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The big freeze

Nature volume 440, page 608 (30 March 2006) | Download Citation


Ice: The Nature, the History and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance


Alfred A. Knopf: 2005. 576 pp. $30 0679426086

Smooth operator: a man takes advantage of the properties of ice to hitch a lift in 1930s Paris.

In its various forms, solid H2O covers large parts of Earth's surface for all or much of the year, with implications for our climate. The reflectivity of snow and sea ice greatly influences the planet's heat budget, with any reduction in coverage providing a positive-feedback mechanism for global warming. In her book Ice, Mariana Gosnell quotes some researchers' gloomy predictions: “Nobody knows how to stop the warming of the Earth.” Yet there are enough interactions in the system for some effects, such as increased precipitation, to perhaps counteract the warming. Still, Gosnell's book isn't only about the serious topic of global warming; instead she takes a much lighter look at the solid phase of water.

Ice has such diverse properties that it cuts across a range of disciplines. Gosnell's 36 chapters describe the basic science, the importance and the drama for specialists of each, be they glaciologists, atmospheric scientists or students of permafrost, ice coring and ice physics.

One of the most unusual applications was a project to build an unsinkable aircraft carrier. During the early days of the Second World War, Nazi submarines sank a lot of ships crossing the Atlantic from the United States to Britain. Geoffrey Pyke, who was director of programmes for Lord Mountbatten, proposed that a great artificial iceberg be built to serve as a floating base in the Atlantic for submarine-hunting planes. One of the essential features of the project was that the ice would be strengthened with wood pulp. In Pyke's honour, the composite was christened ‘pykrete’. Churchill liked the idea, and the project began, with a test model built in Canada. But the project never progressed very far, being made redundant by Allied aircraft with increased range. Max Perutz, who later received a Nobel prize for his work in biochemistry, was a young researcher on the project. Years later he wrote: “I think that had not the course of the war and the state of our armaments changed, the bergship could have been constructed.” It would surely have been the world's largest ice sculpture.

Gosnell writes of the start of her interest in ice. She had been sent as a journalist to report on an expedition to the Canadian high Arctic, where tests were being done to quantify the damage that floating ice might cause to tankers or oil rigs. Intrigued by what she learned, she began to read a lot about ice. The book's bibliography is impressive, and I get the impression she has read a good deal of the listed articles. Most of the chapters are written with clear descriptions and understanding.

At least one of the chapters comes out of Gosnell's personal experience. She writes: “One winter I rented a cabin in Elkins, New Hampshire, to watch a lake freeze.” After waiting through windy days and fluctuating temperatures, the event finally happens. “In one small, secluded spot... I see, in a bay where the beach slopes gently into the lake and the water is only a few inches deep, what looks like a windowpane. I am excited out of all proportion to the event. First lake ice!”

All the chapters are written with similar life and imagery. As a result, the book will make for enjoyable reading by specialists and non-specialists alike.

Author information


  1. Greg Dash is emeritus professor in the Department of Physics, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA.

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