Winner : Terrain.org 5th Annual Nonfiction Contest
Selected by Julian Hoffman
What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide.
— Franz Kafka, Letter to Oscar Pollak, 1904
This library contains every book that has ever been printed, whether it is likely to find a reader or not. As I browse SOLO, the online catalogue, I find myself admiring the dense records: each one is a book in miniscule, composed by an anonymous author. I order The White Planet from the stacks. Today I want to read about ice, to make sense of the Earth’s changing climate and how humans describe that change.
I sit at a wooden bay in the Upper Reading Room. Beyond the leaded glass windows the afternoon sky is indistinct. The forecast was bad this morning: rain is on the way. The clouds hanging over the spires of All Souls’ are such a static shade of white that the Gothic college building looks like a cardboard cut-out stuck on a sheet of paper. The weather vane, a cast-iron arrow decorated with the initials of the compass points, doesn’t move.
My view is interrupted by decorative rosettes set within the window panes. They show human figures in sacred and secular pursuits: praying, tending animals, drawing water. Sundials used to be made this way, glass roundels hung against a window, painted with lines through which the light fell. You looked out of the window to tell the time.
The old glass distorts the view, as though it is raining already, as though the glass is running with water. Some students zip up their laptop cases and leave for lunch.
On the book jacket is a photograph of a stark icescape. The credit on the back flap tells me it is Fox Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island. The frozen sea looks violent, and somehow invites violence. I think of Kafka, who said that a book must unleash something painful, a terrible knowledge, it must “shake us awake.”
The book has been translated almost seamlessly from the original language. There are only a few places where the word choice makes me furrow my brow. I need to read quickly—I got to the library late this morning after a hairdressers’ appointment. I book in for a trim every six weeks or so, as soon as my short cut begins to grow out. I dislike this dull ritual: the hairdresser’s scissors orbiting my skull, snipping away the excess. More and more grey hairs are coming through these days. I shake my head, feeling how light it is. Tiny clippings fall onto the page as I read, and lie in the gutter of the book until I blow them away.
Rain has started to fall. The book mentions ice cores, and I want to know what they look like. Online I find a short documentary film that I watch with the sound off so as not to disturb the remaining researchers. I read the subtitles.
Dr. Nerelie Abram is talking about her work with the British Antarctic Survey, analysing ice cores in order to understand past climates and predict those of the future. She has about two minutes to explain the complex science behind her research to a lay viewer.
The opening shot shows Dr. Abram holding a circle of ice cut from a core. For a moment she is completely still; she looks like a painted saint in an icon, or a Roman emperor with an orbis terrarium, the symbol of one who holds the earth—and all earthly power—in their hands. That is, until she blinks. She’s wearing a bright red waterproof; it’s the same colour as the expedition tents huddled on the Antarctic icecap, which are already covered with a thin layer of snow. The colour of her jacket bleeds through the thin cross-section of ice, which is laced with tiny air bubbles. Disposed to find patterns, my eyes join up the bubbles. Now the ice appears to contain a hedgerow flower—cow parsley, perhaps, or Queen Anne’s lace. Dr. Abram holds the disc as expectantly as a child might hold a snow globe, but no amount of shaking will disrupt this snow scene.
When I was a child I longed to possess a paperweight I’d seen, a dome of glass in which a dandelion clock was trapped. I used to pick those clocks and blow away the seeds with their fine hairs. I never really believed that the number of blows was a way to tell the time. Weren’t they more likely to indicate the strength of my puff, like the tube the doctor made me blow into to test my lung capacity? Maybe the dandelion clocks would tell me the time I had left? But this dandelion was perfect, and preserved under glass forever. It would not grow, or wither, or let its seeds fall. It would place me outside of time.
Dandelions, cow parsley, Queen Anne’s lace: such plants are unknown in the Antarctic where this ice was found. The camera zooms in. Without the woman’s fingers in the frame to set the scale, the disc could be as small as a communion wafer or large as a planet.
An aerial view of the Antarctic appears on the screen. That famous irregular circle. Its neat circumference is interrupted by a scrawny peninsular jutting out into the eastern ocean, looking for all the world as if it had been sketched in by Dr. Seuss. The continent’s circular appearance is down to the ice shelves that form three-quarters of the coastline, covering the many bays and inlets. Some of these shelves have begun to disintegrate; from the air you can see places where the ocean’s dark eclipse curves in towards the icecap.
