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Good Reads  Natural History  Biography, Exploration & Travel

Land of Wondrous Cold The Race to Discover Antarctica and Unlock the Secrets of Its Ice

By: Gillen D'Arcy Wood(Author)
287 pages, 24 b/w illustrations, 12 b/w maps
Land of Wondrous Cold cleverly combines a twin narrative of polar exploration and deep-time history of Antarctica into an electrifying book.
Land of Wondrous Cold
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  • Land of Wondrous Cold ISBN: 9780691229041 Paperback Jan 2022 Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • Land of Wondrous Cold ISBN: 9780691172200 Hardback Mar 2020 Usually dispatched within 5 days
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About this book

Antarctica, the ice kingdom hosting the South Pole, looms large in the human imagination. The secrets of this vast frozen desert have long tempted explorers, but its brutal climate and glacial shores notoriously resist human intrusion. Land of Wondrous Cold tells a gripping story of the pioneer nineteenth-century voyages, when British, French, and American commanders raced to penetrate Antarctica's glacial rim for unknown lands beyond. These intrepid Victorian explorers – James Ross, Dumont D'Urville, and Charles Wilkes – laid the foundation for our current understanding of Terra Australis Incognita.

Today, the white continent poses new challenges, as scientists race to uncover Earth's climate history recorded in the south polar ice and ocean floor, and to monitor the increasing instability of the Antarctic ice cap, which threatens inundation of coastal cities worldwide. Interweaving the breakthrough research of the modern Ocean Drilling Program with the dramatic discovery tales of their Victorian-era forerunners, Gillen D'Arcy Wood describes Antarctica's role in a planetary drama of plate tectonics, climate change, and species evolution stretching back more than thirty million years. An original, multifaceted portrait of the polar continent emerges, illuminating our profound connection to Antarctica in its past, present, and future incarnations.

A deep-time history of monumental scale, Land of Wondrous Cold brings the remotest of worlds within close reach – an Antarctica vital to both planetary history and human fortunes.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An electrifying book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 6 Oct 2021 Written for Paperback

    Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen loom large over the history of Antarctic discovery. In their shadow, however, hides a lesser-known story. Some 70 years prior, three nations were locked in a race to discover what was at the South Pole. Professor of Environmental Humanities Gillen D'Arcy Wood here tells their story and sets it against a majestic backdrop: a deep-time history of how Antarctica became the icy wasteland it is now and shaped the Earth's climate in the process. The clever twin story and electrifying prose of Land of Wondrous Cold caught me off-guard; I simply was not expecting this book to be this good.

    In this era of satellite images, it is easy to forget that only a few centuries ago the nature of the South Pole was an unresolved question. Some argued that the Earth was hollow and that there were large entrance holes at the poles. A fringe idea nowadays, it was fashionable in the 1830s and was one of several reasons why, in 1836, the USA announced an Antarctic expedition. (The other reason was, arguably, the so-called Magnetic Crusade: learning more about Earth's magnetic field and finding the south magnetic pole.) While the Americans dithered until 1838, other countries were just as eager to get there first, plant a flag, and claim Antarctica as theirs. The French announced their plans in 1837 with two ships promptly leaving later that year. Britain was initially not keen to join this race but eventually approved of a mission in 1839.

    One strand of the story that D'Arcy Wood tells here follows the fate of these three expeditions, their commanding officers, and other people close to them. The French chose explorer Dumond D'Urville, a veteran of two Pacific expeditions. The Brits called on James Clark Ross, an experienced Arctic explorer who had previously located the north magnetic pole. The Americans, in comparison, made a hash of it. Unable to find willing candidates, the US Navy picked the inexperienced Charles Wilkes who took an unprepared crew and unsuitable ships into, effectively, the mouth of hell.

    A standout of this book is that D'Arcy Wood does not focus on heroic exploits: "my goal has been to adjust the telescope and bring humans and nature into focus at their proper scale" (p. 11). I think he has been successful. As he recounts the key events in this tri-nation race to the pole, the commanding officers come out very human. Heroic, yes, but also vulnerable. D'Urville is driven predominantly by his fear of public indifference if they have nothing to show upon their return. Wilkes proves unstable and incapable of delegating responsibility, barely suppressing mutiny by his disgruntled officers. Only Ross fares reasonably well, though their late start means they forever fall behind.

    But the starring role in this drama is played by the South Pole itself. With ice often literally towering over them, it indifferently throws both brutal violence and treacherous tranquillity at these wooden sailing vessels where crews cling on for dear life. The suffering and death all three expeditions experience are surreal at times. The achievements they make, though paving the way for later progress, sometimes amount to little more than symbolic gestures in an uncaring wilderness. When the Brits raise their flag on a rocky island in the Ross Sea, they do so while standing up to their thighs in excrement, assaulted from all sides by breeding Adélie penguins.

    What really puts the human endeavour into perspective, however, is the second narrative strand. Most chapters alternate with interludes that connect these early discoveries to current science while unveiling a deep-time history of Antarctica. Initially, it was thought that both the North and South Pole froze over some 2-3 million years ago (mya). However, drill cores extracted from the seabed reveal a large transition in the planet's climate some 33.6 mya from a warm to a cold climate. The Eocene-Oligocene Transition was one of the most significant events since the dinosaurs went extinct. Ice sheets formed on Antarctica and a biotic turnover took place on land and in the sea, whole groups of species going extinct while others evolved. What happened?

    At the root of it all is plate tectonics. As South America and Australia drifted away from Antarctica, oceanic currents could run an uninterrupted circle around the South Pole, newly forming the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. This literally had a chilling effect on the climate, with glaciers building on the South Pole and a sharper temperature gradient forming across the southern hemisphere. This, in turn "[...] awoke the oceans from their Eocene sluggishness" (p. 156) creating today's tempestuous Southern Ocean.

