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Science writer Rebecca Priestley - interview

A fascination with the coldest continent has led to an anthology on Antarctic science.

Stark beauty: penguins on a rare blue iceberg in Antarctica. Photo/Getty Images
Stark beauty: penguins on a rare blue iceberg in Antarctica. Photo/Getty Images

You’ve travelled to Antarctica. Can you describe its pleasures, surprises and challenges, and also the continent’s perennial appeal to so many?

Pleasures? The dramatic and stark beauty. The simplicity of a place stripped back to the essentials of food, warmth, hard work. Surprises? The dedicated and interesting people who work there. The excellent food at Scott Base. The many still, sunny days. Challenges? Sleeping in a tent, in a snowstorm, at altitude, at minus 20°C. Being cold for 48 hours. Flying. Being so far from my children. As for its appeal, I’m always astonished to find people who don’t share my fascination with Antarctica.

Henry Worsley tried to be the first man to cross it alone and unaided but died in January, 50km short of his goal. Why does the urge to conquer it never seem to cease?

I don’t share that urge to conquer, so I can only speculate. Antarctica is often seen as the “last great wilderness” – you’re always at the mercy of the weather. Technology now lets people travel in relative comfort – you can drive from McMurdo Station to the South Pole – but an unassisted walk like this is always going to be a massive challenge at the limit of human capability.

How has writing about Antarctica changed?

I’m interested in non-fiction by people with first-hand experience of Antarctica. This sort of writing has evolved as different groups gained access to the continent – explorers, scientists and now artists, writers and tourists. Much of this writing focuses on personal experience – tales of endurance, discovery, adventure – but there’s more of a trend towards broader reflection on both human impact on Antarctica and Antarctica’s role in the future of our planet.

Why did you choose mainly pieces by scientists for your book?

There are many Antarctic anthologies – including Bill Manhire’s excellent one by writers – but none focused on science, despite the fact that more scientists have been to the continent than have explorers, writers or poets. Many early scientists kept journals and today’s scientists are increasingly writing books or blogs, so there was lots of material to draw on.

Your book also has poetry. How have the arts helped illuminate Antarctica’s fascinations and perils?

Science writing and poetry have much in common – precision of language, use of metaphor, a focus on details – poetry fits well in a science anthology. I also hoped it might connect with the reader on a more emotional level, offer a different perspective on the topic under investigation and interest a wider range of readers in the book. The same things can be said about Antarctic-inspired art, especially if you’re talking about an issue such as climate change. Art can often reach a wider audience, elicit a wider range of responses and reach people on a more emotional level than a more straight­forward narrative about the science.

You devote the book to Peter Barrett, emeritus professor at the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University.

Peter is an international legend of Antarctic science. He found the first tetrapod fossil in 1967, evidence that land vertebrates had once roamed a much warmer Antarctic continent. In subsequent years he led a series of sediment drilling programmes in McMurdo Sound that helped reconstruct the story of Antarctica’s past climate and glaciation.

LS1116_b&c_Dispatches-Contient-7Is your view of the ice sheets melting as a result of global warming optimistic or pessimistic?

There is still debate over whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is heading for inevitable collapse, but some very recent research by my Victoria University colleague Nick Golledge suggests that if we can keep warming below 2°C, we can save it and avoid the 3.6m sea level that would result from its collapse. I think it’s important for us to proceed over the next few years – while we still have a chance – knowing that the choices we make now will make a real difference to the future of our planet.

How do you feel about scientific research, such as the Russians drilling to find ancient life in Lake Vostok, or research that suggests the ice sheet is hiding a treasure trove of meteorites?

I’m excited. There are still so many stories to come from this amazing continent.


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