Greenland has always had somewhat of a PR problem. As far back as 985AD, the region’s name was invented by the first Norse settler, in the hope of convincing his followers that the world’s largest island was more than just a big block of ice. Later visitors would dismiss its frozen interior as most likely containing ‘no wealth or material treasures’ and of being ‘no use to mankind’. But in a warming world where the value of ice is being recalculated, melting Arctic ice is beginning to look like gold dust disappearing through a very holey sieve.
Aware that many are suffering from climate change fatigue, Jon Gertner attempts to reengage his audience by focusing on the people behind Greenland’s hard-won scientific facts. We join the Norwegian explorer, Nansen, in 1888 camping with his men on large chunks of ice that are being swept out into rough ocean breakers as they attempt to reach the island’s shore. Or the modern-day scientists having to endure the monotony of spending weeks flying at 300mph, 1,500 feet over Greenland’s ice sheet in order to build up an accurate picture of the frozen water and how it’s changing.
En route, he reintroduces us to various geographical phenomena; ice sheets manifesting as the negative of oceans – ‘lightness streaked with dust and silt’ rather than ‘darkness streaked with light foam’ – and ragged sea ice appearing as ‘the torn down wreckage of a neighbourhood of condemned buildings, pushed into a tight pile and frosted with snow’. Slowly out of the white oblivion a picture of Greenland’s actuality emerges.
There aren’t many who could create a compelling page-turner out of the science of glaciology, but Gertner pulls it off and recasts the ends of the world in a gripping human drama that will affect the fate of the planet.
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