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  • NATURE PODCAST

How deadly heat waves expose historic racism

Catch up on the latest science news, with Noah Baker and Nick Petrić Howe.

In this episode:

00:45 How heat waves kill unequally

Researchers are beginning to unpick how historic discrimination in city planning is making the recent heat waves in North America more deadly for some than others.

News Feature: Racism is magnifying the deadly impact of rising city heat

11:59 Research Highlights

A graphene layer can protect paintings from age, and a new and endangered species of ‘fairy lantern’.

Research Highlight: A graphene cloak keeps artworks’ colours ageles

Research Highlight: Newfound ‘fairy lantern’ could soon be snuffed out forever

14:25 Self-criticism

When researcher Nick Holmes decided to criticise his past papers, in 57 tweets, he found the reflection enlightening. Now he’s encouraging other researchers to self-criticise, to help speed scientific progress.

World View: I critiqued my past papers on social media — here’s what I learnt

20:53 Briefing Chat

We discuss some highlights from the Nature Briefing. This time, Richard Branson’s commercial space flight, and the Maori perspective on Antarctic conservation.

The Washington Post: Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic crew are safely back from space, ushering in a new era

The New York Times: The Maori Vision of Antarctica’s Future (intermittent paywall)

Subscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01948-2

Transcript

Catch up on the latest science news, with Noah Baker and Nick Petrić Howe.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, how heatwaves discriminate…

Host: Noah Baker

And the importance of self-criticism. I’m Noah Baker.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

And I’m Nick Petrić Howe.

[Jingle]

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

First up on this week’s show, reporter Shamini Bundell has been diving into a story of changing climate, dangerous temperatures and historic racism.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

If you’ve been living in certain parts of America this year, you may have noticed it’s been hot.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

It’s only July and we’ve already had an absolutely shattering, unprecedented heatwave.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Really hot.

Interviewee: Vivek Shandas

We went out and bought the last remaining air conditioner at a large appliance store and then we all, including the two dogs, gathered into our bedroom where the air conditioner is and we slept there for about four days.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

One of this year’s heatwaves in particular hit cities which aren’t used to dealing with such extreme heat.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Portland, Seattle, across the Canadian border into Vancouver and now into British Columbia.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And it hit them with record-breaking temperatures.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

I mean, they weren’t just breaking previous records by 1 °C. They were breaking them by 4, 5, 6°C.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

This is reporter Alex Witze on the phone from Colorado. She’s written a feature in this week’s Nature exploring the growing dilemma of extreme heat in cities in the US and around the world. It’s a problem that hits cities in particular due to the urban heat-island effect, where cities are often significantly warmer than the surrounding countryside. It’s also a problem that’s on the rise due to climate change, and it’s a problem that’s unexpectedly deadly.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Heat is absolutely an under-appreciated weather-related natural disaster. It’s really easy to understand flooding when like a big hurricane comes in. It’s really easy to understand wildfires threatening your house so that you have to get out of the way. But heat is a killer. It’s deadly and people don’t really recognise that.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

There’s often a lack of information on heat-related deaths.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

A lot of times, the medical examiner on a death certificate will just say, ‘this person died of exhaustion. This person died of hypertension. This person died of cardiovascular disease.’ But the death certificate doesn’t notice that that person was in an apartment with no air conditioning and it was 105 °F for five days in a row. If you’re older, if you’re younger, if you have pre-existing conditions like heart conditions or asthma, you are much more likely to be affected by heat. People don’t think about heat as being a killer but it is.

Interviewee: Vivek Shandas

An event of this magnitude really sends shockwaves through society.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

This is Vivek Shandas.

Interviewee: Vivek Shandas

Our infrastructure system, our ecosystems and society at large are not well-equipped to be able to handle this level of intensity.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Vivek is a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University, and part of his research has involved monitoring heat in different places in cities such as Portland, Oregon and looking at how a heatwave affects people and which people are most affected.

Interviewee: Vivek Shandas

We’ve been talking to several folks who live in multi-family residential apartments, these are low-income social housing, and the windows aren’t operable or they just open a few centimetres. The Sun solar radiation is hitting those apartment buildings, it’s being pushed in often through the materials that the apartment buildings are built with and then temperatures in there, we were noticing from some informal stations we had set up, were getting up to 57, 60°C indoors in some of these apartment complexes, and that’s very, very dangerous for human health.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

60°C is 140°F. Another researcher who has had a lot of experience with heat is Angel Hsu.

