Book review: ‘Ice Rivers’ by Jemma Wadham

By Louie Bell, Third Year Geography

Professor of Glaciology at the Universities of Bristol and UiT, Jemma Wadham brings science and a lifetime of experience to a wider readership, providing a first-hand account of the changes to the world’s ‘Ice Rivers’ that are driven by a changing climate.

Jemma Wadham’s new book Ice Rivers (2021) takes the reader, travel-starved from a year of lockdowns and quarantines, to some wonderous destinations across the world. Would many of us choose the Dry Valleys of Antarctica as our first post-lockdown destination? Perhaps they might after reading Wadham’s passionate and engaging evocation of these spectacular glacial landscapes.

Ice Rivers is the story of glaciers and ice sheets across the world – the enormous masses of ice that flow under their own weight, taking us from detecting microbial life at the base of Haut Glacier d’Arolla, Switzerland, to explaining harmful water contamination in Pastoruri Glacier, Peru. Jemma Wadham guides the reader through the personal experience of arriving and working on the glacier, as well as guiding them through the basic scientific concepts of glaciology.

However, the book is not simply a popular science explanation of glaciological science. Ice Rivers is also a memoir by one of the pioneering glacial biogeochemists of our time, packed full of anecdotes, a multitude of adventures and interesting characters to meet along the way.

However, the book is not simply a popular science explanation of glaciological science. Ice Rivers is also a memoir by one of the pioneering glacial biogeochemists of our time // Photo courtesy of Louie Bell

But here’s a very important disclaimer: I’m a glacier nerd. I caught the same bug of fascination with these ‘ice rivers’ that so many of us have done as we pass through an undergraduate Geography course at Bristol. 

This is important because perhaps Ice Rivers wasn’t written specifically for someone like me. I don’t need convincing that glaciers are more than scenic desktop saver-worthy views, nor do I need convincing that they are of major importance in how and why our climate, sea-level and society will be changing as CO2 emissions rise.

The test of the book’s merit will lie predominantly in how it convinces the general readership that these enormous masses of ice that can flow, calve, sustain and destroy are worth time, effort and deeper understanding.

That should not be an issue. It’s hard to imagine not being drawn in by Wadham’s enthusiasm that springs from the page, and her determination, effort and success in improving the world’s understanding of glacial landscapes that cover around ten percent of the land area on earth.

“Second and third-year physical Geographers in Bristol should be well-familiar with concepts of channelised and distributed drainage systems, but do they know the struggle of finding somewhere to go to the loo on an ice sheet?”

Crucially, the interplay between Wadham’s own stories of fieldwork and the detailed scientific introduction to key concepts in glaciology make the work not only highly accessible and engaging, but sets the stage for a discussion of lingering questions in cryospheric science.

Second and third-year physical Geographers in Bristol should be well-familiar with concepts of channelised and distributed drainage systems, but do they know the struggle of finding somewhere to go to the loo on an ice sheet? They might be acutely aware of the importance of subglacial methanotrophs, but will they know that research-grade ethanol goes well with tinned peaches and lemon juice?

Yet, not all of the stories are similarly light-hearted. Wadham’s stories are often inflicted with tragedy and heartbreak concurrent to a lifetime of scientific exploration and research. The deeply personalised accounts of how her tireless work yields physical and emotional discomfort whilst also providing an outlet for joy and success emphasises the complexities and contradictions that any work-life relationship will undergo.

Importantly, the ‘relationship’ between Wadham and glaciers is an important thematic detail of the book. Wadham’s evocation of glaciers as ‘old friends’ and labelling her fascination with them as ‘a love story’ reflects the deep connection that she has developed over decades of research.

I wonder if the anthropomorphic names scientists assign to glacial structures is more than just incidental to this story. Glaciers may be commonly described as having ‘ice tongues’, a ‘snout’ and a ‘torso’ – Wadham expands on this motif with what initially seems to be an odd introductory characterisation of her relationship with ice rivers:

‘It has often felt that my life and my journey with glaciers have woven their path like two rambling paths tracked across a mountain – we come together, we exchange words, we part for a while, only to return again.’ (Wadham, 2021: xii).

Cold environments, but a warm, engaging and enthusiastic narrative springs from the pages // Photo courtesy of S&B Volanthen | Unsplash

Yet by the end of the book, the different ‘personalities’ that characterise each winding river of ice makes perfect sense. They vary in size, shape, spiritual and economic significance to the inhabitants of the land or ice. They come in different colours and produce different effects on the ecosystems downstream. Some are fast, some are slow. Some will live, some will die out.

Towards the end of Ice Rivers, Wadham recounts playing the part of a glacier in Erica Stockholm’s play: The Sad Tale of A Dying Glacier, and in one breath-taking section Wadham recounts an emotional experience as she says a farewell to a retreating glacier on the final day of fieldwork:

‘As I approached, tears streamed down my face – this glacier was so beautiful, so solid, so pure and yet inexorably melting away. I leaned in, stretching my arms to embrace it like an old friend. I pressed my face into the tiny sharp ice crystals on its vertical face, and its melt combined with my tears, and together they flowed down my face. Maybe it would be here in twenty years, maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t.’ (Wadham, 2021; 187).

Ice Rivers is published by Penguin Allen Lane, and Professor Wadham’s first book for general readership. // Courtesy of Bookshop.org

This is the remarkable achievement of Ice Rivers. Thanks to Wadham’s compelling writing, it’s not hard to understand that, similarly to looking at liquid water, perhaps if one looks hard enough at ice, soon enough a reflection of oneself may emerge.

Indeed, by conjuring up a deeply personal relationship reflective of the way so many people depend on glaciers for life-sustaining resources, Wadham shines a light on how glaciers will similarly depend on human actions to ensure their very survival.

The interplay between the personal and scientific make Ice Rivers a memoir like no other. Sometimes, I wonder if the science moves beyond the realm of what a general readership might understand given the few sentences allocated to it – oxygen isotope analysis I’m looking at you! 

On the other hand, those sections may make it a superb primer for any A-level/first-year physical geographer looking for an accessible introduction to the history and current state of glaciology. Perhaps in a couple of years, prospective undergraduates will be able to stop mentioning Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography (2015) in their personal statements…

“Thanks to Wadham’s compelling writing, it’s not hard to understand that, similarly to looking at liquid water, perhaps if one looks hard enough at ice, soon enough a reflection of oneself may emerge”

Ice Rivers represents one of the few entry points for general readership into the importance of glaciology. The book breathes with an enthusiasm that leaps from the narrative arc Jemma Wadham constructs about the world’s ‘ice rivers’ that play such a key role in our climate and ecosystems.

However, despite all Wadham’s enthusiasm, the narrative is inflected with a tangible melancholy deriving from the impending threat of glacier retreat or catastrophic ice-sheet collapse deriving from human activity.

In this sense, it’s fitting that the final two words of the book punctuate this ongoing narrative with a simple declaration of apprehension and fear:

415ppm CO2.

Ice Rivers is published by Penguin Allen Lane Books and available at: https://uk.bookshop.org/books/ice-rivers/9780241467688

Listen to Professor Wadham talk about the past and future of glaciers on The Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast: https://www.theguardian.com/science/audio/2021/may/11/melting-away-impact-of-disappearing-glaciers-podcast

Featured Image courtesy of S&B Volanthen | Unsplash

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