Cover image for At the ends of the earth : a history of the polar regions
At the ends of the earth : a history of the polar regions
Mulvaney, Kieran.
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Publication Information:
Washington, DC : Island Press/Shearwater Books, [2001]

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ix, 286 pages : maps ; 24 cm
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Central Library G580 .M85 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"The story of the Arctic and Antarctic is of two regions quite unlike any other.... It is a story of interweaving cycles in which exploration leads to exploitation, and exploitation to further exploration. It is a story of how even such remote realms can significantly affect, and in turn be deeply influenced by, events and trends thousands of miles distant -- of how the long shadow of humanity has extended, for better and for worse, to the very ends of the Earth." --from the PrologueFor thousands of years, the polar regions have been a source of intrigue and fascination; even today -- despite having been thoroughly mapped and explored, despite being home to permanent human settlements and scientific stations -- they remain places of mystery. Remote, cold, barren, and inhospitable, they nonetheless exert an undeniable hold on the human imagination.At the Ends of the Earthis an engrossing natural and human history of the two polar regions. In vivid and engaging prose, author Kieran Mulvaney presents the fascinating story of human interactions with the Arctic and Antarctic from prehistory through centuries of European exploration to more recent issues involving Cold War politics, oil and gas drilling, tourism, and global warming.Beginning with the earliest myths and legends of undiscovered lands far to the north and south, Mulvaney offers an in-depth look at these two regions that are so similar yet so distinct. His compelling narrative brings to life the Arctic and Antarctic landscapes as well as the people who have explored, lived in, and exploited them. Stories of native Arctic peoples and the changes brought by the arrival of Europeans are contrasted with equally striking stories of Antarctic exploration and high-stakes battles over whether that vast continent should be exploited or protected.Throughout, the author highlights both the direct and indirect impacts of human activity on polar landscapes, considering the ways in which these fragile and pristine environments represent a kind of miner's canary alerting us to the potentially irreparable changes we are wreaking on our global environment. At the Ends of the Earthoffers a unique look at an intriguing facet of world history and provides an important context for understanding both successful and failed polar expeditions, as well as the motivations behind them.

Author Notes

Kieran Mulvaney has written more than 200 articles on science and the environment for publications including The (London) Sunday Times Magazine, New Scientist, and E Magazine and is a contributor to the Discovery Channel Online. The founding director of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and a leader of three Green-peace expeditions to Antarctica, the author is currently editor of Ocean Update. He lives in Anchorage, Alaska

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

The Arctic and Antarctic remain a source of mystery despite centuries of exploration. Here, Mulvaney, a freelance journalist based in Anchorage, Alaska, offers a comprehensive natural and human history of the two regions, from the earliest legends through 18th- and 19th-century European exploration to more recent issues like oil and gas drilling, tourism, ozone depletion and global warming. He points to what he terms "interweaving cycles in which exploration leads to exploitation," citing massive industries built around marine animals from the Antarctic, including fur seals killed for their pelts, and blue, fin and humpback whales, which supplied oil and other products. Compelling statistics demonstrate that these industries nearly wiped out the target species. Mulvaney also documents the political maneuvering behind a seven-nation treaty that accords the Antarctic protection as a "world park." In contrast, the Arctic has experienced heavy oil drilling, which Mulvaney recounts, paying particular attention to its environmental consequences, such as the highly publicized Exxon Valdez oil spill, which he examines in depth. He also considers the effects of the Cold War, nuclear testing and pollution on the Arctic environment and its native people. Through extensive research and engaging writing, Mulvaney supports his contention that "the long shadow of humanity has extended, for better and for worse, to the very ends of the Earth." (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Mulvaney, who has published work in E and New Scientist, is a strong environmentalist and supporter of