Thursday, November 29, 2007

Exploring the Antarctic Dry Valleys

Antarctica is truly wonderful to behold. The harshness and fragility of the place is both frightening and amazing. Going there was a physical and emotional rollercoaster ride from start till finish… Once away from Scott Base and in the Dry Valley’s, the remoteness and solitude is so intense that the obsessions of the material world become meaningless and one is confronted by the reality of one’s own existence and survival

The Historic Huts of the Ross Sea Region

My next adventure was to Cape Evans and Cape Royds, home of Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’ and Shackleton’s ‘Nimrod’ historic huts. This journey took me to the east of Scott Base ~50km along the shores of Ross Island.

Together with six others, I headed off across the sea-ice in the back of a Hagglund. A few hours passed by until the Hagglund finally came to halt. I clambered out from the dark canopy and stood in the bright sun with a fine view of Mt Erebus and a small wooden hut about 100m away. Beside us sat a green wanagan (shipping container converted into a mobile home) with a New Zealand flag set on a pole and a second flag bearing the letters ‘AHT’.

This was the camp of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, a non-profit organization responsible for the care of the expedition bases associated with the first explorers of the Ross Sea region. The conservation team housed within had the somewhat ominous task to restore and conserve what remained of Scott’s infamous ‘Terra Nova’ hut, for which lay some meters in the distance.

Al Fastier, the Trust’s Programme Manager came out and greeted us beside the Hagglund. There was a stiff breeze blowing down off Mt Erebus so Al ushered us over to the entrance of the hut where he informed us of the history and conservation work he and his team had embarked on over the summer month. We were then invited to enter into the hut.

Stepping into the hut was like stepping back in time. I had expected it to be just some old run-down hut with nothing of particular interest. However, as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness I began to sense that this was not just any old hut.

The room inside was large, perhaps 15m across by 8 wide. In the centre sat a large dinning table, to the right was a kitchen fully stocked with supplies, bunk beds lay to centre left and right of the dining table. Towards the rear I could make out a laboratory and photographic darkroom. In the far left corner I recognized something I had seen before in a photograph. It was the bunk and desk of Robert Falcon Scott. An airy sensation ran down my spine as I looked around and recognized more features from the historic photos. From within these walls lay the memories of men whose adventure, discovery and endurance was on a magnitude I could hardly begin to imagine. I sat myself down on the floor and looked up into the rafters searching for the ghosts that haunted these walls.

The experience of visiting the historic huts left me awestruck for the next few days. It also made me appreciate the work and effort of the AHT team to protect these huts for future generations as a vestige of Antarctica’s heroic age and early explorers.

A Visit to The Historic Huts of the Ross Sea Region

A Visit to The Historic Huts of the Ross Sea Region

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Visiting the ANDRILL project

After Antarctic Field Training (AFT) was completed I moved onto familiarizing myself with Scott Base and some of the projects being undertaken in the vicinity. One such project is known as ANDRILL (ANtarctic geological DRILLing).

ANDRILL is a multinational project to improve understanding of Antarctica's role in Cenozoic (65 million years ago to present) global change, through stratigraphic drilling of marginal sedimentary basins. The chief objective is to drill back in time to recover a history of paleoenvironmental changes that will guide our understanding of how fast, how large, and how frequent were glacial and interglacial changes in the Antarctica region. Future scenarios of global warming require guidance and constraint from past history that will reveal potential timing frequency and site of future changes. New Zealand, USA, Germany and Italy, are involved in the planning of ANDRILL. Visit the ANDRILL website at

The ANDRILL drilling platform is situated on the sea-ice about 50km away from Scott Base. To get there I joint a team of Antarctica New Zealand Board members onboard a Piston Bully tracked vehicle, similar to the ones they use on ski resorts to grade the trails.

