Reportage

Buried treasure

Journey into deep time

THE PHOTO THAT pops up with his periodic tweets is something of a non-­sequitur. Joel Pedro – ‘Lead Project Scientist, Million Year Ice Core Project, Australian Antarctic Division’ – sits at the wheel of a Massey Ferguson tractor that’s seen better days, flannel shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow. Behind him there’s a glimpse of pale acres of rye grass – fodder for cattle grazed on his late grandmother’s property in Walpole, on the Western Australian south coast.

Click through to his profile and the farmyard shot is juxtaposed with one rather more in keeping with his polar credentials. Here he’s perched on the wide tracks of a beast of an all-­terrain vehicle in a dazzling icescape. Swaddled in a goose-­­down jacket, he’s smiling broadly behind a frosty beard and wraparound shades.

The two photographs riff on a remarkable journey – from tractor to polar tracks, third-­generation farmer to glaciologist. It would seem fair to characterise this as an unlikely life trajectory. But google Pedro’s hometown, and the tourist hyperbole would imply it was destiny. ‘North Pole, South Pole, WALPOLE!’ Still, what are the odds?

Conjuring a little more synchronicity, it’s worth observing that the fortunes of Pedro’s settler-­farmer forebears were always at the whim of weather. He grew up through an era of declining winter rainfall across the region. And as is now understood – thanks to the work of the same glaciologists whose ranks he’s joined – these conditions are entwined with mighty forces stretching across the Southern Ocean and deep into the ice. When circulating winds send moist, warm air down to East Antarctica – delivering higher snowfall to the coast near Casey Station – they tend to cycle back dry, cool air and create drought in south-­west Australia. Ice core records indicate this strengthening pattern is likely not a natural event but a consequence of human influence on the climate.

And this is the business Pedro has found himself in, extracting relics of history from the ice, ‘these really tightly connected components of the climate system – temperature, carbon dioxide, sea ice, ocean circulation – all so exquisitely and tightly linked together,’ Pedro explains. ‘It’s something that comes out of paleoclimate science in general. The closer you look, the more everything is linked together. And it only takes quite small changes to trigger cascading things.’

As an undergraduate at the University of Western Australia, he ‘teetered on the brink of working on the salinity problem in WA’. But at forty-­one, Pedro belongs to a generation weaned on warnings about rising temperatures. In his lifetime, levels of atmospheric carbon have skyrocketed. A fascination with atmospheric chemistry – ‘not so much the white-­lab-­coat chemistry…rather the more adventurous side of it’ – prompted Pedro to apply on spec to the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) for some postgrad work. ‘They were looking for someone to work on reconstructing solar activity from ice cores using a cosmogenic isotope. And I kind of knew nothing about that, but thought it sounded pretty cool.’

Pedro drove his panel van across the Nullarbor, and twenty years and a few twists and turns later, he’s leading Australia’s full-­throttle return to deep-­field Antarctic science, heading its most ambitious and costly over-­snow expedition in a generation. The objective is to set up a camp in the high interior of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet and drill a hole almost three kilometres deep. Over the next several summers, the crew will return to extract, catalogue and preserve three-metre lengths of glacial ice laid down over a million years, pushing through the moment when something cranky, dramatic and mysterious happened. Entrenched rhythms in and out of ice ages blew out, catapulting the planet into a profoundly different state. Understanding just what happened way back then promises critical clues about conditions of life on the next Earth, the one human emissions are now conjuring into an ever-­spiralling reality.

‘What we’re trying to do here is understand where the tipping points are in the climate system,’ says Pedro. What was going on in the atmosphere in the past, in particular with greenhouse gas levels? What was the solar story? If we have this information, he says, ‘then we have a firm handle on these guardrails of where the climate system is stable and where it tips. And obviously what we’re looking at for the future is how far we can push the climate system before it tips into another state.’

Australia’s million-­year ice core project is unequivocally a mission of discovery, and an urgent one. But the optics are also unambiguously strategic as Australia muscles up its Antarctic credentials and influence. The revival of the AAD’s long-­mothballed deep traverse capability – the equipment, logistics and skills necessary to operate long-­haul expeditions on the ice – is just part of a multi-­billion-­dollar polar science program which, when it was signed off by Canberra in 2016, emphasised its service to the national interest and international relations.

In the annals of Antarctic law and lore, there’s a good deal of reflection on the motives of science, with the upshot that only the most naive or cynical could fail to grasp their entanglement with politics and strategic posturing. The remarkably resilient Antarctic Treaty – signed in 1959 and brought into force two years later – preserves Antarctica for science and peace, putting all territorial claims on ice and fostering authentically warm collaborations between scientists whose nations can include the frostiest of foes. But it can’t cleanse the continent of national agendas. And as an American expert noted even as it came into force, ‘whatever advances science furthers strategic techniques: a station useful for gaining knowledge of our environment is ultimately strategically important by its very nature’.