Antarctic ice shelves disperse in many ways. Bergs calve from the ice front, ice melts into the ocean beneath the shelf, and drifting winds erode the surface. But the snow that falls on the central icecap does not melt away. Each winter’s snowflakes are buried beneath further snowfalls. Over the millennia, these layers compress and form firn, a grainy substance that contains pockets of atmospheric gases and even solid matter: infinitesimal specks of dust, ash, and radioactive particles. Deep in the ice, the firn is pressed thinner. But in the tiny spaces between the snowflakes, evidence remains of the environmental conditions at the moment they fell.
On international research stations across the Antarctic icecap—Byrd Station, Dome F, Lake Vida, Vostok—scientists have begun to send drills down thousands of metres to extract cylinders of this ancient ice. Dr. Abram reads a tracking device; she judges the click-click of depth readings and makes pencil notes. Her hands are gloved (red again) to protect them from the sub-zero temperatures. The great silver drill is winched lower. A core of ice is extracted and placed in a trough where it will be marked at intervals, and then cut along the marks with a rotary saw. Once this section has been sliced and stored in cold chambers dug out from beneath the ice, another one will be drilled.
And another, and another. The 1.5-metre cylinders continue to come to the surface, until at last the drill touches the base of the ice sheet—or it breaks. There is no way to retrieve delinquent drill parts, stuck deep in the icecap. The work is grueling, and may take several polar summers. The South Pole: the term evokes a long cylinder embedded at the end of the Earth, as if scientists could extract the essence of the Pole itself. Once explorers rammed their flagpoles into the ice as proof of conquest, but now science leaves behind only a cylindrical absence, tempered by a chemical trace.
These giant icicles are witnesses to global climate. Within them is evidence of past temperature, gas composition of the lower atmosphere, solar variability, ocean volume, volcanic eruptions, rainfall, desert extent, and forest fires. Under the magnifying glass the cross-sections of the core glow like magic lantern slides. Summer and winter snow look different: the course-grained summer hoar is covered with a fine-grained layer, densely packed by the winter winds. This pairing, known by scientists as the depth hoar/wind slab couplet, forms an annual marker that—like the growth rings of trees—can be counted to date the core. The longest core extracted to date, at Vostok, reached back 420,000 years and revealed four previous glacial cycles.
Human beings, lodged on Earth’s thin crust, must drill deep or soar high to understand their environment. Knowledge comes from far underground, from distant outer space. The Antarctic ice reaches back to an era before the Cold War, before the 20th century competition between nations to reach the Poles, and the era of exploration that preceded it. By mining a single spot beneath the ice, scientists travel in time beyond human memory, before any books were written. The polar ice is the first archive, a compressed narrative of all time in a language humans have only begun learning. Only a few are fluent: we rely on scientists to read the alphabet of elements and isotopes for us. I imagine Dr. Abram recording her research, compiling graphs, the lines of which ascend and descend like ice formations. Drip, drip. The slow accumulation of data, the meticulous accretion of science.
“For the Lord spake unto Job: Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Out of whose womb came the ice?”
Surely no contemporary scientist would quote the Bible in their work? I have turned to an early study of snowflakes. Its author, Johannes Kepler, describes himself as a man “who has nothing and receives nothing.” The 17th century mathematician and astronomer also worked in the field of optics, inventing—among other things—an improved version of the refracting telescope, which bears his name.
Kepler did not only investigate the distant reaches of the solar system. He also examined minute forms close at hand, using his understanding of the stars to look at snow, which “falls from the heavens and looks like the stars.” His treatise on the spaces between snowflakes suggested a new theory of the tessellation of spheres. It was to become the oldest problem in discrete geometry. Finally, over 400 years after the publication of Kepler’s work, as I am writing this essay, Thomas Hales’ Flyspeck project presents formal proof of Kepler’s conjecture.
Kepler’s treatise had its origins in a winter walk. “For as I write again it has begun to snow, and more thickly than a moment ago. I have been busy examining the little flakes. The water vapour thickened through the cold to snow, and single small snowflakes fell on my coat, all were six-cornered with feathered spokes….” I can’t read any further, as the next page is uncut. Then I notice that every other page in the book is uncut—in other words I’m the first person to read this copy. There are library guidelines for situations like this. I go to the librarian’s desk and explain, and he gives me a silver paper knife. I’m astonished that I am allowed agency in this act—when I first joined the library, I had to sign a form to say I would never “kindle a flame” in the building—but I take the knife back to my desk. I feel like a thief as I slip the knife into the fold and slice along the top edge of the page with two swift strokes. In doing so, I reveal a spread of information that previously I could only squint at. It is a privilege to be the first person to have access to these pages—but I don’t start reading them yet. I slit the next signature, and the next, all the way through the book. The paper sighs: I can almost feel the text escaping.
