Sunday, January 25, 2009
I am back in the real world. It’s been around ten days since I got back to
This is not the end of my Antarctic experience though. I am going to continue to carry my Antarctic adventures, from this trip and the one before, with me throughout my term as the Antarctic Youth Ambassador and beyond. My role as the Antarctic Youth Ambassador is to share these experiences and my passion for the environment with you! The coming months will see me finishing off my environmental monitoring project on the Crater Hill windfarm for Antarctica New Zealand. I will also be getting involved in environmental and education events… wherever I can be of help to young New Zealanders,
On Wednesday, January 21, I took part in a Marine Youth Mentoring initiative organised by the Auckland Regional Council and the Department of Conservation. Myself, ~25 highshool students (aged 13-17) and ~20 marine experts went on a whale and dolphin safari on the
I learnt as much as the students! I was excited and inspired to meet these youths who are already contributing to all sorts of environmental initiatives within our schools and communities, and to get familiar with the issues as they saw them. Thank you to all those involved - our future environment is in great hands!
The day was also a great success as we tracked down a pod of common dolphins. Everyone was thrilled! There was ~30 dolphins in the pod including a considerably smaller baby one (the favourite). I trust the programme continued to be successful over Thursday and Friday when the students and some of the adults stayed on Motutapu at the Outdoor Recreation Camp. On the island they were scheduled to do confidence courses, snorkeling, sailing, beach clean ups, learn about the intertidal zone and put plans together for Seaweek 2009 (1-8 March).
Seaweek aims to raise awareness of what lies beneath the surface of our oceans (read more here http://www.seaweek.org.nz/). It offers a number of opportunities to get involved, get educated and get proactive, so that each and everyone of us can take responsibility for the seas around us. The group of future marine leaders aboard the boat on Wednesday will be leading the Auckland Conservancy into Seaweek 2009 in ways that they determine themselves. I look forward to hearing their ideas and seeing the results!
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
There were varying reports as to when ‘Ivan’ the Terra Bus was coming to pick us up. I hurried… and I waited… and then somehow ended up being late. Unfortunately, there was no time for good byes!
I bumbled onto the Terra Bus into an intimidating
Naomi and I were not looking forward to the flight much. Firstly, because it meant we were going home and secondly because we expected it to be long, loud and cramped. As it turned out, the flight was fine. We possibly had better seating than I’d had last time and having the medevac patient on board was a reality check. We also had the most amazing in-flight steward. He was a Nuiean-kiwi from the Royal New Zealand Airforce, who I swear must’ve been a steward for Air New
I’ve heard that when you get back from the ice, you almost need to be re-integrated into society. It was even likened to getting out of jail by the kiwi pilot of our herc. I guess he must have flown some pretty strange characters from the ice in his time. I don’t think a nine day stint qualifies me. I hope. One Scott Base staff member (not mentioning names), who has spent many long periods in
The other more widely mentioned oddity on return is humidity. When you are in
I remember I was most affected by darkness last time I got back to
When I hopped on the herc today, I wasn’t sure what was happening at the other end, but trusted that Woody would have it under control. Once landed, we hopped off the plane, went through international arrivals, collected our bags and in the arrival lounge Woody was waiting. First thing he asked me, ‘You right to catch a flight in twenty minutes up to
Darkness fell while I was flying between
'Ivan' the Terra Bus and the sea of red (Americans in their Extreme Cold Weather clothing)
Our ride home, a Royal New Zealand Airforce Hercules
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Today Renee and I walked over to McMurdo Station to meet with the environmental team of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). There was a lot of concern from the American side that we had elected to walk the four kilometers between bases. Admittedly, there is a bit of a hill, but the exercise is good, it keeps you warm and you hardly sweat in