China is right now also busy drilling for the prize of oldest ice, as are Europe and Japan. Russia is in the game, and South Korea has plans. Australia’s program, fifteen years in the making, has long been at the forefront, but Pedro’s team has been delayed for two precious summer seasons by the global pandemic and poor luck with the weather. Any of these programs may stall or pull up short. But the hope is that at least a couple of them will retrieve the oldest ice in the next few years – more than one being ideal, to validate and replicate findings.

A million years to go, and no time to lose.

 

THE WEALTH HIDDEN within the polar ice has long been suspected, if only lately understood and exploited. Back in 1894, returning from a two-­year whaling expedition, Scottish artist and explorer WG Burn Murdoch wrote of ‘the mysteries of the Antarctic, with all its white-­bound secrets still unread, as if we had stood before ancient volumes that told of the past and the beginning of all things’.

Over the ages, snow falls on the polar ice, accumulating year on year, deeper layers compressing under the weight of fresh flurries. When the compacted snow turns to ice, bubbles of air are trapped. Ice cores mine this treasure, bringing to the surface vials of atmospheric history that scientists carefully haul back to the laboratory to prise open, like breaking the seal on an ancient tomb.

From these samples, scientists can discern past air temperatures, measure precipitation and track concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. They can open the pages of deep time through traces of aerosols and micro-­particles. Vestiges of ash archive volcanic eruptions, salts recall conditions in the surrounding seas, sulphur signatures etch the extent of sea ice and the life forms clinging to it, sprinklings of mineral dust testify to wind circulation. This isn’t proxy data – that is, the indirect record of deep time constructed out of tree rings and shells and the like, which is hugely valuable in and of itself but often maligned by the anti-­science brigade. Nor is it modelling, which is similarly undermined. What’s in these bubbles is the real deal.

The Soviets began drilling for old ice in Antarctica in the 1970s, burrowing determinedly for over thirty years. In January 1998, they pulled up a core 420,000 years old from beneath the remote Russian research station of Vostok, near the centre of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. By then the Russians were collaborating with American and French scientists, reconstructing atmospheric and climate history from core samples stretching back through four glacial-­interglacial cycles.

When they published their findings in a watershed paper in the journal Nature in 1999, it transformed understanding of our planet and human influence on it. Interviewing the eminent climate scientist and, these days, activist Will Steffen some years back, I asked if he recalled the galvanising moment in his scientific journey. He didn’t hesitate. This was it. ‘For the first time we saw this beautiful rhythmic pattern, how the Earth as a whole operated. You saw temperature, you saw gases, you saw dust all dancing to the same tune, all triggered by the Earth’s orbit around the sun…but still a mystery, it couldn’t explain the magnitude of those swings.

‘To me the Vostok core was the most beautiful piece of evidence of the Earth as a single system. We spent a week trying to understand the data, but the only way you could make sense of it was to recognise the strong role of biology. Before then, the earth was seen as a big geophysical system…with life at its whim. But life is actually an important controller, a strong influencer of what went on.’

Glaciologists kept drilling, pushing deeper and further back in time. The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) got to work near the French–Italian inland station of Concordia back in 1996–97. Their first hole at Dome C had to be abandoned in 1998 when the drill got stuck. So they moved the rig ten metres north and started again, returning each summer to push deeper until December 2005 when the drill began approaching bedrock. They stopped at a depth of 3,260 metres, when geothermal heat rising up from the Earth started melting the deepest reaches of the hole.

‘They got to 800,000 years,’ says glaciologist Tas van Ommen, the AAD’s climate program leader and Co-­Chair of the International Partnership in Ice Core Sciences (IPICS). But ‘darn it, they didn’t solve the problem’. Van Ommen is not one for hyperbole.

‘The problem’ is the Mid-­Pleistocene Transition (MPT). We’ve known since late last century, from marine sediment cores, that from three million years ago until about a million years ago, the Earth swung in and out of ice ages like clockwork, each cycle lasting around 41,000 years. And this fitted sweetly with the century-­old hypothesis of Serbian scientist Milutin Milankovitch, who calculated that ice ages would occur every 41,000 years based on the tilt of the Earth’s axis of rotation as it travels around the sun. Then the cycle changed, and by 800,000 years ago it had blown out to a new pattern of 100,000 years. This fits with another cycle described by Milankovitch, tracking changes in the shape of the Earth’s orbit over time from nearly circular to slightly elliptical. The planet was now dancing to a different, slower tune, as if someone had dialled the turntable down from 45 to 33 rpm. ‘It’s really worrying as a scientist when you realise you could have a perfectly good explanation for either [cycle], but you can’t explain why it would change,’ says van Ommen. ‘That is the massive question behind the million-­year ice core.’