We departed Scott Base early in the morning and began the slow journey out across the sea-ice. The Piston Bully, while extremely versatile and reliable in the polar conditions, does not exactly race along. With a top speed of about 25km per hour and with no suspension to speak of, the journey could be described at best as a bumpy slow amble across the sea ice.

To make up for the lack of comfort inside the vehicle, the views outside were spectacular. As we ventured across the sea-ice and away from Scott Base the Mt Erebus massif came into view with its smoking crater and crevasse-ridden slopes. Towards the continent lay the Royal Society Mountains, Mt Discovery and the Dry Valleys. After snapping my way through half of my digital camera’s memory card I noticed a tall white tent off in the distance. On closer inspection this I noticed a number of smaller colored tents scatted around comprising what looked like a Bedouin nomad camp in the middle of a white sand desert.

An hour later the Piston Bully rolled into the ANDRILL camp. The tall white tent, seen from a distance, turned out to be the drilling platform and the smaller colored tents, the camp for the project team comprising of ~30 people. We were greeted and invited into the camp and given pikelets with cream and jam. ‘Who said life is hard down in Antarctica?’

We then toured the camp setup and the drilling platform. Amazingly, the drilling platform resides on only 8m of sea-ice (it was designed to sit on only 2m) and is stabilized by massive airbags under the ice to stop it collapsing into the water below. The drill travels through the 8m sea ice and then through ~300 of seawater before reaching the ocean floor. This is where the drilling begins, but it’s not as simple as that, the team has to deal with the constantly moving sea-ice and daily tide fluctuations of up to 1.5m up or down. All of this adds up to a continuously moving platform on ice, which is also susceptible to melting and cracking.

Upon our arrival the ANDRILL team were celebrating reaching their target depth of 1100m into the seabed and had begun extracting a good quality core. The technology being utilized in the project was a combination of conventional oil/gas equipment, tools used in geological core extraction and hell of a lot of innovative and creative adaptation for the specialized and challenging conditions on the Antarctic sea-ice.

After a mind-boggling tour we returned to our Piston Bully and started the slow ride back to Scott Base. On our way back a small black dot came skittering across the ice in front of the vehicle. Much to our surprise, an Adelie penguin stood, not 20m away, in the middle of our track. We stopped the engine and climbed out of the cab. In abiding by the Antarctic Code of Conduct we walked to within 10m to observe the creature. For some strange reason the penguin promptly decided to ran directly towards me and came to a stop within an arms reach away from me. He stood there and pranced around, much to my delight, while I snapped some photos. After observing him for sometime we were called back to the vehicle to get on our way. But as I walked away my little penguin friend decided he wanted to follow me and as I climbed into the cab of the Piston Bully, he also came right up to cab entrance. As the engine flared up my little penguin friend dived away from the vehicle on his belly. But as we drove away I looked back and saw him sliding along on his belly after us until he just a dot on the horizon.

A visit to the ANDRILL Project

Friday, November 23, 2007

Antarctic Field Training.... going camping in the snow

On arrival in Antarctica we were greeted and escorted to an awaiting truck by Yvonne Boesterling, the Coordinator of Scott Base. I tossed my bags in the back and crawled into the heated cab to escape from the frigid air outside. As we drove off I caught my first glimpse of the United States McMurdo Station and the little green huts of Scott Base off in the distance.

The truck left the sea-ice and drove up to McMurdo Station. The station was enormous, with an occupancy of up to 3000 people and resembling an Alaskan mining town with little aesthetic appeal. As we continued over the hill Scott Base came into view. In contrast Scott Base’s little green huts, all of which are interconnected, were quite pleasant. Compared to McMurdo Station Scott Base only holds 80 people during peak periods.

Inside Scott Base there was a frenzy of activity. I snuck into a corner and stripped off my cold weather gear, the temperature inside was a tropical 20 degree Celsius and a damned sight warmer than the average Dunedin student flat. I was shown to the mess hall and enjoyed a wonderful meal, complete with desert and coffee. After dinner I was given a tour of the base and a safety briefing before being shown to my room. Exhausted from the day’s travel, I collapsed in my bed and slept like a log until morning.

The next day Neil Gilbert, Roman Turk and I met with our instructor, Jason Whatson, for our Antarctic Field Training (AFT). This involves learning Antarctic survival and safety skills, along with Scott Base specific field protocols. The best part about the course is that we would get to go outside and camp in the snow.

The day began with a seminar about equipment and safety. In the afternoon we loaded up a Haglund tracked vehicle and departed for the AFT camp about 8km to the north on the Ross ice-shelf in the shadow of Mt Erebus. Here I learnt to pitch the mighty polar tents (a first for me) and dug an emergency snow shelter. In the evening, after a hot meal of the dehydrated form, I sat outside under the midnight sun and sipped at a cup of tea.

My attention was suddenly drawn to the south, along the route that Scott, Shackleton and Hillary must have embarked on all those years ago in pursuit of the South Pole. I imagined myself venturing off into that unending whiteness on a sledge, or in Hillary’s case a Massey Ferguson tractor!

That night my dreams were filled with images of the polar explorers and when I awoke in the morning I was certain I had traveled to The Pole and back in my sleep.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

In Antarctica at last!

The sound of an incoming text message wakes me from my slumber. I roll over and reach for my cell phone, taking note of the time on the alarm clock, its 5am.

The message on the phone reads “Flight delayed 3hrs, 9am pickup”. I jump out of bed and check the webcam at Scott Base on my laptop. The image loads slowly and I stare squinting at it, still half asleep. With no blue sky in sight I return to my bed convinced that today, like yesterday would present a further delay in our departure.

At 8am I pull myself out of bed and start gathering my things in the hope that I might at least make it to the airport today before being “boomeranged” back to my hotel to wait for the weather to improve.

I snatch another look at the webcam, but it’s much the same as it was earlier.

I drag my bags down to the driveway and a few minutes later Paul Woodgate appears in the big Antartica New Zealand van.

He jumps out and tells me, “today’s a flying day mate”, when I ask about the webcam he informs that it will improve over the course of the flight. With heightened spirits we drive off to the International Antarctic Centre to begin the check-in process before a scheduled departure at noon. On arrival at the centre a mass of other eager Antarctic travellers are gathering.

We then board a bus that takes us to the side of the giant, grey bird known as the US Airforce C-17 cargo plane.

It’s carrying two 13-tonne helium gas tanks, approximately 30 people and another 20 odd tonnes of baggage. This massive payload makes me hold my breath during takeoff.

Thirty minutes later and we are at cruising altitude. Midway through the five-hour flight the cabin engineer calls out over the speaker that we are welcome to go up to the cockpit and meet the pilots. I jump at the opportunity and join the queue to get a glimpse out the front window. It’s not every day you get to go to the cockpit of a C-17, especially since 9/11.

The hours pass by until finally some mountains appear on the distant horizon. As we get closer I notice that the mountains extend into the distance for as far as the eye can see.

Glaciers stretch in every direction, the great frozen continent is now below us and our destination is now in site. I return to my seat and fasten my seatbelt. The plane banks hard and begins the descent.

The plane touches down with a thud and a roar. After a long drawn out taxi the engines come to a stop and the cabin door opens.

I rise from my seat and fit my cold weather jacket, hats and gloves. I walk towards the door and look out across the Ross Sea and Ross Island. At last I have arrived. ANTARCTICA HERE I AM!

Check out my slideshow of the flight and a video.



