By Bill Streever
Hardcover, 304 pages
Little, Brown and Company
List Price: $24.99
The world warms, awash in greenhouse gases, but forty below remains forty below. Thirty degrees with sleet blowing sideways is still thirty degrees with sleet blowing sideways. Cold is a part of day-to-day life, but we often isolate ourselves from it, hiding in overheated houses and retreating to overheated climates, all without understanding what we so eagerly avoid.
We fail to see cold for what it is: the absence of heat, the slowing of molecular motion, a sensation, a perception, a driving force. Cold freezes the nostrils and assaults the lungs. Its presence shapes landscapes. It sculpts forests and herds animals along migration routes or forces them to dig in for the winter or evolve fur and heat-conserving networks of veins. It changes soils. It preserves food. It carries with it a history of polar exploration, but also a history of farming and fishing and the invention of the bicycle and the creation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It preserves the faithful in vats of liquid nitrogen from which they hope one day to be resurrected.
Imagine July water temperatures of thirty-five degrees. Imagine Frederic Tudor of Boston shipping ice from Walden Pond to India on sailing ships in 1833. Imagine Apsley Cherry-Garrard on his search for penguin eggs at seventy below zero in 1911. Imagine a dahurian larch forest that looks like a stand of Christmas trees on Russia's Taymyr Peninsula at sixty below or a ground squirrel hibernating until its blood starts to freeze and then shivering itself back to life.
But none of this is imaginary. Our world warms, but cold remains. In the ordinary passing of a calendar year, the world of cold emerges. For someone with Raynaud's disease, a September stroll temporarily changes cold hands into useless claws. Caterpillars freeze solid in October and crawl away in April. Average temperatures in certain towns drop to twenty below zero in January.
It is time to enjoy an occasional shiver as we worry about a newly emerging climate likely to melt our ice caps, devour our glaciers, and force us into air-conditioned rooms. It is time to embrace and understand the natural and human history of cold. Even in a warming world, a world choked by carbon dioxide and methane, cold persists, biting my lungs and at the same time leaving me invigorated, alive and well on an Arctic spring afternoon with the sun hovering low over an ice-covered horizon and the thermometer at forty below.
It is July first and fifty-one degrees above zero. I stand poised on a gravel beach at the western edge of Prudhoe Bay, three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, and a mile of silt-laden water separates me from what is left of the ice. The Inupiat — the Eskimos — call it aunniq, rotten ice, sea ice broken into unconsolidated chunks of varying heights and widths, like a poorly made frozen jigsaw puzzle. A few days ago, the entire bay stood frozen. During winter, it is locked under six feet of ice. Trucks drive on it to resupply an offshore oil production facility. If one were insane, or if one were simply too cheap to fly, or if boredom instilled a spirit of adventure, one could walk north to the North Pole and then south to Norway or Finland or Russia. Temperatures would range below minus fifty degrees, not counting windchill.
But even in summer, the weather resides well south of balmy. A chill gust runs through me as I stand shirtless on the water's edge, wearing nothing but swimming shorts in the wind and rain.
"The only way to do this," I tell my companion, "is with a single plunge. No hesitation."
I go in headfirst. The water temperature is thirty-five degrees. I come up gasping. I stand on a sandy bottom, immersed to my neck. The water stings, as if I am rolling naked through a field of nettles. I wait for the gasp reflex to subside. My skin tightens around my body. My brain — part of it that I cannot control — has sent word to the capillaries in my extremities. "Clamp down," my brain has commanded, "and conserve heat." I feel as if I am being shrink-wrapped, like a slab of salmon just before it is tossed into the Deepfreeze.
My companion, standing on the beach, tells me that I have been in the water for one minute. My toes are now numb.
Time passes slowly in water of this temperature. I think of the ground, permanently frozen in this region to a depth of eighteen hundred feet. I think about hypothermia, about death and near death from cold. I think of overwintering animals. I think of frozen machinery with oil as thick as tar and steel turned brittle by cold. I think of the magic of absolute zero, when molecular motion stops.