There are several theories. One points the finger at surface changes, theorising that the advance and retreat of ice at the quicker, pre-­MPT rhythm scoured back the regolith – the scatter of loose rocks and dust sitting above bedrock – which oiled the flow and spread of the ice sheets. Without it, the ice stuck and grew higher and less vulnerable to melting. Another argues that the Northern and Southern Hemispheres were cycling in and out of ice ages at different times and then somehow fell in sync. Then there’s the idea that carbon dioxide was steadily declining through this period, cooling the climate and bulking up the ice sheets. With a million-­year-­plus ice core, the mystery could be solved.

The EPICA drill pulled up just short.

When he explains the histories locked inside ice cores to politicians, policy-­makers or journalists, van Ommen works methodically through a set of PowerPoint slides. An early one quotes Confucius – ‘Study the past, if you would divine the future’ rendering the graph that comes at the culmination of the show all the more magnificent and terrifying.

This graph is plotted against the EPICA core record, drawing out two threads of data retrieved from its ice. A black line tracks the atmospheric carbon dioxide (parts per million) and, above it, a red line traces Antarctic temperatures. The lines pulse together in peaks and troughs, like the vital signs of a patient hooked up to a monitor. They are almost entirely in sync, temperatures rising and falling to the same rhythm as carbon dioxide. ‘When you see them together, you say wow,’ says van Ommen. ‘You can argue with the sceptics about which leads and which lags – it just depends on who is doing the forcing. But they are connected, sort of like a rubber band, one will pull the other.’

In the final, squeezed fragment of the EPICA graph the carbon-dioxide line shoots violently due north into uncharted territory. Over the entire 800,000-­year record, atmospheric carbon dioxide has never peaked over 300 ppm. For all of human history, it sat around 275 ppm until about 200 years ago, when we began to dig up and burn coal to fuel the Industrial Age. In 1950, it punched through the 300-­ppm historic ceiling. In mid-May, as the forests of the Northern Hemisphere dropped their leaves, the planet exhaled atmospheric carbon dioxide at a new daily record of 421 ppm. The previous high was 418.95 ppm in May 2021. This is where a patient’s machine would sound a piercing alarm and emergency teams would materialise
bedside stat!

‘There’s something really fundamental we don’t know about the planetary system,’ says van Ommen. This ‘something’ being the on-­off switch on ice ages. ‘As far as I’m concerned, knowing fundamental things about our spaceship – Earth – is almost a societal issue in itself… But in terms of practical “what do we need to know?”, it’s about informing us of the long-­term risks of what we’re doing and where the tipping points or commitments might be.’ And should humanity get its (our) collective shit together, this will inform whether there is scope to overshoot for a century or two while we get into negative emissions territory. ‘It really is a burning question in planetary climate science.’

Back in 1957, after investigating the question of whether the oceans had enough appetite for carbon dioxide to soak up rising fossil-­fuel emissions, American oceanographer Roger Revelle concluded that they did not. As a consequence, he wrote, greenhouse warming ‘may become significant during future decades’. This meant that ‘human beings are now carrying out a large-­scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future’.

Today, despite all such warnings, and with humanity still disinclined to pull the levers on what’s playing out in our real-­world laboratory, van Ommen enlists the same analogy. ‘And since we’re doing a really big experiment, it’s kind of good to know the answer.’

 

IN OCTOBER 1994, glaciologist Mike Craven and five other men – three diesel mechanics, a surveyor and an electronics engineer – chugged out of Larsemann Hills, a field site 110 kilometres south-­west of Davis Station, aboard three tractors towing vans, generators, food and fuel. They set course for the world’s largest glacier, the Lambert. Over the next 120 days they stopped at seventy-­two locations spread thirty kilometres apart over a 2,250-­kilometre survey route ending at Mawson Station. Top speed on travelling days was five kilometres an hour, working in temperatures down to minus-40 degrees Celsius, pulling up to collect measurements and ice cores, tend and refuel the tractors, syphon their waste into the empty fuel drums, wash and eat and sleep, and do it all again.

Theirs was the fifth – and final – annual AAD traverse to the Lambert Glacier basin, tracking ‘the movement of the ice; not just the amount but in what direction, the velocity’, Craven explains. Because inland ice flows so slowly – maybe ten to twenty metres a year – readings had to be precise. Every twenty-­four hours they clocked GPS positions continuously for twelve hours at the survey sites, which was the fastest the technology of the day could manage with the fine accuracy required. Every two kilometres, following the trail of previous teams, they would come to a cane driven into the ice and measure snowfall over the previous year. Periodically they would find a cane farm – one hundred canes planted in rows ten by ten, set twenty metres apart, back on the first traverse to get a fix on local accumulation. ‘And you’re measuring with ice radar every day, so you get the thickness of the ice and the velocity, which means you get a flux of the ice across a given section of track.’

