Scrutinizing the state of the planet is not for the faint of heart. For the scientists and writers who spend their days examining the changes taking place across the globe, relating recent developments can be a dark business. Glaciers are melting; rivers are running dry; temperatures are rising; and each new natural disaster, such as the massive Hurricane Sandy, reminds us of our precarious existence. But undeterred, these men and women continue to provide their accounts, often in the hopes of altering what appears to be a fairly grim trajectory.
Three recent books — one depicting Antarctica, another the mighty Colorado River and a third several of the most extreme environments on Earth — do this with varying degrees of success. But all of them give readers a close-up view of some the most startling shifts underway and what these mean for us and the natural world.
James McClintock has spent his professional life studying the South Pole from the unlikely perch of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In “Lost Antarctica,” he chronicles how radically the remote continent has changed since he first journeyed there in the early 1980s. During 13 research expeditions to Antarctica, McClintock has experienced fierce westerly winds nicknamed for their speeds (“the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and the Screaming Sixties”), watched icebergs calve, or break off, from glaciers, and charted the condition of copepods, the tiny crustaceans that help form the base of the Antarctic food chain.
In painstaking detail, McClintock describes how climate change has helped transform Antarctica over the past three decades. When he started working at Palmer Station, he recalls, about once a week he “would be startled by a loud, thundering crash” signaling that an iceberg had calved from a glacier. “Now . . . the calving events have become so routine that my colleagues and I in the BioLab don’t even bother to move from our desks when we hear the glacier roar. Sometimes, three or four calvings happen in a single day.”
Apparently lured by warming temperatures, spiny king crabs are marching away from the deepest part of the sea toward land, something that “hadn’t happened for millions of years.” Adelie penguins must spend more energy traveling farther in search of food as pack ice lining the shore retreats, and they now face new predators, such as invasive elephant seals.
McClintock’s writing is dense and clunky at times, and several passages are too personal or too laden with scientific jargon to interest a general reader. But in the end, his book poses powerful questions. Looking out from near the summit of Amsler Island, he asks, “What sort of a world, I wonder, will future generations of Antarctic scientists find when they come to this remarkable place?”
In “River Notes,” Wade Davis tackles another vast, iconic landscape and explores some of the same environmental questions as McClintock. Drawing upon a 2006 whitewater-rafting expedition he took down the Colorado River with his daughter and some close friends, Davis examines how Americans have disrupted one of the country’s greatest natural resources and undermined a vital ecosystem in the process.
Often lyrically, Davis bemoans the state of a river that has been hemmed in so that cities including Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, Tucson and Phoenix can switch on their lights and have their taps flow. “For the entire American Southwest the Colorado is indeed the river of life, which makes it all the more tragic and ironic that by the time it reaches its final destination, it has been reduced to a shadow upon the sand, its delta dry and deserted, its flow a toxic trickle seeping into the sea.”
He does a good job of showing how we are all connected to this river, whether we recognize it or not: For example, the Colorado provides the water that allows arid Yuma, Ariz., to produce 95 percent of the North American winter lettuce crop.
While Davis is passionate about the river, the book’s strength lies in how it captures the men and women who came upon it decades and even centuries earlier. John Wesley Powell, whom Davis describes as “the bravest of all the river boatmen,” risked his life while navigating it. The Anasazi constructed an elaborate civilization with the river’s help, only to see it collapse in the face of drought. The Mormons established their society on the basis of the Colorado, too, and Davis suggests that the Mormon Church’s control over water rights helped solidify its power: “Access to water, without which a farming family could not survive, implied fidelity and obedience to doctrine and dogma.”
In the end, he argues, the only way Americans can compensate for their ancestors’ transgressions is to defy conventional political wisdom and allow this much-dammed and -diverted river to run free again. “There can surely be no greater crime against nature than to cause the death of a river,” he writes, “and no grander gesture of restitution than to facilitate its regeneration.”
Like “River Notes,” Craig Childs’s “Apocalyptic Planet” features vivid descriptions of the natural world around us. But Childs is less given to purple prose than Davis, using shorter, muscular phrases to depict scenes of the Earth in transition. And his global quest is wide-ranging, from Greenland’s glaciers and the tiny Alaskan Arctic village of Savoonga to the Sonoran Desert and Hawaii’s Manua Kea volcano.
What makes “Apocalyptic Planet” so engrossing, despite its dark subject, is Childs’s style. He is the best science writer I’ve come across in years, capable of not just capturing an image but doing it in a way that stays with you long afterward. The vividness starts with his description of a friend stepping out into Mexico’s desert: “Devin’s long spider legs pulled him out as he palmed the door frame and squinted into the turquoise sphere of an arid northwest Mexico sky.”
It continues through every chapter, as Childs describes decaying subterranean infrastructure in Phoenix, crackling glacier ice and the shifting of tectonic plates: “This planet has a restless heart, its interior swollen with heat turning over itself, crumpling and uncrumpling the surface over tens of millions of years, constantly unleveling the playing field.”
Childs is the central character in his story, and his observations provide entertaining context for the calamities he contemplates across the globe. As he recounts how rising temperatures linked to climate change are shrinking ice fields in Chile and elsewhere, he notes that skeptics such as former Environmental Protection Agency economist Alan Carlin argue that the world should brace itself for global cooling instead. Having outlined evidence to the contrary, Childs writes: “I wanted to believe Carlin, I really did. If he is right, does that mean we can have our ice back now?”
“Apocalyptic Planet” has a few flaws. A couple of its later chapters, including one on Iowa’s Corn Belt and another on Chile’s Atacama Desert, seem less inspired than other sections. And I feel compelled to make one request of male nature writers, which applies equally to Childs and Davis: Skip the descriptions of your dangerous rafting trips. They probably make for good cocktail chatter, but in written form, they come off as self-aggrandizing.
Even as Childs forecasts how the world might end, he hopes to avert that outcome. As he rattles off population projections and the landscape destruction accompanying the rise of “an ever-growing global consumer class,” he chafes against the conclusion that our civilization will fall just like the ones that preceded it. He writes about an ancient grave site recently unearthed near Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, describing it as a “warning” from the past. “This is how it appears to have finally ended for the Hohokam: with a bang and then a fading whimper, the cry of a last infant in a village standing empty, its name never to be remembered again.”
It’s the same motivation that prompts a concerned expert at the public utility company supplying half of Phoenix’s water to caution, “Just to let you know, everybody, it’s looking tight on the supply end.” At first Childs is unsure if he can use the quote, but the project’s lead hydrologist insists that he write it down: “People should know.”
People should know, indeed.
Juliet Eilperin is the Washington Post’s national environmental reporter and the author of “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.”
Adventures in a Disappearing Land
By James McClintock
Palgrave Macmillan. 231 pp. $26
A Natural and Human History
of the Colorado
By Wade Davis
Island Press. 162 pp. $22.95
Field Guide to the Everending Earth
By Craig Childs
Pantheon. 343 pp. $27.95