Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica by Rebecca Priestley (Victoria University Press, 2019), 384pp., $40
Despite an inhospitable nature, or maybe simply because it’s a frozen desert, Antarctica attracts an array of superlatives – coldest, windiest, highest, driest, remotest and last-discovered of the planet’s seven continents. Yet another set of descriptors derives from the human activity of recent decades – most pristine, most peaceful, most collaborative.
Yes, collaboration, internationally. As New Zealand’s most famous Antarctic explorer, Sir Edmund Hillary, once said, Antarctica’s extreme environment ‘drives people together’.
Earth’s last great wilderness is no place for the unprepared and ill-equipped. Its other-worldly nature – the nearest thing to an extraterrestrial experience – can be challenging, too, for anyone trying to find the right words to describe the place, to say something original. Heroic Age explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Captain Scott’s men from his fatal 1910–13 expedition, wrote a memorable line following a winter sledging trip to the far side of Ross Island: ‘This journey has beggared our language.’
With this, her sixth book, Rebecca Priestley, a prize-winnning science communicator from Victoria University of Wellington, has added a distinctive and very personal voice to the growing oeuvre of Antarctic literature. It crosses genres – part memoir, part diary, part travel story and science exposition. Priestley takes the reader on three work trips to the McMurdo Sound region, centrepiece of New Zealand’s Ross Dependency and arguably the continent’s most diverse region for land- and ice-forms, between 2011 and 2018. It is a compelling and at times emotional saga.
Interspersed with the travel and all sorts of research projects are details of Priestley’s early life and motivation. Her father left home when she was three, and her mother, Ruth, took her and a baby sister to London for six months where Ruth was immersed in the world of arts, including sculpture and dance. Back in Wellington in the 1970s she met Victoria University geologist Peter Barrett. School-age Rebecca soon discovered he was a scientist who went to Antarctica. She would go on to study earth science at the same university – and acquire a deep longing to go to Antarctica.
After several attempts to get there in the 1990s, in 2011 Priestley was accepted to travel south with the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme in order to write articles for a science column. A busy eight-day schedule would connect her with an array of Antarctic research projects as well as the nature of volcanic Ross Island with its summit a steaming lava lake, and life at Scott Base. She was 44 with three young children. And she was anxious, especially about flying.
Two days of survival training in the field were followed by activities such as research briefings, local walks through pressure ridges to a fish research camp on the sea ice, and visits to the sprawling industrial American base, McMurdo Station. There were visits to the Shackleton and Scott historic huts (‘Wow! I’m lost for words’) and the haunting Dry Valleys on the other side of McMurdo Sound to see geologists, glaciologists and biologists at work. Back at the base there were weather science and atmospheric physics to take in. It all got rather hectic. Alone the day before the scheduled flight home, she finally found time to reflect. Tears came.
I cried for the beauty and vulnerability of Antarctica. I cried because I had now achieved everything I’d ever wanted to do in my life.
On her second visit in 2014, Priestley teams up with Cliff Atkins to film video lectures about Antarctic history and geology. Their primary focus is on the Dry Valleys region, the largest expanse of land in Antarctica that is ice-free.
By now, she has indicated that her incessant companion – anxiety – is along for the adventure, too. She is anxious about leaving her children again and about leaving her father, who’s in a wheelchair with a terminal illness. But this is Antarctica and the distractions are immense.
The highlight is joining a team of earth scientists at a camp on the Friis Hills plateau, 1300m above sea level:
The extreme climate contributes to a bizarre suite of landforms and surface features with names such as solifluction lobes, ice-wedge polygons and desert pavements.
Although geology has a big and puzzling vocabulary of its own, in describing the astonishing Dry Valleys in picturesque lay terms Priestley is in her element. Her first-person account gets even more gripping at the campsite, where a mess tent is filled with hot drinks, energy food, radio gear and computers, and heaters that keep temperatures above zero – a polar form of ‘glamping’. There are nine scientists and a collection of smaller sleeping tents. But after a spell of filming and reconnoitring the terrain, Priestley is uncomfortable and on edge. She is ‘breathing badly … cold … slow. The barometer is falling and so is the snow.’