Every week or so, they would drill out a twenty-­five-­ to thirty-­metre ice core. Craven would split it down the middle, saving half to haul back to Hobart for laboratory tests and archiving and getting to work on analysing the other half himself. Using a high-­voltage current, he could distinguish layers of summer snow from traces of sea salt. Or he could put the core on a light box and read the seasons in bands, summer ones translucent from the surface melt; winters opaque with bubbles left by snow blowing over the surface. From density measurements he could calculate how long it had taken the snow to turn to glacial ice. In coastal areas, the angle of the sun on the slope means more melt, and snow can turn to glacial ice – locking in air – within a hundred years. Inland the process might take 5,000 years. Glaciologists need to figure out the timing at every site to accurately ascertain the age of air trapped in an ice core.

The journey ended ‘about February 17 (1995) – I know because that’s my wedding anniversary’, Craven recalls. We’re at his home in Hobart, where he and wife Chris are shortly expecting some old Antarctic hands for a barbecue. He’s dug out his diaries for our interview but has barely glanced at them in nearly two hours with the tape running. I recall another Lambeth veteran once telling me ‘there was a Zen-­ness about it… Every minute there were changes in the snow surface and you could detect them. You could feel the degree of change in the slope. You become so desensitised to all other distractions you develop another acute observational skill… Antarctica is like a drug. It’s like a love affair.’ Arriving at Mawson was like ‘arriving in paradise’, Craven says. ‘Mawson had these wonderful mountains coming up through the ice. I basically walked the last one hundred kilometres…on cross-­country skis. It was just magnificent.’

It was also the end of an era. Australia’s Lambert Glacier traverses are recognised among the most extensive over-­snow science programs undertaken on the continent between 1950 and 2000. But they were a last hurrah, with the tempo of the legendary Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) activities petering out since the early ’80s as attention switched to building programs, budgets tightened, and aircraft and satellites were increasingly enlisted to collect data. After the 1995 run, ‘those traverse vans and vehicles got distributed around the stations, pushing snow out of the way, doing odd jobs, not really doing any traversing,’ Craven recalls.

 

THERE’S A TRUISM in Antarctic circles which observes that ‘science is currency’. The line is often credited to a 1989 paper by Tasmanian political scientists Richard Herr and Robert Hall, which documented Australia’s waning enthusiasm for Antarctic science and expeditions, and its growing emphasis on occupation of the ice, building living quarters, amenities and services. It cautioned that in the event of any review or ructions in the treaty, these priorities might not prove particularly useful.

Antarctic spending was still deep in the doldrums twenty years later when I visited as a reporter, accompanying AAD scientists to Casey in 2007 and 2009–10. Their distress back then about eroding budgets and the fallout of their research on urgent climate questions – the stability of glaciers and implications for sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, the security of krill and fisheries, the vulnerability of penguin colonies – was at fever pitch. With so many berths occupied by tradies and support crew, competition to get to the ice to do fieldwork was intense. Contemplating the ravenous fuel, food and logistics costs of maintaining year-­round station operations, one senior scientist grumped that he would give up the comfort of a warm station for a tent on the ice in a heartbeat if that freed dollars for actual science.

‘There was this period – from the ’80s through to really 2010 and onwards – where Australian governments lost interest…the investment tailed off,’ says AAD chief Kim Ellis. That, and an increasing emphasis on safety protocols, was the undoing of the era of ‘men with beards doing adventurous things’. In retrospect, Ellis witnessed the turning of the tide during his first trip south in 1979–80, when as a young soldier fresh out of Duntroon he volunteered for an amphibious detachment running resupply operations as the building phase gained traction. Since taking the helm at AAD in 2019, he’s been in the box seat to see priorities dramatically swing again.

On 16 October 2021, the single biggest investment in the history of Australia’s Antarctic program materialised out of the mist and sailed slowly up the Derwent River, pausing to show off with a couple of 360-­degree twirls and a blast of its horn. The icebreaker RSV Nuyina was described as ‘Disneyland for scientists’, bristling with sensors, cameras and hydrophones, tanks for scooping up seawater and krill, a ‘moon pool’ dropping from the science deck down through the hull, allowing launch and retrieval of equipment in any conditions. She cost $528 million to design and build, which sits within a $1.9 billion package to maintain and run her over the next thirty years.

Meanwhile, the federal government has in recent years committed $450 million to upgrading Casey, Mawson and Davis stations, $50 million to build a new one on Macquarie Island and $77 million to scope out a year-­round aerodrome near Davis – a proposal scrapped last year on environmental grounds. Then there’s the $52.5 million earmarked to revive the over-­ice traverse capabilities that will, as their opening act, be used by Joel Pedro and team to get to Dome C and start drilling. In February, the then Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced another $804 million for strategic and scientific programs over the next ten years, including drone fleets, helicopters and other vehicles allowing exploration of inaccessible areas and an ‘Antarctic eye’ remote monitoring program.

Plainly Australia has developed a keen appreciation of the value of science as currency in matters Antarctic. Kim Ellis pegs the turning point around 2011, with growing global interest in Antarctica and its frontline exposure to climate warming, not least in regard to the sustainability and management of Southern Ocean fisheries. The case for the investments flowing now were laid out in a 2014 report by Tony Press, a former AAD director, who argued that Australia’s standing was eroding as a consequence of its underinvestment just as new players were emerging on the ice. ‘The leadership that Australia has naturally assumed by its proximity, history and experience risks decline.’ The preservation of the ice and ocean under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) was powerfully in Australia’s strategic interests, Press argued. Alongside this was the drumbeat of geopolitics – notably China’s rise and escalating Antarctic program, and questions around Russia, both big polar players.

In 2016, the Turnbull government signed off on investments from the Nuyina down to the million-­year core project in the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan, building on many of the recommendations of the Press report. It was, says Ellis, a simple but transformational document – ‘not a lot of nations have that clarity in what they want to do in Antarctica’. In the foreword, Turnbull celebrates Australian expeditioners back to Sir Douglas Mawson – ‘a legacy of heroism, scientific endeavour and environmental steward­ship’. The government was ‘delivering a new era of Australian Antarctic endeavour. It is timely to reaffirm our national Antarctic interests, and to set out a plan to protect and promote them.’

 

ONE OF MY craziest, fondest Antarctic memories is a hike from a field camp at Bunger Hills to a ghostly station built by the Soviets in 1955. Deep in the chill of the Cold War, they had launched the first Soviet Antarctic Expedition. Whatever Moscow’s motives, the scientists of Oasis Station were intrigued by its ice-­free lunar landscape and lake. They measured ozone and solar radiation. They explored glaciology, seismology, geomagnetism, biology, hydrology, auroral physics and gravimetry before handing the building to the Poles. Since 1979, the base had been occupied only sporadically. At the dawn of 2010, it was a mess of broken glass and vintage technology. There were cigarette butts, empty vodka bottles, a gramophone and a stack of 78s with ‘CCCP’ stamped on red labels. Behind a hammer-­and-­sickle flag was a musty bunk room, and on the ceiling a message: ‘Dale Anderson. Joint US/Russia Bunger Hills Expedition 91–92 – Onwards to Mars!’

When I tracked him down, Anderson was working at the University of California’s SETI Institute. An astrobiologist, his interest at Oasis was in the lake, which exists at the very boundaries of conditions for life – a proxy for Mars long ago, when the red planet’s climate may have nurtured basic life. The trip was a great success scientifically. And the friendships and collaborations endured twenty years on. He sent me pictures of the US and USSR flags flying over the decrepit station and of him and Sacha, the girl he fell in love with on the icebreaker who remained his Russian bride. Here in this remote place, scientists from a divided world had worked together. Antarctica is full of such stories – about Russians and Americans in the depths of the Cold War, British and Argentinians through the Falklands conflict, Chinese, French, Japanese, Koreans; you name it.

The episode encapsulates the disparate threads of the Antarctic narrative that are so captivating and entwined but that resist the constraints of the usual polar tropes: derring-­do, geopolitics, nature, science. The individual quest for knowledge, recognition and adventure. The exposure of intimate character to the elements, the layers of veneer stripped back to raw. The chest-­thumping of posturing nations, the camaraderie of their emissaries. The outposts of our occupation of this place, which defied human intrusion for so long, are still so tenuous. Rusting fuel drums piled on white ice. The juxtaposition of mess and purity, vulnerability and magnificence, transience and endurance. This is Earth before and beyond us.

So now, at the risk of joining the naive or cynical, I’m curious about the bottom line of Australia’s exploding Antarctic investment – is it about politics and geostrategic one-­upmanship, or about science and discovery? Maybe I’m just a sucker for the notion that the pure polar conditions might nurture our better angels. Tas van Ommen has no qualms about recognising the realpolitik of Antarctica – that it can be both, and for all the right reasons: ‘The hope is that you capitalise on the other imperatives for being in Antarctica, and the fact that the treaty says that science is at the centre of why we’re there…we are now stating very publicly that we are there for science.’

