Veronika Meduna

04:11, Oct 27 2012

There can't be too many science journalists with the experience of Veronika Meduna. The Radio New Zealand Our Changing World producer and presenter drew a huge crowd at the Granary Festival Cafe on Saturday, discussing her new book Science on Ice.

Former Cawthron Institute and Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Gillian Wratt interviewed Meduna, but the two women effectively shared the stage, drawing on both of their experiences for some of the discussion.

"[Antarctica] is a special place for New Zealanders, and New Zealand," Meduna told the packed crowd. "You do expect a good turnout because we do connect with Antarctica."

Those connections are through our historic position as one of the last places on Earth for expeditioners to stop and refuel before sailing down south; linkages which began with the herioc age of exploration of Scott and Shackleton, and continue today.

Antarctica’s ice cap holds three quarters of the planet’s fresh water, its layers of ice and sediment record past climate conditions going back millions of years, and the oceans around it drive the global food chain and a giant conveyor belt of currents that transports heat around the globe.

Meduna noted that the continent is also politically very important to New Zealand - as our closest neighbour after Australia and the Pacific Islands, we have an interest in its peace and environmental wellbeing, as well as maintaining it as a type of international reserve devoted to peace and science.

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Wellington-based Meduna was a soil microbiologist before becoming a science journalist, and she  visited the ice for Radio New Zealand in 2001 and 2006.

Meduna's book is a hardcover tome documenting the many different fields exploring the secrets hidden in the creatures, ice, and land in this vast time-machine of environmental data.

"It's mostly about the people who do the work; the hundreds of scientists who come to Scott Base for summer and a handful who stay for winter," Meduna said. "The most astonishing aspect is just the immensity of scale," she said. "Mt Erebus looks like a day's walk - it's 70km away."

The scale also translates into time; the ice holds our best-kept archive of ancient worlds, and through analysing that archive we can find out what the world looked like millions of years ago. "By understanding what happened in the past we can predict what might be coming our way," she said.

She briefly outlined some of the content of the book and some of the work the scientists are doing - including lichens that grow 1mm a century, carnivorous worms snaking across the ocean floor, fungi living in the wood of the early explorers' huts, and bacteria thriving in hot volcanic soils.

The presentation then lapsed into questioning - one of the best coming from a woman who asked when the line is crossed between science and tourism having a negative impact on the environment. "The biggest threat to Antarctica is not from visiting Antarctica, but from what humans are doing elsewhere," Meduna said, a comment which rang true with the audience.

As a rabid fan of Our Changing World, I would have liked to have heard more about Meduna's career and experiences in reporting science, and particularly more about Antarctic science, rather than half the presentation taken up by answering questions about Antarctic political minutiae, with some lengthy answers from Gillian Wratt.

There were plenty of Antarcticans in the audience; a surprising number of scientists travel to Scott Base each year to research, including several with links to our own Cawthron.

"I feel like a bit of a fraud," Meduna said. "Here are people in the audience who know the science of Antarctica much better."

But is is she who has made a story of it.

*For those in the audience wishing to listen to Veronika Meduna's IceFest podcasts, covering Antarctic science, environmental issues and the management of the continent and Southern Ocean, they are available here. More will be uploaded in the coming days.

Nelson