Between different worlds

Thought experiments in blue and white

Featured in

  • Published 20220503
  • ISBN: 978-1-922212-74-0
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

Click here to Listen to Editor Ashley Hay read her introduction ‘Between different worlds’

HERE’S AN IDEA: there’s no time at the South Pole. Where the globe’s lines of longitude meet, all the world’s times co-exist at once. To walk a circle with a radius of ten metres around the planet’s southern polar point would be to pass through all twenty-four of its time zones in one short snowy trudge – the white-blue of the ice below; the blue-white of the sky above.

Tilt this idea a little on its axis, and perhaps this means there’s no world-time here at all. At the South Pole, the sun takes roughly two months to rise – once – in spring. It stays light through one long ‘day’ that reaches from October to March. And then it sets – once – across two months of autumn for the long winter of a single ‘night’ from May to August. One day and one night in each cycle the world calls a year. An upending kind of measurement; a different way of quantifying time.

These are interesting thought experiments, as are most things about Antarctica for most people. Although thirty countries operate more than eighty scientific research bases across its space, and more than 74,000 tourists visited in the pre-Covid 2019–20 season, Antarctica is still, in many ways, Terra Australis Incognita: an unknown great southern land. It’s a place most people will visit virtually rather than actually – through stories, images, films, documentaries and science. A place they will imagine rather than encounter. A place that is out of their world.

Stop for a moment. And breathe. 

THINK ABOUT THE air at the South Pole; imagine how clean and cold it would feel. The South Pole Observatory collects information from that air, specific carbon-dioxide readings from air samples collected in glass flasks. The observatory was established in 1957, the year when so much of the world’s Antarctic activity got underway as part of the International Geophysical Year; these carbon-dioxide readings from the geophysical pole date back to the 1970s.

That period – and 1972 in particular – holds a particular charge. 1972 saw the publication of the Stockholm Declaration, the result of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in early June 1972. Principle 6 of that declaration insisted that

The discharge of toxic substances or of other substances and the release of heat, in such quantities or concentrations as to exceed the capacity of the environment to render them harmless, must be halted in order to ensure that serious or irreversible damage is not inflicted upon ecosystems. 

This pulses with a very different energy fifty years later. In 1972, the carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere – the primary greenhouse gas that causes global warming – was running at roughly 327 parts per million. Fifty years later, it’s breached 420 ppm, an increase of almost a third – and well over the planet’s safe operating limit of 350 ppm. 

It almost feels like a cliché to offer up this particular story, to lay a single measurement of parts per million alongside another in order to underscore the speed of this change. But it’s critical to keep those numbers in mind, to contemplate the scale of difference across a short half century. 

And breathe.

That rich blue sky above the white Antarctic snow also houses another disruption, a story that has always looked like it could achieve a better end than the ever-climbing J-curve of carbon dioxide’s parts per million. In 1985, Jonathan Shanklin, a British meteorologist, realised that the thickness of the ozone layer over the UK’s Halley Research Station had shrunk by a third in a couple of decades. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were quickly identified as the cause of this stratospheric damage, and in 1987 the Montreal Protocol came into effect, first freezing production and consumption of CFCs at current levels, and then phasing them out completely. At the moment there’s evidence that this thinning – this ‘hole’ – is recovering, thanks to an effective and constantly updated protocol. It’s like a model story for what’s possible with speedy research and international co-operation – precisely what we haven’t seen around the issue of climate change; what’s possible when alternative technologies are accepted as being in hand; what’s possible without the vested interests of vast industry. 

But the stories of climate and ozone are also coupled in a way. Ten years ago, US scientist James G Anderson demonstrated what the Smithsonian Magazine described as a ‘revolutionary connection between climate change and ozone loss’: he showed that ozone depletion could be triggered by the kinds of super-storms that were also expected to increase with a changing climate. His work studied the ozone layer in the US and Sweden; it focused on the impact of mighty thunderstorms ‘thirty miles across’.

At the end of this year, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will release their latest Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion – an internationally collaborative effort. One current ‘good news story’ in Antarctica, says Julie Arblaster, a professor at Monash University and one of the scientific steering committee for this imminent WMO/UNEP report, is that ‘ozone depletion has stabilised there – we still get an ozone “hole” that forms every spring, but it’s not getting worse anymore’. This stability is also visible in climate signatures, she says, ‘in the shift of storm tracks over the Southern Ocean that have been partially attributed to the ozone depletion; they’re moving the weather systems towards Antarctica. So that’s stabilising as well.’

Whether recovering levels of ozone in Antarctica will impact Australia’s weather systems is ‘a really good question’, says Arblaster. ‘The complication is that greenhouse gas increases also shift storm tracks. For the period where we’ve had ozone depletion, those two factors – ozone depletion and greenhouse gases – have acted together to drive storms poleward. There is some indication that that affects rainfall as far away as southern Australia.’