‘So, Jo, the correct answer for me to give, of course, as director of the AAD, is that that is a decision for government,’ says Ellis. ‘Probably a more pragmatic answer is that of course governments are going to respond to what they think are our challenges, what impacts on us. We in the Antarctic Division have a responsibility to deliver against government priorities. And if government priority is about presence and influence in Antarctica, that’s part of my job as well.’

What it’s not, he adds, is about any sense that ‘we’ve got to securitise Antarctica. I think that’s a huge mistake. And there are certainly commentators who are arguing that… What the current paradigm has been built on is this idea of shared research, peaceful intent, compliance with the protocols of the Antarctic Treaty. And as soon as we move away from that we take a real risk.’

Ellis talks about a trifecta of currencies of influence in Antarctica – science, presence and excellence in operations. All three are now more funded and better demonstrated ‘and they allow us to deal directly with other nations to ensure that we have some say in what happens in Antarctica… I’m very cautious about anyone who talks about, you know, toughing it out with other nations. That’s just unhelpful and it is not in the spirit of the work we do.’

At which point it’s well beyond time to acknowledge the panda in the room. And the bear as well.

 

ON 11 JANUARY 2010, days after my trip to Oasis and winding up a wild week of whale surveys from Bunger Hills, my Antarctic adventure came to a frenzied finale. A worker at China’s Zhongshan Station had been hit by an earthmover and horribly injured. He was flown to the Russian station Progress II, where Australian doctors from Davis and Casey dashed to assist. A medical team from Hobart was scrambled onto the weekly Antarctic airbus shuttle – my ride out. The patient was stretchered aboard and into their care behind a curtain. Three nations engaged in a life-­and-­death drama to save one precious life. I never heard what became of him. Again, Antarctica is full of such stories.

In December 2020, the shoe was on the other foot, with Chinese and US teams carving ice runways to medivac a sick Australian out of Davis, even as trade and pandemic tensions raged between Washington and Beijing, Canberra and Beijing. For the most pragmatic of reasons, co-­operation on logistics and rescues has been ever thus, says Tony Press. We chat in Hobart in December 2021 as Australian–French diplomacy is spectacularly tanking, yet submarine chat is a mere amuse-bouche when French and Australian polar heavyweights meet for a festive dinner. ‘Keeping those levels of logistic and scientific collaboration when there are other tensions, regardless of whether they’re Antarctic tensions, or trade tensions, or human rights tensions…it’s one of the best forms of diplomacy,’ says Press. ‘It gets you the back-­door channel to resolve issues before people start throwing bombs at each other. Which is where the Antarctic Treaty came from – to stop people throwing bombs at each other, fighting with each other over territory.’

Security analyst Claire Young argued in a 2021 Lowy Institute paper that China was pushing the ATS boundaries and ‘wants to benefit economically, and potentially militarily, from Antarctica’. Her take on the treaty is rather more cynical than that of Press – she views it as a ‘Cold War relic’ that, stripped of its idealistic, scientific foundation story around the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year, was a pragmatic exercise by superpowers to cauterise a potential new frontier of hostilities. Nonetheless, it’s a better deal than anything that might be wrangled today, she says, so it deserves support.

There’s compounding action and interest down south. China is linking its Antarctic ambitions to its rising global profile, says Press. It’s investing heavily in Antarctic fisheries and tourism, and there are dark mutterings around its potential interest in minerals – mining is banned under the treaty. It’s active and sometimes disruptive in ATS forums. ‘Then there’s the re-­emergence of Russia as an unpredictable player. And that brings new elements into the Antarctic diplomacy framework.’ And this was before the Ukraine invasion earlier this year detonated a whole new dimension of uncertainty around Russia’s activities at both poles. Meanwhile China and Russia are opposing three new marine protected areas that would expand protections to about 20 per cent of the Southern Ocean.

All this feeds an increasingly militarised analysis of Antarctic behaviour in political and academic spheres, alongside grim soundings on the strength of the Antarctic Treaty to withstand rising pressures and on the prospects of the consensus process at its heart breaking down. Like Kim Ellis, Press and long-­time Antarctic scholar Marcus Haward push back on this narrative on both its merits and its dangers. ‘I think they are writing off the Antarctic Treaty too soon,’ says Haward, who is co-­lead of funded research investigating historical geopolitical stresses and their impacts on the ATS. ‘We’re creating perhaps a self-­fulfilling prophecy by sort of looking at all the negatives. When we look back over the past fifty, sixty years, we see the consensus-­building and collaboration actually often comes in these times of stress – always does, in fact.’ He also says that through times of internal debate and external stress on the ATS, ‘Australia’s been there, and been a leader.’

