Lessons From the White Continent

Researchers are looking for clues in the past to understand how elevated carbon levels will affect the Antarctic ice sheet in the future.

Land of Wondrous Cold: The Race to Discover Antarctica and Unlock the Secrets of Its Ice
Gillen D’Arcy Wood
Princeton University Press, 2020, 312 pages

By the 1830s, Europeans were running out of new lands to discover. Improvements in navigation, ship building, and medical practices allowed world powers to venture farther afield, running their wooden ships pell-mell over vast swaths of the unmapped oceans, claiming new lands for their monarchs as they went.

But still, there was that troublesome blank space at the bottom of the planet. Terra Australis Incognita, the name given to the great and unknown southern continent by the classical Greek geographers, was shown on world maps, but its shape was chimeric, mere conjecture, as no one had actually been there. James Cook attempted to reach it on his 1774 voyage, but he hit a sea of solid ice and turned back, declaring the area “a place of horror no man would wish to penetrate.” But colonialism and national glory are very strong appeals, and it wasn’t long before expeditions from France, England, and the United States were on their way, confident that they would claim the prize — and naming rights — of the white continent.

In Land of Wondrous Cold, Gillen D’Arcy Wood, a professor of environmental humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, interweaves past and present in alternating chapters, toggling between narratives of the land-hungry voyages of Victorian-era explorers and today’s scientists working to unlock the secrets of Antarctic ice and its key role in climate change.

The Victorian-era explorers, James Ross for England, Dumont D’Urville for France, and Charles Wilkes with the US Navy, race headlong into the perilous waters of the Southern Ocean with scant information by today’s standards: It was a common belief that the polar sea was too cold for marine life, yet beyond the ice floes a rich, temperate land existed near the pole. A reputable scientist had also proclaimed that the South Pole contained the entryway to a second inner globe beneath the Earth’s surface. Of course, all three expeditions met instead an inconceivable world of ship-crushing ice, unending ferocious winds, and a flightless bird that Dumont named after his long-suffering wife, Adélie.

In the modern world, however, it’s not the mountainous land of Antarctica that will have the greatest impact on the future of humankind, but the glaciers that rest upon it. The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest ice mass on Earth, containing 90 percent of the freshwater on the Earth’s surface. Scientists at the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program are in a different, yet equally daunting and crucial race to understand these glaciers. They are analyzing core samples from the ocean floor to learn about massive fluctuations in ocean temperatures. From these “sedimentary codes,” they retrace the story of Antarctica’s birth — how the continent broke free from Australia 55 million years ago and created a polar current that plunged temperatures to the coldest on Earth and created the largest seaway on the planet.

By studying unicellular algae called diatoms, today’s oceanographers deduce sea temperatures over millions of years and thereby the history of ice sheets. The diatoms draw carbon dioxide out of the air and bury it on the ocean floor when they die, and their periodic absence over eons can indicate a natural signature for the greater cycles of climate change.

The researchers are looking for clues in the past to understand how elevated carbon levels will affect the Antarctic ice sheet in the future. Could our current global warming melt and redraw the world’s coastlines, as climate change has done in the past? Contemporary research leaves little doubt that the waters of the Southern Ocean will cross the temperature threshold where the glaciers begin irreversible self-destruction with cataclysmic results. In West Antarctica, where iceberg production has increased 75 percent in recent decades, Thwaites Glacier — the size of Florida — could collapse this century, raising the sea level by two feet.

Of course, there are differing opinions as to the cause, and how much the seas will rise. Regardless, Wood points out that “the costs of the rising seas will top a trillion dollars annually by midcentury. Millions of people from low lying coastal cities … will be forced to pack up and leave, joining a global exodus of up to two hundred million climate refugees worldwide.”

At its heart Land of Wondrous Cold is an eye-opening tale about the climate history of Antarctica, how it is changing in the Anthropocene, and what will happen if we don’t act on the information the white continent is providing us.

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