Interviewee: Angel Hsu

I just always remember my parents just refusing. They grew up in a tropical country in Taiwan, which is basically located very close to the equator, and so they’re used to a lot of high heat and humidity. And I just remember growing up in a brick house in South Carolina and just baking in the summertime and my parents refusing to spend money on air conditioning.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Angel is now a climate scientist in North Carolina and is expecting many more hot summers to come for herself and her children.

Interviewee: Angel Hsu

This is quickly becoming the new normal even though we’re not supposed to be saying that. This ‘normal’ or ‘what’s normal’ technology because of course that has a tendency to make it seem more acceptable. But it’s true. Experiencing extreme temperatures, unusually hot days – this is just going to be something that more and more places around the world, particularly in urban areas, are going to be confronting as we move forward into the future if we don’t drastically cut our greenhouse gas emissions. Oh, I think my maybe might be waking up, but I assure he’s fine and hopefully he’ll pipe down in a second.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

One thing Angel and her team won’t pipe down about is how different communities experience urban heat. They published a paper in Nature Communications this year that expanded the work of some previous studies.

Interviewee: Angel Hsu

In our study, we looked at 175 urban areas in the United States, and what we found is that communities of colour are living in areas that are on average a full degree Celsius warmer than areas where their non-Hispanic, white counterparts are living. I was frankly surprised. This is a problem that’s widespread, systemic and pervasive across virtually every single US city. I think that’s probably the most shocking finding for me.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Vivek Shandas’ research found similar results.

Interviewee: Vivek Shandas

We were measuring air temperatures around cities in many parts of the US and finding this consistency between the hottest areas and the poorest areas and the areas where historically marginalised communities like African American, Black, Latinx and indigenous other communities of colour were living, and we were scratching our heads as to why that was. And so we decided to use satellite imagery and looking at that in relation to historic segregation policies that the US federal government had set up in the 1930s, commonly known redlining policies.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Here’s Alex Witze again to explain.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

It was a federal government programme authorised by Congress to rank neighbourhoods based on what was considered being worthy of investment, and factors that were taken into consideration were, were there a lot of people of colour in this neighbourhood, were there a lot of immigrants.

Interviewee: Vivek Shandas

So, we found consistently that the redlined areas in the 108 cities that we studied were consistently on order of about 5°C warmer than their non-redlined counterparts.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

The study, published in Climate last year, showed that the decisions made decades ago about which areas to invest in have resulted in noticeable temperature differences today.

Interviewee: Vivek Shandas

It comes down to the amount of asphalt and concrete and buildings that are in these neighbourhoods. The highways, the roads, the low-slung concrete, sometimes cinderblock, buildings that are in the redlined areas absorb the Sun’s radiation and hold onto it with very dense materials that they’re built with.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And recognising this has big implications for making cities more equitable.

Interviewee: Vivek Shandas

When race becomes a primary determinant of how cities are organised, we see that communities that have been historically marginalised, like the African American Black communities in the US, they are the ones that face the disproportionate burden of these extreme climate-induced events. In my work, I’ve heard folks say, ‘We’ve dealt with race in the Civil War. That’s done. We had a Black president.’ ‘We are a post-race society,’ is what I’ve heard when I’ve presented on some of this, and at the same time we are starting to see that these differences are really obvious and very pronounced and something that really is undeniable when you look at it whether through education, wealth, exposure to climate-induced hazards, access to coping capacity in terms of some of these hazards. These are all places where there’s a massive gap in terms of the historically privileged folks who are often racially white and those who have been historically disinvested who are often Black and African American.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Vivek wants cities to recentre historically marginalised communities in their urban planning, climate infrastructure and cooling campaigns. And cities around the world are starting to prepare for the next big heatwave and the many more after that.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

Paris has done a lot of very proactive planning after their killer 2003 heatwave. They have a whole concept of cool islands and cool quarters within the city. So, public spaces, whether it’s museums or parks or shaded walkways, the concept is that anyone in Paris should be able to walk to get to one of these cool islands or cool quarters within seven minutes. There’s a smartphone app that will show you the way to the closest one at any point, if you are well-resourced enough to have a smartphone and have a cell phone plan.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

There’s a lot that can be done to prevent deaths from heatwaves, and Alex says that many of the researchers she spoke to for her article were optimistic about the future possibilities.

