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A new tome tells tales of adventurers and scientists who have wrested secrets from Greenland’s daunting landscape

The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

Jon Gertner
Random House
2019
445 pp.
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Although Greenland occasionally figures into news stories and debates about rising sea level and a warming Earth, the relevant historical background rarely enters into such discussions. Consequently, many fascinating elements of the island’s story that could capture the interest and attention of the public have lain dormant. Jon Gertner’s compelling book, The Ice at the End of the World, addresses this paucity with intelligence and insight.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1, “Explorations,” describes expeditions that took place near the turn of the 20th century. In a well-documented chronicle, Gertner details the struggles of Fridtjof Nansen and Otto Sverdrup (1888–1889), Robert Peary (1891–1892), Knud Rasmussen and Peter Freuchen (various times between 1912 and 1921), Alfred Wegener (1912–1913 and 1930), and other early adventurers to cross the ice before the advent of vehicles capable of doing so. The difficulties Nansen’s team faced pulling their massive sleds for weeks across the ice and Wegener’s death as he undertook an effort to save members of his team from starvation are just two examples of the human sacrifices paid by these explorers. Gertner conveys the psychological and physical struggles these individuals suffered, as well as their exhilarating successes, with realism that acknowledges the emotional and physical reality of these endeavors.

With a respectful directness, Gertner outlines the diverse personal motivations that drove these adventurers. Although it is clear that the pursuit of rigorous science was rarely a part of the early expeditions, as knowledge of the frozen landscape grew, questions about the ice—its depth, its physical properties, its historical record—began to influence the activities of later explorers and scientists.

In Part 2, “Investigations,” Gertner chronicles the evolution of scientific studies of the ice sheet between 1949 and 2018. Detailed here are the challenges that were surmounted to obtain continuous ice cores suitable for establishing a chronological record and that would provide material for laboratory analyses. Logistical hurdles, technical and analytical challenges, and weather-related stresses all played a role in making the recovery of such cores—which clearly established a change in climate over the past 400,000 years—a multiyear, international effort.

Gertner also describes the evolution of technology that expanded our knowledge of the physical properties of Greenland’s ice and enhanced our understanding of its dynamics. He communicates the importance of these accomplishments through candid observations from those involved. He quotes Robert Thomas, for example, on the impact of satellite-based geographic locating: “GPS came along … and for the first time we knew where an airplane was.”

Without judgment or comment, Gertner provides details worthy of philosophical reflection about the influence military pursuits have had on the ability to conduct research in remote settings and how we value science. He writes, for example, that researchers “had piggybacked on the U.S. military’s Arctic programs … but by the late 1960s … dollars for the American military began flowing toward other geographical regions.” This necessitated a shift toward nonmilitary funding sources in order to conduct basic research on the ice.

In the closing chapters, Gertner discusses global warming, describing the controversy of whether rapid climate change has ever happened or even could happen. He also articulates its staggering implications. We have embarked on a path that has irreversibly changed the planet’s surface, he warns. Even if carbon emissions dropped to zero today, all future humans and the environments they occupy will have been shaped by the Industrial Revolution, its derivatives, and the decisions we are currently making.

For the sake of perspective, it would have been useful if Gertner included more information about the people living in Greenland. Over the past 4500 years, the indigenous populations have thrived in that challenging environment, honoring the land while maintaining a rich hunting and fishing culture. But changing climate is affecting the populations of fish, reindeer, whales, seals, and polar bears in ways Greenlanders are struggling to adapt to.

Greenland and its ice will remain a place rich with research and investigation opportunities, and Gertner’s excellent book is a must read for any who are curious about the history of exploration and the pursuit of science there. The stories contained therein should inform future dialogues so that the implications of what we face can be fully appreciated and the magnitude of the losses truly understood.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA, and the Department of Geoscience, Aarhus University, Denmark, and is the author of A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice (Bellevue Literary Press, 2018).