Monday, August 04, 2014

Going to Extremes

Having long been intrigued by historical arctic adventure tales, I listened enthusiastically this last Saturday as National Public Radio host Scott Simon interviewed Hampton Sides, author of the new non-fiction work In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette (Doubleday). Sides, who was previously best known for his epic tale of the Old West, Blood and Thunder (2007), spent three years researching and writing In the Kingdom of Ice, which tells of a hopeful but doomed, 1879 expedition to the North Pole, financed by loopy newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett and led by Jeannette Captain George Washington De Long.

Earlier today, the Amazon blog Omnivoracious hosted another interview with Sides. Two parts of that exchange between Chris Schluep and the author convinced me this book must soon be added to my library.
CS: Describe your research. Was there a key piece that made you think "now I know how to frame this book"?

HS: In the early going of my research, I lucked into one of those priceless situations that I think all of us historians dream about: An invitation from a little old lady to come sift through a trunk full of yellowed letters that she had literally rescued from her attic. In this case, the trunk contained the personal papers of Emma De Long, the wife of the
Jeannette expedition’s captain, George De Long. Once I read the stuff, I knew that I’d found a powerful new way to frame the book: It was not just an adventure tale, but a love story as well. Emma De Long’s letters to her husband, and his letters to her, are elegant, eloquent, and moving, and as the drama unfolds, they become truly heart-wrenching. Really, that trunk full of papers formed the emotional spine of the book. …

CS: Did your work on the book lead you to draw any conclusions about climate change?

HS: Yes. One of the big problems that climate change researchers have grappled with is finding a way to know what the polar ice cap truly looked like a century ago in order to compare it with today’s Arctic ice conditions. To understand that, you’d have to go back in history, build a research station, and dangerously trap it in the drifting icepack for years.

As it happens, the
Jeannette kept meticulous records of the ice as it drifted two years, and a thousand miles, across the frozen sea. After the ship sank, De Long’s men lugged dozens of heavy meteorological logbooks containing troves of information about the icecap and Arctic weather -- the hard-won product of their daily labors for two years. When they reached Siberia’s shores four months later, De Long buried those logbooks in the sand, and miraculously, they were later found by Navy rescuers, eventually ending up in the National Archives in Washington, where they’ve gathered dust for 135 years. Over the past year, however, NOAA scientists have digitized those logbooks, and have been analyzing De Long’s data. The story they tell is a sobering one: The polar ice cap, at least in that 1,000-mile swath of the High Arctic, has shrunk, weakened, and thinned far more dramatically than anyone realized.
You can enjoy reading Omnivoracious’ entire interview here.



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