Environment: Why Some Like It Cold

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Steven Kazlowski / Science Faction / Corbis

Driving snow. Subzero temperatures. Frozen toes. That all might sound pretty good in the dog days of August, but Bill Streever's new book, Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places — part history, part biology, part ode to the natural world — chronicles temperatures few people would ever hope to encounter. Streever, an Anchorage-based biologist and chair of the North Slope Science Initiative's Science Technical Advisory Panel, talked to TIME about polar exploration, how cold spurred the invention of the bicycle and what it feels like to freeze to death.

What made you decide to write this book?
Living here in Alaska, cold is pretty much present all the time. Whether it's actually cold outside or not, you see signs of cold everywhere. The street in front of my house, for example, is very badly frost-heaved, so it has big waves in the street. Looking in the mountains that I can see outside my window, there is very obvious glacial erosion that creates these beautiful U-shaped alpine valleys. And the wildlife around here, of course, is all adapted to the cold. What better topic to write about than something that's right in your face all the time?

You tell many interesting and in some ways terrifying anecdotes about explorers and the troubles they ran into with cold. Are there any that stick out to you as your favorites?
One of my favorite patterns that I think you can see in the Arctic explorers in the 1800s and early 1900s was a very dignified approach to everything they did, even in dying. They were oftentimes amazingly collected in the notes they left behind in their journals. [Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon] Scott is one of the better examples of that. On his return from the South Pole, he was only 15 miles or so from a supply dump that would have saved his life and the lives of his two remaining companions at that time. And they just couldn't do it. They're lying in their tents, freezing to death, and Scott is taking notes until the very last minute. Just remarkably collected. You'd like to think that you'd be able to behave as well in similar circumstances. But I would say most people wouldn't.

Particularly because of how it feels to freeze to death. You write that by the end, many people are ripping at their neck and tearing their clothes off.
That's sometimes called paradoxical undressing. As people are becoming very cold and their muscles are failing, there seems to be this feeling that they can't breathe anymore. So they start tearing off clothes. It doesn't happen in every case, and certainly didn't seem to happen to Scott. It seems to be more prevalent with people who are freezing to death very quickly — say, a mountaineer who's lost. He still has plenty of food, but it's so cold that his body can't change the food into glycogen long enough to keep him warm and functional. Eventually his body temperature crashes very quickly.

An Arctic explorer, as you point out, needs a phenomenal number of calories each day.
Oh, 5,000 or 6,000 calories a day, sure. With the cold in the Arctic, you do have a really huge calorie need. Even just dug in and trying to survive, you would need probably 3,000-plus calories a day.

Let's talk about cold-weather-related inventions. Like the bicycle, for instance.
That's my favorite one. That grew out of the Year Without Summer [1816]. There was quite a lot of volcanic activity for several years prior to that, and it created a cloud of dust high up in the atmosphere. The earth cooled very quickly, at least in the northern hemisphere. And crops started to fail. So [German inventor Karl Drais] saw that it was more and more expensive to feed a horse, and he came up with what was originally called a Draisine. It was really a scooter that eventually evolved into a bicycle. People couldn't feed their horses, and they started driving these Draisines — just like 6 months or so ago, people weren't able to afford fuel for their cars as easily, and they started riding bicycles.

You describe telling a biologist what you were writing about, and he says, "You should do a book called Warmth. You could do all the background research in Aruba." It's a fair point. Did that ever cross your mind?
It crossed my mind a little bit, but it would have been darned inconvenient, since I live here in Alaska. Although I am working on a book now with the working title Heat: A Natural and Unnatural History. It takes the other direction on the thermometer and starts out looking at extreme heat with hydrogen-weapons testing that occurred here in Alaska, and works through things like the development of warm-bloodedness in animals, forest fires and that sort of thing.

We've talked about the positives that have come out of cold. But there certainly are other parts of the book where, for instance, in the blizzard of January 1888, you have cows' hot breath literally turning into balls of ice around their heads.
Yeah, so the question is, if I'm such a fan of cold, why is there so much in the book that's sort of negative about cold?

Right.
The drama is part of the story. I don't think you could talk about heat very effectively, either, without talking about people dying of dehydration, house fires and that kind of thing. So with the beauty that cold brings, and the landscape, or with just feeling alive when you walk out on a cold morning, comes this risk, this edge that you can't get too close to without risking real trouble. And to me, that's part of the beauty.