What you always wanted to know about...the Antarctic

Mar 2, 2012

Interview with the naturalist Antonio Mirabella, participant in the 2010 Antarctica Campaign
What you always wanted to know about...the Antarctic

Antonio Mirabella, an Italian naturalist who is currently working in the department of Environmental Biology and Biodiversity at the University of Palermo, is presenting the exhibition entitled 'Antarctica, a continent in precarious balance at the Oceanogràfic' (until 31st May 2012) consisting of 40 photos taken during the 2010 Antarctica Campaign as well as a new video and samples, such as volcanic rocks, mosses, lichens and fossils, gathered from various sites on Antarctica.

This exhibition allows the visitor to undertake a trip to the Antarctic, from Mirabella’s point of view, as well as to see the research undertaken during the 2010 Antarctica Campaign, in which the author took part as a scientist. As this expert explains, this continent, which is 1.5 times bigger than Europe, scientifically represents a “huge database” for planet Earth, a place where researchers can discover a “huge open air laboratory”.

Recently, the president of the Italian Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, awarded Antonio Mirabella the "Medaglia di rappresentanza della Repubblica” for his commitment to raising awareness of subjects related to climate change through his “Antarctica, a continent in precarious balance”. Mirabella dedicated the award to “the indigenous Mapuche people of Chile and Argentina, who renounce consumerism and progress and are fighting to protect "Ñuke Mapu" or "Mother Nature".

-Briefly tell us about your personal experience on the frozen continent.

It is difficult to express in a few words such a great experience as the Antarctic. When I was selected from 10 researchers from different universities throughout the world, I couldn’t believe it. I was aware of the privilege that it meant. To live on the coldest and most isolated continent is like going beyond the imagination and to go back in time and see the earth over different ice ages.

What reasons did you have for embarking on this adventure?

For a naturalist, learning and finding out more about the natural characteristics of certain places on the planet is important: it enables you to get a fuller picture of an area. Also, studying the natural features of the white continent, with special reference to the effects of climate change, becomes a way of understanding our planet and what is happening to it. To face such extreme and difficult places is also a way of getting to know yourself.

-What did the 2010 Antarctica Campaign involve?

The 2010 Antarctica Campaign was an international scientific mission which enjoyed the support of the Chilean Navy. We left from Punta Arenas (Chile), sailed through the Magellan Strait and made for the Drake Passage, regarded as the roughest waters in the world. During the two months of the Antarctic Campaign, 187 areas were studied, each of us studying in accordance with our particular skill. Hence, the glaciologists analysed the samples taken from the ice, the marine biologists devoted their time to diving and studying the unstable balance of the Antarctic Ocean, while I, as a naturalist, undertook a follow-up on the rocks during the Antarctic summer.

It was a fascinating piece of research and, thanks to the helicopters, I had the opportunity to explore further inland while the ships sailed from place to place on the coast. During the campaign, all research lines were coordinated in order to check whether we were getting the same reading on climate change.

-What does the Antarctic represent on the scientific level?

Antarctica is still a largely unexplored continent and man’s presence is practically nil. A continent covered in ice provides an opportunity to travel back in time to when the glaciers covered a large part of the continents. From a scientific point of view, the Antarctic is a “database” for planet earth.

The oldest layers of blue coloured ice contain valuable information, such as air bubbles that provide information on the percentage of different gases that the atmosphere contained thousands of years ago. It is also possible, through the discovery of fossils, including plants (several on display at this exhibition) to imagine the past when woods similar to those of the tundra covered the Antarctic. From that data gathered, we are able to reflect upon the hypothesis that our planet has always been subject to more or less cyclical climate changes.

-Nowadays, the continent is a symbol of international cooperation… What kind of research and scientific missions take place in Antarctica?

The Antarctic is a continent entirely devoted to science and peace, the result of international diplomacy. In representation of all continents, all decisions are taken by consensus or unanimity, a place where the laws are “recommendations”, where territorial disputes are “frozen” and the political institution is a simple peace treaty. Studies related to climate change, the meteorites, the Earth’s atmosphere, and the percentages of gases in the atmosphere thousands of years ago, the study of early forms of life (bacteria, viruses, etc)…. For us, the Antarctic is one huge open air laboratory!

-The Antarctic is a continent covered in a layer of ice that at some points exceeds 4,700 metres and which accounts for 90% of all the ice on the planet and 80% of fresh water reserves. How can the melting of the Antarctic affect the rest of the planet?

The Antarctic is related to the entire planet and may be considered to some extent as the driving force behind the circulation of the oceanic waters, which in turn affects the different continents. This driving force is the difference between the Antarctic cold and the temperate equatorial areas.

The difference of temperature diminishes with the equatorial line and many oceanic currents slow down and are destined to disappear. As a tangible result, we are experiencing climate changes to the different continents and increasingly violent meteorological phenomena.

-Explain to us what the public will see when they visit your exhibition at the Oceanogràfic.

The public who go to see this exhibition will be able to see photographs of the Antarctic that create a surrealist atmosphere in an attempt to transmit the bluish colours, the wind, storms and calm of that area. It will arouse the interest of the visitor faced with what I have called “the consciousness of the block of ice”. This symbolic block of ice will lead the visitor to reflect upon continuous melting on the planet and the need adopt a sustainable behaviour. A video will enable the visitors to relive the Antarctic Campaign, and they will also be able to observe plant species, rocks and other materials from the Antarctic through magnifying glasses.

This is an interactive and attractive exhibition that also aims to capture the attention of students and to express my dedication and passion for research.