Interviewee: Alex Witze

It’s really easy to fall into that doom-and-gloom narrative of, ‘We’re all going die,’ and I’ve covered climate change for many decades and it’s really easy for me as a reporter to say that we’re all going to die because everything is getting terrible. But climate change is all about how do we adapt, right? How do we find solutions to survive and thrive in this world that we are moving into. There’s no way around that. We are living in this hotter world. And a number of the researchers were quite optimistic about just raising awareness, very basic changes, making sure that we’re checking in on each other when there is extreme heat happening, building greener, more cool, more sustainable cities by incorporating new types of building materials, using these computer models that show us where the hottest places in a city, maybe paint some things white, maybe tear up a bit of asphalt. All individually small steps but together they can actually help beat the heat.

Interviewee: Angel Hsu

For Angel Hsu, research into disparities is a vital part of this cooler future.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

I’ve actually gotten a lot of pushback from people saying this is just further research that’s dividing us and race is a social construct. But part of the reason that motivated me to want to work with my colleagues on this study is the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement has been happening in the United States over the last few years and the ideas of environmental justice and environmental equity and inequity have become central to the environmental policy conversation.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

That was Angel Hsu of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the US. You also heard from Vivek Shandas of Portland State University in the US and Nature reporters Alex Witze and Shamini Bundell.

Host: Noah Baker

Coming up, a researcher reflects on his past papers on social media and learns an important lesson. Right now, though, it’s time for the Research Highlights with Dan Fox.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

Graphene may be the material of the future but it’s latest use could be to protect the artworks of the past. Graphene can block ultraviolet light, oxygen and moisture — the biggest nemeses of museum conservators. But applying a transparent layer of graphene to an artwork is no simple task. To do so, a team of researchers developed a custom-built machine capable of depositing a veil of one-atom-thick graphene onto a painting without damaging the artwork. The team then tested the durability of the protective coating by simulating more than 200 years of museum display on a test painting. In that time, the graphene veil didn’t crack. It also was flexible enough to bend with the painting, so it could protect works on display or on the move and, if desired, the veil can be removed using a soft rubber eraser. Get the full picture of that research at Nature Nanotechnology.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

Researchers have discovered a new species of ‘fairy lantern’ – leafless plants that look like tiny glowing lights. But this strange organism may already be threatened with extinction due to destruction caused by wild boars. Plants in the genus Thismia, colloquially called ‘fairy lanterns’, draw nutrients from underground fungi and grow in parts of Asia, Australasia and the Americas. The new species is only about two centimetres tall, sports an orange flower shaped like a funnel with an umbrella-like structure on top, and was first found in 2019 in a Malaysian rain forest. The plant seems to be so rare that it should be considered critically endangered: just four individuals have ever been seen, and the authors say wild boars have destroyed all but one of these. Shine a light on that research in PhytoKeys.

Host: Noah Baker

Next up, reporter Ariana Remmel has been talking to a researcher that over lockdown took the somewhat unusual step of tearing apart every paper he’s ever published on Twitter.

Interviewer: Ariana Remmel

In early April this year, Nicholas Holmes, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Nottingham in the UK, sat at his computer with a kind of wacky idea.

Interviewee: Nicholas Holmes

It was Easter, I was all alone at home and I was in a reflective mood after a year of lockdown and COVID, and I just decided, pretty much on a whim, to criticise every single paper I’ve ever written.

Interviewer: Ariana Remmel

One by one, he opened up copies of the papers and took to his keyboard.

Interviewee: Nicholas Holmes

So, I started with number one, my first paper from 2004, and I wrote a tweet about it, called it ‘Paper #1’, linked to the DOI of the journal, and then I pressed the little plus button and moved on to ‘Paper #2’.

Interviewer: Ariana Remmel

As he went through each of his own research articles, some of his criticisms were harsh.

Interviewee: Nicholas Holmes

‘Paper #31. Criticism: This should have worked, but as the most complicated experiment I've been part of (3 experimenters, 2 rubber hands, 1 pug, TMS, LCD goggles, 2 lasers & a small hot room in France), I'm still not sure what we found.’

