Discovery on the great southern continent, Julia Millen

Dispatches from Continent Seven: An Anthology of Antarctic Science
Rebecca Priestley (ed)
Awa Press, $55.00,
ISBN 9781927249055

New Zealand’s connection with Antarctica began with early explorers. Abel Janszoon Tasman and Captain James Cook sailed south seeking Terra Australis Incognita and on the way found the “land uplifted high”. Voyaging on to higher latitudes, Cook’s diary of his 1773 Antarctic circumnavigation records weather details, wildlife, “ice islands” and ice mountains (icebergs). American explorer, Charles Wilkes, who visited New Zealand in 1840, led an expedition which encountered a phenomenal ice barrier and a life-saving discovery. Inside an iceberg was “a pond of most delicious water over which was a scum of ice about 10 inches thick. We obtained from it about 500 gallons.”

Later explorers, like Captain Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton, made extended visits to New Zealand ports, and the men became heroes. I first heard about Scott’s last expedition from our primer 4 teacher at Nelson Central School. We all cried. And, since the tragic 1979 DC10 crash on Mount Erebus, New Zealanders have been keenly aware of the great southern continent.

Arranged in chronological order, from 1773 to 2015, Priestley’s anthology comprises contributions from 42 scientists, both amateur and professional (including nine women), plus poems and her introductory notes. Numerous black and white photographs enhance the text, and the work contains a glossary, index and other useful appendices but, for the reader, the omission of maps – apart from the very general one printed on the end-papers – is irritating and inexplicable.

Early expeditions were sponsored in various ways, and the men were keen to brave the hardships for adventures in the mysterious, romantic, unknown. Along the way, they hoped to discover the precise nature of the last white spaces on the world map – and claim more of the earth’s territory for nation and empire. In 1909, Australian Douglas Mawson with two other scientists, having calculated and arrived at the south magnetic pole, hoisted the Union Jack and recited: “I hereby take possession of this area now containing the magnetic pole for the British Empire.” Scott’s friend, Edward Wilson, once wrote in a private letter, “We want the scientific work to make the bagging of the Pole merely as an item in the results.” Some explorers achieved the lasting legacy of putting names on the map. In 1841, J C Ross (hence Ross Sea) saw an active volcano and wrote: “I named it Mount Erebus.”

Writings of Scott, Wilson, Apsley Cherry-Garrard and others included in the anthology, show that while keenly interested in “natural history”, their scientific credentials were strictly amateur. Cherry-Garrard’s famous account of a foolhardy, almost fatal, journey to Cape Crozier to snatch a couple of Emperor penguin eggs, appeals for the adventure rather than the scientific importance. Elsewhere, Roland Huntford has noted that the English Romantic movement equated suffering with achievement.

Frederick Cook (Priestley notes that his later claim to be first at the North Pole is disputed), wintering over with the crew of the Belgica in 1898, vividly described the Aurora Australis. Not mentioned is that also on the Belgica was a young Norwegian. Apart from a few passing references, Roald Amundsen is largely absent from this anthology, presumably because he wrote nothing that added to the sum total of scientific endeavour. Yet his expertise on fur clothing and ice sledging – gained from experience with Inuit in the Arctic – was revolutionary. Perhaps his writing didn’t translate well or he lacked, in Leopold McClintock’s words, “that useful compound of stubbornness and endurance which is so eminently British”.

Besides numerous penguin observations, in early accounts, analyses of marine life predominate, along with geology and glaciology. Priestley spreads her net wide to capture important lesser-known voices from a variety of nations, which make for compelling reading. The German geography professor Erich von Drygalski, who made scientific observations from the sea ice and from an elevated position in a perilous balloon ascent in 1902, later published 20 volumes of findings and two atlases. Richard Byrd, first to fly over the continent, is also notable for his lively prose, written while wintering over in 1934: “the Barrier became a vast stagnant shadow surrounded by swollen masses of clouds, one layer of darkness piled on top of the other.” Elsewhere, descriptions are less than enchanting. During the 1902 Scott expedition, Wilson is bathed in blood while skinning and cutting up seals. Even then, the problem of pollution was notable in a pristine, frozen environment. On visiting a camp at Cape Adare, Wilson found it a horrid stinking place, “a midden heap of refuse all round”.

Priestley’s selection appears to have been based not only on historical and scientific content, but also on variety and readability. She writes, “Where I couldn’t find a suitable piece on an important topic I commissioned it.” Chosen were “only pieces written by the scientists themselves.” Introductory notes provide some background information, varying from the general to the specific, occasionally marred by inelegant phrasing: “the ship was stuck”, or “a lot more modern”. Because of the need for brevity, slight inaccuracies also occur. Scott’s five-man polar team is described as “travelling on skis dragging their sledges” when, until the death of Evans on the return journey, they had skis for only four men. Bowers was on foot.

The age of heroic amateurs had long ceased by the time of the 1957-8 International Geophysical Year, when professional scientists took over: men only, of course, until the mid-1960s. I was disappointed not to find American professor of electrical engineering Dr Irene Peden. The first woman to undertake research in the Antarctic interior, in 1970 she conducted experiments with VLF radio signals from a Byrd substation 800 miles inland from McMurdo. Peden and her colleagues obtained the first qualitative information about the electromagnetic properties of the Antarctic ice sheet, data critical to communications and navigation in the region.

For scientists, Antarctica remains a huge rich field of information, much of it untapped. Marine geophysicist Robin Bell, who discovered sub-glacial lakes beneath the Gamburtsev Mountains which are buried deep under the ice, commented in 2011: “Amazingly, we have samples of the moon but none of the Gamburtsevs.” As with early explorers in the Antarctic, scientific enthusiasm knows no bounds. Doctoral student Michael Becker dives under the ice of Lake Untersee in search of extremophiles. At times he can see ice refreezing over the ice hole – his only escape route.

The Antarctic as a “global barometer” receives special attention. Much work focuses on examining and trying to understand the nature and extent of climate change over millions of years. Analysing core samples obtained by drilling deep into the seabed off the Antarctic coast, scientists can assess changes that have taken place in the past and speculate on what rising temperatures, increasing ocean acidification and biological invasions could mean for the continent’s future. Rob Dunbar’s research shows that, further back in time, the ice sheet was much smaller than it is today, “but it was still dancing to the rhythms set by Earth’s orbit.”

As with early expeditions, the quest for knowledge isn’t the only consideration when undertaking recent scientific operations in Antarctica. More could perhaps have been made of financial, political and military-strategic factors. To her credit, Priestley has avoided the trap – that in trying to please everybody, one may end up pleasing nobody. The reader is expected to dip in here and there: whetting the appetite is the essence of an anthology. Inevitably one looks for old favourites. I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone in wishing for more about Shackleton among the explorers. Items on clothing, accommodation and human feelings, such as Wilson missing his wife, Oriana, may not appeal to scientists. Conversely, many scientific entries are highly specialised and somewhat distasteful: slaughtering 700 birds for scientific purposes. On the other hand, G M Levick’s 1912 observations on the “depraved” and erratic sex life of penguins, especially the behaviour of “hooligan” penguin cocks, should provide entertainment for all.

According to Australian palaeontologist John Long: “No one goes to Antarctica without coming back a different person.” While this may or may not be true, it is reasonable to expect that, after reading Priestley’s remarkable anthology, people will feel very differently about the great, white, southern continent.

Julia Millen, writer and historian, spent five weeks working with an American team at an inland Antarctic base in 1970.

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