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Famous lines from the diary of explorer Robert F. Scott, 17 January, 1912: “Great God! This is an awful place, and terrible enough for us to have labored to it without the reward of priority. Now for the run home, and a desperate struggle.” Scott and his companions would starve, freeze, and die ten weeks later in an Antarctic blizzard, disheartened by the knowledge that Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole a month before them. A century later, we know in much greater detail the gigantic ferocity of Antarctica. But, as the Biogeographic Atlas of the Southern Ocean proves, we also know the unpredicted diversity and fecundity of the waters around it, and that rewards of priority from Antarctic exploration are far from exhaustion.

Still, Antarctica does not yield secrets easily. To modernize our knowledge of the diversity and distribution of its marine life required five years of field work and then three years of analysis by about 140 researchers from all the other six continents. About equally men and women, they looked from the sea birds and the sea surface to the sea floor as deep as six thousand meters and into the sediments. They looked on and under the ice. They looked from the microplankton to the macroalgae, from the sponges and corals to the molluscs
and the crustaceans, from the sea spiders and sea stars to the seals and the fish. They looked at animals living off heat and gases coming from the crust beneath the ocean as well as those that bask in the seasonal sun above and enjoy its photosynthesis. They looked at the uniquely Antarctic and the cosmopolitan.

To perceive the patterns and processes emerging from studying more than one million records of about ten thousand species, the fourteen editors of the Atlas organized knowledge on the evolutionary and environmental settings, and finally prepared the way for a gratifying chapter that synthesizes knowledge on the realms and regions of the Southern Ocean. Wizardly cartographers present the information in colorful maps that allow us to understand at a glance the grand carousel that whirls around Antarctica.

Meanwhile, wizardly geneticists using molecular clocks allow us to explore deep time as well as space. We learn about Antarctic ancestors, their kinships, and how past changes in the Southern Oceans may have sent species such as octopods venturing forth into the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans.

We also learn modesty, as do all who encounter high latitudes. We learn of regions still little explored, such as the sea named for Amundsen below the South Pacific, and taxa, such as the sea squirts (tunicates) and roundworms (nematodes). We also learn of threats to the life of the Southern Ocean, from fishing, tourism, pollution, and climate change, and proposals for new marine protected areas matching the richness of our hard-won knowledge.

This magnificent scholarly achievement comes to us because of organizations as well as individuals. The Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML) program of the global Census of Marine Life (2000-2010) fostered many expeditions that have provided observations, and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research Marine Biodiversity Information Network (SCAR-MarBIN) has carefully filtered and archived the data and made them accessible. Founded in 1958, SCAR initiates, develops, and coordinates research in the Antarctic region, and adds to its lustrous history with this volume. National organizations such as the such as the Australian Antarctic Division and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in turn make possible cooperative international efforts such as CAML and SCAR-MarBIN.

Finally, only the truly visionary and persistent succeed in Antarctica, and here we salute Claude De Broyer and Philippe Koubbi, chief editors. They together with their 140 co-authors prove conclusively that the Southern Ocean is not monotonously blank but a shining, stirring, diving world of anemone and albatross, jelly and whale, revealing Earth’s history and nature and still rich with rewards for the hard labor of future explorers.

Jesse H. Ausubel
Co-Founder, Census of Marine Life
Director, Program for the Human
Environment, The Rockefeller University

April 30, 2020