Going into the future, Arblaster says, ‘there’ll be this tug of war between ozone recovery and levels of greenhouse gases, which are going to continue to increase – probably at least until the middle of the century.’ Which of those factors will be most important will depend on whether the world continues to emit larger levels of greenhouse gases or adopts lower emissions scenarios. At last. 

This year, for the first time, the WMO/UNEP assessment will include possible intersections between the ozone layer and some of the geoengineering mechanisms proposed to address or mitigate climate change – such as injections of reflecting aerosols into the stratosphere to artificially dull the impact of the sun. ‘Geoengineering is an additional trigger that might complicate things,’ says Arblaster. ‘We just really don’t know enough about what it will do.’

Another dot point of information; another place where the story might pivot. Sit with this unknown a while – and breathe.

IT WAS LYNDA Goldsworthy who described Antarctica to me in terms of breathing spaces. Goldsworthy, who writes for this edition, was the first person invited to undertake an environmental-impact assessment of Antarctica. She was involved in the still remarkable feat of banning mining in this region of the planet through the Madrid Protocol – arguing against the inevitability of resource extraction, and winning. She thinks of Antarctica as a place where the planet can breathe, an environment beyond much human impact and disturbance; a space still much more itself than anywhere else can now be. 

A space for a kind of planetary pause.

This is not to deny, ignore or gloss over the ferocious pace of change that is at work in this part of the world, as everywhere. It’s not to elide the anthropogenic origins of such change. In the past fifty years, average temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen by 3 degrees Celsius – five times the average rate of global warming. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is warming faster than the rest of the ocean. East Antarctica – until this year a more stable space climatically – saw the collapse of an ice shelf the size of Rome in March, the same month that temperatures there soared by more than 40 degrees above their monthly average. It rained on the Antarctic coast this March also, as the continent headed towards winter. While the warmer temperatures would be ‘a source of excitement for climatologists’, noted two scientists from the Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique in Paris, ‘that it rains at the coast in March is a source of concern for everyone’.

The sound of rain does not fit in this landscape. The sound of rain is from another world.

Antarctica offers windows into many different worlds. The macro of its function as an active thermostat for the planet – the white of its ice reflecting heat and the dark blue of its ocean absorbing heat and carbon dioxide. The micro of a day’s sampling of floral fossils – Glossopteris – that rewrote the story of the planet’s continents, their weight lugged by Robert Scott’s ill-fated South Pole expeditioners until they died. The deep-time macro of old climates archived in ice that reach back through hundreds of thousands of years alongside the specific here and now of the rapid impacts of current climate change rolling out so quickly in real time. In this edition, ecologist Dana Bergstrom describes the realisation of this rate of change in just two words: holy fuck.

It’s a place where unlikely things happen. Where Ernest Shackleton can make it to Elephant Island in a crazily tiny boat in the early twentieth century and make it back to rescue the crew of the stranded Endurance. Where more than 400 subglacial lakes can be found to exist under three kilometres of ice on a continent that’s a desert – the planet’s driest. Where the pursuits of science and peace are cited above all other considerations. Where all claims of territory and sovereignty were willingly set aside as part of the Antarctic Treaty. Where the words ‘co-operation’ and ‘collaboration’ have different weight and value – and are as essential for survival as for any other outcome. 

All these stories can shift and turn, go one way or another. Hold your breath with existential terror – or breathe out with complete relief. 

I’M ASKING YOU to hold a lot of facts here; I’m offering a lot of dots I’d like you to connect. This introduction, my last, invites you on a long journey – not only across those several thousand kilometres between mainland Australia and the subantarctic islands or the continent itself, but across the reach of different disciplines, different eras, different possibilities. I’m asking you to hold the this and that of different stories in your hands and see not just dichotomy or difference between them, but the vastness of how they connect. 

Antarctica’s an easy place to dismiss as an absolute elsewhere, some place far away – site of a tug of war between ozone and greenhouse gases, a giant thermostat and home to tiny moss forests. Perhaps you’ll look up from this page to gaze at what’s outside your window. Perhaps you’ll think that this ice, these stories, they’re a very other thing, separate from where you are.

But stop a moment, then, and breathe a moment too. The sky above where you sit is of a piece with the Antarctic sky, as is the air you breathe – no borders; no demarcations. This feels like both metaphor and fact.

Let’s draw another line between Antarctica and Australia. Just ninety minutes’ drive from where I live in Brisbane you can reach a kind of Antarctica – the remnant relatives of the forest system that covered the ancient landmass of Gondwana, when Antarctica, South America, Australia, the Indian subcontinent and Africa were all joined together more than 180 million years ago. Now, small pockets of this rainforest hang on even as the climate changes, other species advance and the very clouds that support cloud-forests such as these rise higher and higher, withdrawing their critical nurturing moisture. 

Here, like incursions or leftovers from another time or place, are stands of lush Nothofagus moorei, a genus that traces its lineage back to the Nothofagus of Gondwana. These picture-book trees, with their thick and complex root buttresses, often coated with thick green furry moss, are starkly different to the shapes and colours of more common eucalypt forest. Even the air around them has a different weight and coolness and sound. 

