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Last published at August 7, 2009 at 6:46 PM

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Book review

"Cold": the frigid side of life, from fatal frostbite to frozen woolly caterpillars

"Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places" is author/biologist Bill Streever's encyclopedic narrative of all things cold.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places"

by Bill Streever

Little, Brown, 291 pp., $24.99

The year 1816 was known as the Year Without Summer. In April of 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted and expelled a hundred times more ash than Mount St. Helens.

As the residue circled the globe, it blocked sunlight, leading to sunrises described as "though in a cloud of smoke, red and rayless." Riots ensued across Europe and food was so scarce that people fed themselves grain meant for their horses.

In response, German baron Karl Drais invented a new form of transport, a steerable wooded scooter, called the Draisine or Laufmaschine (running machine), which eventually morphed into the bicycle.

Such are the types of arcane facts ferreted out by Bill Streever in his new book, "Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places." Streever, author of "Green Seduction: Money, Business, and the Environment" and a biologist with BP Exploration in Alaska, has assembled an encyclopedia of all things cold, from detailing the effects of frostbite to an amusing little tombstone epitaph: "Bless my eyes; Here he lies; In a sad pickle; Kill'd by an icicle."

Like many niche histories, "Cold" is fact-filled and the type of book you can open to any page and find something interesting.

Along the way, we can applaud the fortitude of the classic characters of cold, such as explorers Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote the wonderful book "The Worst Journey in the World."

We can marvel at the classic science of cold: Ice Ages, the race to absolute zero, and woolly bear caterpillars, which withstand utter cold by freezing solid until warmer times.

We can be glad we didn't meet the fates of those who suffered at the hands of extreme cold, including the Franklin expedition, whose members froze to death in the Arctic in 1845; and the 250 who died in the Children's Blizzard of 1888.

While well-written and easy to read, "Cold" confounded me in one respect. Streever seems to play down the greatest threat to his passion for low temperatures: climate change. He does acknowledge that climates in many areas have warmed, but he notes almost flippantly that we will still need Gore-Tex and Thinsulate.

He quotes three prominent naysayers, leaving one to believe that "Oh, so there's a little warming; not to worry." I suspect many biologists and climatologists, who Streever writes "tended to camp with the climate change kooks" would not agree and would note climate change is real and happening because of our actions.

In the end, "Cold" feels like a greatest-hits album of cover songs; many of Streever's stories have been told before, often with great skill. (To his credit, he does have a thorough section of notes with details on the original works.) But in this long, hot summer, "Cold," and its vast imagery of ice and snow and glaciers, is a fine and cooling anecdote.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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