“The Greatest Polar Expedition of All Time”
By Markus Rex; Greystone Books, 2022; 296 pages; $28.95
We’ll get the title out of the way first. If you’re going to call your book “The Greatest Polar Expedition of All Time,” you had better be able to back that claim. Take any book about Shackleton, Franklin, Nansen, Ross, Amundsen, Scott or the many less-well-known individuals who wandered into the planet’s polar regions with minimal knowledge and mostly blank maps, and you’ll read about the countless hardships, frequent tragedies, severe hunger, inescapable cold and extreme isolation they endured. Not all returned alive. Some were never found. Their stories keep readers up well past their bedtimes.
Compare this to author Markus Rex, who spent the better part of a year aboard a scientific research vessel equipped with central heating, GPS, internet connectivity (limited in bandwidth, but still accessible), professional chefs, more than 100 shipmates, electricity, running water and a sauna among other amenities. He even took a midwinter break and went back home to Germany for several months. Whether the title was his idea or the publisher’s I do not know, but it never should have been slapped on this book.
As for the book itself, it’s equally frustrating, due to the fact that Rex never seems to figure out what he wants to do with it. The primary theme is actually quite straightforward. Rex spearheaded the 2019-20 MOSAiC Expedition, an international project that involved mooring the Polarstern, an icebreaker used for the undertaking, to an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean and riding the currents as the floe was carried from waters north of Siberia to the Fram Strait east of Greenland, where it shattered and was discharged. Along the way, a large team of researchers collected data on ice, air, climate, fauna and more, all aimed at establishing a baseline idea of how the arctic sea ice functions, as well as to obtain measurements for future comparison as the ice pack continues to decline.
The loss of ice is so severe that in the summer of 2020, after exiting the ice fields, the Polarstern turned northward once again and, mostly following open leads, became the first ship to ever sail across the North Pole. A feat unimaginable even a decade ago, and one that truly drives home how quickly the polar ice cap is vanishing.
This is serious stuff, and knowing a few of the findings from that year on the ice would be quite interesting. Unfortunately, Rex, head of atmospheric research at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, barely touches on them. And despite spending most of a year in the frozen field with an impressive array of some the world’s leading polar researchers, he doesn’t introduce us to any of them on a level that leads readers to understand their work. Nor does he bring readers along on outings with a few of those researchers so we can discover how they gather their data or what they seek to learn. The scientists aboard this expedition are rarely more than a mass of anonymous faces.
So we have a science book with next to no science published under a title that gives the initial impression of being some sort of survival story despite no life-threatening moments. It’s unsuccessful, and the worst part is, it didn’t need to be. There’s the makings of a good book here; it just never quite finds its way to the page.
The story at root is quite interesting. Nothing like the MOSAiC Expedition had previously been attempted, and the researchers spent months in a part of the planet that few humans ever see. We get marvelous descriptions of life on the ice, a temporary frozen home where the researchers set up a broad collection of tools to collect data. Rex is at his absolute best when conveying the beauty he witnessed in a world that, despite its fearsome reputation, is far from a wasteland.
“The orange-tinged full moon is low on the horizon, huge and unreal,” he writes of a ski trip during the polar night. “I glide through the darkness between huge pressure ridges, past epic ice sculptures, and over low-lying flat plains ... The moon bathes everything in a sallow light. Even without my headlamp, I can see contours of the icy landscape. It’s out of this world, with deep-black shadows in the low lying areas, an almost unreal, absolute black.”
It’s not the frozen idyll it might sound like, however, as Rex reminds us farther down the page: “Again and again I stop, wait for the fog to dissipate, climb to an elevated point, and check for polar bears with my headlamp. This might feel like a dead, extraterrestrial star if there weren’t hungry creatures roaming in the darkness.”
That threat is real. The expedition was frequently visited by polar bears, sometimes on a more than daily basis. And not the same ones each time. One of the lessons of this book is just how alive the surface of the arctic sea ice is with bears, most of them naturally curious about the human intruders.
The expedition was also hampered by COVID. Rex returned to Germany for administrative purposes in January 2020, and like so much of the world, unsuccessfully tried to ignore news coming from China and then Italy, foreshadowing the year to come. At the moment we don’t have many written accounts of how the sudden onset of the pandemic affected research. Many studies were scrapped, but Rex managed to continue his expedition with rotating crews and no cases of the virus onboard, which is impressive.
The problem remains, though, that readers will get a detailed description of the environmental and geopolitical conditions the expedition faced, but few of the preliminary findings. The MOSAiC Expedition wasn’t the greatest polar expedition of all time, but it could be one of the most important scientific studies ever. Unfortunately, if it was, we don’t learn why from this book, which never lives up to its title or its promise.
[Book review: A new edition of a 19th century sea voyage opens a window into the era’s fascination with the Arctic]