Heading for her one-person tent through the blowing snow, she crawls into a triple-layered sleeping bag:
I really don’t feel good. My head is buzzing. My chest feels tight and my heart is palpitating. I can’t breathe.
Isolated and ‘stuck here’ a long way from help, she fights off a panic attack, too anxious to take a vial of Diazepam (similar to valium) in case it makes things worse. She gets to sleep using a respiratory technique taught to her by a physiotherapist back home. In the morning she tells a colleague she has been feeling a bit breathless and he gives it a name – ‘cold asthma’, the shock of cold, dry air on the lungs. She is somewhat relieved and is soothingly distracted by the filming, the landscape, and how field geologists go about their work. At the end of the day’s work, she sits on a dolerite boulder hidden from the camp and weeps – ‘the only way I can respond to this landscape … where once there were lakes and rivers and insects buzzing around the trees’.
Back home her story turns to cold-lab analysis of drilled sediment cores from the region, measuring hundreds of metres, that shed light on the geological history. Volcanic ash and leaf fossils turn up in at least one core from the Mid-Miocene period, aged 15 million years. This discovery may be behind the prosaic title of the book, which deserves something more stirring. After the Friis Hills drama, this section, which goes into detail about the scanning techniques and borders on scientific treatise, lets the book’s momentum drop a tad.
But Priestley soon switches topic, and there is nothing like a discussion around climate-change impacts to reset reader interest. Turns out that 15 million years ago, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere were 700 parts per million (400 today), temperatures were 4–5 degrees Celsius warmer, and sea levels up to 35 metres higher. Pause for thought.
In three places in the book there are references to CO2 concentrations, the loss of the Ross Ice Shelf, West Antarctic Ice Sheet and Greenland Ice Sheet and the consequent rising of global sea levels, and these references express different measures. But then, climate science can be like that – confusing and subject to continuous updating.
A surprising long-term forecast, perhaps centuries away, is that ironically sea-level in the McMurdo Sound region will drop as global heating kicks in, and that is because the gravitational pull of the adjacent East Antarctic Ice Sheet, heightening sea level, will lessen with melting.
The book gets back to Antarctica in 2018, a three-peat. More filming is required for online lectures by Associate Professor Priestley, who by now is director of Victoria University’s Centre for Science in Society, a worthy title for her. Anxiety continues to be a bother, however. Chill pills are packed. When it comes to flying, helicopters are better than aeroplanes – ‘it’s not far to fall’. It doesn’t allay her nervousness that Antarctica New Zealand’s health and safety checklist has ramped up extra hazards, including the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from operating cookers in tents.
Suddenly confronted at Scott Base by numerous scientists doing fieldwork in the region, investigating and recording stuff and collecting geological and biological material, Priestley questions her own contribution and whether she belongs in Antarctica at all. Someone should tell her that in the climate emergency facing the planet, expert interpreters of scientific evidence will become increasingly important if humanity is to mount a commensurate response – mitigation of greenhouse gases and adpatation to meet rising angry seas, more extreme weather, flooding, erosion, droughts and wildfires. There is no more important time to be writing about the climate threats, as she has done as an undercurrent throughout this book.
The fact is, Antarctica has a pivotal moderating role in global climate. Few science writers get there and fewer still connect as personally and as well as Priestley. Her writing is accessible and affable, with informality inherent in her use of first names for the people she meets. Her pen pictures more than offset the book’s paucity of illustrations.
For the planet’s sake, her words matter, and Priestley has added a new superlative to the continent’s long list: most companionable.
NEVILLE PEAT has written five books on Antarctic themes. His latest title is The Invading Sea: Coastal hazards and climate change in Aotearoa New Zealand (The Cuba Press 2018).