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Story Publication logo February 16, 2023

Telling a New Kind of Polar Science Story

Image by Christian Elliott

An unprecedented search for Earth's oldest ice is underway in Antarctica. The bubbles frozen inside...


Oregon State University ice core lab manager Mike Kalk runs the carbon dioxide dry extraction line, separating ancient atmospheric gasses from ice drilled in Antarctica. Image by Christian Elliott. United States, 2022.

I first learned of COLDEX, the Center for Oldest Ice Exploration, about a year ago at a paleoclimatology conference. At the time, I had a very rudimentary understanding of the field. I was at the conference (well, “at” virtually) as a required component of my grad school science journalism curriculum. Over two days of talks, the scientists threw around a lot of terms: Milankovitch cycles, speleothems, argon isotopes, the mid-Pleistocene transition, and so on. I didn’t follow everything at the time, but I was struck by how passionate they were about their work, and, perhaps more, by the very cool places they got to go in search of ancient climate records.

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So, when the Pulitzer Center special call for climate science proposals came out, I immediately thought of paleoclimatology. I imagined tagging along with an ice core drilling crew to test a new melt probe in Greenland, or even to conduct radar surveys in Antarctica. What an adventure! I interviewed some scientists from COLDEX, one of the many research initiatives presented at the conference, and wrote up a story for school. I proposed going on the team’s search for Earth’s oldest ice, to extend the climate record back further than ever before. Then, the bad news started rolling in. Due to COVID-19, the team’s trip to Greenland was canceled. Then, the NSF decided not to allow journalists into Antarctica through their usual media program.

I got a little desperate—I looked for a glacier I could get to, any glacier. Maybe Alaska? A collaboration between COLDEX and a group in Alaska fell through next. I wondered if I had a story at all, if I couldn’t get some place to put my boots in snow, to jump over a crevasse, to photograph a scientist braving the wind to drill an ice core—to write a climate science story with some adventure.

It was one of the scientists at COLDEX who shook some sense into me. She basically said (I’m paraphrasing here), “With all due respect, it sounds like you want to do what journalists have always done with polar science stories—take photos of some guy looking heroic on an ice cliff. We don’t need that.” I knew the kind of story she was talking about. The magazine cover story hero shot of a rugged scientist in a puffy coat—probably sporting an ice-crusted beard—posing in the harsh polar frontier he has conquered.

It’s the kind of story many in the polar sciences have been trying to move past for a while now, a narrative they’ve been trying to counter. When the media portrays polar science as the realm of able-bodied, white, male explorers, who risk their lives for science, that’s who the field attracts. A lot of people are left out. Since 1973, 86% of geosciences PhDs went to white students. And until recently, men dominated Antarctic fieldwork. Things are slowly changing, but books, films, and newspaper and magazine accounts of polar research still perpetuate what some experts have called the “Antarctic hero factor.”

So, I decided not to force a polar sciences fieldwork story. I spent a lot of time in labs in Madison, Wisconsin, and Corvallis, Oregon, instead. I toured facilities where engineers built ice core drills and labs filled with tanks and hoses and steam where graduate students and postdocs and technicians worked hard, day after day, to carefully extract gasses from ice long after the cores arrived there from Antarctica.

The history of scientific fieldwork is deeply entwined with colonialism—rugged individuals braving wild untouched frontiers to collect data (and rocks, and artifacts that don’t belong to them). Today, that history persists in a dangerous culture of sexual harassment in remote field locations like Antarctica. Fieldwork is still a critical part of the geosciences—somebody has to go get the ice cores if we want to pull climate records from them—but it’s not the biggest part of a scientist’s work.

Any paleoclimatologist will tell you—the real work happens in the lab. Telling polar science stories set in labs—ones that focus on the work of teams instead of heroic individuals and on science instead of dramatic exploration—is necessary if we want to encourage more inclusive science.


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