Greenpeace and marine mammal conservation. Tracing the history of the polar regions from prehistory through European exploration to today's oil and gas drilling, his readable book is "the storyof two regions that are quite unlike any other but that are almost as different from each other as each is from the rest of the world." The text is fairly balanced between Arctic and Antarctic, with about one-fourth of the book focusing on whaling and sealing and one-third on policy issues, including the effects of tourism, pollution, and global warming. Mulvaney has done his homework, having spent time in each polar region, and his concern for these environments is clear in every chapter. His bibliography notes both historical and current sources, but his selections, e.g., Richard Ellis's Men and Whales (LJ 10/15/91) and David Boeri's People of the Ice Whale (LJ 3/1/84), are accessible. Recommended for public libraries. Jean E. Crampon, Science & Engineering Lib., Univ. of Southern California, Los Angeles (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Mulvaney has prepared an extremely well written history of polar exploration and exploitation with emphasis on environmental problems and challenges of the last 50 years. The early history--ancient Greek to the 20th century--is comparatively brief. The sections on whaling and marine mammal exploitation, and especially the recent history leading up to the ozone "hole" and global warming effects, carry the imprint of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The struggle for Antarctic environmental protection is especially well treated as are the nasty details of Arctic oil exploitation. The book is a first-rate introduction to the realities of the polar regions and their interconnectedness with the rapidly evolving 21st-century world. There are a few surprising omissions; e.g., the Soviet Union's extensive use of the Northeast Passage. There is also an unfortunate US bias, particularly pronounced in the derogatory remarks about Robert Falcon Scott compared with the praise afforded Admiral Byrd, who, regardless of the author's admiration, appears to have faked his claim of flying over the South Pole. Regardless, this book deserves a wide readership. All levels. J. D. Ives Carleton University



Chapter One Poles Apart Southern Ocean, December 1994 There was a knock at the door and a flood of light from the passageway into my windowless cabin. One of the crew stood by the side of my bunk, a cup of tea in her hand. She placed the cup on a ledge and smiled as she looked at my bleary, half-comprehending face.     "There's a penguin outside, in a uniform and holding a Welcome sign," she said. "We must be in Antarctica."     She had laughed the night before when I asked to be woken when we crossed the Antarctic Convergence. There are, after all, no official markers delineating the Antarctic Regions' boundaries, and if the Convergence is shown at all on maps, it is typically as a vague, wavy line. But despite its ephemeral nature, the Antarctic Convergence is a very real, and very noticeable, border. I had never missed its crossing on any of my previous trips to the region, and I was not about to do so now, even if it meant clambering out of bed at 4:00 A.M.     The Convergence is where the cold waters of the Antarctic meet the temperate waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Heading toward the Convergence from the north, at first you see little sign of the shift that is about to take place. Then, over the course of a few hours of steaming or sailing, everything begins to change. The water temperature drops by several degrees. The air becomes noticeably more chilly. Where warm and cold air clash, a wall of mist rises to envelop you. Continuing on through the fog, you emerge on the other side in another world: The bird life is different. You may start seeing pieces of ice drifting on the water's surface. Far ahead, the pack ice, unseen but reflecting light, can create a phenomenon known as "ice blink," causing the horizon to appear brighter in the south than in the direction from which you have come. Maybe an iceberg will drift by. Having reached this far north, the iceberg is most likely old and weathered and melting rapidly. Waves may have carved arches and caverns into its expanse, perhaps revealing a bright cobalt blue interior. Standing on the ship's deck--or, by now, looking out from the protective warmth of the wheelhouse--you watch it slip silently past, and you realize you are now in the Antarctic.     