The Last Winter

The Scientists, Adventurers, Journeymen, and Mavericks Trying to Save the World


By Porter Fox

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One man’s “curiously thrilling joyride” of travelogue, history, and climatology, across a planet on the brink of cataclysmic transformation (Donovan Hohn).

As the planet warms, winter is shrinking. In the last fifty years, the Northern Hemisphere lost a million square miles of spring snowpack and in the US alone, snow cover has been reduced by 15-30%. On average, winter has shrunk by a month in most northern latitudes.

In this deeply researched, beautifully written, and adventure-filled book, journalist Porter Fox travels along the edge of the Northern Hemisphere's snow line to track the scope of this drastic change, and how it will literally change everything—from rapid sea level rise, to fresh water scarcity for two billion people, to massive greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost, and a half dozen climate tipping points that could very well spell the end of our world.

This original research is animated by four harrowing and illuminating journeys—each grounded by interviews with idiosyncratic, charismatic experts in their respective fields and Fox's own narrative of growing up on a remote island in Northern Maine.

Timely, atmospheric, and expertly investigated, The Last Winter will showcase a shocking and unexpected casualty of climate change—that may well set off its own unstoppable warming cycle.


The Fires


It Started in Cougar Flats

It took fifteen minutes for the pieces that made up Kim Maltais’s life to disappear. The stoop where he kicked off his boots after working on the ranch. The faux-wood-paneled hot tub where he soaked on weekend nights with a cold beer. The gas grill on which he cooked lobsters every New Year’s Eve, the home where he and his wife, Lenore, had lived for twenty years.

Where the pieces once stood, neatly fitted together on a steep hillside overlooking Washington’s Methow Valley, there was only fire and smoke and burning trees. Some said the wildfire that day sounded like a 747 jet engine roaring a hundred feet overhead. Others said it was more like static on an old television, cranked up to full volume. It’s hard to say what it was like because the inferno was from another world, something you would see in a movie or read about in the Bible. It was not something that happened to real people, or if it did, they didn’t live to tell about it.

If Kim was going to survive, he needed air. Hot wind swirled around what was once his backyard in a dense black whorl of soot and noxious gases. He couldn’t see ten feet in front of him. He couldn’t hear anything above the roar. He knew that most of his things were already gone; he’d watched the first flame dance up the north wall of his house a few minutes before. The rest would soon vanish. He’d found his cat, Sniper, clinging by all fours on the screen door. The parrot was dead. The fate of his and Lenore’s twelve beloved huskies, which had been penned in a chain-link kennel in the yard, was unknown. Kim was pretty sure he’d gotten six out. But the sound of the fire was so loud that he couldn’t hear them howling, and they couldn’t hear him calling.

Every thirty seconds, another piece vanished: the picnic table, Kim’s neatly trimmed lawn, stands of ponderosa pine and lodgepole pine on Pole Pick Mountain, where he had shot gophers for a nickel a hide as a boy. Kim was a son of the West—in stature, diction, dress, facial hair, and every other measure. He was sixty-six and stood “five-foot-twelve” with a chest like a truck radiator. At home he often wore a do-rag, wraparound sunglasses, and a thick gray mustache that, depending on the time of year, morphed into a goatee, pork chops, or a full-on beard. Leaning against a steel fence, he looked like an actor from an old Western—checking on streamflow, fixing irrigation ditches, and surveying his land with a shovel resting on his shoulder.

Even Kim’s voice matched the movies: sweet, lyrical, with a northern European inflection infused by his Norwegian ancestors and generations of settlers lured west by the 1850 Oregon Donation Land Act. Who wouldn’t sign up for three hundred acres of free land on Frazer Creek? Even in late October, with the bite of winter in the air and the sun so weak you could stare straight into it, the tablelands and hayfields of the Methow Valley were mostly green, and Frazer Creek flowed with crystal-clear water. This was God’s country, a perfect sphere of sun, water, gravity, field, beast, and forest.

Kim needed to reconstruct that image—the yard, the driveway, the house, the way out—if he was going survive the firestorm. He’d left an old Jeep in a clearing nearby. There would likely be a couple dozen lungfuls of clean air in it. Hundred-foot flames vaulted through the sky as he felt his way forward. The fire was crowning now, leaping from treetop to treetop. It was so hot that it spontaneously ignited hay, grass, saplings, and fence posts hundreds of feet away.

