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Two Antarctic Tales

David Schoonmaker

ANTARCTICA: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent. Gabrielle Walker. xxiv + 388 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. $27.

SECRETS OF THE ICE: Antarctica’s Clues to Climate, the Universe, and the Limits of Life. Veronica Meduna. vi + 225 pp. Yale University Press/Auckland University Press, 2012. $40.

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If you, like me, have wished, hoped, tried and failed to find a way to visit Antarctica, Gabrielle Walker’s Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent may be the next best thing. Unlike the numerous tomes that provide a tourist’s eye view or a historical recounting, Walker tells in rich detail what it’s like to survive and do science on the only continent never inhabited by human beings. She spends time with dozens of investigators, revealing both their work and the inner workings of their minds. By dividing the book into geographic chapters, each opened with a map, Walker offers a diverse sampling of the seventh continent and the science done there. Although heavy on biology, disciplines span several of the earth sciences and even some astronomy and space exploration.

All that’s missing from Antarctica are pictures, which brings me to Veronika Meduna’s Secrets of the Ice: Antarctica’s Clues to Climate, the Universe, and the Limits of Life. Meduna’s volume offers a worthy piece of writing in its own right, but the color photographs (more than 150 of them) set it apart. She also brings a slightly different perspective as a guest of Antarctica New Zealand at Scott Base and at several remote stations.

Although the authors share many locales and experiences, they never cover exactly the same ground. Rather than being alternatives, these books are simply complementary. I couldn’t decide between the two, and I heartily recommend taking them together.

David Schoonmaker is editor of American Scientist.

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