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Rebecca Priestley. Photo/Supplied

Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica: A book of global and personal anxiety

In a deft eco-memoir, science writer Rebecca Priestley reflects on her visits to Antarctica.

When faced with the grim facts of our precarious Anthropocene era, science writer Rebecca Priestley is by turns paralysed with anxiety and buoyed by hopefulness. In her new book, Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica, Priestley, an associate professor in Victoria University of Wellington’s Science in Society Group and author of 2012’s Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age, recounts the three times over the past eight years that she has gone to Antarctica, the Great White Continent, this “place at the bottom of the planet, this place of dreams and imagination”. Each time she went, as a writer and observer and as a scientist and academic, she experienced moments of overwhelming angst as well as flashes of insight and surprising moments of peace.

Priestley, a former Listener columnist, went to Antarctica most recently to write about the resident team of biologists, glaciologists, limnologists and sedimentologists whose work aims to “tell a story of environmental change over time”. These scientists are “fine-tuning our understanding about how the Antarctic ice sheets respond to a warming climate”. It is this evolving and urgent understanding of the dire environmental situation humans have created that Priestley sets out to share with lay readers. She also visited the continent in her capacity as an academic, recording interviews and lectures for her online undergraduate course on Antarctica.

Read an extract from Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica.

While there, she “learnt how to light a Primus, use the VHF radio and read the signs of changing weather”. She is made aware that all waste generated at New Zealand’s Scott Base would need to be shipped home, thereby ensuring she was extremely mindful of her leavings.

She learns that Hägglunds – the Swedish military all-terrain vehicle with tractor wheels designed for the snow that she was ferried about in – have built-in escape hatches in the event that they become submerged after falling through the ice. She learns just how hard it can be to get warm once you’re truly cold; how it feels to be absolutely, radically isolated; and about the depth of connection and concern that these kinds of stark conditions can foster.

As Priestley details, visiting Antarctica had been a lifelong dream. She understood that experiencing this vast, white, formidable place first hand would change her, might even, as she writes, make her more her. Yet even though she wants to go, and even though she returns twice, making this journey and being on this continent often leave Priestley filled with dread. While she imagines and reimagines what this – at least to her, terra incognita – place is, she digs deeper into what climate change might mean for the planet in five years or a hundred.

This is a book about personal as well as global anxiety, about geology, about memory and connection, about the science of climate change. Most pressingly, it is a book that reminds us of all that we stand to lose if we don’t change our priorities.

Fifteen Million Years in Antarctica, by Rebecca Priestley (Victoria University Press, $40)

Rebecca Priestley will make several appearances in the Writers section of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts in Wellington, February 21-March 5, next year.

This article was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.