Long before our Gregorian calendar began, the Mayans of South America launched their own.  Theirs was designed to run for a specific number (5,125) of years.  This ancient Maya Long Count calendar’s “last day” arrives this month, on December 21.  December 21st also happens to be 2012’s winter solstice, when the Sun at noon appears its lowest to the horizon all year.

Theories about this particular date have filled apocalyptic books for decades and, more recently, jammed the Internet.  They say, variously, that the 21st will bring a terrifying alignment of planets, a flipping of our magnetic poles, immense solar storms and/or a collision with the planet Nibiru, any of which will result in cataclysm and mass death.

As with Y2K, thousands of people who consider December 21st “Doomsday” have prepared for the worst.

But NASA and credible scientists, who are already looking forward to astronomical events years from now (a total solar eclipse in 2020, and so forth,) categorically deny that December 21 is a day of doom.  For them it’s just another interesting winter solstice in the vast eons. And, the Maya calendar?  It begins a new 5-thousand-year-plus ‘long count’ period on December 22.

On the occasion of this date, though, indisputable figures confirm that another kind of ‘end of days’ altogether is actually upon us.

Irrefutably, human beings are now living in the end of the world they have understood for millennia.  Earth is actually entering an era that will experience phenomenon similar to Christianity’s End Times (from Revelation;  “and there were flashes of lightening, loud noises, peals of thunder, and earthquake and heavy hail,” “men were scorched by the fierce heat,”) and will result, in measurable ways, in the end of countless things.

It’s climate change.  The planet’s average temperature has risen by 1.4° over the past century.  It is projected to rise another 2 – 11.5° over the next hundred years.  The evidence is unequivocal; most of the warming is caused by human activity, particularly our greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, methane) emissions.  This warming results in altered weather patterns; more frequent and intense heat, more floods and rain.

Our ice caps are melting and our seas are rising.  Oxygen-depleted areas, like the “dead-zone” off Oregon’s coast are predicted to multiply.  The extinction of creatures and habitats that have flourished for millions of years will accelerate.

Although humans lived as early as 2.5 million years ago, our own genus, Homo sapiens, has been around only 200,000, and “modern people” (those with civilization, agriculture, etc.) didn’t evolve until 12,000 years ago.

That’s just about the time our planet’s most recent glacial period ended, which means that for whatever genetic memory our species has, it is of a planet with a relatively stable climate.  And that’s what we’ve adapted to.

Climate change means the end of the weather and atmosphere our species is accustomed to, the maps we’ve used for centuries, the flora and fauna our students see in their biology and zoology textbooks.

As the earth’s climate changes, our water, power and transportation systems will change with it.  Regions that are already ‘dry’ will no longer be able to produce food.  With an up to 3-foot rise in oceans prior to 2100 (mostly due to glacial melting) and with a sea level rise of between 18 and 29 feet over the next several hundred years, coastal cities and low-lying countries will experience devastation and mass exodus.

One profound indicator of the changing climate is the melting of the last continental ice sheets and glaciers.  The 2012 documentary, Chasing Ice concerns this phenomenon.  It is a portrait of environmental photographer James Balog and his risky work in extreme arctic regions to chronicle the loss of glaciers in Greenland, Iceland and Alaska for National Geographic.   Initially a skeptic of climate theories, Balog learns with the Extreme Ice Survey that, after hundreds of years of debate, “we don’t have time,” to dispute it any more.

“Scientists are more frightened of it than the public,” he says, “It’s unprecedented.”

The movie is the story of one man and his ailing knee and human fragility as he doggedly pursues visual evidence with breathtaking images.

Gorgeous photos of ice, stars, land and sky fill the screen.  Bubbles of ancient air trapped deep in ice are released before the viewer’s eyes.  Miles of ice flow pass landmarks to be absorbed into the sea, the accelerated years compressed into seconds.

Chasing Ice photographs an enormous peninsula of ice, 5 football lengths long, as it ‘calves’ from a still-vaster frigid landscape.  The event is awesome, spectacular and unexpectedly heart rending.  A “miraculous, horrible, scary thing,” the photographer comments.

Chasing Ice combines science and the personal for a compelling look at the verifiable “end of times” we live in.  It plays this month at the Salem Cinema and next month as the first 2013 presentation of Salem’s Progressive Film Series.
It’s too late to “stop” climate change.  Last month the scientific journal Nature Climate Change discussed ways human beings could alter direction; none of them are realistic.  The accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers agrees.   The Environmental Protection Agency says, “What’s clear is that the climate we are accustomed to is no longer a reliable guide for what to expect in the future.”

But even the climate change we are witness to in December 2012 does not mean “doomsday.”  The most credible information we have is that planet earth will be absorbed by an expanding sun in about a billion years.
The winter solstice of December 21st (sometimes December 22nd), has long been a time of celebration in cultures around the world.

Poised in winter, at both an end and a beginning, it is an opportunity to celebrate life.  As we ring in the New Year, with all its hopes and possibilities, let’s remember the vanishing world our ancestors knew and take a moment to notice the things we are losing forever.

Chasing Ice showings

80-minute documentary
Directed by Jeff Orlowski

Salem Cinema

Starts showing December 14

check website for dates and times at salemcinema.com or call (503) 378-7676

Salem Cinema
1127 Broadway Street
NE Salem


Salem Progressive Film Series

with expert speakers
and audience discussion
January 10, 2013, 7 pm

Grand Theatre
191 High Street NE
Downtown Salem