Interviewer: Ariana Remmel

But he tried to be as honest and transparent as possible.

Interviewee: Nicholas Holmes

‘Paper 36: Tamè & Holmes 2016. Criticism: None. This paper is perfect.’

Interviewer: Ariana Remmel

In the end, Nick critiques all 57 of his published papers in a thread that his peers described as both risky and brave. So, I reached out in a video call to ask what inspired him to write 244-character confessions. Here’s Nick.

Interviewee: Nicholas Holmes

I think over the last year before that, so during the pandemic year, I came across a few open science initiatives on the internet and on Twitter, and one of them in particular caused a lot of controversy. It was about auditing scientists, so like a third-party organisation would audit other scientists and sort of try and see how open and how transparent they were and produce a leader board, and this caused a lot of controversy. People didn’t like that idea of people rating each other. But it did get me thinking about what if I was audited. What are the skeletons in my closet? What have I done that I could own up to or what am I maybe not proud of? And as an advocate of open science, I think we should sort of start criticising ourselves before we criticise others and maybe audit others and maybe hold others up to the rules that we’re creating for open science.

Interviewer: Ariana Remmel

So, what does self-criticism mean to you? Like what is it that you’re proposing here?

Interviewee: Nicholas Holmes

It’s to look back at what you did in an experiment or in a paper and to be honest about what the problems were, what you could have done better, the experimental design maybe or the control conditions, or maybe you left a couple of subjects or a couple of data points out of the final article because they were inconvenient or you didn’t know what to do with them, or maybe you had choices about which way to analyse the data and you chose one. And none of these things were written in the paper, partly because you were trying to get it published, partly because there was no space. Yeah, I think it’s looking back and trying to remember what you did wrong or what you now would do differently.

Interviewer: Ariana Remmel

You were very pointed about the need to incorporate this self-criticism at every level of the scientific enterprise, and I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more about what you see as being at stake for scientists and the community as a whole when thinking about the need for self-criticism.

Interviewee: Nicholas Holmes

I think time is pretty critical, time and resources. We don’t have much time. COVID has shown us how the world can change very quickly, and we need the scientific process to be more efficient and to be much quicker at error correcting. And the quickest way for us as scientists and for science to correct errors is if we just do it ourselves because we know our work much better than anyone else knows our work and we know the problems. So, I think if we did embed self-criticism and if were accepting of it as reviewers and editors and people funding grants and people hiring researchers for positions, if we were more accepting of these errors and these self-criticisms then things would speed up, I think, and science would be a bit quicker.

Interviewer: Ariana Remmel

You chose to do this thread on Twitter and you’ve mentioned other online-based platforms. How do you see kind of virtual community spaces as playing a role in this system of self-criticism?

Interviewee: Nicholas Holmes

I think it’s a good start at the moment and it’s available now, we can do it now, using these platforms, but it’s not how we want to see it develop. I think that the process should be much more embedded when we submit a paper. There should be like an obligatory limitations or self-criticism or alternative hypotheses section. Social media is good for some people but it can be a bit of an echo chamber and I don’t think it would be inclusive enough. Yeah, I think social media is maybe the worst possible way of doing it, but it’s available now, it’s easy and we can do it. The ideal way would be to have the journals, the funders, the institutions and the DOI and ORCHID and all those other international databases, to have it all linked up so when you download a paper you get a supplementary file with comments, criticisms and maybe replications or retractions so that it’s all linked up so when you download it you’ll always get the most recent version of all these criticisms. I think that would be the ideal.

Interviewer: Ariana Remmel

What do you hope people take away from this?

Interviewee: Nicholas Holmes

That we’ve all made mistakes in our scientific past, and we should be happy and we should be more able to talk about them and to add them to our papers, and hopefully we shouldn’t fear that other people will criticise us and reject our papers or our grant applications or not give us jobs because we’re self-critical. So, it is a bit of a leap of faith or step of faith, I suppose, but I hope people would be more willing to self-criticise in the future and that I think that will improve science and science communication.

Host: Noah Baker

That was Nick Holmes from the University of Nottingham in the UK. You can read more about Nick’s mission to self-criticise in article he’s written for Nature’s World View section. We’ll put a link in the show notes.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Finally on the show, it’s time for the Briefing chat, where we discuss some highlights from the Nature Briefing. Noah, what have you been reading this week?

