Inexact sciences

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One of the greatest mysteries on our planet is the capricious behaviour of the continent we arrived at last of all. Granted, Antarctica doesn’t look like a mystery. It looks like a blank space. It’s mostly made of water. It’s shaped like a child’s first attempt at a pancake. On its surface, nothing moves except wind, snow, and some of the least sensible forms of life: human beings attempting to prove something, and the comedy acts of the animal world, waddling to and from the ocean.

Yet within Antarctica is a complicated infrastructure built of ice, pressure, wind, snow, air and ocean currents. The entire continent flexes in response to changes in other parts of the world, and it runs on its own internal logic. We’ve learned that it has two settings: freeze and melt. Right now, it’s busy freezing. But at some point—perhaps soon, perhaps not—a shift will take place somewhere within, and its glaciers and ice sheets and ice shelves will pour themselves into the sea. There will be no foreshadowing of this. So it isn’t like the seasons. It’s more like waking up.

This reversal has taken place several times in the past, but because Antarctica was the last continent we stood on, we’ve only been watching it for a hundred years, and it’s been deceptively inert all that time. Scientists learned about its melting mode from looking at layers of mud on the seafloor, but the geological record doesn’t tell us what kind of invisible hand flips the switch.

Once, humans raced from one part of Antarctica to another. Now, we are racing to figure out the system that runs Antarctica, something we appear to understand less than deep space or atoms.

In this issue, we transport you to the heart of the Ross Ice Shelf, the largest platform of floating ice in the world. Underneath there is a dark, covered ocean we’ve barely visited, one of the world’s biggest blank spaces: the Ross Ice Cavity. It hasn’t had any concerted attempt at measurement, or understanding, for almost half a century. Beneath, in layers of sediment, is written Antarctica’s history. Within that, clues to its future.

Antarctica is difficult to talk about because there aren’t very many certain things we can say, and possibilities don’t make for good stories. Moreover, uncertainty seems to make people suspicious about science, that maybe the job hasn’t been done well, that the scientists have the wrong end of the stick, or maybe they are deceiving us about what kind of stick it is.

Humans prefer simple stories, even when they’re wrong. And we prefer to be sure, even in a world that tries to show us, over and over again, that little is certain.

But science works in the gaps that uncertainty makes. There is uncharted territory to be charted, whether underneath ice shelves at the bottom of the world, or underneath our feet in the soil we’re only just properly getting to know.

“In the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act,” wrote one of my favourite authors, Rebecca Solnit. “When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone, or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.”

It’s hard to tolerate complexity. It’s an effort to comprehend something that lies in many pieces and won’t come together to form a whole. But at New Zealand Geographic we know, and are grateful, that you relish the challenge of embracing large, wobbly, shapeshifting ideas.

Welcome to the 150th issue of the magazine. Over the past 29 years, our form and style has evolved, but our mission remains the same: to communicate curiosity, discovery, and a desire to understand.

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