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Book review: Bill Streever's Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places

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Early in his captivating book, Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places, author Bill Streever is describing how various animals deal with winter in the far northern climes within the Arctic Circle. There's hibernation, of course, a state used by bears, ground squirrels and surprisingly, some bird species. OK, normal enough. Streever then describes creatures that can survive being frozen solid, such as types of northern frogs, which "overwinter in a frozen state, amphibian Popsicles," living in a suspended state at 18 degrees, for months. I had no idea living things could survive being frozen, so I was duly impressed. Then, Streever delivers the sentence that hooked me, "Take an African desert fly, dry it out, throw it in liquid helium at temperatures below minus 450 degrees (my emphasis), warm it up and pour some water on it, and it will demonstrate what it is to be a survivor."

Cold is filled with anecdotes like that one, but not just about frozen bugs and frogs. Streever, chair of the North Slope Science Initiative's Science Technical Advisory Panel in Alaska, looks at how cold temperatures have shaped history, human culture and habits, and the earth itself. What makes this book an unlikely page-turner, however, is Streever's crisp, entertaining, everyday-speech writing style, along with a knack for clear descriptions, and his contagious enthusiasm for all things frozen.

Usually, books that mainly rely on anecdotes to tell readers what they need to know don't work because they lack a single, driving narrative to keep the reader involved. Cold is a splendid exception, in which the anecdotes are at times almost poetic, or a lead-in to the author's self-deprecating humor. By gradually building, anecdote by anecdote, a portrait of our planet as a place in which coldness and cold weather systems are vital to the earth's health, Streever introduces readers to a whole other level of life, one that's odd and alien but still familiar.

The variety of cold-related facts and stories he tells is amazing, a diversity that's easy to understand when you find out that a fifth of the world's land mass is within the permafrost zone -- but who, especially down here in the sunny South, knew so much was going on in those kinds of temperatures?

A partial list of Streever's anecdotes will have to do here: He sketches the development of the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales; is in awe of birds' migratory instincts and their physical strength that keeps them going, away from the worst cold; and tells the emotional story of the now infamous School Children's Blizzard of 1888, which surprised, overtook and killed hundreds in the American Midwest in one day. So sudden was the blizzard's onset, that temperatures in many places dropped 18 degrees in five minutes, 40 degrees in a couple of hours; heavy snow came down so quickly, blown by 40 mph winds, so that after only five minutes, the outlines of objects 15 feet away could not be discerned. When the blizzard was over, cattle were found "frozen in place, standing as if grazing, their once hot breath now formed into balls of ice around their heads."

Add to all this the tales of polar explorers, the various Ice Ages, igloos, the formation of entire national landscapes by glaciers, hailstorms, and a walk through the length of a tunnel dug in permafrost by the military during -- you guessed it -- the Cold War, where thousands-of-years-old ice still clings to ancient roots. And I haven't mentioned the section revealing some of what goes on during winter months in the far north, under and in the ground ice (would you believe lemmings' "snowbound orgies" that fill their icy tunnels with mini-lemmings?).

Streever wants to get across the point that cold temperatures -- and the adjustments and new natural realities they create -- are an important, understudied part of life on earth that we will sorely miss if global warming keeps rising. Most people, writes Streever, "fail to see cold for what it is: the absence of heat, the slowing of molecular motion, a sensation, a perception, a driving force."

Don't look for a stodgy science book here, though. The blog-ish way the book is organized creates more of a mosaic, sort of like those portraits that are comprised of hundreds of small photographs. In the end, Cold becomes much more than the sum of its parts, and offers up a treasure chest of, forgive the pun, cool information you won't get anywhere else. As one reviewer has already written about Cold, "Certainly, I was never bored."

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