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Geoscience Arts: Antarctica
Through the Eyes of Writers and Artists
Television: Brewing intelligent design
Books: Trapped in the ice
my way of thinking, the creation of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program
by the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) was
a stroke of genius. The program provides opportunities for scholars in
the humanities to work in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean to make observations
at U.S. Antarctic Program stations and research camps and in wilderness areas.
The program has supported artists of every ilk authors, historians, photographers,
painters, sculptors and even composers and musicians so that they may
increase understanding of the Antarctic and help document Americas
This landscape painting by David Rosenthal, Glacier Twilight, is just one product of the National Science Foundations Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, which supports photographers, authors, musicians and artists to travel to the southern continent for inspiration and education. Courtesy of David Rosenthal.
My first real familiarity with this program was when Barry Lopez, the noted natural history writer, spent part of a field season with me and my colleague, Paul Mayewski, on the Newall Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys region of Antarctica in the mid-1980s. We were digging snow pits to carefully sample and later analyze the snow for its chemistry, to understand how the atmosphere and climate changed with time. Lopez was a great campmate and fellow scientist, as he took part in all of our activities, including the rigorous and laborious digging of 6-meter-deep snowpits!
This past year, I had the great fortune of helping to bring Lopez to Ohio State University for a speaking engagement, and over lunch, we reminisced about that field season together in the Antarctic. During his talk that evening, he spoke of the relationship between humans and Antarctica, the place. Clearly his time in Antarctica greatly affected him, and his ability to put it into words has made others, who will never have the opportunity to see Antarctica themselves, more interested and aware of this faraway continent.
Many interesting products have been generated from this program. These include a series of reproductions of wonderful landscapes painted by David Rosenthal that dot the walls of the galley at McMurdo Station, and a large number of black and white photographs of people at work in Antarctica by Jim Barker that can be found in strategic places around McMurdo, as well as in the NSF building in Arlington, Va.
Books range from Rebecca Johnsons Braving the Frozen Frontier, about women working in Antarctica, and Lucy Bledsoes novel for middle grades, The Antarctic Scoop, to Kim Stanley Robinsons excellent eco-thriller, Antarctica, and Yvonne Baskins recently released book, Under Ground: How Creatures of Mud and Dirt Shape Our World. In this book about the important contributions of soil and sediment organisms to ecosystem health, Baskin describes the work of my colleague, Diana Wall, on McMurdo Dry Valleys soils. The tiny nematode worms that Diana and her group study are referred to as the top of the food chain like lions on the savanna.
Each of these works (and the many other excellent ones that I dont have the space to mention) bring the audience an Antarctic experience, be it aesthetic, historical, philosophical or scientific. The numerous individuals who read or view the results of these works have all learned something about the Antarctic and the science that takes place there.
I recently read On the Ice, by Gretchen Legler, who was supported by this program. It is subtitled as An intimate portrait of life at McMurdo Station. The book is many stories rolled into one: glimpses into Antarctic history and exploration, the descriptions and activities of people both scientists and the service contractors who work in Antarctica and the story of the authors own search for herself and intimacy. The authors tale is also very personal, describing her own journey to explore her sexuality. She discusses the unusual vagaries of human interactions in such a place as Antarctica, while also acknowledging the same human behavior patterns that could take place anywhere else on the planet.
I enjoyed reading Leglers descriptions of the process of leaving McMurdo Station, the primary travel hub from which people head north and back home via aircraft. Known as bag drag, leaving can be as painful and tedious as the term implies. Equally revealing to the non-Antarctic visitor are her accounts of how McMurdo and Antarctic science have changed through the years in terms of gender equity and a much more dedicated environmental ethic. For example, Legler explains that the female population in McMurdo has gone from zero in the 1970s to at least 40% during the austral summer by the late 1990s. She calls the U.S. Antarctic stations the most clean and eco-groovy places on the continent. The U.S. Antarctic Program takes environmental issues extremely seriously, with recycling and proper disposal of all waste done better there than in most other places in the world.
The Artists and Writers Program has now been duplicated by other Antarctic Treaty signatory nations because it fills an important gap. It allows others besides scientists, and tourists who can afford to go, to come to the ice and partake of this beautiful but desolate place.
As Legler points out, there are other ways of seeing and knowing than just the scientific one. This program provides the artist, the writer and the historian the opportunity to transmit their visions of the Antarctic to the general public, perhaps in a much more effective way than we scientists can convey our own knowledge to the lay public.
Legler suggests that Edward Wilson was a person who saw the Antarctic from these two different frames of reference. Wilson was Robert F. Scotts scientific officer on both of his Antarctic expeditions (see story, this issue). But in addition to Wilsons scientific duties, he was an artist as well. Legler describes his pictures as more valued as data, it seems, than expressions of feeling, moments of ecstasy or experiences of the sublime. Wilsons desire for accuracy drove both his science and his art.
