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Land of Wondrous Cold: The Race to Discover Antarctica and Unlock the Secrets of Its Ice
Gillen D’Arcy Wood
Princeton University Press, $17.95 (paper)
Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night
Crown, $18 (paper)
Wind, Fire, and Ice: The Perils of a Coast Guard Icebreaker in Antarctica
Robert M. Bunes
Globe Pequot/Lyons Press, $31 (ebook)
In March 2022, one of the twentieth century’s most famous shipwrecks was found. An underwater drone traveling beneath the ice of Antarctica’s Weddell Sea trained its cameras on the wooden hull of HMS Endurance. Just over a hundred years ago, in 1915, the crew of Endurance—along with her famous captain, Ernest Shackleton—watched helplessly as their ship was crushed by ice and sank. Still upright, it fell two miles into total darkness, far below the world of snow and ice where its crew struggled through eighteen months of danger and hardship. Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven lived to become one of the twentieth century’s most astonishing survival stories.
The ship’s discovery made headlines around the globe. The hull is so well preserved that you can see the name ENDURANCE emblazoned on the stern, beneath a crowd of deep-sea anemones, blind yeti crabs, and sinuous, translucent glass sponges.
News from Antarctica is generally bad. Glaciers are collapsing, sea ice is shrinking, penguin colonies are disappearing. The Endurance discovery is different: the survival of Shackleton’s crew is credited largely to his clear-eyed leadership in the face of catastrophe, and the sunken ship’s location in one of the planet’s most remote places is a reminder of human striving, the spirit of adventure and resilience. All of these qualities may seem unrelated to sober scientific study and environmental stewardship. Yet adventure is why we know anything about Antarctica in the first place, and it remains partly responsible for our up-to-the-minute awareness of how rapidly Antarctica is changing. A newspaper ad popularly attributed to Shackleton illuminates the fascination, past and present: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
The ad’s final promise points toward the fact that for some expedition leaders, scientific discovery has been inextricable from the desire to win glory for themselves and their nation. Their arrogance may be a liability, but their tenacity has in some cases opened the world’s remotest places. In other instances, it has backfired terribly.
Three recent books delve into this entanglement of Antarctic science, adventure, and leadership. At the center of all three books are ships that became trapped in Weddell Sea ice—the same ice that trapped, crushed, and sank Endurance. Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s Land of Wondrous Cold describes Antarctic natural history through the discoveries of competing voyages in 1840, as well as recent scientific expeditions to those same places. In Wood’s account we meet the French Astrolabe, which became imprisoned in a small clearing of open water after its glory-starved captain chose to press south in dangerous conditions; it sailed laps for several days until the ice parted long enough for an escape. The crew of the Belgica were less fortunate. Julian Sancton’s Madhouse at the End of the Earth tells how the Belgica’s commander, desperate to redeem the honor of a failed expedition, sailed knowingly into Weddell Sea icepack in 1898. His men became the first humans to spend a winter below the Antarctic Circle, where several died and two others suffered acute mental breakdowns. Nor has the risk disappeared in the modern era. Robert Bunes’s Wind, Fire, and Ice gives a harrowing firsthand account of the 1970 cruise of the US Coast Guard icebreaker Glacier, on which Bunes (known to the crew as “Buns”) was ship’s doctor. Glacier, which Bunes repeatedly calls “the most powerful icebreaker in the free world,” became “beset” (trapped in ice) at precisely the same coordinates as Endurance—again with a headstrong commander at the helm.
Our planet is being reshaped by Antarctica’s melting ice. There are many scientific questions in the region that urgently need answers. While the expeditions described in these books opened paths for Antarctic science, they were not primarily driven by scientific interest. What motivates people to risk suffering, insanity, and death in the planet’s most hostile environment? And what are the gains—or dangers—of placing power in the hands of a leader whose visionary ambitions outrun prudence?
Antarctica began to take its current icy form roughly 35 million years ago, yet the continent has been known to humans for less than two centuries. The earliest surge of systematic Antarctic exploration culminated in 1840 with a race between British, French, and U.S. expeditions to discover what lay at the South Pole; the latter two identified the existence of the seventh continent within mere days of one another.
Wood’s Land of Wondrous Cold follows their travels. Explorers are not the heroes of Wood’s account, though. Instead, Antarctica itself takes center stage. “This book tells the story of the Big Break—of Antarctica’s original glaciation, and the planetwide revolution it triggered,” Wood explains. (By “original glaciation,” Wood means the start of our current glacial era, the most recent of several.) The book alternates between chapters on Victorian-era exploration and “interludes” on the region’s natural history as revealed through recent scientific discovery. For instance, a chapter on British explorer James Clark Ross’s expedition to Kerguelen Island in 1840 is followed by an interlude describing how a 1988 research voyage to the same island helped reveal the formation of the current Antarctic ice sheet around 35 million years ago.
Wood’s approach links exploration and scientific study, showing how researchers have followed in the footsteps—sometimes literally—of trailblazing Antarctic adventurers. Moreover, the vulnerability of those early explorers, with their wooden ships and primitive equipment, reminds Wood of our collective vulnerability today to planetary systems shifting under the pressure of climate change.
If there is one Antarctic region that has humbled intrepid explorers more than any other, it is likely the Weddell Sea. Early reports were deceiving. When in 1823 James Weddell sailed into the sea that bears his name, he had exceptionally good weather and open sailing, and managed the furthest southern penetration ever recorded. Fifteen years later, the King of France wanted his own captain Jules Dumont d’Urville to do better: the French navigator was to find the south magnetic pole, and failing that was to at least sail further than Weddell had. D’Urville failed at both. Instead, he encountered what so many would later find: the Weddell Sea choked with ice.
In Weddell Sea icepack, small, tantalizing “leads” or openings tend to appear, only to close around those foolish enough to follow these icy will-o’-the-wisps. But d’Urville was desperate. As Wood puts it, d’Urville needed to prove that he “had done all that was humanly possible to reach the pole.” Looking at the solid icefield, he “saw how far he must risk one hundred sixty lives just to save his name.” When a lead opened southwards, he sailed in. Within hours the Astrolabe was trapped. They spent five days encircled by “walls of ice” as “feelings of powerlessness began to overwhelm” captain and crew. A lucky turn of winds enabled the crew to all but drag the ship to freedom using anchors hooked into ice floes.
D’Urville feared returning to Paris, where he knew it would be a “scandal” that he had not died trying to complete his mission (fourteen of his crew had). As Wood puts it, “Unlike the more fortunate Ernest Shackleton of 1912, a glorious failure on the Weddell Sea ice was not an option for Dumont D’Urville.” Two years later he was back in Antarctica. This time he fared better: he confirmed the existence of an Antarctic continent within a few days of his U.S. rival, and named Adélie Land along the coast—and its feisty little penguins—after his wife. He even claimed to have discovered the magnetic south pole based on measurements. Its location remained theoretical, though, still an alluring unknown for explorers looking to make their name. For one of those explorers in particular, scientific discovery was even less of a priority than for Wood’s navigators. Yet, as the next book in our triad shows, his fear of disgrace also pushed the boundaries of what we know.
Sancton’s gripping Madhouse at the End of the Earth is set sixty years after d’Urville’s ignominious retreat, when Adrien de Gerlache of Belgium sailed into Weddell Sea icepack just as the French commander had done, and for almost identical reasons. There was one key difference: de Gerlache knew the ice would trap him. His crew became the first Antarctic “winter-overs.”
In 1895 the Sixth International Geographical Congress declared Antarctic exploration a top priority. This announcement sparked the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, starting with de Gerlache’s Belgica expedition in 1987. Two decades later, Belgica’s first mate, Roald Amundsen, would use the lessons learned from that voyage to beat Shackleton and Robert Scott in the race to become the first human to the South Pole.
Sancton’s page-turner is as much thriller as historical nonfiction. Belgica’s voyage was plagued by disasters from the outset. Funding was the first problem. Lack of interest from King Leopold II, who was focused on pillaging the Belgian Congo, led de Gerlache to appeal directly to the Belgian public for financial support. This grassroots campaign meant that de Gerlache became beholden to a “Belgian public thirsty for glory.” With a proud aristocratic family legacy to uphold, de Gerlache set sail “dreading dishonor more than death.”
In a time when a scientific mission was almost required for Antarctic exploration, de Gerlache took up d’Urville’s aim of locating the magnetic south pole. As with d’Urville, this aspiration was a “means to an end” for the honor-hungry commander: he needed a “first” of some kind. When de Gerlache found himself deep in Antarctica but far from his goal, he decided instead to become the first “winter-over” expedition. Lying to the crew about the ship’s location and course, he sailed south into the Weddell Sea icepack, where Belgica was quickly surrounded by ice. For over a year the ship drifted helplessly in sea ice, as the crew’s health and sanity unraveled.
Belgica’s story prefigures the ordeals of Shackleton’s Endurance in eerie ways. Like Shackleton’s crew, Belgica’s men were forced to live out the long Antarctic night on a wooden ship slowly being crushed by an endless expanse of barren ice. However, Shackleton was a psychologically astute and savvy leader, while de Gerlache could not manage the strain on his men. One sailor, Adam Tollefsen, became convinced that others planned to murder him; he took to lurking in corners and wandering onto the ice at night to kill penguins. The crew never knew where he was or what he might do.