After two minutes, I can talk in a more or less normal tone. But there is little to discuss. There is, just now, almost no common ground between me and my companion, standing on the beach. I feel more akin to the German soldiers whose troop carrier foundered, dumping them into Norwegian coastal waters in 1940. Seventy-nine men did what they could to stay afloat in thirty-five-degree water. All were pulled alive from the water, but the ones who stripped off their clothes to swim perished on the rescue boat. Suffering more from hypothermia than those who had the sense to stay clothed, they succumbed to what has been called "afterdrop" and "rewarming shock." Out of the water, they reportedly felt well and were quite able to discuss their experience. But as the cold blood from their extremities found its way to their hearts, one after another they stopped talking, relaxed in their bunks, and died.
"Three minutes," my companion tells me.
I am a victim of physics. My body temperature is moving toward a state of equilibrium with this water, yielding to the second law of thermodynamics. I shiver.
Several hundred miles southwest of here, six days before Christmas in 1741, the Dutch navigator Vitus Bering, employed by Russia, lay down in the sand and died of scurvy and exposure, while his men, also immobilized by scurvy, cold, and fear, became food for arctic foxes. Some accounts hold that Bering spent his last moments listening to the screams and moans of his dying men. The Bering Sea, separating Russia and Alaska, was named for him, and the island where he died, nestled on the international date line, is known today as Bering Island.
Northeast of here, in 1883, Adolphus Greely led twenty-? ve men to the Arctic, stopping at Ellesmere Island. For most of them, the trip was a slow death that combined starvation, frostbite, and hypothermia. Greely himself, with five others, survived. He eventually took charge of what would become the National Weather Service, where he failed to predict a blizzard in which several hundred people died from frostbite and hypothermia. Many of the dead were schoolchildren.
Half a century after Greely's expedition, in the 1930s, the missionary ascetic Father Henry lived at Pelly Bay, in Canada's Northwest Territories, well above the Arctic Circle. By choice, he resided in an ice cellar. Indoor temperatures were well below zero. The natives would not live in an ice cellar, which was designed to keep game frozen through the short Arctic summer. It was the antithesis of a shelter, analogous to living in a shower stall to avoid the rain. Father Henry believed that it focused his mind on higher matters. Almost certainly, some of the natives believed that Father Henry was mad.
"Four minutes," my companion calls. The stinging in the skin of my thighs has turned to a burning pain. Frostbite is not a real possibility at this temperature, and true hypothermia is at least ten
minutes in the future. What I feel is no more than the discomfort of cold.
Frogs are not found this far north, but at their northernmost limit, five hundred miles from here, they overwinter in a frozen state, amphibian Popsicles in the mud. Frogsicles. But caterpillars are found near here. I sometimes see them crawling across the tundra, feeding on low-growing plants. They freeze solid in winter, then thaw out in spring to resume foraging between clumps of snow. They are especially fond of the diminutive willows that grow in the Arctic.
Ground squirrels overwinter underground. They are related to gray and red squirrels and to chipmunks, but in appearance they are more similar to prairie dogs. In their winter tunnels, their body temperature drops to the freezing point, but they periodically break free from the torpor of hibernation, shivering for the better part of a day to warm themselves. And then they drift off again into the cold grasp of hibernation. Through winter, they cycle back and forth — chill and shiver, chill and shiver, chill and shiver — surviving.
Arctic soil behaves strangely around the hibernating ground squirrels. Underground, liquid water is sucked toward frozen water, forming lenses of almost pure ice. The soil expands and contracts with changing temperatures, forming geometric shapes, spitting out stones on the surface, cracking building foundations. Wooden piles cut off at ground level are heaved upward by ground ice, sadly mimicking a forest in this frozen treeless plain.
This water I stand in feels frigid, bitingly cold, but in the greater scheme of things it is not so cold. A block of dry ice — frozen carbon dioxide — has a surface temperature just warmer than minus 110 degrees. James Bedford has been stored in liquid nitrogen at minus 346 degrees since 1967, awaiting a cure for cancer. The surface of Pluto stands brisk at minus 369 degrees. Absolute zero is some five hundred degrees colder than the water that surrounds me.
"Five minutes," my companion tells me. I leave the water, shivering, my muscles tense. It will be two hours before I feel warm again.
* * *
There is more than one way to measure temperature. Daniel Fahrenheit, a German working in Amsterdam as a glassblower in the early 1700s, developed the mercury thermometer and the temperature scale still familiar to Americans. He built on work dating back to just after the time of Christ and modi?ed by the likes of Galileo, who used wine instead of mercury, and Robert Hooke, appointed curator of the Royal Society in 1661, who developed a standard scale that was used for almost a century. In 1724, Fahrenheit described the calibration of his thermometer, with zero set at the coldest temperature he could achieve in his shop with a mixture of ice, salt, and water, and 96 set by sticking the instrument in his mouth to, in his words, "acquire the heat of a healthy man." He found that water boiled at 212 degrees. With only a minor adjustment to his scale, he declared that water froze at 32 degrees, leaving 180 degrees in between, a half circle, reasonable at a time when nature was believed by some to possess aesthetic symmetry.
Anders Celsius, working in Sweden, came up with the Celsius scale in 1742. Conveniently, it put freezing water at zero and boiling water at one hundred degrees. Less conveniently, it set in place a competition between two scales. An Australian talking to an American has to convert from Celsius to Fahrenheit, or the American will think of Australia as too cold for kangaroos. An American talking to an Australian has to convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius, or the Australian will think of America as too hot for anything but drinking beer. The Australian is forced to multiply by two and add thirty-two, or the American is forced to subtract thirty-two and divide by two. Or, as more often happens, they drop the matter of temperature altogether.
Lord Kelvin realized in 1848 that both Fahrenheit and Celsius had set their zero points way too high. He understood that heat could be entirely absent. At least conceptually, absolute zero was a possibility. He came up with his own scale, based on degrees Celsius, but with zero set at the lowest possible temperature, the point at which there is no heat. Zero Kelvin is 459 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Just above this temperature, helium becomes a liquid. Anywhere close to absolute zero, and all things familiar to the normal world disappear. Molecular motion slows and then stops. A new state of matter, called a "super atom" — something that is neither gas nor liquid nor solid — comes into being. But Kelvin's understanding of the strange world that exists within a few degrees of absolute zero was theoretical. By the time he died, in 1907, his colleagues were struggling to force temperatures colder than 418 degrees below zero, 41 degrees above absolute zero, and helium had not yet been liquefied.
One of the physicists who first achieved a temperature low enough for the formation of a super atom, which did not occur until 1995, had this to say: "This state could never have existed naturally anywhere in the universe, unless it is in a lab in some other solar system."
Our planet's polar explorers used, for the most part, Fahrenheit's scale, but rather than talking of degrees below zero, they often talked of "degrees of frost." One degree of frost was one degree below freezing Fahrenheit. An explorer might write in his journal of fifty degrees of frost — eighteen degrees below zero Fahrenheit — and in the next paragraph tell of the amputation of a frozen toe, or describe himself gnawing on a boot to stave off the starvation that so often accompanies cold, or mention in passing how he had to beat fifteen pounds of ice from the bottom of his sleeping bag before bedding down for the night. Or, after an especially cold and uncomfortable spell, he might write of the relative warmth and relief of fifty-five degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who sup
ported Robert Falcon Scott on his disastrous 1910 Antarctic expedition, did just that. "Now," he wrote, "if we tell people that to get only 87 degrees of frost can be an enormous relief they simply won't believe us." But an enormous relief it would be for one accustomed to camping at 75 degrees below zero, or 107 degrees of frost.
In his memoirs, Cherry-Garrard concurred with Dante, who placed the circles of ice beneath the circles of fire in his vision of Hell.
* * *
It is July eighteenth and nearly fifty degrees under an overcast sky. I walk slowly across Arctic tundra next to an abandoned airstrip, stalking Gynaephora rossii. The trouble with this beast — the woolly bear caterpillar of the far north — is that it is not easy to find here near Prudhoe Bay. Woolly bear caterpillars are substantially smaller than woolly mammoths. Woolly mammoths, but for their unfortunate extinction, would be easy to spot. But these woolly bear caterpillars are smaller than a mammoth's eyebrow. And this terrain is not conducive to stalking insect larvae. Though flat and treeless, the terrain is uneven. The prudent searcher watches his footing when he should be watching for caterpillars. Every few steps, water-filled cracks in the ground require minor detours. The cracks form when the ground contracts and expands in response to temperature changes. Once a crack forms, it fills with water. When the water freezes, the ice expands and widens the crack. A wedge of ice forms and grows, and the crack eventually becomes too wide to step across. Cracks intercept other cracks. Together, they make a network outlining polygons that are thirty feet wide. They polygonize the landscape.
The cracks are beginning to find their way across the abandoned airstrip. Next to the cracks, where water pools through the summer months, grass grows lusciously green. Between the cracks, in the centers of the polygons, the greenery struggles — less dense, less luscious. Or even not luscious at all. Despite all this water, the ground can be dry between the cracks, and dust covers some of the plants. Just days ago, the creamy flowers of arctic dryas made patches of this dry ground look like miniature gardens of snowy roses. Now their dried scraggly puffball seed heads are all that remains. In the Arctic, blink, and summer is gone.
Underneath, eighteen inches down, the ground is frozen. It remains frozen for a third of a mile before heat from the earth's innards overcomes the cold from above. Poking the ground with a steel rod, one can feel the permafrost — the permanently frozen ground. It's like hitting bedrock just eighteen inches down.
Where are the caterpillars? I find a biologist who has been working here since May, counting birds. I ask her if she has seen any caterpillars. "I've only seen one," she tells me.
Later, I talk to an Inupiat elder. "I see them sometimes," he says. "Maybe once each year." Inupiat frequently pause when they talk, leaving what might seem like an uncomfortable silence. I have been told that the pauses give them time to think and therefore to avoid the mindless patter of whites. "They like high ground," he says after a moment. "I see them near my camp at Teshekpuk Lake."
The little beasts eat willow buds. I squat on the tundra to check some of the willows growing on the high ground between water-? lled cracks. These willows are related to the taller willows of warmer climates, but they never stand more than a few inches tall. Their trunks can be measured in fractions of an inch. I find neither caterpillars nor gnawed buds. I pluck a leaf and pop it into my mouth. It tastes like an aspirin salad. I move on.
Hyperactive birds fly around the airstrip. A plover screeches at me and makes threatening dives, driving me away from its young. In tundra ponds and in water-?lled cracks, phalaropes swim in tight circles, their heads bobbing as if connected to their feet. A pair of snow buntings perch for a second on top of a pipeline next to the
airstrip and then fly off. A long-billed dowitcher, its beak disproportionately long, flushes from the ground in front of me. Behind it, a hundred yards away, five caribou graze, their antlers imitating the beak of the dowager in their freakish length.
Soon all of this activity will cease. The birds will fly away. The caribou will march south. The caterpillars will simply freeze. That is why I am interested. That is why I want one of these caterpillars. The little devils have figured out how to freeze solid without dying. They are slow growers. It might take a decade before they are ready to metamorphose into grayish moths. That means they survive through ten winters here in the Arctic. When spring comes, they thaw and go back to eating. For a pet lover who travels, they could be the perfect solution. Cute, furry, and quiet, and the freezer serves as a kennel. But where are they? If I were looking for oil, I would have just successfully drilled a dry hole, a duster. I have been skunked by a caterpillar.