Host: Noah Baker

So, yes, I’m rather stretching this week what I think Nature’s core beat is because this isn’t really a fundamental research angle, and yet it is something that I’m sure many researchers around the world will be watching. This is based on an article that I read in The Washington Post and it is the story that the much sort of lauded commercial spaceflight from Richard Branson happened earlier this week, and it really did capture my attention. So, Richard Branson has taken his spacecraft up for the first time with passengers from Virgin Galactic up to space – whether or not that actually is space is something to be discussed, we can talk about that later – and landed safely again, heralding what he believes is the beginning of an entirely new era of spaceflight.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Right, okay, and you said there this is stretching what we cover at Nature, so what is the sort of interesting thing for science maybe with this spaceflight?

Host: Noah Baker

Well, I think, so, lots of scientists are very interested in space, and for quite some time, getting to space has been something that only really governments could achieve. There’s been a bit of a monopoly because it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do from a kind of technical perspective, especially manned spaceflight. Now, recently with SpaceX, with Virgin Galactic, with similar efforts from Jeff Bezos, the Blue Origin missions that are coming up, commercial spaceflight has arrived and so this has kind of changed the game a little bit for how accessible space might be. And of course, there’s a lot of researchers that will be very interested in that because different ways to get into space could change the way they do their research. They may not need to get the grant from NASA anymore. They could get the grant from a completely different organisation that could be privately funded. And so, I think there’s a lot of people watching these kind of early commercial flights, which are largely sort of space tourism-designed at the moment, with a view to how that might change how getting to space works in the next kind of years to decades.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

And you mentioned there about this may make space more accessible for some researchers but this is a billionaire and Jeff Bezos is a billionaire as well, so how accessible is this at the moment?

Host: Noah Baker

Yeah, in terms of the actual programmes that are being launched by Virgin Galactic, by Blue Origin, not super accessible. So, these are incredibly expensive sort of experiences that are being sold via these programmes. So, for example, Branson’s taken Virgin Galactic craft up. It’s only going to be hyper-wealthy people who are going to be able to afford tickets to go on this kind of commercial experience. It’s looking at the moment like it’s going to be somewhere in the region of US$500,000 for a flight, which I think very few people could say is accessible. Jeff Bezos’ mission which is going in just a few days’ time, 20 July, that’s going to take a series of civilians up into space and back down again. Again, extremely expensive, and there are even more expensive commercial possibilities available, so for example, Axium Space is trying to launch a kind of unique tourism experience which is to spend a week on the ISS (International Space Station) but that’s looking to cost somewhere in the region of US$55 million just to go and do that. Now, I say just to go and do that – it’s obviously a huge, huge operation to get to the International Space Station – however I think the key here isn’t that these individual efforts are going to be accessible. It’s more that these are all proofs of principle that it’s going to be possible for commercial organisations to get into space and not have to rely on infrastructure from the big governmental space organisations.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

And so tell me a little bit about Branson’s flight. How was it that they got into space? Is this a method that may be applicable for future commercial spaceflights or could it be used for research in the future?

Host: Noah Baker

Yeah, so actually the method that Branson used is one of the things that really sets apart this particular approach to get to space. So, rather than what you might imagine as a traditional way to get into space, which is launch a rocket directly up into the air from the ground, Branson’s spacecraft was actually taken part way up by a sort of mothership, which is more of a conventional plane, and then released and then the final burn happened to get you up into space, which the view to do doing that is that it reduces the amount of overall fuel you might need, especially rocket fuel. And it’s a similar approach that’s been taken by one of Branson’s other space organisations. So, Virgin Galactic is this kind of tourism-centred operation, whereas he has another operation called Virgin Orbit which is aimed not at tourism but delivering satellites to space, and it uses a very similar process. So, you have smaller rockets mounted underneath adapted aircraft – he uses Boeing aircraft in that particular organisation – in order to be able to launch small satellites up into space more easily and more quickly without needing a specifically designed launchpad. You just need a runway anywhere in the world in order to be able to launch a satellite into space, which of course has interested many, many people, scientists included.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

And so this method of sort of almost like flying a bit with a plane and then shooting off into space also brings me to something you mentioned at the start which is was this space or was it not because I’ve seen this debate going around for a while. Did he actually make it into space?

