In Madhouse at the End of the Earth, I write about the Belgian Antarctic expedition of 1897-99, led by Commandant Adrien de Gerlache. What began as a scientific mission to the last unknown continent became a grueling struggle for survival after de Gerlache sailed his ship, a three-mast whaler called the Belgica, deep into the pack ice of the Bellingshausen Sea during a storm in February 1898. The Belgica was stuck fast for more than a year, and her men—including future polar legends Frederick Cook and Roald Amundsen—became the first to suffer the physical and psychological cruelties of an Antarctic winter.
The following is excerpted from the Author’s Note in Madhouse at the End of the Earth.
When I told a friend of mine, an editor whose advice I value dearly, that I planned to visit Antarctica for this book, he said, “What for? Why don’t you just rely on the diaries?” I didn’t know how to answer. The book, after all, is not a travelogue. My friend suspected I wanted to justify a bucket-list trip as a business expense. He was only partly right. I didn’t know what I would find there, but I knew that, no matter how detailed the diaries were, I’d never be able to satisfactorily reconstruct the sights, sounds, and smells of Antarctica without experiencing them myself. I contacted the Chilean company Antarctica21 and splurged on a ticket for a weeklong cruise, departing mid-December 2018. Like de Gerlache and his men, I left from Punta Arenas. Unlike them, I flew over the tempestuous and notoriously nauseating Drake Passage by plane, a two-hour flight that landed at the Chilean- Russian research base on King George Island. From there my fellow cruisegoers and I boarded the Hebridean Sky, the seventy-passenger cruise ship that would take us across the Bransfield Strait to the channel discovered in 1898 by the men of the Belgica.
This was not a special concession to me. The weather around the frozen continent is so unpredictable and so potentially dangerous that cruise companies never guarantee an itinerary ahead of time and instead defer to their ship captains to survey the winds and currents and determine the route each day. But the first- choice destination of virtually all the Antarctic cruises leaving from South America is the Gerlache Strait, one of the most sublime and photogenic places on the planet. Throughout my weeklong journey, I was struck by how familiar this landscape seemed to me. Save for the bluish tint of the ice, it looked virtually identical to Cook’s black-and-white photographs. But as was soon made clear to me, the environment that the Belgica’s men explored is fast becoming a lost world.
On a misty afternoon halfway into my trip, a handful of passengers and I zipped across the channel on a Zodiac inflatable, cutting through light snowfall. We arrived in the lee of Danco Island, named after the Belgica’s second victim, Emile Danco. Penguins and humpback whales put on a show for us, as they did for the men of the Belgica. At first glance, nothing appeared to have changed here in 120 years. But a closer examination told another story.
At the helm of the Zodiac was Bob Gilmore, a geologist by training, hired to educate guests in the science of the Antarctic. As part of his job, he took measurements of temperature, salinity, and phytoplankton populations in the waters of the Gerlache Strait, which he communicated to academic and government institutions that monitor changes in the area but don’t have the luxury of visiting regularly. Gilmore handed me a small tube and instructed me to fill it with seawater. I told myself this was the same work Racovitza and Arctowski performed here in the first blissful weeks of 1898. Gilmore squeezed a solution from an eyedropper into the sample to kill the organisms within it before the zooplankton had a chance to devour the phytoplankton. He screwed the top back onto the tube, the contents of which he would analyze back aboard our ship.
For the previous few years, the changes Gilmore had observed in these samples had been subtle but sobering. Warmer air temperatures had sped up the melting of glaciers. The increased flow of fresh water, in turn, had decreased the salinity of the strait. As a result, the structure of phytoplankton communities had shifted. The large diatoms that krill prefer to eat were being replaced by smaller diatoms that are better adapted to the less salty water. This trend has potentially catastrophic consequences: As the larger diatoms disappear, so might the swarms of krill that feast on them. As the krill go, so will the rest of this delicate ecosystem.
I was one of more than fifty thousand people to visit Antarctica in the austral summer of 2018–19. It wasn’t lost on me that my very presence here—in particular, the emissions from the Hebridean Sky and dozens of ships like her— contributed directly to the endangerment of this magical place. The growing popularity of Antarctica as a tourist destination is understandable: for those who have the privilege to be able to visit, the experience is awesome and humbling. It is the last truly wild place on earth. Yet the very concept of Antarctic tourism is in some ways disheartening: thousands of people a year are drinking martinis and singing karaoke on the same waters that de Gerlache and his men navigated with such trepidation when they were the only people on the entire continent.
Powerful icebreakers and communication technology have made it safer to travel here. But it would be wrong to assume that the Antarctic has gotten any less menacing. The menace has simply transformed. The continent remains just as hostile to human life as it was in the age of de Gerlache and Scott and Shackleton. Only now its grasp extends well beyond the explorers foolhardy enough to venture into the ice.
For millions of years, Antarctica’s glaciers have flowed into the sea, calving icebergs at a slow and sustainable rate. In the past few decades, that rate has rapidly increased as temperatures in the region have shot up to alarming levels. During a heat wave in February 2020, they reached a record 69 degrees on Seymour Island, at the tip of Graham Land. The less isolated Arctic is a harbinger of how climate change might soon affect the southernmost continent. In 2007, the Northwest Passage, which Amundsen took three years to muscle through aboard the tiny Gjøa, became navigable for the first time. It is expected that the North Pole will be clear of summer sea ice by 2050.
Antarctica’s ice contains at least 80 percent of the fresh water on earth. If all of it were to melt, sea levels everywhere would rise by up to two hundred feet, drastically redrawing the world map. This may not happen in the near future—the Antarctic ice cap is more than a mile thick in places—but any sustained amount of warming will lead to sea-level rise that will obliterate coastal communities and cause incalculable suffering. The continent is a coiled spring loaded with tremendous destructive power.
If Poe and Verne were writing today, this is the nightmare scenario that would capture their imaginations. They would be drawn not to the ends of the earth, but to the end of the earth. Just as the Belgica’s men answered the call of fiction to elucidate the mysteries of the Antarctic, it is now up to scientists and explorers to blaze the path ahead. May they have the audacity of Adrien de Gerlache, the fortitude of Roald Amundsen, and the gumption of Frederick Cook. Like the Belgica, we have sailed heedlessly into a trap of our own making, but if that expedition proved anything, it’s that we need never resign ourselves to doom.
Excerpted from Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton. Copyright © 2021 by Julian Sancton. Published by Crown, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.