Book: Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent (Gabrielle Walker, 2012)

Are you miserable in the summer heat?  Might I recommend cooling down by reading non-fiction that will transport you to a frozen wasteland?  I have read many books about Antarctica, and the various expeditions to there, but the best I have read to date is Gabrielle Walker’s Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent.

The author has a PhD in natural sciences from Cambridge and has visited the continent on five occasions.  She has had stints at the US station at the pole, as well other US stations and those of the countries of Italy, France, Britain and New Zealand.  Needless to say, she is very highly qualified to author such a book.

Even better, her prose consistently made me feel like I was there alongside her as she experiences amazing things.  Not only does she expertly describe various aspect of the alien environments, but she works in details concerning fascinating minutia which other writers would likely overlook.

For example, she spends some of her time at McMurdo with Sarah Krall, the “voice of Antarctica”, who seemingly handles the majority of radio communications.  Krell passes the headset to Walker so she can hear the sounds of cosmic rays, radio storms on Jupiter and a passing meteorite.  Not only is the minimal air and light pollution at this latitude, but there is hardly any interference from radio waves.

There seems to be a hundred such fascinating observations here.  At one point, the author tries to use a pen and an incredulous scientist gives her a pencil—ink freezes down there.  Just don’t put a pencil to your tongue while outdoors, as one unfortunate scientist discovered: “Thon’t puth a penthill in your mouth when you’re out-thide.”

The continent is the only place on one where the countries of the world have agreed to use only for scientific purposes (so far…).  The variety and nature of experiments and studies being done there are astonishing.  I especially liked the bits about extracting ice cores, but the process of ice drilling and the what is so special about that ice.  This ice is the only place on earth where tiny pockets of air older than the human race are preserved in bubbles in the ice.

Talking about ice leads me inevitably to the horrific melting we seen so far there.  I know nothing will convince those who doubt the human contribution to climate change, but a passage here about the East Antarctic Ice Sheet made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.  If that ice complete melted, the oceans would rise by 200 feet—higher than the Statue of Liberty.  So put that in your pipe and smoke it (or, don’t, because it’s not like we need any more greenhouse gas emissions).

One of the most intriguing aspects of the author’s perspective is she is determined to not be charmed by penguins.  I can admire trying not to anthropomorphize the animals, but I admit I find them terminally cute.  Still, even she is won over when she gets the eerie feeling she is being followed while on a solo walk one night, only to try around and catch one of them following her.  Like a game of red-light/green-light, it stops every time she stops, maintaining the same distance.

Walker has written a tremendous book, not just the best I have read about the Antarctic continent but one of the best I have read, period.  Having read it, I feel I have experienced first-hand what it is like to meet so many eccentric personalities doing a wide spectrum of scientific experiments in unique facilities in locations which differ greatly from one another.  Very highly recommended.