There are those who claim that the real Antarctic does not begin until the vicinity of the Antarctic Circle, several hundred miles to the south. The Circle encloses almost all of the Antarctic Continent; it is the line south of which the sun does not set at the peak of summer or rise during the dead of winter. And certainly, those few areas of Antarctica that are north of this line--particularly the extension known as the Antarctic Peninsula, which reaches up toward the tip of South America--are frequently different in feel and form from those farther south. But the Convergence is the unquestioned portal, the opening not only to the continent itself but also to the ocean that surrounds it. Even as it moves slightly, its basic track remains the same from year to year, molded by ocean currents and the location of landmasses: after slicing through the Drake Passage, the channel between the Antarctic Peninsula and Tierra del Fuego, it arches north to around 50°S latitude as it heads into the South Atlantic. It more or less maintains that latitude around the Indian Ocean side of Antarctica before dipping lower, south of 60°S latitude, on the approach to Australia. It keeps south of 60°S as if to be certain of giving Australia and New Zealand an extra-wide berth averaging a distance of perhaps 750 miles from them both--and then bulges up one more time and, finally, dips back through the Drake Passage.     South of the Antarctic Convergence lie 14 million square miles of ocean, one-tenth of all the ocean on the planet and some of the stormiest seas in the world. Antarctica's remoteness--it is 2,500 miles from Africa, 1,500 miles from Australia, and more than 450 miles from the closest land, the southern tip of South America--helped keep human explorers at bay until the nineteenth century. In the years before then, the tempestuous waters encircling the continent served to deter the few who ventured that far south. Uninterrupted by landfall, circling endlessly and driven by powerful winds from the west, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the only true global current, propels a seemingly endless procession of low-pressure systems through the Southern Ocean. These systems bring with them furious, screaming winds and waves of often terrifying dimensions: towering, whitecapped walls of water that can toss and toy with any vessel bold enough to venture into their domain.     Virtually the entire global landmass is north of the Antarctic Convergence. With the exception of a few scattered islands, only one piece of land lies within its boundaries--Antarctica itself, the highest and lowest, driest, and coldest continent in the world.     It is the highest because of the enormous ice sheet that blankets all but a few parts of the continent and boasts an average depth of 6,285 feet, or more than one and a quarter miles. Add the landmass that lies beneath and Antarctica's average height above sea level is around 7,800 feet--far higher than the runner-up, Asia, which crosses the line at a mere 3,000 feet or so. It is the lowest because the sheer weight of all this ice presses down on the bedrock to such an extent that the peaks of many of the continent's mountains, though Himalayan in scale, barely clear sea level. It has been estimated that were the ice sheet to suddenly disappear, the greater part of the continental landmass would rise up higher than 3,000 feet: more than half a mile.     It is the driest because there is very little precipitation: there is perhaps four inches of snowfall each year over the polar plateau, maybe twenty inches in the coastal region (in comparison, Boston receives an average of forty-two inches annually), and virtually no rainfall. And, not surprisingly, it is the coldest. (The Arctic, though somewhat warmer, is disqualified from this competition because it is not, as we shall see, a continental landmass.) Outside of the Antarctic Peninsula, which some hard-liners sniff is not the "real" Antarctica, the highest temperature ever recorded was about 48°F. At the South Pole, the average annual temperature is about -60°F. The coldest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica--the coldest ever recorded on the surface of Earth--was -129.9°F.     Because of their positions at the ends of the world, the polar regions vary between periods of prolonged, almost continuous, sunlight during summer and months of protracted darkness during winter. This is because Earth tilts as it moves around the sun, offering alternately the Northern and Southern Hemispheres to the star it orbits. This is what gives Earth its seasons; it is why summer in the Northern Hemisphere is winter south of the equator and why the equatorial zones receive almost unchanging amounts of sunlight over the course of the year. But because the Arctic and Antarctic are so far north and south, respectively, the angle of the sun to Earth is such that even in summer, the sun never rises as high above the horizon as it does over the equatorial zone. As a result, observes ecologist Bernard Stonehouse, polar sunshine "can be strong enough to warm rocks, melt snow and encourage judicious sunbathing; it contains enough ultraviolet radiation to cause sun-tanning, serious sunburn and snow-blindness, but it cannot bring lasting warmth to polar areas."     