The Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica has earned the nickname “Doomsday Glacier” because its retreat could cause the catastrophic destabilization of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet and drive disastrous sea level rise. But while we know the basics regarding its size and how much water it holds, the details of how it flows and interacts with the ocean, and its geologic past, are largely unknown — until recently, researchers weren’t able to visit the glacier to take scientific measurements. It’s remote location along with frequently difficult sea ice conditions have made it hard to access. As one of the scientists in Elizabeth Rush’s new book, The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth says, “The stuff that we don’t know about Antarctica is staggering … they show these maps of ship tracks around the world, and the Southern Ocean is basically empty.”
In 2019, Elizabeth Rush joined the first scientific expedition to the Thwaites Glacier. The Quickening is her account of that journey. Photo of scientists camping on Thwaites Glacier by National Snow and Ice Data Center.
In January of 2019, Rush joined the first scientific expedition to the Thwaites Glacier aboard the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer. The expedition included 57 people: scientists, crew, and three journalists who shared close quarters for 59 days at sea. The Quickening is Rush’s account of that journey, from Punta Arenas, Chile to the Cabo Negro pier in the Straits of Magellan, to the Thwaites Glacier itself, with a medical evacuation detour to the British Rothera Station along the way.
Rush structures the book like a play. It’s divided into acts, each of which starts with a setting written in third person. Each act includes not just her own stories of days on the ship and life at home in Providence, Rhode Island with her partner, but also direct quotes from her ship mates, almost like actor’s lines. The resulting “dialogue” covers a range of topics, from what they like about their science, to what they miss most while on a scientific cruise, to the stories their families have told them about how they were born.
This last question is the crux of the story: Rush plans on starting a family when she returns from Antarctica, and is curious about the experience of others and the linkages between the unknown territory of the Thwaites Glacier and the unknown (to her) territory of motherhood. She braids the two strands of story, motherhood and the Thwaites, throughout the book, switching from activities on the boat to her and her partner’s quest to have a baby, seamlessly winding them together. As she writes, “before attempting to bring a human into the world, I would travel to its farthest corner, where survival is not easy, to bear witness to the impact our species is having on the … continent.” Quickening in this case refers not only to the point at which a pregnant person can feel their baby moving, but the growing excitement of the scientists as they see the Thwaites Glacier for the first time and collect data that no one has collected previously.
As Rush researches Antarctica in the months before her trip, she finds that the literature about this continent is confined largely to historical hero stories about men conquering the cold expanse by reaching the South Pole, or failing in their attempts. “Antarctica is the only place on earth where there is no [Indigenous history],” she notes. Terra Incognita, she finds, is one of the few books about Antarctica written by a woman; in it, Sara Wheeler writes about her visit to the continent, noting that “Men had been quarrelling over Antarctica since it emerged from the southern mists, perceiving it as another trophy, a particularly meaty beast to be clubbed to death outside the cave.”
As she peruses the Antarctic books available on the ship, Rush comes to realize that women have not been welcome in Antarctica, either as explorers or as scientists, until recently. As she writes, “Women working at the poles are often considered burdensome: not only does their presence require “additional” support on the ice, it also means they are withholding support they are expected to provide at home,” like looking after kids and husbands. Their Thwaites trip is the exception to the dominant male narrative, with women making up almost 30 percent of the people on board the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer.
Rush does an excellent job of bringing the reader into the story, meticulously describing the bulky personal gear she has to wear to keep warm in freezing temperatures, the bunk where she spends her nights, the ship’s deck, where she can watch for icebergs and wildlife, and more. She incorporates these descriptions easily into the story to bring her days on the ship to life.
She also opens up to readers regarding her conflicted feelings about having a child, knowing that the climate is changing and the world her child will live in will be very different than her own. Even the topic of getting pregnant is fraught these days, as fertility rates are declining not just among humans — people of color in particular — but in the more-than-human world. “What a tremendous responsibility it is to become a parent now — to know we must act, with both our children and more than our children in mind,” she writes. This is brought home to her by the trip to Thwaites and the impact of environmental change on the glacier. But as she says, “Having children can be an act of radical faith that life will continue, despite all that assails it.”
Her book is ultimately about community: building community on the boat, building community in the world, building community for a child. She volunteers to dig pits on recently exposed beaches to find penguin and shell remains, and helps section sediment cores collected from the front of the glacier. She shares her guilt at accidentally destroying one of the cores, a mishap that is quickly forgiven, as you can’t hold a grudge for long in such close quarters and isolation. She notices that the other two journalists on board try to maintain their objectivity by keeping separate from the crew, and wonders how you can report “on this community for months … without returning the gesture, without offering to aid in the accomplishment of its aims?”
Unlike the hero stories that historically emerged about explorers on the Southern ice, the researchers on this expedition emphasize that science is a collaborative process and they are building on each other’s work. “What we often think of as a solitary pursuit — the production of scientific knowledge — is more like an extended relay race, in which the baton just gets handed off again and again and again,” writes Rush. She also makes a point of talking with and about the ship’s support crew, noting that “they go without mention in most accounts of polar science, especially today.”
The work done on the expedition, such as collecting conductivity, density, and temperature profiles of the ocean in front of the Thwaites, as well as sediment cores from the seabed there, provides clues about ice sheet stability both in the present and during past climate regimes. Researchers will use this data to improve their calculations of potential sea level rise from the destabilization and melt of the Antarctic Ice Sheet
The Quickening is a thoughtful, carefully-researched book that combines science and adventure, motherhood and community. It will appeal to a range of readers interested in exploration of the unknown corners of the world, and contemplating the challenge of having children on our climate changed planet.
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