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Good Reads  Earth System Sciences  Atmosphere  Climatology

The Ice at the End of the World An Epic Journey Into Greenland's Buried Past and Our Perilous Future

Popular Science
By: Jon Gertner(Author)
418 pages, 20 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Icon Books
The Ice at the End of the World is a gripping and riveting reportage of both past exploration and ongoing climatological research in Greenland that invites binge-reading.
The Ice at the End of the World
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  • The Ice at the End of the World ISBN: 9781785786556 Paperback Sep 2020 Out of stock with supplier: order now to get this when available
  • The Ice at the End of the World ISBN: 9781785785672 Hardback Sep 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
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About this book

Greenland: a remote, mysterious, ice-covered rock with a population of just 56,000, has evolved from one of earth's last physical frontiers to its largest scientific laboratory.

Locked within that vast 'white desert' are some of our planet's most profound secrets. As the Arctic climate warms, and Greenland's ice melts at an accelerating rate, the island is evolving into an economic and climatological hub, on which the future of the world turns. Journalist and historian Jon Gertner reconstructs in vivid, thrilling detail the heroic efforts of the scientists and explorers who have visited Greenland over the past 150 years – on skis, sleds, and now with planes and satellites, utilising every tool available to uncover the pressing secrets revealed by the ice before, thanks to climate change, it's too late.

This is a story of epic adventures, populated by a colourful cast of scientists racing to get a handle on what will become of Greenland's ice and, ultimately, the world.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Riveting reportage that invites binge-reading
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 13 Feb 2020 Written for Hardback

    Like Antarctica, Greenland is one of those places that exerts an irresistible pull on my imagination. As journalist, historian and The New York Times Magazine feature writer Jon Gertner makes clear in The Ice at the End of the World, I am not alone. This solidly researched reportage chronicles both the early explorers venturing onto Greenland’s ice sheet and shows the reasons it plays a starring role in research on climate change. Some books ought to come with a warning about how binge-read-worthy they are. This is one of them.

    Split into two parts, “Explorations” and “Investigations”, the book starts with what Gertner calls the waning days of the age of exploration. The names of those who tried to reach our planet’s poles have gone down in the annals of history, but the men who ventured onto Greenland’s ice sheet have largely been lost to memory: Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, the first European to trek across the ice sheet below the Arctic circle from East to West in 1888. The American Robert Peary, who made a gruelling round trip at Greenland’s northernmost end in 1891-92. The Greenland-born Dane Knud Rasmussen and Norwegian Peter Freuchen who explored the same area as Peary did some two decades later, but with an eye towards ethnographical research amongst the local Inuit.

    Although these men were celebrities in their time, and, like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, wrote large books about their travels, I had not heard of them before. Some of their books were never translated into English, and there have been no biographies written about them in recent decades, if at all. Gertner has thus dug into original sources in libraries and research institutes to retell the stories of these men and the brave souls who joined them on their expeditions, for these journeys were not solitary affairs. These are amazing stories of brutal physical and mental hardships: freezing temperatures, fierce winds, snowblindness, crushing monotony and boredom, fingers and toes lost to frostbite, and sometimes death. But also stories of raw beauty and poetic rapture at the scale and grandeur of nature. Greenland does this to you (see also my reviews of A Wilder Time and Underland), and Gertner gratefully mines their writings for inspiring words.

    The only name that did ring a bell was Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist and geophysicist who fathered the idea of continental drift. But that will be my fascination with the captivating history of the reluctant acceptance of his ideas (see my review of Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences), and the fact that there are recent biographies on him (see Ending in Ice and the exceptionally thorough Alfred Wegener: Science, Exploration, and the Theory of Continental Drift). Gertner nimbly side-steps the continental drift story and maintains a tight focus on Wegener and Johan Peter Koch’s first ice sheet crossing in 1913, and Wegener’s later return to set up a research base in the middle of the Greenland ice sheet in the early 1930s. A successful undertaking for which he tragically paid with his life, freezing to death on a return trip.

    From here, Gertner jumps forward in time a few decades. Whereas early expeditions had scientific aims, they were as much about exploration and often sheer survival, so early findings were both exploratory and limited. Gertner highlights the role of French explorer Paul-Émile Victor who brought his experience in the US Air Force, testing and developing survival equipment, to bear on polar research. As frequently happens, technology developed by the military often finds a second life in science. The development of more reliable heavy-duty motorised vehicles removed the need for death-defying expeditions by human or dog-pulled sledges. This was the start of the drilling of ice cores and saw the discipline of glaciology bloom.