Host: Noah Baker

Yeah, so it really depends on who you ask to be honest. Much of the definition of when you’ve gone high enough into the atmosphere to get into space is a somewhat political one. So, Jeff Bezos’ group were keen to point out, although they were congratulatory of Richard Branson for this flight that he made, that Richard Branson’s craft only reached around 80 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, which is what the US military use as a kind of marker for when someone becomes an astronaut. That’s what they consider to be the edge of space. However, there is also an internationally recognised what’s called the Kármán line which is at 100 kilometres, slightly higher and where the Blue Origin mission is planning to fly above. Now, that’s a different definition of where space begins. Again, it’s mostly political but there is a kind of loose logic to the Kármán line in particular. It’s loosely based on the altitude where the atmosphere becomes too thin to sustain aeronautical flight, so where you’ve got to the point where you couldn’t fly using lift anymore because there’s not enough atmosphere left, and that’s circa 100 kilometres. That’s been suggested since the 60s. So, depending on how you define space he did or didn’t get into space, but what’s very clear is that he got up and down safely and they did experience things like weightlessness, for example, and were able to see the Earth form high enough to be able to appreciate the curvature of the Earth etc. – much of the other kind of qualitative measures of what you might call space.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

And so with this success, where is the future going? Who is going into space next?

Host: Noah Baker

Yeah, so, right now, the initial flights tend to be people that are part of the organisation, so the Virgin Galactic flight were members of Virgin Galactic staff that worked on the programme, for example. And the first flights with Jeff Bezos will be very similar. I have to say that I was very excited when I first heard reported one of the particular passengers on Jess Bezos’ early Blue Origin flight which was an aviator known as Wally Funk, that’s her name. And she kind of famously trained to be an astronaut back in the 60s and then was not allowed to go up into space because she was told she didn’t have an engineering degree, although I think she would argue the fact that she was a woman also shed some light on to why that happened. That’s a discussion to have, I suppose. But we met her not that long ago and she was in a really wonderful film that we made about the Moon landings on the anniversary of the Moon landings, and I was really thrilled to hear that she was going to get her chance to go into space finally after all that training and all that time, so that did put a bit of a smile on my face. And moving forward, it will be the hyper-wealthy to start with but maybe in ten years’ time the technology will develop to such a point when regular people that don’t have tens of billions of dollars or tens of millions of dollars at their disposal might be able to get to experience space. In fact, that’s very much what Branson said in his inspirational speech he gave while aboard the craft, was that he saw this as the beginning for an opportunity for people to be able to experience this incredible opportunity. So, maybe, who knows. We’ll see.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Well, talking, sort of, about intrepid explorers and that sort of thing, I’ve got a story this week about the Maori explorers of Antarctica, and I read this in The New York Times.

Host: Noah Baker

Now, I have to say that on the first hearing of that, I never associate Maori with Antarctica. I hear Maori and I think of New Zealand, I think of heat, or maybe, I suppose, mountains, but I definitely don’t think of Antarctica. Tell me more. I’m really intrigued.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Yeah, so the Maori people are the indigenous population of New Zealand, but they’re also part of the Polynesian group of peoples which were known for being explorers. They were sailors and they were able to sail many parts of the ocean, and a couple of studies that have come out recently have suggested that it’s likely that they were going to Antarctica as early as the seventh century. So, there’s a story of a person called – apologies to any Maori speakers out there, I will try my best with this pronunciation – but there’s a story that Hui Te Rangiora sailed his vessel south and he described things that sounded very much like icebergs and the sort of icy mountains of Antarctica and the sort of animals that you would find there, and it seems that from the histories that there are, some sort of archaeological artefacts and things like that, that there’s a long history of the Maori people with Antarctica.

Host: Noah Baker

I have to say it is not surprising to me in many ways that of course the early explorers of Antarctica were not the Victorian explorers from the global north. As usually is the case, the early explorers were indigenous peoples or were first peoples. Tell me, why is this something that you’ve been reading about now and where has this new evidence come from?