Monday, November 19, 2007

Early test for Ice enthusiast

GEARED UP: the big chill of Antarctica holds no fears for Jay Piggott.
A mother's challenge to a headstrong teenager in the depths of an Otago winter put Jay Piggott on the path that is scheduled to take him to Scott Base today.
Piggott will travel south as the first Antarctic Youth Ambassador.
Piggott was 13 when his mother tried to talk him out of camping in a tent pitched in their Dunedin backyard. His response was to spend the entire winter sleeping in the tent each night, regardless of the weather or the temperature.
Within three years, he had climbed Aoraki-Mount Cook and over the last 10 years has managed to fit in climbing and skiing expeditions to Alaska, five Himalayan mountaineering expeditions, and travel to 60 countries across the globe while establishing a career as an ecologist at the University of Otago.
The enthusiasm Piggott showed to his mother also captured the imagination of Antarctica New Zealand and the Sir Peter Blake Trust, which run the youth ambassador scheme that was announced as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations at Scott Base.
Piggott's 10 days on the Ice will be spent taking part in a review of the way specially protected areas are managed in the Dry Valleys, an ice-free area near Scott Base.

By JOHN HENZELL - The Press | Tuesday, 20 November 2007


Antarctic Youth Ambassador Jay Piggott gears up for his trip to the ice on Tuesday.
Video: Daniel Tobin.

Next stop Antarctica..... BUT NOT TODAY!

At 5:30am Paul Woodgate, Logistics Co-ordinator for Antarctica NZ, called up to inform me the weather at Scott Base is NOT co-operating and as such the flight has been delayed by 24hrs.  It looks like today is not my lucky day and we will just have to try again tomorrow. 


These images are sent from video cameras situated at Scott Base. The first camera is located in the Hillary Field Centre briefing room, looking towards the vehicle hitching rail, while the second camera is mounted on the lab at Arrival Heights. 


Please reload your page to see the latest images - the Webcams update every 15 minutes.

Antarctic Weather Station

Sunday, November 18, 2007


The Antarctica New Zealand Clothing store at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch. Photo: Jay Piggott
Today I spent a number of hours with Chris Gilbert, Logistics Officer for Antarctica NZ, being kitted out in my Antarctic clothing. As one might have imagined this entails being fitted into an elaborate collection of extreme weather gear. However, while you might look like Kenny off ‘South Park’
, you don’t want your Antarctic attire to be upstaged by some Emperor Penguin wearing a tux. I have compiled a slideshow illustrating the multi-layered clothing system that I am required to not only take down to Antarctica, but also to wear on the airplane during the 5hour flight there!

Tomorrow, if the weather in Antarctica co-operates, Dr Neil Gilbert (Environmental Manager for Antarctica NZ) and I will depart by C-17 aircraft for Scott Base in Antarctica.
Jay Piggott (Antarctic Youth Ambassador) and Dr Neil Gilbert (Environmental Manager for Antarctica NZ) outside the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch. Photo: Rebecca Elliot
The purpose of our visit, which will be for the duration of 10days, will be to conduct a review of the management plan of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA). The Dry Valleys are a unique environment, both in Antarctica and globally. The 15,000 km2 area located in the McMurdo Dry Valleys contains the largest expanse of ice-free ground in Antarctica. This cold desert environment encompasses soils millions of years old, communities of unusual plants and micro-organisms, and special geological features. The Dry Valleys are also renowned for their spectacular scenery.

During our time at Scott Base we will also assist with the Aliens in Antarctica project. This project will assess the extent to which people unintentionally carry propagules (seeds, spores, eggs) of alien (non-native) species into the Antarctic region during the 2007-08 summer.

Watch this space for daily updates from The Ice.

Antarctic Quote of the Day:
"The continent has become a symbol of our time. The test of man's willingness to pull back from the destruction of the Antarctic wilderness is the test also of his willingness to avert destruction globally. If he cannot succeed in Antarctica he has little chance of success elsewhere." - Edwin Mickleburgh

Why is Antarctica important?

Antarctica: A Flying Tour of the Frozen Continent

The Antarctic continent is one of the harshest and most inhospitable places on earth, yet despite this a myriad of species manage to survive in the desolate landscape. By contrast, the surrounding ocean abounds with life, as nutrient rich water wells up from the depths.

