In the middle of hot summer comes a book called 'Cold'

Mike Campbell
Photo courtesy of Bill Streever A thermal photo taken on sea ice on the North Slope not far from Prudhoe Bay two or three years ago when researchers were looking for polar bear dens.
Photo courtesy of Bill Streever
Maggie Hopson braves minus 30-degree temperatures to fish for burbot after sunset at the Nuiqsut village fishing hole on the Colville River in late March 1999.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Smack in the middle of the warmest Alaska summer in years comes a book of blizzards, glaciers, ice ages, manic polar explorers and frozen-solid wood frogs who spring to life in spring.

Anchorage's Bill Streever's new book, "Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places" takes advantage of the author's years working in Barrow chairing the North Slope Science Initiative's Science Technical Advisory Panel to deliver a fascinating tour through the history, science and geography of cold weather on a warming planet.

"Living here in Alaska, working on the North Slope, it's constantly in your face," Streever said.

"I don't know if any one thing triggered the book. There's been lots of talk about global warming, and I thought a book that celebrated cold might be a nice complement.

"In Alaska it might be a little odd, the book coming out in the middle of summer.

"But it's a tourist season, and on the East Coast they're sweltering and looking for a way to cool off. (Releasing it in summer) was actually my editor's idea, and thought, 'That might be exactly right.' "

With dozens of anecdotes detailing cold's effects on animals, history and geology, the book may lead readers to a long, cold shiver. Bingo, says Streever. That's success.

So far, many reviews have been favorable.

Says Harper's magazine: " 'Cold' describes a journey to a sensation that, in our comfortable, climate-controlled lives, is as foreign to most of us as New Guinea itself. (Though both offer opportunities for shedding a few pounds: 'Cold, really, is like malaria,' Streever writes. 'If it does not kill you, it will help you lose weight. Polar explorers eat more than 6,000 calories per day and still lose weight.') His account takes us month by month through a year at his home in Alaska, though over the course of that year he visits places ranging from the Philippines to Windsor Castle, where he unsuccessfully attempts to interview the Queen about her enormous, drafty hallways. Streever leads us through the complex debates about climate change and global warming with precision and an appreciation for a phenomenon that most of us dismiss as inconvenient, if we bother to think about it at all."

Says the Miami Herald: "Another 90-plus day and many more in sight for the next few months. You think: Hey, if I walk the dogs at 7:30 a.m. it won't be so hot. Wrong. It's muggy and hot, and not even a freezing cold shower can make you feel any better about being outside.

"So I find myself drawn to biologist Bill Streever's 'Cold.' Here in Florida, we usually fail to see it at all, unless someone drops the thermostat too low. So 'Cold' holds a certain appeal at this brutal time of a year, when Streever's dip into an Arctic swimming hole doesn't sound crazy at all but positively refreshing."

Says Kirkus: "An unexpectedly fascinating look into a seemingly banal subject. A seamless blend of travelogue, history and scientific treatise."

Fellow Alaska author Ned Rozell of Fairbanks works at the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute and has written extensively about Alaska weather. He met Streever last summer and thinks the book is a winner.

"I like it," Rozell said of the book. "I think he took one of those really simple ideas that he did a great job with. It's an elegant subject. There's a lot about it and there's a lot of ways to explore a simple idea."

Rozell is a seasoned Alaska outdoorsman and wilderness skier. He's written "Alaska Tracks: Footprints In The Big Country From Ambler To Attu" and "Walking My Dog Jane: From Valdez to Prudhoe Along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline."

His coldest Alaska day?

It came in late January of 1989 when the temperature hit minus-56 outside his wood-heated Fairbanks cabin. "It was impossible to keep it warm overnight. The dogs' water dishes kept freezing."

Rozell thinks Streever's timing was near perfect.

"Climate is something a lot of people didn't pay attention to until the mid-'90s, and then it kind of exploded," he said.

And while the list of books dissecting global warming is long, Streever turns the usual approach on its head and deals with climate change in what he calls "a regretful tone.