McMurdo Station is so incredibly different from Scott Base. You do feel like you enter a different country somewhere along that four kilometre track. MacTown consists of a whole lot of stand-alone buildings, with empty streets and only the dust blowing about. Most buildings just have a number and are without signage. Although there is ‘Hotel California’ (an accommodation block), ‘Trash Barn’ (for recyclable sorting) and ‘Chapel of the Snows’. We were to meet our hosts at ‘192’, which is the environmental block. We discovered the numbering isn’t chronological, but we found each other. This sterility of MacTown is only superficial however; inside these buildings are bustling with people and culture. For example, walk into ‘Trash Barn' and you’ll find a larger than life model of Oscar the Grouch overlooking the whole operation, a cowboy’s hat was tossed in the corner, I’m sure I saw an American flag (or two) and some American rock was playing. The population of MacTown averages ~1200 people making it the largest ‘town’ in
Renee and I had a great tour of the base. The whole of McMurdo seems to be very well tailored, or well used, to visits. Everyone was very accommodating and knowledgeable, not about only their job, but also the history of the Station,
Our tour included the food hall, the gym (where they offer volleyball, basketball, basketball, soccer and yoga), the communications office, the meteorological office, the power plant (diesel generators), the RO plant (desalinates sea water so that it is suitable for consumption) and even the waste water treatment plant. Yes, this is the kind of water treatment plant you are thinking of. Our guide of the plant was very offended we had initially asked for a tour of the power plant and RO plant, but not his waste water treatment plant. Here all MacTown’s ‘grey water' (which is brown) is treated through a biological process so that it is then suitable to be released into the ocean without doing harm to the environment. I can vouch for the fact that they do a really good job, and the water coming out of the process is very clear.
Because of the sheer population size of McMurdo, there is a lot of waste water to be treated and accordingly there is a much larger treatment plant than at Scott Base. To help ease pressure on the water treatment system at Scott Base, our policy is that all showers must be under three minutes. There are no complaints and the system works well. It is a good habit to become mindful of water usage in
Amongst all the hustle and bustle of the biggest Antarctic town, I did find a couple of sanctuaries. The ‘Chapel of the Snows’ is very warm and inviting, it has a great vantage point right on the shore, tea and coffee making facilities and a kiwi Minister who assures me all denominations and all sorts are welcome. A slightly better vantage point can be found on top of the Creary Lab in the library. There are also tea and coffee making facilities here and many interesting books to complement and educate you about the view.
Being a biologist, the highlight of my tour to McMurdo Station was definitely the Creary Lab. It is an amazing complex. It is huge and has the space, facilities and equipment for all sorts of science (the mind wanders with possibilities…). The lab accommodates ~500 scientists every year and has ~25 staff dedicated to running it. There was a 'touch pool' set up with the latest collection of strange Antarctic sea creatures collected by divers in the bay. There were isopods (sea lice) three inches long, starfish, fish, urchins, anemones, sponges and giant sea spiders similar in form to the long legged house spiders we see in New Zealand (only bigger and creepier).
Around McMurdo Station, there definitely wasn’t any talk of the rugby, not started by the Americans anyhow. There was talk of other upcoming events however. Prince Albert of Monaco is visiting both Scott Base and McMurdo Station from Thursday. The other news was that tomorrow is 'Mexican Day' and most importantly 'Cookie day'. If I am still around tomorrow, it would be a sin to miss the Wednesday tradition!
Despite the Herc arriving today, there is a chance I may be delayed until Friday in fact. Sadly, there has been a medical emergency and an American individual needs to get to
A comic artist at McMurdo Station produced this following the rugby match. 'Daisy picking' at MacTown is a communal rubbish collection day (equivalent to our communtiy beach clean up days in New Zealand)
Inside 'Trash Barn'
Just as 'Chapel of the Snows' has a name and a number, there is also a bell and a megaphone side by side
The ice breaker viewed from the coast in front of McMurdo Station
Some numbered buildings that are surplus to requirement at the moment. Notice they are all on skis
Sea spiders sitting on a sponge. These spider crabs are about the size of my palm. You can see the back end of the isopod to the left of the sponge too. Sleep well!