Fire follows wind more than it does terrain. A wildfire will burn straight down a steep hillside if the breeze is blowing that way. Crown fires run so fast through the treetops, they often don’t touch the trunk. Most of the smoke was water vapor, released by the incredibly dense biomass in the Methow forests—up to fifty tons per acre. The rest was mostly carbon dioxide, from torched stands of subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir. Whatever didn’t get hot enough to break molecular bonds and morph into gas drifted hundreds of miles across the Pacific Northwest as ash.

Kim was no stranger to the mechanics of wildfires. Like most young men around Twisp, the little ranch town five miles away, he’d worked on fire crews for two decades. He started with private contractors around Washington, then was hired by the US Forest Service to battle blazes in Oregon, California, Montana, and Alaska. He made squad boss first, then crew boss, then sector boss, managing anywhere from five to twenty crews at a time and staging direct and indirect attacks on fires—back burning, digging fire lines, Kim making the call when to advance and when to get the hell out. Ten years in, he made division boss and directed firefighting efforts across entire regions, marshaling hundreds of firefighters, tankers, excavators, and planes as the blaze cut its path. He’d fought more than a hundred major wildfires before moving home to run the family ranch and live a more peaceful life.

Kim was pretty sure he knew where the fire tearing across Coyote Ridge was headed. It had started days ago in Cougar Flats, north of Twisp. A reporter for the Methow Valley News said that she saw smoke on Monday, July 14, 2014. She found Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and National Forest Service vehicles there. Two DNR employees said they were waiting for backup but that simultaneous fires in Stokes, Gold, and Texas Creeks to the south had drained the department’s resources. They also said that the Forest Service employee at the scene had inspected the fire and concluded that it would likely put itself out at the top of the ridge.

In just three days, the Cougar Flats Fire was an inferno. And it was racing south. The Okanogan County Sheriff’s dispatch received more than a thousand calls a day on Thursday and Friday as the fires spread. Just one day after it started, the Stokes Fire alone grew to six hundred acres, forcing the evacuation of homeowners in Carlton, ten miles south of Twisp. The following day, the fire jumped the Methow River and Route 153 and destroyed eleven homes in Carlton.

The wind continued to blow, and on Thursday, all four fires merged into one massive blaze. What became known as the Carlton Complex Fire grew that day at four acres per second for nine straight hours. The smoke plume was more than forty thousand feet high, and embers from the plume landed up to a mile away, igniting spot fires. By Thursday, the fire had grown by a factor of nearly ten, to 167,000 acres—officially the largest wildfire in Washington history.

Mastodons and Sabertooths

Kim had been relaxing on his boat on nearby Lake Chelan when he got the call that a fire was headed for his home. He spent as much time on Chelan as he could, mostly at a little marina on the southeastern end of the lake. He had never thought of himself as a boat person. He was a rancher who, along with two brothers and a sister, grew up driving tractors, tending crops and cows, and hunting deer so his mother could jar the venison in olive oil for the winter.

Kim’s parents arrived in the Methow Valley in the 1930s, just as millions of Dust Bowl farmers abandoned their land and as the nation slid into the Great Depression. There wasn’t much to Twisp then. Prospectors had flocked to the valley in the 1880s, when lode gold and silver were discovered. You could pay for your groceries with gold dust back then. But the seams ran dry and the livery barns, restaurants, general stores, saloons, bank, and opera house burned up in a fire accidentally started in 1924 by the town doctor.

Kim attended the local elementary and high schools, played on the basketball team, and learned how to run the farm. Operating a ranch in the Methow Valley in the 1960s was about survival. You fixed what was broken, sold what you could harvest from your land. The Maltaises raised Hereford cattle and cut and sold hay in the summer. If they needed money in the winter, they headed into the forest to log trees.

When Kim was seventeen, he took a long step away from the family business, enlisting in the army and flying halfway around the world to the jungles of Vietnam. If you ask him about his time there, he will tell you that “those are things we are not supposed to talk about.” When I asked him how long he was deployed, he answered, “Two years, nine months, six days, forty-seven minutes, and six seconds.”

