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A World Without Ice

A World Without Ice

2.6 5
by Henry Pollack, Al Gore

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A co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize offers a clear-eyed explanation of the planet’s imperiled ice.

Much has been written about global warming, but the crucial relationship between people and ice has received little focus—until now. As one of the world’s leading experts on climate change, Henry Pollack provides an accessible,


A co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize offers a clear-eyed explanation of the planet’s imperiled ice.

Much has been written about global warming, but the crucial relationship between people and ice has received little focus—until now. As one of the world’s leading experts on climate change, Henry Pollack provides an accessible, comprehensive survey of ice as a force of nature, and the potential consequences as we face the possibility of a world without ice.

A World Without Ice traces the effect of mountain glaciers on supplies of drinking water and agricultural irrigation, as well as the current results of melting permafrost and shrinking Arctic sea ice—a situation that has degraded the habitat of numerous animals and sparked an international race for seabed oil and minerals. Catastrophic possibilities loom, including rising sea levels and subsequent flooding of lowlying regions worldwide, and the ultimate displacement of millions of coastal residents. A World Without Ice answers our most urgent questions about this pending crisis, laying out the necessary steps for managing the unavoidable and avoiding the unmanageable.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this outstanding book, Pollack, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with his colleagues on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and former vice president Al Gore, explains the role that ice, especially polar ice, plays in the world's climate systems and describes the effects of a warming climate on the polar and high-altitude ice storehouses. Then he discusses how the environment is dramatically impacted as the rate of melting accelerates. Pollack also highlights how three centuries of human activity and industrialization have upset this delicate balance between ice and climate. He includes possible methods by which we can slow global warming or mitigate its effects on humanity and other animals. VERDICT Seldom has a scientist written so well and so clearly for the lay reader. Pollack's explanations of how researchers can tell that the climate is warming faster than normal are free of the usual scientific jargon and understandable. All readers concerned about global warming and students writing papers on the topic will want this excellent and important volume.—Betty Galbraith, Washington State Univ. Lib., Pullman
Kirkus Reviews
An entertaining pop-science examination of yet another part of the world we take for granted. Pollack (Geophysics/Univ. of Michigan; Uncertain Science . . . Uncertain World, 2003), who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, delivers a lucid review of ice's unique qualities, its role in geological and human history and why it's disappearing from Earth's glaciers and polar regions. Ice forms the planet's second largest reservoir of water. The ocean contains 96 percent, while ice contains a little more than three percent. This may sound trivial, but if all of today's ice melted, the oceans would rise 250 feet. Unfortunately, writes Pollack, this is already happening at an alarming rate. Although the media rightly blame the greenhouse effect, the implication that it's a new phenomenon is incorrect. In fact, life would never have arisen without it-99 percent of atmospheric gases (nitrogen and oxygen) allow sunlight to pass in and out. If no other gas existed, the earth would be 70 degrees colder and frozen solid. Luckily, for billions of years, tiny amounts of "greenhouse gases"-today mostly carbon dioxide-absorb some reflected sunlight and warm the planet. Natural processes such as volcano eruptions, erosion and photosynthesis have varied the concentration of greenhouse gases and thus the earth's climate. Pollack asserts that human activity-burning fossil fuels, clearing forests, agribusiness-became the principle source of greenhouse gases 50 years ago, pushing levels to the highest in recorded history, with no end in sight. Without drastic action, he says, the consequences, even beyond the threat of drastically rising sea levels, will be dire: "more severe droughts, increasinglyviolent storms, the spread of disease, the loss of crops, disappearing wildlife and politically destabilizing tides of climate refugees."A clear, engaging review of a disturbing environmental pattern. Agent: Gillian MacKenzie/Gillian MacKenzie Agency

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Read an Excerpt


The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around;
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

In late May of 1768, Lieutenant James Cook, a young officer in theRoyal Navy of King George III of England, received an unusual assignmentfrom the British Admiralty. He was to sail to the South Pacific onHMS Endeavour to make astronomical observations of the planet Venusas it passed directly between the Sun and Earth, an orbital event thatwould take place in early June of the following year. Such a passage,known as a transit of Venus, eclipses a very small circular area on theface of the Sun that appears like a shadow moving across the solar disk.This astronomical phenomenon offered a method of estimating the distancebetween the Sun and Earth, by simultaneous observations of themoving dark spot from different points on Earth. Cook was to make his observations on the island of Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean, on the oppositeside of the globe from England. The ostensible motivation for thisundertaking lay in the suggestion that an accurate determination of theEarth- Sun distance was important for reliable navigation at sea.The complexities of the motions of Earth and Venus about the Sunmake transits relatively rare events, coming in pairs separated by eightyears, but with more than a century separating one pair from the next.After the 1761/1769 pair, the next chances to observe a transit would comein 1874/1882 and 2004/2012. Cook had been selected for this scientificundertaking because of his skills in surveying and charting, honed a decadeearlier on the St. Lawrence River, during the Seven Years’ War betweenBritain and France for control of the territory that would become Canada.Endeavour was a small ship, just a little longer than a modern railwaycoach, but home to eighty- five seamen and another dozen officers andaccompanying naturalists, plus their equipment, water, provisions, andgrog. The voyage from England to Tahiti followed a route south throughthe Atlantic, around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and thencewest into the Pacific to Tahiti. The full journey totaled roughly twelvethousand miles, equivalent to about half the distance around the globe.Under sail it took almost exactly eight months to reach Tahiti, includingprovisioning stops in Madeira and Rio de Janeiro, and some specimencollecting in Tierra del Fuego.

Cook was meticulous about the health of his crew, as the scourge ofscurvy was already well known on long voyages. He knew that diet wasimportant to health, and he carried an ample supply of sauerkraut to wardoff scurvy. The crew, had they known of it, would have lobbied hard forthe anti- scorbutant that Dutch sailors preferred: white wine. It is not clearwhether Cook was aware of the prophylactic powers of wine, but he clearlyknew the perils of having alcohol- incapacitated seamen. Christmas Dayof 1768, celebrated off the coast of Patagonia, was marked not by religiousservices, but by a crew pursuing total inebriation. One of the naturalistsremarked that they were lucky the Christmas winds were light.

Endeavour arrived in Tahiti in mid- April of 1769, in ample time toprepare for the astronomical observations. Cook selected a place to conductthe measurements— on a sandy beach not far from the present- daycity of Papeete. He called the place Point Venus. When I visited Papeetea few years ago I was keen to see this famous scientific spot, but I worriedthat in the more than two centuries since Cook was there, the placemight have lapsed into nothingness. I asked a taxi driver if he had everheard of Point Venus. Yes, he replied, he knew it well. Skeptical that itwould be so easy to find this historic place, I queried him further. Yes,yes, he knew the spot. So I asked him to take me there, and fifteen minuteslater we arrived. It was Point Venus all right— but today well knownas a popular nudist beach! Incidentally, there is also a small monumentto Captain Cook’s 1769 visit.

WHILE THE TRANSIT of Venus was the announced scientificrationale for this voyage, Cook’s sailing orders from the Admiraltyhad another component, designated as secret and not to beopened by Cook until he was at sea. These orders addressed Endeavour’sassignment after the astronomical observations had been completed.They revealed that Cook was to search for Terra Australis Incognita, ahypothetical southern continent that had supposedly been dimly sightedin high southern latitudes by earlier mariners.The notion of a southern continent had been promoted through philosophicaland aesthetic arguments by Aristotle and later Ptolemy twomillennia before the Age of Exploration. They believed that symmetryand balance were inherent characteristics of the natural world, and thatEarth, as a natural object, must surely display these qualities. Such beliefsrequired the existence of landmasses in the Southern Hemisphere to balancethe extensive landmasses of the Northern Hemisphere.Not long after the transit was over— only six hours after it began—Cook took Endeavour southward in search of a southern continent.

