the environment, there are serious concerns though. So, he asks, do we take the view of fatalism – we can’t change any of it and we’re all cooked anyway – and sit back in complacency? Or do we believe we can change things for the better and still live our lives of comfort and progress. Then we’ve won. Right? From my village’s point of view sitting on the Cardigan Bay with one drowned village already in our folklore, it’s man’s best guess.
My father sent me a climate-change podcast to listen to the other day. Honestly I was a little nose wrinkly about it. It followed a recent survey of an Antarctic glacier, Thwaites Glacier. As a side note: those old-schoolers who became glaciologists because they really loved glaciers, well kudos to them. Since then they’ve become the celebrities of the scientific world. We have a university department here in Aberystwyth where the geography discipline is strong for glaciologists. Occasionally we see these guys on Sky News drilling up in Greenland, sailing their icebreaker sailboats to and fro. Boy, would that be an interesting grant application form. I need a personal icebreaker sailboat please to complete my research. Those guys must be laughing – then crying as they’re watching their glaciers melt.
I listened to my dad’s podcast recommendation with my climate-change trepidation. I have to admit this was a really good podcast though. Thwaites Glacier in the Western Antarctic is so remote, it’s never been studied before in person. There have been reports of significant melting, possibly due to warm water currents hitting the glacier directly. Indeed, there’s been an estimated 600 gigatons of water released from the glacier.
A dangerously melting glacier that’s never been visited before – the story’s got a sense of drama, no? That’s not even the part of the podcast I enjoyed the most. I liked the stories of the people who went – the scientists and crew. Even for the lead scientist, Dr Peter Sheehan, who’s been studying Thwaites Glacier for longer than some of the crew have been alive, it was a first. Climate change is a first for all of us now – except for the gatekeeper who failed to close the gate. He’s been there before.