A person looks for solitude after an experience like that, and Central Washington and the Methow Valley are a good place to find it. The same planetary forces that carved Lake Chelan—a fifty-mile-long, 1,500-foot-deep chasm formed by the collision of two glaciers—also shaped the valley. Mastodons and sabertoothed cats of the last Ice Age do not feel far off as you look down the throat of the basin—which starts in the high peaks of the North Cascade Mountains and extends to the prairies hemming the Methow River. The landscape is so jumbled it almost looks alien, perhaps because it once was. Eight hundred million years ago, the northwest coast of America ended near Spokane, Washington. Everything west of that, including the heaps of gneiss, till, granite, and grassland in the Methow, once formed microcontinents on the Pacific plate. As the Atlantic Ocean grew and the Pacific plate slid beneath North America—it still subducts three inches every year—the islands washed up on the Northwest coast like flotsam on a beach.

You can see the geological turmoil that created the Northwest as you drive toward Twisp. The gnarled peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains near Carlton took shape 300 million years ago, just as plants and reptiles sprouted on earth. The Okanogan Highlands to the north cropped up next, around 180 million years ago, followed by an upwelling of liquid granite that formed the mountains on the eastern edge of the valley. Heaps of terrestrial sandstone, marine shale, and volcanic rock make up the parallel Twisp and Buck Mountain formations framing Highway 20.

Washington Pass is a granite trough; it is the belly of a snake twisting back on itself. It is a time signature on the ever-evolving topographical symphony of the Pacific Northwest. It is carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and a dozen metals bound in a million ways, cracking earth’s crust, eroding under the weight of rain, snow, and ice. It is a piece of our history; it wasn’t always like this. That is the thing that people, environmentalists, and even preachers forget. They want things to be the same, but things on earth are never the same for long.

From the top of Washington Pass, the head of the Methow wraps sixty degrees to the west, then back around to the east, then west again like a wandering brook. The peaks there are not just tall and steep; they are sheer, like the side of a skyscraper, shooting straight up from the valley floor to forested ridgelines, cirques, bowls, and an auburn rim of granitic summits left by the last glacial retreat of the Ice Age twelve thousand years ago. Down the middle, the Methow River flows, watering alfalfa fields and stands of pine along its shores.

The first time I looked down Washington Pass was a couple of days before I met Kim. The view didn’t make sense. Mountains come at you from all directions; steep valleys meet, diverge, then disappear. The stubbled Kangaroo Ridge wanders north-south at a thirty-degree angle to the edge of Liberty Bell Mountain. On the opposite side of the road, the ridgeline between Hinkhouse and Cutthroat Peaks splits and veers toward Cutthroat Pass, then Rainy Pass, where it intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail.

I had not yet unearthed the kernel that this book would wrap itself around. Thinking back on it now, I wonder if that moment and vista was the kernel—a glimpse of the planet and its story, distinct from our human story—and everything I saw next wrapped around it. That morning, I’d watched the sun rise above a sea of red taillights on Highway 84 as the lumberjack-hipster apocalypse of Portland, Oregon, faded in the rearview. Straight ahead, the pile of ice and rock that is Mount Hood blocked the sun. It is easy to spot the tallest mountains in the Pacific Northwest. They are all volcanoes and stand on the horizon like mountains a child would draw: perfect triangles with broad flanks and pointy, snow-covered summits. A golden halo wrapped itself around Mount Hood, and an eerie orange glow lit the underside of a marine layer hanging over the Pacific. It was late October—not too cold, not warm, that in-between season when you can wear a T-shirt at midday but your water bottle freezes in the car at night.

I followed the Columbia River for an hour that morning, through a 4,000-foot-deep, 80-mile-long gash in the Cascades that the river cut. You get some perspective on time looking at the Columbia River Gorge and the alluvial flatlands of Central Washington. Some of the greatest floods in the history of North America took place there at the end of the last Ice Age. Massive amounts of water from melting glaciers and glacial lake outbursts on the Clarke Fork River submerged much of eastern Washington with eighty-mile-per-hour deluges. This water eventually hit the Cascades and pounded its way through. Off Route 97, you can still see runnels where the water flowed near the farm towns of Goldendale and Toppenish.

