Book review – Land of Wondrous Cold: The Race to Discover Antarctica and Unlock the Secrets of Its Ice

8-minute read

Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen loom large over the history of Antarctic discovery. In their shadow, however, hides a lesser-known story. Some 70 years prior, three nations were locked in a race to discover what was at the South Pole. Professor of Environmental Humanities Gillen D’Arcy Wood here tells their story and sets it against a majestic backdrop: a deep-time history of how Antarctica became the icy wasteland it is now and shaped the Earth’s climate in the process. The clever twin story and electrifying prose of Land of Wondrous Cold caught me off-guard; I simply was not expecting this book to be this good.

Land of Wondrous Cold

Land of Wondrous Cold: The Race to Discover Antarctica and Unlock the Secrets of Its Ice, written by Gillen D’Arcy Wood, published by Princeton University Press in March 2020 (hardback, 287 pages)

In this era of satellite images, it is easy to forget that only a few centuries ago the nature of the South Pole was an unresolved question. Some argued that the Earth was hollow and that there were large entrance holes at the poles. A fringe idea nowadays, it was fashionable in the 1830s and was one of several reasons why, in 1836, the USA announced an Antarctic expedition. (The other reason was, arguably, the so-called Magnetic Crusade: learning more about Earth’s magnetic field and finding the south magnetic pole.) While the Americans dithered until 1838, other countries were just as eager to get there first, plant a flag, and claim Antarctica as theirs. The French announced their plans in 1837 with two ships promptly leaving later that year. Britain was initially not keen to join this race but eventually approved of a mission in 1839.

One strand of the story that D’Arcy Wood tells here follows the fate of these three expeditions, their commanding officers, and other people close to them. The French chose explorer Dumond D’Urville, a veteran of two Pacific expeditions between 1822-1829, who, truth be told, was not particularly keen to throw himself at Antarctica and leave behind wife and children again at age 47. The Brits called on James Clark Ross, an experienced Arctic explorer who had previously located the north magnetic pole and was given the best ships available for these extreme waters: the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (Michael Palin vividly told their story in his 2018 book Erebus). The Americans, in comparison, made a hash of it. Unable to find willing or suitable candidates, the US Navy picked the inexperienced Charles Wilkes who took an unprepared crew and unsuitable ships into, effectively, the mouth of hell.

A standout of this book is that D’Arcy Wood does not focus on heroic exploits: “in my telling […] the explorers themselves do not play an outsized role, like actors spotlighted on a stage. Rather, my goal has been to adjust the telescope and bring humans and nature into focus at their proper scale” (p. 11). I think he has been successful. As he recounts the key events in this tri-nation race to the pole, the commanding officers come out very human. Heroic, yes, but also vulnerable. D’Urville is driven predominantly by his fear of public indifference if they have nothing to show upon their return. Wilkes proves unstable and incapable of delegating responsibility, barely suppressing mutiny by his disgruntled officers. Only Ross fares reasonably well, though their late start means they forever fall behind.

“D’Arcy Wood does not focus on heroic exploits […] As he recounts the key events in this tri-nation race to the pole, the commanding officers come out very human.”

But the starring role in this drama is played by the South Pole itself. With ice often literally towering over them, it indifferently throws both brutal violence and treacherous tranquillity at these wooden sailing vessels where crews cling on for dear life. Ice floes crush hulls and open seams, the monotonous white landscape frays nerves, light conjures up mirages of disappearing coastlines, gale force winds shred both skin and sail, and everything and everyone are constantly soaked by freezing cold water. The suffering and death all three expeditions experience are surreal at times. The achievements they make, though paving the way for later progress, sometimes amount to little more than symbolic gestures in an uncaring wilderness. When the Brits raise their flag on a rocky island in the Ross Sea, they do so while standing up to their thighs in excrement, assaulted from all sides by breeding Adélie penguins.

What really puts the human endeavour into perspective, however, is the second narrative strand. Most chapters alternate with interludes that connect these early discoveries to current science while unveiling a deep-time history of Antarctica. Initially, it was thought that both the North and South Pole froze over some 2-3 million years ago (mya). However, long drill cores extracted from the seabed reveal a large transition in the planet’s climate some 33.6 mya from a warm to a cold climate. The Eocene-Oligocene Transition was one of the most significant events since the dinosaurs went extinct. Ice sheets formed on Antarctica and a biotic turnover took place on land and in the sea, whole groups of species going extinct while others evolved. What happened?

At the root of it all is plate tectonics. As South America and Australia drifted away from Antarctica, the land bridges connecting these continents were broken and a wild sea was born. For the first time, oceanic currents could run an uninterrupted circle around the South Pole, newly forming the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. This literally had a chilling effect on the climate, with glaciers building on the South Pole and a sharper temperature gradient forming across the southern hemisphere. This, in turn “[…] awoke the oceans from their Eocene sluggishness” (p. 156) creating today’s tempestuous Southern Ocean. It also influenced the three-dimensional character of ocean circulation with heavy, cold water sinking to depth and pushing out into the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, setting in motion currents that shaped our current climate.

“[After the] Eocene-Oligocene Transition […] oceanic currents could run an uninterrupted circle around the South Pole […] This literally had a chilling effect on the climate […] What blew my mind were the biogeographical consequences.”

The history of how different scientific disciplines converged on the same understanding of what happened to our planetary climate at this time is incredibly absorbing. D’Arcy Wood walks the reader through the different pieces of the puzzle, showing how new scientific disciplines were born and developed along the way: meteorology, palaeoclimatology, and palaeo-oceanography. He clarifies how palaeomagnetism, the record of Earth’s magnetic field in the past, shows both reversal of its magnetic poles and apparent polar wander. This rather abstract concept of our planet’s magnetic poles moving around over time can in part be explained by the rocks containing this magnetic signal moving around with the continents, something that was only reluctantly accepted.

What blew my mind were the biogeographical consequences; that is, what happened to animals living here. For example, it has been suggested that the increased abundance of cold-loving diatoms and the krill that fed on them triggered the evolution of baleen whales. Penguin ancestors, on the other hand, suffered as coastlines disappeared: “The penguins alive today constitute a relic miscellany – the thinned-out legacy of a richly diverse population” (p. 173). The writing in this and many other passages is sumptuous and full of rich imagery. When D’Arcy Wood marvels at the adaptation of seabirds cruising these seas, he writes: “For avian creatures born into a giant hemispheric wind tunnel, a howling storm is a lullaby” (p. 122).

Neither strand of this story necessarily has a happy ending. After their return, Ross was quickly forgotten, Wilkes was court-martialed and disgraced, while the vivid description of D’Urville’s demise is too mortifying to repeat here. Similarly, modern palaeoclimatological data show what happened in the past, and thus suggest what lies in store in our near future if current climate change trends persist. “The Antarctic ice sheets are the joker in the pack [setting] the stage for an epic reversal in human fortunes” (p. 259-60).

Land of Wondrous Cold blew me away with its clever twin narrative. Readers interested in polar exploration, science history, earth sciences, or deep-time history should all take note. This book is far more interesting and satisfying than a casual glance might suggest.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Land of Wondrous Cold

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:






      1. It’s from 1997. I‘m a fan of the author, so maybe checkout my other reviews of him. His newest is Ministry for the Future.
        The other prominent CliFi author would be Paolo Bacigalupi.


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