Science on Ice by Veronika Meduna – review

by Sarah Wilcox / 03 November, 2012
Veronika Meduna takes the measure of a sensitive barometer of change.
Science on Ice by Veronika Meduna


What’s not to love about Antarctica? Not only is it the home of emperor penguins, but it’s also the land of superlatives – the highest, driest, coldest and perhaps the most puzzling place on Earth. Veronika Meduna’s Science on Ice transports the reader beyond ice, snow and glaciers into some of the conundrums of the continent – strange rivers that fl ow for only a couple of months each summer, fossilised leaf remains, sand-sculpted rocks and the vivid beauty of rock-hugging mosses and lichens. But why is such a distant place worth studying? Meduna sets out the lofty research goals clearly and compellingly. “The icy continent is no longer seen as a geographical oddity but a crucial part of a global climate and environment – a sensitive barometer of change that allows scientists to ask fundamental questions about life and the world around us.”

Those fundamental questions have drawn scientists to the continent, following after Captain Scott in 1901, to explore its varied environments, from ice cores and marine plants and animals to the tiniest organisms that inhabit the continent’s lakes and soils. A little history, a prominent scientist and Meduna herself tell the science in story form, teasing out the essential background and key discoveries. As you would expect from this experienced science communicator, the why and how of the subjects covered are clearly explained. Although New Zealand-flavoured, the scientific menu is international and right up to date. Roberta Farrell, for example, is a biochemist working on the conservation of Scott’s Terra Nova hut. She has isolated a fungus that is attacking the timber of the historic hut, which is thought to have survived from when “Antarctica was warm and green and wood-decay fungi fl ourished in coastal swamps and peat bogs”.

Farrell’s team has since found the same fungus at sites far away from the hut, lending weight to the theory that the fungus is a “native” of the continent, rather than having arrived with the timber. I enjoyed Meduna’s description of her “exquisite” chance encounter with emperor penguins when their helicopter pilot dropped down to a group on the sea ice during a visit. An accompanying photo shows her with an ear to ear grin and, of course, a Radio New Zealand tape recorder slung across her shoulder. With long chapters and no text boxes, the book is relatively hard to dip into, although the photo captions help. I was disappointed not to fi nd large and fabulous images of Antarctica all the way through, but the photographs are excellent illustrations of the lengths scientists will go to for results.

The stunning cover image shows three mysterious figures in black setting up an experiment to measure wind; further on a mummified seal is inspected by microbiologists, baring its white teeth at the viewer in a deathly grin; and another shows a scientist measuring light levels under the ice, lying prone with only his legs sticking comically out from under a tarpaulin. Much research has gone into this book. After each entry in the references section, a sentence helpfully describes what was interesting or useful about it. Some of Meduna’s comments are delightful, such as “for anybody interested in nematodes” or “Adolf Hitler changed the fertility of Antarctic whales” (referring to the withdrawal of whaling ships from the Southern Ocean during World War II). The acknowledgements are heartfelt, thanking those who made visiting the ice possible as well as those who supported the author during the writing process, especially after the birth of her son, who at three can already tell the difference between an adélie and an emperor penguin.

SCIENCE ON ICE: DISCOVERING THE SECRETS OF ANTARCTICA, by Veronika Meduna (AUP, $59.99 ).

Sarah Wilcox is a freelance science writer who travelled to Antarctica in February as part of Gareth Morgan’s Our Far South project.

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