Sailing south in the peak of the Southern Hemisphere winter quicklyled to cold encounters with widespread sea ice, and it did not take longfor Cook to realize that it was not the right season for a course into highlatitudes. In September he headed west and encountered today’s NewZealand. He proceeded to circumnavigate and chart the coastlines ofboth the North and South Islands, demonstrating that they were not alarge southern continent, as had been surmised by earlier explorers. Thereturn to England was by way of Australia, where Endeavour narrowlyavoided disaster on the Great Barrier Reef, then onward to the EastIndies, where several crew contracted malaria, and around Africa to theAtlantic, before heading north on the last long leg home. In the Atlantiche encountered some American whalers, and stopped to get news of thelast three years— he learned that Europe was, for a change, at peace.Cook arrived in England in the summer of 1771, with no sighting ofTerra Australis Incognita to report.

The return of Endeavour was celebrated and acclaimed widely, butthe focus was not on Cook, the modest master of the vessel. In thelimelight was the young patrician naturalist Joseph Banks, well versed inmanipulating the press to his advantage. Within just a few weeks, Bankshad worked up a frenzy of public adulation in the press that culminatedin his announcement that there would soon be a second voyage of explorationand scientific discovery, under his leadership. Incidentally, Bankswould insist that Cook undertake the maritime duties, and there waslittle Cook could do to decline. Within a month of his returning homeafter an absence of three years, Cook was already planning the next sailing.His wife, Elizabeth, was not too pleased.

In 1772, by then promoted to captain, the rank by which he is bestremembered, Cook sailed again for the Southern Ocean aboard a newship, HMS Resolution, once again in search of Terra Australis Incognita.On this voyage he headed toward the Pacific by turning east aroundAfrica into the Indian Ocean, and pushing to ever higher southern latitudesas ice conditions would permit. In 1773 he crossed the Antarctic Circle1 three times, at longitudes 40º east, 140º west, and 105º west;each time he encountered impenetrable ice, and came away withoutsighting a southern continent.

His eastward course across the South Pacific, never far from the ice,brought him to the southern tip of South America just as 1774 ended.Early in the new year, he sailed eastward into the South Atlantic, anddiscovered South Georgia Island, a banana- shaped glacier- striped islandthat, at first sighting, he thought might be the long- sought southern continent.But when the distal tip of the banana came into view, he knew itwas just an island. He named it Isle of Georgia, in honor of King GeorgeIII. Continuing eastward, Cook reached the cape of southern Africa,intersecting his path around Africa three years earlier. He had now circumnavigatedthe globe in the southern high latitudes, seldom very farfrom the edge of the ice. Cook noted in his journal2:

I had now made the circuit of the Southern Ocean in a high latitudeand traversed in such manner as to leave not the least room for thepossibility of there being a continent, unless near the pole and out ofreach of navigation. . . . The greatest part of this Southern Continent(supposing there is one) must lie within the Polar Circle where the seais so pestered with ice that the land is thereby inaccessible. . . . I can bebold to say that no man will ever venture farther than I have done, andthat the lands which may lie to the south will never be explored. Thickfogs, snowstorms, intense cold and every other thing that can rendernavigation dangerous one has to encounter, and these difficulties are greatly heightened by the inexpressible horrid aspect of . . . a countrydoomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, butto lie for ever buried under everlasting snow and ice.

Cook had clearly disproved the hemispheric “balance” of landmassespostulated by Aristotle, but he demonstrated symmetry of a different type,symmetry not of land but of ice. He had shown that there was a dauntingice barrier in the high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, similar to thatencountered in the Arctic. His predictions about the inaccessibility of thepolar latitudes in the South, however, did not stand. In the early nineteenthcentury several sailing ships did indeed sight the Antarctic continent.In 1838, just a little more than a half century after the founding of thenation, the United States sent an expedition to the South Pacific and Antarctic,formally called the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–43,but colloquially known as the “U.S. Ex Ex.” The expedition was commandedby Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, a naval officer, but was well staffed with scientists,the best known of which was the noted biologist and geologist JamesDwight Dana. In early 1840 the expedition reached the icy barrier along thecoast of Antarctica just at the Antarctic Circle, two thousand miles south ofAustralia. Wilkes traced the coastline for more than fifteen hundred miles,equivalent to the distance from Boston to Miami. Proof that this extensiveterrain was indeed a continent would come later, but clearly the U.S. Ex Exhad encountered a big and continuous landmass.


The symmetry of ice in both the northern and southern high latitudessometimes conveys a false impression that Earth’s polar regions arereally quite similar. The presence of ice, however, actually masks morefundamental differences between the north and south polar regions.The Arctic and Antarctic have been described as being “poles apart,” of course geographically, but also in many other characteristics. The SouthPole lies well within the continent of Antarctica, some 850 miles inlandfrom, and 10,000 feet above, the nearest coastline. The North Pole, bycontrast, is located in the Arctic Ocean, with the seafloor 14,000 feetbelow and the closest coast some 450 miles away. Both poles are set inice, but the thickness of the ice is very different. Beneath the South Polelies more than 10,000 feet of ice, whereas the North Pole sits on a thin10- to 20- foot sheet of frozen ocean water, give or take a few feet. Theice in both settings is on the move, but at very different speeds— at theSouth Pole the ice slips slowly over the pole at a glacial pace of about 30to 40 feet per year, whereas the sea ice of the Arctic is swept along bywind and currents at an average speed of about 3 to 4 miles per day.

Size- wise, Antarctica is a typical continent— smaller than Asia,Africa, North America, and South America, but larger than Europe andAustralia. And it shares many geological characteristics with the othercontinents. The large- scale architecture of all continents is similar tothat of icebergs— continents are composed of rocks, such as granite,that are less dense than the rocks that make up the floors of the surroundingocean basins. Just as ice floats in water, with some ice abovebut most below the water’s surface, continental rocks “float” in rocksof greater density, and stand a bit higher than the rocks in which theyare immersed. The average elevation of the continental surface is somethree miles above the ocean floor, but the low- density rocks of the continentsextend more than twenty miles into the Earth, a continental “root”not unlike the submerged portion of an iceberg in the ocean.

As in the other continents, the Antarctic rocks show the telltale characteristicsof a long and complex geologic history— a wide range of ages,from ancient Precambrian crystalline rocks to very young unconsolidatedglacial deposits. The rock types include the common rock categories—igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic— and in typical proportions.The Antarctic continent has mountain ranges such as the Antarctic Peninsula,which is really just an extension of the Andes of South America, and the Transantarctic Mountains, which snake across the continentfrom the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. Antarctica almost certainly has itsshare of mineral deposits, although none is exploitable, at least for now,because of the extreme environment. Antarctica is, however, unique inone important characteristic— its location astride the South Pole. Virtuallyall of Antarctica lies within the Antarctic Circle, and more than threequarters of its area lies at latitudes greater than 70º south.

How and when did Antarctica come to the South Pole? One mightbe tempted to ask, “Hasn’t it always been there?” but there is ample geologicevidence to indicate that it has not. Sedimentary rocks of Mesozoicage along the Antarctic Peninsula show beautiful fossilized tropicalferns, and Paleozoic- age coal seams in the Transantarctic Mountainsreveal well- preserved low- latitude vegetation. No, Antarctica was notalways at the South Pole— it came there from somewhere else, and fairlyrecently, geologically speaking.