Antarctica, then, is so cold because of its location and its isolation; at the same time, its blanket of ice, itself a consequence of the extreme conditions, contributes to the continuation of these extremes. What little solar energy reaches the region is reflected back into space by the ice cap. And although there is some circulation of warm waters from north of the Convergence, the Antarctic is so distant from the rest of the world, and the barrier formed by the Convergence and polar currents so effective, that the warming effects of tropical waters are essentially unnoticeable. Whereas the Arctic experiences a degree of interchange between polar and temperate weather systems, the Antarctic is all but sealed in its own self-perpetuating cocoon of cold.     Antarctica is the fifth largest continent, one and a half times larger than Australia, with an area greater than that of western Europe, larger than the United States and Mexico combined. Of its 5.4 million square miles, roughly 10 percent is taken up by ice shelves, large, semipermanent areas of ice that are anchored to the mainland. Fed by glaciers and ice streams--rivers of ice that, apparently because they rest on foundations of water-saturated sediment, move forward at a greater pace than the ice sheets surrounding them--these shelves are forever varying in size and shape and constantly calving off icebergs, on occasion tens of miles in length. Nonetheless, despite their comparative inconstancy, they are an integral part of the Antarctic continent.     Surrounding the continent is a permanent ring of sea ice. In summer, this sea ice covers about 1.5 million square miles, but at the height of winter it expands to blanket some 7.5 million square miles. Accordingly, the total expanse of Antarctica, sea ice included, all but doubles from summer to winter, from around 7 million to 13 million square miles.     Whereas ice shelves and the icebergs they calve are freshwater, vast accumulations of millennia of snow, sea ice is the frozen surface of the sea and, accordingly, salt water. Much of the salt content of sea ice gradually becomes concentrated at the bottom of the floes, and from there it is extruded back into the sea. Thus, all but the freshest sea ice is less salty than the seawater from which it was formed. As a result, in spring, its melting--and the melting of the icebergs that split from the ice shelves--dilutes the surface water of the Southern Ocean. This near-freezing water slowly spreads north, its departure compensated for by warm water from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans flowing underneath the Convergence to the edge of the Antarctic continental shelf. There, bringing with it a cornucopia of nutrients, this warmer water rises to the surface, forming what is known as the Antarctic Divergence.     Some of this water, now cooler than before, heads north again toward the Antarctic Convergence. The rest of it continues south until it reaches the edge of the continent itself. Its temperature lowered by contact with the ice shelves, it eventually sinks to the bottom and suffuses across the seafloor, slowly, inexorably spreading outward and northward again. It continues on, beneath and past the Convergence, into the temperate waters of the rest of the world's oceans, all the while hugging the seafloor. It is a journey that takes decades or even centuries, and because of it, much of the global ocean is a couple of degrees cooler than it otherwise would be. Although concern over potential adverse effects of global warming on the Antarctic has tended to highlight the prospect of the Antarctic ice sheet collapsing and causing a massive increase in sea levels, such a development is widely considered by scientists to be highly improbable, at least for several hundred years. More likely, although still requiring an increase in temperatures beyond that thus far experienced or predicted, is a melting of the ice shelves and possible interruption of this "conveyor belt" of cold ocean currents, with uncertain consequences for the rest of the world.     The sea ice is a boon for Antarctic life. It provides a platform for algae, tiny microscopic plants, some of which become embedded in the ice as it forms. In spring, as the ice begins to melt, pigments in the algae may absorb solar radiation and so cause the ice to melt faster. As it melts, the algae are released into the water, where they are fed upon by tiny animals known as zooplankton. These in turn act as magnets for species progressively higher on the food chain.     Behind the intimidating barrier of the Antarctic Convergence, the Southern Ocean is home to relatively few species. Many of those species, however, may be found in surprisingly high numbers. There are, for example, just thirty-nine nesting bird species south of the Convergence--fewer, notes writer and researcher David Campbell in his book The Crystal Desert , "than can be found in a small garden in Colombia or Costa Rica." But the number of individual birds found around the coasts, islands, and seas of Antarctica is perhaps 70 million. As with birds, so with other wildlife. There are but four species of so-called true seals in the Antarctic. But according to some estimates, more than one in every two seals in the world is a crabeater seal, a species confined to the Antarctic; the total biomass (essentially, the combined weight) of crabeaters is more than four times that of all other seals and sea lions on the planet combined.     