Heat Stories

Ice Elimination in the Era of Carbon Intensity

Figure 1

Photograph by Rafico Ruiz

Thermite working on ice. Journal of Howard T. Barnes. Barnes Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University.

Introduction: Heat as Environmental Disturbance

What comes after ice? In the not too distant past, the quick answer would have been water. In our carbon-defined present, with its disrupted hydrological cycle, the crystal structures that form, dissolve, and re-form are no longer a stable characterization of post-global warming ice. Of course, an element such as water is always in transition. Under variable temperature conditions, it is an elastic medium that tips towards temporary frozen stasis, or bubbles into vaporous moisture. The planet’s cryosphere, places defined by the year round presence of water in its solid state, has shifted out of its semantic designation of ice-based geographies, and has become a temporal marker of the unidirectional finitude of the phase transitions of water. The majority of humans on this planet do not inhabit nor experience the cryosphere as a changeable and damaged ecosystem where the presence of these disturbed phase transitions is made manifest. Yet, glacial ice’s intimate, elemental counterpart, sea level rise, begins to trace relations between the maintenance of cold ecosystems and the circulatory, meteorological regimes that the planet relies on. Ice and the cryosphere are more than temperature-based matter. They are cold generating social conditions that produce a spectrum of human and nonhuman responses, and ones that are becoming more urgent, detrimental, and intimate through the environmental reach of our planet’s atmospheric and oceanic warming. Bound together by the Poles, we are all, if not cold, then cooled human and nonhuman phenomena that live through elemental interactions that integrate temperature variance into our ecological symbiotic genesis.

What this condition of cool has come into contact with are consistent increasing ambient temperatures that affect planetary life. 2020 was the second hottest year on record, a mere 0.02 of a degree Celsius cooler than 2016.[1]  While warming seems to suggest variance amidst a possible range, this is no longer the case. Warm is now a rising temperature mean that will affect how humans and nonhumans co-create and relationally define “thermocultures.”[2] This will impact how and in what ways ‘cold’ is assumed as a cultural right, a bodily temperature state, and an air, water, or land condition that is often set in relation with zero degrees Celsius. If we are all warming, then this also means that we are all experiencing redefinitions of cooling at exponentially distinct rates—as both presence and absence; Inuvialuit with air and ocean currents that are too hot, residents of SoCal with soil that is too dry.

It is this disturbed and damaged environment that historians must contend with in tracing the ecological and temperature-dependent relations that cohere in the present. It is not only environmental historians who need to consider the zones of friction between ecological phenomena and human agency. The scale and scope of global warming is such that temperature variance, and rising levels of heat in particular, have become an agential force on par with human agency (and originating in the burning of fossil fuels by humans). To make sense of this conjuncture defined by the ubiquity of heat I approach ice as an environmental medium that can help us understand how humans have contended with this phase transition of water’s responsiveness to temperature variance. For media historian Nicole Starosielski “thermocultures” suggest ways of apprehending the constitution of media that are contingent on the manipulation of minerals and other elements extracted from the earth. In a similar vein and for my purposes here, ice can serve both as a medium of historical registration that stores the characteristics of past climatological conditions (salinity, air quality, geological composition, and more), while also registering how humans (often settler colonists) have sought to eliminate ice as an environmental impediment to the practice of settlement through the application of heat. If Inuit and other Indigenous communities who live with and by ice are stewards of a form of ecological knowledge that settlers have largely ignored and tried to erase, it follows that setter colonists have themselves created what I will sketch as consequential and harmful ‘heat stories’ out of their attempts to eliminate ice from their everyday lives. To make out these stories I look to the elemental material of ice as a medium capable of containing the agential capacity of heat.

The urgent question that comes to the fore, and the one that guides this work, is how can the recognition of environmental temperature change due to rising carbon dioxide levels give rise to understandings of historical causality that are attuned to heat? To respond, I mine ice as a phase transition of water that can contains these ‘heat stories.’ Historical geographer Emilie Cameron deems a story a “material ordering practice.”[3] In important ways this practice of storying has material effects across distinct environments. For Cameron, settler relations with distinct Inuit communities and sites across the Arctic can be told through “copper stories.” These are largely stories of settler extraction and exploitation.  This storying can hold these contentious relations together and show how the extraction of copper from Inuit-owned lands has privileged settler lives and livelihoods over all others. These stories are also not necessarily meant for Inuit communities, but rather are attempts to describe and characterize the unjust relationships that settler colonialism has perpetuated through the extraction of resources.  In an analogous manner, I approach heat stories as material ways of organizing the world that are predicated on the elimination of ice.  This article pauses on a single heat story in order to characterize how more heat stories could be written through the capacious forms of registration made available by ice as a temperature-attuned environmental medium. This story begins with Howard Barnes, an American ice physicist at McGill University from the 1910s to the 1930s, who was the inventor of thermite, a mixture of metallic aluminum and iron oxide, that could reach high temperatures and disaggregate ices of various kinds from within. Over time and the larger scope of this project, I see these heat stories creating a layered interpretive lens through which to approach contemporary discourses around glacier- and other ice-based environmental phenomena’s ‘demise’ through human-led practices of elimination, including global warming. Ice has always been a mobile phase of matter. Its mobility depended on ambient temperature conditions—glaciations and ice ages were the result of reliably cyclical temperature ranges across particular biomes.[4] Ice, in the form of glaciers, is also subject to gravitational forces that make these volumes of ice into dynamic fields of action that shape-shift and change. As Rob Nixon specifies, the adjective ‘glacial,’ under contemporary conditions of ice loss, is no longer one tied to views of incremental and gradual time, but rather to sped up notions of ecological damage.[5] Glaciers, particularly to those who inhabit their distant peripheries, are full of illusory stasis. It is this double cultural bind of ice that structures its forms of environmental registration.

If 2020 has been registered as the second hottest year on record, how do heat stories suggest ways of attributing responsibility for this temperature variance beyond the monolith material ‘carbon’? How does ice (in its dissolution) make this variance not only visible, but also signals the deep harm such warming is having on the planet’s hydrological cycles? Ice becomes water which becomes vapour which becomes water. Such are global warming’s effects on this cycle—what humans have come to call ‘sea level rise.’ The phase transitions of ice also hold the broader potential of demonstrating how it is a medium of historical registration that puts forward recurring forms of human-ice interaction predicated on ice elimination for the purposes of furthering settler colonialism and, often, the historical and contemporary logistical corridors (e.g. maritime shipping) of Trans-Atlantic capitalism.

5000 Degrees Fahrenheit

During the first half of the twentieth century, settler colonial practices were subject to a forced seasonality. Fog kept airplanes on the ground. Darkness made traversing the North Atlantic dangerous, particularly in areas prone to sea ice. Cold facilitated the formation of ice in harbours and rivers, with increased risk of flooding. Settler colonialism was (and is) premised on settlement, unwanted and prolonged stasis, and largely tied to forms of extraction, commodification, and shipment by sea. As a result, Trans-Atlantic capitalism, particularly during the period between the World Wars, embodied a seasonal cyclicality as well as settlers’ struggles to master thermal phenomena.

Ice, the phase transition of water in its solid state, was an environmental medium that locked relatively consistent and static tempos in place. It was an element that dictated when and where settlers could move. Ice thus challenged forms of settler infrastructure that relied on territorial control and traversability.[6] Settlers established in regions with seasonally low temperatures refused to adapt to the cryosphere’s rhythms, notably ‘freeze up’ and ‘break up.’[7] The pace of capitalism and its reliance on the uninterrupted movement of goods over long distances were threatened by ice, which could wreak havoc on human-made materials such as harbor piles, ships’ hulls, and other water-adjacent or -borne forms of settlement.