    The history of how different scientific disciplines converged on the same understanding of what happened to our planetary climate at this time is incredibly absorbing. D'Arcy Wood walks the reader through the different pieces of the puzzle, showing how new scientific disciplines were born and developed along the way: meteorology, palaeoclimatology, and palaeo-oceanography. He clarifies how palaeomagnetism, the record of Earth's magnetic field in the past, shows both reversal of its magnetic poles and apparent polar wander. This rather abstract concept of our planet's magnetic poles moving around over time can in part be explained by the rocks containing this magnetic signal moving around with the continents, something that was only reluctantly accepted.

    What blew my mind were the biogeographical consequences; that is, what happened to animals living here. For example, it has been suggested that the increased abundance of cold-loving diatoms and the krill that fed on them triggered the evolution of baleen whales. Penguin ancestors, on the other hand, suffered as coastlines disappeared: "The penguins alive today constitute a relic miscellany – the thinned-out legacy of a richly diverse population" (p. 173). The writing in this and many other passages is sumptuous and full of rich imagery.

    Neither strand of this story necessarily has a happy ending. After their return, Ross was quickly forgotten, Wilkes was court-martialed and disgraced, while the vivid description of D'Urville's demise is too mortifying to repeat here. Similarly, modern palaeoclimatological data show what happened in the past, and thus suggest what lies in store in our near future if current climate change trends persist. "The Antarctic ice sheets are the joker in the pack [setting] the stage for an epic reversal in human fortunes" (p. 259-60).

    Land of Wondrous Cold blew me away with its clever twin narrative. Readers interested in polar exploration, science history, earth sciences, or deep-time history should all take note. This book is far more interesting and satisfying than a casual glance might suggest.
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Gillen D'Arcy Wood is professor of environmental humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he serves as associate director of the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and the Environment. He is the author of Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (Princeton). Originally from Australia, he lives in Urbana, Illinois with his wife and two children.

By: Gillen D'Arcy Wood(Author)
287 pages, 24 b/w illustrations, 12 b/w maps
Land of Wondrous Cold cleverly combines a twin narrative of polar exploration and deep-time history of Antarctica into an electrifying book.
Media reviews

"Evocative and vivid."
– Steven Carroll, Sydney Morning Herald

"Gripping and informative to the last page."
– Nick Smith, The Explorers Journal

"Like Antarctica itself: dynamic and unexpected, but always fascinating."
– Gemma Tarlach, Discover Magazine

"Cold begone! Here be wonders [...] [Wood] approaches Antarctica with refreshing breeziness."
– Fergus Fleming, Literary Review

"Three nations sent expeditions to the Antarctic in the late 1830s and early 1840s. This fascinating account describes their members' heroism and often disastrous experiences without ignoring the significant discoveries that followed [...] Outstanding history accompanied by outstanding popular science."
Kirkus, starred review

"In a book that is both science and adventure story, Land of Wondrous Cold weaves together the human and natural history of the Antarctic by connecting early Victorian explorers and their discoveries with ancient and modern geological findings."
 – Midge Raymond, EcoLit Books

"[A] superb account."
– Nick Smith, Engineering & Technology

"Wood's examination of prior human perceptions of Antarctica in the days of sail, juxtaposed with contemporary appreciation and warnings about what the future may hold, adds up to a marvelously engaging work."

"The book recounts the stories of [...] rival expeditions in relation to each other in vivid detail, bringing out the various personalities involved."
Paradigm Explorer

"In a radical retelling of Antarctic exploration, Gillen D'Arcy Wood focuses on the fierce rivalry between the French, British, and American expeditions of the 1840s, and interweaves their stories with the chilling discoveries of modern scientists looking at the effects of global warming on the Antarctic ice cap. This is a marvelously engaging and important book that deserves to be widely read."
– David Day, author of Antarctica: A Biography and Flaws in the Ice: In Search of Douglas Mawson

"Antarctica has long beguiled those who sought to know this land and conquer it. Gillen D'Arcy Wood elegantly bridges the temporal divide between those stout-hearted nineteenth-century explorers who strove to penetrate its mysteries and their modern-day scientific counterparts who are working to unlock the secrets of Antarctic glacial history."
– Joanna Kafarowski, author of The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame: A Life of Louise Arner Boyd

"A historical account of Antarctic exploration during the mid- to late 1800s, Land of Wondrous Cold connects much of what the early explorers experienced with more recent scientific research. The perspectives offered by current scientific endeavors provide modern relevance to the explorers' extraordinary efforts. Filled with numerous colorful descriptions and details, this is a rewarding book."
– Robert Bindschadler, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

"Antarctica has long been the weathervane of the planet, and is now the canary in the coal mine of climate change. Switching between the Victorian age of Antarctic discovery – of which far less has been written about than the so-called heroic age of Antarctica – and present scientific discoveries, Land of Wondrous Cold fuses Antarctic past and future in a timely, absorbing work of environmental history."
– Jean McNeil, author of Ice Diaries: An Antarctic Memoir

"Weaving together palaeoclimatology, a narrative of nineteenth-century exploration, and modern sensibilities, Land of Wondrous Cold fills a niche for the historically minded reader. Filled with evocative storytelling, this is a good book for a long cruise to Antarctica."
– James R. Fleming, Colby College

"This highly readable book takes a set of nineteenth-century interrelated exploration voyages to Antarctica and juxtaposes their stories with one of contemporary scientific discovery. By looking at lesser-known expeditions alongside engaging and current scientific elements, Land of Wondrous Cold makes a significant contribution."
– Michael Bentley, Durham University

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