* * *
The polar explorers were great keepers of journals, and many of the survivors produced memoirs. Cold for the polar explorers came with a sense of pride, but also uncertainty, hunger, exhaustion, and death. The body's boilers run on food, and as often as not, death from prolonged exposure to cold combines starvation, frostbite, and hypothermia. When one reads past the stoicism and heroics, the history of polar exploration becomes one long accident report mixed with one long obituary.
There was, of course, discomfort. In 1909, Ernest Shackleton traveled to within ninety-seven miles of the South Pole. Realizing that his provisions would be stretched if he pushed farther, he turned around. He told his wife, "I thought you would rather have a live donkey than a dead lion." In 1914, during a later exploration, his ship Endurance was iced in and eventually abandoned. He led
his men slowly across the ice. In his travelogue, he wrote, "I have stopped issuing sugar now, and our meals consist of seal-meat and blubber only, with 7 ozs. of dried milk per day for the party." This is at a time of inactivity, camped on ice. "The diet suits us, since we cannot get much exercise on the floe and the blubber supplies heat," he wrote. Eventually, the ice gave way, cracking under his camp. "The crack had cut through the site of my tent," he wrote. "I stood on the edge of the new fracture, and, looking across the widening channel of water, could see the spot where for many months my head and shoulders had rested when I was in my sleeping bag."
Charles Wright survived Robert Falcon Scott's 1910 Antarctic expedition and knew just how important those sleeping bags were. He — with Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who had grasped Dante's reasons for placing the circles of ice beneath those of fire in the depths of Hell — was one of the men who supported Scott, hauling Scott's gear south for the first leg into the heart of Antarctica. The support team turned back and waited at their base camp, but Scott and the four men who continued to the pole would not survive. Long afterward, at eighty-six years old, Wright talked to an interviewer about man-hauling sleds in Antarctica. The interviewer asked about toilet habits on the trail, the point being that getting up in the middle of the night to relieve oneself involved more than just stepping outside of the tent in your boxers. "You see," Wright explained, you've come from your sleeping bag, you've taken into the sleeping bag all the frozen sweat of the previous day, and the previous day and the previous day and the previous day. There's a log of it at the end. And during the night you first melt that frozen sweat. And very often it freezes at the bottom of the bag, where your feet are. And if you're going to have a decent night you've got to melt all that before you have a chance. And even then it's not comfortable because whatever is next door is wet and cold, and every breath you take
brings some of the cold stuff into the small of your back. So a winter's night when you're sledging is not a comfortable thing at all. But you've got to, before you get anywhere, you've got to melt the ice. And sometimes there's fifteen pounds of ice or something like that that's got to be turned into water before you begin to sleep.
From Wright's account it is clear that Antarctic explorers disciplined their bladders and stayed in those half-frozen bags as long as possible.
Scott himself kept a journal right up until his death. Eight months later, a search party found his camp. In the camp, Scott's frozen body lay between two of his frozen companions. The three men in the tent, it has been said, looked as if they were sleeping. The three bodies, along with Scott's journal, were recovered.
Scott's journal records noble behavior and tragedy. By the middle of January 1912, eager to be the first to reach the South Pole, Scott and the four men who went with him stumbled on sled tracks and camps left by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who had beaten them to the pole by four weeks. Scott's party pressed on to the pole anyway. "Great God!" Scott wrote, "this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority." Disappointed, the men struggled back toward their base camp.
"Things steadily downhill," Scott wrote in early March. "Oates' foot worse. He has rare pluck and must know that he can never get through. He asked Wilson if he had a chance this morning, and of course Bill had to say he didn't know. In point of fact he has none." Later, Oates, recognizing that he was slowing the party and endangering their lives, talked to his companions. "I am just going outside and may be some time," he said. Afterward Scott wrote, "He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since."
Scott wrote about himself, "My right foot has gone, nearly all the toes — two days ago I was proud possessor of best feet. These are the
steps of my downfall. Like an ass I mixed a small spoonful of curry powder with my melted pemmican — it gave me violent indigestion. I lay awake and in pain all night; woke and felt done on the march; foot went and I didn't know it. A very small measure of neglect and have a foot which is not pleasant to contemplate. Amputation is the least I can hope for now, but will the trouble spread?"
