ABOUT 35-million years ago, South America sheered off from the "super-continent" that became Antarctica, leaving the land mass at the mercy of swirling seas that isolated it from the warmth of the north and let it fall into deep freeze. The world’s coldest, most inaccessible continent, Antarctica has fired human imagination since, arguably, the young Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, was among a ship’s crew that was the first to winter in Antarctica, their ship having become trapped in the ice offshore in 1898. Amundsen, of course, returned to Antarctica in 1911, and that December led the first successful expedition to the South Pole. Now, Antarctica is mostly a huge and very cold science laboratory. For most people, it’s a mysterious place, and Gabrielle Walker’s book is almost a biography of the cold continent. She has woven a compelling story, detailed and candid. From "water bears" (known to science as "tardigrades") — organisms that grow to a millimetre long and described as "the toughest creatures on earth" despite being, incongruously, "stubby and cute with four pairs of fat little legs, a vole-like snout and the complexion of a Gummy Bear" — via the more obvious penguins, skuas and sea lions to Martian and lunar meteorites and the mathematical manipulations of astrophysicists, this is unadulterated scientific fun. What makes the book special, though, is that Walker has also clearly depicted the scientists and their support staff, probing for what lies beneath their having come to Antarctica. Despite the very real romance the continent holds, many of the scientists who work there are irritated when people romanticise this unyielding swathe of ice and rock, especially by those who have not been there. "Yes, yes, it’s an extreme place and all that, but we’re doing science, and that’s all that matters," they argue. Criss-crossing Antarctica, Walker appears to have spent a very long time building portraits of the personalities behind the science and the support work. She digs gently, but relentlessly, for the answer to why these people brave the loneliness and isolation of Antarctica, and especially the bone-snapping iciness of the winter, when darkness lasts for half the year. The winter drives everyone a tad nutty, it seems, and one of the most fascinating of the book’s sections looks at what motivates "wintering" in Antarctica — apart, of course, from the science, some of which cannot be done in the summer. "You can’t fight Antarctica, you can only hope it doesn’t kill you," one veteran tells her. Antarctica has not always been icy. It was once a steamy place of lush, dinosaur-dotted forests, and to this it may return. Walker says she finds comfort in this; it’s proof the continent is bigger, older and tougher than the human race. "The sun is naturally warming as it ages, and some distant day, perhaps millions of years in the future, the white continent will turn green again, no matter what we do," she writes. Antarctica, however, is also the canary in the coal mine of anthropogenic global warming. Some of the scientific work done on the continent shows a direct link between the proportion of carbon dioxide in the air and global warming (even without "help" from humans). In 1995, for the first time in 10000 years, a huge ice shelf (1500km²) shuddered into the sea, spawning icebergs. A second, much larger, shelf (3250km²) was lost in 2002. Scientists were awed. While there is more to this than a simple rise in carbon dioxide, whatever causes it — and you will have to read the book if you want to know the ins and outs — "it’s the greenhouse gases that provide the oomph … the ice core showed how temperature and greenhouse gases marched in exact lockstep". The clincher is that the rise in greenhouse gases, Antarctic science has proved, has "never in 400000 years begun to imagine the levels we have reached today". This is the fourth science book by Walker and I’m off to find the other three. Title: Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World’s Most Mysterious Continent, Author: Gabrielle Walker, Publisher: Bloomsbury. Source: BusinessDay

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