In our age of narrow scientific focuses, the thought of Wilson as a scientist/artist is intriguing. However, even in this day of scientific specialization, there are still scientists/artists wandering in the McMurdo region. I think of Bill Green, a world-class geochemist and author of the award-winning 1995 book Water, Ice and Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes, as perhaps, the best example.
I see that Kathleen Heideman is the current person in Antarctica supported by this program. She is a poet and her project is entitled The Scientific Method Poems of Antarctic Inquiry. I cant wait to read the results!
"Can you hear me now?" Geotimes, March 2006 [Check back later this month to read this Geologic Column.]
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"noitulovE" on Framestore CFC Web site
"Evolution Lessons From Infectious Diseases," Geotimes, March 2006
"Bringing Dinosaurs to Life," Geotimes, June 2005
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Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate
by William F. Ruddiman.
Princeton University Press, 2005.
ISBN 0 6911 2164 8.
William Ruddiman has forwarded an exciting and controversial hypothesis that
is fueling a heated debate among climate scientists: Humans may have taken control
of climate thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution. In Plows,
Plagues, and Petroleum, Ruddiman details the ways that humans may have increased
atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations by land clearing and agriculture starting
8,000 years ago.
This well-written book does a great job of summarizing complex topics through simple calculations and examples, and provides the right balance of cultural background and scientific data. And Ruddimans premise is sure to stoke the already heated debate in the scientific and economic communities.
Ruddimans hypothesis is both novel and controversial because it implicates a much more significant human influence on climate than previously documented. The story begins simply with bubbles in ice. After water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane are the dominant greenhouse gases in terms of their contribution to trapping solar heat. The gases past atmospheric concentrations have now been well-documented hundreds of thousands of years into the past by sampling fossil air that was trapped in bubbles in the polar ice sheets. These bubbles tell a fascinating story.
Although, as Ruddiman explains, carbon dioxide and methane concentrations have operated within natural bounds for at least the past 400,000 years responding to factors like the amount and distribution of incoming solar radiation to Earths surface and carbon dioxide inputs from volcanoes two apparent anomalies seem to defy the natural explanations. Methane concentrations began increasing 5,000 years ago, and carbon dioxide levels began increasing 8,000 years ago, both at times when Ruddiman suggests they should be dropping.
The timing of the methane trend coincides with the development of the rise of agriculture in Asia a major source of methane produced by anaerobic decomposition of organic matter in wetlands. And the beginning of the carbon dioxide increase coincides with widespread deforestation by Stone Age peoples in Eurasia, when burning of biomass released large amounts of carbon dioxide into the global atmosphere.
Thus, Ruddiman suggests that the human influence on climate began thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution, when the release of gases through fossil-fuel combustion has been well-documented. The smaller pre-Industrial emissions may have been nearly 40 percent as large as the post-Industrial emissions truly a staggering revelation.
A huge implication of the pre-Industrial greenhouse gas releases is that humans may have helped create the stable Holocene climate in which advanced civilizations emerged for the first time in Earths history. These extra greenhouse gases that accumulated in the atmosphere may have even helped warm the planet enough to stop a glaciation in northeastern Canada, thus potentially averting Earths gradual slip into another ice age. Ruddiman suggests that even short-lived human population crashes over the past two millennia may have affected the global carbon cycle and climate: Following disease pandemics when human populations plummeted, previously deforested land lay fallow, leading to revegetation that removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This change showed up in polar ice cores as a decrease in gas concentrations.
As may be expected for such a novel idea, Ruddimans hypothesis has attracted critical attention and has yet to be completely accepted by the scientific community. A full acceptance of his hypothesis will require additional tests, and the idea will need to survive close scrutiny of a skeptical scientific community.
Ruddiman omits from the book some of the more technical details of the arguments, such as the carbon cycle constraints placed by stable isotopes, and the specific orbital configurations of past interglacial periods possibly analogous to the current interglacial period in which we live (see story, this issue). Additionally, since publication of Ruddimans book, newer and longer ice core gas records have been produced from Antarctica that, to some researchers, do not support Ruddimans hypothesis.
Regardless of the criticism, however, the beauty of his hypothesis is that it presents a testable idea that future research can refute or validate. Even if the hypothesis ultimately proves partially or fully incorrect, Ruddiman has done his job as a scientist by stimulating new research directions, and for questioning the role of humans in global climate change before the Industrial Revolution. His idea continues to stimulate new research and modifications to the hypothesis, and will surely be a hot topic in climate science for many years into the future of our rapidly warming world.