3 books on the earth’s poles

August 5, 2011

With intense heat boiling the country and temperatures shattering records, choosing a vacation destination is dicey this summer. Even Maine, that bastion of shady woods and cool waters, is coping with extreme weather. For those wishing to find someplace truly cool, perhaps one of the polar regions? Here are three titles to get you in the mood.

1. Antarctic Wildlife: A
Visitor’s Guide,
by James Lowen (Princeton/WildGuides, $22.95). With a soft flexible binding perfect for thrusting into a knapsack, this book is a primer for all manner of wildlife one might encounter on the seventh continent. Lowen, a wildlife photographer and writer, was so taken with Antarctica on his first trip there that he got a position as a staff member on expedition cruises in order to make the journey over and over again. Eventually, it dawned on him that there should be a guide that would assist in identifying the myriad seabirds, seals, whales and, of course, penguins he came across. His book features glorious full-color photos and is chocka­block with charts and indices, tips on choosing a cruise and the best spots to seek out wildlife, as well as an examination of the environmental threats to the region’s indigenous residents. With a lively map as end papers, this book works just as well for the armchair traveler as for the hearty explorer.

2. The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change, by Philip Conkling, Richard Alley, Wallace Broecker and George Denton with photographs by Gary Comer (MIT, $29.95). This volume can trace its inception to Gary Comer, the entrepreneur who founded the Lands’ End clothing company and crossed the Northwest Passage in record-breaking time in 2001. Disturbed by the vanishing ice and rising sea levels he saw, he contacted scientists who could help him make sense of it all. Those discussions led to the creation of the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Fellowship. The four research trips taken before Comer’s death in 2006 focused on Greenland, which has become a barometer of climate change, thanks to its vast ice sheet, which covers 90 percent of the land mass, the largest outside of Antarctica. Breathtaking photographs accompany essays from the scientists involved in those expeditions, as they examine Greenland’s history with abrupt climate change (the Little Ice Age) and present their theories as to its future and, by extension, our planet’s future.

3. An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science, by Edward J. Larson (Yale, $28).A professor of history and law at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, Calif., Larson chronicles three significant Antarctic excursions made by the British in the years prior to World War I: Robert Scott’s Discovery Expedition (1901-04) and his calamitous Terra Nova Expedition (1910-13), as well as Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition (1907-09). Though much has been made of the adventure angle, this book makes clear that discovery was truly the driving force behind each of these journeys, spurred by Britain’s long history of using scientific research as a pillar of its colonial ambitions. Larson did copious research here, with a big chunk of it coming by way of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, which allowed him literally to walk in the 100-year-old footsteps of those revered explorers.

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