At the beginning of the Jurassic period, some two hundred millionyears ago, the terrain that was to become Antarctica was part of asuper- continental assemblage called Gondwanaland, an enormous landmassthat also comprised the eventual continents of South America,Africa, and Australia, as well as smaller fragments including Madagascar,New Zealand, and India. Gondwanaland itself had been assembledonly one hundred million years earlier, during the closing stages of thePaleozoic era. Following its assembly from predecessor continental terrainsfrom around the globe, this composite landmass received depositsof a unique and remarkably widespread sequence of rock formations,and saw the evolution of a cosmopolitan fauna and flora. Geologists andpaleontologists eventually recognized this rock sequence with its containedfossils as the Gondwanaland signature— the key to recognizingthe full extent of Gondwanaland.

About 170 million years ago, the forces of plate tectonics began todismember Gondwanaland and disperse the pieces. Just as sea ice glidesslowly over the surface of the high- latitude oceans, so also do large segments of Earth’s rocky outer shell drift slowly over the globe, mobilizedby forces from within the planetary interior.

The continental dispersal created a new geography in the SouthernHemisphere. Within Gondwanaland, Antarctica was originally situated atabout 40º south, and governed by a temperate climate very similar to thatcharacteristic of the continental United States today— neither polar nortropical. Widespread forests and marshes of the time were eventually compressedinto the coal beds found today in the Transantarctic Mountains.

The separation of Antarctica, Madagascar, India, and Australia fromAfrica, and from one another, created a gap that became the modern IndianOcean. A little later, the departure of South America from Africa createdthe South Atlantic Ocean. India went its separate way northward acrossthe equator, eventually to collide with southern Asia to create the Himalayamountain range. Australia and Antarctica were carried southward.The defining tectonic events for Antarctica, the events that make itunique, came around thirty to forty million years ago. Australia parted companywith Antarctica and headed north, leaving Antarctica to enjoy the polealone. And as Antarctica slipped farther south, the Andean link betweenSouth America and the Antarctic Peninsula was stretched and then broken,opening a six- hundred- mile- wide oceanic chute known today as theDrake Passage. Antarctica was then totally surrounded by the SouthernOcean, a ring of water around the globe at 60º south. The prevailing windat that latitude blows from west to east, and it sets up an ocean current, theAntarctic Circumpolar Current, that circles Antarctica relentlessly.


The climatological impact of the west- to- east circumpolar current hasbeen profound. With virtually no flow in a north–south direction, the currentinhibits mixing of the cold Southern Ocean with warmer waters ofthe Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. Unlike the Arctic region, which receives tropical warmth via the northward- flowing Gulf Stream of theAtlantic Ocean, the Antarctic is climatologically isolated by this circulatorygirdle. In the Arctic, the port of Murmansk, in Russia, remainsice- free throughout the year, even though it is located well north of theArctic Circle. By contrast, in the Antarctic there is not a single placesouth of the Antarctic Circle that is free of winter sea ice.

There are many definitions for the boundary of Antarctica. The continentalcoast defines the geographic boundary, the margin of the Antarctictectonic plate delimits the geological boundary, and the 60º parallelof south latitude marks the political boundary governed by the AntarcticTreaty. But the climatological boundary, the boundary that makes Antarcticaunique, is defined by the abrupt north- to- south transition fromwarmer temperate- zone water to frigid polar water within the AntarcticCircumpolar Current. It is not unlike the “marriage of the waters” inBrazil, at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon. There thedark water of the Rio Negro flows side by side with the tan, muddywaters of the Amazon, but after a few miles of getting acquainted, theymix together and become one. In the Antarctic, however, the windsand currents maintain the large temperature differences, and preventa mixing of the waters. They flow side by side in a courtship neverconsummated— a marriage (surely not the first) thwarted by frigidity.This climatologic boundary is known as the Antarctic Convergence.

The crossing of the Convergence is marked by a drop in the temperatureof the seawater of nearly ten Fahrenheit degrees, and the air temperaturechills accordingly. Fog is an occasional visible marker, and theappearance of icebergs, first a few and later many, raises the navigationalante as ships penetrate farther south. The radar on a ship’s bridge slowlybecomes speckled with reflections from the bits and pieces of ice. Soonthereafter, large floating “islands” of ice appear. The continent is not yetvisible, but it is very clear that you have arrived in the Antarctic.

When you finally reach the continent, your feelings are overtaken bythe pristineness and simplicity of the landscape. Mountains rise from the sea, draped entirely in white. Large serpentine glaciers a mile acrosswind through the landscape, apparently static, but in reality slitheringslowly downward from the heights— giant conveyor belts delivering hugeblocks of ice to the sea. The seas surrounding the continent are cloggedwith titanic icebergs, of extraordinary size and architecture. The vistais powerful, yet quietly serene. Aboard Nimrod in early 1908, ErnestShackleton described his arrival:

As far as the eye could see . . . the great white wall- sided bergsstretched east, west, and south, making a striking contrast with lanesof blue- black water between them. A stillness, weird and uncanny,seemed to have fallen upon everything when we entered the silentwater streets of this vast unpeopled white city.3

The landscape is vast but also deceptive— it is without most of thevisual cues that attach scale, distance, and dimension to the naturalworld elsewhere. Indeed, the simplicity emerges from what the landscapeis free of. There are no people; no buildings or constructioncranes; no telephone poles or microwave towers; no roads, cars, trucks,or snowplows; no cultivated fields or irrigation circles; no airplanes overhead;no billboards, junkyards, or trash mounds. And the natural worldis also limited— no bushes, hedges, trees, or forests; no tulips, sunflowers,lupines, or forsythia; and no wolves, deer, moose, or caribou.

The aural “landscape” is also very different. There are no industrialsounds; no deep rumble of diesel engines; no hissing, humming, whining,or thumping; no blaring music; no honking horns or sirens. The ubiquitoussounds of the Antarctic are those of wind, water, and ice. Winds whistleat fifty, sixty miles an hour, and waves crash with great thuds on beachesof volcanic rock, or against rocky or icy cliffs. Glaciers creak and crack asthey inch their way through rocky valleys. And superposed on the inanimate sounds are those of the wildlife— whales spouting, seals belching, penguinscalling. Petrels, gulls, and albatross ride the wind in almost total silence.This is truly “the world without us,”4 a frozen part of the Garden of Edenthat has been off limits to us for most of human history.

The colors of the Antarctic are unlike colors elsewhere. Whereas greenis the signature color of well- watered vegetation everywhere, and reds,yellows, and tans paint Earth’s deserts, Antarctica specializes in black,white, and blue. The rock is mostly black and the snow white. Glacial iceis white at the surface, but deep brilliant blue where crevasses and fissuresreveal the interior. On a cloudy day, the deep sea is dark, and whenthe Sun shines brightly, the ocean appears a very deep blue. In brilliantsunshine the sky is a perfect sky blue, and when clouded over, it is a blanksheet of low- hanging gray. In deep fog a three- dimensional gray shroudsettles in, completely disrupting one’s sense of orientation and distance.

The Sun in the Antarctic summer is never far above or far below thehorizon— it simply rides around the horizon, offering an ever- changingazimuth of illumination that casts pink hues and slowly changing longshadows that sweep across the landscape. The polar circle cuts throughthe Antarctic Peninsula about halfway through its lineal extent. Southof the circle are long stretches of summer, when the Sun never sets, andnorth of that line the Sun dips just below the horizon for an hour or two,creating a very long “sunset” of delicate pinks, before returning to viewand offering direct illumination once again.

