“As the temperature slips down towards (minus) 76 F,'' writes Gabrielle Walker, "you start to hear your breath freezing. The sound is like blowing softly through a piece of paper held up to your face, and making it reverberate. Hhhhhhwwwwwoooohhhh.''
Odd. But what happens next is stranger still: "Your breath hangs in the air as a frozen cloud of ice blocking your view.''
What world is this? Where do the invisible gases we exhale become not just visible but audible liquids, then freeze so solidly one can't see through a sigh?
Walker witnessed this in Antarctica, and as her new book makes clear, that's just a minor quirk in the continent's colossal, pervasive alien-ness — it's the least earthly place on Earth. Migratory scientists are the only humans living in the inhospitable interior, where there's "no food, no shelter, no fuel, no liquid water. Nothing but ice.''
All is extreme. In Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent, the author serially encounters the coldest, driest and darkest places on the planet. The place confounds as well; Antarctica is changing and threatened, yet when Walker is visiting Beacon Valley, a scientist tells her she's come to "the most stable landscape on Earth.'' That's due in part to the lack of running water for 14 million years.
Time is different here. The Antarctic land mass arrived in its current, southernmost location 100 million years ago — when its new home was "warm, wet and brimming with life'' (including dinosaurs). A few tectonic shifts later Antarctica's freezer door slammed shut, as Walker puts it. It's been chilling determinedly — banking cold — ever since, for 35 million years.
Our ideas about size, mass and scale are also exploded in this ice-world. At one point Walker confronts the Ross Ice Shelf, "a floating glacier the size of France.'' Spiders living in the sea are "the size of dinner plates … more than a thousand times bigger than elsewhere in the world.''
Walker, a scientist, journalist and author, smoothly combines narratives of her several Antarctic trips; explanations of the science conducted there; the continent's history; and brief accounts of early explorations. Australian geologist Douglas Mawson was studying the South Pole's magnetic fields in 1912 when a storm kicked up. The "merciless blast — an incubus of vengeance — stabs, buffets and freezes,'' wrote this survivor. "The stinging drift blinds and chokes.''
So foreign-seeming is this frozen zone, it can pass for extraterrestrial. Scientists come to the McMurdo Dry Valleys — the 1 percent of Antarctica not covered in ice — because they're "the closest thing we have on Earth to the planet Mars.'' Temps average minus 67 and, like Mars today, the Valleys offer no visible sign of life.
But it exists, barely. "A few days each year,'' Walker explains, "the temperature creeps above freezing, just long enough to melt a little ice from the glaciers.'' A researcher shows her "a bright emerald stripe … made up of thousands of cyanobacteria, that were living, breathing and growing, just as they do in drainpipes, ponds and puddles the world over. But these were doing all this inside a rock.''
During those few warmer days a drop or two — not even a trickle — penetrates the pale sandstone and the bacteria partake to live. The other 11 months or more they're inert, hibernating agelessly inside the stone. "Similar rocks,'' Walker writes, "may have provided one of the last refuges for life on Mars.''
From the dry and lightless Dark Sector near the Pole, astronomers using powerful telescopes — two are named AMANDA and Ice Cube — can "see through the dirty window of the Earth's humid air'' to the center of our galaxy, 30,000 light years away, and even detect "the faint afterglow of the Big Bang itself.''
Antarctica is a lab for work on our world as well, what Walker calls "studying home rather than away.'' As seen in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, we can trace the history of air pollution in core samples drawn from deep pockets of ice. Those cores offer warnings, Walker says simply, that we would do well to heed.
Walker's not strident about global warming — the facts speak for themselves. This is a hot spot, so to speak; the Antarctic Peninsula is warming three times as fast as the global average as the continent sheds 500-million-ton icebergs into the world's waterways. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet — smaller and therefore more vulnerable than its eastern counterpart — were to melt, "even in part,'' Walker writes, "it would fill the oceans, rearing up to flood London, Florida, Shanghai.''
Walker's a clear explainer and engaging guide, her descriptions evocative, as when she sees the aurora australis, the Southern lights: "Shivering curtains of light can fill the sky, or looping spirals, or flickering flames of green and purple, and candy-apple red.'' They resemble fireworks, she says, but they're "utterly silent, almost solemn in their dancing.''
Predictably, she falls hard for the indigenous penguins, devoting some 55 pages to the emperors (cute) and the Adélies (cuter!). Overall this 350-page book feels about 50 pages too long, and the humans in her tale never really come alive: The scientists she meets — mostly men — blend together into one Burly Bearded Guy with Specialized Expertise.
But the true protagonist here is Antarctica itself, and in Walker's rendering it easily carries that leading role. Characters in any story are most compelling in relation to others, and the author is perceptive about the fraught rapport between we people and this landmass. You can't beat it, the Polies tell her (that's the nickname for those who spend time there), so the wise person surrenders to the place: "It's not giving up; it's giving in.'' Antarctica isn't so much the baleful antagonist Mawson described, Walker thinks, but, just as terrifying, it's simply, massively indifferent to human life and suffering.
Why would it be any more affectionate? Humans are the predatory invasive species — the Burmese pythons — there. But though we can provoke Antarctica to drown us or nearly so (suicide by continent?), we can't kill Antarctica. That land is "bigger than all of us, bigger than our technologies, our human strengths and weaknesses, our eagerness to build and our capacity to destroy," Walker writes.
Seas may well rise up and coastal cities go under, but, she concludes, that human cataclysm would occur "without so much as a flutter in the continent's cool white heart.''
John Capouya teaches journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Tampa.