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

So, the evidence is sort of multi-faceted, as I sort of alluded to. So, there are a lot of oral traditions that point to this. There are carvings. And then there are also some archaeological artefacts that point to Maori people being on some of the southern islands near Antarctica from the fourteenth century. So, there’s a variety of different bits of evidence and these studies have sort of brought it all together, and this has been something that’s been understood for quite a while actually. It’s just getting a bit more attention now. So, there was an ethnologist in 1899 who concluded that Maori people did indeed go to Antarctica, so way back when. But the reason that I’m bringing this to you and we’re talking about this now is because the authors of the studies were keen to sort of point to the fact that it’s not really the point about who got there first or that sort of thing. The idea that the Maori have like a many-hundreds-of-years-long connection with the continent makes a stronger case for indigenous management of the continent. So, you may or may not know that there’s an Antarctic Treaty. So, many countries have sort of signed up to this treaty and said that Antarctica will be used for conservation and scientific research. That’s up for renewal in 2048, but this sort of idea that Maori have been exploring or been to Antarctica for hundreds of years gives a bit of weight to the idea that they should be involved and indigenous people should be involved in the discussions of how Antarctica is conserved and how it should be used going forwards.

Host: Noah Baker

Yeah, it’s one of the rare areas of the world where there is seemingly quite a lot of international agreement to try to protect it from many countries across the world. From what you’re saying, it sounds a little bit like indigenous voices haven’t been as recognised in that agreement up until now. Is it likely that this sort of suite of some new, sold old evidence is going to change that? What Maori voices might be brought into this discussion?

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

So, in the original Antarctic Treaty, there were 12 signatories and these were all nation states with significant interests in the region, including New Zealand where the Maori are from. But I don’t think there were any specific indigenous voices per se. But New Zealand is in the middle of resetting its strategy for Antarctica, so now is a good time to talk about this issue and have these sort of indigenous voices weigh in. And I think this will just sort of add a bit of weight to their voice and a bit of weight to the argument because it’s almost beside the point who came their first and things. But this idea that there is this sort of long-standing connection does just make this sort of stronger case for them to have a more vocal role in how Antarctica is used as part of a larger agreement in how the continent is used. And some of the ideas that people have come up with, like using the sort of Maori principles of guardianship and stewardship are actually really interesting as well. So, one idea is to give Antarctica personhood. So, this is something that’s been used in conservation several times, so some rivers in the world have been given personhood, and what that does is it basically gives a place a sort of legal protection like you have from the government. So, the government has a responsibility to protect you from harm, protect you from people who would want to do bad things to you or from diseases or things like that, and you can offer the same sort of protections to places if those become recognised. And so, by having this greater diversity of voices and these indigenous voices in there, we can get some really interesting and hopefully effective ideas for conservation.

Host: Noah Baker

That’s a really interesting idea, this sort of personhood concept. Even if you don’t think about it literally in terms of a personhood, it is a really useful framework that will help people from many different cultures kind of conceptualise and understand how one could conserve a piece of land. I feel like it helps tap into some kind of humanity which gives people a shared framework to understand how this might work, which is a fascinating concept and is precisely why getting this diversity of voices and these different ideas can be so helpful in the conservation circles.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

Yeah, definitely, and I think the hope is as well that there’ll be more voices that come forward as well because the authors were keen to say this isn’t the Maori peoples’ thing alone. There are other communities from around the region, other Polynesian communities for example, that also should have a voice in how Antarctica and other places are conserved in the future. And I think it’s just also recognising the idea that conservation, fighting climate change, that’s something that affects everyone, so we need to get everyone’s sort of voice heard on that, and hopefully working together we can have stronger action on climate change and conservation.

Host: Noah Baker

Yeah, absolutely, and that is a fascinating problem which could be applied to so many things, I have to say, around the world moving forward, and hopefully more of that international collaboration will start to provide more opportunity to collaborate and to find new and innovative ways to protect these sort of vital resources around the world. But it’s unlikely that we’re going to be able to make any more progress on that particular front for the rest of this Briefing chat, so I suggest that we end it there. If you want to read more about any of the stories that we’ve talked about or a whole bunch more delivered directly to your email inbox every week then do sign up to the Nature Briefing. We’ll put a link on how to do that for free in the show notes.

Host: Nick Petrić Howe

That’s all for this week. As always, you can reach out to us on Twitter – we’re @NaturePodcast – or send us an email – podcast@nature.com. I’m Nick Petrić Howe.

Host: Noah Baker

And I’m Noah Baker. Thanks for listening.

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