As a result, the displacement of ice as an elemental condition of occupied lands became a pressing concern. Ice-elimination demanded novel means of registration and observation—building up these scientifically sanctioned knowledges around ice became central to settler colonial experiences of cold environments.[8] Like traders, missionaries, and other settlers who extended temperature-driven knowledges across the Western Arctic beginning in the mid-nineteenth century,[9] settlers further south sought to modify ice’s capacity to challenge continuous trade—an ambition neatly summed up in the phrase “open water.” Heat and light, made through chemical exchange and experimentation, were the primary scientific means supporting this form of thermal colonization.[10]

A leading figure spearheading these efforts was Howard Barnes, an American physicist at McGill University in Montreal and the continent’s most widely recognized expert on the elimination of ice.[11] In a speech to the Kiwanis Club in Montreal in 1925, Barnes characterizes the decade beginning in 1914 as a “blank” in the practical application of chemistry for the destruction of ice. He saw the founding of the field of “ice engineering” as only being inaugurated in 1924 with his early iceberg research off the coast of the British colony of Newfoundland.[12] While settlers had largely relied on dynamite and other rudimentary explosives to eliminate ice jams in rivers and, more rarely, to clear paths through pack and sea ice, Barnes’ innovation lay in his use of thermite. Thermite is a mixture of metallic aluminum and iron oxide, one that is still in wide use in welding to bond two metals together. For Barnes thermite held the potential to not simply melt ice, but to disaggregate its very texture; to make ice crystals self-eliminating (see Figure 1 below).[13]

Barnes’ expertise lay in his knowledge of the structural properties of ice, in conjunction with how and under what conditions it could be made to come into contact with heat. In a 1926 address to the Royal Society of Canada, Barnes describes how a source of heat (thermite) has to be embedded within the ice, be light, and have energy emanate out from its point of origin at 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit like a short wave form of radiation, with the heat rays loosening the binding properties holding the ice crystals in place. “The molecules directly in the path of the energy are broken into their atoms and burn with a luminous flame,” Barnes claims. “So rapid is this action that a slow explosion occurs throughout the ice.”[14] Thermite could become a chemical technology that would enable settler mobility to be safer, more reliable, and push back against seasonal variation produced in low temperature environments. It also worked to shift ambient perceptions of ice as inevitable and out of settler control. Thermite’s gradual and almost deferred explosiveness opened the possibility of ice disaggregating over time. As Barnes specifies in a 1926 article in The Outlook: “ ‘The after effects of a charge in a mass of ice over a watercourse work on indefinitely. The whole effect of thermit [sic] is similar to the spread of a point of infection from a wound.’ So in a way one might call this treatment an inoculation, for its action proceeds from within out.”[15] This is an apt metaphor for a material that settlers saw as akin to a recurring disease—one that impeded their ability to move freely and to make other matter move in their service.

In other words, Barnes figured ice and icebergs not simply as obstacles to be destroyed, but as elemental conditions to be mediated: thermite offered the technical means to make ice register its own dissolution. This was indicative of settler ambivalences toward regions of low temperatures more broadly: they were also sites that needed to be constantly mediated in order to create optimal conditions for settlement. Thermal colonization, as a process, would be enacted when ice could be made self-eliminating and could be chemically mediated. Like diurnal time itself, thermite enabled ice to be aligned with a cyclicality that settlers could work alongside and overcome (see Figure 2 below).

Thermite as Practical Chemistry

It was as a practical application of chemistry, a legacy of World War I and the advent of chemical warfare, that thermite was placed in the North American environmental and public imaginary.[16] In addition to field research in Iceberg Alley off the coasts of Newfoundland and Greenland, as well as seasonal “burning out” work on the St. Lawrence River,[17] Barnes would participate in public demonstrations of the capabilities of thermite–the work of thermite formed a highly visual display, a performance of settler capacities. From Pittsburgh to Montreal to Syracuse, Barnes drew crowds in the thousands to witness how thermite could act upon progressively larger blocks of ice.[18] He would take photographs of the moment of ignition and the ensuing explosions. This spectacularization of heat coming into contact with ice was a reminder of the fine temperature line separating water’s phase transitions (see Figure 3 below). All that held the difference between open water and problematic ice was a temperature variation of a thousandth of a degree—the difference between frozen and solid states was malleable and available for chemical mediation.

