Antarctica is the most alien place on the planet, the only part of the earth where humans could never survive unaided. Out of our fascination with it have come many books, most of which focus on only one aspect of its unique strangeness. None has managed … see full wiki
It is not very often that a photograph on a dust jacket entices me to read a book. In fact I can only recall a handful of times in my life that this has happened. The other day I was perusing the "recent arrivals" at my local public library when I spotted a stunning photograph of a desolate yet indescribably beautiful place. The landscape was like nothing I had ever seen before in my life. When I discovered the subject matter I simply could not resist. Gabrielle Walker writes about science for a living and has visited Antarctica on a number of occasions. Ms. Walker has chronicled her first-hand experiences and observations in an eye-opening new book "Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent". I suspect that this is one of the most comprehensive looks at a place that very few of us have ever thought very much about. I must confess that I had a very hard time putting this one down.
Throughout the pages of "Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent" Gabrielle Walker offers up something akin to a guided tour of this vast and truly amazing place. For someone who writes about science for a living the author demonstrates a terrific command of the language as she describes in great detail the myriad people, places and events that she encounters in her extensive travels. Truth be told, there are probably very few people on earth who have had the opportunity to visit as many parts of Antarctica as Ms. Walker has. One of the things that immediately jumped out at me were the bizarre names of some of the places on the map including Desolation Island, Cape Disappointment, Terror Point, Exasperation Inlet and Deception Island. Obviously, Antarctica is a place fraught with danger at just about every turn and is not a place for the faint of heart. The author quotes a young British explorer named Belgrave Ninnis who observed a century ago; " It really looks as if there must have been a large surplus of bad weather left over after all the land had been formed at the Creation, a surplus that appears to have been dumped down in this small area of Antarctica." While the author is obviously captivated by her surroundings her main purpose in being here is to observe the science. It seems that there are all manner of cutting-edge scientific experiments going on here.
Although I am hardly the scientific sort, I was very interested in learning about the wide variety of scientific experimentation being done on Antarctica these days. Gabrielle Walker takes her readers to the South Pole where there is a lot more going on than you might expect. She visits the Atmospheric Research Observatory (ARO), a facility run by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) whose purpose is to measure long-term changes in the air. Did you know that scientists have been measuring the air at the South Pole since 1957? Meanwhile, important work is also being done at SPRESSO (South Pole Remote Earth Science and Seismological Observatory) which has the ability to measure earthquakes all over the world. The author spent about four weeks at the South Pole where the temperature hovered at around -58F! Ms. Walker also takes us to a place called Concordia where scientists drill down into the ice caps and extract cores containing air that is older than the human race. Imagine that! Many of these ice cores are retrieved from a depth of some 10000 feet and are estimated to be 800,000 years old. Towards the end of the book the author takes us to the Antarctic Peninsula which is located on the northernmost part of the continent. Most people consider this to be the most beautiful place in Antarctica. Unlike most other areas of the continent this is a place with an abundance of life. You will learn why scientists living and working on the Antarctic Peninsula are extremely concerned about the rising temperatures there and the implications it is going to have on both the landscape and the creatures who call this place home. Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention some of the fascinating wildlife that Gabrielle encountered along the way. She describes several varieties of penguins including the cute little Adelies and the much larger emperors. As for birds she was fortunate enough to see skuas which evidently look like seagulls but are larger and brown. They earn their living by stealing penguin eggs for food. Then there are the snow petrels that are pure white and live in this harsh environment for 40 years or more. I was curious so I looked them up on Wikipedia. They are breathtakingly beautiful! Finally, the author talks of sea spiders the size of dinner plates, giant worms twice as long as the average human being is tall and fish that literally have antifreeze circulating in their bodies. Unbelievable!
One of the main reasons I decided to read "Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent" was that this was a subject that I knew very little about. Gabrielle Walker taught me an awful lot and I appreciate that. I applaud the author for going to the extremes she did to gleen this information for us. At the end of the book there is a timeline of Antarctic history and a glossary of terms that also proved to be very helpful. I only wish that this book included some photographs. Nevertheless, I am pleased to report that this is a well-written, informative and very entertaining book. Highly recommended!
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