The Ice at the End of the World

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 12 Aug 2019

Member Reviews

I received an Advanced Review Copy of The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future by Jon Gertner from the publisher Random House through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

What It’s About: A history of glacierology, with scientific fact interluded in. 

I'll be honest, I really didn't love this. I'm a scientist but know nothing about Glaciers and Greenland and so was excited to see the implications of global warming but I really found it rather dull. 

I would say if you have a passion for glaciers or Greenland, you may find this book fun but it was not for me.
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The Ice at the End of the World is a history of the exploration of Greenland’s massive ice sheet and the scientific research conducted there. There are many articles and books about climate change and rising sea levels linked to the melting ice of Greenland, but Jon Gertner takes a different approach. He goes back to the beginning to the first explorers and the kinds of research findings they brought back. This puts the research that alarms many today into a context of historical inquiry and fact-finding.

Most articles focus on current research and the conclusions of contemporary scientists. This takes it out of the context of history and the slowly dawning awareness that the ice is shrinking. Gertner restores that context, allowing readers to understand that researchers did not go to Greenland to prove climate change was happening. They went to Greenland to measure the ice and measure it over time. There measurements forced the realization that climate change is happening and at a greater, more alarming rate that previously thought.



The Ice at the End of the World is a fascinating history. I have a long obsession with the Arctic and Antarctic exploration that also includes Greenland. Exploring terra incognita is always fascinating, but even more so when it is so inhospitable. The challenge to just survive is immense, but then to stop and measure the ice, the temperature, and take soundings at the same time is heroic. Imagine, you’re short on food rations, your eyes burn from the sunlight on the snow, anywhere your skin is exposed is damaged and in pain, and your cold, so cold, and all a normal person would be thinking would be about getting warm and getting food, but you are stopping to take measurements, even in extremis.

Climate change is the most urgent issue facing humanity. Thankfully, most other countries don’t have a 24-hour propaganda machine telling them it’s a hoax, so outside the U.S. this is not a controversial statement. It is accepted as fact, as it should be. One reason people are so credulous and eager to believe the climate change deniers is they don’t understand how science works. They don’t know how it’s done and think grand international conspiracies involving nearly every scientist on the planet are possible. This history is an antidote to that kind of ignorance.

Gertner’s book benefits from avoiding dogmatism. Climate change is real, reading about how the measurements, the facts, came first before the explanations is a counter to the conspiracists.

I received an e-galley of The Ice at the End of the World from the publisher through NetGalley.

The Ice at the End of the World at Penguin Random House
Jon Gertner author site
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I included this title in a nonfiction feature on my blog and will provide the link directly to the publisher in the next round of this process.
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This is a very compelling tale of the research and exploration of the Greenland ice sheet.  From the daring adventures of the early explorers to the modern technology employed by today's scientists Gertner paints an engaging picture of "The Ice at the End of the World."  It's a great read and held my attention much like a well written novel.
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Fantastic book on the history of exploration and the current relevance of Greenland.  Fascinating accounts of the first European explorers who crossed the middle of the country in spite of the harshest conditions on the planet.  The earliest climatologists collected and measured the environment and weather patterns, which are invaluable to the research of today.  Discusses the military history and the evidence of our current state of extreme climate change.  I would have enjoyed further information on the indigenous people native to the area, however, this book is detailed and gives the reader a vast wealth of knowledge regarding Greenland and it's history.
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I confess I wasn’t sure just how enthralling a book all about the Greenland ice sheet would be.  Interesting, yes (well, to those of us who are the type to pick up a book about the Greenland ice sheet in the first place).  But enough to carry an entire book rather than a long-form article?  Interesting enough to move into “compelling” or, yes, “enthralling” territory?  Hmmm.  Turns out though, in the more than capable hands of Jon Gertner, the answer is assuredly yes and yes.  The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future is indeed compelling and even, as the subtitle says, epic.  Also informative, entertaining, thorough, well-organized, clearly . . . well, you get the idea.

Gertner’s takes a chronological approach to his subject, beginning with early Norse settlers, then detailing the late 19th Century/early 20th Century explorers, some of whom are probably better known for their polar exploits than their Greenland ones, which involved trying to cross the island’s great ice sheet (and doing so in a manner that eclipsed the previous attempt).  The first hearty (some might say foolhardy) souls include Fritdjof Nansen, Robert Peary, and Knud Rasmussen. Later, closer to the mid-century, “feats” were supplanted by “science” as people like Alfred Wegener and Emile Victor attempted to do actual research on the ice.  Following WWII, the American military got into the game, building larger and more permanent (though not actually permanent) bases, and then, once the military dropped Greenland as being strategically interesting, academia took its turn, setting up research sites and drilling ice cores, first for basic research and then, later, to track climate change.

