Sunday, February 21, 2016

The coldest, windiest, most barren place on Earth – and why scientists love it

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

Award-winning science writer Rebecca Priestley introduces her new book Dispatches from Continent Seven (Awa Press - $55) with her own experience of Antarctica: ‘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.’

She is on a high plateau in the Transantarctic Mountains but the geologists she’s with seem unconcerned about the testing conditions. They are veterans who have spent many seasons in Antarctica – the last and seventh major continent to be discovered, hence the title of this book. They are investigating sediments and glacial deposits, part of a massive international effort to try and understand why Antarctica was once covered with luxuriant forests teeming with wildlife, how it became an icy wilderness, and what will happen in the future. This is cutting-edge science: many scientists dream of working on a polar team.

In a rave review of Dispatches from Continent Seven, internationally acclaimed science writer and broadcaster Marcus Chown calls it ‘wonderful, sumptuous, a book which reminds us what an utterly extraordinary planet we find ourselves on and how precarious is our continued existence on it.’

Priestley’s enthralling collection of writings by Antarctic explorers and scientists starts with Captain James Cook in 1773 on sailing inside the Antarctic Circle, and ends 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.

In between we learn of the numerous important and intriguing scientific discoveries that have been made here over 200 years – from sexually depraved penguins and hermaphrodite sea butterflies to fish full of anti-freeze, melting ice caps, expanding sea ice and a mysterious plethora of meteorites.

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