For most people, the Antarctic is and will always remain the impenetrable continent. Locked in the grip of massive ice sheets and surrounded much of the year by pack ice, this land is the only continent that lacks permanent human habitation. In the last 60 years, increasing numbers of scientists from many nations have been probing the secrets of this “last place on Earth.” As a New Zealand science journalist writing for a popular audience, Veronika Meduna has attempted to bridge the gap between those Antarctic scientists and the rest of the world with her book Secrets of the Ice: Antarctica's Clues to Climate, the Universe, and the Limits of Life. In it, she admits to writing “from a New Zealand perspective,” focusing mainly on the New Zealand sector of the continent: a piece of the Antarctic pie that encompasses much of the Ross Sea region and a wedge of land that comes to a point at the South Pole. Nevertheless, she succeeds with real talent in making Antarctic science accessible to the general public.
Meduna does not allow her text to get bogged down in technical detail or jargon, avoiding the trap to which many scientists fall prey, but still manages to include informational chapters that introduce the continent; reconstruct its ancient environments through bedrock geology and ice-core drilling; feature the biology of penguins and near-shore marine life; and focus on the very limited terrestrial life of bacteria, invertebrates, mosses, and lichens that can survive extremely cold and arid conditions. There is also a chapter on the remote Antarctic Dry Valley, as well as lake and river environments, and a brief concluding section on the study of atmospheric phenomena.
Meduna makes Antarctic science personal by showing it to the reader through the eyes of the scientists on site. This approach humanizes certain topics that are difficult for nonscientists to grasp and shows the motivation behind the scientific work, answering the obvious question of why anyone would want to go to the coldest, most inhospitable place on Earth to do research. From geophysicists and ice-core geochemists to penguin experts and marine biologists, Secrets of the Ice introduces the reader to a broad spectrum of scientists and their work. Through their eyes, we see the extreme conditions, the isolation, and the lack of creature comforts, but we also sense their enthusiasm and dedication and their shared fascination with Antarctic science. They cannot wait to return each year to carry on with their research projects; below are two examples.
Meduna visited fellow New Zealander Nancy Bertler's glaciology field camp near a location called Dome C, one of the highest ice domes on the continent and one of the coldest places on Earth, with winter temperatures recorded as low as -80 degrees Celsius, not unlike the average surface temperature on Mars. Bertler's international ice-coring team is in charge of digging a massive trench in the snow to store the cores of ice extracted from a drill rig. This is backbreaking work, as is the drilling, but the team perseveres because they know the true value of these ice samples. The bubbles of air trapped in each layer of ice represent tiny samples of the Earth's ancient atmosphere. Through painstaking analysis, the history of atmospheric composition can be reconstructed—decade upon decade, century by century, millennium after millennium. In this way, we can accurately assess the longterm changes in the concentrations of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. This is vital information for climate models, and it cannot be obtained in any other way.
Fish biologist Art DeVries has been researching how fish living near the shores of Antarctica keep themselves alive in subfreezing waters. He began his fieldwork in Antarctica in 1961, and he and his team of researchers have now discovered how these fish make antifreeze compounds in their bodies and how the compounds isolate and essentially neutralize the inevitable ice crystals—both those that are ingested from the icy waters and those that form inside fish's body cavities. It has been a long, hard struggle, but 50 years of research by DeVries and his colleagues has produced invaluable discoveries about fish physiology and biochemistry.
Secrets of the Ice is richly illustrated with color photographs of Antarctic landscapes, wildlife, and the scientists at work in the field and laboratory. I highly recommend it to readers interested in cold-regions research.