The Greatest Polar Expedition – Review
The Greatest Polar Expedition of All Time: The Arctic Mission to the Epicenter of Climate Change, by Markus Rex, translated by Sarah Pybus, June 2022. Greystone Books, ISBN 978-1-77164-948-3, 296 pages. RRP £20 (approx, hardback)
In 1893 the great Norwegian polar explorer and scientist, Dr Fridtjof Nansen, set off on a voyage in the Fram to travel as far north as possible using the Transpolar Ice Drift (Farthest North, 1897). Almost 125 years later, the German icebreaker Polarstern set out on the same route, its purpose being to examine the unique ecosystem of this region and to provide scientific data for climate modelling, in view of the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. The MOSAIC expedition, initiated by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, involved hundreds of scientists from around 80 institutions and 37 countries, whose mission was to live and work in the Arctic for a whole year, a fear never before achieved, given the inhospitable conditions and isolation of the region.
The book is in the format of a diary kept by Markus Rex, atmospheric scientist and expedition leader. It details the voyage of the Polarstern and the difficulties presented by thinning sea ice (as a result of climate change) in finding and establishing a base on a stable ice floe. Eventually one is found and the team set to work in setting up scientific laboratories which are referred to as “cities”. There are descriptions of dramatic shifts in the ice, polar bear intrusions, details of the scientific work undertaken and the unique beauty of the landscape itself. Lighter moments are provided when describing the close camaraderie of the team and their devised entertainments and celebrations, showing they had fun as well as working hard. The expedition began in 2019, but was almost derailed by the pandemic in 2020 when personnel had to change over, putting in jeopardy the whole enterprise. However, this was overcome by diplomacy and co-operation. Co-operation is at the heart of this story, with Russian icebreakers acting as the major supply ships and transfer vessels.
Having read Nansen’s Farthest North, I was very much looking forward to this up-to-date version of the same voyage and I was not disappointed. It is written with humility, humour and great insight and knowledge, and its warning is stark. Since Nansen’s days, the ice is half the thickness it was and temperatures have risen by up to ten degrees. The melting of the sea ice will impact not only all life forms and the people of the Arctic, but the whole planet. The scientific data presented in this book is a wake-up call that needs to be heeded by the international community and acted upon before it is too late.
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