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.