What lies beneath: Robert Macfarlane travels ‘Underland’
From prehistoric cave paintings to buried nuclear waste, underground spaces record how humans have lived. To explore Underland means voyaging into the deep past – and raises urgent questions about our planet’s future
We live in an age of untimely surfacings. Across the Arctic, ancient methane deposits are leaking through “windows” in the Earth opened by thawing permafrost. In the forests of eastern Siberia a vast crater yawns in softening ground, swallowing thousands of trees; local Yakutian people refer to it as the “doorway to the underworld”. In the “cursed fields” of northern Russia, permafrost melt is exposing 19th-century animal burial grounds containing naturally occurring anthrax spores; a 2016 outbreak infected 23 people and killed a child. Retreating glaciers are yielding the bodies of those engulfed by their ice many years before – the dead of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, or the “White war” of 1915–18 in the Italian mountains. Near the peak of San Matteo, three Habsburg soldiers melted out of a serac at an altitude of 12,000ft, hanging upside down. At Camp One on Everest in 2017, after a period of unseasonal warmth, a mountaineer’s hand appeared, reaching out of the ice into which he had been frozen. Gold miners in the Yukon recently unearthed a 50,000-year-old wolf pup from the permafrost, eerily preserved right down to the curl of its upper lip.
Spring bulbs push themselves up into flower far earlier than a century ago. Last August’s heatwave in Britain caused the imprints of long-vanished structures – iron age burial barrows, Neolithic ritual monuments – to shimmer into view as parch marks visible from the air: aridity as x-ray, a drone’s-eye-view back in time. The same month, water levels in the River Elbe dropped so far that “hunger stones” were revealed – carved boulders used since the 1400s to commemorate droughts and warn of their consequences. One of the stones bears the inscription “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine” (If you see me, weep). In northern Greenland, an American cold war missile base – sealed under the ice 50 years ago with the presumption that snow accumulation would entomb it for ever, and containing huge volumes of toxic chemicals – has begun to move towards the light. This January, polar scientists discovered a gigantic melt cavity – two-thirds the area of Manhattan and up to 300 metres high – growing under the Thwaites glacier in west Antarctica. Thwaites is immense. Its calving face is the juggernaut heading towards us. It holds enough ice to raise ocean levels by more than two feet, and its melt patterns are already responsible for around 4% of global sea-level rise.