Facing the prospect of a second winter, the Belgica’s crew spent two months sawing their way through the surrounding ice by hand (with limited help from the explosive Tonite). Several times their narrow canal was choked off by pressure from surrounding ice—until a chance opening prompted them to a final, backbreaking effort in March of 1899. They arrived home in November as heroes, greeted with adulation that several of them—including Tollefsen, quietly committed to a mental institution for the remainder of his life—were never able to enjoy. De Gerlache did indeed win glory—at a cost.
Getting trapped in ice might seem quaint now, a thing of wooden sailing ships and the days before GPS and satellite phones. But in 1970, the US Coast Guard icebreaker Glacier was trapped within a mile of where ice had seized Endurance. For the ship’s doctor Robert Bunes, the stories of Belgica and Endurance were cautionary tales.
Bunes’s Wind, Fire, and Ice gives a rollicking account of a Coast Guard ship during the turbulent, freewheeling days of the late 1960s. Bunes joined the Coast Guard in 1969 as an alternative to waiting to be sent to Vietnam. He walked onto Glacier carrying his guitar and a surfboard decorated with paisley flowers, his head full of tropical ports they’d visit on their way south. As in Wood’s and Sancton’s books, however, Glacier’s commanding officer (CO) underestimated Antarctica. Disaster after disaster brought the crew ever closer not to a surfer’s endless summer, but to Shackleton’s long Antarctic winter night.
As with the other two books, Bunes’s underlying narrative is about leadership. He suggests—diplomatically—that the CO on the 1970 Glacier cruise was more interested in advancing his career than supporting the cruise’s scientific objectives or the welfare of his crew. Science became a means to an end: the CO became particularly fixated on retrieving a set of oceanographic buoys deep in the Weddell Sea that he had failed to reach the year before.
Even the project’s chief scientist, Norwegian oceanographer Thor Kvinge, was willing to give up on the buoys in 1970. Kvinge shared a berth with a young graduate student, John B. Anderson, now professor emeritus of oceanography at Rice University. “Kvinge was very much looking forward to recovering the buoys,” Anderson told me recently from his home in Galveston. The buoys carried scientific instruments with a wealth of information about ocean currents and temperatures in the little-known region. “But like everybody else, there was a point where he just wanted to get the hell out of there.” Yet, as Bunes relates, the CO refused. Instead, he led the ship into pack ice—something d’Urville, de Gerlache, and Shackleton might have warned him not to do.
When a storm about a hundred miles away started to push ice toward them, they could still have escaped. “There were trained meteorologists onboard at the time,” Anderson recalls. “There had to be warning signs of a low-pressure system coming in that could trap us in the ice.” Years later, as chief scientist himself on Glacier, Anderson encountered similar situations. “We hit a lot of small icebergs. On the Glacier, hitting smaller bergs wasn’t always a big deal,” he remarks. “But I did learn to get the heck out of dodge when the barometers started dropping below a certain level.”
Glacier ended up beset by sea ice for eleven days. “It was a desperate situation,” Anderson recalls. “There were rumors of us going on half rations. The engineers were constantly saying that we were running out of fuel.”
If Glacier in 1970 looked a lot like Endurance Part Two, the CO should perhaps have taken a page from Shackleton’s book. Or books. Leadership was Shackleton’s ticket to immortality. Countless volumes with titles like Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer (1998) by leadership coach Margot Morrell and journalist Stephanie Capparell or Leadership Challenges from the Edge of Experience: Shackleton’s Leadership Principles to Serve, Lead and Excel (2019) by behavioral researchers Drs. Michael Cox and James Warn, teach everyone from politicians to CEOs how to imitate the strategies Shackleton used to sustain morale, deter conflict, and keep his men alive. These are strategies Bunes believes Glacier’s CO could have emulated, such as building teams during the crisis based on emotional rapport rather than technical capability. Where Glacier’s CO chose to skip the tropical liberty ports to save fuel on the way home—a major blow to the crew, who had been looking forward to their time in South America—Shackleton prioritized morale wherever possible. In the days after Endurance was abandoned, he allowed extra (but strictly equal) rations. Food would keep the men cheerful; rations could be tightened once the shock of Endurance’s loss wore off. He also privately rotated the menu, to surprise the men: although the “permutations of seal meat were decidedly limited,” he writes that the unexpected variations were psychologically “of great value.” One crew member’s diary describes their travel over the ice during this period: “It’s a hard, rough, jolly life, this marching and camping.”
