A look at the cold places on Earth, how we live there and how it sometimes kills us.
As counterintuitive as it might seem in this age of global warming, much of our melting planet is still downright chilly. As biologist Bill Streever points out in "Cold," his first attempt at a book-length piece of popular writing on icy regions, it is still the case that you don't have to travel too far without having to resort to longjohns and stocking caps.
"In the Northern Hemisphere, half the land is covered with snow, and a third of the ocean is frozen," Streever writes. "We are in the midst of a warm spell, we are worried about global warming, but the fact remains that even in summer, whole regions remain covered with snow and ice." Indeed, 80 percent of the world's freshwater is frozen.
Streever travels around his home turf of Anchorage, Alaska, and to other environs to experience our current Pleistocene Ice Age (yes, amazingly, we are living in an ice age) in all of its fluctuating temps, all the while telling of past expeditions that went horribly bad and off-the-charts cold snaps.
In January of 1888 temperatures plummeted across Middle America to deadly levels. Twenty-two thousand people perished -- too many of them boys and girls -- in what is called the Schoolchildren's Blizzard. One 17-year-old girl died standing up. Streever uses the recounting to explain in chilling detail how one dies from hypothermia. The last stage involves the delirious act of undressing, or what is called "paradoxical undressing."
These narrative interruptions are necessary for a scientist such as Streever, who one can sense has to harness his prose to make it palatable to the layperson. The reward for the more technical parts of this book is more than worth the slower pace they might engender.
The lessons of "Cold" contain the reason that so many of us are heat-seeking human missiles, fleeing to Arizona or Florida before the first snowflake falls. Yet, as Streever writes quite eloquently in an informative and essayist style that is just a notch below that of other cold-weather authors such as Barry Lopez ("Arctic Dreams") and Gretel Ehrlich ("This Cold Heaven"), winter has its charms. The only caveat is you have to go outside to sample its cold comfort.
Once outside, whether it is 20-below or 40-below (and there is a difference, Streever assures us), most of us simply zip up our parkas and just say, "Man, it's cold out!" And we would be right, without quite knowing why.
Stephen J. Lyons lives in Illinois. His book on last year's floods along the Mississippi River will be published in the fall of 2010.