Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Reflections on the frozen continent

“Antarctica: a land of ice, snow, extreme cold, high winds, blizzards, calms, sunshine, the most extraordinary natural beauty imaginable – full of life, full of intrigue. A land that has drawn man to explore, to suffer the most severe privations in the quest to be ‘first’ – and to sometimes die in the attempt – ‘for flag and country’. A land that was once subtropical and is now one of the driest places on earth – a desert – with very little rainfall overall. A land that never warms below the surface. A land with only a recent history involving man. But what a history.” ¬¬Sir Peter Blake

About the Antarctic Youth Ambassador Programme
In December 2007 I embarked on a journey to fulfill my lifelong dream to visit Antarctica. I did so as the inaugural recipient of the Antarctic Youth Ambassador Award. The award, launched in January 2007 in association with the 50th anniversary of Scott Base, is an initiative between Antarctica New Zealand and the Sir Peter Blake Trust to select a young New Zealander to participate in environmental work in Antarctica and for them to act as an ambassador to educate others through their experiences. I had been selected from a pool of worthy applicants, aged between 18-25, who had expressed a passion for adventure and contributed towards the protection of the natural environment. My credentials, including travel through sixty-two countries as mountaineer, paraglider and sailor, and work with the United Nations Environment Programme had convinced the judges of my suitability for the award.

So it was that I found myself decked out from head to toe in full Antarctic extreme cold weather gear standing outside the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch one warm sunny morning in December waiting to board a US Air Force C-17 cargo plane bound for Scott Base. Accompanying me was Dr Neil Gilbert, the environmental manager for Antarctica New Zealand. We were embarking on a ten-day visit to the Ross Dependency to conduct environmental audits around Scott Base and assist in a review of the McMurdo Dry Valleys Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA).

Antarctic Field Training
Antarctic field training (AFT) is compulsory to all new arrivals at Scott Base. The training involves learning Antarctic survival and safety skills, along with Scott Base specific field protocols. The best part about the course is camping overnight in a ‘Scott Polar Tent’.
The day began with a seminar about equipment and safety. In the afternoon we loaded up a Hagglund tracked vehicle and departed for the AFT camp about 8km to the north on the Ross ice-shelf in the shadow of Mt Erebus’s smoking crater. Here I learnt to pitch the polar tents 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 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. I returned to my tent, tied up the doors and crawled into my three sleeping bags atop two thermal mattresses. Although it was
-20°C outside, it was warm and comfortable inside the tent. In keeping with what I had been taught, I ensured my radio and camera were kept warm inside my sleeping bag and that my trusty pee-bottle was always close at hand to save venturing out in the night.

Having completed my field training I was now free to familiarize myself with Scott Base and the some of the scientific projects being undertaken in the vicinity. One such project is known as ANDRILL (Antarctic geological DRILLing), this is a multi-million dollar, multinational project to improve our understanding of the Antarctic’s past climate for the last 65 million years, in order to guide future scenarios of global warming on the continent. Situated 50km from Scott Base, the ANDRILL project looks from a distance like a Bedouin nomad camp in the middle of a white sand desert. The camp comprises of a drilling platform residing on 8m thick sea-ice and living/working quarters for about thirty staff. Due to the weight, the drilling platform is stabilized from below the ice by massive airbags. It is from here that the drill extends down through seawater for ~300m before penetrating the ocean floor.

Upon arrival at the camp 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 a hell of a lot of innovative and creative adaptation for the specialized and challenging conditions on the Antarctic sea-ice. I joint the team in celebrating their success with pikelets with fresh cream and jam. ‘Who said life is hard down in Antarctica?’

Historic Huts
My next adventure was to Cape Evans and 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 tracked vehicle. 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, which lay some meters away. 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 were undertaking over the summer months.

Stepping into the hut was like stepping back in time. I had expected it to be just some old run-down hut with nothing much of 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 8m 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 I could scarcely begin to fathom. I sat myself down on the floor and looked up into the rafters searching for the ghosts that haunted these walls. The experience left me perplexed for the next few days. It also made me recognize and appreciate the work of the AHT team to protect these huts as a vestige of Antarctica’s heroic age and early explorers.

McMurdo Dry Valleys
The training and tours were over and it was time to get down to business with our environmental work in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. These valleys are the largest expanse of ice-free ground in Antarctica covering an area of about 15,000km2, equivalent to that of Fiordland National Park. Their scientific values include unique geologic and biotic features of both local and global importance; these include salt deposits, desert pavements, low biodiversity ecosystems and indicators of past and present climate. They are also greatly valued as a wilderness, as they represent a near pristine environment free from humans and uncontaminated by human activities. They compose a dramatic landscape of barren mountains and sweeping glaciers that contrast starkly against the monotonous whiteness of the rest of the continent. The work in the valleys involved locating, surveying and reviewing the status of cited ‘special features’ as part of a five yearly review as stipulated by the Antarctic Treaty provisions.

We flew into the valleys by helicopter, accompanied by Emily Kelly of the United Stated Antarctic Program. We made a few stops along the way to check out an abandoned structure, which we marked for removal, and a possible site where a tourist zone may be established in the future. We then flew up the Taylor valley and attempted to locate two special features, but as the weather deteriorated and landings became impossible we were forced to return to base. Two days later when the weather had settled we tried again, but this time flying up the Wright valley and landing at Don Juan Pond. Don Juan Pond is a hyper saline lake that is so salty that it never freezes. Around the pond lay a myriad of strange mummified creatures; on closer inspection it was apparent they were the corpses of penguins and seals. Interestingly, the pond is 60km away from the sea, suggesting these poor creatures to have been seriously disorientated before coming to grief on the edge of the pond. Quite astonishingly, some of these mummies have been dated as old as 2000 years, providing further evidence of the unique environmental conditions in the valleys.

We surveyed a number of other special features and I left with a deep appreciation for both the aesthetic and scientific values of the area. While few will ever venture there, at least they provide a small area on this planet where the human ‘footprint’ has been minimal and will hopefully stay that way into the future.

Reflections on the frozen continent
Antarctica was 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 future of the frozen continent is inextricably tied to ‘our’ decisions as to how ‘we’ confront the issues of human induced climate change. As Edwin Mickleburgh is quoted, "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." A hundred years ago the Antarctic challenge was a race to reach the South Pole. Today the challenge is one of science and stewardship. Sir Peter Blake’s legacy reminds us that vision alone is not enough, “Change comes through realizing the vision and turning it into a reality. It is easy to espouse worthy goals, values and policies; the hard part is implementation." And so my adventure continues endowed with these experiences, lessons and challenges…

Web Links
Jay’s Antarctic Blog:
The Sir Peter Blake Trust:
Antarctica New Zealand:
The ANDRILL Project:
The Antarctic Heritage Trust: