Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Antarctica Q&A: Dr Rebecca Priestley

Science writer Dr Rebecca Priestley in front of Canada Glacier, in Taylor Valley, in 2011. Photo / Supplied
Science writer Dr Rebecca Priestley in front of Canada Glacier, in Taylor Valley, in 2011. Photo / Supplied

"At minus 20C I have hit my limit, I ache with the cold. I am walking and talking more slowly. I am constantly out of breath."

Award-winning science writer Dr Rebecca Priestley's new anthology of Antarctic science, Dispatches from Continent Seven, starts out with her own experience on the ice.

Herald science reporter and fellow Antarctican Jamie Morton chats with her about her new book.

Science writer Dr Rebecca Priestley filming Cliff Atkins, talking to Nick Golledge, for a geology lecture for Antarctica Online in 2014. Photo / Adam Lewis
Science writer Dr Rebecca Priestley filming Cliff Atkins, talking to Nick Golledge, for a geology lecture for Antarctica Online in 2014. Photo / Adam Lewis

Q: Can you tell us about your history with Antarctica? What has brought you down there and over how many visits?=

A: I first travelled to Antarctica in late 2011, on Antarctica New Zealand's invited media programme.

I spent two weeks, with poet Alice Miller, at and around Scott Base, with short visits to Scott and Shackleton's huts on Ross Island and to an American field camp in the Taylor Valley.

I wrote a series of articles for my NZ Listener science column when I returned, and started work on my anthology.

In late 2014, I travelled to the ice with a Victoria University colleague, Cliff Atkins, to film a series of video lectures for Antarctica Online, an online course we run on Antarctic science and culture.

I gave a series of field lectures on Antarctic science history - with Cliff behind the camera - then I filmed him giving a series of lectures on Antarctic geology and paleoclimate.

Q: What would have been your defining experiences on the ice?

A: Those first few hours of being in Antarctica were pretty defining: this place that had lived in my imagination for so long was suddenly real and underfoot. It felt like the world had just got smaller.

Three years later, spending a night alone in a tent, breathless and cold and anxious, in a blizzard, at minus 20C, at 1300 metres elevation was defining in a different way.

I'd been fine at minus 10C, at and around Scott Base, but suddenly found it very claustrophobic to be so cold and uncomfortable and isolated.

In retrospect, I'm glad to have experienced a bit of physical discomfort in Antarctica.

In the clothes provided by Antarctica New Zealand, I was completely comfortable in the minus 10C I'd experienced around Scott Base but camping at minus 20C gave me a better appreciation for the early explorers and how they might have felt in conditions much, much more extreme that I experienced. Q: What was the impetus for this book: why did you feel this story needed to be told?

A: The idea for this book came when I was working on a different anthology - The Awa Book of New Zealand Science.

I found some great pieces of writing by New Zealand scientists about their Antarctic research.

I put them to one side, thinking that perhaps I could work on an anthology of Antarctic science at some time in the future.

When I came to think more deeply about the project, I realised there were plenty of Antarctic anthologies out there - Bill Manhire's The Wide White Page being one of the best of them - but none with a focus on science.

In fact, scientists' own narratives were often strangely absent from these collections.

For a continent that's dedicated to peace and science, this seemed a curious omission.

Science writer Dr Rebecca Priestley prepping to film a lecture on Antarctic history for Antarctica Online in 2014. Photo / Cliff Atkins
Science writer Dr Rebecca Priestley prepping to film a lecture on Antarctic history for Antarctica Online in 2014. Photo / Cliff Atkins

Q: There's always a fascinating range of scientific work going on down there, from ice core drilling projects to quantify past climate change, to a sensor station that detects cosmic neutrinos. Did the diversity of science there surprise you?

A: I found it incredibly exciting.

On my first visit to Antarctica I went fishing through a hole in the sea ice, visited field camps studying the algae that live under the sea ice and the microbes that live inside glacier ice, and talked to other scientists about their work on toothfish, sea ice physics, ice core drilling, ozone detection and more.

My second trip included staying at a geology field camp investigating Antarctica's climate 14 to 20 million years ago but I also met with scientists studying volcanic activity on Mt Erebus, and the megafauna - seals, penguins and toothfish - of McMurdo Sound.

All these encounters gave me ideas for pieces to include in the anthology.

Q: There are some great historic accounts in the mix, going back hundreds of years, through to passages from the likes of Bill Manhire: it's far from just a book about Antarctic science. How did you go about balancing colour with the dry detail of science?

A: I included poems to add texture to the anthology - it's nice to have some very short and lyrical pieces among the longer narratives - and to provide a different perspective on the topics covered in the book.

But there's nothing dry about the science in this anthology.

Scientists can be poetic in the way they write about their topic - see the way Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote about his first encounter with the emperor penguins, making "a tremendous row, trumpeting with their curious metallic voices" or the way David Campbell described krill as the "planktonic equivalent of a redwood forest, of migrating monarch butterflies, or of the migration of wildebeest and zebras across the Serengeti".

And it's not all about the science; there's plenty of personal reflection about Antarctica and the experience of being there.

Lloyd Spencer Davis is a great example, when he wrote about his surprise encounter with a leopard seal and a penguin as "the most beautiful moment of my life".

Science writer Dr Rebecca Priestley ice fishing on sea ice next to Ross Island,in  2011. Photo / Supplied
Science writer Dr Rebecca Priestley ice fishing on sea ice next to Ross Island,in 2011. Photo / Supplied

Q: Comparatively, how much of the "heavy lifting" do you feel New Zealand contributes to the global pool of Antarctic science?

A: A lot of Antarctic science is international and collaborative but we do have a strong and internationally significant Antarctic science programme in New Zealand.

There's a joint logistics pool between the US and New Zealand, with flights leaving from Christchurch to McMurdo Sound through much of the year, and that means we can get scientists down, including for short trips, a lot more easily and quickly than most nations.

Q: Do you think people generally understand what Antarctica means to the rest of the world - and what might happen under climate change?

A: Because of our proximity to the icy continent, and the high profile that Antarctic science has here, I think that we in New Zealand are much more tuned into how important Antarctica is in a warming world.

We have some of the world's best Antarctic paleoclimatologists here in New Zealand, and their research is helping to show us that the decisions we make in the coming years - about how much we're going to limit our CO2 emissions - will impact on how much of the Antarctic ice sheet is going to melt and how much sea level rise will follow.

Q: And what do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about Antarctica? Climate sceptics often like to claim that the continent is expanding.

A: I teach a course on Antarctic science and culture and we like to see how student's perceptions change over time.

Curiously - I can tell you this from the course I'm teaching at the moment - one of the misconceptions about Antarctic is that polar bears are part of the food chain.

Q: Other misconceptions?

A: That the weather is always bad (on my first trip I had a solid week of sunny, calm weather).

That it's a melancholy, lonely place (the reality is that around the bases it's busy, noisy, vibrant).

As for the continent expanding, it's true that the extent of the sea ice has been expanding for several years but this is happening at the same time as the glacier ice - including the massive ice sheets that cover the continent - is thinning.

Overall, the continent is losing ice on a massive scale and it's because of the CO2 we're pumping into the atmosphere.

Q: If you wanted people to absorb just one sentence about what they need to know about Antarctica, what would it be?

A: It's something that Tim Naish, director of the Antarctic Research Centre, said last week: "If the Antarctic ice sheet completely melted, global sea level would rise about 60 metres. It's a sleeping giant."

• Dispatches from Continent Seven, AWA Press. Print edition price: NZ $55

- NZ Herald

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