Wind is erratic. A transition from total calm to gale- force winds can occurunexpectedly, the result of very cold and dense air suddenly spilling off highlandsand roaring through valleys. These winds, called katabatic winds, arethe atmospheric equivalent of a flash flood. They come without announcement,bluster through with abandon, and are gone within minutes. Theycan drive inattentive ships into rocks and flatten humans caught unaware.

But nothing quite matches the special experience of getting up closeand personal with big icebergs. Conveying the scale of bergs requiresreference to something you can envision, so let’s start with a ship of thetype that has brought me to the Antarctic several times— an ocean goingvessel more than four hundred feet long and almost one hundred feethigh. When such a ship positions itself in the lee of a middling iceberg,the vessel is dwarfed, silhouetted against a floating ice island that easilyexceeds the ship in both length and height. The ship becomes a miniature,not in a bottle, but in a vast field of icebergs. A ship that would filla football stadium does not quite measure up.

Icebergs generally come either from a glacier discharging great chunksof ice into the sea, or from the margins of a floating ice shelf. The distinctionis artificial, however, because the ice shelves themselves are fedby glaciers. But the shelves tend to lose the irregularity of the glacial icethat feeds them, eventually to exhibit a flat upper surface like a tabletop.When a shelf launches an iceberg through breakup or break- off, the bergretains the flat top (at least for a while), and accordingly is identified as atabular berg. The chunks that calve from the snout of a valley glacier aremuch more irregular, depending on the extent of crevassing that developsin the glacier as it creeps through its valley toward the sea.

Once an iceberg is in the sea, wind and water take over its destiny.Afloat, a berg will bob up and down like a giant cork, rising, falling,swaying, and tilting in slow motion. Sometimes a floating berg will breakin two, and for a few minutes each offspring berg will slowly rock androll in the sea, seeking a new equilibrium that places its center of gravityin a stable position below the surface. Sometimes this process leads toa complete overturning that brings the formerly submerged portion ofthe berg to the surface. If a berg is blown into shallower water, it mayrun aground and await a high tide for relaunching. Or it may sit there foryears, slowly being diminished by the pounding of waves. Wave erosioncreates a “waterline,” where the ice and the sea surface meet; some bergsdisplay many waterlines at different elevations and intersecting angles, telling a history of grounding and refloating, and of re- equilibration followinga breakup.

The sculpting of icebergs by the elements has always fascinatedobservers, and opened their imaginations to interpreting the myriadshapes. Icebergs are to the polar imagination what cloud forms are topeople elsewhere. Frank Worsley, the captain of Sir Ernest Shackleton’sship Endurance, offered this description of a field of Antarctic icebergs:

Great fragments and hummocks of very old floes, worn, brokendown, and melted into all sorts of grotesque and wondrous shapes,were heaving, bowing, curtseying, and jostling on the long westerlyswell. . . . Castles, towers, and churches swayed unsteadily aroundus. Small pieces gathered and rattled against the boat. Swans ofweird shape pecked at our planks, a gondola steered by a giraffe ranfoul of us, which amused a duck sitting on a crocodile’s head. Justthen a bear, leaning over the top of a mosque, nearly clawed our sail.An elephant, about to spring from a Swiss chalet on to a battleship’sdeck, took no notice at all; but a hyena, pulling a lion’s teeth, laughedso much that he fell into the sea, whereupon a sea boot and threereal penguins sailed lazily through a lovely archway to see what wasto do, by the shores of a floe littered with the ruins of a beautifulwhite city and surrounded by huge mushrooms with thick stalks. Allthe strange, fantastic shapes rose and fell in stately cadence, with arustling, whispering sound and hollow echoes to the thudding seas,clear green at the water line, shading to a deep dark blue far below,all snowy purity and cool blue shadows above.5

WHAT LURED PEOPLE into the polar ice? Fame, glory, adventure, andcareer advancement were important motivations for explorers and naval officers, but fortune, territory, and geopolitical power were what thecommercial and national sponsors of exploring expeditions generallyhoped for. By early in the twentieth century all the land surroundingthe Arctic Ocean was politically attached to either Russia, the UnitedStates, Canada, Denmark, or Norway, and the ocean itself, mostly coveredwith year- round sea ice, was at that time not a sufficiently attractivecommercial target to promote international tensions. However, thesituation in the Antarctic was different.


Although at the end of the nineteenth century neither the North norSouth Pole had been reached, the route to the South Pole was overland, and in that heyday of imperialism, “vacant” land invited territorialclaims. The Berlin Conference of 1884 had partitioned Africa for thebenefit of the European powers; France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal,Great Britain, Italy, and Spain imposed colonial governments on morethan 95 percent of the African territory.

Antarctica was unclaimed land. Although it was not an invitingplace to establish colonies of settlers, nor seen as a great opportunity toenrich national treasuries and privileged royalty, it nevertheless offeredthe prestige factor of adding more pink or lavender or green to imperialworld maps. And it had some strategic military value in terms of controlof the Drake Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, a value thatwas diminished after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, most of theEuropean nations that had set up colonial regimes in Africa were activein exploring and exploiting the coast of Antarctica, but they were joinedby Norway, Sweden, and the Southern Hemisphere nations of Australia,New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina. Both Norway and Great Britain hadpenetrated the interior of Antarctica as well, reaching the South Pole in December 1911 and January 1912, respectively. Britain initiated the claimingof Antarctic territory in 1908, even before reaching the pole. WorldWar I intervened briefly while the European powers fought with one anotherfor imperial supremacy, but over the next twenty- five years, Australia, NewZealand, France, Norway, Chile, and Argentina announced Antarctic territorialclaims. These claims were typically drawn as “pie slices,” with thecenter of the pie at the South Pole. The claims of Chile, Argentina, andGreat Britain, however, inconveniently overlapped with one another, andas World War II came to a close in the Northern Hemisphere— the seedsof conflict had been planted in the territorial claims in Antarctica.

The end of World War II also saw the emergence of a new globalpower structure, the preeminence of the United States and the SovietUnion, and the nascent cold war between them. The United Stateshad been active in Antarctica— from the U.S. Ex Ex presence in 1840to the geological explorations and 1929 flight over the South Pole byCommander Richard Byrd from his Little America base on the Ross IceShelf. After World War II the United States returned to Little Americato conduct Operation High Jump, a military exercise of 4,700 troops, 12ships, and 9 planes.

The Soviet Union, however, was a newcomer to the Southern Hemisphere.Imperial Russia had sponsored Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen’s1819–21 circumnavigation of the globe, which included asighting of Antarctica in 1820, but nothing thereafter. The decade followingWorld War II saw the cold war take full form— the Berlin Airlift,the Korean War, and the nuclear weapons race. The Soviets were assertingthemselves everywhere, and soon, perhaps not surprisingly, the coldwar came to the cold continent. The Soviet Union rejected the notionof national territories in Antarctica, and in 1950 made its position veryclear when it stated that it would not recognize as lawful any decisionstaken on Antarctica without its participation. The growl of the Red Bearechoed across the white continent.

The United States also rejected all existing land claims, and to emphasize the point it set up a research station at the South Pole. By “occupying”the South Pole, at the center of the continental pie, the United Statescould then symbolically claim control in all directions, over the full 360ºof azimuth radiating outward from the pole. But it was only symbolism tomake a point; the nominally non- imperial policy of the United States hadlong been to eschew claims of territory in the Antarctic.

