the Lena Islands
by Chris Wayan, 2004
for Nansen and the brave crew of the Fram
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The Lena Islands are the northernmost land on Abyssia. On Earth, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs up through Iceland, and then, if you believe most world maps, it fades away under the ice.
But it doesn't. The crustal spreading zone zigzags up into the Arctic Ocean, crossing it as the Nansen Ridge (or the Gakkel Ridge on some maps). Here it's narrower than in the Atlantic, generally twin ridges flanking a trench, but irregular and dotted with undersea volcanoes. Hitting the coast of Siberia, it winds (though far less visibly, since above-water erosion hides it more effectively than sedimentation can) deep into Asia along the Lena Valley to Lake Baikal, where it becomes quite active and visible again in that mile-deep lake. But its lowest point is much earlier, in the Molloy Deep, off Spitsbergen and northern Greenland.
On Abyssia, therefore, with altitudes inverted, this trench becomes a long, winding undersea ridge with flanking trenches and pits. None of the stretch under the Siberian Sea comes close to the surface, but the much shallower Arctic Sea is another matter: across it runs an island chain over two thousand km long.
Over all, the Lenas form an L shape, with the largest and most fertile islands, Lena and Molloy, at the ends of the chain; the middle swings within five degrees of the North Pole, and a side cluster of islands, the Frams, reaches 87 degrees north; they're entirely icecapped, calving bergs into the polar sea: little Greenlands.
But the ends of the chain, between 75 and 85 north, are merely Arctic; the south ends of the two long islands ending the chain, Lena and Molloy, are cold but fertile, with tundra on the shores and plains, and even low forest on the sheltered south shores below glaciated mountains. All land on Earth at this latitude is still iced over; but on Abyssia, the treeline and tundra line both extend much further north. The tips of the chain are merely Alaskan, not polar.
Why? Is Abyssia's CO2 level high? Not at all. The reason's geographic, not atmospheric. Abyssia lacks land at the poles to build up substantial icecaps like our Greenland or Antarctica. The height of our polar ice-domes, not just their latitude, cools their tops to near-Martian temperatures; winds off these icefields spread foul weather and cool the climate for thousands of km around them. Without these dubious gifts, the Abyssian poles are much milder in climate. Though winter sea-ice is extensive, it's less than a meter thick and melts entirely each summer.
Still, the Lena chain has the doubtful honor of being the coldest land on Abyssia. Worse, it's a double whammy: Lena's the loneliest land, too--as isolated as Earth's Hawaii or Easter Island (though given their climates, those are terrible analogies). Lena and Molloy, at the ends of the chain, are the closest to habitable lands, and they're not very: nearly 3000 km (ca. 1800 mi). The isles in the middle, like Barents or the Frams, are even worse off. No sane mariner will ever stumble on them.
And the sheer mileage doesn't fully reflect their isolation. These are cold, rough polar seas, not Polynesia's warm waters. The orbital photo to right, taken in late summer, shows the chain at its very best--a sunny cloudless day, the seas totally free of sea ice. And yet the wind-driven swells around 60° north are so immense their crests must be half a mile apart; they're visible from space.
Truly solitary outcroppings of land like Lena are quite rare on Abyssia; its low, small, but widely scattered islands and minicontinents form strings like the drops on a spiderweb, or like galactic superclusters. Lena's only rivals for loneliness are the tiny Greek Islands--and they at least will certainly have been discovered, since they're inside a broad arc of settled, populous lands.
But I'm not so sure about the Lenas. Unless and until the Abyssians (of some species, preferably one who swims well in cold water--say, a big, intelligent, flightless, amphibious seabird a bit like our extinct Great Auk, or our largest penguins--just with small hands and large brains) develop deep-sea vessels capable of very long voyages in foul weather, and navigators willing to brave the Arctic cold in search of summer shortcuts across the poles--essentially, slow-motion versions of the polar flightpaths saving time and fuel for our transcontinental flights--I wonder if the Lena chain will ever be discovered at all.
If so, it might be the Greeks who find them; they fish over banks well to the north. Or the Porcupine Islanders north of Azorea, or the Altair Islanders north of Atlantis; they're the next closest to the Lenas.
Still, all these inhabited "far northern" archipelagoes and fishing banks are just forty-odd degrees north! Snow's unlikely here except at high altitudes--and there aren't any. Abyssian landmasses just plain warm--mostly tropical or subtropical, with mild maritime climates and few hard freezes, even here on the northern fringe.
The consequence: Abyssians, not even the natives of these far-northern islands most likely to discover the Lenas, just won't be adapted to cold. Human polar explorers faced something known--winter! Just a severe winter that never ends. Abyssian explorers, equally brave, will face utterly alien dangers.
So whoever finds these islands will have earned it--paid in hypothermia deaths, ice-crushed hulls, storm-founderings, crews and even whole ships lost to rogue waves. About all I'm sure the Abyssians won't suffer on Arctic voyages is scurvy. Most nonhuman creatures make their own Vitamin C; whether our intrepid mariners are large flightless birds or centauroid mammals, it's unlikely they'll share a weakness only humans and guinea pigs share.
On the other hand they may be so frost-sensitive exposed skin burns on contact with snow.
Great Auk biologist back home in the Altair Islands north of Atlantis
But the scientific payoff for exploring the Lenas is huge, too. It'll be a splendid opportunity for an Abyssian Darwin. Under Lena's bizarre conditions, life will abound in extraordinary adaptations for cold found nowhere else in the world.
Now, If our Lena-Darwin has any imagination at all, she'll wonder what sort of world it would have been, if whole continents had this frightful climate. Would life have taken a completely different path? What strange abilities would such life have? Could megafauna truly ever adapt to survive long hard freezes and deep snows--migrating south, or storing up summer fat and fasting through winter, or perhaps even sleeping through it to rise again with the sun, in a sort of annual reincarnation?
Would such a creature, once reborn, even remember its past existences?
For that bizarre concept--seasonal life, intermittent life--our Lena-Darwin will have to invent a science-fictional term like cryodormation, hibernating or thermocoma, based entirely on logical analogies with the seasonality of plant and insect life in the extensive monsoon zones of Abyssia--lush in the wet season, largely dormant in the dry. But it's a stretch for a tropical mind to see a howling blizzard as just another sort of drought!
Still, with luck (and if her imagination matches our Darwin's) she might just dream of... Earth. Not Ice Age Earth, of course--just the temperate, interglacial Earth we take for granted.
But she won't publish such silly speculations--not if she values her reputation. Fantasies of a crazy ecology! No, the pikas and seabirds of Lena, able to touch frozen water without pain and shock, are surely bizarre enough to give her academic trouble. She'll stick to the strict facts of these modest extremophiles, not their full implications for life's plasticity.
And still, until later expeditions confirm her findings over and over, she'll be disbelieved--indeed, mocked as a hoaxer. (No? Remember that notorious zoological chimera Frankenstitched by a taxidermist eager to fool real scientists? What was it called? Oh, the Platypus. Even the name doth protest too much.)
Life in the snow? Absurd.
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