The early explorer stories are utterly compelling as they battled incredibly fraught conditions and came near to death more than once. Nansen’s group, for instance, leaves their ship to ride an ice floe toward shore, but wake up (after several days on the floe) to find it “had split in two, the crack having just missed where the men set their tent. Worse, it was rocking violently in the rough surf . . . [carrying them] ‘seawards with ominous rapidity.”  That last line by Nansen seems a bit of an understatement. It took them 11 days to reach shore, where they faced hundreds of miles of backbreaking journey, towing sleds, running out of food, avoiding dangerous crevasses, and facing temperatures (inside their tent) of 40 below. 

Several years later, Peary took a different route through the same conditions in order to claim the mantle of having crossed a wider expanse.  While we see how Peary’s exploits were justifiably celebrated, given the obstacles, Gertner also shows us a more full, complex version.  While noting the Inuit called him “The Great Peary,” Gertner also shows his condescension (“’They are a community of children in their simplicity,’ he wrote.”) and explains how Peary fathered two sons with an Inuit girl possibly as young as thirteen at the time, all of whom he ignored once he returned home. Later explorers, such as Rasmussen and Freuchen, were better friends to the Inuit, and also as interested in science as much as exploits, also nearly at the cost of their lives (it did cost Freuchen most of his toes)

The do-they-live-or-do-they-die tension of these early explorers is a large part of what makes the early part of the book so compelling.  And that continues when we shift more to the science end of things with Alfred Wegener, who lost his life on Greenland (not the first).  But Gertner makes the research just as captivating, albeit in different fashion, as the days of derring-do, even if, as one researcher points out:  “members of an expedition  no longer needed to be outstandingly robust physically” thanks to the advances in technology from the 40s onward (such as replacing human or dog-towed sleds with specially built vehicles).  Step by step, Gertner does a great job of showing how each researcher’s work builds on the work done before them, just like the snow accreting layer by layer on the ice sheet itself.  And if the environment, though no less friendly, is a bit less of a survival challenge thanks to technology, what now becomes the obstacle is the engineering, and this too Gertner makes fascinating.

What also adds, in infuriating and worrying fashion, a sense of tension, as well as urgency, is the underlying threat that the more recent research is meant to investigate — climate change.  Gertner goes through a wonderfully thorough and lucid chronological history of how scientists came to theorize the concept, then to confirm it, then to research its possible consequences.  The infuriating part is both the slowness to realize and then, far worse, the slowness (especially by politicians) to act.  As Gertner puts it in a masterfully and appropriately grim analogy:  

To go back to the scientific and government reports of this era is to have the uneasy sense of looking at a forensic photograph, akin to one taken at a disorderly crime scene, where details of immense importance have been repeatedly overlooked

One of the sharpest decisions Gertner makes is to show just how surprised the scientists themselves were by much of the data. Time and again a data point will be revealed or some physical phenomena discovered and scientists will comment on how they had to check and check again to confirm things because they seemed so much worse than anyone would have expected, whether it was discovering how fast climate could change, or how quickly the ice sheet was melting.  Gertner, however, isn’t writing propaganda, either by commission or omission. He is, for instance, quite clear on the limitations of computer modeling for the behavior of ice sheets as opposed to predicting future temperatures or precipitation.  Even in comparison to such complex systems, ice sheets and glaciers are a horror show of variables and due to their geographical remoteness and their physical remoteness (hard for example to get under one), we just don’t have hard, concrete data good enough for statistical projection. 

Even so, it’s clear in what direction things are moving, and the last few chapters lay out the potential ramifications, such as just which cities would be underwater or how many millions of people will be displaced by even a moderate rise in sea level.  Thus, he ends the book with an epilogue labeled “The Ice Clock” so as to emphasize the tick-tock urgency of doing something.

