Two looks into the empty world of Antarctica

The Castle berg, a weathered iceberg photographed during

The Castle berg, a weathered iceberg photographed during the "British Antarctic ("Terra Nova") Expedition--(1910-1913)" led by Captain Robert F. Scott . (Credit: Library of Congres Library of Congress)

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ANTARCTICA: A Biography, by David Day. Oxford University Press, 614 pp., $34.95.

ANTARCTICA: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent, by Gabrielle Walker. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 388 pp., $27.

This July, while the eastern United States sweltered and Antarctica chilled deep into round-the-clock winter darkness, news arrived from Lake Vostok, covered by ice 15 million years ago and now buried 12,000 feet below the polar surface. The lake yielded -- via drilled ice cores -- DNA from an estimated 3,507 organisms: mostly bacteria, but also fungi and single-celled creatures.

Instead of sterility came evidence of a complex ecosystem -- the most recent surprise from a vast place that has astounded humans since we first clapped eyes upon it almost 200 years ago. Capt. James Cook made an early attempt in 1773. He was first to sail across the Antarctic Circle, seeking a southern continent that the ancient Greeks had insisted, out of a sense of symmetry, must exist.

"With the ships cloaked ethereally in ice, and the coats of the sailors stiffened by the intense cold," Cook was keenly aware of the enclosing sea ice, and turned back north, writes historian David Day, in "Antarctica: A Biography." A now- obscure naval officer, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, in the service of Russian Tsar Alexander I, first glimpsed Antarctica in 1820.

The boots of a sealer went ashore the following year, but the continent repelled permanent, continuous human residency until 1954. Even today, when "humans pass winters trapped on their bases," they are "as isolated as if they were on a space station," reports British science journalist Gabrielle Walker, in her book, "Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent."

Walker calls the continent a "place of science, political football, holder of secrets about the Earth's past, and ice crystal ball that will ultimately predict all of our futures." Day, an Australian, turns out a book twice as long, with a narrower focus: Who asserts sovereignty when a continent is empty, he asks, with no land to farm or inhabitants to conquer? "There were just the penguins to play the part of indigenous people in the imagination of explorers," he writes, noting the birds did just that in early journals.

Day documents those first trekkers scrambling to hoist flags, bury cylinders of coins and name every feature of the frozen landscape for king and country. Eventually, several nations built post offices, deciding canceled stamps would bolster their territorial claims to "a breeding place of wind and drift and darkness," as an early explorer put it.

Walker, who earned a doctorate in chemistry from Cambridge University, has visited the treeless continent five times. Day, a scholar in Melbourne, doesn't say if he has ventured beyond his admirable investigation of the research stacks in Europe, the Americas, New Zealand and Australia.

Walker makes pilgrimages to sites marked by the "heroic age" of explorers; Day is much gruffer. He calls his seventh chapter "Die Like Gentlemen," after the phrase in a 1912 letter penciled by doomed British explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Day treats this dying epistle as little better than propaganda from a leader of "bumbling incompetence." (The classic account of Scott's failed expedition is "The Worst Journey in the World," published in 1922 by team member Apsley Cherry-Garrard. It is not to be missed.)

Walker quotes Scott, too, and a Chilean poet and the Book of Job. She writes with verve, but also a casualness that allows her to tarry, for instance, over her own taste in movies. Day's and Walker's books amount to chalk and cheese. Day moves deliberately and chronologically through an encyclopedia of tussles over ownership of Antarctica, from Capt. Cook to Greenpeace. His is a handsome, well-indexed reference to the politics of Earth's most inhospitable place.

Walker's book feels much less like homework. She brings a magazine journalist's sketching skills to quick portraits of Antarctic researchers, and a naturalist's enthusiasm for the geography and wildlife. Her Antarctica is less abstract. She describes the last huskies airlifted off the continent in 1994 as grumbling Brits finally complied with a treaty that expelled all nonnative species but humans. And she documents the long-thwarted arrival and contributions of women scientists, a development that escapes Day's notice.

Antarctica officially belongs to no one. Forty-nine countries have signed a treaty that forbids commercial exploitation and dedicates the continent to "peace and science." Day's book illustrates how precariously and elaborately such circumstances came into being. Walker shows why the place is worth the trouble.

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