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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon




Islands of the Arctic

by Julian Dowdeswell and Michael Hambrey

Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 0 521 81333 6
Price: £25.00

If you are reading Polar Worlds then you probably already believe that the Arctic is one of the world's most beautiful regions. On the other hand if you are in any doubt about this, then Islands of the Arctic will convince you.

The authors have combined an authoritative text with more than two hundred magnificent colour photographs to create a vivid impression, both visual and descriptive, of the islands of the Arctic and their environment.

It would be hard to beat the academic credentials of the authors. Professor Dowdeswell is of course the Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge, and Professor Hambrey is Director of the Centre for Glaciology at the University of Wales. In their introduction Dowdeswell and Hambrey hope 'that this book will serve as a source of information about the landscape, and how it influences, and is influenced by, animals (including humans) and plants ... The book is not intended as a regional guide, but rather takes a thematic approach, focussing primarily on the natural processes that have shaped the Arctic.'

The mutual influencing to which they refer comes across very clearly in the text. You might have expected a rather heavy treatise from two renowned academics, but on the contrary the text is clear and enjoyable to read, and issues such as the inter-relationships between geology, animals, plants and their environment are described in a logical and illuminating way. The explanations in the text are augmented by relevant photographs and descriptive captions.

The themes of the chapters cover geography; evolution; climate; glaciers and ice sheets; icebergs and sea ice; frost action; coasts, rivers and lakes; as well as the animals and plants of the islands. A great deal about the past and present environment can be gleaned from examining glaciers, and here is a clear explanation of exactly how these phenomena have revealed their secrets to scientists. The penultimate chapter introduces the indigenous peoples, and brings us up to date with a brief overview of exploration, exploitation of minerals, and the environmental impact of tourism. A postscript looks to the future, and although it explains the implications of environmental change both natural and man-made it is somehow not as pessimistic as many recent prognostications about the future of the polar wilderness regions. Similarly an earlier chapter draws attention to the expanding 'ozone hole' over the North Pole which in the spring can extend southwards to the Arctic islands. The associated causes and long-term risks are explained calmly without the hysteria which so often accompanies this topic.

Perhaps human influence gets too little attention. Readers must draw their own conclusions as to why the Canadian archipelago and Greenland have been populated by humans for centuries, while this was not the case on Svalbard or the Russian islands. Also, for example, there is a passing reference to the Soviet underground testing of nuclear weapons on Novaya Zemlya during the Cold War era. One assumes that these explosions must have had specific, dramatic effects on the surrounding natural environment, but this is not pursued.

I am emphasizing the authoritative text because I do not want to give the impression that this is simply a 'coffee-table' picture book, and yet the wonderful photographs make the book special. It is fascinating to see images of mysterious lands like Axel Heiberg Island in the far north of the Canadian archipelago or October Revolution Island in Russia's Severnaya Zemlya.

Mediaeval explorers are reputed to have visited the Arctic and returned to describe an astonishing land where the sun never sets. No doubt those who experienced an Arctic winter did not survive to tell the opposite story. Similarly, anyone who picks up this book might be forgiven for thinking that the Arctic is a land of permanent bright sunshine, gleaming glaciers and that pale-blue, clear sky. Admittedly it would be difficult to capture landscape photographs in 24-hour darkness in a piercingly cold gale during a blizzard, so readers must remind themselves that on the Arctic islands the weather is not always as idyllic as it appears in these pictures!

Even those who are already knowledgeable about the Arctic environment will find this a delightful and inspirational book.

Reviewed by Ken Catford




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