In the face of the contentious overlapping claims of Argentina,Chile, and Britain on the Antarctic Peninsula, Chile in 1948 proposeda five- year suspension of sovereignty issues, and urged instead tripartitescientific collaboration. In the following year, the three nations signed atreaty barring military vessels south of latitude 60º. But by 1952, Argentinahad built a base at Hope Bay on the peninsula, only a few hundredyards away from a British base that had partially burned a few yearsearlier. When later that year the British returned to rebuild their base,the Argentines fired warning shots over the heads of the British reconstructioncrew. These were the first shots fired in hostility in Antarctic

history, and did not augur well for a peaceful future in Antarctica. Britainbrought in the Royal Marines to protect the reconstruction.The deteriorating political situation in Antarctica invited a moresober alternative, one that would defuse the incendiary incident at HopeBay and perhaps prevent what was apparently looming near— an inevitableconflict of national interests throughout the continent. Interestednations discussed ways to make Antarctica a continent for science, and acontinent for peace. Thus was born the concept of what would becomeknown as the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58.


The idea for an international scientific year focusing on the high latitudeswas not altogether new. The first International Polar Year (IPY) occurredin 1882–83, just before the imperial knife was readied for carving up Africa.6 This multinational cooperative research venture at latitudesbeyond the polar circles was a recognition that much of atmospheric circulationand accompanying meteorology were affected strongly by the polarregions, and that navigation by magnetic compass would benefit greatlyfrom investigations near the magnetic poles. Moreover, as was well knownto all, working in the polar regions was difficult, dangerous, and costly, andtherefore nations were willing to undertake cooperative ventures to shareboth risks and costs, and to keep a geopolitical eye on one another. Mostof the research expeditions of this first IPY were to the Arctic, but threewent to Antarctica. The second IPY took place a half century later, duringthe Great Depression, again focusing principally on the Arctic. A thirdIPY had deployments occurring throughout 2007–9.


The International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–58 was an extraordinaryscientific and geopolitical success. Perhaps it was because of theurgency at that time to find a way to avoid repeating the many geopoliticalmistakes of the past. Or perhaps it was simply that there was a greatdeal of scientific interest in the polar regions, and new logistical capabilitiesand new scientific technologies made 1957–58 a perfect windowof opportunity. Nothing symbolized the new technology more than thelaunching of the first artificial satellites to orbit Earth— the Soviet Sputnik1, in October 1957, and the United States’ Explorer 1, four monthslater. And nothing characterized the spirit of scientific cooperation betterthan the establishment of an international data center, where observationsfrom all the national expeditions were to be archived and shared.

Most nations that participated in the IGY were delighted with its outcome,and wanted to perpetuate the science and cooperation model ofactivity in Antarctica. The principles of the IGY were translated into a diplomaticdocument known as the Antarctic Treaty, first adopted in 1959 andratified in 1961 by the United States, the USSR, the United Kingdom, andnine other nations with active research programs on the white continent.The treaty addressed many issues, but a few stand out clearly. Thefirst article declared Antarctica a continent for peace, and laid out provisionsto ensure that the continent would remain a demilitarized region.

The second article declared Antarctica a continent for science, free andopen everywhere for scientific investigation and cooperation. The treatydefused the conflicting territorial claims simply by saying that maps couldbe drawn however nations might wish, but no enforcement of claims orrestrictions on travel would be allowed. Important wildlife conservationprotocols were later adopted, as was a moratorium on exploration andexploitation of mineral resources that extends to the year 2043.The treaty, reaffirmed in 1991 and today with more than forty signatories,has shown how shared governance by mutual consent has shapeda new style of international relations. That Antarctica stands alone as acontinent for peace, multinational cooperation, scientific research, andnon- exploitation is a remarkable outcome of the IGY and the subsequentAntarctic Treaty.


As I note earlier, land claims in the Arctic never became quite the issuethat they did in the Antarctic. The countries surrounding the ArcticOcean had more or less well- defined boundaries, and “ownership” ofthe few islands situated beyond obvious national affiliations was adjudicatedthrough treaties. The question of how far national sovereigntyextended into the adjacent Arctic Ocean was essentially moot because of the great difficulties the perennial sea ice imposed on resource exploitation.

The relevant international law on this subject is embodied in theUnited Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which the UnitedStates is not a signatory.

But in the mid- twentieth century, if the Arctic Ocean had no immediatecommercial significance, it very much had military importance, andboth the Soviet Union and the United States recognized this. While theInternational Geophysical Year had offered the promise of peaceful coexistence,at least in Antarctica, the cold war continued elsewhere. In 1958,the U.S. nuclear submarine Nautilus set out from Seattle on a nominallyroutine cruise in the North Pacific, but as with Captain Cook and HMSEndeavour in 1768, Nautilus also had secret orders: disappear beneaththe surface of the North Pacific, and then enter the Arctic Ocean clandestinelythrough the Bering Strait. Nautilus was to explore and chart thetopography of the Arctic Ocean basin, and make observations of the seaice thickness overhead. And in another display of late- 1950s scientificand engineering prowess— artificial satellites were the first, just a fewmonths earlier— Nautilus broke through the sea ice and surfaced at theNorth Pole, sending home the terse message “Nautilus Ninety North.”In effect, the appearance of Nautilus at the pole was to announce to theworld that no place in the oceanic domain was beyond the reach of Americannaval power. William R. Anderson, the skipper of Nautilus, broughta piece of Arctic ice home as a souvenir for Admiral Hyman Rickover, thecurmudgeonly father of America’s nuclear submarine fleet.

The Soviets also recognized the military significance of the ArcticOcean. If nothing else, it was a well-camouflaged shortcut that could bringthe contiguous United States quickly within range of submarine- launchedmissiles. Over several decades the submarines of the cold war powersplayed cat- and- mouse with each other, and carefully monitored submergedtraffic beneath the sea ice cover of the Arctic Ocean. A by- product of thisactivity was an ever- increasing archive of scientific information about theArctic: the topography of the ocean floor, the thickness of the sea ice from place to place, the nature of the magnetic field near the north magneticpole, and the speed of sound transmission through the oceanic waters.But it was not a single archive of scientific observations that wasbeing compiled— there were two, one American and one Soviet. Detailedmaps and charts of the Arctic bathymetry could reveal potential hidingplaces for submarines, and knowledge of the magnetic field couldhelp military intelligence officers assess how the magnetic signature ofa submarine could be suppressed or disguised. The United States andthe Soviet Union were in effect conducting parallel and redundant geophysicalsurveys of the Arctic marine environment.

The cold war ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991.By the end of 1992, Boris Yeltsin and Viktor Chernomyrdin were occupyingthe offices of president and prime minister of the Russian Federation,respectively. In the United States, Bill Clinton was elected president andAl Gore as vice- president in 1992. The new leadership in both countriespresented new opportunities for cooperation. At a summit meeting the nextyear, Clinton and Yeltsin established a bilateral commission, headed by Goreand Chernomyrdin, to promote cooperation between the former adversariesof the cold war. The initial focus of the commission was on space, energy,and high technology, but soon encompassed health, agriculture, science,and the environment as well. Within a year the two countries had signed anagreement that addressed environmental issues in the Arctic.