Press thinks the treaty is solid but warns against complacency. The ATS relies on consensus, and China and Russia’s current objections to expanded marine protection zones illustrate the hitch with that. ‘The way things fall apart is corrosion. And one of the forces of corrosion is a set of practices develop and become common practice. One of those might be countries feel comfortable in just saying “no”, not trying to reach a consensus on something. If that becomes common practice, the whole basis of the Antarctic Treaty System is corrupted.’

Haward argues that if anything the treaty is showing its viability as new countries join and show an interest. ‘Why are they doing it? It’s the science. It provides them with an opportunity…[they] can see collaboration through science as a way of engaging internationally.’ Part of his current research is looking at how the system coheres and how national interests are projected in Antarctica. ‘They can be coincident, but they can sometimes diverge…some of [China’s] assertions perhaps are pushing some of these norms in a way that could fracture the system. I think that activities like the million-­year ice core are symbols, and they are flag-raising exercises, of course, but it’s saying, “Antarctica matters to us.” The critics will say this is just protecting a claim – yes, it is. It’s saying that we take our territorial claims seriously. But we also take the Antarctic Treaty seriously, and that is about science. There are enormous spin-­offs from the million-­year ice core.’

 

WHEN I FIRST interviewed Joel Pedro it was mid-­December 2021 and he was locked up in a Hobart hotel for sixteen days of quarantine – the protocol for all AAD expeditioners in the time of Covid. From here he made the heart-­in-­mouth call on the final co-­ordinates for the drill site at Dome C – 122.5209 E, 75.34132 S. It was the culmination of years of scoping and surveys, the end of a process Tas van Ommen was beginning back when Pedro was his PhD student. By now it was narrowed down to a question of metres, informed by intimate scrutiny of the underlying bedrock to identify the ‘sweet spot’ most likely to yield the prize of oldest ice. ‘And I was sitting here in this room and shouting [through the email] were the lead ops guys.’ The French crew at Concordia Station was helping get some of the Australian equipment on site. ‘They needed our co-­ordinates to drop off our bore-­hole casings. I’m writing “guys, do we need to buy more time?”’ But time – this season – was up.

On 17 December 2021, Pedro tweeted with excitement: ‘We’re coming for you old ice…just boarded flight Antarctica’s Wilkins Aerodrome to join the first field season of @AusAntarctic @MillionYearIce project…busting to get on the ice and get out to Little Dome C with the team.’ The core team waited at Casey for seven weeks for all the stars to align, always a high-­stakes business given the variables and extremities of this place. In the end a combination of poor weather, limited operational windows and Covid scares at other bases thwarted any prospect of starting the drill for another year.

While they were waiting, the team did manage a run out to Law Dome, a small icecap rising almost 1,400 metres to the east of Australia’s Casey Station, to test their equipment and do a little coring. Renowned for the fine-­grained clarity of the 750-­year record it preserves, Law Dome has been invaluable in informing understanding of Australia’s climate through countless scientific papers, including the one linking East Antarctic snowfall with the drought Pedro grew up with in south-­west Australia.

Australia’s relaunched traverse team looks rather different to the ones of the ANARE era. Two of the six members are women, including field leader Sharon Labudda. Originally from Kingaroy in Queensland, a secretary-­turned-­diesel mechanic, she started out in coal mines and is now a twenty-­year Antarctic veteran. She’s spent eighteen summers on ice and is currently in the middle of her third winter. When Pedro and the other team members flew home, Labudda stayed at Casey to start priming and equipping the newly delivered traverse vehicles to be ready to roll next summer.

Labudda has some serious traverse miles under her belt. She has ploughed her way from the coast into the Aurora Basin (once) and Dome C (twice) with the French program. We’re talking twelve hours a day over twenty-­five days each way, driving a tractor or snow groomer, swapping the wheel every hour or two ‘because it’s quite draining, especially in bad weather when you can’t see much’. Temperatures were mostly minus-20 to minus-30 degrees, ‘but we got down to minus 50 for a few days at the end.’ Sharing tiny bunk vans with men whose only common language was in the quirks and mechanics of the vehicles they drove. She did try to teach herself French but it never quite stuck. ‘I didn’t realise how much I hadn’t spoken until I got back after five months, and when I did talk I was talking really slowly and people were saying, “are you okay?”’

As always, tracking back to the expeditions of legend – by Ross and Wilkes and Dumont d’Urville, Scott and Amundsen, Shackleton and Mawson, Byrd, Nansen et al – the scientific mission in Antarctica is enmeshed with, and defined by, intimate exploration of the human spirit in extremis, testing the limits of bravery, capacity, morality. As a field leader, Labudda has had to become as proficient at reading, directing and repairing people as equipment. What’s she learnt, I wonder, from observing humans working and living in such challenging conditions? She pauses a moment to consider, as is her practice in confronting pretty much any situation, as the job requires. ‘That you can never judge a book by its cover.’

