Chilling forecast for polar worlds

Islands of the Arctic - The Ice

October 3, 2003

We have entered into a new ice age. Geologists need not fear. This ice age is anthropogenic in origin. There has been an extraordinary resurgence of interest in the polar extremes, culminating recently in books, exhibitions, films and television programmes celebrating the great escape of the Edwardian explorer Ernest Shackleton after being trapped for months by ice in Antarctica. Braving a mountainous sea and arduous trek, Shackleton finally secured the rescue of his stranded expedition members. In the aftermath of the September 11 2001 attacks, it was even reported that residents of New York and Washington DC were taking some comfort from the fact that Shackleton and his team had survived such incredible hardship.

The publication of these books is timely and reassuring as they do not dwell on the exploits of Shackleton. Both books, although different in approach and geographical coverage, are excellent and provide insights into the physical and cultural geographies and histories of the polar regions.

Islands of the Arctic is a beautifully illustrated and nicely written account of the varied island environments of the polar north. The authors, two distinguished glacial scientists, must have found the book fun to produce. One could imagine them having great difficulty in choosing what to exclude, given their claim early on in the book that this represents the synthesis of more than 40 collective seasons of fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic, Greenland, Svalbard and the Russian islands. In order to further bolster their credentials, we are informed that their experiences in the high Arctic have been extraordinarily varied given that their mode of transport has included nuclear-powered icebreakers, small boats, helicopters, light aircraft and snow-scooters.

The central message of the book is sombre. The impact of industrial development, the cold war and global warming on the high Arctic remains severe. Mineral exploitation, in conjunction with fears about the long-term stability of the ice sheets, is degrading and endangering these environments. As ecosystems become distressed, the survival of indigenous communities is threatened. Polar bears are also at risk as the changing seasonal patterns of ice formation affects the availability of food supplies.

While the end of the cold war was declared in 1989, the legacy of 40 years of superpower rivalry remains ever present as the rusting hulks of the nuclear-powered Soviet fleet raise new anxieties about the impact of radiation leaks. Given this catalogue of concerns, and there are more one could add in the light of President George Bush's stated interest in expanding America's oil interests in Alaska, the authors manage to reassure us that some of the islands in the high Arctic remain in a pristine state.

The ensuing discussion of the islands environments in the Arctic is developed with admirable clarity. The authors take the reader through the varied physical and biological landscape and its evolution. They also explore the international politics of the Arctic, the continued struggle of indigenous people for self-determination and cultural justice and the expansion of tourism.

If I had one major reservation about this account, it would be the book's even-handed tone. Given the authors' personal and scientific passion for the region, the final chapter in particular seems rather anodyne. Surely the book is more than simply about promoting "the enjoyment of those who come to the islands of the Arctic... and to awaken the interest of those who have yet to appreciate its unique landscapes, wildlife and peoples"? Human beings have demonstrated that Arctic islands, while little more hospitable than those of the Antarctic, can be settled, exploited and protected, if necessary by force. Islands of the Arctic should be part of the required reading for all those interested in understanding the environmental and cultural threats facing the Arctic.

Stephen Pyne's The Ice is a rather different account, not least because his interest is directed towards the southern polar continent. This book is a memoir of his time spent on "the ice" (as the Americans, New Zealanders and others describe the Antarctic) as a recipient of an Antarctic Fellowship from the US National Endowment for the Humanities. It is an extraordinary and beautifully written book that defies easy summary because it is effortlessly interdisciplinary and non-linear. His style is poetic and scientific as he digests inter alia the geophysics and geography of the Antarctic. His description of the many and varied ice types is arresting if occasionally turgid.

The Ice weaves together a complex story of the human engagement with the polar continent by investigating past exploration, literature and art, the earth sciences and geopolitics. The review of the geopolitics of Antarctica is indicative of the style and intent of his entire discussion as he works to recover "contexts" for understanding Antarctica. He pours scorn on the imperial and postcolonial nations that have staked a claim to the polar continent. It always seems to me that there is no more ridiculous sight than a flag on an ice-filled environment that lacks an indigenous human population. Perversely, in the absence of such a people, formal ceremonies of sovereignty claims were often widely exaggerated. The British, Argentines and Chileans played "sovereignty games" throughout the 1940s onwards as it became apparent that all three countries were intent on claiming the Antarctic Peninsula. Scientists were expected not only to get on with their research but also to protect the "national interest". In a memorable moment, the British base at Halley Bay had to remove their Union flag because it interfered with solar radiation readings. It would be funny, had it not indirectly contributed to the kind of mad territorial competition that provoked the 1982 Falklands war.

Appropriately, Pyne contends that the greatest resource on offer in Antarctica is not territory or natural resources but something less tangible: Antarctica can tell us things about ourselves. Perhaps the chapter should have been renamed "ego-politics" rather than "geopolitics".

The greatest compliment one can pay The Ice is to celebrate its ability to bring science, art, geopolitics and history together. This is a book that possesses a sense of intellectual vision. It helps us to understand why so many visitors are obsessed with its physical and spiritual character. It is a cultural and environmental history of an extraordinary continent that has beguiled, bemused and bewitched.

Klaus Dodds is senior lecturer in geography, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Islands of the Arctic

Author - Julian Dowdeswell and Michael Hambrey
ISBN - 0 521 81333 6
Pages - 280
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £25.00

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