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Friday, 23 September 2016 17:36

Interdisciplinary Pathways to Antarctica - Eco-Antarctica Symposium

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Antarctica is a natural subject for interdisciplinary exploration because it ignites passion and curiosity on so many fronts. The day brought together a kaleidoscope of interested parties from the worlds of visual art, toxicology, history, climate science, law, plant biology and the humanities. Such disciplinary diversity gave a taste of the contradictions that Antarctica embraces - whether from the point of view of temperature change, ice movement or the tourism industry of this remote continent.


Glacier guide and academic historian, Ben Maddison was first off the rank. He spoke of the 'Great Man' view of history that has coloured much of the historical writing on Antarctica but pointed out that this standpoint was changing as historians shift their focus from heroism and sacrifice to motivation and emotion. Ashley Frost, a visual artist and media company director, was first introduced to Antarctica in the guise of a Zodiac driver (to the uninitiated like me, that's an inflatable boat). Ashley did not take a camera on that trip (it was in the pre-digital age of the early 1990s) but instead completed 150 paintings and drawings of this 'place of colour'.

Several lawyers introduced the sobering array of - at times inconsistent - laws applying to Antarctica. Stuart Kaye described Antarctica as a 'very curious place' with respect to the law, particularly if you felt inclined to arrest someone for, say, illegal fishing. The apprehended would have a right to appear before a magistrate - where would you take them? If they were given bail - where would they be released? Gregory Rose, from the Faculty of Law at the University of Wollongong, was the first of a number of speakers to show us images of the enormous Patagonian Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) - a major fishery of the Antarctic that is both heavily regulated, and subject of pirating. It can weigh up to 100kg. Indi Hodgson-Johnson used recent whaling cases to illustrate the difficulties of law enforcement, confessing, 'Whenever I open my mouth on this subject I feel like I'm summoning the Dark Lords of Antarctica."

Meet the scientists

A scientific approach was provided by speakers such as Sharon Robinson who summed up the challenges facing terrestrial vegetation in Antarctica as living in a freezer over winter and a fridge for summer. Sharon also shared her enthusiasm for Windmill Islands' biodiversity - 'the Daintree of continental Antarctica' - with its six moss species, 28 lichens and numerous algae. As CEO of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, speaker,Tony Worby's work is multidisciplinary by design, encompassing ocean-ice interactions, carbon uptake, biological responses to change as well as ecosystem trends. Inspired by artist, Susan Barnett's poetic descriptions of sea ice as 'ice flowers', Tony allowed himself a personal first - to admit in front of other scientists that watching the formation of pancake ice over a rippling ocean was 'majestic' and 'amazing'! PhD student, Darren Koppel outlined his research on Antarctic algae and how he seeks to improve toxicology measures and guidelines so they also account for mixtures of metals, not just single elements. Ecological modeller, Mick Ashcroft , who works in Sharon's lab, pointed out the importance of incorporating measures of abundance (not simply presence/absence) in moss species cover as a more sensitive indicator of change.  

Challenges in the convergence zone

Gathering together a group to explore interdisciplinary pathways is one thing. But what do people mean by 'interdisciplinary'? Several speakers offered definitions. Adding an extra discipline is one way, Ben Maddison suggested, but described this approach as 'semi interdisciplinarity'. In contrast true interdisciplinary research creates questions that can only be answered by several disciplines. He gave the example of prehistory, which necessitates collaboration between archeology and paleontology. Elizabeth Leane (who holds a degree in physics as well as a doctorate in English literature) also made a distinction between 'multidisciplinarity', with disciplines working in parallel, and true 'interdisciplinary' research where different parties 'talk to each other'. She felt the humanities, with its emphasis on narrative and language, was well placed to mediate between academics and 'the public', but conceded that disciplines such as literature studies have a strong tradition of the solo researcher, and are the least collaborative of all disciplines.

Polar points of view?

An obvious challenge to working inter disciplines is the dichotomy of subjective v objective points of view, although interestingly, scientists are not the only ones to champion objectivity. Historian, Ben Maddison, also called for a depersonalised approach to Antarctic studies, but in contrast, multi media artist, Brogan Bunt described two 'emblematic moments' in Antarctica, defending his personal approach saying, "I am an index of all the contradictions of Antarctica." That his father John Bunt was in the first person to dive under Antarctic ice for scientific purposes (to collect algae) added further to his personal story. Susan Barnett, a visual artist gave an intensely personal account of a trip to Antarctica that coincided with the anniversary of her mother's death, hence her term, 'ice-grief', that she extended to the demise of early explorers as well as the victims of more recent accidents.

Convergence and contradictions

After all the speakers had their say, we broke into focus groups with the aim of finding topics for interdisciplinary research. It was hard at the end of such a varied day to come up with suitable questions, but many issues arose, from all 'sides' of the room not least concerning the paradoxes of Antarctica as both pristine and disturbed, offering both very basic accommodation in the field as well as luxury on tourist ships, and being the backdrop to human experiences which could be isolated or crazily social.

A day like this can only be a beginning, and who knows what ideas have started to crystallise in the minds of participants. As Tony Worby said 'interesting things happen at boundaries'.


This Eco Antarctica symposium (9 August 2016, University of Wollongong) was organised with Dianne Jolley, Johanna Turnbull, Melinda Waterman and Diana King.


Read 2201 times Last modified on Sunday, 29 November 2020 14:09
Sharon Robinson

Senior Professor at University of Wollongong