Exploring Antarctica through the lens of the climate crisis
Who Dr Jackson Ryan, CNET
What One of 66 people on the inaugural voyage of Australia's icebreaker vessel RSV Nuyina, Dr Jackson Ryan explores Antarctica through the lens of the climate crisis. His series Journey to the Ice Kingdom offers a snapshot of life onboard a research vessel and explains how rising temperatures, tourism and loss of biodiversity threaten the southernmost continent.
Winner of the 2022 Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Science Journalism
Congratulations on your win, Jackson! This was your third year as a finalist — how does it feel to take home that trophy?
Relief. A lot of relief. I was shaky when I accepted the award because it truly means a lot to me that it exists. When I was in university, working as scientist, I used to love following the Eureka Prizes and would think “hopefully I can give this a crack one day when my experiments work.” They never did then I switched to a career in science journalism and weirdly enough, I was able to give it a crack! After three years as a finalist, it was really such a thrill to win and I feel very fortunate.
Also, it’s a very good trophy. Weighty. Solid. I was parading it around Frankie’s Pizza bar at midnight after I won to get free pizza. It didn’t work.
Because I was on the RSV Nuyina and we had to cross the Southern Ocean, I really got an appreciation for how massive Earth is.
You wrote about the difficulty in conveying how it feels to be in the Antarctic. What surprised you most about this part of the world?
Because I was on the RSV Nuyina and we had to cross the Southern Ocean, I really got an appreciation for how massive Earth is. For about two weeks we were just sailing through open seas. You can kind of get that experience on a plane, I guess, but that journey is over in, at most, a day or so. Antarctica is a long, long way away. I was surprised by how that made me feel and I started to wonder why we even bother going there ... like, what if everyone just let it be? Would that be so bad?
To what extent did you observe the impact of humans on Antarctica, during your time there?
When you think of Antarctica you probably think of those amazing nature documentaries and David Attenborough’s voice is in your head. Of course, Sir David did not venture to Antarctica with me, so I had to narrate things myself. It’s not quite like that image, at least not on the coast where Australia’s research stations sit. In those locations, our activities have basically carved out a chunk of land that's ice-free, muddy and rocky.
Though everyone does their best to leave the wilderness undisturbed, we know that the ecosystems around stations are vulnerable to human impacts. When I was visiting, the team at Casey (research station) were in the middle of a huge remediation effort to understand clean up fuels that have leaked into the soils over the decades of human occupation.
What were the most challenging aspects of the trip?
Good sleep! During the summer season, once you get far enough south, the sun never sets. This messes with your body a fair bit, even with blackout curtains. It was also just really challenging to be on a huge ship for so long because there’s a lot of downtime, no consistent internet and a creeping sense of loneliness — even though the ship was full of great people that I enjoyed spending time with.
Many people might be curious about the RSV Nuyina itself. What did you learn about the vessel during your time onboard?
The Nuyina is super cool. It’s state-of-the-art. You’re basically stepping into a space station when you board. And like a space station it’s filled with laboratories and all sorts of whizz-bang machinery that can drop things into the ocean or monitor the climate or map the ocean floor or assess the salinity and temperature of the water. It even has a huge room, right next to the engine room, that you can deliberately flood with water to collect marine creatures.
I really only scratched the surface of what the vessel can do and I look forward to seeing other science journalists write about its exploits in the future. It has had some engineering troubles, so I am keen to see how it bounces back in the upcoming summer seasons.
Specialists with an understanding of the sciences – in health, the environment, physical and life sciences and beyond — are so important to newsrooms because they prevent the spread of inaccurate or misleading information.
What role do you believe science journalism plays in society today?
The value of science journalism has only increased over the last few years. Specialists with an understanding of the sciences — in health, the environment, physical and life sciences and beyond — are so important to newsrooms because they prevent the spread of inaccurate or misleading information. And misleading information erodes trust. So, we need science journalists today, in the age of misinformation, more than ever.
That’s why the Eureka Prize for Science Journalism is so important. It’s aspirational. It should drive science writers and communicators and journalists to do their best work in educating the public, speaking out about problems in research and policy, and instil a sense of wonder and inspiration in readers.
The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence across the areas of research & innovation, leadership, science engagement, and school science.