Now there’s a light fluff at the top of each page where my knife has passed. Kepler’s text—secretive, coded, rambling—considers not only snowflakes but also the hexagonal cells of a honeycomb, the shape of pomegranate seeds, the arrangement of peas in a pod, three- and six-petalled flowers, the regular Platonic solids, the semi-regular Archimedean solids, the tiling of planes and the filling of spaces. Kepler contemplates the best way to stack cannonballs to occupy the smallest area.
Cannonballs for snowflakes: an unexpected metaphor. One of Kepler’s conundrums is how to anchor something so ephemeral as a snowflake in language in order to explain his study of it. In the end, snow comes to symbolise the very insecurity of his life. He hopes to be able to bring the snowflake that has fallen on his jacket to his patron, but the moment he notices it, it melts away. Ironically it is his own existence—the warmth of his body—that destroys it. “Now quickly bring the present to my benefactor, as long as it exists and hasn’t through body warmth disappeared into nothingness.” But it has disappeared into nothingness. The written word must suffice.
At a climate conference a few weeks ago an amiable, bearded scientist told me that he’d held a piece of the Vostok ice core in the palm of his hand. “The thing is, it fizzed,” he said. “It was melting with the warmth of my palm, and the air was under such pressure that it exploded out of its ice pockets. It fizzed,” he repeated, “then it melted, and I wiped it on my shirt.” He passes his hand across the checked cotton covering his chest, an expression of mild bewilderment on his face as he relives his Keplerian encounter with a 20,000-year-old piece of ice.
I download a paper on the Vostok core from a science journal, hoping it will help me understand the work of cryologists. It joins other PDFs, chapters from Ph.D. theses and UNESCO conservation reports, cascading across my screen, long slivers of text on a radiant white background.
I open the file with a single click and scroll through it, past lists of multiple authors and dense footnotes. Science has so many authors! The register is precise. This study describes eras of time that defy conventional numbering and must be represented by numerals crouching above the line like little deities. One language cannot convey the ice’s properties: symbols—Greek letters, geometric shapes—stand in for words. Charts saw-tooth across the page, recording variations over time, a silent sonograph between the regular, linear text.
Something causes me to look up from my computer. Outside, snow has begun to fall. Thick flakes swirl past the window and stick for a moment against the glass. After a minute my screen, through inactivity, grows dim. Time telescopes. I’m summoned back from Ice Age to the Anthropocene, from struggling to comprehend millennia to counting the seconds between the fall of one snowflake and the next.
Somewhere in Antarctica, the snow that never melts is falling, preserving isotopic evidence of our actions. Years from now, a scientist not yet born may read this story in the ice. I begin to write down the words that I will quote at the opening of my essay. They precede Kafka’s now more famous statement, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I write that down too, and then I delete it. The fate of the reader, even one who reads backwards, is never to know what is on the next line.
Title: The white planet: the evolution and future of our frozen world
Further information: Jean Jouzel, Claude Lorius, and Dominique Raynaud; translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan.
Author: Jouzel, Jean, 1947-Lorius, Claude ; Raynaud, Dominique ; Fagan, Teresa Lavender
Publisher Details: Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press
Publication Date: [2013?]
Format: xv, 306 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.
Uniform Title: Planète blanche. English
Identifier: ISBN: 9780691144993 (cloth); ISBN: 0691144990 (cloth)
Subjects: Glaciers; Glaciology; Climatic changes; Paleoclimatology; Greenhouse effect, Atmospheric
Aleph System Number: 019512169
Miscellaneous Notes: General Note: ‘First published in France under the title Planète blanche, les glaces, le climat et l’environnement, Odile Jacob, 2008.’
Call Number: GB2403.2 JOU 2013
Natural History Museum, Ice Cores. Accessed 14 August 2014 <http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/environmental-change/measuring-climate-change/ice-cores/>
De nive sexangula (On the Six-Cornered Snowflake) (1611) in The Six-Cornered Snowflake, by Johannes Kepler; edited and translated by Colin Hardie, with essays by L.L. Whyte and B.F.J. Mason. Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1966
Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica, J.R. Petit, J. Jouzel, D. Raynaud, N.I. Barkov, J.-M. Barnola, I. Basile, M. Bender, J. Chappellaz, M. Davis, G. Delaygue, M. Delmotte, V.M. Kotlyakov, M. Legrand, V.Y. Lipenkov, C. Lorius, L. PÉpin, C. Ritz, E. Saltzman & M. Stievenard in Nature 399, 429-436 (3 June 1999), doi:10.1038/20859
Header photo of Antarctic ice layers by Armin Rose, courtesy Shutterstock.