I discovered this book after recently reading Fox’s travel memoir Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border. Like Northland, The Last Winter is divided into several sections, each of which describes a journey the author makes to a far-flung corner of the north. While telling of his own adventures, Fox frequently deviates into stories of the people he meets along the way and famous historical figures whose exploits helped define the regions he is exploring. However, The Last Winter has an added focus on the rapidly advancing juggernaut of climate change.
The first section, “The Fires,” takes place in the North Cascade mountains in the state of Washington. Here Fox studies the relationship between the ever more virulent wildfires hitting larger and larger areas of North America and Earth’s ever warming temperatures. The wildfires exacerbate the warming, and the warming increases the wildfires.
In part two, “The Icefield,” Fox travels to science camps on an Alaskan glacier run by the Juneau Icefield Research Program, which Fox refers to as “the second-oldest glacial monitoring program in the world.” Monitoring glaciers and how fast they are receding (and around the world they are receding very rapidly) provides clues to the rate of climate change and what we can anticipate in the future.
In the next section, “The Alps,” the author travels to Italy to assess the havoc that warming temperatures and vanishing snow is wreaking on the Alpine tourist industry, and in a broader sense, the many people throughout Europe who depend on Alpine snow melt to feed their river systems and their commerce.
Finally, in the section called “White Earth,” Fox takes a trip via dog sled along the frozen coast of Greenland, whose vast reserves of snow are melting more rapidly than anyone anticipated. The historical tales in this part are the most fascinating, because Fox delves into the journeys of the Inuit people, Fridtjof Nansen, Knud Rasmussen, and Peter Freuchen as they explored the far north of the North American continent and the forbidding frozen interior of Greenland. Near the end of his Greenland adventure, Fox receives word that the United States border is being shut down due to COVID, and the dog sled expedition makes a frantic dash back to base so its guests can find a way out of Greenland before borders close. When Fox returns to New York, he and his family leave the city and retire to a cabin in the woods to wait out the pandemic.
The added danger of the COVID pandemic at the end of the book puts an exclamation point on Fox’s message of extreme danger due to climate change. Existence throws variables at us that are sometimes difficult to cope with. As Fox points out, humans generally confront emergencies as they arise and do not have a tendency to look too far ahead. Scientists had been warning of a pandemic for at least half a century, but nobody did anything until it was upon us. Now scientists warn of climate change and shrinking winters, but the message of this book is to do something about it before an uncomfortable situation turns into a catastrophe.
The Last Winter is somewhat uneven. Some parts are better told than others, and some stories are vastly more interesting than others. Overall, however, it must be stated that it is an important book and an effective introduction for non-scientists to the important topic of global climate change.