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Land of Wondrous Cold

The Race to Discover Antarctica and Unlock the Secrets of Its Ice

This book tells the story of the pioneer Antarctic voyages of 1838-1842, when British, French, and American commanders raced each other to the South Pole. As the first major scientific research expeditions in Antarctica, these early Victorian-era explorers laid the foundation for our modern understanding of "the white continent," its glacial history, and the future of its all-important ice cap.

A history of the first race to Antarctica that weaves the great polar discoveries of the nineteenth century with scientific breakthroughs of the modern era

Antarctica, the ice kingdom hosting the South Pole, looms large in the human imagination. The secrets of this vast frozen desert have long tempted explorers, but its brutal climate and glacial shores notoriously resist human intrusion. Land of Wondrous Cold tells a gripping story of the pioneer nineteenth-century voyages, when British, French, and American commanders raced to penetrate Antarctica’s glacial rim for unknown lands beyond. These intrepid Victorian explorers—James Ross, Dumont D’Urville, and Charles Wilkes—laid the foundation for our current understanding of Terra Australis Incognita.

Today, the white continent poses new challenges, as scientists race to uncover Earth’s climate history recorded in the south polar ice and ocean floor, and to monitor the increasing instability of the Antarctic ice cap, which threatens inundation of coastal cities worldwide. Interweaving the breakthrough research of the modern Ocean Drilling Program with the dramatic discovery tales of their Victorian-era forerunners, Gillen D’Arcy Wood describes Antarctica’s role in a planetary drama of plate tectonics, climate change, and species evolution stretching back more than thirty million years. An original, multifaceted portrait of the polar continent emerges, illuminating our profound connection to Antarctica in its past, present, and future incarnations.

A deep-time history of monumental scale, Land of Wondrous Cold brings the remotest of worlds within close reach—an Antarctica vital to both planetary history and human fortunes.

Author Information

Gillen D’Arcy Wood is professor of environmental humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he serves as associate director of the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and the Environment. He is the author of Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World (Princeton). Originally from Australia, he lives in Urbana, Illinois with his wife and two children.

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"A historical account of Antarctic exploration during the mid- to late 1800s, Land of Wondrous Cold connects much of what the early explorers experienced with more recent scientific research. The perspectives offered by current scientific endeavors provide modern relevance to the explorers’ extraordinary efforts. Filled with numerous colorful descriptions and details, this is a rewarding book." —Robert Bindschadler, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

"Weaving together paleoclimatology, a narrative of nineteenth-century exploration, and modern sensibilities, Land of Wondrous Cold fills a niche for the historically minded reader. Filled with evocative storytelling, this is a good book for a long cruise to Antarctica."—James R. Fleming, Colby College

"This highly readable book takes a set of nineteenth-century interrelated exploration voyages to Antarctica and juxtaposes their stories with one of contemporary scientific discovery. By looking at lesser-known expeditions alongside engaging and current scientific elements, Land of Wondrous Cold makes a significant contribution."—Michael Bentley, Durham University