These elaborate displays would usually take place at night, with a yellow burst of flaming heat illuminating the black-blue ice from within. They would have made the ice seem incandescent, and given a quasi x-ray view into its otherwise solid if crystalline mass. They were spectacles that precisely made these “slow explosions” visible and palpable to urban audiences often at an immediate remove from ice-locked harbours and jammed rivers, and certainly from North Atlantic shipping lanes at ‘risk’ of sea ice and icebergs.[19] The application of chemistry to ‘modern’ problems could also legitimate its growing use in other industries, particularly agriculture.[20] In this respect, the use of thermite on ice was could begin to embed an understanding of chemical agency within the formation of a North American colonial ecology. Here the evolving relationship between a body (both human and nonhuman) and its environment was premised on a widening applicability of chemical reactions.[21] This form of colonization deepened the ties settlers’ felt for (cold) territory under their immediate control.

Heat, Light and Settler Territorial Control

Barnes’ work on rendering ice spectacular was a continuation of his research on the North Atlantic that aimed to make shipping less vulnerable to poor visibility, particularly at night and in foggy conditions, and to the presence of ice. If he could mobilize heat to enable the self-destruction of ice, he could also use heat to generate an extension of settler territorial control through high-powered sources of light, i.e. flares, in marine environments. The opening lines of his “Report on the Effectiveness of Flares for Maritime Use” is worth quoting at length:

Thousands upon thousands have seen the ghostly light of the star shells over the land of horror. Hundreds have seen the earth’s surface so lighted at night, when the ships of the air are seeking a landing spot under the light of a flare. But who has seen the great restless white monsters of the north, the icebergs, so illuminated?

Barnes redraws the boundaries of flare technologies initiated during WWI so that they could take in the “white monsters of the north.” Coloured flares, measured in “candle power,” were indeed essential dimensions of air military infrastructure.[22]

Through a number of ‘expeditions’ during the 1920s to Newfoundland and Greenland, largely privately financed by William Van Horne, a Canadian railroad magnate, Barnes would deepen his knowledge of the interactions between flare-generated light, its articulation of various intensities of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, and icebergs.[23] He would conclude that suspended white light gave the best definition of snow and ice surfaces. The flares also had the purpose of forming a silhouette around a given iceberg, at a distance of roughly one mile, so that a ship’s course could be altered to avoid a collision. Barnes also experimented with a method for seeing through fog, using infrared rays detected on a photo-electric cell, a visual means of rendering icebergs in eery silhouette. Prevailing wind conditions were also a critical obstacle in the effectiveness of this visual display, as they pushed the trajectory of the flares off course.[24] Collectively, these examples show how the ambition of extending settler capacities of territorial control to dark water was predicated on putting heat, thermite, and explosives to work to create new modes of environmental legibility, which could underscore the time-constraints of Trans-Atlantic capitalist trade. Heat could destroy ice, but also make it newly visible. To settler eyes, this illuminated the possible extensions of colonial settlement into North Atlantic shipping corridors.

Barnes’ projects all helped to expand the role chemically generated heat could play in the larger settler colonial project. As a parallel to Mark Rifkin’s discussion of Indigenous communities’ forced synchronicity with settler time, the settler projection of ice as a singular, stasis-driven, and surmountable obstacle created a baseline for such practices of thermal colonization. Just as Rifkin points to the potentials of “temporal orientation” as a means of affirming the varied processes of self-determination that should be open to Indigenous communities,[25] these cases of thermal control suggest how settler attempts to eliminate ice are also predicated on practices of environmental violence and objectification. Ice, water in its solid state, could become integrated into the environment making processes of settler colonialism.