Gore and Chernomyrdin both recognized that each country possessedgeophysical data about the Arctic Ocean that no longer offered militaryadvantage, because each country had independently acquired the samedata. In a remarkable turnabout from the cold war posture, they decidedto release the data to the international science community. Depth soundings,water temperature and salinity measurements, ice thickness andocean current maps, meteorological observations and much more wouldcome out of security vaults and be placed in the public domain. Theresult was the publication of the U.S.–Russian Atlas of the Arctic Oceanin 1997. Vice- President Gore remarked that “some of science’s most sought- after data about our environment has literally ‘come in from thecold’ . . . a great portal of knowledge has swung open.”7

The Gore– Chernomyrdin vision was prophetic. The informationreleased, acquired between 1948 and 1993, has provided the historicalbaseline with which we compare changes taking place today in the Arctic.It is because of this data that we can recognize the seriousness of thedecline in Arctic summertime sea ice, a seasonal loss that has accelerateddramatically in the early years of the twenty- first century. And the spirit ofinternational cooperation blossomed— the 2004 Arctic Coring Expedition(ACEX) comprised scientists and ships from a dozen nations, includingmy University of Michigan colleague Ted Moore, a marine geologist. ACEXreturned with drill cores from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean that revealedfifty- five million years of fascinating high- latitude geological history8 andchanging climate. Fifty- five million years ago the global climate was verywarm, a condition brought about by a release into the atmosphere of thegreenhouse gas methane, long sequestered beneath the ocean floor. Itwas the last time the entire planet was free of ice.

Currently, however, international attitudes about the Arctic are onceagain turning colder. The fast- diminishing sea ice in the Arctic Oceanhas opened the possibility of easy access to vast reaches of the oceanthat have been inaccessible for millennia or longer. Nations surroundingthe Arctic Ocean are now imagining the possibilities of petroleumand natural gas, trade routes and fisheries. There is renewed interest innovel interpretations of the Law of the Sea as a vehicle of governancein the Arctic. This newly developing geopolitical turbulence will only beamplified by the fast- approaching disappearance of summer sea ice inthe Arctic over the next few decades.

As I describe in chapter 6, we humans have left our mark on the land, air,and water everywhere we have settled. As our numbers and energy usagehave grown dramatically, the human footprints on the globe are nearlyubiquitous. But if ever there were places seemingly unaltered by people,one would think first of the icy polar regions— Antarctica in the South, andGreenland and the Arctic Ocean in the North. Throughout the eighteenth,nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, the high latitudes were accessibleonly to explorers, whalers, sealers, scientists, and naval flotillas, withmany expeditions a blend of these differently motivated purposes. Whatthey all had in common were the facts that the polar regions were hard toreach, inhospitable in the extreme, dark half the year, and dangerous.But such hazards did not discourage people with a sense of adventure(and a willingness to pay) from joining expeditions. Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s application to join Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expeditionto Antarctica in 1910 was at first rejected, but when Cherry-Garrardcontributed £1,000 (about $100,000 today) to the expedition, he wasallowed to come along.

Access to the polar regions began to change in the 1960s, with theadvent of transportation that enabled tourists and adventurers to reachhigh latitudes without benefit of military transport, scientific logisticalsupport, or resource- driven commercial enterprises. The first shipcustom- built for expeditionary tourism was the MS Lindblad Explorer,the vision of Lars- Eric Lindblad, a Swedish American who saw the businesspotential of tourism in the remote places of the world. Launchedin 1969, the Lindblad Explorer took adventurous tourists to both thePeninsula and the Ross Sea sectors of Antarctica, through the NorthwestPassage of the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic Ocean to theBering Sea, and to Svalbard, the Norwegian island at 78º north, wherethe Atlantic Ocean meets the Arctic Ocean.

The Lindblad Explorer was painted bright red, and became knownas the “Little Red Ship.” Explorer was not an icebreaker, but she had anice- rated double hull that enabled her to move slowly through loose seaice, gently nudging the ice fragments aside. At capacity Explorer couldcarry around a hundred passengers, and over the Antarctic summer seasonshe could provide the Antarctic experience to around a thousandvisitors.

When I first went to Antarctica in 1990, it dawned on me that morepeople would watch a single football game in the University of MichiganStadium— the largest stadium in America, with a capacity of about110,000— than had ever been to Antarctica in all of human history. Adecade later I could not say that anymore. Ships galore had begun tobring tourists to Antarctica— small ships, big ships, icebreakers— allrecognizing the tremendous interest in seeing the splendors of the Antarcticbefore Earth’s warming climate changed Antarctica forever. Todaysome fifty ships bring around forty- five thousand tourists to the Antarcticeach year.

The most traveled touristic sea route to the Antarctic is from thesouthern tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula. This route isfavored because it is the shortest route by far— only six hundred milesor so; the route from New Zealand is more than five times longer. Thisconstriction in the Southern Ocean is called the Drake Passage, afterSir Francis Drake, a sixteenth- century privateer in the British Navy, wellknown for harassing Spanish vessels along the Pacific coasts of bothNorth and South America.

Antarctica is only two sailing days from South America, but to reachit you must first cross the Drake Passage. Because of its narrownessand storminess, the passage has a well- deserved reputation for makinga journey to Antarctica on occasion very uncomfortable, even inlarge modern ships with stabilizers. Forty- eight hours of rough seas isthe price you must be prepared to pay to reach Antarctica— ten- footswells, waves breaking over the bow and sending spray all the way to the navigational bridge. Cabin furniture can be sent careening, and crockerycan slide off the dining room tables. There is an incessant thud as theship, after being uplifted by a swell, comes crashing down on the sea; athump, thump, thump as the turning propellers, temporarily lifted outof the water on the back of a big wave, carve their way back into the seato resume their duty of pushing the ship southward. But there is theoccasional surprise— sometimes the passage is so calm that the watersare affectionately called the Drake Lake.

Two days after departing South America, tourists reach the whitecontinent. Blessedly the waters around the Antarctic Peninsula aresheltered and calm. Once in Antarctic waters, visitors can go ashorein small inflatable landing craft called Zodiacs, ten- passenger rubberboats powered by outboard motors— the vehicle of choice for both scientistsand tourists in getting from place to nearby place in Antarctica.The landings are marine- style: leaping into shallow surf at the edge ofthe beach and scrambling ashore. They are appropriately called “wetlandings,” although knee- high rubber boots usually keep the visitors dry.Once ashore, the tourists visit penguin and seal breeding areas, hike upsteep terrain to view the extraordinary landscape of ice caps, glaciers,and mountains. In the Zodiacs they tour close to calving glaciers andinto iceberg “graveyards,” sheltered bays where the wind drives many bigbergs into temporary immobility. The Zodiacs offer unparalleled opportunitiesto become intimate with ice.

Many tourists are veteran world travelers who want to set foot ontheir seventh continent. For safety reasons, the rules of Antarctic tourismallow no more than one hundred people ashore at a given time. Thetask of ships avoiding one another at favorite destinations has growninto a scheduling and navigational challenge. Everyone who comes tothe Antarctic imagines that they alone are having this once- in- a- lifetimeexperience. The last thing they want to see is another ship sitting atanchor in Paradise Bay, its passengers ashore enjoying a hike up to a specialviewing point, or in Zodiacs exploring the face of a massive calving glacier. No, everyone wants a pristine Antarctica, unsullied even by thepresence of others. Well before the tourist season begins, expeditionleaders and ship captains submit requests to a clearinghouse for landingsites and times, much like booking admission times to popular museumexhibits weeks in advance. But in Antarctic waters, ever- changing wind,fog, and ice conditions frequently force last- minute shuffles in schedules.Advance planning is obligatory, but day- to- day improvisation isusually the reality.

Who guides tourists in the Antarctic? Aboard most ships there is a verysmall expedition staff of naturalists— ornithologists, marine biologists,geologists, glaciologists, historians, meteorologists, oceanographers—adventurous people who have gained Antarctic (or Arctic) experience,principally through scientific work. As the number of ships has grown, sohas the need for naturalists familiar with the Antarctic. Today this smallband of men and women probably number fewer than five hundred,distributed over some fifty ships for all or part of the season. Many havealso spent years driving Zodiacs. The Antarctic setting can be a challengingone, with high winds, big waves, and bigger icebergs. Experience isat a premium— these folks are the ones who bear the responsibility oftransporting tourists to the beach from ships at anchor offshore, anddisembarking them safely at “unimproved” landing sites.

