Book Review: “Into the Arctic Ice” Documents a Disappearing World

Book Review: “Into the Arctic Ice” Documents a Disappearing World

Where’s Santa going to live?

I know, I know…but here’s the thing. I can deal with the truth regarding where presents come from, but it’s hard to grapple with the reality that within the next couple of years, there will no longer be any permanent ice over the Arctic Ocean. Hermey’s going to need a pontoon for his dental practice.

The precarious state of the arctic ice was precisely the subject of the MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate) Expedition, which sent the Polarstern north from Norway to be trapped, deliberately, in the drifting ice. As the subtitle of photographer Esther Horvath’s new book Into the Arctic Ice states, it’s The Largest Polar Expedition of All Time.

Operating in conditions so brutally cold and windy that at times “tears were running down my cheeks,” she recounts in an interview published in the book, Horvath documented the expedition’s first personnel shift, which ran from September through December of 2019. As winter fell, the Polarstern was plunged into permanent darkness, creating a floodlit snowscape that Sebastian Grote and Katharina Weiss-Tuider — who wrote the book’s text — repeatedly describe as alien, almost lunar.

With guards diligently standing watch against polar bears (first recourse being flares, deadly force only being permitted if a human life was at risk), teams of scientists established a tiny town of research stations on the ice. Now far less thick than it was when explorers first penetrated into those latitudes in the late 19th century, the ice is constantly cracking and stacking, with channels of open water appearing through fissures even in the dead of arctic winter.

Into the Arctic Ice portrays climate science so sophisticated and urgent that an American’s heart sinks with every page, knowing that our elected leader is selling our planet’s future to fossil fuel merchants. As these scientists know, the situation is already dire; what they’re now working to discern is how much worse it will get, where, and how quickly.

That adds poignance to Horvath’s photos, which will indeed remind science fiction fans of The Thing or Alien. In addition to capturing the crew at work on the ice, she also finds them at rest beyond the straining cranes and bristling instruments of the Polarstern: knitting, doing yoga (on the ice, in daylight), smoking pipes, donning Halloween costumes (an improvised C-3P0 in gold Mylar), tuning instruments for Christmas carols. Even in their quarters, Horvath often isolates her subjects in spotlights, echoing their appearance on the ice.

When the shift members head home, celebrating the holidays in a Russian retrieval vessel, write Grote and Weiss-Tuider, “many of them feel a mixture of longing and melancholy.” It’s easy to understand why.

Jay Gabler