I put it to Pedro that it’s more than the degrees of cold and the isolation that make the search for oldest ice daunting. It’s the idea that you are on the absolute frontline at this seismic moment of understanding around the Earth system, and our influence and our future. It must be like blasting into space on the nose of a rocket. How do you manage that knowledge, that burden?

‘It can feel like walking off a cliff,’ says Pedro. ‘If you engage with it too deeply it can be consuming, and I think even counterproductive.’ Time with his kids, aged three and five, has helped, and his partner is also a scientist, an oceanographer. ‘It’s a bit frightening when you think that in the space of my lifetime, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have changed as much as they do between a glacial and interglacial’ – between Ice Age cycles of ice advancing and retreating. We’re talking about a temperature change of six degrees that ‘just transforms the planet – changes sea levels by 120 metres. And then you see that the pace of change is now 100 to 1,000 times faster than those natural changes. It’s just so bloody obvious – we can measure this in the carbon dioxide data, when you look at the isotopes. It’s clearly fossil-­fuel burning. And then you see the state of some of the public and political debate, and that’s a big worry. And it has been that way for too long now.’

Returning to Hobart without having made it to Dome C last summer, Pedro was disappointed but pragmatic. ‘It kind of comes with the territory down there. It’s a five-­year project – we just don’t want too many years like this.’ The European oldest ice project – Beyond EPICA – has now completed its pilot drilling at Dome C and has the advantage of a nearby station, Concordia, and a well-­established traverse capability. They’d be a strong bet to be the first to retrieve oldest ice, earning some pretty substantial scientific bragging rights.

But that won’t be the end of the story. At least one more core will be needed to verify the first, to be sure that what’s discovered is not some quirk or anomaly. ‘This underlines why it’s certainly not in our interest to try to make it a race,’ says Pedro. ‘The thing I’m going to be pushing is that we need to do things at our pace, do things well and sensibly, and to distinguish ourselves on the science side.’

When the million-­year core team made their part-­training, part-­consolation visit to Law Dome last summer, Pedro writes me in an email, he ‘twisted Sharon’s arm to turn our diesel generator off for a while, so we could listen to the silence. We all sat outside then for some time and got kind of re-­charged by the vastness and the silence. Stunningly, while we were sitting there, a Wilson’s storm petrel straying a good way from the coast flew through and pooed on me. I kid you not. We all had a good laugh about that, and decided it was quite lucky and somewhat symbolic of the season.’

23 May 2022

This work was supported by a Griffith Review Varuna Writers’ Residency, thanks to the Graeme Wood Foundation.

 

References 

Australian Government, 12 December 2018, ‘The Press Report: 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan, 2014’, https://www.antarctica.gov.au/about-us/publications/20-year-australian-antarctic-strategic-plan/ 

A Buis, 27 February 2020, ‘Milankovitch (orbital) cycles and their role in Earth’s climate’, Global Climate Change, https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2948/milankovitch-orbital-cycles-and-their-role-in-earths-climate/ 

Development and Implementation of Surface Traverse Capabilities in Antarctica: Environmental Impact Statement, 2004, https://books.google.com.au/books?id=M-03AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA26-IA1&lpg=PA26-IA1&dq=1994+lambert+glacier+basin+traverse&source=bl&ots=OUEoTjr5Ko&sig=ACfU3U3nw-5ExBkdvdHwBXSvezkQXtaqSA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjD5-H0_fb2AhU1R2wGHWRbA6QQ6AF6BAgXEAM#v=onepage&q=lambert&f=false 

EC Economy, Y Huang, JA Cohen, A Segal and J Gerwitz, 15 December 2020, ‘How 2020 shaped US–China relations’, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/article/how-2020-shaped-us-china-relations  

R ul Khaliq, 12 December 2020, ‘Frosty Antarctica help China, Australia come closer’, Andalou Agency, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/frosty-antarctica-help-china-australia-come-closer/2085224  

JR Petit, J Jouzel, D Raynaud et al., 1999, ‘Climate and atmospheric history of the past 420,000 years from the Vostok ice core, Antarctica’, Nature 399, 429–436. 

R Treisman, 25 December 2020, ‘US, China and Australia evacuate expeditioner from Antarctica in 5-day mission’, NPR, https://www.npr.org/2020/12/25/950320579/u-s-china-and-australia-evacuate-expeditioner-from-antarctica-in-5-day-mission 

AJ Press, 2014, 20 Year Australian Antarctic Strategic Plan, https://www.antarctica.gov.au/site/assets/files/53156/20yearstrategy_final.pdf 

R Revelle and HE Suess, 1957, ‘Carbon dioxide exchange between atmosphere and ocean and the question of an increase of atmospheric CO2 during the past decades’, Tellus, 9. 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review