The ice cap in the center of the continent holds over half of the worlds freshwater. From it’s edges mighty glaciers pour across the landscape forming rivers of ice. It is from within these icy depths that scientists hope to un-ravel the secrets of the long-term fluctuations in the earth’s climate.

As nations wage war across the planet, Antarctica stands nation-less under the International Antarctic Treaty, to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes in the interests of all mankind. With freedom of scientific investigation Antarctica has become the world’s largest laboratory.

Climate change is now recognized as a global phenomenon. In the last 50 years the Antarctic Peninsula has increased about 2.5°C, this is 2 or 3 times faster than averages anywhere else. In the last 5 years numerous large ice shelves, once thought to be stable, have disintegrated into the ocean in a matter of weeks. This observed trend does not bode well for the future.

A hundred years ago the Antarctic challenge was a race to reach the South Pole. Today the challenge is one of science and stewardship. For it is through scientific exploration that we will come to understand, appreciate and ultimately protect this harsh, yet fragile environment.

Antarctica Time lapse: A Year on Ice

Extreme Antarctica opens in Auckland

Wednesday the 19th of September at Kelly Tarltons: Community Tube was there to record the opening of Extreme Antarctica and the announcement of Jeremy "Jay" Piggott as the inaugural Antarctic Youth Ambassador. Great fun for the kids plus loads of history for the mums and dads. Exhibition runs till the 12th of December 2007.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Inaugural Antarctic Youth Ambassador Announced

The inaugural winner of the Antarctic Youth Ambassador award is Jeremy Piggott from Dunedin.

The award, developed by Antarctica New Zealand in partnership with the Sir Peter Blake Trust, was launched by the Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Peter Blake's son, James Blake, as part the 50th anniversary celebrations at Scott Base in January 2007. The award aims to provide an opportunity for a young New Zealander to contribute to environmental work in Antarctica. Jeremy ("Jay") Piggott was selected from a large number of high quality applicants.

"We were just blown away by the calibre of people we had applying for this award. It was inspiring to learn about these young New Zealanders who are so passionate about the environment and who are already contributing so much" said Laura Fayerman, Environmental Programme Manager from the Sir Peter Blake Trust and one of the award selection panel members.

Jay Piggott (25 years old) is currently the team manager of the Stream Ecology Research Group in the Department of Zoology at The University of Otago. He has extensive experience in the outdoors as a mountaineer, climber, scuba diver and sailor. His writing and photographs have been widely published and he has been an internationally recognised youth leader for the environment. He was selected by the United Nations Environment Programme as a youth facilitator and had an important role in the UNEP Youth Envoys Programme. He was also selected as a crewmember on the Japanese "Ship for World Youth" and has represented New Zealand as a youth ambassador for a number of important environmental conferences and networks.

While he is widely travelled and incredibly experienced for a young man, he has never been to Antarctica. "I am so honoured to be chosen for this award, it's been a life-long dream of mine to visit Antarctica but to have the opportunity to get involved in environmental work as well is just amazing" Jay said.

Environment and Outreach Manager for Antarctica New Zealand, Dr Neil Gilbert says he is delighted with Jay's selection and with the Youth Ambassador programme. "Jay is an outstanding first recipient for this award. 2007 is the International Polar Year and so it is appropriate time to launch this programme which invests in the future of the Antarctic environment by building capability and understanding in younger New Zealanders" he said.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Antarctic Youth Ambassador Scheme


By international agreement, Antarctica is designated as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. New Zealand has a long history of involvement dating back to early last century, and an important ongoing role in the region. New Zealand's responsibilities in Antarctica extend across thousands of square kilometres of the Antarctic continent, Ice-shelf, the Southern Ocean and sub-Antarctic Islands. These responsibilities are undertaken by Antarctica New Zealand.

Antarctica New Zealand's head office is at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, which also houses the United States and Italian Antarctic programmes. New Zealand's centre for operations in Antarctica is Scott Base, which was established in 1957.

