by Bill Streever
Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2009
Borrowed from my local library.
Bill Steever, an Alaskan biologist, takes his readers through the cycle of a year visiting different places affected by cold. Not just the temperature, but the geology, the impact on human habitation and plant and animal adaptations. He includes the history of the science of cold, the search for absolute zero and human exploration into regions were temperatures fall to 60 below.
This is the kind of natural history-science book I love, the kind I can open up at any page and find something really intriguing. He includes writings by authors who have studied the cold, animals that live in cold habitats or lived through expeditions into frigid climates including Apsley Cherry-Garrard, John Muir, Farley Mowat, and Bernd Heinrich.
There are sections on the discovery of the ice ages.
A year later, in 1837, Agassiz presided over a meeting of the Natural History Society of Switzerland. In his introductory speech, when he was expected to talk about fossil fish, he sprang the idea of an ice age. Although Charpentier knew that the alpine glaciers had once covered more of the Alps then they currently did, Agassiz went further. He described a sheet of ice that went from the North Pole to the Mediterranean. He knew that some would view this as hairbrained. “I am afraid,” he said, “that this approach will not be accepted by a great number of our geologists, who have well established opinions on this subject, and the fate of this question will be that of all those who contradict traditional ideas. From page 62.
There are many references to animal adaptation, evolution and migration. Why do some animals thrive in the cold and others migrate? And its not just animals, all life forms have found their place on this planet and as the climate changes all living things adapt or die.
There is more to be learned. There are , for example, physiological adaptations. Not unexpectedly, birds put on fat, but in some cases nonessential organs shrink. Just before migration, the bartailed godwit becomes fifty-five percent fat, but its kidneys, liver and intestines shrink. Then it flies nonstop at something like 45 miles per hour for days on end. The speed and exact route of many birds are not known. Migrating sea ducks tracked by radar in the Arctic fly at more than 50 miles per hour. A dunlin– a long-beaked shorebird–was once clocked at 110 miles per hour, passing a small plane. From page 88.
Ranges of species go where species work best, destined by the character of their enzymes, destined by how well their enzymes work at different temperatures. But also: Who will graze on my leaves? Who will eat me? Whom will I eat? Is there space for my nest? Is the soil right for my burrows or my roots? Who will drive me away? Puffins became scarce around Great Britain after 190 not because of air temperature, but because the fish they ate followed a shift in water temperature. The birds followed the fish. When water temperature shifted again around 1950, the fish returned, and with them the puffins. The lives within biomes are interwoven, and if one species can go no further because of the temperature, it may affect another species, and another, and another, until it appears as though there is some definite boundary and that everything responds in concert. But zoom in on the map, look a little closer, and the boundaries blur. Brown bears live in tundra and taiga and temperate deciduous forest. Caribou migrate across biome boundaries. The red fox, the tiger, the wolf, the wolverine and the raven all cross biome boundaries as if they did not exist, as if they have never read an ecology textbook, or studied a biome map. From page 99
Streever talks about climate change in a balanced way, describing planetary changes and changes exacerbated by human technologies. He is enthralled by the cold, and saddened by the prospect of loosing areas of colder climates. This well-written little book is full of interesting facts about humans and animals that live in cold places. I plan on adding a copy to my shelf of natural history books.
Often whales and seals and otters are the hottest things around. A Wendell seal, a thousand pound of fur and blubber and heart and lung and rete mirabile, might lie on the Antarctic ice, open the shunts that let warm blood flow through its blubber, and create above a cloud of steam. After a time, bored or hungry or spooked by a nosy human, it might flop from the ice into the water. It might leave behind the marine mammal equivalent of a snow angel, an outline of itself melted into the ice, a negative image of belly and fins and head in three dimensions. The Wendell seal thumbs its nose at the cold, leaving in the ice an image that is often called a seal shadow. From page 129.