Poles Apart

Jan 21 2013, 11:57 IST
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Victims of global warming: penguins in Antarctica and polar bears in the Arctic. Victims of global warming: penguins in Antarctica and polar bears in the Arctic.
SummaryWhile the Antarctic provides a vision of a better world, the Arctic is where our past and our present are catching up with us.

horizon, and I saw the curvature of the earth, as if I were in space, and the sun a white stain on the blue, then, at that moment each day, I thanked God out loud for bringing me to the most heartbreakingly beautiful place on earth, and I forgot about the igloo. And how cold was it those months? When we threw a mug of boiling water in the air outside, it froze before it landed.

Or, as she wrote in another essay: The mean annual temperature is minus 49 degrees C. Nothing works in that kind of cold. Metal snaps. I have seen scientists in tears when the humidity barometer flutters between zero and one and all their instruments die. Yet many people at the Pole work outside, bulldozing ice to make water or maintaining equipment. All of that for the sake of science, with the visitors forced to live by their wits and improvisation there is a story, for instance, of a doctor who removed his own appendix. The cold, isolation and darkness (in the winter months) can be devastating for ones spirit, with well over half winter residents reporting severe depression and complications arising out of hostility and anger: During one Antarctic winter, a Russian at Vostok station killed a colleague with an ice axe during a row about a game of chess. To ensure it doesnt happen again, the authorities banned chess.

The other Pole is quite different, and for Wheeler that difference revealed itself too in her motivations for venturing northwards more than a decade later. As she wrote in The Magnetic North, where Antarcticas geographical unity and unownedness attracted her younger self, she was prejudiced against the complicated, life-infested north. But as she travelled around the Arctic, fragmentation, disputed ownership, indigenous populations immobilised on the threshold of change appealed to her older self: It was an elegy for the uncertainties and doubts that are the chaperones of age. And its experience involves us all it is where our planets fragile equilibrium is most dramatically being put under strain. Climate change is manifesting itself in these northern reaches, with melting ice threatening to rapidly raise sea levels earth-wide and the toxins we release into the environment being carried northwards and contaminating marine life. (In the northern hemisphere, the people who live furthest from pollutants are the ones most affected by them. A

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