The Ice at the End of the World is both greatly entertaining and greatly depressing, both fascinating and frustrating. It highlights great feats of bravery and endurance but sets the work of scientists and engineers right beside the great feats of the explorers. Gertner has written both a book that is not only fantastic, but also important enough that if I could, I’d make it required reading for everyone, but certainly for every politician or political candidate. Highly, highly recommended.
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I loved this book! Mr. Gertner provides a riveting history of exploration of the Greenland ice sheet and glaciers, beginning with Nansen, and progressing through ongoing research in 2018. Through the narrative, he outlines the historical growth of scientific research on the Greenland glaciers, the difficulties conducting these researches, and succinctly summarizes the evidence of the results for climate change and global warming. This book is beautifully written, with good illustrations (so good I wanted more of them), and based on extensive research and oral interviews. I cannot recommend this book enough. Best book of 2019 to date.
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I give The Ice at the End of the World by Jon Gertner 4 stars, or in this case 4. I found the first half so fascinating, I loved the explorations and learning about Greenlandic culture and landscape. The second half, the science part was harder to follow and much more in depth than I am interested in. All in all, I loved reading a book about Greenland and want to learn more about the culture and history now.
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Jon Gertner's treatise on the Greenland ice sheet is a timely look at the past, present, and potentially harrowing future of one of the more desolate of Earth's landscapes. 

Gertner divides the book into two distinct sections: the first half deals with the various attempts to explore, map, and research Greenland's endless white plains by the first explorers brave (or crazy) enough to try, while the second part is a more modern look (roughly from the 1940s to the present) of the island. As a fan of non-fiction accounts of polar exploration, I found the first half of the book to be entertaining and exciting, an amalgamation of covered crevasses, dog sled adventures, and gradual starvation. The second half of the book by contrast is an often distressing look at the impact human activity has made (and is continuing to make) on Greenland's vast fields of ice. While the predictions Gertner details on sea level rise and greenhouse gas deposits are depressing, he manages to avoid all out misery by describing various ideas put forth by researchers to curb future melting, which are audacious in their scope and design. 

In light of recent climate change and environmental reports that have been released, Gertner's book comes at a critical time. While it's incredibly easy to actively forget about a landmass that is home to less than 60,000 people, Gertner's argument is that we should be doing the exact opposite. 

***I was given a copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Random House.***
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I read an advance reader copy of Jon Gertner’s The Ice at the End of the World, in uncorrected proof ebook, provided to me by Penguin / Random House through netgalley, in return for promising to write an honest review.  The book is scheduled for release on June 11, 2019.  Jon Gertner is an American writer, the author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and The Great Age of American Innovation (2012), which I have not yet read, and a longtime contributor to the New York Times Magazine.

The book first follows a historical approach to the exploration of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and then transitions into a historical presentation of the subsequent scientific investigations, right up to 2018.

Greenland is the largest island in the world, located in the Arctic Ocean between North America and Europe, and barely inhabited.  It is largely covered with a mile-thick continental glacier – much like that which retreated from northern North America and Europe a mere 10,000 years ago – and like the one which still covers Antarctica.  Gertner covers the first expeditions to cross that Ice Sheet episodically, beginning with Fridtjof Nansen’s 1888 expedition of five men pulling five heavy sledges.  The stories introduce the characters, describe the techniques and technologies used, include interactions with the sparse indigenous cultures, and dramatically trace the events of those critical crossings.  An interesting historical photograph introduces each story, and they reminded me of memoirs of the early Antarctic expeditions I have previously read.  Indeed, a few of the individuals are the same.  Up until the interregnum of World War II, the interests of these early explorers such as Robert Peary, Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen, and Alfred Wegener were personal fame and national prestige.  Some data was collected, but primarily of a cartographic nature.

A new era of exploration began in Greenland at the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s.  Because Greenland is strategically located between the nuclear superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, the US spent enormous amounts of money and manpower developing the military utility of the region, even offered to purchase it in its entirety from Denmark.  Military technology and logistics required large amounts of accurate data, and natural science researchers were able to quietly piggyback.  However, with the development of intercontinental missiles based in the homelands, the high-spending period passed, leaving infrastructure in place for more purely scientific endeavors. With time it has become apparent that the ice sheet is not in a steady state, and not even just receding at a geological pace.  GPS-indexed air and satellite observations have detailed how the retreat is accelerating.  Deep core samples of the ice have shown that periods of relatively rapid climatic change do occur.  The system is complex with positively reinforced cycles that could continue to drive ice sheet collapse once initiated.   Coming up to the present day, Gertner focuses on research into the mechanisms of those sudden changes, which could potentially push sea level rise in unexpected large steps over the current 3 mm per year.  

The Ice at the End of the World is both an entertaining history, and a clear explanation of the current state of knowledge of glaciology and its relationship to oceans and climate.  This book is timely, and I am highly recommending it.
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Great read, A fascinating account of the early European explorers of the Arctic and the uncertain future of the people and their culture due to a warming climate.
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Full review forthcoming.........................................................................................................................................
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