Rather than mourn his thwarted ambition, Shackleton quickly adapted to the new goal of keeping the men alive. He believed that “a man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground.” Nor did he spare himself. In reading Shackleton’s account, it becomes evident that he took on the hardest, most dangerous tasks himself, including salvaging materials from the sinking ship and scouting new campsites on the floating ice. He finally saved his men’s lives by sailing 800 miles in a small boat from the crew’s campsite in search of help. At each step he put the welfare of his men first. In a paradox of leadership, Bunes implies that even a commander can aspire to this sort of humility: “At times, [Shackleton] expected everyone, including himself, to do things like scrubbing the deck.”
Kvinge’s troublesome oceanographic buoys were recovered a few years later with a new grappling device. Meanwhile, Glacier returned to port with several injured sailors and damage from an iceberg collision and a near-fatal fire. But Anderson cautions against looking on the 1970 cruise too harshly. “I did my dissertation on marine sediment cores we took from the Weddell Sea,” Anderson tells me. “And you know, that was still the exploratory period of Antarctic history. We navigated with sextants back then.” Researchers are still studying specimens collected on that voyage.
Like the Endurance wreck itself, some objects never stop telling their stories.
All three commanders learned a difficult lesson: don’t underestimate the ice. With a tensile strength greater than steel, Antarctic ice can make scrap metal of even modern-day icebreakers. Getting stuck in ice remains a common way Antarctic voyages go sideways. The Weddell Sea is uniquely icy, with tempting openings along the coast that close quickly when a storm turns the winds.
Yet explorers and researchers keep returning. Why? Wood, Sancton, and Bunes recognize tension among competing motivations: desire for scientific discovery and the drive for glorious achievement.
This tension between science and power operates on a collective social level as well. The 1840 U.S. Antarctic expedition Wood describes was based in Jacksonian expansionism and Manifest Destiny , a term coined five years later. Sancton meanwhile notes that King Leopold II saw the Belgica expedition as competing with his interests in the Congo. (In fact, Sancton reminds us that “Leopold II had at first framed his brutal exploitation of the Congo as a scientific mission.”) And when Glacier set sail, Antarctica was the second-chilliest theater of the Cold War—after the surface of the Moon. In the early 1970s, Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist responsible for the Apollo program, was intrigued by parallels between Antarctic exploration and lunar spaceflight. He saw the same factors in play: “First and foremost was national prestige,” von Braun argued, but with “an overtone of potential military applications.” During the age of Shackleton, von Braun observed, “polar explorations were closely related to Britain’s naval supremacy. So it was also with the race to the moon between ourselves and the Russians.” The United States won that race with the landing of Apollo 11 in July of 1969—a few months before Bunes stepped aboard Glacier. (Not incidentally, in 1970 only one ship could have rescued Glacier from ice: the USSR’s Lenin. For Glacier’s CO, that would have been a career-breaker.)
In such contexts, leaders may act on conflicting, even troubling or counterproductive motivations; at times their arrogance may backfire. At the same time, they blaze a path for science to follow. Indeed, the same drives to achievement and mastery have contributed to the planetary changes we face today: mass extinctions, a plague of plastics in our water, shifting temperature and weather patterns. Can these qualities also get us out of the mess we’ve made?
John Anderson, reflecting on leadership in the sciences, counsels against underestimating the importance of teamwork. “I have always stressed that as scientists we adhere to the philosophy that no single individual is better suited to solve a complex problem than a team of experts,” he remarks. “The CDC and the National Academy of Sciences are examples. One of the missions of the National Academy is to be a go-to agency when there are big problems to be solved. If the Pentagon wants to know how sea level rise will impact Naval air stations, they can request assistance from the Academy, who can then convene experts in the field to address the problem.” Such panels avoid “shoot from the hip solutions” that all too often are later “discovered to be bad ideas.” Science, after all, is about finding consensus.
Even in cases where a single leader may seem necessary, these three books offer a cautionary tale. The deeper lesson of Shackleton’s story emerges from his repeated failures to achieve any record-breaking “firsts.” Unlike so many of the explorers described in these books, Shackleton chose to preserve the lives of his men rather than chase glory. He accepted dishonor and even humiliation from his disappointed financial backers and the public. A century later, though, pictures of the sunken Endurance have reverberated around the world.
The Antarctic geologist Sir Raymond Priestly once commented on the different ways one can push the boundaries of human capacity. “For scientific discovery give me Scott,” he wrote. “For speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”
Marissa Grunes is a Boston-based literary scholar and science writer who has published on the arts and the environment in Atlas Obscura, Nautilus, The Conversation, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in English Literature from Harvard University.
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