Eureka – buried treasure in Antarctica

By Jo Chandler

Extract from an article which this week was awarded best Australian Science Writing at the Eureka Awards.

“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.”

Jo Chandler’s article “Buried Treasure” was published in the Griffith Review #77: “Real Cool World” and won the Australian Museum’s Eureka Prize for Science writing in 2023. The article has been unlocked and is available to readers now.

Griffith Review is a literary and current affairs journal published by Griffith University, Queensland.

The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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