Thought experiments in blue and white

Here’s an idea: there’s no time at the South Pole. Where the globe’s lines of longitude meet, all the world’s times co-exist at once. To walk a circle with a radius of ten metres around the planet’s southern polar point would be to pass through all twenty-four of its time zones in one short snowy trudge – the white-blue of the ice below; the blue-white of the sky above.

Tilt this idea a little on its axis, and perhaps this means there’s no world-time here at all. At the South Pole, the sun takes roughly two months to rise – once – in spring. It stays light through one long ‘day’ that reaches from October to March. And then it sets – once – across two months of autumn for the long winter of a single ‘night’ from May to August. One day and one night in each cycle the world calls a year. An upending kind of measurement; a different way of quantifying time.

These are interesting thought experiments, as are most things about Antarctica for most people. Although thirty countries operate more than eighty scientific research bases across its space, and more than 74,000 tourists visited in the pre-Covid 2019–20 season, Antarctica is still, in many ways, Terra Australis Incognita: an unknown great southern land. It’s a place most people will visit virtually rather than actually – through stories, images, films, documentaries and science. A place they will imagine rather than encounter. A place that is out of their world.

Stop for a moment. And breathe. 

Think about the air at the South Pole; imagine how clean and cold it would feel. The South Pole Observatory collects information from that air, specific carbon-dioxide readings from air samples collected in glass flasks. The observatory was established in 1957, the year when so much of the world’s Antarctic activity got underway as part of the International Geophysical Year; these carbon-dioxide readings from the geophysical pole date back to the 1970s.

That period – and 1972 in particular – holds a particular charge. 1972 saw the publication of the Stockholm Declaration, the result of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in early June 1972. Principle 6 of that declaration insisted that

The discharge of toxic substances or of other substances and the release of heat, in such quantities or concentrations as to exceed the capacity of the environment to render them harmless, must be halted in order to ensure that serious or irreversible damage is not inflicted upon ecosystems. 

This pulses with a very different energy fifty years later. In 1972, the carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere – the primary greenhouse gas that causes global warming – was running at roughly 327 parts per million. Fifty years later, it’s breached 420 ppm, an increase of almost a third – and well over the planet’s safe operating limit of 350 ppm. 

It almost feels like a cliché to offer up this particular story, to lay a single measurement of parts per million alongside another in order to underscore the speed of this change. But it’s critical to keep those numbers in mind, to contemplate the scale of difference across a short half century. 

And breathe.

Please read the rest of this article at Griffith Review


Dr Ashley HayDr. Ashley Hay is a former literary editor of The Bulletin, and a prize-winning author who has published three novels and four books of narrative non-fiction.

Her work has won several awards, including the 2013 Colin Roderick Prize and the People’s Choice Award in the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize. She has also been longlisted for the Miles Franklin and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and shortlisted for prizes including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Kibble. In 2014, she edited the anthology Best Australian Science Writing.

She is formerly the editor of Griffith Review.

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