Top positive review
Good historical review of early exploration and modern investigation of Greenland
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 13, 2021
A book mostly about Greenland, its exploration, and its present climatological status. Gertner takes us from the first European ships tentatively exploring its shores in the mid 18th Century (many trapped for weeks or months by ice, some destroyed), the first efforts to cross the central ice sheet in the mid 19th Century, the transformation wrought by the U.S. military in the early-to-mid 1950s and up to almost the present day where Greenland’s ice is melting faster than anyone could have imagined it would even fifty years ago!
Gertner has had his own experiences in Greenland though he does not speak of them very much. Three-quarters of the book is about the explorers of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. They are elaborately cross-referenced into other published works about those explorations. Modern technology solved a lot of problems. The ice is much less dangerous if you can travel by tractor, snowmobile, or airplane rather than skis, snowshoes, and sleds pulled by dogs or humans. Ironically (Gertner doesn’t mention this) the technology that made all the present climatographic revelations possible also contribute to the warming problems uncovered. Airplanes, tractors, and giant core-drilling rigs belch-up a lot of carbon in the form of gas and soot.
The history is well written, the adventuring explorers all having one thing in common, their willingness, even desire to endure severe hardship, both physical and mental for the sake of what they took to be valuable scientific work. In another irony (also unmentioned), almost none of this early exploratory work was strictly necessary. These men made the first mid-ice weather observations and took the first temperature readings above (weather balloons) and below (to a few tens of feet) the ice. But none of these scattered measurements could answer the biggest question. Was the ice sheet stable? By the mid-to-late 20th century, systematic measurements on the ice and high above it (by aircraft and satellites) had utterly eclipsed all the earlier work, rendering it more-of-less moot.
It isn’t until the last chapters that Gertner gets into the present climatological problem. Here he also folds-in work presently being done in Antarctica. Everywhere in the world ice is melting faster than anyone imagined it would only fifty years ago. The impact of this on the world’s climate (and water supplies in Asia) will be profound, the single greatest impact (besides sea level rise) being the shut-down of the Atlantic heat exchange mechanism that cycles warm water to the north and cold water south. This mechanism depends on a certain salinity balance. Freshwater from the northern ice melt changes this balance. The effect, a slowing of the heat-exchange mechanism, has been already detected.
At the end, Gertner tries to sound an optimistic note, that humans will develop both the technology and political will to reverse what now appears to be an unstoppable disaster. Alas, what will happen in the next 75 or so years (likely much beyond) is already baked into the future climate. In 75 years there will yet be ice in Greenland and Antarctica, just not nearly as much as there should be. What is lost between now and then will be more than enough to destroy our 21st Century civilization!