I have had the privilege of working with some of these remarkablepeople over the years. Russ Manning, affectionately known to colleaguesas “Russ of the Antarctic,” is a distant relative of Nanook of the North,with a wild mop of multicolor hair that is never covered by a hat nomatter how bad the weather. Russ is a fifteen- year veteran of the RoyalMarines who later commanded the British Antarctic Survey scientificstation on Signy Island, in the South Orkney Islands. He has boundlessenergy, can do anything that needs to be done, and sees hazards beforethey become hazards. Raymond Priestley, a geologist on both ErnestShackleton’s 1907–9 Nimrod expedition and Robert Falcon Scott’sill- fated 1910–12 Terra Nova expedition, reflected on the giants of Antarctic exploration with these words: “For scientific discovery give meScott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen, but whenyou are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, getdown on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” If today I were in direcircumstances and saw no way out, I’d get down on my knees and prayfor Russ Manning.

Kim Crosbie— “the wee Scottish lassie,” as she is known to friends—did her Ph.D. dissertation research on Cuverville Island, along theAntarctic Peninsula, and later parlayed this experience into a job as anexpedition leader with some of the tour ships. Small in stature but not inleadership, Kim could drag Zodiacs ashore in icy chest- high surf and beready to lead hardy hikers up to the top of Cuverville through waist- deepsnow. On one cruise, most of her Zodiac drivers happened to be women,who dubbed themselves the GODS, the “Girls Only Driving Squadron.”Kim is now involved in the management of tourism in the Antarcticthrough the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators(IAATO), and the co- author of A Visitor’s Guide to South Georgia.T. H. (Tim) Baughman is a professor of history at the University ofCentral Oklahoma. As a graduate student at Ohio State University hejoined an expedition to Marie Byrd Land, in Antarctica, as the tokenhumanist, to provide some levity for the serious scientists at work in theAntarctic. Tim, as an eminent Antarctic historian with several scholarlybooks to his credit,9 lectures about Antarctic history aboard cruise ships.In the ship’s lecture theater he is a master storyteller, leaving audiencesinformed, spellbound, out of breath, with tears in their eyes. Ashore,after a dozen or more seasons in the Antarctic, he has finally learned toidentify penguins.

Many of the same features that draw tourists to the Antarctic enticethem to the Arctic as well. The Svalbard Archipelago, including the largeisland of Spitsbergen, sits between Norway and Greenland, well northof the Arctic Circle. Spitsbergen is easily accessible by both sea andair, and offers excursions to glaciers and rich wildlife viewing, includingreindeer, walrus, arctic fox, polar bear, and a great variety of seabirds.The five thousand or so polar bears on Spitsbergen outnumberthe human population two to one, and add a new requirement to theusual outfitting of tourist groups— a high- powered rifle in the hands ofa well- trained guide.

Greenland itself is a miniature Antarctica, a landmass extending from60º to 82º north, more than 1,500 miles south to north, and around 700miles across. It is covered nearly entirely with a mile- thick sheet of ice,two miles at the thickest point— a volume of ice about one tenth thatof Antarctica. A seven- mile- high glimpse of this frozen world can behad on flights from Europe to North America— the westward flight pathusually passes close to or over the southern tip of Greenland, and on acloudless day offers window- seat passengers an exquisite view of ice,rock, and water. The surrounding sea appears as a fabric of blue withtiny white polka dots— but they are not polka dots; they are icebergsthat have spilled off Greenland, into the sea. And a closer look showsthat the icebergs are not randomly adrift, but are arrayed in huge gyrestens of miles across— giant, slowly swirling eddies on the fringes of thenorthward- bound Gulf Stream.

But an overflight is not real tourism— it just whets the appetite forclose- up encounters with the polar ice. That takes place at the surface.Small ships with tourists venture into the Davis Strait and Baffin Baybetween Canada and Greenland for iceberg viewing and fjord cruisingalong the west coast of Greenland, following the eastern entry into the Northwest Passage. And overland excursions are possible in northernNorway, Sweden, and Finland, including the opportunity to stay in theIce Hotel (yes, a hotel carved entirely in ice) in the village of Jukkasjärvi,in Swedish Lapland, well north of the Arctic Circle.

The economic strains that followed the breakup of the former SovietUnion in 1989 forced the Russian fleet of icebreakers and polar researchvessels to find other sources of revenue to support operations andmaintenance. These ships entered the tourist trade in the polar regions,with several small research ships now regulars in providing tourism tothe Antarctic. But in the Arctic, the big draw is the North Pole, and onlymassive icebreakers can be counted upon to grind a path to the polethrough the Arctic sea ice.

The departure point for polar trips is commonly Murmansk, in thefar northwest of Russia, a year- round ice- free port situated well north ofthe Arctic Circle, but warmed by wisps of the Atlantic Gulf Stream thatwrap around Scandinavia into the Russian Arctic. Murmansk lies about1,500 miles from the North Pole; from there, it takes the better part of aweek to reach the pole by sea. The remote Franz Josef Islands mark thehalfway point, and offer a rich array of polar wildlife, as well as a pieceof the history of polar exploration. Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansenand Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen wintered there in 1896–97, followingtheir unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole.10

The route from Franz Josef Land to the North Pole is a hard slog,but it is the kind of work that big icebreakers are built for. Sea ice tento twenty feet thick forms a solid collar around the pole, through whicha channel must be opened. One of the veteran Arctic icebreakers is theRussian ship Yamal, a nuclear- powered behemoth of some twenty- threethousand tons based in Murmansk. Icebreakers do not wedge ice apartwith a sturdy knife- edge bow; they ride up onto the ice with a rounded hull and break it beneath them through their sheer mass. It is a verynoisy process, repeated time and time again around the clock, as theship inches to the pole. It is not a quiet, peaceful, serene approach of aship slicing silently through the sea, but rather a continuous and audibleapplication of industrial- strength brute force. Two to three days beyondFranz Josef Land, Yamal arrives at 90º north. The passengers clamberdown on the ice, form a circle around the pole for an arrival “ceremony,”and then have a picnic on the ice. But the sea ice platform for the picnictable is proving less reliable— in August of 2000, Yamal arrived at thepole to discover only open sea.


Neither the Arctic nor the Antarctic is a forgiving environment, a realitywell known or quickly learned by the early explorers. Already therehave been several mishaps that should raise the cautionary flag for polartourism. In 1977, Air New Zealand began flyovers to Antarctica, a longjourney back and forth from New Zealand for a few hours of in- flightviewing of the Antarctic landscape. This particular type of tourism cameto an abrupt end in 1979 when one planeload of tourists crashed intoMount Erebus near New Zealand’s Scott Station in the Ross Sea region.All 257 people aboard the aircraft perished.

On January 28, 1989, the Argentine supply vessel Bahía Paraísostruck submerged rocks and ripped her hull open shortly after leavingPalmer Station, a small U.S. research base on the Antarctic Peninsula.All the crew and tourists aboard took to lifeboats, and shortly thereafterwere back at Palmer. The maximum capacity of Palmer is around fortypeople, so the influx of an extra two hundred placed substantial stress onthe Palmer facilities. Two nearby tourist vessels, Explorer (the Little RedShip) and Illyria, diverted to Palmer, picked up the survivors, and carriedthem northward to a Chilean base on King George Island, from which they were flown back to Argentina. Tides lifted Bahía Paraíso off the fatalrock, from which she drifted across the bay and rolled over in shallowwater. Her rusting hulk can still be easily seen by passing ships today.Probably the most visited destination along the Antarctic Peninsulais Deception Island, a heavily glaciated active volcano. DeceptionIsland has a big interior caldera, analogous to Crater Lake in Oregon,but flooded with seawater because of a narrow breach in the wall ofthe volcano that connects the open sea with the sheltered interior caldera.The caldera has provided safe haven for mariners since at leastthe middle of the nineteenth century, and was the site of an extensivewhaling operation in the early twentieth century. The breach throughthe wall of the volcano is visible from only one azimuth— from all otherapproaches Deception appears to be just another island in the SouthShetland archipelago, hence the name Deception.