That kind of timescale—geological time, or deep time—is earth’s story: its splintered crust and spinning iron core and the abiogenetic miracle that appeared in its oceans millions of years ago, when non-life turned into life and eventually us. The story of us, even this story that was just coming into view, transpires in regular time—birthdays, graduations, snowstorms, firestorms—which is a blink of an eye in comparison. My guide that first day on Washington Pass, whose arm I grabbed after toeing the comically precipitous thousand-foot cliff that is Highway 20’s “scenic overlook,” was the Bird Man, or Bird, or Michael Shaffer to Twisp elders who remembered him as a squirrelly blond teenager. A mutual friend had put us in touch, and we made a plan to meet. Bird was forty-nine and a lifetime skier, which meant that he had a lot of free time on his hands May through October—including time to hatch at least half a dozen itineraries for us during my stay.

Michael Shaffer speaks human, but everything else about him is bird. From the moment I emerged from the cell-signal shadow of the North Cascades, text messages to meet for “kawfy” or a “birdfict” bonfire at the local brewpub streamed in. There was a lot to see and many people to meet. The grand finale would be an intricately engineered rendezvous during which I would drive to a designated field, make three loud birdcalls, and wait for Bird to leap off a tiny hill with an equally tiny parachute and land, hopefully, at my feet. Kaw-py?

The instructions looked like this:

1st kaw—I see you, hoot back if you can

2nd kaw—after 5 minutes for setup—you can hoot when ready but hard to hear

3rd kaw—I am taking off!

Bird’s parents were also refugees of the Vietnam War, along with many others in the valley, I would soon find. Around the time that Kim Maltais shipped out, Bird’s father, Terry, flew F-8 Crusader jets over Vietnam while his mother, Karen, led peace marches around the United States. (The dissimilitude prompted US Navy brass to ask Bird’s father to request his better half to “calm that stuff down.”) Love prevailed, and after the war, the couple moved—with Bird, his sister, and seven other families—to the Methow Valley. They bought 240 acres of sagebrush and foothills along Poor Man’s Creek and founded the Second Mile Ranch. The Christian-inspired ranch was one of a dozen communes—or cults, take your pick—that moved to the Methow Valley in the 1960s and 1970s. (The name Second Mile Ranch refers to Matthew 5:38–48: “And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.”) The families did their best to create a pure and fulfilling life of self-sustainability and community—prominent themes of the back-to-the-land movement that swept through the United States in the early 1970s. Bird and his family lived in a tent at first, then a single-wide trailer home. His father worked as a pilot for a local airline and cut trees to make extra money. The ranch set up a sawmill and, over the next few years, built houses for each family.

Every Sunday, the Second Milers worshipped in church and hosted a potluck meal. Bird had twenty-one surrogate brothers and sisters, by his count. Something about the valley attracted other experimental thinkers. When Bird was young, he and the Second Miler kids climbed the hill behind their houses to spy on the Libby Creek commune—where members hung crystals in trees, walked naked through the fields, and practiced free love without the encumbrance of buildings, relationships, walls, or beds. A few miles in the other direction was the Church of Manna, where the minister and most of the congregation dropped acid before rolling red-hot into a Sunday sermon to see where the spirit took them.

Bird’s family did not have much, but the commune members helped one another and made sure everyone was comfortable. Wildfire was a constant reality—many Second Milers worked as part-time firefighters in the summers—as were springtime floods, summer heat waves, and fall droughts. Of all the seasons that Methow residents endured, nothing matched the dark months and deep cold that arrived in November and didn’t leave until April.

Winter in northern Washington is something to behold. Temperatures drop below freezing in the high country in September. The first snow typically arrives in October, and the last of it melts in May. The Methow Valley has a high desert climate and sees an average of seventy inches of snow annually. The peaks surrounding it get more than thirty feet as epic winter storms blowing off the Pacific drop up to ten feet at a time.

The cold brings citizens of the Methow together, Bird said, if for no other reason than they chose to live in it and endure it together. While the chill and solitude of wintertide pushes most people in North America south, others move toward it. It is not a masochistic endeavor. It is an appreciation for nature’s rhythms: the wobble of Earth’s orbit, the passing of seasons, the moment the planet’s axis tilts back 23.5 degrees, creating the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter. Butterflies, bees, and eighteen hundred bird species head for the equator then. A few hundred varieties of fish, insects, and cetaceans follow. Caribou walk a thousand miles over five months. Arctic terns fly the equivalent of twice around the world in their migration. Overhead, trees redirect chlorophyll, which gives leaves their green hue, to their root systems, allowing other pigments like xanthophylls (yellow) and anthocyanins (red) to show through—until the leaves fall, completing the transfer of energy from sun to the soil.

