Friday, September 04, 2009

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

How cold can it get? When is cold dangerous? How do plants and animals survive extreme conditions? What do glaciers and rock formations tell us about our past and future? Biologist Bill Streever of the North Slope Science Initiative spends much of his time with these and other cold climate questions in his new book Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places.

In Cold, Streever reports a year's worth of his observations, mostly made from Alaska. He starts his weather diary in July in Prudhoe Bay at the height of Arctic summer, seeing how long he can stand in thirty-five degree water in just his swimsuit before hypothermia forces him back onto shore. While he chills, he remembers many ill-fated Arctic expeditions and deadly winter storms that struck the lower forty-eight states, telling how people and animals fared when the cold set in. He comes back to why people live and die throughout the book, and in the process, he describes the places he visits, many very cold but starkly beautiful.

I was surprised to learn that Alaskans pour ice roads in the winter, using water drained from ice-covered lakes. As long as it is very cold, the roads survive truck traffic, but they disintegrate quickly come spring.

In the chapter "March," Streever tells us "Cotton kills" because it hold in seven times more water than wool. Other fabrics, mostly synthetics, are even better at capturing pockets of air and repelling moisture to keep people warm in extreme conditions. He also describes hypothermia warning signs as the "umbles." You are trouble when you mumble, fumble, grumble, stumble, and tumble.

Cold is an entertaining mixture of microhistory of weather, natural history of Arctic places, and survival guide with lighthearted doses of memoir thrown in. It s a quick read that many popular science fans will enjoy.

Streever, Bill. Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places. Little, Brown & Company, 2009. ISBN 9780316042918

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