The passage from the open sea into the interior anchorage requiresvery careful piloting through the breach, because a big shallowlysubmerged rock ledge obstructs the middle of the channel. That obstaclerestricts entry and egress of ships to an even narrower but deeper routeclose to the wall of the channel. The rock in the middle is perhaps the“best-known rock in Antarctica,” because over the 150 years or so thatmariners have known of the narrow channel to the sheltered interior ofDeception Island, the rock ledge in the center of the passage has beenvery well mapped and charted. Hundreds if not thousands of passages byexplorers, whalers, scientific survey ships, and tourist vessels have madethis dangerous spot abundantly clear. And for those who need a visualrather than cartographic reminder, there is a rusted hull of a broken shipjust inside the caldera that offers mute testimony to the perils of ignoringthis navigational hazard. Nevertheless, on January 30, 2007, the Norwegiancruise ship Nordkapp damaged her hull on the rock upon exiting thecaldera, and was forced to retreat into the anchorage and seek emergencyassistance from a British Antarctic Survey research vessel to evacuate the280 passengers and some 50 nonessential crew members.

Ironically, the Little Red Ship Explorer, the pioneer of adventuretourism, ultimately went to rest at the bottom of the sea. In late 2007, inthe Bransfield Strait, between the South Shetland Islands and the AntarcticPeninsula, Explorer hit ice that opened a ten-foot split in her hull,and began to take on water. All passengers and crew boarded lifeboats,and were rescued without loss of life, by the Nordnorge, another Norwegiancruise ship operating in Antarctic waters. Explorer had performedsimilar emergency duty for those taken off the sinking Bahía Paraíso twodecades earlier. Within hours, Explorer rolled over and slipped beneaththe surface. To those of us who had spent many happy days aboard her,it was a melancholy moment. Symbolically (but probably not environmentally)it seems a better fate for Explorer to rest on the ocean floornear Antarctica than to be ignominiously cut up for scrap in a Singaporeshipyard. The official inquiry into this accident attributed the sinking inpart to excessive speed while traversing an iceberg field.

The accidents continue. In early December of 2008, the Argentinecruise ship Ushuaia ran aground near Wilhelmina Bay, on the west sideof the Antarctic Peninsula, and had to evacuate more than eighty tourists.Most of the crew remained aboard, trying to contain a fuel spillthat surrounded the ship to a distance of a half mile. And in early 2009,the Ocean Nova ran aground in Marguerite Bay. All sixty- five passengerswere evacuated to another cruise ship in the vicinity, which returnedthem to Argentina. The ship’s hull was dented but not pierced.


What are the consequences of so many ships and tourists coming to Antarctica?As a trip to Antarctica draws to a close, and the ship heads northfor the return crossing of the Drake Passage to South America, many visitorsto Antarctica become pensive. The impact of the continent on visitorsis often partly spiritual; they have just experienced something only a privileged few can ever hope for. Their impressions always include asense of how vast, how unoccupied, how unsullied, how pristine Antarcticais. They see it as a frozen outpost of creation without the ubiquitousoverprint of humanity seen on all the other continents. And most visitorswant it to stay that way, although one still hears the occasional inquiry asto when there will be hotels and casinos in Antarctica.

Inevitably I am asked, “Are we damaging Antarctica when we comehere? Are we bothering the penguins and seals by inserting ourselves,however fleetingly, into their natural world?” The question is a thoughtfulone, and as tourism in Antarctica has developed, so has the researchexamining the impact of relatively large numbers of visitors on the terrainand wildlife of the frozen continent. The International Associationof Antarctica Tour Operators has developed behavioral guidelines forvisitors, addressing wildlife viewing, avoidance of fragile moss- coveredareas, safeguards to prevent the introduction of non-native plants andmicrobes, and other issues, such as noise, littering, graffiti, and removalof natural specimens and historical artifacts. The adage “Take nothing butpictures, leave nothing but footprints” is too lenient for the Antarctic—afootprint on a pad of moss may remain there for decades, so slow is thepace of regeneration in the polar environment.

Not surprisingly, there have been some adverse environmental consequencesassociated with the accidents involving tourist vessels. Thegrounding of the Bahía Paraíso in 1989 released between 160,000 and180,000 gallons of fuel that within a few days produced an oil slick thatspread over twelve square miles. Limpets and algal mats in the intertidalzone were significantly impacted, seabirds less so, and fish and marinemammals negligibly.11 In the cold environment of the Antarctic Peninsula,microbial degradation of the fuel spill was slow.

Research into the impacts of tourism on wildlife generally shows,however, that well- behaved tourists are more curiosities than disturbancesto wildlife. Experiments on islands with separated penguinrookeries, where one breeding area is exposed to tourism and the otheris sheltered from it, indicate few if any touristic impacts on breedingsuccess.12 Tourists can go home comforted in the knowledge that theyhave been good stewards while in the blue- and- white Garden of Eden.But that is only part of the answer about whether they have inflicteddamage on the Antarctic landscape and ecosystems. When I am askedthat question, I tell visitors that it is not what they do during their twoweeks in Antarctica that damages the white continent. No, it is whatwe all do at home the other fifty weeks of the year that is damagingAntarctica. It is our intensive use of fossil carbon- based energy to fuela seemingly insatiable consumptive lifestyle that is warming the planetand causing irreversible changes in Antarctica.

Globalization is more than telecommunications and an integratedworldwide economy. Earth’s atmosphere has always been globalized—when we deliver climate- changing greenhouse gases to the atmospherein the Northern Hemisphere, it is not long before the effects of thatatmospheric pollution are communicated to the rest of the world. TheAntarctica that tourists see today is already different from the Antarcticaencountered by nineteenth- century explorers, or even that seen by earliertourists only two decades ago,13 and more changes are yet to come.

Meet the Author

Henry Pollack, PhD, and his colleagues on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Core. Pollack has been a professor of geophysics at the University of Michigan for more than forty years and now serves as a science adviser to Al Gore's Climate Project training programs. Also the author of Uncertain Science…Uncertain World, he lives in Ann Arbor.

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World Without Ice 2.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
BillPilgrim More than 1 year ago
Dr. Pollack is Professor of Geophysics at the University of Michigan, a member of the IPCC and an advisor to Al Gore's Climate Project. In this book he presents a concise and easy to understand explanation of the many forces that are at work on Earth that are causing global warming. He cautions that we have little time left to make changes in human activities to avoid the worst possible catastrophes that are inevitable if we simply continue on our current course. But, there is still time to make a difference. I have had an interest in this subject for a long time, and there is a lot in this book that I was already aware of. But, there is also a huge amount of information that I had not yet come across and that was completely new to me. Despite the wealth of facts included, I am still left with many questions about the causes and particularly the effects of global warming. Anyone who needs ammunition to use in discussions with deniers of climate change, or deniers of the effect of human activity on climate change, should read this book. The case he makes is compelling and hard to dispute.
Anonymous 4 months ago
Man made global warming is fake news. Al Gore is a fraud making millions of dollars off of true believers.
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