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The Land Beneath the Ice

13 May 2024

The Land Beneath the Ice by glaciologist David Drewry describes the historic mapping of Antarctica’s ice thickness using radio-echo sounding (RES) from 1967 to 1983. RES uses thousands of radio pulses per second to measure the thickness and properties of ice continuously from the air. American long-range aircraft travelled huge distances to map Antarctica, with this study led by the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, and many collaborators. We learn that Antarctica has an area almost the size of Europe of ~14 million km2, with ~30 million km3 of ice, which has an average thickness of 2450 m and a maximum thickness of 4776 m. Melting of all this ice would lead to catastrophic global sea level rise.

In The Land Beneath the Ice, Drewry presents a meticulously detailed and beautifully illustrated insider account of these pioneering explorations. He uses extracts from his field diaries and personal notes to record the excitement and frustrations. The text is clearly written, in a largely chronological order, and details the contributions of the many colleagues, institutes, and governments. Examples of successes and problems, such as aircraft malfunctions, airplane crashes, aggressive weather, mechanical and electrical breakdowns, and challenging international collaborators with vested interests are given. Drewry wanted the book to be engaging to specialist historians and Antarctic enthusiasts, but also give general readers an introduction to Antarctica’s beautiful environment; this he has achieved in spades.

Maps and exploratory text describe the ice sheets and their underlying bed shape, thickness, and topography, including the incredible lakes under the ice, particularly Lake Vostok. The book has great photos, a good index, a helpful glossary of relevant terms, references to the many resulting papers given in footnotes and, most important for easy reference, a list of acronyms and abbreviations, which abound in the text. For me, The Land Beneath the Ice resonated deeply as it describes the progress of most projects; the same problems and characters appear, such as the helpful and the unhelpful, finance shortages, equipment malfunctions, and accidents that makes successes even more warming. It is a perfect story for a movie, but, for the moment, just a good read.

Reviewed by Richard Dawe



BY: David J. Drewry (2023). Princeton University Press. 464pp. (hbk).

ISBN: 9780691237916

PRICE: £35.00 https://press.princeton.edu/