At the Ends
Of the Earth

A History of
The Polar Regions

Kieran Mulvaney
The Arctic and Antarctic were named by Aristotle. The landmass to the north "lay under the constellation of Arktos, the bear; so must the southern lands be under the opposite: Antarktikos," he wrote. Optimists of the 16th Century supposed that the Antarctic would be an idyllic place.

The French explorer Captain Binot Paulmyer de Gonneville claimed to have discovered it in 1504. He stayed six months and found the natives "asked nothing but to lead a life of contentment, without work." He brought back skins, ornaments, and an Indian prince named Essomeric. Historians believe that Gonneville was probably in southern Brazil. At Carnival, no doubt.

There are no penguins in the Arctic and no polar bears in the Antarctic. However, the Antarctic is awash with birds and other wild creatures, even though of few species. There are, for example, 3.5 million Chin-strap penguins on Zavadovskiy Island. According to the author, hanging out with penguins is not unlike going to a rave concert:

    As anyone who had been in their midst can testify, penguin rookeries are densely packed, noisy, and above all smelly affairs, with black-and-white birds stretching seemingly to the horizon.

All on Ecstasy, no?

The Antarctic was discovered by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, in 1819, who came with his crew in two Russian ships, the Vostok and the Mirnyi. The sailors pointed out, accurately, that there was little to see there, unless you were interested in ice, snow, lichen, icebergs, fog, and frostbite.

Speaking of frostbite, the U. S. Navy flew in for a landing at the South Pole in a R4D Skytrain in 1956. The airplane, a converted DC-3, was named Que Sera Sera. "Six men stepped out onto the polar plateau. The team's leader, Admiral George Dufek, was asked what he thought of it. 'It's a hell of a lot of ice, but what use is it?'"

He and his men dug a hole and planted a flag, and then they immediately developed frostbite because the temperature was 58 degrees below zero and the propellers of the R4D brought the wind-chill factor down considerably. When the men reported that they could no longer move their fingers, Dufek, a colorful old salt, said, "Good. Let's get the hell out of here."

§     §     §

The Larsen and Wilkins Ice Shelves have been steadily disappearing for years, most probably due to global warming. Scientists say that if Ross and Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelves melt, the ice streams that flow from under the heart of the Antarctic would no longer be dammed, and,

    Were the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to collapse, even the most pessimistic sea-level rise scenarios would be washed away and the ocean would rise by an estimated 13 - 20 feet. The result would be catastrophic.

In the words of one scientist, "the oceans would flood all existing port facilities and other low-lying coastal structures, extensive sections of heavily farmed and densely populated river deltas of the world, major portions of the states of Florida and Louisiana, and large areas of many of the world's major cities." No more Atlantic City, Daytona, Myrtle Beach, the Hamptons, Padre Island, and Miami, thank god.

Mulvaney is a careful, scholarly writer --- but he is lively and refuses to club us with facts. His history only turns dismal in the final chapters, not because of his style, but because of what humanity is doing to these isolated and easily destroyed regions.

Indeed, your reviewer found the last part of At the Ends of the Earth so depressing that she found herself skipping over whole passages, the way she does with news out of the Middle East, Afghanistan, or war plans emanating from Washington.

The Prudhoe Bay pipeline was opposed by the Friends of the Earth, but the mayor of Fairbanks said that the divine wanted it to be built. "God placed these things beneath the surface for a purpose," he said. "For us to say that we shouldn't use them is to be anti-God." The Anchorage Times editorialized, "The fears about damage from oil spills are like the fears of Henny Penny when she ran to tell the king that the sky was falling."

    In the region of the oil fields, more than 1,500 miles of roads and pipelines and thousands of acres of industrial developments cover 1,000 square miles of once pristine tundra. Oil facilities on the North Slope emit as many polluting nitrogen oxides (contributors to smog and acid rain) as do the states of Vermont and Rhode Island and twice as much as does Washington, D.C. On the North Slope and along the pipeline, there is roughly one spill --- of oil, diesel, fuel, acids, or other materials --- every day: there were 1,600 of them, involving 1.2 million gallons, between 1994 and 1999 alone.

And then there was the Exxon Valdez with its eleven million gallons of oil.

    Oil from one of the tanks was shooting forty or fifty feet into the air ... By the time a Coast Guard team reached [it] oil was 12 to 18 inches deep around the tanker.

300,000 - 675,000 birds died. The cleanup probably recovered or destroyed fourteen percent of the oil, but thirteen percent remains "in mud, sand, and gravel, and 2 percent could still be found on the beach at scattered locations."

Those who earned their living from the sea suddenly found their livelihood torn from them. One Inuit wrote to the News, "If the water is dead, maybe we are dead, our heritage, our tradition, our ways of life and living and relating to nature and each other."

Has Prince William Sound recovered? "Certainly, it stands as a profound tribute to the extraordinary recuperative powers of nature," writes Mulvaney,

    but it is healthy in the sense that someone escaping from addiction, a trauma, an abusive relationship, is healthy. It functions perfectly well, looks as beautiful as ever. But beneath the surface there are scars.

--- Penny Walters, PhD

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