    A particularly eye-opening chapter is that of Thule Air Base that the US Department of Defense established in 1951 in northern Greenland at the start of the Cold War. This story was only touched upon in Cold Rush, but it explains America’s continued interest in Greenland. Trump has not been the first US president trying to purchase Greenland from Denmark. And it is a bizarre story. The sheer amount of manpower, material, and money that the US threw at this project was staggering. Victor cleverly piggy-backed on the army’s presence and funding to undertake scientific research. Their departure as the Cold War wound down complicated financing further research to understand Greenland’s role in climate change.

    This second part of the book revolves primarily around the drilling for ice cores and the research that has allowed scientists to deduce past temperature, CO2 levels, and other palaeoclimatological variables. Gertner combines first-hand reportage during repeated visits to Greenland, numerous interviews, and careful reading of scientific papers to tell a thrilling narrative. Especially the shock discovery of evidence for abrupt climate change in the deep past takes centre-stage here. Initially, this was thought to be noise in the data, but then it was confirmed when subsequent ice cores showed the same signal, again and again. Glaciologists and others have written about this in books such as Climate Crash, The Ice Chronicles, and the much-lauded The Two-Mile Time Machine.

    Gertner does a good job here introducing the physical basis of climate change, the long history of research on it (see The Discovery of Global Warming and The Warming Papers for much more), and some of the technical details of methods currently in use (isotope analysis, mass spectrometry, remote sensing with satellites, and the gravimetric analyses by NASA’s GRACE mission). But what he makes especially clear is that there is nothing alarmist about climate scientists’ concerns regarding melting ice sheets, calving glaciers, and the threat of tipping points beyond which changes could rapidly accelerate.

    Gertner has spent years on this book, and The Ice at the End of the World stands out for the depth and thoroughness of its research. The 300-page narrative maintains a tight focus on its subject. It is accompanied by 70 pages of often very interesting notes where Gertner acknowledges which diversions are beyond the scope of this book, a section called "further sources" including a long list of interviews conducted and oral histories consulted, and a selected bibliography. But above all, the book is gripping. The memorable cast of historical characters, the pioneering research under challenging circumstances, the unusual settings – it has resulted in a book that I just could not put down.
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Jon Gertner is a journalist, historian and feature writer for The New York Times Magazine. His first book, The Idea Factory (Penguin, 2012) was a New York Times bestseller and described as 'riveting' by the New York Times, 'fascinating' by Slate, and 'compelling' by the Wall Street Journal.

Popular Science
By: Jon Gertner(Author)
418 pages, 20 b/w illustrations
Publisher: Icon Books
The Ice at the End of the World is a gripping and riveting reportage of both past exploration and ongoing climatological research in Greenland that invites binge-reading.
Media reviews

"Penetrating and engrossing [...] a captivating, essential book to add to the necessarily burgeoning literature on global warming."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Deeply engrossing and enlightening"
Booklist (starred review)

"The Ice at the End of the World is a masterpiece of reportage and storytelling. What Gertner has found on Greenland's remote glaciers is a harrowing tale of extremity and survival, as well as a harbinger of our own precarious future here on earth. Equal parts science, adventure, and history, this important book is a revelation, one that lingered for me long after turning the last page."
– Michael Paterniti, author of The Telling Room

"Jon Gertner guides us on a perilous and fascinating journey to the remote island that lies at the epicenter of our understanding of climate change. With compelling prose and lucid scientific explanation, he tracks the explorers and scientists who, over two centuries, have tried to fathom the immensity and mysteries of Greenland's inland ice. Both enlightening and disturbing, The Ice at the End of the World takes us on a gripping adventure into the thawing heart of global warming."
– Peter Stark, author of Astoria

"Isolated, vast and capped by some three quadrillion tonnes of ice, Greenland has long been a magnet for exploration. It is now one of Earth's biggest laboratories for climate-change research. Historian Jon Gertner's assured chronicle traces that dual narrative. [...]"
– Barbara Kiser, Nature 571(7766), July 2019

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