Book of the week
The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey Into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future
(Random House, $28)
Greenland turns out to be a place more than worthy of obsession, said Doug Bock Clark in The New York Times. In an “engrossing” new history of how the world awakened to the importance of the ice-covered island, journalist Jon Gertner “manages a magic trick” by thematically linking the daring of turn-of-the-20th-century explorers with the vital research carried out by a parade of post–World War II scientists. The first group braved starvation and temperatures that ran dozens of degrees below zero. The second has shown over time that Greenland’s 2-mile-deep ice sheet holds a detailed history of global climate change going back more than 100,000 years, providing important warnings about our future. The combination works beautifully. “It impressed on me like nothing I’ve read how hard-earned climate-change facts are.”
Think of the book as “a geological detective story,” said Stephanie Hanes in CSMonitor.com. In the early chapters, a combination of curiosity and the pursuit of glory drives Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen to cross it by sled in 1888, and American Robert Peary to follow close behind with an expedition farther north that proved Greenland to be an island. Peary doesn’t come off well: He once had a barrel of biscuits strewn on a beach just to watch the local Inuit scramble for them. But knowledge grows as the scientists who follow learn to drill down to bedrock, extracting long columns of ice and reading the layers. The data indicate that in the past, the planet’s temperature has occasionally shot upward very quickly, suggesting the existence of hazardous tipping points. Though Gertner’s approach sidesteps today’s arguments about global warming, he makes “devastatingly clear” that Greenland’s ice is today melting rapidly, and that if the collapse of this ice sheet continues, it will soon create devastating effects worldwide.
The story of postwar scientific discovery on Greenland “could have survived on its own without the earlier age of exploration,” said Colin Dickey in The New Republic. Gertner’s book would have been better, in fact, if it had spent less time on Peary and more on the Inuit who’ve inhabited Greenland for 4,500 years. But the book’s two halves are knit together by a running theme: how people respond when faced with their own mortality. While we thrill at the dangers overcome by Nansen, Peary, and the scientists who’ve read Greenland’s warning signals, “it seems clear that very soon we may not have to venture to the remote Arctic to come face to face with doom.” ■