Winter is not a weather event. It is, in part, the result of an ancient astronomical collision. A planetesimal (tiny planet) struck Earth soon after the larger planet formed, four and a half billion years ago, knocking Earth off its 90-degree orientation to the sun and creating the cadence of our seasons. The Moon is a piece of Earth’s crust that was ejected after impact; the drag of its gravitational pull slowed Earth’s spin. Before the crash, daytime lasted six hours longer, and winds, caused by the planet’s spinning beneath its atmosphere, often reached speeds of three hundred miles per hour.

The flick of Helios’s finger, which pushes half the planet into darkness and cold for half the year, also ejected most of Earth’s primordial atmosphere into space, much of which was carbon dioxide. As a result, our planet does not have the extreme carbon dioxide concentration and resulting greenhouse effect of our sister planet Venus, where surface temperatures average eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Earth’s uniquely thin firmament lets solar energy come and go and allows water to exist in all three phases—liquid, solid, and gas—necessary for life.

Before we knew about planets, orbits, and celestial obliquities, the Greeks hypothesized that cold and winter came from a distant source, beyond the realm of Boreas, god of the north wind. Aristotle wrote that an area of frozen ocean somewhere west of Europe was the culprit; medieval priests said it came from the westernmost island in the known world, called Thule. Scandinavian epics describe the extreme cold of the north as the home of giants, death, drowning, and “strange beasts.” Some of the last Neanderthals to live in Ireland built a mass tomb around 3200 BC to honor the first day of winter. On the winter solstice, the sun shines through a roof box in the tomb at the end of a sixty-two-foot tunnel. Beneath the opening are stone basins filled with cremated bodies.

For most of history, the first days of winter marked the beginning of famine, dark days, freezing temperatures, and no crops. Feasts and celebrations on the winter solstice were thrown not in anticipation of this miserable season but because it was the end of the harvest season, when crops were reaped and wine and beer were fully fermented. Larders were full; death was at the door; livestock was slaughtered so animals wouldn’t have to be fed throughout the winter, leaving an abundant supply of meat. It was a time of preparation, when days began to grow again, and a new year began—marked by festivals like Maghi in India, the Norse-Gaelic-inspired Hogmanay in Scotland, and Yaldā in the Middle East. Saturnalia in ancient Rome was one of the most extravagant solstice celebrations. A sacrifice was made to Saturn, gambling was temporarily allowed, and masters switched roles with their slaves, serving them food and drink at a public banquet where gag gifts were exchanged.

In the ancient Greek doctrine of the five zones—demarcated by the Arctic Circle, Tropic of Cancer, the Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, and the Antarctic Circle—winter existed only in “Frozen Zones” set in the far north and south. The “Torrid Zone” awaited wayward travelers on either side of the equator. If someone wandered too far north, the person would freeze to death immediately. Those who ventured south would burst into flames. “Temperate Zones” in between were the only regions humans could survive. The theory of the five zones was so pervasive that it limited exploration and trade for millennia—until sailors broke through the borders looking for new lands and trading partners. Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal sailed into the Torrid Zone off the African coast in the 1400s and continued a bit farther south each subsequent year. The prince not only proved that the Flaming Zone could indeed be crossed but also showed that there was some fine land, resources, and even people down that way. The Irish headed in the opposite direction, discovering Iceland in AD 795. They found no “region of universal death,” either. Instead, they found people living on the forested island quite happily. Icelanders, in turn, explored the west coast of Greenland, the icy mothership of the North Atlantic, up to Smith Sound, a couple hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. A thousand years later, Europeans chased whales and seals to Spitsbergen and the Arctic Circle, and the idea of winter and varying climates was cemented.

