Reviewed by Michael M. Gunter, Jr, Rollins College

Antarctica holds the key to understanding not only how life evolved on earth and the climate change underway today, but also what lies well beyond our planet.


Secrets of the Ice: Antarctica’s Clues to Climate, the Universe, and the Limits of Life, by Veronika Meduna, Yale University Press, 2012, 232 pp.

Combining lyrical prose with over 150 colour photographs that capture both the breathtaking beauty and intense challenges of the Antarctic landscape, Secrets of the Ice provides an engaging overview of collaborative international scientific research in Antarctica across a range of disciplines, from astronomy to zoology.

Trained as a microbiologist and now one of New Zealand’s leading science journalists, author Veronika Meduna utilizes both of these backgrounds to produce an attractive and eminently readable work as well as a valuable scientific resource. Based in part on formal interviews with a range of scientists and informal conversations dating back to her first visit to New Zealand’s Scott Base over a decade ago in 2001, Meduna deftly transports readers to the last frontier on our planet and a new heroic age of discovery in Antarctica.

After a short introduction, Meduna’s first chapter explores Antarctica’s climate history, from its warm Gondwana origins teeming with life to the frozen landscape that is the world’s largest desert today. Chapter two then focuses on marine life, highlighting the migration and breeding of the continent’s iconic emperor penguin species as well as lesser known endemic species such as white-blooded fish with an unique chemistry of antifreeze proteins that facilitate their survival in such harsh conditions.

Chapter three targets terrestrial survivors of freeze–thaw cycles and the six-month-long polar night, while chapter four concentrates on microscopic life in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, spotlighting scientists in their search for life on the coldest continent. In closing, a concise coda suggests Antarctica holds the key to understanding not only how life evolved on earth and the climate change underway today, but also what lies well beyond our planet. This section suggests the frozen landscape provides a fresh perspective for astronomers and physicists studying elusive particles known as neutrinos and insights into the Big Bang theory.

An additional section on resources and recommended reading further enhances Meduna’s contribution, including annotations on everything from academic works on fish, penguins and invertebrates to biographies of golden age explorers such as Scott and Shackleton.

In summary, Meduna deftly details a continent of extremes. Antarctica is the coldest, driest, highest and windiest continent. This 10 per cent of the earth’s landmass is also our best archive of past climate conditions and a valuable resource for understanding the climate change underway today. With nearly three-quarters of the world’s fresh water frozen in a precarious balance, moreover, Meduna convincingly points out that Antarctica is not just a ‘passive bystander’ when it comes to climate change but also a major driver.

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