Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen's Face-to-Face Shows the Myopia of Climate Change Denial

Ice finally met fire on last night's episode of Game of Thrones, and their first conversation proved a perfect case study in the distance between power and reality.

Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow finally meet in Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 3
Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow finally meet in Game of Thrones Season 7, Episode 3


While promoting his new documentary and book, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, on Pod Save America, former vice-president Al Gore paraphrases Nelson Mandela when stating, “It’s always impossible until it’s done.” He’s discussing the “ferocious resistance” to climate science, a movement he compares to Civil Rights in the South of his youth. Over time, he believes, the choice becomes clear. His universe bends toward justice. 

When these questions get less complicated, when the underbrush is cleared away, and we get a clearer view of the binary choice at the heart of it, between right and wrong, then the outcome becomes foreordained. And I think we’re really close to that with the climate movement. 

Perhaps. Civil Rights was a giant step forward in America, but in recent years we’ve witnessed a sense of racism and entitlement that was boiling underneath the surface all along. The same for gay rights: most Americans, thankfully, are for it, but then a tweet dismantling transgender rights in the military exposes bigotry in less than 140 characters. It might truly be minority opinion, but it’s a loud and crude one. 

The White Walkers are ideal archetypes for whatever the society’s greatest fear is. In this column from episode three they’re white supremacists. Before season seven kicked off, Vox speculated that the entire series is about climate change, with the White Walkers leading the metaphor: 

Their zombie minions are equally happy to rip apart people of all nations and noble houses. Yet instead of uniting to combat the shared threat to human existence, the houses in the show spend basically all their time on their own petty disagreements and struggle for power. White Walkers are generally ignored; some nobles deny their existence outright.

This theory came to life last night during the most-anticipated meeting in the show’s history, that of Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow. While the focus today has been on the fact Snow refused to “bend the knee,” their first conversation proved a perfect case study in humanity’s painful history of the distance between power and reality. 

Targaryen’s sole focus is that the King of the North recognizes her legitimacy. A longstanding agreement between the Targaryens and Starks, with the former always ruling the latter, is “in perpetuity”—Tyrion provides the definition should the word not register with Snow. When the bastard replies that everyone is acting like a child Daenerys, well, acts like a child. She reminds Snow of the ancient pact and her flying friends. 

Which is fascinating. No one believed the dragons could be resurrected, but she did it. That’s her superhero power. While she does receive a glimpse of Snow’s superhero power, the ancient concept of resurrection which dates back well before the Christ mythology, Snow instead turns to anecdote: I’ve seen the White Walkers. I know what they can do. Wake up. 

Daenerys’s reaction is expectable: I only believe in my myth. Snow, of course, has seen the dragons, but given his last few seasons he’s more primed to take anyone at their word regarding magic and superstition. Daenerys, not so much. The well-traveled Tyrion proves more open-minded, which is why he brokers obsidian for trust. Daenerys’ thinking is fundamentalist, Snow’s, pragmatic, though in truth the Queen of Dragons is not so brittle that she’ll suffer Lady Olenna’s fate: a failure of imagination. 

How do we confront an enemy no one believes in because no one can see it? That's the question Snow leaves us with. We can see iceberg calving thanks to patient videographers positioned at the planet’s edges—a relative term, of course, as circles don’t have edges. But at this moment most would rather watch the videos on their screens rather than give up the behaviors that are part of the problem that’s causing calving. We tend to choose the superstitions that benefit us, not the ones that point at our destruction. 

Which defines metaphysical religious thinking. A benevolent “energy” for our ultimate good is one we desire, regardless of its absurdity in the face of biology and evolution. Likewise, one bent on our downfall cannot be the ultimate force in the “universe,” which bends toward “justice” and “love." Catchphrases stir our emotions even as they muddy the rising waters. 

So as Daenerys continues her quest of legitimacy and Cersei pitches the benefits of monarchies to Mycroft Holmes Tycho Nestoris, Jon Snow prepares to mine the earth for cooled lava in hopes of defeating the planet’s biggest threat. He recognizes the binary choice Gore points to, the first of the bickering children to reach adolescence. We can hope the other leaders follow suit, but we shouldn't expect it. It would be a boon for humanity, but it makes for terrible religion fiction.

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Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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