The distribution of this natural abundance is patchy, confined to oases in what is otherwise a relatively empty and forbidding expanse. Campbell observes, for example, that just one site, "volcanic Zavadovskiy Island, in the South Sandwich archipelago, has a colony of approximately 3.5 million chinstrap penguins." As anyone who has been in their midst can testify, penguin rookeries are densely packed, noisy, and above all smelly affairs, with little black-and-white birds stretching seemingly to the horizon. Outside such colonies, though, penguins are rare: if they were spread out evenly throughout the Southern Ocean, there would be just 11 ounces of penguin per square mile.     As in any marine ecosystem, microscopic algae--hytoplankton--in the Southern Ocean sit at the base of the food pyramid. The dominant, distinguishing feature of the Antarctic seas, however, is the zooplankton--especially the small shrimplike creatures called krill. As much as two inches long, krill are, by zooplankton standards, massive. Their significance, though, lies less in their individual size than in their habit of congregating in swarms, huge concentrations that can cover thousands of square yards of ocean and color the sea red. A krill swarm can extend to depths of roughly 130 to 160 feet, contain thousands of krill per square yard, and weigh as much as 2.5 million tons, although most are smaller.     Seals, penguins, and many seabirds other than penguins depend on krill as their primary source of food. So, too, do the Antarctic's largest denizens, the mighty baleen whales. The blue whale, the largest of all whales--indeed, the largest animal ever to live on Earth--is found in the Antarctic, where it spends the southern summers feeding before heading north to breed in warmer waters during polar winter. Despite their enormous size, blue whales in the Southern Ocean feed almost exclusively on krill, as do their relatively smaller cousins, including the fin, sei, humpback, minke, and right whales. This they do by swallowing huge amounts of water and forcing it through their sievelike baleens--long, fringed plates made of keratin (the same substance as in our fingernails) that hang from their upper jaws. The baleen filters out the water and leaves the krill, which the whales swallow in gargantuan mouthfuls.     At least in theory, most Antarctic wildlife is now strictly protected, but it has not always been so. As Ernest Shackleton and his men drifted north on their ice floes after being forced to abandon their ship, they survived to a large extent by killing seals and eating their meat, and the stack of dead penguins that remains even today outside Robert Falcon Scott's hut in Antarctica speaks to the importance of the birds' flesh to that expedition. The effect of such hunting on wildlife numbers in the region was insignificant; that of the slaughter visited on whales and fur seals--not by explorers but by commercial hunters from the north--was not.     More recently, some have salivated at the prospect of large-scale commercial exploitation of krill, but outside of a few markets, the projected demand for the crustacean as a source of protein has not really emerged. Krill have a strong flavor, and a taste for them is not easily acquired; their meat contains high levels of fluoride; and the krill themselves easily spoil. Instead, krill are valued more for their carotenoids, chemicals that give krill their coloring and that, mixed with feed for farm-raised salmon, help ensure that the fish attain the pinkish hue consumers demand. Although krill fishing has not reached the scale once anticipated, some Antarctic fish species have been subjected to surprisingly high levels of exploitation--not by those who visit the region as explorers and researchers but by commercial fishers working on behalf of those same consumers in faraway lands. The fish widely marketed in the United States as Chilean sea bass, for example, is known to scientists as the Patagonian toothfish, and its popularity on dinner menus has brought the species--as was the case with Antarctic cod before it--to the brink of extinction.     