Like Antarctica, Greenland is one of those places that exerts an irresistible pull on my imagination. As journalist, historian and The New York Times Magazine feature writer Jon Gertner makes clear in The Ice at the End of the World, I am not alone. This solidly researched reportage chronicles both the early explorers venturing onto Greenland’s ice sheet and shows the reasons it plays a starring role in research on climate change. Some books ought to come with a warning about how binge-read-worthy they are. This is one of them.
Split into two parts, “Explorations” and “Investigations”, the book starts with what Gertner calls the waning days of the age of exploration. The names of those who tried to reach our planet’s poles have gone down in the annals of history, but the men who ventured onto Greenland’s ice sheet have largely been lost to memory: Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the first European to trek across the ice sheet below the Arctic circle from East to West in 1888. The American Robert Peary, who made a gruelling round trip at Greenland’s northernmost end in 1891-92. The Greenland-born Dane Knud Rasmussen and Norwegian Peter Freuchen who explored the same area as Peary did some two decades later, but with an eye towards ethnographical research amongst the local Inuit.
Although these men were celebrities in their time, and, like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, wrote large books about their travels, I had not heard of them before. Some of their books were never translated into English, and there have been no biographies written about them in recent decades, if at all. Gertner has thus dug into original sources in libraries and research institutes to retell the stories of these men and the brave souls who joined them on their expeditions, for these journeys were not solitary affairs. These are amazing stories of brutal physical and mental hardships: freezing temperatures, fierce winds, snowblindness, crushing monotony and boredom, fingers and toes lost to frostbite, and sometimes death. But also stories of raw beauty and poetic rapture at the scale and grandeur of nature. Greenland does this to you, and Gertner gratefully mines their writings for inspiring words.
“These are amazing stories of brutal physical and mental hardships […] but also stories of raw beauty and poetic rapture at the scale and grandeur of nature. Greenland does this to you.”
The only name that did ring a bell was Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist and geophysicist who fathered the idea of continental drift. But that will be my fascination with the captivating history of the reluctant acceptance of his ideas , and the fact that there are recent biographies on him (see Ending in Ice and the exceptionally thorough Alfred Wegener). Gertner nimbly side-steps the continental drift story and maintains a tight focus on Wegener and Johan Peter Koch’s first ice sheet crossing in 1913, and Wegener’s later return to set up a research base in the middle of the Greenland ice sheet in the early 1930s. A successful undertaking for which he tragically paid with his life, freezing to death on a return trip.
From here, Gertner jumps forward in time a few decades. Whereas early expeditions had scientific aims, they were as much about exploration and often sheer survival, so early findings were both exploratory and limited. Gertner highlights the role of French explorer Paul-Émile Victor who brought his experience in the US Air Force, testing and developing survival equipment, to bear on polar research. As frequently happens, technology developed by the military often finds a second life in science. The development of more reliable heavy-duty motorised vehicles removed the need for death-defying expeditions by human or dog-pulled sledges. This was the start of the drilling of ice cores and saw the discipline of glaciology bloom.
“A particularly eye-opening chapter is that of Thule Air Base […] The sheer amount of manpower, material, and money that the US threw at this project was staggering.”
A particularly eye-opening chapter is that of Thule Air Base that the US Department of Defense established in 1951 in northern Greenland at the start of the Cold War. This story was only touched upon in Cold Rush, but it explains America’s continued interest in Greenland. Trump has not been the first US president trying to purchase Greenland from Denmark. And it is a bizarre story. The sheer amount of manpower, material, and money that the US threw at this project was staggering. Victor cleverly piggy-backed on the army’s presence and funding to undertake scientific research. Their departure as the Cold War wound down complicated financing further research to understand Greenland’s role in climate change.
This second part of the book revolves primarily around the drilling for ice cores and the research that has allowed scientists to deduce past temperature, CO2 levels, and other palaeoclimatological variables. Gertner combines first-hand reportage during repeated visits to Greenland, numerous interviews, and careful reading of scientific papers to tell a thrilling narrative. Especially the shock discovery of evidence for abrupt climate change in the deep past takes centre-stage here. Initially, this was thought to be noise in the data, but then it was confirmed when subsequent ice cores showed the same signal, again and again.
“the shock discovery of evidence for abrupt climate change in the deep past [was] initially thought to be noise in the data, but then it was confirmed when subsequent ice cores showed the same signal, again and again.”
Gertner does a good job here introducing the physical basis of climate change, the long history of research on it, and some of the technical details of methods currently in use (isotope analysis, mass spectrometry, remote sensing with satellites, and the gravimetric analyses by NASA’s GRACE mission). But what he makes especially clear is that there is nothing alarmist about climate scientists’ concerns regarding melting ice sheets, calving glaciers, and the threat of tipping points beyond which changes could rapidly accelerate.
Gertner has spent years on this book, and The Ice at the End of the World stands out for the depth and thoroughness of its research. The 300-page narrative maintains a tight focus on its subject. It is accompanied by 70 pages of often very interesting notes where Gertner acknowledges which diversions are beyond the scope of this book, a section called “further sources” including a long list of interviews conducted and oral histories consulted, and a selected bibliography. But above all, the book is gripping. The memorable cast of historical characters, the pioneering research under challenging circumstances, the unusual settings – it has resulted in a book that I just could not put down.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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