The poetry of climate change

A slightly different topic today – not purely scientific but rather a purely opinion piece. Happy National Poetry Day!

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK and I stumbled across an article on the Guardian website by Britain’s Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

In it she argues that science and information is not enough to convince people of the problem or solutions to climate change. There is, she suggests much work to be done on an emotional or aesthetic level. As part of the Guardian’s “Keep it in the ground” campaign she has therefore curated 20 poems from different writers especially commissioned on the subject.

I think it’s a very intriguing idea. I have never been a subscriber of the idea of “two cultures [pdf]”, most scientists I know are well read, musically gifted, artistically inclined, culturally engaged and often all four together.

Equally, though I know very few professional artists, those I do know are often deeply interested in the products and processes of scientific thought across a broad range of subjects. Although they may fail C.P. Snow’s criteria of understanding the Laws of Thermodynamics, this seems a rather crude measure of engagement with scientific endeavours on a par with perhaps being able to recite Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech (and how many people can do that by heart?)

So, if the poem a day gets people excited, engaged and somehow involved in understanding and solving the problems of climate change I am all for it, especially with the summit in Paris coming up in December.

Here is “my” contribution. Not my own poetry which I fear is excruciatingly adolescent, but by the master Seamus Heaney, who I studied in school, proof of the inspiring nature of the English literature curriculum if there was any:


The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt.
What will we do, they ask, when boulder-milt
Comes wallowing across the delta flats
And the miles-deep shag ice makes its move?
I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above,
Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff,
And feared its coldness that still seemed enough
To ice-block the plane window dimmed with breath,
Deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth
And every warm, mouthwatering word of mouth.

Seamus Heaney (2005)

From District and Circle

I used this in my PhD thesis and like to think that it is about the glacier I did my PhD work on, Breidamerkurjokull in Iceland.

The photo below was taken in 2005 at the end of my last field season in Iceland. As a final farewell we took a plane flight over the glacier. In retrospect I wish I’d done it at the start as many processes and features we’d puzzled over became clear when viewed from above.

The 3 lobes of the glacier are clear in this picture (though the ice in the foreground is from a different glacier, Fjallsjokull), the lake with icebergs in the far background is the famous Jokulsarlon, a popular tourist site in Iceland and also, incidentally, a popular film location.

Seamus Heaney’s poem is rather grim in tone, but I think the photo shows just how sparklingly beautiful this area is on a good day


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