There are perhaps 200 fish species south of the Antarctic Convergence, a mere 1 percent of all fish species in the world, and most of them are endemic, unique to Antarctic waters. Unlike seals and penguins, Antarctic fish generally do not make up for their lack of variety through sheer numbers of individual species. Indeed, many have had to develop unusual qualities simply to survive in the region's frigid waters. Seawater freezes at lower temperatures than freshwater because of the salts it contains, but fish blood and tissues contain lower concentrations of such salts and so tend to freeze at higher temperatures. In most parts of the world, that is not a problem; in the frigid Antarctic, however, it is. In response, many fish species in the Southern Ocean have evolved a kind of antifreeze, a mixture of sugars and proteins that interferes with the formation of ice crystals in their blood and lowers the temperature at which the blood freezes by about 3.6°F, enabling the fish to function even as the water above them turns to ice.     Through such adaptations, the flora and fauna of the Antarctic stand as a remarkable tribute to the versatility and resilience of life. As in the ocean, so on the continent itself: communities of tiny lichens--fungi and algae that have evolved together in a symbiotic relationship--actually live inside rock. Hard-shelled mites have been found living on nunataks--mountain peaks that poke above the ice sheet--as close to the South Pole as 85°S latitude. And researchers in 1999 reported finding bacteria, apparently respiring, about 11,000 feet (more than two miles) deep in the ice. Even so, in all but the most northerly areas, life struggles to maintain its foothold. The largest year-round inhabitant of the continent is a wingless midge less than half an inch long; much of Antarctica's terrestrial life is even smaller. There are only two species of flowering plant, both of them in the northerly Antarctic Peninsula region. The mosses and lichens that grow in the Antarctic do so slowly, adding only about 0.6 inch every 100 years or so, which makes them highly vulnerable to the effects of human footsteps.     Such footsteps were a particularly long time in coming to the Antarctic, and today they remain infrequent. The first people to cross south of the Antarctic Circle did so only in 1773. The continent was not sighted until 1820, and the first confirmed landing was not until 1895. The South Pole was attained for the first time in December 1911 and for the second time the following month; no one stood there again until 1956. There are no permanent human inhabitants on the frozen continent, merely visitors--scientists and support staff, around 3,500 in summer and less than half that in winter. Scattered among forty or so different bases, they seek to uncover the mysteries the Antarctic clasps to its icy bosom. Technology has improved the comfort level of clothing and shelter for those who choose to spend weeks or months at a time in Antarctica, hut it cannot remove the dangers of a land where a violent snowstorm can spring up at any moment, causing anyone caught outside to become lost and in danger of dying even within yards of camp.     And so it will quite likely always remain. Humans are, at best, intruders here, cautious interlopers into one of the most hostile environments on the planet. At the other end of the Earth, it is a somewhat different story. There, too, conditions can be hostile and even deadly, so much so that the Arctic is still among the world's least visited and most sparsely inhabited places. Inhabited by humans it is, however, and it has been so for thousands of years. Off the northern coast of Alaska, August 1998 It was a Sunday morning, with little to be done except the work needed around our ship. Arne, the captain, was on the bridge when, some way in the distance, he saw something swimming toward us.     Closer inspection revealed a polar bear swimming steadily in our direction, hind legs tucked under it, front legs paddling away, head held high. Closer and closer it came until it was just a matter of feet off the stern, swimming back and forth, checking us out. In the middle of the Beaufort Sea, it could smell cooking, and it was looking for lunch. But lunch, refusing to cooperate, was walking around on deck looking back at it. Tempting as it may have been, populated with unusual vertical seals, this big green ice floe clearly was not giving up its contents anytime soon. And so, reluctantly admitting defeat, the bear turned away from us, and we watched as it slowly swam into the distance.     A wild polar bear, whether swimming or swaggering along the edge of an Arctic ice pack, is an awe-inspiring sight. Even though our crew had seen many natural wonders around the world, a cry from the wheelhouse that a polar bear had been sighted was almost invariably enough to send everybody rushing up on deck. That we were able to see any, let alone so many, was a privilege not to be taken for granted: until the countries that surround the Arctic Ocean agreed to impose international protective measures in 1973, the polar bear's survival appeared in jeopardy. Unlike Antarctica, the Arctic has been host to human populations for many hundreds of years. Particularly as the number of visitors and settlers increased over the twentieth century, the polar bear was among the species that most suffered from the intrusion. Its thick pelt and ample meat supplies were tempting to embattled explorers and commercial traders alike; frequently, however, the shooting of polar bears was motivated largely by fear. Polar bear attacks on humans are surprisingly rare, but fear of the prospect is not hard to understand. Standing nearly ten feet tall and weighing more than 1,400 pounds, polar bears are the largest of all bears and an intimidating presence.     