From the bookshelf: Scientist creates primer on polar seas

Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2005


  Frozen Oceans: The Floating World of Pack Ice by David N. Thomas

Frozen Oceans: The Floating World of Pack Ice by David N. Thomas

Frozen Oceans: The Floating World of Pack Ice

By David N. Thomas

Firefly Books Ltd.

$45 (hardcover)

The 21st century is shaping up to be a busy one for polar-region science. Issues such as climate change, pollution and threats to marine resources are forcing people to ask more questions about these remote and harsh places.

"Frozen Oceans" is a good place to learn about the Arctic Ocean, the seas surrounding Antarctica or the cutting-edge scientific work under way in those areas. Written for general readers, the book provides a concise and comprehensive overview, a veritable single-volume course in pack-ice ecology for beginners.

Author David N. Thomas is a British scientist specializing in the chemical interactions of ice organisms with their environs. His work has taken him to both polar regions and to areas seldom written about in English, such as the Gulf of Finland and Russia's White Sea.

At its maximum extent, pack ice covers up to 13 percent of the Earth's surface, making it an area of habitat similar in size to deserts or tundra, he writes. Only within the past 100 years has science begun to decipher its mysteries. In "Frozen Oceans" he introduces the geography and physics of sea ice, describes the organisms that live in or adjacent to it and summarizes the history of polar science, including topics of contemporary concern and active research.

Thomas focuses on scientific questions and answers, but he takes time to convey the extraordinary nature of his subject.

"My first impression of the Antarctic pack ice was actually one of extreme beauty," he writes. " The pack ice is not a silent place, and when a ship slowly negotiates a passage between the ice floes there is a constant creaking and grinding of ice, almost a haunting groaning that emphasizes the alien nature of the frozen landscape."

He has a knack for explaining. Among other things, he makes clear the intriguing differences between the northern and southern seas. Opposites not merely on the globe, they present vivid examples of how diverse polar conditions can be.

Thomas explains how sea ice forms, its variations and unusual processes. One such is the concentration of brine that gradually renders multiyear pack ice into a source of fresh water while sending streams of super-cooled, extra-salty water into the sea below.

The pack ice is one of our planet's most extreme environments. The book explains the huge fluctuations in temperature, salinity and sunlight that stress its organisms, and the amazing adaptations life uses to thrive despite such obstacles. Researchers are even looking toward pack-ice microbes as models for life on other planets or during the Earth's primordial past.

The author talks about famous denizens such as polar bears and penguins, but he also devotes a lot of attention to lesser-known species. For example, he includes an entire chapter on microbes.

He reveals a realm of wonders, including fish that produce antifreeze, algae that produce sunscreen and individual sponges that grow up to six feet tall and might be as old as 10,000 years.

The book contains an extraordinary amount of detail and information, yet is written so that anyone with a decent grasp of high-school sciences can understand it. Although it contains numerous numbers and taxonomic names, it totally avoids mathematical formulas. When technical terms are used the text defines them, and it ends with a glossary and other informative notes.

The book's appearance deserves special commendation. Splendid photographs, maps and diagrams augment nearly every page. With heavy, glossy paper and a sewn binding, it looks unusually handsome and durable. Its price is high, but reflects this investment in quality.

Thomas certainly knows his stuff. Although his writing style is pedestrian, he conveys his material with clarity and economy.

American readers may pause at the British English, metric measures and Eurocentric geographic focus. But the mind soon grows accustomed to the former, and all the processes described for other parts of the world have relevance for waters off Alaska. It would have been nice, however, if Thomas had included material on areas such as the Bering Sea.

"Frozen Oceans" is an excellent primer for anyone interested in arctic science or a sophisticated understanding of northern environmental conditions. It could also inspire students to pursue careers in a scientific field that offers plenty of exotic adventures, unanswered questions and relevance for the future.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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