Rob Hardy: A cold look at climate change and adventure

September 9, 2009 1:04:00 PM

Rob Hardy - robhardy@earthlink.net

 

You can bet that Bill Streever likes cold better than you do. After all, standing in his swimming shorts in wind, rain and a chill of 51 degrees, he plunges into the 35-degree water of Prudhoe Bay, 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, for five minutes.  

 

You won''t be surprised that he finds it cold, bitingly cold, but advises us that it''s not really so cold, in the scheme of things -- it is much warmer than a block of dry ice, which is warmer than liquid nitrogen, which is warmer than the surface of Pluto.  

 

After five minutes in the water, shivering, he emerges, but it is two hours before he feels warm again. His dip is just the starting immersion into cold in "Cold: Adventures in the World''s Frozen Places" (Little, Brown). Streever is a biologist who works on various surveys and committees, many having to do with climate and climate change.  

 

"Cold is cool," he says, and his book emphasizes how interesting low temperatures are, with the way animals have evolved to handle them and the way humans have pioneered into polar regions. There is, however, a good deal of grim death here, from frozen mammoths to explorers to cryogenically frozen corpses.  

 

Streever can write poetically, and always has a good humor. His book is full of science, but it is casually written in 12 chapters, each accounting for a month in which he tells us of his travels and interests in the cold regions. It is discursive, with one topic or anecdote popping up in different aspects in different chapters, a friendly and informative science book. 

 

For instance, Streever frequently returns to James Bedford, who died of cancer in 1967, but who is lying around at 367 degrees below zero, waiting for a cancer cure. He is the first such voyager, but there are plenty of others who have hired commercial services to tend to their chilled selves until a healing thaw can be arranged. They must be optimists, for although it will be easy to unfreeze them, there is little reason to think that scientists will be able to revive them. Ice crystals have damaged the cells too much for Bedford''s life to return, but maybe he just viewed that as a problem that future scientists will solve, along with curing his cancer. He might have taken heart from the experimenter who froze a cat brain for eight months, and got some brain waves out of it once it was thawed. He might also have looked to the members of the animal kingdom who so intrigue Streever.  

 

For instance, frogs freeze. Not all frogs, just those specially adapted to do so. "To be clear, these are not frogs that are cold, but frogs that are literally frozen. Pick them up, and they are hard as ice." They have ice between their cells and in body cavities, but the cells themselves are so full of glucose as an antifreeze that the ice does not shred them. They are, Streever says, "frogsicles."  

 

Some caterpillars can hibernate in fall and freeze during the winter, and might do this for 10 Arctic winters before turning into moths to make new caterpillars. Plants can freeze, too, and have other adaptations. No weeping willow can withstand Arctic cold, but there are willows up there. Some are more like vines on the ground, but some stay like tiny trees, in forests that are dwarfed by grass when the summer comes.  

 

Bedford volunteered to be frozen, but Andrew Piekarski certainly did not. He was mowing the lawn of his lodge near Anchorage on a balmy September day when the mower was overturned on a small hill, and trapped him. He wasn''t hurt, but he could not get the mower off him, and he slowly froze as night came on. He had plenty of time, Streever speculates, for existential thinking.  

 

"Before the hypothermia slowed his thinking, before the stupor, before the hallucinations of warmth, he must have considered the absurdity of his situation, the odd reality of deadly hypothermia before the end of summer." There were plenty who froze before him, having adventures riskier than mowing a lawn, and Streever has been absorbed by the journals kept by the great polar explorers. "When one reads past the stoicism and heroics, the history of polar exploration becomes one long accident report mixed with one long obituary." While there are distressing accounts here of explorers who realize that they are doomed and use their journals to reflect upon their situations, there is also the story of Ernest Shackleton who neared the South Pole in 1909, but within 97 miles of it realized that his provisions were too short for a round trip. He turned around, and later told his wife, "I thought you would rather have a live donkey than a dead lion." Streever also recounts the death of Joseph Fourier, who in 1827 published his insight that certain gases in the atmosphere contributed to the warmth of the Earth (the greenhouse effect). Fourier hated cold, and kept himself wrapped in blankets to keep it away from him. In 1830, wrapped in his blankets, he tripped and fell down the stairs, and died. 

 

If the extremes of earthly cold are not enough, Streever introduces us to some of the scientists who are pushing the thermometer as close to the bottom as it can ever go. In the same years as the great polar explorers were mushing far south and far north, there were explorers in the laboratory. "Like the Arctic explorers, the scientists were men obsessed." They sacrificed wealth, and potential wealth, and they fiddled with dangerous machines in a race to produce liquid forms of nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen. They continue to push. Cold is the absence of heat, the absence of molecular motion, and there might not seem to be any logical reason that the molecules and their constituent atoms should all stand still at absolute zero. This temperature, which is 460 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, seems to be unattainable; a couple of thousand atoms have been cooled to within fifty-billionths of a degree of this goal, but getting all the way there has so far proved impossible. 

 

Streever manages a review of our understanding of the deep history of climate. 700 million years ago, there was a mean temperature of minus sixty degrees, according to the "Snowball Earth" idea, which Streever presents as science strongly colored by the forceful personality of the man who first proposed it. He takes us through the ice ages, and the effects of ancient glaciation on the geology of different parts of the world. He invokes the "Little Ice Age", which started in the fourteenth century and continued to the mid-nineteenth. It included the enormous eruption of the Indonesian Tambora volcano in 1815, which among other things, chilled the weather so that Lord Byron''s guests had to hole up in his retreat near Geneva in 1816, telling ghost stories. This included Mary Shelley, who came up with Frankenstein; the movies don''t show that much of the novel involves an Arctic setting complete with an explorer and his boat. Of course Streever covers global warming, late into his year-long exploration of cold regions, explaining the positions of the "climate change kooks" and the "naysayers", but of course he sides on the compelling data that the warming is real. He notes, however, that the warming is not even; changes in ocean currents may actually cool Europe and even the Antarctic interior. "There will still be opportunities to wear a double layer of caribou skin," he reflects, and you can count on Streever to take them. 

 

Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is robhardy@earthlink.net.