The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future by Jon Gertner
I confess I wasn’t sure just how enthralling a book all about the Greenland ice sheet would be. Interesting, yes (well, to those of us who are the type to pick up a book about the Greenland ice sheet in the first place). But enough to carry an entire book rather than a long-form article? Interesting enough to move into “compelling” or, yes, “enthralling” territory? Hmmm. Turns out though, in the more than capable hands of Jon Gertner, the answer is assuredly yes and yes. The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future (2019) is indeed compelling and even, as the subtitle says, epic. Also informative, entertaining, thorough, well-organized, clearly … well, you get the idea.
Gertner takes a chronological approach to his subject, beginning with early Norse settlers, then detailing the late 19th Century/early 20th Century explorers, some of whom are probably better known for their polar exploits than their Greenland ones, which involved trying to cross the island’s great ice sheet (and doing so in a manner that eclipsed the previous attempt). The first hearty (some might say foolhardy) souls include Fritdjof Nansen, Robert Peary, and Knud Rasmussen. Later, closer to the mid-century, “feats” were supplanted by “science” as people like Alfred Wegener and Emile Victor attempted to do actual research on the ice. Following WWII, the American military got into the game, building larger and more permanent (though not actually permanent) bases, and then, once the military dropped Greenland as being strategically interesting, academia took its turn, setting up research sites and drilling ice cores, first for basic research and then, later, to track climate change.
The early explorer stories are utterly compelling as they battled incredibly fraught conditions and came near to death more than once. Nansen’s group, for instance, leaves their ship to ride an ice floe toward shore, but wake up (after several days on the floe) to find it “had split in two, the crack having just missed where the men set their tent. Worse, it was rocking violently in the rough surf …” [carrying them] “seawards with ominous rapidity.” That last line by Nansen seems a bit of an understatement. It took them 11 days to reach shore, where they faced hundreds of miles of backbreaking journey, towing sleds, running out of food, avoiding dangerous crevasses, and facing temperatures (inside their tent) of 40 below.
Several years later, Peary took a different route through the same conditions in order to claim the mantle of having crossed a wider expanse. While we see how Peary’s exploits were justifiably celebrated, given the obstacles, Gertner also shows us a more full, complex version. While noting the Inuit called him “The Great Peary,” Gertner also shows his condescension (“’They are a community of children in their simplicity,’ he wrote.”) and explains how Peary fathered two sons with an Inuit girl possibly as young as thirteen at the time, all of whom he ignored once he returned home. Later explorers, such as Rasmussen and Freuchen, were better friends to the Inuit, and also as interested in science as much as exploits, also nearly at the cost of their lives (it did cost Freuchen most of his toes).
The do-they-live-or-do-they-die tension of these early explorers is a large part of what makes the early part of The Ice at the End of the World so compelling. And that continues when we shift more to the science end of things with Alfred Wegener, who lost his life on Greenland (not the first). But Gertner makes the research just as captivating, albeit in different fashion, as the days of derring-do, even if, as one researcher points out: “members of an expedition no longer needed to be outstandingly robust physically” thanks to the advances in technology from the 40s onward (such as replacing human or dog-towed sleds with specially built vehicles). Step by step, Gertner does a great job of showing how each researcher’s work builds on the work done before them, just like the snow accreting layer by layer on the ice sheet itself. And if the environment, though no less friendly, is a bit less of a survival challenge thanks to technology, what now becomes the obstacle is the engineering, and this too Gertner makes fascinating.
What also adds, in infuriating and worrying fashion, a sense of tension, as well as urgency, is the underlying threat that the more recent research is meant to investigate — climate change. Gertner goes through a wonderfully thorough and lucid chronological history of how scientists came to theorize the concept, then to confirm it, then to research its possible consequences. The infuriating part is both the slowness to realize and then, far worse, the slowness (especially by politicians) to act. As Gertner puts it in a masterfully and appropriately grim analogy:
To go back to the scientific and government reports of this era is to have the uneasy sense of looking at a forensic photograph, akin to one taken at a disorderly crime scene, where details of immense importance have been repeatedly overlooked.
One of the sharpest decisions Gertner makes is to show just how surprised the scientists themselves were by much of the data. Time and again a data point will be revealed or some physical phenomena discovered and scientists will comment on how they had to check and check again to confirm things because they seemed so much worse than anyone would have expected, whether it was discovering how fast climate could change, or how quickly the ice sheet was melting. Gertner, however, isn’t writing propaganda, either by commission or omission. He is, for instance, quite clear on the limitations of computer modeling for the behavior of ice sheets as opposed to predicting future temperatures or precipitation. Even in comparison to such complex systems, ice sheets and glaciers are a horror show of variables and due to their geographical remoteness and their physical remoteness (hard, for example, to get under one), we just don’t have hard, concrete data good enough for statistical projection.
Even so, it’s clear in what direction things are moving, and the last few chapters lay out the potential ramifications, such as just which cities would be underwater or how many millions of people will be displaced by even a moderate rise in sea level. Thus, he ends the book with an epilogue labeled “The Ice Clock” so as to emphasize the tick-tock urgency of doing something.
The Ice at the End of the World is both greatly entertaining and greatly depressing, both fascinating and frustrating. It highlights great feats of bravery and endurance but sets the work of scientists and engineers right beside the great feats of the explorers. Gertner has written both a book that is not only fantastic, but also important enough that if I could, I’d make it required reading for everyone, but certainly for every politician or political candidate. Highly, highly recommended.
[Adds another book name to the “order this” list.]