Monday, April 16, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“SCIENCE ON ICE – Discovering the Secrets of Antarctica” by Veronika Meduna (Auckland University Press, $NZ59:99)

As a non-scientist, I once again find myself in possession of an accessible book about scientific endeavours, written in language that is not condescending but that can still be understood by laypersons such as myself. In other words, an excellent piece of  what the French call “vulgarisation” [for further accounts of this sort of book, use the index at right to look up postings on Michael Corballis’s Pieces of Mind and Isaac Asimov’s A Choice of Catastrophes].

Science on Ice – Discovering the Secrets of Antarctica is the best New Zealand example of this genre I’ve encountered since Gillian Turner’s explanation of geomagnetism North Pole, South Pole. Trained as a soil microbiologist, Veronika Meduna is herself a science journalist and broadcaster rather than a research scientist. For over a decade she has been a major contributor to Radio New Zealand science programmes and she is a very good middle-person between experts and the literate  uninformed. I belong to the latter category.

To get to what she has to say, however, you must first encounter the book as a physical object.

Science on Ice is a handsome square-set hardback, illustrated with many dozens of colour photographs ranging from the full-page shot of lonesome Barne Glacier on Page 8, to the two-page spread of “brilliant blue” Lake Vanda in the McMurdo Dry Valleys (pp.178-179) ; from the single hunting orca butting its head through shattered sea-ice (pp.66-67) to the action shots of a skua raiding eggs from an Adelie penguin colony (pp.104 and 106); from the glaciologists’ camp set up on the Mount Erebus saddle (pp.20-21) to the aurora australis playing, in a star-drenched sky, above the 10-metre South Pole telescope (pg.209).

Inevitably such images are the first port of call for the browser who picks up this book. Under their impact, it would be easy to mistake Science on Ice for a coffee-table book. But its substantial 200-plus pages of text deserve closer scrutiny than that.

Veronika Meduna’s introduction (in part recounting aspects of her two extended visits to Antarctica in 2001 and 2006) reminds us that  Antarctica is the only continent without permanent human habitation, yet it may hold the key to our survival” because of the vastness of its ice caps and ice shelves and how much of Earth’s fresh water is locked up in them. She recounts a little of the “Heroic Age” of Antarctic exploration and gives a quick survey of New Zealand’s close involvement in the continent, and of international treaties since 1957 allowing for “peaceful scientific exploration” below 60 degrees South. There is a clear warning that “this book explores many… questions from a New Zealand perspective and with a focus on the Ross Sea region.

Having established its perspective, Science on Ice then plunges into four long and detailed chapters on different areas of science as practised in Antarctica.

The first, “Uncovering the Past”, concerns the search for the continent’s climate history. It is the story of scientists taking core samplings from sea-floor and from deep ice to determine the age of Antarctica and to reconstruct its early climatic and geological history. When analysed, the cores reveal Antarctica as first having been part of Gondwanaland, then as a drifting continent with a temperate climate, gradually freezing into what it now is, through millennia of fluctuating weather patterns. This sampling and analysis is a multi-national task, but Meduna gives it a distinctly New Zealand slant. She begins with a detailed account of New Zealanders in the field, including the pioneering geologist Peter Barrett, and continues up to the present Antarctic Geological Drilling project, ANDRILL.

“While most of the other 22 countries despatch their glaciologists to the interior of the continent to drill deep into the thicker and older parts of Antarctica’s ice cover,” she notes, “ New Zealand has found its own scientific niche at low-level coastal sites.” Pursuing the theme of climate, this chapter closes with an account of the depletion of the ozone layer and suggestions of the possible consequences for global climate.

The second chapter, “Life on Ice”, is about the work of the biologists and zoologists, and especially the quest to understand the evolutionary adaptation of species to Antarctic conditions. It begins with an account of the survival strategies of emperor penguins and ends with an extended description of a dual study of Adelie penguins and skuas. But it finds more to say about adaptations of fish in Antarctic waters, with antifreeze in their blood. Again observations are based principally on encounters and interviews with New Zealand scientists. Understandably, the sub-section headed “Plunging into the unknown” is suitably respectful about those scientists who dive through metre-thick holes, cut in coastal sea-ice, in order to examine sea-floor life forms. Meduna notes that the Ross Sea has been described as “the Serengeti of the oceans”, so abundant is it in marine life, and she celebrates the NIWA ship Tangaroa’s gathering of new species during the 2008 international Census of Antarctic Marine Life.

As most fish, birds and seals move away from the continent during its dark winter months, Meduna gives her third chapter the title “True Antarcticans”, because it deals with those life forms that do not migrate and that spend their whole life in Antarctica  - plants, mosses, lichen – the work of the botanists. As for the fourth chapter, “Oasis in a Frozen Desert”, it concerns those microbiologists who search for microscopic life in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Science on Ice ends with a very short coda, “Beyond the Ice”, on Antarctica as a listening post for astronomers and physicists trying to work out the after-effects of Big Bang, aided by the clean and largely pollen-free state of the continent’s skies.

This book does its expository work efficiently, mixing anecdote (the stories of the scientists) with scientific description and sometimes the personal and emotional reactions of the author to the scale of the continent, its daunting nature and odd gaunt beauty.

Is there anything lacking in this book?

Science on Ice is not a polemic or work of advocacy, so only very occasionally does it comment on current climate change and its impact. More surprisingly, there is virtually no comment at all on the looming threat of Antarctic exploration by licensed commercial firms, with the aim of mineral extraction, even though this threat is now openly discussed in many ecological forums.

I must admit that I read Science on Ice under the impact of having seen David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet series, which recently screened in New Zealand. I was hoping to be told in some detail about the Weddell Seal, the only mammal that remains in the Antarctic throughout the sunless winter months. But Veronika Meduna gives only passing references to the corpulent beasts, apparently because they do not abound where New Zealand scientists work and are not the subject of New Zealand  studies.

Clearly, Science on Ice is not a survey of all the scientific work done in Antarctica. It is, however, a very thorough reminder of the New Zealand contribution, and from this perspective a very handy primer to the scientific potential of the continent.

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