When I began Bill Streever’s book Cold I was a little skeptical that I could still be excited by hypothermia, frostbite, and freezing temperatures. After all, my ancestors are descendants of Vikings. My partner and I have planned our honeymoon in Sweden’s Ice Hotel, where guests sleep in reindeer hides on beds carved of ice. I spent six months in Antarctica where the summer temperature at the South Pole was seventy-ﬁve degrees below zero.
Streever, however, is a connoisseur of cold — both scientist and poet, memoirist and reporter. He has taken what could be a stupefying subject — how plants, animals, and humans have adapted to cold — and has created a delightful and surprising story based on a year of research in some of the coldest places on the planet.
His attempts to understand cold begin with a ﬁve-minute submersion in the thirty-ﬁve-degree July waters of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. “I am a victim of physics,” he writes, as he chronicles his body’s response to the chill. He draws connections between himself and other victims of physics, such as frogs, which overwinter in a frozen state — “Popsicles in the mud. Frogsicles,” he writes — and the woolly bear caterpillar, which freezes solid in winter and thaws in spring. He has a pet pair in his freezer — Fram and Bedford — named after Arctic explorer Fritjof Nansen’s boat and psychology professor James Bedford, who had his dead body flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen.
Streever brings to life such ﬁgures as Fahrenheit, Celsius, and Kelvin, the inventers of our temperature scales. He writes of famous killing blizzards, including the 1888 School Children’s Blizzard, a Midwestern storm that came on so fast it froze cattle upright in their tracks, and the global cold spell in 1817 known as the Year of the Beggars, which incited food riots in Europe and a western migration of America’s New England farmers. He muses on woolly mammoths preserved in icy tundra since the Pleistocene, and whole-bodied humans revealed by melting glaciers. He introduces readers to Thomas Moore, inventor of the ice box; Clarence Birdseye, father of the frozen-food industry; and Frenchman Joseph Fourier, who in 1827 was the ﬁrst to suggest that “certain gases in the atmosphere contributed to the warmth of the earth” — a theory later known as the greenhouse effect.
Streever’s engaging narrative is as much about heat as it is about cold. In order to appreciate the crisis of global warming, one ﬁrst has to understand what has come before — cold. Here, cold is more than a temperature, more than a meteorological force, it is a companion to history and culture — and something one can be sentimental about losing. In a scene late in the book, Streever, traveling through Boston, reflects on the “traffic and heat and people in cars as big as ﬁshing dories, all doing their level best to pump the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide.” We’re all doing our part to melt the last remnants of the great Pleistocene cold. “It’s my ice age,” he muses, “and I’m killing it.”