Arguably the iconic species of the Arctic, polar bears do not exist in the Antarctic; cartoon Christmas cards notwithstanding, polar bears and penguins never coexist. Nor could they ever: although there was once an aborted and ill-advised effort to introduce penguins to the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway, it did not succeed. In the Antarctic, polar bears might at first find enough food to sustain them for a short period in the summer months, but assuming they were able to weather the extreme Antarctic winters, they would eliminate much of the continent's penguin population in a matter of a few years.     Penguins live in the Antarctic; polar bears live in the Arctic. It is an easy distinction to remember, but it is just one of many. The Arctic and Antarctic do share certain traits. Courtesy of their relative positions at either end of the world, both enjoy almost uninterrupted sunlight during the summer and endure seemingly endless nights in winter. Both are, particularly in winter, very, very cold. But there are at least as many differences as similarities.     The Antarctic is isolated from the rest of the world. The Arctic, far from isolated, includes parts of three continents and the largest island on the planet. Political boundaries, nonexistent or meaningless in the Antarctic, have real significance in the Arctic. In the Bering Strait, for example, Little Diomede Island is a village in Alaska, the forty-ninth state of the United States. Just a couple of miles away, easily visible and in theory just as easily reachable, is Big Diomede Island. But Big Diomede is Russian territory and located on the other side of the International Date Line. Almost close enough to touch, it is in a sense another day--and, at least during the cold war, a whole world--away.     Antarctica is a continent of ice surrounded by ocean. Assuming you could find a way to get there, the South Pole is easy to identify. There is a U.S. research station, and an actual pole, to mark the spot. Stand there and you are supported by solid ice almost two miles thick. The Arctic, by contrast, is a frozen ocean encircled by land. There is no marker to identify the North Pole. There cannot be: it is in the middle of pack ice that is constantly shifting, being pushed by currents in the direction of Scandinavia. Although the pack is thick enough to stand on and walk over--and several large floes support temporary, floating research stations--it is also sufficiently permeable that icebreakers replete with tourists can force their way to the Pole and nuclear-powered submarines can break through from below.     Both the Arctic and the Antarctic boast year-round ice, but there is far less of it in Arctic lands than on the southern continent. Ninety-eight percent of Earth's land ice is in the polar regions, but 91 percent is in Antarctica. Most of the rest is taken up by just one part of the Arctic--Greenland, which is covered by the largest ice sheet outside the Antarctic. Thus, the Arctic is not supercooled by an ice cap, as Antarctica is. And without a barrier like the Antarctic Convergence, the Arctic is more susceptible to the influence of warm currents and weather systems originating outside the region. As a result, Arctic and subarctic locations are generally much warmer than those at a similar latitude in the Southern Hemisphere. Helsinki, the subarctic capital of Finland, at a latitude of 60°N, basks in mean midsummer temperatures of 63°F, some 32 degrees warmer than those in summer on Signy Island, an Antarctic research station at the equivalent southern latitude.     As a much more hospitable environment than the Antarctic, the Arctic is blessed with a far greater abundance of species. For example, whereas the entire continent of Antarctica is host to only 2 flowering plant species, Greenland alone boasts more than 40. Devon Island, a northern outpost in the Canadian Arctic, is on the boundary between arctic tundra and polar desert--the environment of the so-called High Arctic, perhaps the nearest Arctic equivalent to the desolate plateau of Antarctica. Even on its lowlands, which represent the poorest kinds of tundra, botanists have found more than 130 species of moss, 30 species of liverwort, 9 species of fern, and 90 species of flowering plant, all within the space of a few acres. Arctic tundra supports 8 nonmigratory land bird species, a trifle compared with, say, the numbers in the Amazon rain forest, but 8 more than in Antarctica. All together, the Antarctic (including its outlying islands) has 39 nesting bird species; the Arctic has 150. Antarctica has no land mammal species; the Arctic has 40, including relative giants such as moose, musk oxen, and bears. And, of course, the Arctic has been home to self-sufficient human communities for more than two thousand years, whereas no expedition to Antarctica has been able to survive entirely on regional resources, and it is unlikely that one ever could.     