In “The Ice at the Edge of the World,” journalist and historian Jon Gertner delivers a fascinating account of humankind’s exploration of Greenland, starting with late-19th-century expeditions like Peary’s and ending with modern scientific investigations of its icy mantle, which holds clues to the history and future of the Earth’s climate. Gertner couldn’t have chosen a better time to tell the story. As he describes in the book, citing research from NASA, the island has been losing 286 billion tons of ice every year, which is double the rate of loss it was experiencing only 15 years ago. The consequence of this melt, which ends up in the ocean, is a slow and steady rise in sea levels that is expected to eventually submerge entire islands and coastal communities the world over. If Gertner’s book were in need of an even more urgent news hook, a recent photograph of sled dogs wading through melted ice water in northwestern Greenland, portraying the alarming decline of the island’s ice sheet, would have served the purpose.
In the first half of Gertner’s book, the heroes are adventurers who performed feats of mental and physical endurance in crossing the breadth of the world’s second-largest island. In the 19th century, just getting to Greenland’s coast by sea was fraught with enormous risks: Approaching the island, ships would sometimes be immobilized for months, their hulls creaking under the mighty squeeze of pack ice closing in. It was a sound so unbearable, Gertner writes, that it used to drive “sailors to the edge of psychosis.” These expeditions were not only instrumental in mapping the overall geography of Greenland, they also brought to light how the Polar Inuits had adapted to the island’s harsh conditions over hundreds of years, surviving “not in spite of the ice and cold, but because of it.”
The journeys by dog sled and ski until the 1940s laid the foundation for the scientific explorations that followed, which Gertner tells us about in the second half of the book. Here we meet geologists, chemists, physicists and engineers — men and women who embark upon more intellectual kinds of adventures than their predecessors. Much of their interest lies not so much in exploring the length and breadth of the ice sheet but in plumbing its depths. Drilling into the sheet, which constitutes layer upon layer of snowfall compacted over thousands of years, scientists have succeeded in extracting ice cores going all the way down to the island’s bedrock — nearly two miles below the surface. Through detailed analysis of these ice samples as well as the air bubbles trapped in them, researchers have reconstructed the history of the Earth’s climate dating back some 120,000 years. Perhaps the most startling discovery from these studies has been that the planet’s climate changed dramatically over time periods spanning just decades at certain points in history — for instance, a temperature leap of 18 degrees Fahrenheit about 11,700 years ago. It has overturned the assumption that all climate change is gradual, alerting us to the possibility that catastrophic shifts might lie ahead.
Gertner describes more recent studies of the ice sheet, including those facilitated by detailed measurements of the Earth’s gravity field from space — from which the mass of the sheet can be inferred. The findings point to a grim truth: The sheet is melting at a pace that seems to be quickening with each passing year. But Gertner wonders if all of this data, pointing to the inevitability of rising sea levels in the not-so-distant future, will be enough to compel governments and businesses to take adequate steps to curb greenhouse emissions. At the moment, it would appear that the glaciers are melting faster than our collective ability to absorb the implications of it.
Gertner writes with verve and acuity, and his prose is at times lyrical, such as his description of the ice sheet looking “like handmade paper, the kind sometimes used for fine stationery, with visible fibers and textured imperfections.” But even though his narration of the expeditions is packed with absorbing detail, it’s hard to avoid an element of drudgery midway through the book’s first half, because by then, the dangers posed by the harsh environment start to seem less novel. There were times when I wished, for the book’s sake, that the English language had more words to describe ice. Fortunately, Gertner picks up the pace again in the second half, telling the scientific story without giving readers an excuse to stop reading — except perhaps to ponder the fate of the planet.
The Ice at the End of the World
An Epic Journey Into Greenland's Buried Past and Our Perilous Future
Random House. 418 pp. $28