Antarctica is a place dedicated to peace and science. Every year, numerous scientists make their way down south to spend weeks to months in the coldest, windiest, most barren places of our planet. This raises the question: Why? A new anthology by science writer Rebecca Priestley now reveals numerous scientific discoveries that have been made in Antarctica from Captain James Cook to modern day scientists. It might help to elucidate the fascination and magic of this last true wilderness. The titel of the book: “Dispatches from Continent Seven”.

Antarctica is the coldest and windiest place of our planet and conditions can be challenging when moving between camp and work place in a blizzard. Hand lines are like umbilical cords then, providing safety in these conditions. (Photo: Katja Riedel)
Antarctica is the coldest and windiest place of our planet and conditions can be challenging when moving between camp and work place in a blizzard. Hand lines are like umbilical cords then, providing safety in these conditions. (Photo: Katja Riedel)

Since British explorer James Cook first circumnavigated Antarctica in the late 18th century, the white continent has exerted a powerful attraction. There is no permanent human habitation, and no mercy from the relentless elements, yet for nearly 200 years explorers and scientists have been drawn to work and sometimes risk their lives here.

Rebecca Priestley's new anthology reveals the numerous scientific discoveries that have been made, from how sea creatures survive in the freezing waters, to the continent's extraordinary proliferation of meteorites and the startling revelations of its fossils which show that Antarctica was once covered in forests.

In the early days, nations vied to establish a presence on the continent to try and claim its resources. Today scientists track the arrival of space particles and examine ice cores, sea-floor sediments and rocks hewn by glaciers to better understand our universe, uncover the story of climate change, and learn how a land once covered in forests became a frozen desert.

It has to be the most extreme place to work as a scientist: freezing temperatures, fierce winds, permanent ice, and often terrible visibility, shared with few companions and the knowledge that civilisation is a long way away. For those who spend the long winter months there is also perpetual darkness.

A century on from the expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and Shackleton, travelling to and living in Antarctica has become a very different experience. Here a modern tent provides scientists with a place to work, eat and live. (Photo: Katja Riedel)
A century on from the expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and Shackleton, travelling to and living in Antarctica has become a very different experience. Here a modern tent provides scientists with a place to work, eat and live. (Photo: Katja Riedel)

The new anthology “Dispatches from Continent Seven” starts with Rebecca Priestley’s own experiences of Antarctica: She is on a high plateau in the Transantarctic Mountains at minus 20°C. “I have hit my limit, I ache with the cold. I am walking and talking more slowly. I am constantly out of breath.’ But the geologists she’s with seem unconcerned about the testing conditions. They are veterans who have spent many seasons in Antarctica. They are investigating sediments and glacial deposits, part of a massive international effort to try and understand why Antarctica was once covered with forests teeming with wildlife, how it became an icy wilderness, and what will happen in the future.

In order to uncover the story of climate change, scientists travel to Antarctica to drill  ice cores. Equipment is carried by snow mobiles to the drilling site on Taylor Glacier in the Dry Valleys. (Photo: Katja Riedel)
In order to uncover the story of climate change, scientists travel to Antarctica to drill ice cores. Equipment is carried by snow mobiles to the drilling site on Taylor Glacier in the Dry Valleys. (Photo: Katja Riedel)

Priestley collected texts by Antarctic explorers and scientists starting with Captain James Cook’s voyage in 1773 and ending with research biologist Kathryn Smith on the ten-year invasion of predatory king crabs on to the Antarctic sea floor – a warning sign, like so much else in Antarctica, that global warming is a threat to the finely balanced ecosystems that sustain life on Earth.

The book is arranged into roughly chronological sections covering the first voyages attempting to “discover” Antarctica, early accounts of scientists and explorers who made it onto the continent, the growth of scientific endeavours from the 1950’s onwards, and finally a collection of recent writing on what study in Antarctica can tell us about climate change and our possible future.

About the Author

Rebecca Priestley is a science writer and historian from New Zealand. She reviews popular science and science history books for various magazines and newspapers. The Listener and The Dominion Post, writes for the Listener's health and science pages, and is a contributor to Te Ara - the online encyclopaedia of New Zealand. She has written and edited numerous books on science, including The Elegant Universe of Albert Einstein, The Awa Book of New Zealand Science, and Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age.

Book_cover

Dispatches from Continent Seven: An Anthology of Antarctic Science
by Rebecca Priestley
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249055
456 pages

Source: AWA press