Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Ice at the End of the World

   This new book by Jon Gertner is a fascinating look at how exploration and technology worked together for over a century and a half on the island of Greenland to lead the way to a possible solution for global warming in the modern world of today.

   The early explorers of this strange land, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary, Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen and many, many others, risked sanity, starvation, falling into the oblivion of crevasses, the loss of frozen toes and noses and ultimately death in the frozen wastelands.

   Greenland is five times the size of California with a population of just 56,000. The ice sheet that covers it is 700 miles wide and 1500 miles long. It is composed of some three quadrillion tons of ice. Gertner explores how Greenland evolved from one of our planet's last frontiers into a multi-national home and laboratory for scientific exploration.

   Those early explorers had little notion of the journey they were embarking upon. What drove them was a desire for conquest, exploration, fame and a need to fill in the map of one of the last frontiers on earth. They traveled at first by foot and sled dog, then by horses, skis and crude motorized sleds. The first of these men braved the wastelands at the turn of the 20th century and many of them died cruelly on the ice. They would have shaken their heads in disbelief if one had tried to tell them that just a few decades later, exploration would spread out across the massive ice sheet via men sitting in the comfort of heated airplanes, mapping and exploring the depths of the ice with lasers and GPS.

   They strove to survive hurricane force winds and blinding hail and snow storms. They struggled to find food and ways to shelter from the Arctic cold. Exhaustion and starvation would be the reward for most, while a few made contact with remote Inuit tribes. For the most part, the Inuit welcomed these intruders who seemed so helpless and taught them how to survive. Some of the explorers, like Robert Peary, took wives and had children, whom they eventually deserted to return to their civilized homes and families in Europe.

   But they laid the first steps that would lead to scientific exploration. Gradually, scientists began to leave the idea of exploration for its own sake behind. The new breed built lonely encampments far out on the ice and began to drill, eventually going down miles and drawing out ice cores that would reveal the greatest mysteries of our planet's past, going back hundreds of thousands of years.

   Over time, the U.S. military became interested in rare mineral deposits and in the installation of radar stations. One young scientist, Carl Benson, was hired to locate radar installations near Thule, the military's vast new air base in northwestern Greenland. By the spring of 1952, Benson related how Thule had become "a place of chaos and wonder, a project so massive and crowded with contractors and equipment that the total economic costs struck him as beyond compute."

   Surely this new wonder on the icecap would have shocked Peary, Rasmussen and the others. But the need for scientists to unravel the mysteries of the deep ice grew by leaps and bounds as men began to contemplate the possibility that the icecap might be moving...and a result of the buildup of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere from industrial development and other causes. The race was on to determine whether, if the icecap melted, all the great cities of the planet would soon be underwater.

   Today, scientists from all over the world are using every tool at their disposal to uncover Greenland's secrets. Through the miracle of computers and technology, they may now sit in the comfort of their homes and offices and contemplate the latest scientific discoveries. No longer any need for endless treks in the cold or starvation or being lost in the wilderness. Greenland has been mapped and studied, all in the name of saving the human race, if such a thing is even possible.

   Only time will tell. Time and the movement of ice at the end of the world.

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