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The Green Life: Book Roundup Wednesday: Changing Polar Worlds

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February 02, 2011

Book Roundup Wednesday: Changing Polar Worlds

Books about environmentalism Each Wednesday, we review a selection of new and upcoming books addressing a specific aspect of environmentalism. Today, we're recommending books that explore how life in polar regions is changing with climate.

Fraser’s Penguins (by Fen Montaigne, $26, Henry Holt & Co., Nov. 2010): “There goes the neighborhood,” says Bill Fraser, veteran Antarctic penguin biologist, as he notes the disappearance of another Adélie penguin colony. Fraser was among the first to connect the changes in bird populations with our changing climate. Journalist Fen Montaigne spent five months at Fraser’s field station, observing Adélies through their breeding season; he grew to admire the beautifully desolate landscape they inhabit, and constructed a convincing case that we should care about what happens to them, at least because their eventual fate will likely be ours too. Montaigne recently appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss his work.

In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape (by Gretel Ehrlich, $28, National Geographic, Apr. 2010): In one of surprisingly few recent books that explore how human communities at high latitudes are dealing with climate change, Ehrlich details her year of travel through native communities in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. She visits with Inuit hunters whose traditional prey is becoming scarcer with each season, stays in communities that can no longer depend on the presence of ice for travel or residence, and travels with nomadic Siberian reindeer herders whose ancient migration routes become impassable as tundra turns to swamp. In short, it’s a year spent with people who are being forced to make drastic changes, and Ehrlich offers a valuable reminder of human fragility on a swiftly changing planet.

The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960 (by Douglas Brinkley, $30, Harper, Jan. 2011): Another weighty historical tome from the author of 2009's The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, this volume chronicles the struggles and successes of the quest to protect wild Alaska in the years before its statehood, and it's American environmental history at its best — Brinkley draws out the characters (among them Ansel Adams, Rachel Carson, and Bob Marshall) who worked tirelessly to preserve iconic places like Denali National Park. The constant tension between those who want to preserve unspoiled landscapes as they are and those who view Alaska's waters, mountains, and plains as a bountiful source of resources there for the taking remains today, and as Brinkley suggests, the stakes are only getting higher.

The Great White Bear: A Natural and Unnatural History of the Polar Bear (By Kieran Mulvaney, $26, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Jan. 2011): As an icon of climate change, the polar bear has probably never gotten more attention than it does these days. Nevertheless, misconceptions about this charismatic behemoth abound, and it’s increasingly likely that we'll only ever see one in a magazine or movie. Mulvaney collects his experiences observing Ursus maritimus in the wild, and the research of those who’ve devoted their lives to its study. The result is a comprehensive picture of the bear’s biology, relationship with humans, and future prospects.

The View from Lazy Point: a Natural Year in an Unnatural World (by Carl Safina, Henry Holt & Co., $32, Jan. 2011): So it's not a book specifically about polar environments, but Carl Safina's latest work is worth considering because of the skill with which he draws connections among the places he visits (the Caribbean, several Pacific islands, both poles) within a year of travel and his home, a sandy patch on Long Island Sound. He observes how we've extracted ourselves from the dealings of nature, excluding it from our major economic and social institutions. Then he outlines how continuing such convenient habits will eventually spell our demise. Despite these warnings, the book is ultimately hopeful, a celebration of the incredible biological and cultural diversity that remains, and an inspiration for protecting our most valuable resources.

--Zoë J. Sheldon

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