Under the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty and its Environmental Protocol, Antarctica (10 percent of the planet's land surface area) is the most heavily protected continent on earth. Antarctica New Zealand has an important role in managing and protecting the Antarctic environment. All scientific and other activities are carefully managed to minimise impacts and allow Antarctica to continue to be used for peaceful and scientific purposes, now and by future generations.

Environmental Programmes of Antarctica New Zealand

Environmental protection work is an important component of Antarctica New Zealand's responsibilities. Key environmental initiatives include: effective waste management systems and the clean-up of sites of past activity; high-quality environmental assessments of all activities including monitoring and reporting of environmental impacts; co-operative work with United States and Italian colleagues on protected area management; energy efficiency; and co-operation with the Antarctic Heritage Trust on the conservation of the Historic Huts.

The Antarctic Youth Ambassador Scheme

In association with the 50th anniversary of Scott Base in January 2007, Antarctica New Zealand and the Sir Peter Blake Trust have launched a programme that will select a young New Zealander to participate in and contribute to the environmental work in Antarctica. In doing so, this programme invests in the future of the Antarctic environment by building capability and understanding in young New Zealanders.

The principal aim of this programme is to engage young New Zealanders in Antarctic environmental issues (for example: environmental monitoring and reporting, protected areas, protected species, climate change, environmental impact assessments) through the New Zealand Antarctic Programme. The individual selected each year will be expected to contribute to Antarctica New Zealand's environmental programme and to act as an ambassador helping to educate others through their experiences.

The Antarctic Youth Ambassador will be placed with Antarctica New Zealand during the summer months and will work as part of the environmental team. This may include work based at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, at Scott Base in Antarctica or in other Antarctic locations for which Antarctica New Zealand has responsibility.

Sir Peter Blake and Antarctica

More about this image
Sir Peter Blake developed a love for the Southern Ocean and the Polar Regions during his six circumnavigations of the globe under sail. The wildlife enthralled him and the quality of the natural environment became his passion. During 2001, Sir Peter led an expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula where he eventually traveled further south than any sailing vessel before him.

Sir Peter recognised the significance of the Antarctic natural environment for all life, and became a strong advocate for its continued protection. He was appointed as a United Nations Environment Programme special envoy and took on a role as an ambassador for the Antarctic environment. Sir Peter said that he found Antarctica "an extraordinary place and one where, if you are fortunate enough to be here even for a brief time, it suddenly hits home how important this extraordinary continent is to the well-being of the rest of the world. You realize that you are part of something far greater, more magnificent and intricate - and more fragile - than you had ever imagined."

Sir Peter also strongly identified and admired the early Antarctic explorers such as Scott and Shackleton and had great respect for Sir Edmund Hillary, who pioneered New Zealand's permanent presence in Antarctica at Scott Base.

The Sir Peter Blake Trust is a registered charitable organisation dedicated to environmental education and leadership development. It partners Antarctica New Zealand in administering the Antarctic Youth Ambassador scheme.

What the programme covers

The Antarctic Youth Ambassador will, for the duration of their award, have all expenses met relating to:

Travel to and from Christchurch;
Travel to and from Scott Base (if the award includes an "on ice" component);
Accommodation in Christchurch;
Accommodation, food and clothing at Scott Base (if the award includes an "on ice" component);
All training.
The Antarctic Youth Ambassador must meet his/her own expenses for:

Medical clearances and examinations;
Personal equipment such as cameras and lap-tops;
Food whilst in Christchurch.
For further information on the Antarctic Youth Ambassador programme contact either:

Dr Neil Gilbert
Manager Environment and Outreach
Antarctica New Zealand
Private Bag 4745
Tel: +64(3) 358 0219


Laura Fayerman
Sir Peter Blake Trust
PO Box 106-955
Customs Street
Auckland 1143
Tel: +64(9) 307 8875