09/11/2007 07:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Beginning of Life - and the End of Civilization?

Isua, Greenland -- Here, on a rocky outcrop perched 2,000 feet above Davis Strait and 1,000 feet below the cap of the Greenland ice sheet, a shale face about the size of a plasma tv screen contains the world's oldest known surface rocks -- 3.8 billion years old. The shale was laid down in an ocean -- probably the world's first ocean, since further back in the so-called "Hadean Age," the planet was probably too hot for liquid water. In the middle of the face, tilted almost vertically, are thin slices of black rock interlayed with thicker buff bands, like a devil's food cake with very thick mocha frosting. The black bands are remnants of ancient sea floor, and their shiny sable color is the marker of ancient life -- organic carbon metabolized from the ancient ocean by the world's first known life.

Minik Rosing, the Greenlandic scientist who established that the black layers are left over from organic life is reasonably confident that the ancient life laid down here was not the first life -- there is too much carbon for truly primitive life forms to have accumulated -- and that these creatures had mastered the art of photosynthesis. We just haven't found any rocks from the moment when life first emerged. This means that life emerged on Earth not after a long waiting period, but almost as soon as the ancient oceans had cooled enough to permit it to evolve -- almost as if life had been programmed into the dawn of the universe, waiting, like a seed, for the right conditions to emerge.

As our helicopter lifts off, heavy snow flurries threaten our ability to reach the top of the ice sheet, but Greenlandic pilots are skilled at using the canyons to escape bad weather. Soon we are in another ancient landscape -- this one made of ice, and far more rugged and beautiful than the rockscape below it. But the degradation of the ice cap is discernible to the naked eye -- it's like watching an ancient creature, some huge, scaly ice-dragon breathe its last. The crevasses and summer melt are part of the normal life of glacial ice, but at the edge of the sheet there are huge circular openings, like huge vortices of ice, which funnel melted water to the sea. These provide new evidence that the ice, which used to close the drain holes each winter, is no longer being replenished.

Vast quantities of meltwater, milky with "glacial flour," pour off and from underneath the ice sheet, and as the volume of meltwater grows, the risk to our societies increases. Life's beginning, and the evidence that our civilization is at risk, lie only a kilometer apart. The Greenland ice sheet is the anchor which holds the oceanic thermal circulation in place, and makes London's weather more like Washington's than Labrador's. It also contains enough water -- if melted -- to raise world sea level by 20 feet. Goodbye Florida, Bangladesh, Venice, the Nile Delta, and many of the world's great coastal cities.

Back on the ship, the dialogue is sober, depressing, marked by the realization that the world has been failing to avert climate catastrophe. As Vandana Shiva of India puts it, "Our challenge is to make a political tipping point come faster than a climatic tipping point." Can we do it in time? We have the means. Do we have the will? How do we move our hearts?