Scotland’s burning! Greenland’s melting!


The song goes back 450 years, give or take. You may even have sung it as a round in elementary school (assuming your teacher wasn’t a snowflake).

Today it’s called “Scotland’s Burning.”

The original version was called “Scotland it Burneth,” and the earliest written copy of the lyrics date from 1580. According to a brief entry in Wikipedia, the lyrics refer to the burning of Edinburgh in 1544 by the English army of Henry VIII.

The original version went like this:

Scotland, it burneth,

Look out, look out,

Fire, fire, fire, fire,

Cast on more water.

By 1666, people had been singing it for at least 140 years. But in 1666, on Sept. 2 to be precise, the Great Fire of London broke out and over the next five days incinerated the heart of the city. And the song got an update:

London’s burning. London’s burning.

Fetch the engines. Fetch the engines.

Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!

Pour on water. Pour on water.

By 1837 the contemporary version of the song had emerged, with Scotland the venue of the fire again:

Scotland’s Burning! Scotland’s Burning!

Look out! Look out!

Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!

Pour on Water! Pour on Water!

That was the version we sang in elementary school in the early ’50s, which of course made no sense whatsoever to any of us at the time. In retrospect, it’s kind of surprising that the song hadn’t reverted to “London’s Burning!” given that World War II and the Blitz were still recent memories. Maybe too recent.

At any rate, what prompted this little jig down memory lane was a headline in Tuesday’s Washington Post:

“Staggering New Data Show Greenland’s Ice Is Melting 6 Times Faster than in the 1980s”

According to the story, a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that ice melt from Geenland’s glaciers increased from an average of 51 billion tons a year between 1980 and 1990, to an average of 286 billion tons a year between 2010 and 2018.

Roughly every 360 billion tons of ice melt results in a millimeter of sea level rise. The upshot is that out of the nearly 14 millimeters of sea level rise caused by Greenland ice melt since 1972, half occurred in the last eight years.

And the melting is expected to accelerate.

Eric Rignot, an Earth-systems scientist at the University of California at Irvine who is one of the study’s authors, said “the entire periphery of Greenland is affected” and that he was “particularly concerned about the northern regions, which host the largest amount of potential sea level rise and are already changing fast.”

Rignot led a similar study last year that found the Antarctic region is also losing six times as much ice now than it was 40 years ago.

The finding cries out for a folksong, and an updated version of Scotland’s Burning would be an excellent choice.

Something like this, maybe:

Greenland’s melting! Greenland’s melting!

Look out! Look out!

Water! Water! Water! Water!


But what’s the appropriate last line?

In all earlier versions of the song, a specific solution is proposed for dealing with the threat of catastrophic fire — throw water at it. But a three-word solution to catastrophic ice melt isn’t so obvious.

Save the glaciers! Save the glaciers! maybe?

But it doesn’t tell you how to save the glaciers. So that’s kind of a copout.

Burn no petrol! Burn no petrol! perhaps?

Fat chance; at best aspirational. The last line should propose something that could actually occur in real life, like putting out a fire with water.

Raise the seawalls! Raise the seawalls!

Doable, but it’s a solution with no conclusion. They’ll have to go up a silly millimeter or two every year for centuries. And while it might work in New Orleans or Lower Manhattan, building a seawall from Kennebunkport to Miami would be more challenging.  

Move the cities! Move the cities!

Also doable in theory, but most of the available sites large enough to accommodate say The Greater New York Co-Prosperity Sphere are found in places like western Kansas or central North Dakota, where New Yorkers would be about as welcome as Amazon in Queens.

Flee the lowlands! Flee the lowlands!

But to where? A lot of the higher ground is already taken, and the deplorables may not take kindly to the prospect of tens of millions of coastals moving in.

Fortunately the conundrum contains its own solution — and it can be stated in three words. As the Greenland ice-cap melts, thousands of square miles of land will become ice free and available for development.

So the way to complete the revised song obvious:

Greenland’s melting! Greenland’s melting!

Look out! Look out!

Water! Water! Water! Water!

Move to Greenland! Move to Greenland!

Think of it as a green new deal.