Published: September 08. 2013 4:00AM PST
Antarctica: A Biography” By David Day (Oxford University Press, $34.95)
Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent” By Gabrielle Walker (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27)
In July, while the eastern United States sweltered and Antarctica chilled deep into round-the-clock winter darkness, news arrived from Lake Vostok, covered by ice 15 million years ago and now buried 12,000 feet below the polar surface. The lake yielded — via drilled ice cores — DNA from an estimated 3,507 organisms: mostly bacteria, but also fungi and single-celled creatures.
Instead of sterility came evidence of a complex ecosystem – the most recent surprise from a vast place that has astounded humans since we first clapped eyes upon it almost 200 years ago. Capt. James Cook made an early attempt in 1773. He was first to sail across the Antarctic Circle, seeking a southern continent that the ancient Greeks had insisted, out of a sense of symmetry, must exist.
“With the ships cloaked ethereally in ice, and the coats of the sailors stiffened by the intense cold,” Cook was keenly aware of the enclosing sea ice, and turned back north, writes historian David Day, in “Antarctica: A Biography.” A now- obscure naval officer, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, in the service of Russian Tsar Alexander I, first glimpsed Antarctica in 1820.
The boots of a sealer went ashore the following year, but the continent repelled permanent, continuous human residency until 1954. Even today, when “humans pass winters trapped on their bases,” they are “as isolated as if they were on a space station,” reports British science journalist Gabrielle Walker, in her book, “Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent.”
Walker calls the continent a “place of science, political football, holder of secrets about the Earth’s past, and ice crystal ball that will ultimately predict all of our futures.” Day, an Australian, turns out a book twice as long, with a narrower focus: Who asserts sovereignty when a continent is empty, he asks, with no land to farm or inhabitants to conquer? “There were just the penguins to play the part of indigenous people in the imagination of explorers,” he writes, noting the birds did just that in early journals.
See on www.bendbulletin.com