Seeing winter overtake the North Cascades is like watching a set change onstage. The scene couldn’t be more different from summer—when grass grows and dogs bark and screen doors slam shut. Rules that warm-weather folks take for granted are reversed in winter. Streetlights shine up through airborne ice crystals instead of down. Gravity softens in deep snow, and sounds are muffled several decibels as billions of crystals thicken the air and cover pastures, highways, and hilltops. When Bird was young, he and his friends dragged sleds up the steep hillsides surrounding the ranch, then rocketed down to the flats. They built snow forts and snowmen and shoveled paths for their families. Eventually, Bird ditched the sleds for a pair of old Nordic skis, then alpine skis that a Lithuanian neighbor had given him.

Residents of Twisp didn’t have to travel far to find a ski area. Since 1958, volunteers had cut, cleared, built, and managed a small ski resort on 5,375-foot Little Buck Mountain, fifteen miles outside town. This is what winter people do in winter: invent ways to pass the time. It was not easy; it took thousands of unpaid hours to keep the resort running. The community appointed board members to manage the hill, held fundraisers to pay for the resort, sold tickets to keep it open. Local architects drew plans for the base lodge, and builders, plumbers, and electricians constructed it.

By the time Bird started skiing at Loup Loup, there was one rope tow for beginners and a Poma lift that dragged everyone else twelve hundred vertical feet to the top. Skiers had their pick of ten runs to come back down. With no farming, logging, fishing, tourism, or really anything else to do in the winter, people traveled from all over the Methow Valley to meet up and ski the Loup. A ski school cropped up, then a ski racing program. Season-pass holders were mostly from town and could just as easily be found elbow deep in the machinery of the Poma lift as they could schussing down a groomer. A ski patrol shack and a maintenance building eventually appeared, along with all the trappings of a little American ski-resort-that-could. In 1998, the board added the Loup’s pièce de résistance: a used four-person chairlift that a nearby ski area had discarded. Over the next year, for better or worse, volunteers installed it themselves.

Again, Loup Loup is not like any other ski area you have ever seen. There is no snowmaking, no high-speed lifts, no midmountain wine bars. The only on-mountain amenities are a few toboggans stashed in the woods to haul injured skiers to the ski patrol shack and the Little Buck Café in the lodge, where you can get biscuits and gravy for six-fifty or a Polish sausage for five bucks. To anyone envisioning Aspen, Colorado, or Zermatt, Switzerland, or any other alpine resort where highborn tourists in turtlenecks sip hot toddies between runs, erase that image from your mind. Replace it with a picture of Bird swinging his skis on the chairlift while Kim Maltais bombs through the glades below on a pair of Kneissl White Stars, clumps of snow clinging to his beard and a Pabst Blue Ribbon jammed into his jacket pocket. Because that’s how it was and how it still is at the Loup. It is also where our stories about Bird and Kim and wildfires collide, right here at the snow line, where fall turns to winter, water turns to ice, forests grow and burn, and the alchemy of the Frozen Zone extends its reach into the civilized world.