  • [1]2020 was Earth’s 2nd-hottest year, just behind 2016,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, January 14, 2021.
  • [2] Nicole Starosielski, “Thermocultures of Geologic Media,” in Cultural Politics 12(3) (2016): 293-309.
  • [3] Emilie Cameron, Far Off Metal River, 12.
  • [4] For an assessment of how this affected the southern hemisphere, and Australia in particular, see Ruth Morgan, “The Continent Without a Cryo-History: Deep Time and Water Scarcity in Arid Settler Australia,” in Journal of Northern Studies 13(2) (2019): 43-70.
  • [5] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 13.
  • [6] By way of contrast, Julie Cruikshank tracks how glaciers could contain the transmission of Indigenous languages and knowledges, see Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006).
  • [7] See Liza Piper, “Freeze-up, Break-up, and Colonial Circulation,” Journal of Northern Studies 13(2) (2019): 17-41.
  • [8] See Rafico Ruiz, “Iceberg Economies,” TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies 32 (2018): 179-199.
  • [9] Piper, “Freeze-up,” 26.
  • [10] Nicole Starosielski, Media Hot and Cold (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2021).
  • [11] See Howard Barnes, Ice Engineering (Montreal: Renouf Publishing Co., 1928), and Ice Formation, with special reference to anchor-ice and frazil (New York: J. Wiley, 1906).
  • [12] “Speech at Kiwanis Club, Windsor Hotel, Montreal, 1925,” Howard Turner Barnes Fonds, MG 1016, McGill University Rare Books and Special Collections.
  • [13] R. Holmes, Parson, “Science to Burn up Icebergs–Mighty Thermit is the Weapon in Fight on Ice Peril,” The Times Magazine, September 5, 1926; Howard Turner Barnes Fonds, MG 1016, McGill University Rare Books and Special Collections.
  • [14] “Barnes explains Thermite Theory,” (Newspaper title illegible), May 21, 1926;  Howard Turner Barnes Fonds, MG 1016, McGill University Rare Books and Special Collections.
  • [15] “Inoculating Icebergs,” New York Outlook, August 4, 1926; Howard Turner Barnes Fonds, MG 1016, McGill University Rare Books and Special Collections.
  • [16] Letter from Louis C. Jordy, professor of General Chemistry at Syracuse University to Howard Barnes, May 8, 1929: “The blowing up of the ice was reserved for the climax of the evening’s demonstration, and was a complete success. The large crowd, over 3000, was hard to handle, but after exploding a 400-pound block of ice with a half-charge of thermit we had less difficulty in getting them to stand clear of the danger zone. Then able (sic) to explode 800 pound block, a most spectacular display, no injuries to spectators recorded; thanks for showing public some idea of the possibilities in applying chemistry practically.” Howard Turner Barnes Fonds, MG 1016, McGill University Rare Books and Special Collections. See also Fred Aftalion, A History of the International Chemical Industry, trans. by Otto Theodor Benfey (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 120.
  • [17] “Government to Spend $60,000 On ‘Burning Out’ St. Lawrence,” (Newspaper title illegible), January 14, 1929; Howard Turner Barnes Fonds, MG 1016, McGill University Rare Books and Special Collections.
  • [18] “Ice expert will demonstrate mine,” Montreal Star, June (no day), 1926; Howard Turner Barnes Fonds, MG 1016, McGill University Rare Books and Special Collections.
  • [19] Mark Carey, “The International Ice Patrol: Or, How Icebergs (and Iceberg Hunters) Changed the Modern World,” (unpublished ms).
  • [20] Aftalion, A History of the International Chemical Industry, 166; and Timothy Johson, “Nitrogen Nation: The Legacy of World War 1 and the Politics of Chemical Agriculture in the United States, 1916-1933,” Agricultural History 90(2) (Spring 2016): 209-229.
  • [21] See Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
  • [22] Howard Barnes, “Report on the Effectiveness of Flares for Maritime Use,” (1929); Howard Turner Barnes Fonds, MG 1016, McGill University Rare Books and Special Collections. See also P. Whitney Lackenbauer and Matthew Farish, “The Cold War on Canadian Soil: Militarizing a Northern Environment,” Environmental History 12(4) (October 2007): 920-950.
  • [23] “R.B Van Horne Iceberg Research – Ninth Expedition,” letterhead in Barnes’ 1929 expedition journal;  Howard Turner Barnes Fonds, MG 1016, McGill University Rare Books and Special Collections.
  • [24] Barnes, “Report on the Effectiveness of Flares for Maritime Use.”
  • [25] Rifkin, Beyond Settler Time, 2.