Later he wrote, "It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more." And after this, he had but one final entry: "For God's sake look after our people." Scott ended his days eleven impossible miles from a supply depot that would have saved his life.
Frostbite is a common theme among polar explorers. Captain George E. Tyson was marooned with his crew on an Arctic ice floe in the winter of 1872 and spring of 1873. "The other morning," he wrote, "Mr. Meyers found that his toes were frozen — no doubt from his exposure on the ice without shelter the day he was separated from us. He is not very strong at the best, and his fall in the water has not improved his condition."
Food, or a lack of food, is another common theme. Roald Amundsen, when he beat Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole, used sleds pulled by dogs. The dogs doubled as a food supply. Amundsen had this to say about men who pursued their destinies at the poles: "Often his search is a race with time against starvation."
Robert Flaherty published the story of Comock, an Inuit. In the narrative, Comock explains how he and his family lived on Mansel Island in the Canadian Arctic early in the twentieth century. They were on the island alone, isolated for ten years from their extended families and the villages that dotted the Arctic. They were at times well fed.
"Look at our children," Comock's wife said to Comock. "They are warm."
And Comock, in his narrative, added, "There were little smokes rising from the deerskin robes under which they slept."
But later, food became scarce. "We shared with our dogs the dog meat upon which we lived," Comock reported. One of his companions said that seal meat offered warmth, while dog meat did not. Comock feared the dogs would eat the children.
Frederick Cook, who probably reached or at least came close to the North Pole in April 1908, almost a full year before Robert E. Peary, ran into trouble and could not return to civilization quickly enough to defend himself against Peary's own claim and what has been described as Peary's slander. Like Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Cook concurred with Dante, but with more drama and self-aggrandizement: "We all were lifted to the paradise of winners as we stepped over the snows of a destiny for which we had risked life and willingly suffered the tortures of an ice hell." But after two days at the pole, he described a feeling of anticlimax. The pole itself, after all, was just another frozen camp in a frozen landscape. "The intoxication of success was gone," he wrote in his memoir. "Hungry, mentally and physically exhausted, a sense of the utter uselessness of this thing, of the empty reward of my endurance, followed my exhilaration."
And who has heard of Lieutenant George De Long? In an 1879 attempt to reach the North Pole, De Long and twenty men abandoned their ship to the ice. They dragged three small boats across the ice for nearly three months before finding open water. One boat was lost, but two made it to Siberia's Lena River delta. This was early October. Though suffering from frostbite and exhaustion, the men were not complainers. De Long wrote, "The doctor resumed the cutting away of poor Ericksen's toes this morning. No doubt it will have to continue until half his feet are gone, unless death ensues, or we get to some settlement. Only one toe left now. Temperature 18."
Like Scott, though perhaps with less panache, De Long maintained his journal until the end:
October 17th, Monday. — One hundred and twenty-seventh day. Alexey dying. Doctor baptized him. Read prayers for the sick. Mr. Collins' birthday-forty years old. About sunset Alexey died. Exhaustion from starvation.
October 21st, Friday. — One hundred and thirty-first day. Kaack was found dead about midnight between the doctor and myself. Lee died about noon. Read prayers for the sick when we found he was going.
October 24th, Monday. — One hundred and thirty-fourth day. A hard night.
The next two days contain only the date and the number of days. Then:
October 27th, Thursday. — One hundre—and thirty-seventh day. Iversen broken down. October 28th,
Friday. — One hundre—and thirty-eighth day. Iversen died during early evening. October 29th,
Saturday. — One hundre—and thirty-ninth day. Dressler died during night. October 30th,
Sunday. — One hundre—and fortieth day. Boyd and Gortz died during night. Mr. Collins dying.
The bodies of De Long and nine others were recovered the following spring.
Excerpted from Cold, by Bill Streever. Copywright 2009 by Bill Streever. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown and Company.