The Ice at the End of the World|
An epic journey into Greenland's buried past and our perilous future
Random House, 2019, 448 pp, HC, $28.00
From adventure seekers in the 1800's to climatologists of today The Ice at the end of the World is a comprehensive look into Greenland and how it is affected by climate change. Greenland is the world's largest island, and only second to Antarctica in its amount of ice. In recent studies of the ice sheet Gertner describes how scientists, facilitated by measurements of the Earth's gravity by space, found the ice is melting more each year. Gertner cites a study published in 2018 which found that the ice is melting faster now then any time in the past 350 years. Swiss scientist Koni Steffen posits that "the melting over time will lead to a painful migration of 300 to 500 million people, globally, away from the coast." However this book is not just a warning about global warming. Indeed, the first half of the book is dedicated to the history of Greenland and the intrepid men who were its first explorers.
Gertner begins in 1882, describing how a young sailor, Fridtjof Nansen, got his first glimpse of Greenland while his seal hunting ship was entrapped by ice in the Denmark Strait. Nansen "was drawn irresistibly to the charms and mysteries of this unknown world". He would eventually return to trek across the island with five men. They hauled packs and sledges by hand, Nansen had decided against sled dogs as he believed that the "bringing and feeding of the animals to be prohibitive". Gertner's prose is at its best when describing these early adventurers. With insights from Nansen's, and later Robert Peary's journals we are imbedded in the daily toils of traversing the "interminable flat desert snow". Exhaustion, cold, snow blindness, frostbite and death are a ruthless and constant companion. In a later expedition Robert Peary would buy 20 sled dogs and planned that when the dog's food ran out he would slaughter them and feed them to each other. "In more severe circumstances, he and his colleagues would eat the dogs themselves."
These men were not only seeking fame and fortune but also began the study of Greenland. As Gertner describes, each explorer learned from the one before. In the early 20th century Alfred Wegener accrued data that led him to infer that the ice sheet acted as an air conditioner for earth. From there Gertner leapfrogs from scientist to scientist each with more sophisticated equipment and each having their own breakthroughs. With help from the military, labs were built and drilling into the ice core began. The ice core contains frozen gas bubbles that can reconstruct the history of Greenland's climate and therefore act as a control group. This data helps to decipher how fast the ice is melting. It also proves that climate change hasn't always been gradual; in the past there have been instances of severe warming where glacial calving was swift. These facts, though, should not be used in a climate denier's arsenal as the evidence of human impact is clear and well presented in this book.
Throughout The Ice and the end of the World, Gertner is able to weave science into the real life stories of those that first traversed the ice sheet. In doing so, though there is much to be disturbed by it is an intensely engrossing read. Perhaps we have reached the tipping point, however this book leaves us with hope. The scientists of today are still working hard, climate change awareness is global, and essential books like this leave us with much to think about long after the last page is turned.