Inside an Arctic Expedition, Natural History of Fragrance, Essays on Places in Peril, and More

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NONFICTION

The Greatest Polar Expedition of All Time: The Arctic Mission to the Epicenter of Climate Change
Markus Rex, translated and edited by Sarah Pybus
Greystone Books, 2022 ($28. 95)

On October 4, 2019, the Polarstern, a German icebreaker the length of a football field, sidled up to a thick ice floe above the Arctic Circle and turned off its engines. Soon, the sun would set for several months. The remaining open ocean surrounding the boat would ice, and three millions square miles of liquid would become solid within a matter of weeks. Were you to have peered down on the ship then, it would have looked like an almond lodged in a bar of white chocolate the size of Australia.

Look into the fine print in our most complex global climate models and you’ll find that there is almost no observational data for the high Arctic during winter. Although we know that the Arctic is warming faster than any other part of the planet, the implications for future weather patterns and storm intensity, biodiversity, and the overall climate are still a mystery. However, there is growing concern that estimates of how bad it could get and when it will happen are too conservative. Enter MOSAiC, or as Markus Rex, the leader of the mission, calls it (and his tongue is not planted in his cheek), “The Greatest Polar Expedition of All Time .”

On the surface, the plan behind MOSAiC is simple enough: allow the Transpolar Drift, a kind of conveyor belt that moves ice across the ice cap, to carry the Polarstern straight through the center of the Arctic during the long polar night. The crew will be able “trap” themselves in the floe to create a unique data set. They will be able to record in a single year what happens in the ocean, air, and ice (where these two systems meet), creating an overall profile of the processes that lead to the birth and death sea ice. Rex says that scientists will be able to create a stronger model of the Arctic climate system from this data.

If all of this is starting to sound a bit wonky, that’s because The Greatest Polar Expedition of All Time is written by an atmospheric scientist rather than a nature essayist like Barry Lopez or a climate novelist like Ashley Shelby, whose 2017 book South Pole Station explores the way community is forged (and tested) by isolation and ice. There are no characters beyond the author and no conversations between the people he lives with. The book reads more like an account of a ship than a piece literary reportage. This book is a front-row seat to the experience of gathering the information that is used to create the IPCC reports. This series of dated entries is full of the drama of performing state-of-the art science in a place that satellites can’t reach. There’s no way to refuel (either with candy or combustibles), when supplies run out.

As someone who has lived as a research icebreaker and is currently working on a book about it, I enjoyed reading the details of the day-to-day activities. On the Polarstern, even the most mundane tasks require planning, patience and ingenuity to execute. How can one find a way to navigate on a huge slab of ice, which is moving slowly through darkness? Create a coordinate system in which the ship’s bow, the single most important point in this Seussian landscape, serves as the axis. You want to get out of the boat? You should bring a polar bear guard, an emergency kit, and at least two backup flashlights. Searching for souvenirs? You can make them yourself by suspending oversized crystals of ice in hardened acrylic that have been lifted from the machine room.

The expedition has five phases. Scientists and crew cycle on and off the boat. This makes its leader the only reliable person through the line. Rex’s voice is both charming and quaint at times. There is no braggadocio, no boasting, and no chest puffing. Just a genuine scientist who oversees a season that has taken a lifetime. His passion for data collection and the writing of a climate book for a broad audience (versus an academic paper for peer review) makes him see how polar narratives, including his, perpetuate many of the historical power imbalances that have created the climate crisis as well as hindered our ability to act.

Omission is a common problem in the polar canon. This book is no exception. The polar canon is plagued by omissions. This book is no exception.

In all of the years since the “Heroic Age of Polar Exploration”, the operating system of Earth has changed in a multitude of troubling ways. This is due to the imperialist logic which drove those men in search of fame, fortune and power. But the stories that are retold from the places where these changes have been most profoundly felt haven’t changed at the same remarkable rate. We often celebrate stories about bearded gentlemen who have a high education (in this instance, a doctorate at the Freie Universitat Berlin), and who dare to go where no one has gone before in order to achieve the impossible.

Blessedly, there are exceptions: Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast, which recasts the Arctic as an inhabited region of ecological plenitude; or Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Hyperboreal, a lyrical investigation of loss and continuity on King Island, the author’s ancestral home, from which her family was forcibly removed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs; or Mat Johnson’s satirical novel Pym, a wildly subversive investigation of the racial ideologies that shape polar storytelling.

The most shocking moment in The Greatest Polar Expedition Of All Time occurs about two-thirds of the way through when the pandemic threatens the mission’s premature end. MOSAiC is an inherently international collaboration, with 20 nations participating, but as borders close and the icebreakers that were supposed to support the ship are sent home, the Polarstern just keeps drifting. All the carefully planned plans for refueling and personnel changes, as well as refilling the refrigerators, must be reimagined quickly.

The only vessels that are allowed to assist are those from the same country as their ship. This suggests that in times of crisis, global collaboration will be more difficult than ever. This is something we all know to be true at some level, having experienced the pandemic in its early stages. But it is still unsettling to hear that of the more than 80 different institutions involved in MOSAiC, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research is the only one able to provide the aid necessary to save this unprecedented mission.

Once the obstacles posed by the pandemic have been overcome, life on the Polarstern returns to “normal” rather quickly. The deployment of Turbulence sensors is completed. Ice cores are extracted and seismic measurements are taken. After nearly a year of living together, the ice Rex with his team melts and everyone goes home. It’s almost as if nothing has happened. —Elizabeth Rush

Elizabeth Rush is author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore (Milkweed, 2018), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. Brown University is her home.

IN BRIEF

Scent: A Natural History of Fragrance
Illustration by Lara Call Gastinger
Yale University Press, 2022 ($28)

Reading Scent feels like going on a meandering nature walk through the history and science of fragrance, guided by a wildlife biologist turned natural perfumer. Within a single sentence, author Elise Vernon Pearlstine writes that incense “rises to the heavens to carry messages to the gods” and “pretty much always involves sesquiterpenes.” Conjuring sights and sounds from text is difficult enough, but Scent delivers on its title in a way that Smell-O-Vision merely wishes it could do. The book is a captivating journey that awakens the senses, despite the occasional pitfalls (describing multiple fragrant subjects in a “mysterious” or “exotic” manner). —Dana Dunham

The Red Arrow A New
By William Brewer
Knopf, 2022 ($27)

The Red Arrow is somehow both a harrowing depiction of depression and a laugh-out-loud mystery about physics, psychedelics and the publishing industry. It opens on a Frecciarossa (“red arrow”) train in Italy, where an unnamed American writer is searching for a missing physicist whose memoir he is ghostwriting to get out of debt. After years of suffering from suicidal depression, he now uses psilocybin to help him. William Brewer’s debut novel, which is both charming and challenging, is a thrilling ride that ends in a moving encounter between science and art. —Adam Morgan

Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World
Barry Lopez
Random House, 2022 ($28)

This posthumously published collection of essays by nature writer Barry Lopez reveals an exceptional life and mind. The essays are organized thematically and focus on Lopez’s deep love for the environment as well as his exceptional sense of place. His deeply nuanced reflections on places as diverse as Antarctica or California’s San Fernando Valley are interwoven with gentle meditations about art, travel, friendship and personal trauma. While certainly a testament to his legacy and an ephemeral reprieve from his death in 2020, this book is more than a memorial: it offers a clear-eyed praxis of hope in what Lopez calls this “Era of Emergencies.” —Dana Dunham

Scientific American May 2022 book recommendations.

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