THE ICE AT THE END OF THE WORLD
An Epic Journey Into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future
Random House; $28; 418 pages
More than a million years ago, snow fell on Greenland in the summer. Temperatures were low enough that it stuck, and the ice pack accumulated over the millenniums, eventually stacking higher than 10,000 feet and covering over 700,000 square miles. This frozen desert supported no life. Temperatures regularly ran dozens of degrees below zero, especially during the many months the sun declined to appear. As one 18th-century visitor recorded, the ice sheet was a frigid, deadly place that had “no use to mankind.”
Of course, if there’s a place so miserable that most humans avoid it, there will be a hardy minority spurred by the challenge. These courageous, often exhibitionist explorers, questing after knowledge as much as fame, are the subject of Jon Gertner’s fascinating and encyclopedic book, The Ice at the End of the World.
Mr Gertner’s story begins in 1882, when the seal-hunting Norwegian zoologist Fridtjof Nansen glimpsed Greenland from a ship and was “drawn irresistibly to the charms and mysteries of this unknown world.” The ship’s captain denied him permission to hopscotch 25 miles on a series of ice floes to reach shore, but Nansen was the sort whom friends had learned not to warn that a ski jump was impossible, lest he be compelled to prove them wrong. Years later he organised an expedition with the motto “Death or the west coast of Greenland,” and struck out from the east coast on skis with five men, each dragging a sled with 200 pounds of gear. Mr Gertner vivifies the horrors of this 350-mile “death march” beyond the quotidian frostbite and near starvation. Remarkably, after two hellish months, they stepped off the ice and into the history books as the first people to traverse Greenland.
Ostensibly, Nansen and his men suffered for the scientific goal of disproving the nonsensical theory that the glacial island’s centre was an oasis full of pine trees and reindeer. They may have, however, been more enticed by anticipation of the tens of thousands of admirers who met their return ship. Certainly, for those questing immediately after Nansen, science was often a pretext for glory, and selfish pursuits attracted ignoble men. The American Robert Peary managed to prove that Greenland was an island by dogsledding to unvisited sections of its coast. After shamelessly exploiting the Polar Inuit on whom he relied, he reaped huge financial rewards on the lecture circuit on his return home. As Mr Gertner notes, Peary “was the kind of man who would reach into a barrel of biscuits, throw a handful into the air, and then laugh as his Inuit friends scurried to pick them up from the floor and eat them,” and he fathered at least two sons with an Inuit girl in her early teens. But as the map of Greenland filled in, and there were fewer exploratory laurels to be won, the “men of ego” gave way to the “men of research,” for what besides science could compel people back into that polar wasteland?
Early in the 20th century, the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener was one of the first people to guess that Greenland’s massive ice sheet acted as a sort of air-conditioner for the world and that understanding it was crucial to comprehending earth’s climate. During his data-gathering he endured hardships equal to Nansen and Peary — at one point, frostbite wounded his face with leprotic “ulcerous yellow spots” — before he eventually died on the ice. But his findings prompted the world to better understand the ice sheet’s importance. And as technology improved, hardscrabble expeditions powered by Icelandic ponies were replaced by government-sponsored battalions of scientists harnessing snow tractors and ski-lift-like systems to move their gear, and even employing a miniature nuclear reactor to keep warm. It is in finessing this transition that Mr Gertner manages a magic trick, transforming his hybrid book from one of physical to intellectual adventure.
We meet Henri Bader, a Swiss glaciologist working for the Americans during the Cold War, as he and his team drill thousands of feet into the icecap, extracting tiny frozen bubbles, the gases of which help them to reconstruct the history of the climate going back more than 100,000 years. With that revelation established, Mr Gertner is off to the races chronicling the efforts to grapple with the next logical question — How fast is the world warming? When he arrives at the present, he joins modern-day Wegeners on airplane flights that use lasers to measure the stupendous amount of meltwater pouring off Greenland each summer as they attempt to understand how all these changes will transform the world.
It is here that the book completes its last metamorphosis, from a scientific history into a submission to the ever-growing canon of climate change literature. But unlike other recent books, Mr Gertner invests his writerly energies less in describing what is happening to Greenland’s ice than to how we know it.
This is a book about obsession. Nansen’s and Peary’s and Wegener’s and Bader’s and — ultimately — Mr Gertner’s obsession. I mean that as a compliment, for despite the book’s composure, it is this wild and viral obsession that is the most compelling thing about it.