Excerpt: 'COLD: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places' by Bill Streever

COLD: Adventures in the World?s Frozen Places

Drawing on his experience of living in Anchorage, Alaska, biologist Bill Streever takes the reader on a celebratory tour of the science, history, geography and ecology of cold temperatures.


The world warms, awash in greenhouse gases, but forty below remains forty below. Thirty degrees with sleet blowing sideways is still thirty degrees with sleet blowing sideways. Cold is a part of day-to-day life, but we often isolate ourselves from it, hiding in overheated houses and retreating to overheated climates, all without understanding what we so eagerly avoid.

We fail to see cold for what it is: the absence of heat, the slowing of molecular motion, a sensation, a perception, a driving force. Cold freezes the nostrils and assaults the lungs. Its presence shapes landscapes. It sculpts forests and herds animals along migration routes or forces them to dig in for the winter or evolve fur and heat-conserving networks of veins. It changes soils. It preserves food. It carries with it a history of polar exploration, but also a history of farming and fishing and the invention of the bicycle and the creation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. It preserves the faithful in vats of liquid nitrogen from which they hope one day to be resurrected.

Imagine July water temperatures of thirty-five degrees. Imagine Frederic Tudor of Boston shipping ice from Walden Pond to India on sailing ships in 1833. Imagine Apsley Cherry-Garrard on his search for penguin eggs at seventy below zero in 1911. Imagine a dahurian larch forest that looks like a stand of Christmas trees on Russia's Taymyr Peninsula at sixty below or a ground squirrel hibernating until its blood starts to freeze and then shivering itself back to life.

But none of this is imaginary. Our world warms, but cold remains. In the ordinary passing of a calendar year, the world of cold emerges. For someone with Raynaud's disease, a September stroll temporarily changes cold hands into useless claws. Caterpillars freeze solid in October and crawl away in April. Average temperatures in certain towns drop to twenty below zero in January.

It is time to enjoy an occasional shiver as we worry about a newly emerging climate likely to melt our ice caps, devour our glaciers, and force us into air-conditioned rooms. It is time to embrace and understand the natural and human history of cold. Even in a warming world, a world choked by carbon dioxide and methane, cold persists, biting my lungs and at the same time leaving me invigorated, alive and well on an Arctic spring afternoon with the sun hovering low over an ice-covered horizon and the thermometer at forty below.


It is July first and fifty-one degrees above zero. I stand poised on a gravel beach at the western edge of Prudhoe Bay, three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, and a mile of silt-laden water separates me from what is left of the ice. The Inupiat -- the Eskimos -- call it aunniq, rotten ice, sea ice broken into unconsolidated chunks of varying heights and widths, like a poorly made frozen jigsaw puzzle. A few days ago, the entire bay stood frozen. During winter, it is locked under six feet of ice. Trucks drive on it to resupply an offshore oil production facility. If one were insane, or if one were simply too cheap to fly, or if boredom instilled a spirit of adventure, one could walk north to the North Pole and then south to Norway or Finland or Russia. Temperatures would range below minus fifty degrees, not counting windchill.

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