Australian Antarctic science puts its record on the line

In 1997 ANARE – the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions – had its 50th anniversary. A significant part of that year's celebrations was the 'ANARE Jubilee Science Symposium', a week in July 1997 in which Antarctic scientists from around Australia gathered to mark a milestone of their own.

The symposium was an unprecedented opportunity for reflection. Antarcticans old and new paused to look at the status of Antarctic science in light of a national research record that compares favourably with that of any Antarctic country.

The discussions covered changes in science over the years. Veterans recalled the highs and lows of opportunistic science. They examined the role of science in the age of exploration of unvisited lands and seas – when physicists became glaciologists and surveyors took on multidisciplinary roles. In these early times research programs had to be invented, with no knowledge of what was to be studied, to justify sending scientists south at all.

The results of this 1997 Antarctic science gathering – 20 considered views on the full gamut of Australian Antarctic science – have been compiled by three veterans, Harvey Marchant, Des Lugg and Pat Quilty. The book was launched at the Australian Antarctic Division earlier this year.

This 622-page volume is a weighty tome, not just in paper but in the demands it places on its readers. Its detailed analysis of some highly esoteric branches of Antarctic science is daunting to the lay reader, but the effort of digging into it brings some rich rewards.

The approach of each contributing author varies, as is the nature of such compendiums, and readers will be drawn to one or the other depending on their particular interest. For me, the papers which stood out were those in the fields of glaciology (the Antarctic ice sheet and marine glaciology) and Southern Ocean processes, with discussions of new technology, marine geology and aquatic microbiology also of great interest.

But the real value of this book is in its comprehensive coverage and its opportunity for reflection.

The papers cover the full range of Antarctic studies, taking in all the major research areas – atmospheric and space physics, geology and geophysics, terrestrial, aquatic and marine biology, continental and marine glaciology, oceanography and environmental science – as well as technological support and the broader research environment.

The book's coverage of change over time is no less valuable. From tentative early subantarctic work through continental studies to current broad-scale programs focused largely on the Southern Ocean, this book provides an unmatched perspective on modern Antarctic research.

Reflection is scarce in quickly-changing modern times, and because of that increasingly precious. When the opportunity comes to reflect it is to be seized and treasured. It is to the great credit of the editors, and particularly the principal coordinator of the symposium, Harvey Marchant, that they have seen this need and acted on it. The result is an essential reference for all who value the Antarctic and its study.

Marchant HJ, Lugg DJ and Quilty PG (ed.), Australian Antarctic Science: the first 50 years of ANARE, Australian Antarctic Division, Hobart 2002, 622pp. Hardbound, RRP $A95.00.

Peter Boyer