On the corner of Boyd and Fox streets in Portland, a mural depicts a classic winter landscape with the message, in large letters formed by chunks of ice: STAY POSITIVE. It was a useful, if serendipitous, admonition as I came to the end of Porter Fox’s book about climate change, “The Last Winter.” In the face of the terrifying statistics that he cites page after page, positivity, if not optimism, is the only way.

Think about the changing climate in terms of seasons, a leading glaciologist tells Fox. Summer is overtaking winter; spring is coming earlier and earlier, permanently shrinking the cryosphere, that world of mountain glaciers and continental ice sheets. This was what drew the attention of the author, a life-long skier, to the dire threat of global warming.

Fox, who grew up on Mount Desert Island, is a travel writer who traced the U.S.-Canadian border in his previous book, Northland; his main credential for tackling this dire subject is his passion for winter sports, bolstered by his ability to find an intriguing cast of characters “studying what the earth will look like when winter is gone.” He tracks them down with gusto as he chases the story “from wildfires to vanishing snow to a warming planet.” Simultaneously, he traces the critical influence of ice and its fluctuations on world history since the beginning.

He starts in the North Cascades, in the aftermath of the massive wildfire known as the Carlton Complex Fire. A rancher gives him a blow-by-blow account of the loss of his home, then complains about the media trying to link the increasing number of fires in the West to “goddamn climate change.” The Pacific Northwest won’t have any glaciers left in a hundred years, says a researcher working on one already in retreat. Snow is like a reservoir in the mountains; without it, forests dry, fires spread and 40% of the West is headed for desertification. Pondering all this on his flight home, Fox writes, rather endearingly, “Then I reached for the screen and searched for a movie, a football game, a comedy, any possible distraction.”

About halfway through the book, Fox describes the author’s “black hole,” where “the meat of the narrative…is such a mishmash” of ideas and research that he despairs of ever pulling it all together. Rescue comes in the form of a hard-achieved interview at the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) in Zurich, Switzerland. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is at about this point that “The Last Winter” really takes off.

On a large flat-screen monitor, WGMS Director Michael Zemp keeps tabs on the planet’s ice inventory, “splotches of magenta and white” against a largely green and blue map of the world. The cryosphere is facing a climate change trifecta: warming is faster at higher elevations, at higher latitudes, and in the winter. In many places, the change from winter snow to rain, from white peaks to brown ones, will be far away from major population centers, and there will be no “protests from the masses.”


Switzerland is different. It is defined by the Alps, and it is the most densely populated of mountain regions. The results of loss of Alpine snow are being felt all over Europe in all sorts of fascinating ways. One of the more curious – and potentially lethal to the villages located beneath them – comes from the fact that many peaks in the Alps are cemented together by permafrost and are likely to fall apart as the temperature rises.

At a conference in Bern, Fox watches “the slow churn of science trying to catch up with the rapid pace of climate change.” And, “with the end of winter in sight,” he takes in “The Lost and Found Memories Office,” an exhibit intended to memorialize the short but romantic history of winter sports in the Alps.

Skiing a 25-mile circle in the Italian Dolomites with an ace Italian mountaineer gives plenty of opportunity for history, from the Little Ice Age to the crack Italian Alpini regiment in World War I.

His last expedition is to Greenland with a Royal Marine Commando and three Inuit hunters. Here Fox excels in his descriptions of the landscape and light. “Night (in the Arctic) is an afterworld of ghostly shapes and distant sounds, like opening your eyes underwater.”

The end of his quest comes suddenly with a text message: GET HOME NOW. While he has been enjoying the white wastes of Greenland, COVID-19 has started to strangle the world, and the President had just closed the country’s borders. It is a fitting end, trading one global catastrophe for another, although “not as hard as the end of winter will be.” Unless the nations of the world take climate change seriously and act fast, our civilization will disappear with it.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”

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