Scientist Walker (An Ocean of Air: Why the Wind Blows and Other Mysteries of the Atmosphere, 2007, etc.) pens a riveting “natural history of the only continent on Earth that has virtually no human history.”
The author’s fascination with Antarctica began more than two decades ago, and it has inspired five visits. Larger than the continental United States, yet home to only 49 temporary bases, the continent is composed of two giant ice sheets. During the summer, 3,000 scientists conduct experiments, and 30,000 tourists drop in for short visits. Only 1,000 intrepid souls spend the winter on the continent. Due to an international treaty, the entire continent is dedicated to “peace and science,” and officially, the land “belongs to nobody.” Walker divides the narrative into three sections, delving into the historical and scientific sagas of the different areas of the continent. She begins with the coastal stations on the East Antarctic ice sheet, an area containing a zone so like outer space, it sports the nickname “Mars on Earth.” Walker then chronicles her journey to the interior of the continent, visiting astronomers deciphering data gathered from giant high-altitude telescopes. The author also helped scientists wrestling with the mystery of ice cores and what they can tell us about our ancient climate. In “the most conventionally beautiful place in Antarctica,” the far West, Walker chronicles the effects of contemporary and historical human activity on this strange and wonderful environment. The author adeptly clarifies the technical aspects of the science, decodes the intimate stories of reticent interviewees and weaves in the astounding and heartbreaking stories of the great explorers Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton.
A rollicking good read for science buffs, armchair adventurers and readers curious about the natural world at its most extreme.