Unfinished business

2021 Australian Historical Association conference

A wonderful virtual conference this year, with so many sessions to choose from. I was delighted to share a panel on day 2 with James Dunk and Daniel May addressing the theme ‘Big histories’, chaired by Rachel Goldlust. My own paper – ‘On the edge: Towards a more than human history of Antarctica’s ice in the Anthropocene’ – focused on the unfinished business of writing non-human centred stories about Antarctica’s ice (second presentation, starting at 19:10 minutes)


In 1986, the American environmental historian Stephen Pyne published a remarkable book about Antarctic ice. Unlike the subject of fire which would subsequently consume his intellectual energies, Pyne focused his narrative on a single mineral. He began by noting that ‘ice is the beginning of Antarctica and ice is its end’. In his review of The Ice, Donald Worster described it as a journey into the science of glaciology, noting that the less adventuresome amongst us could now know ‘as much as we will probably ever want to know’ about ice. It was certainly a massive tome, 428 pages interweaving human history and the intellectual and geophysical complexities of Antarctica’s glacial and sea ice. From inauspicious beginnings – including an initial rejection by publishers – The Ice soon became a classic in the relatively new field of environmental history.

Environmental history had its first flowering in the United States in the 1970s, influenced by the political activism of the 1960s. Its early proponents, including Worster and Roderick Nash, encouraged historians to put the natural world at the centre of their studies. Pyne’s centring of ice in his narrative suggested exciting new ways to approach the study of the Antarctic region which, at that time, had been largely defined by 20th century geopolitics and science and the heroic nationalist narratives of early polar exploration. As Worster noted, ice presented an ‘environmental complexity that we have not fully appreciated’. What Pyne did was to construct a history that made ice the organising principle for his often deeply personal odyssey into the natural and human histories of ice, journeying from the edges of the continent and moving into its centre. He noted that, by evoking a world organised around a natural phenomenon, he – or rather the ice – could ‘summon topics, arguments, observations, and information like iron filings around a magnet’. He considered this approach so effective that he later adopted it for his fire histories. He recently told me that The Ice was written as ‘a personal encounter, refracted through history, not a communique from the front lines of Antarctic science’, but that, if he had had the opportunity, he would have discussed the ice within the context of global climate change.

In his most recent book The Pyrocene, however, he did find a way to put fire and ice together in one book to show how ‘humanity’s fire habits are creating the fire-informed equivalent to an ice age’. Since Pyne first carved out his own distinctive path into Antarctic ice in the 1980s, there has been an explosion of scholarly engagement with the southern polar region, ranging from the study of interspecies relationships and ecological processes of ice and ocean, to the deep history of the ice sheet, and the emergence of diverse voices and cultural engagements. I’d like to acknowledge the innovative work of Australian scholars in the humanities and social sciences, including the Antarctic historian Alessandro Antonello and literary scholar Elizabeth Leane, amongst others. But I want to focus here on two types of engagement with Antarctica’s glacial ice and sea ice that has emerged since Pyne published his book.

Ice as memory

The first relates to ice as memory. Pyne talked about it as ‘the great archives of past climates’.
The idea of glacial ice as an archive emerged in the early 20th century and gained traction in Europe with the alarming retreat of northern hemisphere mountain glaciers and the loss of information they held.
In 2017 UNESCO launched its Ice Memory project to preserve the ‘memory of our planet’s story’, while a private Ice Memory Foundation was founded this year with similar aims. Serious efforts to retrieve ice cores from the Antarctic ice sheet began in the post war period and gained momentum during the International Geophysical Year in 1957-8. By the end of the century, ice core drilling was the poster child of Antarctic research, driven by the need to understand the longer-term consequences of CO2 in the atmosphere, while the ice cores themselves were revered as precious historical documents.

For all its apparent simplicity, the physical nature of the Antarctic ice sheet is mind-bogglingly complex for non-scientists, as Pyne’s deep dive into the physics and chemistry of ice attests. And the ice sheet resists easy disclosure of its secrets – just as the ice shelves at its edges thwarted early attempts to reach it more than a century ago. I recently conducted an oral history interview with Dr Tas van Ommen, who leads the Australian project to drill the first ‘million year’ ice core at a place known as Little Dome C, inland from Australia’s Casey research station. The team aims to drill nearly 3 kilometres into the largest single mass of ice on Earth to retrieve a sample of the oldest ice on Earth. He patiently explained how the bubbles of ancient air trapped and compressed in the ice are revolutionising understanding of Earth’s climate history and the ability to predict future changes.

Antarctic ice is very pure. It contains air trapped when it fell as snow, including atmospheric gases and volcanic sediments. Bound into the ice, then, is a unique environmental record of past climate variations over hundreds of thousands of years. Plotted onto a simple graph, we can visualise Earth’s ancient heartbeat, measured in the regular rise and fall of temperatures and CO2 levels as the planet experienced intermittent ice ages and interglacial warm periods, and the alarming increase in Earth’s CO2 levels since the mid-twentieth century. Inspecting an ice core from the archives of the ice sheet is just as exciting as an unexpected discovery in the paper archives. But I have begun to think of ice memory as something more than a repository of ancient atmospheric gases and sediments. The history of human exploration of the polar ice sheet is usually told as a journey from the periphery to the centre of the continent – this is how Pyne structured his own journey into The Ice. This is, of course, a human-centred narrative, but perhaps if we follow the movement of the ice itsel as it flows slowly down from the interior to the coast under the force of its own weight, then this becomes a journey from the centre to the periphery – and that puts the glacial ice at the centre of its own story, creating a very different type of environmental history.


The second theme I want to touch on is the interconnectedness of everything at the edges of the continent – the messy, volatile, powerful world of sea ice that defines the Southern Ocean.
In contrast to the almost barren conditions on the polar ice sheet, the circumpolar ocean around and under the sea ice is brimming with life. For this reason, ice at the edges of Antarctica features prominently in early narratives of exploration and exploitation in the region. It was the arena for human encounters with the dynamic forces of the sea ice, and the usually violent interactions with its marine inhabitants. What is often overlooked in these histories, however, is that sea ice is a three-dimensional environment, and that beneath the ice lies a rich archive of stories about ecological processes and interspecies relationships in the Anthropocene. Beneath the frozen surface a complex ecosystem where diatoms and other phytoplankton inhabit the briny veins of sea ice. Phytoplankton carry out almost half the photosynthesis on Earth, consuming CO2 on a scale equivalent to forests and other land plants. When they die – if not eaten – they carry some of the carbon to the ocean floor where it is locked up in sediments. Even small changes in phytoplankton numbers may affect CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. And this is where Antarctic krill, the main source of food for whales, seals, penguins and seabirds, graze in huge numbers on the rich algae pastures beneath the frozen winter sea ice, having survived spawning and their long migration to the surface before the long Antarctic winter.
The impact of warming ocean waters on the seasonal freeze and thaw of sea ice is chilling, not only because of the impact on this vast ecosystem, but because the formation of sea ice is the engine house that drives global weather patterns.

Many scholars and writers are now exploring themes of connection and loss in this age of planetary crisis. Leane has called it the ‘cultural turn’ in Antarctic studies, and she has developed an extensive bibliography of scholarship in this area. In one paper, Leane and historian Ben Maddison wrote a biography of Iceberg B09B and its entanglement with human affairs when it lodged itself in Commonwealth Bay in 2011 creating mayhem for Australians who were there to celebrate the centenary of Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic Expedition at the historic site of Mawson’s Huts. A common thread in all this work is the blurring of the conventional separation of human and nonhuman lives, enabled by technological advances and scientific insights, but informed by the interests and concerns of the humanities and social sciences. This particularly resonates for me with a background in public history, where stories enable us to move back and forth across disciplinary, cultural and species divides. I’m interested, for example, in the idea that the whales that journey north each winter from Antarctica to Australia’s coastline to breed and feed, are carrying their own stories with them, from the sea ice to our own shores.

Conclusion – implications for environmental history

In a 2017 article about the uses of environmental history, Tom Griffiths argued that ‘Sometimes we need a different history in order to create a different future’ and he urged historians to ‘empower people with good stories, clear words, effective imagery, and persuasive insights’. People may find it difficult to connect their lives with this remote and inhospitable environment, but perhaps we do need new ways of writing about it. Antarctic ice is not just a blank canvass where humans have inscribed their political, economic and cultural beliefs and practices. It is a three dimensional environment where humans are only part of the story. Through the prism of ice, for example, we can shift the focus away from our human-centred narratives to focus on the agency of the creatures and the ocean and the ice itself. Our capacity to tell stories that speak to and transform global, national and local histories is, I think, one of the great strengths of environmental history – and the environmental humanities more broadly. It helps us to see our interconnectedness with Earth systems and other species, and how we are, like them, entirely dependent on our planetary systems for survival. As Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, has written, addressing climate change purely as a matter of science and policy misses the key role of storytelling as a means of problem solving, by providing focus and context in the climate crisis. It gives us the tools for opening hearts and minds beyond the academy and make visible that which is not immediately obvious – to show that Antarctica’s ice is far more than an abstraction or an emptiness upon which individuals and nations have etched their ambitions and achievements.

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