Ode to Antarc­tica

AQ: Australian Quarterly - - MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER: ANTARCTICA – THE LAST FR -

Some things cut through. Il­lu­mi­nat­ing and po­ten­tially blind­ing you.

The bril­liant sparkle of the iso­lated con­ti­nent of Antarc­tica is one such place. So sub­stan­tial, and so heavy with frozen mass. Giv­ing an air of per­ma­nence and un­touch­a­bil­ity.

Antarc­tica cuts through. There’s no need for a homage if you have seen it. Even trans­lated through the eyes of a sci­en­tist, like my­self, some things cut through.

I can re­call, for ex­am­ple, with in­tri­cate de­tail, the fluff of a young snow pe­trel chick hid­den by par­ents in a quartz cave.

I can quickly bring to mind the oddly grow­ing crys­tal ice – geo­met­ric shoots grow­ing up from blue lakes.

In my head, a clip can play, of a pen­guin swim­ming past a grounded ice­berg, leav­ing a steady trail of feath­ered bub­bles. Fields of fan­worms, like pop­pies in the dark, pick­ing plank­ton from the paucity. Wild storms above, cir­cling cy­clonic, dou­ble-low pres­sure sys­tems, ready to swoop down and lit­er­ally sweep me off my feet. The sum­mer sun, never fully set­ting, on an iri­des­cent silk of pinks, pur­ples, and apri­cots.

Antarc­tica is screen-saved on my mind. As it will be for many Antarc­tic sci­en­tists.

But Antarc­tica it­self is not saved. And nor are we.

Antarc­tica cuts through to the core of my un­der­stand­ing as a ma­rine ecol­o­gist, the core of my world view.

But the Antarc­tic con­ti­nent shouldn’t just tat­too the con­scious­ness of sci­en­tists – it should cut through to all of us with all of its beau­ti­fully bru­tal, crit­i­cally harsh re­al­ity.

It is af­ter all, a con­veyor belt of blue. Cre­ator and feeder of the cir­cum­po­lar cir­cle of cur­rents and wind. That, en­cour­aged by the melt of fresh snow and ice, prime the sink­ing pump of deep wa­ter. Formed and lost into an as­tound­ingly wild and deep sur­round­ing sea. That sea-sink, feed­ing a global con­veyor belt of cool­ing winds, waves and cur­rents.

And this is of course, our last re­main­ing cap, once they were a pair, poles apart.

Since the Arc­tic has been fleeced to a sin­gleyear snow-layer of brit­tle sea-ice, barely strong enough to sup­port the birthing igloo of a preg­nant ring seal.

We’ve got work to do, to cut through, with our pre­cious last cap.

This is a place that, “left mis­un­der­stood”, will touch us all. A place that ebbs and flows like no other af­ter 30 mil­lion years of icy iso­la­tion.

To­day we en­croach upon that iso­la­tion; the ice flows faster and the seas warm, im­per­cep­ti­bly per­haps, to a sleepy seal, but faster and faster still.

This place, left mis­un­der­stood, will hurt more than the seals and the pen­guins. The ice un­kempt, will be more than screen-saved on my mind, it will be in­deli­bly printed as wa­ter on the walls of our cities.

PROF EMMA JOHN­STON

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