The frozen continent, Janet Hunt

Science on Ice: Discovering the Secrets of Antarctica
Veronica Meduna
Auckland University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781869405830

“Visiting this frozen landscape,” writes Veronica Meduna, “is to gain a fresh perspective on our world, almost like going to another planet and looking back with renewed wonder on Earth.” Most will never set foot here, but New Zealanders have a special affinity for the Antarctic, particularly for “our” sphere of activity, the Ross Sea and surrounds. This affinity is largely a consequence of physical proximity but that, in turn, is responsible for a long historical association with our massive southern neighbour.

Events such as Sir Edmund Hillary’s audacious 1958 dash for the Pole or the 1979 Erebus tragedy, as well as the continuous use, from early in the last century, of Christchurch as a transit point for travellers to and from the ice, have embedded the Southern Continent firmly in New Zealand’s psyche. These more casual associations were formally and legally ratified by the 1923 creation of the Ross Dependency in this country’s name, and the signing in 1960 of the Antarctic Treaty that dedicates all land below 60oS to non-political, peaceful pursuits.

Finally, it was the 1957 establishment of Scott Base, our centre on Ross Island, that most strongly confirmed our allegiance to the frozen continent, enabling an ongoing commitment to science in the region, both independent of and in partnership with other nations.

Meduna came under the spell of Antarctica not long after she and her husband moved to New Zealand in 1993. Meduna is a microbiologist by training but has worked for more than 15 years as a science writer. Her impressive CV includes several awards and grants, among them the Elsie Locke Medal and an appointment as Chevening David Low Fellow at Oxford University; she is probably best known to readers as the faintly/quaintly-accented voice behind Radio New Zealand’s Our Changing World. She has twice visited the ice (2001 and 2006). Few are as well-placed to interpret the endeavour of scientists in Antarctica – and New Zealand scientists in particular – to the rest of the world. Meduna is adept at interpreting, summarising and elucidating complex concepts and research processes, and has a chatty, accessible style. She has invested a great deal of time in this book and is passionate about her subject.

Science on Ice is a serious and comprehensive overview of current scientific activity in Antarctica. Meduna has extended its scope and interest by interweaving historical detail, and by in-depth discussion of specific projects that include mini-portraits of the people undertaking them. There are four substantial chapters, each with a number of subdivisions/subtopics and a coda. The spectre of climate change underwrites them all.

The first, “Uncovering the Past”, describes the continent’s climatic and geologic history, including Gondwanan origins, ice ages, weather cycles, ocean currents and the ways in which science has enlarged our understanding of these phenomena.

Chapter two, “Life on Ice”, examines the creatures and plants that live on and below the seas and ice around the continent’s coasts. There are penguins (emperor) that breed against all odds at the height of winter, and penguins (Adélie) that raft themselves north on ice floes to avoid it; there are fish with no blood cells or haemoglobin, snailfish, giant worms, starfish and purple urchins; we glimpse what it is to dive in the exquisite, pristine under-ice world.

Chapter three, “True Antarcticans”, is set on the continent proper, where a 12mm-long wingless midge is the highest form of terrestrial animal life but where advanced techniques have discovered more animals and plants than ever suspected – nematodes, springtails, mosses, lichens, fungi and microbes that have developed the ability to shut down under adverse conditions and return to fleeting life only when circumstances permit.

The fourth chapter, “Oasis in a Frozen Desert”, is about the surreal lake-dotted Dry Valleys, where no precipitation has settled for maybe two million years because the air is so dry that snow vaporises without settling. Again, life is microscopic and under extreme duress, with the interesting exception of the slightly more livable ecosystems created by centuries-old freeze-dried corpses of seals that have mistakenly headed into the valleys and died of thirst and hunger.

The final section, “Coda”, is a brief take on Antarctica’s place in the search for answers to the Big Questions of astronomy and physics. It is perhaps given slightly different treatment because it overlaps with the main subject but is more international – or intergalactic – in scope.

Because of its specialist nature, the readership for Science on Ice is intrinsically narrow, being scientists themselves, educational institutions and otherwise intelligent and educated non-scientists. However, it faces stiff competition. In recent years Antarctica has been made visible as never before, not only through an increasing number of books but also through documentaries such as the excellent March of the Penguins and Frozen Planet as well as from news and internet reports, paintings, photographs, poems, sculptures and prose from the Artists to Antarctica programme, and ship-based tourism.

Science on Ice earns its place through the combination of Meduna’s unique expertise with her unimpeded access to and cooperation from scientists in the field, while the book format per se allows greater depth and detail, as well as the opportunity for the reader to consider at leisure.

This is an important publication: scientists are our line of communication from the ice-face, its only year-round human inhabitants, with up to 4000 out and about during the polar summer and around 1000 hunkered down for the long night of polar winter. They open a window into this otherwise remote and alien world, revealing a view that is as fascinating as it is terrifying – fascinating for the sake of its extraordinary non-human inhabitants, terrifying for what that view is telling us.

Antarctica is simultaneously a major player in climate change and a barometer of that change, signalling that whoever and wherever we may be, and whether we are conscious of or care about this gigantic lump of snow, ice and rock, it will touch our lives sooner or later. Everything is interconnected; scientists have a finger on the pulse and the prognosis is, the patient is ailing.

All of that acknowledged, there are areas where more could have been made of Science on Ice. The writing defines it as a book for thinking readers, and the many photographs are excellent: richly coloured, varied and interesting. There is only one diagram/illustration, though, and others would often have been helpful (how far does the twilight extend at mid-winter? How far do those Adélies travel?). There are two maps, of the continent itself and on the facing page, a close-up of the Ross Island area – but they are a conundrum for the uninitiated because they are upside down in relation to each other. This apparently follows convention for each, but they need compass points at a minimum and, even better, a note explaining what is going on.

There is no glossary, and this is a lack because we are introduced to some interesting terms but the lay reader doesn’t necessarily acquire them immediately. To counter that, though, the list of “Sources and Further Reading” is comprehensive and invaluable.

The text is a continuous narrative requiring dedicated and continuous reading rather than dipping and browsing. It is sectioned by subheads but these tend to be enigmatic (such as “Glorious Green Mud”), and add levity without actually telling us much (this section is about ANDRILL – Antarctic Geologic Drilling Project – and the exploration of undersea sediments).

Similarly, without other aids to identification (such as an appendix or sidebar biographies) the sheer number of scientists (22 in the first chapter alone) is a little overwhelming. Meduna often personalises her subjects – as “suntanned and stubbled” or “quietly spoken”, for instance – but this doesn’t strike the right note and doesn’t make the scientists more memorable either.

There are, in fact, no sidebars or boxed material, which may be a choice in favour of visual simplicity. However, their need is evident in a number of very long captions that are in effect, faux-sidebars – and tricky to read at that, because the caption font is not suitable for this purpose. The smallest, teeniest niggle is the use of “relic” instead of “relict” on a number of occasions, and a comical typo: “damned” instead of “dammed” on p187.

It’s easy, however, to sit at a desk in comfortable and temperate New Zealand and be picky; in the totality of this book’s achievement, these are minor points. Science on Ice rewards close reading and opens eyes to the complexity and importance not only of the science but the object of the science: Antarctica, and beyond that, of course, Earth itself.

 

Janet Hunt is a Taranaki writer and reviewer.

 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Science
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