Nonetheless, the Arctic retains a reputation of barren desolation. English missionary S. K. Hutton, writing early in the twentieth century, described the interior of northern Labrador as a "bare and desolate waste, silent but ... for the dismal howling of the hungry wolf, or the even more dismal howling of the wind." That assessment has held sway in much of the public consciousness, despite frequent contradictions by subsequent observers. Perhaps the most vocal of those later cheerleaders of the region's riches was writer and explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who sarcastically noted that the Arctic "is lifeless, except for millions of caribou and foxes, tens of thousands of wolves and muskoxen, thousands of polar bears, millions of birds, and billions of insects." Stefansson characterized the region as the "friendly Arctic," but his view also has been criticized, for overstating the region's bounteousness. After all, in terms of weight, a tundra area produces only about 1 percent of the plant life of an area of similar size in the temperate Northern Hemisphere. And although native peoples have thrived on the Arctic's riches for thousands of years and many people live there still, the temperatures regularly drop low enough that without adequate clothing and shelter, a person would die within fifteen minutes.     A more accurate and nuanced vision is conveyed by archaeologist William Taylor: Southerners commonly think the immense circumpolar world is remote, empty, cold, hostile and lethal. It sometimes is, but so are huge southern cities. Although it can be a forbidding moonscape, the Arctic is also varied, majestic, serene, memorably beautiful and occasionally gentle. The far north is not only a prowling bear, a battering storm and vicious cold, but also a fat bumblebee buzzing among delicately yellow arctic poppies.     Opinions vary as to how exactly the Arctic should be defined. Latitude alone will not do it. The Arctic Circle, for example, excludes Iceland and large swaths of Siberia and includes, in the words of writer Barry Lopez, "a part of Scandinavia so warmed by the remnants of the Gulf Stream that it harbors a lizard, an adder, and a frog." Labrador, which filled the aforementioned S. K. Hutton with such dread, is at best on the Arctic's fringes. Berlin, in Germany, is plainly not in the Arctic or even the subarctic, but it is on the same latitude as Irkutsk, Siberia, which--with winter temperatures around -40°F--arguably is.     Not surprisingly, therefore, it is difficult to put a figure on the Arctic's size, although most estimates place it somewhere between 11 million and 14.5 million square miles of land and sea. At the center of it all, the Arctic Ocean itself is generally considered to be the area of ocean that is more or less permanently covered by sea ice, an area of about 5.66 million square miles. Some oceanographers also grant true Arctic status to waters such as those of Hudson Bay, which, although not permanently frozen and despite their temperate latitude, mix almost entirely with waters from the Arctic Ocean. But in terms of climatic conditions and the wildlife they support, marine areas outside that limited range--such as Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, and the Beaufort, Bering, Laptev, and Kara Seas--also lay claim to Arctic qualities. Even if they are not permanently frozen, all these areas remain at least partly frozen for some of the year; therefore, many scientists accept the southern limit of the winter pack ice as a good line for determining the maritime Arctic. By this measure, Arctic seas include, as well as those just mentioned, Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait, and parts of the Labrador Sea, the Barents Sea, and the Sea of Okhotsk. They also include islands such as Greenland--which is Arctic by almost any definition--Novaya Zemlya, Svalbard, and Baffin, Banks, and Victoria Islands. (Continues...) Copyright © 2001 Island Press. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
Chapter 1 Poles Apartp. 9
Chapter 2 Hunting ther Bowheadp. 27
Chapter 3 Terra Incognitap. 63
Chapter 4 So Remorseless a Havocp. 89
Chapter 5 The Last Wildernessp. 117
Chapter 6 Crude Awakeningp. 161
Chapter 7 The Ends of the Earthp. 199
Epiloguep. 243
Notesp. 247
Selected Bibliographyp. 261
Acknowledgmentsp. 269
Indexp. 273

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