  • Publishers Weekly’s Top Ten Science Books of the Fall
    PubLunch Fall Buzz Book.
  • “Before the snowpack vanishes and the glaciers melt away, The Last Winter takes us on a tour of all we are poised to lose—the beauties and elations and wonders, both natural and human, to be found in frigid latitudes and altitudes. Fox is an ideal guide. He writes perceptively and knowledgeably but also lovingly about the places and people he encounters along the way. The result is a curiously thrilling joyride that makes you marvel and grieve.”
     —Donovan Hohn, author of MOBY-DUCK and THE INNER COAST
  • “The importance of ice was not as clear to me as it should have been. It is now. This is a rousing, literate, multi-continental tour of the cryosphere. Check it out: the end of winter, if we fail to prevent it, will be the end of the world as we know it.”—William Finnegan, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning BARBARIAN DAYS
  • “From its gripping opening pages to its haunting conclusion, Porter Fox's The Last Winter is poised to become a landmark text in climate change literature. Yet this isn't a dry, doleful book. Instead, it's filled with often gorgeous prose and fascinating, indelible characters who seem to have gone AWOL from a Paul Theroux or Peter Mathiessen novel. Riveting, unforgettable, and important.”—Tom Bissell, author of CHASING THE SEA and APOSTLE
  • “In the grand tradition of writers like John McPhee, journalist Porter Fox beautifully transforms the language of the natural sciences into captivating and deeply personal narratives. As a new father, Fox revitalizes the terms of the classic Arctic adventure into an emotional allegory of our planet's perilous decline. Absolutely necessary reading, not only as a portrait of our fragile planet, but as a guide for salvation.”
     —Jennifer Percy, author of DEMON CAMP
  • “As winter vanishes, so do the many cultures forged by glacier, ice floe, and permafrost. Porter Fox has written an imaginative and deeply personal travelogue that reveals how climate change is not only a threat to our future, but a threat to our past.”
     —Nathaniel Rich, author of LOSING EARTH and SECOND NATURE
  • "Alarming and adventurous . . . If the book were nothing more than a litany of doomsday data points, it would be important reading, though hard to recommend to any save masochists. But Fox is a seriously terrific writer and an utterly madcap reporter, qualities that allow him to leaven the weighty with the whimsical, the threatening with the thrilling."—Boston Globe
  • “Ominous though beautifully written. . . It’s the kind of book John McPhee would write if he were abroad in wintry places, and we’re fortunate that Fox has taken his place. An essential addition to the library of climate change and one that ought to spur readers to do something about it.”Kirkus Reviews, Starred
  • "What’s lost in those [climate] reports and the doomsaying that often follows is the creative, persistent people behind the study abstracts: those dedicating their lives (and sometimes risking them in the process) to research in some of the world’s most remote and wild places. In The Last Winter, Fox puts names and backstories to much of the data as he travels from Washington State to Alaska to Greenland to Switzerland and beyond, connecting with the scientists who are often painstakingly collecting information that the rest of us rely on to make sense of our changing planet. . . . The book is part adventure travelogue, part profile collection and part essay, as Fox, a lifetime skier, contemplates what the world will be like without snow.”—Scientific American
  • “Moving travelogue about snowy places and the people who inhabit them . . . A rollicking adventure story. . . . Much to savor in this exciting yet distressing tale.”—Publishers Weekly
  • "A gripping account of the declining state of the cryosphere . . . Fox has written an important, much-needed book about the climate crisis that injects a personal element into an abstract-seeming problem. This is popular science at its best."—Library Journal, Starred
  • “As a climate scientist who has studied the north polar region for nearly 40 years, I am all too familiar with what is happening to our planet’s ice, but much of my research has focused on the physics and quantitative observables of climate change. After reading The Last Winter by Porter Fox, I have come to realize that my knowledge of the cryosphere and its importance to our planet, while perhaps deep, has also been rather narrow. . .  .  The Last Winter is a welcome addition to the growing genre of books seeking to link human faces with global climate change. When telling such tales, it can be difficult to find the right balance between science and storytelling. The Last Winter hits the mark.”—Science
  • “Compelling, thoroughly researched . . . . The Last Winter is a travelogue, climatology brief and warning bell: Fox and his colleagues cannot save the climate by themselves. Fox’s account is an urgent call to savor winter while it still exists--and figure out a way to ensure it doesn't disappear.”—Shelf Awareness
  • “Deeply researched, beautifully written, and adventure-filled book. . . . Original research is animated by four harrowing and illuminating journeys—each grounded by interviews with idiosyncratic, charismatic experts in their respective fields and Fox’s own narrative of growing up on a remote island in Northern Maine. Timely, atmospheric, and expertly investigated.”—Powder Magazine
  • "On the corner of Boyd and Fox streets in Portland, a mural depicts a classic winter landscape with the message, in large letters formed by chunks of ice: STAY POSITIVE. It was a useful, if serendipitous, admonition as I came to the end of Porter Fox’s book about climate change, “The Last Winter.” In the face of the terrifying statistics that he cites page after page, positivity, if not optimism, is the only way."—The Portland Press Herald/ Maine Sunday Telegram

On Sale
Nov 2, 2021
Page Count
320 pages

Porter Fox

About the Author

Porter Fox was born in New York and raised on the coast of Maine. He is the author of Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America's Forgotten Border and DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow, featured on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Review and in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. He lives, writes and edits the award-winning literary travel writing journal Nowhere in upstate New York.

​His work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, Outside, Men's Journal, National Geographic Adventure, Powder,,,, Narrative, The Literary Review, and has been anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing. He teaches at Columbia University School of the Arts and is a MacDowell Fellow. He won a Western Press Association award in 2014 for a two-part feature about climate change and a Lowell Thomas Award for an excerpt from Northland.

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