Book review: Science on Ice

By Graeme Barrow

I don't know if the author/publishers intended it, but the timing of this superb book on Antarctica is very appropriate.

This year marks the centenary of Captain Robert Scott's doomed journey to the South Pole. Scott and his colleagues arrived at the Pole on January 17, 1912, only to discover that they had been beaten by Roald Amundsen's Norwegian expedition by 33 days. Scott and his men died on the return journey.

But that is by the way.

This book is about the past only in a scientific context.

And it is in its preservation of the past that this forbidding, frozen, floating continent tells us of the planet's likely future.

This vast mass of (mainly) ice, a tenth of the planet's landmass, may hold the secret to how life began on Earth. And its ancient climate history may also be able to tell us how long life will survive on it.

Author Meduna, whose fascination with Antarctica began when she arrived in New Zealand in 1993, is a scientist and New Zealand's leading writer/commentator on scientific matters.

She is internationally recognised, and has made two lengthy visits to the planet's only continent that has no permanent human habitation.

New Zealand's involvement with Antarctica has been considerable and significant.

It began in 1953 when British explorer and geologist Vivian Fuchs announced plans for the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, and asked Edmund Hillary to lead a group to lay food depots between McMurdo Sound and the Pole.

However, when there, and against the instructions of the Ross Sea Committee, Hillary led a dash to the Pole, and his team became the first to reach it overland since 1912. Internationally, Hillary was criticised for apparently putting adventure before the expedition's scientific aims but, in New Zealand, this just reinforced his status as a hero. Since then New Zealand's involvement has been research only.

And there is no comfort in their conclusions for climate change naysayers.

Tim Naish, director of Victoria University's Antarctic Research Centre, warns that messing with the planet's engine rooms could have dire consequences.

The world's largest freshwater reservoir sits on top of the continent and any melting of its ice sheets would flood the Southern Ocean with salt-free water, with unwelcome results.

And Peter Barrett, who set up the university's research centre, now concentrates his research on climate change through anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.

This is a beautifully written book, beautifully presented, and crammed with colour photographs.


Title: Science on Ice

Author: Veronika Meduna

Publisher: Auckland University Press, $60, hardback

- Hamilton News

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