© 2019 Jon Gertner
My reading journeys have taken me to Greenland recently, but instead of reading more about the Viking settlements there, I wanted to read about another tribe: the explorers and scientists who willingly endured months of supremely hostile terrain for both glory and science. The Ice at the End of the World is one half history of Greenland’s early exploration, one half chronicle of its role as a site for constant scientific investigation. The latter is particularly important given the poles’ roles in regulating our global climate – and their testimony, buried in ice, as to how much has changed and how quickly.
At first, they came only to see if it was possible for a man to cross the ice. Human settlement in Greenland, even among the Inuit who are well accustomed to its severities, is limited to the coastal fringes. When explorers like Peary and Wegener landed in Greenland and began preparing for their expeditions – learning as much as they could from the Intuit, who had centuries of accumulated knowledge for how to move and survive in daunting near-polar conditions – their native hosts could only think them lunatics for wanting to trespass into the wastes haunted only by gods and death. The early expeditions first accomplished simply getting across the great ice in the midst of Greenland without perishing; later ones would push north in an effort to determine the land’s boundaries. Did the ice go ever north, linking with the north pole? Or were there limits?
Although scientific research was conducted in these early jaunts – explosives were used to set off seismographs and monitor how long it took the sound waves to radiate down to bedrock before rebounding to the surface again — intense efforts to map the thickness of the ice sped up after World War 2, in part because of advance of air traffic infrastructure into Greenland during the war, and in part because of the United States’ sudden strategic interest in the area. Greenland may have been useful during the war for protecting shipping traffic, but in the next war, against the Soviet Union – it would be vital. The north may very well be the front lines, and bases couldn’t be built without really understanding the science of the ice sheets — how they moved, settled, grew. So began Project Century, which combined science and military aspirations: the United States’ fondest hope was to base nuclear weapons in Greenland in case the Cold War became an active conflict. This project would result in extensive ice core samples being taken and analyzed.
Ice at the End of the World begins with journeys of physical exploration, of men trekking the interior of hitherto-unseen ice sheets….but page by page, it transitions slowly into a journey of mental exploration, of men and then women searching for answers, and finding them. They realize that Greenland’s ice cores carried the history of past temperatures with them, because different isotypes of oxygen appear at differing frequencies at greater or lower temperatures. That ice told a story – one that challenged the idea that climatic shifts were bound to be slow and gradual. They could be, in fact, fast and disastrous – and that was true not only of the past, but of the future. Could global civilization survive a shock imposed by some of the radical climate shifts they’d seen in the ice?
We’re still working on the answer to that one. In an age of growing awareness regarding our role in atmospheric instability, some people believe we’re doomed, that Earth will become unlivable. Others simply believe we’ll watch cities like Miami became new Atlantises (Atlantii?), but otherwise adapt.
What is known is that The Ice at the End of the World is a terrific read, combining the best parts of an adventure novel – the exploration of the unknown, the endurance of hard ship, the celebration of ingenious adaptations to severity — with a history of a paleoclimatology, and the dawning of one of our age’s most talked-about scientific issues.