Sailing boat at sea in Antarctica

Book review: ‘Land of Wondrous Cold’ by Gillen D’Arcy Wood

Image credit: Dreamstime

Making the connection between the pioneers of Antarctic exploration and the vital research being carried out in the region today.

If ever there was a geographical region that unites humanity’s twin obsessions with terrestrial exploration and the advancement of science, it is the continent of Antarctica. And if ever there was a book on precisely that relationship it is ‘Land of Wondrous Cold’ (Princeton University Press, £22, ISBN 9780691172200), in which Gillen D’Arcy Wood  describes the unfolding drama of the White Continent’s role in plate tectonics, climate change and species evolution, stretching back into deep-time history.

Of course, we came to know of these phenomena largely due to the early exertions of human exploration, most notably in the 19th century, when the likes of James Ross, Dumont D’Urville and Charles Wilkes were simultaneously pushing back the frontiers of both geographical exploration and scientific knowledge.

Subtitled ‘The race to discover Antarctica and unlock the secrets of its ice’, Wood’s latest sensibly addresses the commonly held assumption that Antarctica is a very 20th century affair, the fiefdom of the so-called ‘Heroic Age’ explorers such as Scott and Amundsen, Shackleton and Charcot. In fact, ‘Wondrous Cold’ is manifestly about what happened before that era, while cleverly interweaving modern field science related to concepts that would have been alien to the early pioneers: icecap instability, rising sea levels and the Ocean Drilling Program.

Wood’s superb account starts right at the beginning of humankind’s relationship with the Antarctic, with the first sighting in 1772 by Yves-Joseph Kerguelen of ‘Desolation Island’ in the sub-Antarctic waters of the Indian Ocean. A year later Captain James Cook became the first to cross into the Antarctic Circle, eventually beaten back by pack ice at 67° 10’. Ninety degrees south – the geographical South Pole – would not be reached for another century and a half, when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen pipped Robert Falcon Scott of the British assault party to the post in 1911. By this point polar exploration had become as much about planting national flags on unclaimed territory as it was about scientific discovery.

And yet, what is often forgotten – and Wood suggests that even modern scientists might not be entirely aware of this – is that the first ships to venture into the unknown did so in the name of science. He is careful to maintain that the explorers aboard these vessels are the lens through which we see the story of polar science rather than the story itself (which, as he politely states, has been done "satisfyingly by others" – he could have added thousands and thousands of times.)

The strength of this approach is that Wood is able to span the temporal divide between the 19th century and post-millennial digital science by examining key episodes that link these fabled voyages of discovery to the modern era of polar research. With today’s climate emergency high on the political agenda, it’s worth remembering that “our newly urgent encounter with Antarctica begins with the resolute but forgotten icemen of the Victorian Age.”

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