"The book celebrates low temperatures," he said, "the very thing being eroded by climate change."

Reach Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.

Cold hard facts

Ten cold factoids offered by Streever

1. Minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit is the same temperature as minus 40 degrees Celsius.

2. Windchill at Vostok Station, Antarctica, has dropped as low as minus 128 degrees F.

3. Mercury freezes at minus 37.8 degrees F, rendering mercury thermometers inaccurate in very cold climates.

4. Hibernating ground squirrels’ blood temperature may drop below 32 degrees F, the temperature at which water freezes.

5. A moose can burn more than 10,000 calories a day to stay warm in winter.

6. Polar explorers often eat more than 6,000 calories a day and still lose weight.

7. The northernmost tree is the Dahurian larch found in Siberia, about 1,000 miles from the North Pole. Temperatures can drop below minus 90 F there.

8. On Jan. 28, 1887, snowflakes 15 inches in diameter were reported in Montana.

9. The coldest possible temperature is absolute zero, or minus 459.67 degrees F.

10. The coldest temperature achieved in a laboratory is about a billionth of a degree above absolute zero.

Author Bill Streever’s five favorite frozen anecdotes

1. PENGUIN ENVY: In 1911, explorer Robert Falcon Scott sent three men to bring back eggs from an Antarctic colony of emperor penguins. “The men hauled a sled 60 miles in the dark at temperatures of 70 below,” he recounts. Despite “resting in frozen sleeping bags (and) very quickly reaching a point at which they wished for the comfort of their own deaths,” the men returned with three eggs that now sit in London’s Natural History Museum. “The penguins, meanwhile — without bags, without parkas, without kerosene or a stove to burn it — maintained a body temperature of 99 degrees … despite … not feeding for as much as four months during the winter.”

2. ICY QUARTERS: In the 1930s, the missionary Father Pierre Henry of Oblate of Mary Immaculate lived in an ice cellar in Canada’s Pelly Bay, well above the Arctic Circle. Designed to keep game frozen during the summer, the cellar featured temperatures well below zero. “It was the antithesis,” Streever wrote, “of a shelter, analogous to living in a shower stall to avoid the rain. Father Henry believed that it focused his mind on higher matters.”

3. EXPEDITION GONE HORRID: In 1881, Army Lt. Adolphus Greely led 25 men to the Arctic, stopping at Canada’s Ellesmere Island. For most of them, the trip was a slow death that combined starvation, frostbite and hypothermia. The seven survivors included Greely. Trying to survive Ellesmere, they ate leather shoelaces, sea fleas and bird droppings. Winfield Schley, who commanded the boat that picked up the survivors in 1884 first saw them through a tent opening. “It was a sight of horror. On one side … lay what was apparently a dead man. His jaw had dropped, his eyes were open but fixed and glassy, his limbs were motionless. On the opposite side was a poor fellow, alive to be sure, but without hands or feet, and with a spoon tied to the stump of his right arm.”

4. COZY IN COLD: In 1832, a seasick Charles Darwin sailed to Tierra del Fuego, where he encountered six Fuegians he called “the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld.” Despite rain, wind and sleet, “these Fuegians in the canoe were quite naked.” That’s because, Streever says, “Fuegians have physiologically adapted to cold, with a metabolic rate as much as 40 percent higher than other races, allowing them to maintain a normal body temperature while sleet runs off their skin.”

5. SUDDEN BLIZZARD: The Blizzard of 1888 swept through the Midwest that January with the temperature dropping from 40 to 9 degrees in less than five hours at Helena, Mont. Windchills hit minus-40. Afterwards, “people found cattle frozen in place, standing as if grazing, their hot breath now formed into balls of ice around their heads,” Streever wrote. All together, 250 people died of hypothermia and frostbite complications. “People staggered around blindly outside. Because so many of the storm’s victims were children, the blizzard became know as the School Children’s Blizzard.”