Friday, May 4, 2012

Book Review: Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of the World's Most Mysterious Continent

Walker, G. (2013). Antarctica: An intimate portrait of the world's most mysterious continent . Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub.

Polar research: Deep-frozen science

A dazzling array of narratives throngs Antarctica, collected from scientists in one of Earth's most extreme environments. Science writer and consultant Gabrielle Walker gathered these stories in the course of five trips criss-crossing the continent, mostly as a guest of the US National Science Foundation's Antarctic programme.
This is not just a highly accessible encyclopedia of Antarctic science. It interlaces researchers' stories with natural history, tales of the 'heroic age' of exploration and passages that viscerally describe the cold, isolation and beauty of the environment. Neatly organized geographically, the book covers the East Antarctic coast, with McMurdo Station (the largest community in Antarctica) and the penguins; the high plateau, with the Concordia and South Pole research stations; and the isolated West Antarctic coast.
Walker talks about the Dry Valleys near McMurdo, which run from the edge of the ice sheet that covers most of the continent down to the Ross Sea. Precious little precipitation has fallen here for millions of years: with an average temperature of −55 °C, this is Mars on Earth. But it is teeming with life — cyanobacteria, found in ponds the world over. Here, they live inside the dry rock, surfacing for only a few weeks a year to find water from the little snow that fell over winter. Then they go back to sleep.
Walker learned that fascinating story on a diving expedition in Lake Hoare in the Dry Valleys with Peter Doran, a biologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But it isn't only researchers who feature here. The book is peppered with characters who “keep the scientists alive”. On one trip we meet camp manager Rae Spain, who came to Antarctica as a carpenter and returned because she could not get the continent out of her head. “It haunts you,” she told Walker.
Mars has literally come to Earth just beyond the Dry Valleys, Walker tells us. Researchers on Skidoos systematically scan the ice sheet for meteorites — a relatively easy task, given that everything stands out in this icy landscape. We accompany John Schutt, a mountaineer who has returned for the hunt every year since 1980. More meteorites have been found since the 1970s in Antarctica than over centuries in the rest of the world.
In 1982, for the first time, an Antarctic meteorite was identified as coming from the Moon. Two years later, researchers found a rock from Mars that turned out to contain structures that may be nanoscale fossils: the most intriguing indications yet that life may have existed on other planets in the Solar System, although debate is still raging.
The West Antarctic coast, as Walker shows, is out of reach of the permanent scientific stations, and difficult to approach by vessel. This is where gigantic glaciers empty into the Pacific Ocean, and studies have revealed rapid changes in the ice flow. Helen Fricker, a glaciologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, has traced these changes to sub-glacial lakes linked by canals, which form a dynamic hydrologic system on which the ice slides to the sea. Walker journeys across the inhospitable glaciers, where she stands on ice flows the size of Niagara Falls with George Denton of the University of Maine in Orono, a veteran in 'reading' glacial landscapes.
Some of the historical vignettes will be familiar, such as the race to the South Pole between Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his trained team, and Robert Scott, British hero of scientists, who presumably found Amundsen's efficient approach ungentlemanly. Other stories are less well known, such as that of Australian geologist Douglas Mawson, who travelled to the south magnetic pole as part of Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod expedition and later led a disastrous research trip to Adelie Land, on which two men died.
Tales of those expeditions, and the scientific ones that followed, remind us that people have been travelling to Antarctica for almost two centuries, ever since seal hunter Captain John Davis first set foot there in 1821. The Antarctic Treaty, signed by 49 countries, has since 1961 guaranteed that the continent is reserved for science. High technology has now arrived: the collaborations behind the South Pole Telescope and the IceCube Neutrino Observatory have constructed the kinds of instrument that are more routinely built at laboratories such as Fermilab near Batavia, Illinois, or CERN near Geneva, Switzerland. IceCube collects a few hundred neutrinos per day, some with energies that exceed those at earthbound accelerators by more than two orders of magnitude.
Yet Antarctica is still the “world's most mysterious continent”, as it remains the only one on which humans have never lived permanently. Walker captures that mystique through interviews with people who have made Antarctica part of their lives. Perhaps the most notable among them are the “telescope nannies”, who return each year in early February to spend the long Antarctic winters at the South Pole, taking care of the scientific equipment and data acquisition after scientists have boarded the last planes back to their universities. Their arduous job brings a rare reward: a sense of the untrammelled isolation of this vast continent.
Submitted by Francis Halzen

Copies of this book at UW-Madison Libraries

This review is reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 483, 272–273 (15 March 2012), copyright 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment