Writing through the prism of ice

This is a collection of my presentations and ideas as they develop for my new book ‘Melting: The Life and Death of Antarctica’s Ice’ to be published by NewSouth Publishing in 2024.

On the edgeTowards a more than human history of Antarctica’s ice in the Anthropocene

A wonderful 2021 Australian Historical Association conference focusing on ‘Unfinished business’, with so many fascinating 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 focused on the unfinished business of writing non-human centred stories about Antarctica’s ice. Here’s the transcript of my presentation.


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 itself 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.


Ice memory: Exploring the human and natural histories of Antarctica’s sea ice

Posted on  by joymccann

Presentation by Dr Joy McCann to ANU Research Roadshow, November 2020

Photo by author

I am mesmerised by sea ice. It is neither land nor sea, but something else entirely. Below me, invisible currents stir delicate white crystals of ice, pushing them together until they curl up at the edges. The ice is blooming like lotus flowers on the cobalt blue sea. Our ship moves slowly in this ice garden. Now and then the steel hull screeches like a banshee, and the frozen surface buckles and cracks. We pass giant tabular icebergs. All eyes are on them, but it is the enveloping sea ice that takes my breath away.

Antarctica is surrounded by the vast Southern Ocean. In winter, sea ice covers up to 20 million square kilometres – more than half of its surface. In summer, the sea ice all but melts away, leaving pockets trapped within Antarctica’s curving coastline. This seasonal freeze and thaw has been described as the ‘largest seasonal physical process in the world’.[1] It dictates everything here – movement, temperature, colour, life and death.

I am beguiled by sea ice. It seems to be a living thing – moving and shapeshifting – drawing stories to the surface from the deep, powerful currents below. Many others have been beguiled before me. The Australian physicist, Louis Bernacchi wrote in 1898 that the sea ice encircled Antarctica like a ‘mighty spell … as if to guard the treasures locked up within its bosom … Lonesome, and unspeakably desolate it is, but with a character and a fascination all its own’.[2] In my book Wild Sea, I experimented by putting the Southern Ocean at the centre of my narrative. This time, I am casting sea ice as the central character. The sea ice seems an ideal place to sift through the entangled histories of humans and marine life above and below its surface.

In contrast to the barren conditions on the polar ice sheet, the waters around the sea ice are brimming with life. For the ocean around Antarctica is one of the largest ecosystems on Earth, thanks to Antarctic krill which congregate here to feed on the rich nutrients that grow on the underside of the ice. They breed here in massive numbers. There are so many that their biomass is estimated to weigh more than the entire human population of the planet. Krill are the main source of food for whales, seals, penguins, squid and fish. And so, in the human quest for new sources of wealth, the sea ice became an arena of violence from the earliest voyages into the high southern latitudes.

Commercial sealers converged in pursuit of their prey after James Cook’s reports of the region’s prolific marine life filtered back to England in the late 18th century. Operating in secrecy, sealing gangs would spend months on the remote islands of the Southern Ocean, butchering seals with impunity until the beaches were silent. When the Chanticleer, a Royal Navy survey ship, visited the South Shetland islands during a British expedition in the 1820s, the ship surgeon noted that the fur seals had all but disappeared there. ‘Such is the havoc made by sealers among them, that they are now scarce and seldom seen. The shores of this basin must have formed a delightful retreat for these persecuted creatures before it was found out by man.’[3] When James Clark Ross published his account of a four-year voyage in 1847, he counted 30 large whales around the vessel at any one time. ‘Hitherto,’ he wrote, ‘beyond the reach of their persecutors, they have here enjoyed a life of tranquillity and security; but will now, no doubt, be made to contribute to the wealth of our country, in exact proportion to the energy and perseverance of our merchants.’[4]

By the early twentieth century, commercial whalers were fulfilling that prophesy, venturing into the Southern Ocean to hunt the large baleen whales on their summer migration to the cold Antarctic waters to feed as the sea ice receded. The whalers were after the oil-rich blubber, and the whales were hunted without mercy. Some estimate that 300 000 blue whales alone were slaughtered between 1900 and the 1960s. In the period often called the heroic era of Antarctic exploration, sea ice played a starring role in stories of human survival. But it also became the setting for close encounters between humans and marine life.

Photo by author

At the edge of every icefloe in summer, there is always an assortment of crabeater seals, snow petrels and penguins feasting on a banquet of krill. Nearer the coastline, the occasional orca or leopard seal patrols for an easy meal on ice. During Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition in 1907, the Adélies won over everyone with their human-like antics. The expedition’s chief scientific officer, Edgeworth David, thought them ‘the dearest, quaintest, and most winsome birds imaginable.’ They would come running up to the men, waving their flippers as if to signal for them to wait, occasionally tripping over in their haste. Aboard the Terra Nova in 1910, Robert Scott too was charmed by the Adelies.

Sea ice is notoriously fickle. The ship might enter thin ice that gave way easily, only to be brought to a halt by a small floe that seemed to Scott to be ‘possessed of an evil spirit’. Caught between two floes, the Terra Nova would swing around and fall away, then drift to leeward before the next assault on the ice. Each manoeuvre could take up to half an hour, and Scott found himself entertained by groups of Adélie penguins diving for food under the ship. He thought them ‘wholly ludicrous’ on the ice, but underwater their agility and speed were astonishing. Such interactions may have been heart-warming in any other context, but during these expeditions they invariably ended with animals being slaughtered for fresh meat or preserved as specimens for display in museums far from home. Scott wrote in his diary: ‘It seems a terrible desecration to come to this quiet spot only to murder its innocent inhabitants and stain the white snow with blood; but necessities are often hideous’.[5]

In 1994, Dr Barbara Wienecke embarked on her first midwinter journey for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition. By then, the sea ice had become a scientific laboratory. A seabird ecologist, she was there to study the Emperor penguin rookery near Australia’s Mawson station, tracking their journeys to forage for food, and taking samples and measurements to determine their physical condition and food sources.[6] Barbara created a mental map to help her navigate between the field hut and the rookery out on the sea ice, christening the distinctive icebergs trapped in the frozen ocean with names like ‘Pig’, and ‘Amphitheatre’ and the ‘Mother of all Bum Slides’, and finally the ‘Big Window’. On her first journey to the rookery, the icebergs muffled all sound and she saw only the odd stray bird. ‘Then at the end of this huge, tabular iceberg’, she recalls: ‘… suddenly there they were…there was just this mass of black bodies and the noise was phenomenal.’ [7]  There were around 11,000 breeding pairs, courting or promenading with their partners. She fell on her knees at the sight, and she told me that, despite her years of research, ‘Nothing prepares you for something like that.’[8] Her tracking devices showed that, during the dark winter months, the females would travel up to 3,000 kilometres in search of food before returning to the colony – fat and glossy – to reunite with their partners.

The males remained in the colony on the sea ice, huddled together for protection and warmth, all the while balancing their precious single egg on top of their feet. They do not eat for around 115 days, and they lose almost half of their total body mass. When the females returned in July, Barbara described how the subdued colony would erupt in an explosion of noise as the females bumped their way through the throng to find their mates. By December, the entire colony would return to the sea for the brief summer months.

Over the years, Barbara and her colleagues have observed disturbing changes in the Emperors’ behaviour. During an aerial reconnaissance in 2010, she was shocked to see a colony located on the top of a grounded iceberg. The surrounding sea ice that year was simply too weak to support the heavy birds. This location was not only unstable. It also exposed the chicks to crevasses and strong winds. Four years later, aerial photographs and satellite imagery revealed four separate colonies rearing their chicks on ice shelves rather than on sea ice. Recent climate modelling shows that, without changes to our greenhouse gas emissions, Emperor penguins could virtually disappear by the end of the century due to the loss of sea ice.[9]

As the Emperors’ courageous and fragile existence on the fickle sea ice shows, the environmental violence of climate change has already reached this most remote and ephemeral place on Earth. The wider significance of these changes in sea ice is chilling. As the ice forms, it expels salt into the surrounding water, making it heavy. This dense, cold water sinks to the seabed and flows over the continental shelf and into the world’s oceans. The seasonal heartbeat of freeze and thaw, and the slow circulation of Antarctic Bottom Water, is the driver of global weather patterns. It is also plays a crucial role in drawing heat and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the ocean depths.

First, there was the violence of sealing and whaling, then industrial-scale fishing and krill harvesting, and now the slow violence of global warming. The ocean off the West Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth, threatening the massive shoals of krill that support the entire Antarctic ecosystem.[10] Even in this remote, ephemeral environment, humans have left their mark.

There is a great risk in thinking that Antarctica’s realm of sea ice has no history. That its seasonal freeze and thaw is timeless, and holds no memory of past violations. Or that our newfound appreciation of the resilience and beauty of its creatures renders it immune from further catastrophe. But the sea ice and the creatures that inhabit it have their own stories to tell. And we are part of those stories, just as they are part of ours. Through the prism of sea ice, perhaps we can shift the focus away from our human-centred narratives to acknowledging the agency of the creatures and the ocean itself. The seasonal heartbeat of freeze and thaw might reassure us that all is well, but the precarious existence of its inhabitants, like the polar bears in the Arctic, is a clarion call from the furthermost ends of the planet.

Photo by author

[1] Richard M Laws, Large Animals and Wide Horizons: Adventures of a Biologist; The Autobiography of Richard M. Laws, pt 3, Antarctica and Academe, ed. Arnoldus Schytte Blix, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, 2012, p. 266.

[2] Louis Bernacchi, To the South Polar Regions: Expedition of 1898–1900, Bluntisham, Denton, 1991 (1901), pp. 31-2.

[3] William Henry Bayley Webster, Narrative of a Voyage to the Southern Atlantic Ocean, in the Years 1828, 29, 30, Performed in H.M. Sloop Chanticleer, under the Command of the Late Captain Henry Foster, F.R.S. &c., R Bentley, London, 1834, p. 157.

[4] James Clark Ross, A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, During the Years 1839–43, vol. 1, J Murray, London, 1847, pp. 191–92.

[5] Robert Falcon Scott cited in Edward J Larson, An Empire of Ice: Scott, Shackleton, and the Heroic Age of Antarctic Science, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011, p. 180.

[6] Barbara Wienecke, interview with author, 30 September 2019.

[7] Wienecke interview, 30 September 2019.

[8] Wienecke interview, 30 September 2019.

[9] Stephanie Jenouvrier, ‘Emperor penguins could march to extinction if nations fail to halt climate change’, The Conversation, 8 November 2019.

[10] Cassandra M Brooks et al, ‘Antarctic fisheries: factor climate change into their management’, Nature, 13 June 2018.