Various trees from the Nothofagus genus span Australia from Tasmania up through Victoria, New South Wales and into South-East Queensland. They relate to Nothofagus fossils found on the Antarctic Peninsula – this genus dominates the flora from the Cretaceous to Paleogene eras in that landscape. 

It feels important to know that there are dots like this that can be connected across space and time; it feels important to know that conversations with Antarctica can be found so close to home. 

To try to connect these dots is to hold different pieces of information in view at the same time – such as the fact that Antarctic tourism generates enough black carbon per tourist to melt eighty-three tonnes of snow. Or that despite its isolation, despite the umbrella of the Antarctic Treaty System, less than 2 per cent of Antarctica is scooped into the formal protection of its seventy-two designed Antarctic Specially Protected Areas, and that these areas combined house less than half of Antarctica’s known species. 

More hinges where the story turns. Take another breath. 

THIS IS A book about passion and place, and we’re delighted to have the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) as our publishing partner. It shares new work by current and former members of the AAD – including Kim Ellis, its director; Nicole Webster, its chief scientist; Dana Bergstrom; Tony Press – as well as others who have thought into and worked in Antarctica’s space in the sciences, the humanities, in policy and the arts. It holds the patient and complex stories of scientists still assembling baseline knowledge, and the cutting-edge excitement of a brand-new icebreaker. It holds narratives gathered by past and present recipients of the AAD’s Arts Fellowship – including Jo Chandler, Favel Parrett, Sean Williams and David Bridie. It holds speculative non-fiction by Claire G Coleman and poetic history by Angela Peita. It holds work made by the place itself: in the late summer of 2022, this year’s Arts Fellow, the visual artist Janet Laurence, laced blocks of Antarctic ice with shots of stunning blue pigment. As the ice chunks melted, the blue bled into new shapes like maps of other futures captured on clean white paper. These are change-made images, stunning visual reports created by the alteration and transformation of elements of this landscape. 

The idea for this edition grew partly out of long-ago conversations with the late Jesse Blackadder, the award-winning novelist who was twice an AAD Arts Fellow. ‘The “real” Antarctica is hard to take in, impossible to describe and challenging to photograph,’ Blackadder wrote in 2019 in ‘A Language for Antarctica’, a lyrical essay published in Kill Your Darlings. ‘Words and images fall short of capturing the experience. Even memory isn’t reliable.’ Blackadder died more than two years ago now, and it’s with great thanks to her partner, Andi Davey, that some of the work she did wrestling with those sensations is included in the mix of voices here. Thanks, too, to Sachie Yasuda, Mark Horstman and Nisha Harris at AAD for their support for this edition as well.

For me, the ‘real’ Antarctica is also about baseline solastalgia – the change, the loss of a place held dear, even if it’s as a part of an imaginary world. Solastalgia, as a term, was coined by Australian environmental philosopher Glenn A Albrecht fifteen years ago now, a ‘concept developed to give greater meaning and clarity to environmentally induced distress’. Albrecht framed it as opposite to nostalgia, ‘the melancholia or homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home’. He described this new emotion as distress ‘produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment’.

Breathe with this now: this planet is our home. 

This book spans the micro of particles of dust and ash to the macro of million-year ice cores. It spans the different kinds of co-operation and interface that are possible when different people, different ideas, rub up against each other. The spaces where geopolitics meet science. Where krill meet ice sheets. Where a state-of-the-art floating laboratory meets long-time palawa knowledge of migration and non-human kin and the Southern Lights. It’s a collection about serendipity and silence, about discovery and survival, quest and disappointment. About the particular exchanges that can happen in extreme space and the strange possibilities of isolation, too – the real, the unreal, the surreal; the reactions of human minds and human bodies. About exquisite beauty. About what’s special and unique about Antarctica. And what connects it out, along those lines of longitude that begin at the South Pole to wherever you are reading in the world.

The white-blue of the ice; the blue-white of the sky. The ways these bleed towards each other and meld and combine.

In Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World,a posthumous essay collection, the American essayist Barry Lopez situates himself as a writer: ‘Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavour to do is to pay attention.’ Perhaps attention is another word for wonder, or for love.

Breathe in; breathe out. 

COMING INTO THIS winter in Brisbane, my hands are weatherboard-house cold (insignificant by polar standards) in the chill blast of a late-running La Niña combined with a low-pressure system that arrived from the south. I dial into the webcams streaming live from Australia’s Casey, Davis, Mawson research stations – the last of which shows me waves of blue-black darkness through most of its timelapse; a place where winds are roaring at ninety, 100, 110 km/h. 

That there, and this now, and me watching here. The blue and the white; the light and the darkness. This one planet’s one story. Glenn Albrecht might call it the ultimate sumbiotude, ‘the union of elements in nature and culture that have symbiotically cohered into a view about life’. He links this word to sumbiosis, the Greek word for companionship.

Time and time again, it’s all part of one vast story – and it’s yours.

9 June 2022

Image credit: NOAA from Unsplash

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