Monday, January 12, 2009
The Hercules I was to be boarding on Tuesday morning did not leave Christchurch today due to bad landing weather down here. The RNZAF Hercules generally fly in one day and leave the next, as they require an eight hour turn around time. Although the weather feels mild down here at the moment, snowfall has reduced visibility, making it unsafe to fly.
All of a sudden a little pressure was off me. I did not have to rush to do everything I wanted in just one day. So I ended up spending most of the day in the Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) hut which was a real change of pace. At present the TAE hut offers a quiet area for Scott Base staff that is detached from the main Scott Base complex (beware: intercom messages still come through loud and clear and can give you a massive fright). The stand-alone hut has the feel of a kiwi bach and is full of all sorts of information from newspaper cuttings to scientific publications. It is an unofficial recent history museum, complete with food and clothing relicts from 1957 to present.
Up until 1989 the TAE hut was used as a mess and as additional accommodation, but there is much more history surrounding this little hut. On January 20 1957, Able Seaman Tito, the youngest and a maori member of the expedition on HMNZS Endeavor raised the New Zealand flag to open the TAE hut, the founding of Scott Base. The low rocky promontory on the southeast tip of Hut Point Peninsula was chosen for its almost level land surface, its clear access over sea ice and because it is suitable for meteorological observations, upper atmospheric physics and seismic recording. This was important, as the base was set up for two major events: to support science for the International Geophysical Year (IGY, 1957-1958) and to provide a base for the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE, 1955-1958) jointly led by Dr. Vivian Fuchs (UK) and Sir Edmund Hillary.
Following the conquest of the South Pole by Amundsen, the next obvious challenge was to cross the entire continent. Shackleton was the first to attempt a trans-Antarctic crossing in 1914. He set out with a sledge party from the Weddell Sea, traveling toward the Ross Sea. Although there is an amazing and heroic survival story surrounding this expedition, Shackleton was not successful in his attempt. Dr. Vivian Fuchs, a British scientist, was the next to initiate a trans-Antarctic venture. Fuchs was experienced in Antarctica and qualified to supervise the extensive scientific investigation to be made alongside the crossing. In a planning document for the expedition, he writes:
‘Shackleton’s attempt to make a trans-antarctic journey in 1914 was frustrated by the loss of his ship the ‘Endurance’. Since that time such a journey has been constantly in the minds of polar travelers. Today the interest of many nations in the Antarctic brings competition into the field. For varying reasons it may be expected that some nations (e.g. United States, Argentina, Chile, France) will initiate such a venture. Success will bring world-wide prestige.
A trans-continental journey made wholly within territory claimed by the British Commonwealth, and with an exploratory and scientific programme as indicated below, would gain prestige and at the same time contribute to the solidarity of Commonwealth interests. At the present time we have the men and the experience required to make certain of success. Other nations competing in the Antarctic are not yet in so a favourable position to make a journey of comparable importance. Now, therefore, is the time to seize the opportunity.’
The planned route was from Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea, to the Ross Sea. The Commonwealth TAE had two parties: the crossing party led by Fuchs, and the Ross Sea party, led by Sir Ed. The Ross Sea party supported the crossing party by building Scott Base, laying supply depots and establishing a vehicle route from the Polar Plateau through the western mountains back to Ross Island. Sir Ed and his team of four men (a.k.a. the Southern Tractor party) left Scott Base on October 14, 1957, in three Ferguson tractors and a weasel (tracked vehicle) towing ten tonnes of cargo. The men reached the South Pole on January 4, 1958, and were met by the crossing party at the Pole on January 19. The complete Commonwealth TAE team returned to Scott Base victorious on March 2, 1958.
The secondary aim of the TAE was science contributing to the IGY. Its scientific objectives included meteorology, geology, gravimetric work, seismic sounding of the polar ice sheet, and (most interestingly I think) the geography of Antarctica’s interior. Fuchs writes, ‘the transcontinental journey will also show whether the polar plateau is or is not interrupted by mountain ranges south of latitude 80 degrees South…the route through Victoria Land will pass over unexplored areas and will delimit the western margin of the Victoria Land mountains. The eastern limits of these mountains are known from the work of Scott and Shackleton's expeditions’. It surprises me that at this late stage, there really had been no further advance in our understanding of Antarctica’s geography since Scott and Shackleton’s time.
Whilst the two main parties were off traversing the continent, a New Zealand scientific party based at Scott Base also contributed to the IGY and managed to explore 103 600 square kilometers of unchartered continent. The objective of the IGY was to learn more about the earth, in particular about the upper atmosphere and its response to solar influence. Many countries were involved in the initiative including the US, UK, Soviet Union, Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Japan, Norway and South Africa. This marked New Zealand’s first active involvement in scientific research in Antarctica. New Zealand’s IGY leader was Trevor Hatherton… and I’m sitting in the Hatherton Lab of Scott Base right now. The success of the IGY for New Zealand and globally, illustrated the value of Scott Base as a scientific observation laboratory. From initial plans for its removal after three years, Scott Base became permanent.
I just received word that I may not even fly home on Wednesday! The US has apparently over booked the plane and I may be bumped, and flown on Friday. Provided I’m okay with that. I am pretty okay with that. Life could be much worse.
The TAE hut right on the shore with sea ice beyond
A poster found in the TAE hut depicting the New Zealand trans-Antarctic expedition party
A diagram of Scott Base from 1970-71. There is still one linking corridor along the complete length of the base (~500 metres). You really can’t evade anyone, they WILL find you! ‘B’ is still the science/computer area (Hatherton Lab), ‘Q’ is where I sleep and ‘A’ is bathrooms etc. so there has been a little change. I thought the snippets of advice were great - they haven’t changed much!
A weddell seal, just to keep you interested! We see these beasts from Scott Base out on the sea ice at the moment. They hang around open cracks and holes and are very territorial. This photo was taken of in Terra Nova Bay in 2006 where I was doing research.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
The second reason for feeling a strong connection to the New Zealand mainland today was the rugby match between New Zealand and the United States of America. It really did feel like I was heading to a big rugby game at home. The field (slightly smaller than usual) was marked out with trail flags, the posts were padded with field sleeping mattresses, there was a referee, linesmen, a commentator, a scoreboard, lots of supporters in the grandstands (couches were put on cargo trailers), paramedics on call, the impressive Ross Island Cup, and on the New Zealand side we even had a water boy with oranges and a few cheerleaders. Around twenty minutes prior to the public transport out to the game (provided by hagglunds), I ran into Toni, a domestic hand at Scott Base. I’d talked to Toni earlier in the day, at that stage she was a little unsure she would make it to the game. How her tune had changed! Now she was head cheerleader and rallying up more. She had made pom poms from the different coloured waste bags on base and had written four cheers, a chorus for between the cheers, and a victory cheer (we were feeling pretty confident). This was to be the first and last time I am ever a cheerleader. I swear. I would have much rathered playing rugby.
We nipped upstairs to an almost secret room across from the library, where all the dress up delights you could ever hope for were stored. I imagine these outfits and props would provide a little light relief for those staff working over the winter stretch. Today the most ill matched cheerleading squad was created by picking the most outrageous dresses we could find. We were never going to look good, as conditions outside demanded we retain our thermals and massive boots while cheering on the sideline.
The game began with a minute of silence to remember Sir Ed. The national anthems of both sides were sung and a very impressive haka followed. The match was close. Both teams fought hard. There was a lot of heart put into the game, and a few injured players came out (thankfully no medevac/medical evacuation was required). I am proud to say New Zealand came out on top and is the first to win the new Ross Island Cup, scoring 8 points to nil. The annual rugby game between the bases is an old tradition, but this year was the first to have a cup, kindly donated by the New Zealand Rugby Union.
Following the official presentation, speeches from both sides, a few photos and a snow fight, the match after party was hosted at Scott Base. All the US players and supporters squeezed into the Scott Base bar where the unofficial speeches took place (the cheerleaders got special mention). What a great day. It was so well organized and a lot of fun to see everyone, New Zealanders and Americans, getting in behind such an event and having a great time.
Having cycled over to McMurdo Station earlier in the day, we knew the Americans were going to be present at the game in force. All around the station there wasn’t talk of the icebreaker (which was a matter of hours away) bringing valuable supplies, there was only chatter of the game. We’d passed through McMurdo Station on our way to Hut Point, from which we could gain a good view of the incoming icebreaker. Hut Point is the location of Discovery Hut, built by Scott and his men during their 1901 – 04 expedition. To enter the hut you must be with a qualified guide. We didn’t enter today, but I did during my last visit. I recall the hut feeling the most eerie of the three huts I visited (Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds and Scott’s Terra Nova hut at Cape Evans). It is a large hut that remains well intact and little disturbed. Seal carcasses, skins and fat still hang in there, well preserved by the conditions. There remain boxes of Huntley and Palmers biscuits and special dog biscuits made in London ‘for use on the voyage’. The Antarctic Heritage Trust (see links) is responsible for the upkeep of these huts. A major challenge that their team has certainly risen to.
The incoming icebreaker was quite an amazing sight. It seems to make slow progress as it thrusts forward, zig zags, reverses and thrusts forward again; but it is effective, leaving a channel of open water within the sea ice. The ship will dock at McMurdo Station where they have a fragment of ice shelf rigged up to the land to be used as a wharf.
Tomorrow is my last day here on base! There is still so much I would like to do and so many people I would like to talk to. In some ways the time has gone fast, but I am happy with what I have achieved so far.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Silly me, of course it wasn’t twenty minutes. Around midday, we travelled over the hill to McMurdo Station’s helipad. The fogginess of Scott Base was holding us up, so we opted for the blue skies and warmer temperatures of McMurdo instead. The contrast in weather conditions between the two bases was phenomenal, but there was even more to come.
Our pilot was Rob, a New Zealander from Picton flying for Helicopters (NZ) Ltd. So a complete change! Different time, different pilot and different aircraft… but they made it happen. We took off and traversed the vast sea ice and ice shelf. We passed over the barren Bratina Island and then into the narrow Miers Valley of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. What a different world! After looking at the white of the ice for days, all of a sudden I was looking at expansive mountain ranges of loose sediment, with lakes and rivers. The only white to be seen was in the massive glaciers scouring the valleys.
The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located southwest of Ross Island. They have a unique ecosystem and landform that is very sensitive to disturbance. For this reason 15 000 square kilometers of these Dry Valleys have been designated as an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA), one of the first to be designated under the environmental protocol of the Antarctic Treaty System. There is an overall ‘Code of Conduct’ for the ASMA and a specific management plan for each of four Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) within the ASMA.
The purpose of our travel was to visit a few field camps of scientists and make sure they are taking the appropriate measures to stay safe and protect this special environment. Antarctica New Zealand supports around 45 science events (~191 personnel) annually, representing all the New Zealand universities and three Crown research institutes. 75% of these events have international partnerships with the USA, Australia, Italy, UK, and/or Canada. It also runs media, arts and ‘Youth on Ice’ events aswell as a Graduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies course. It is Antarctica New Zealand’s responsibility to make sure each of these events and every individual conforms to our Treaty requirements as a signatory nation as described within the Antarctica (Environmental Protection) Act 1994. To ensure this is happening, environmental officers (i.e. Renee) from Antarctica New Zealand conduct a series of audits on a selection of events they are supporting. The information collected in the audit is given to both the leader of each event and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of Antarctica New Zealand’s annual compliance report.
Our first visit was to a camp of six scientists in the Miers Valley. Their camp location was picturesque; I didn’t want to ever leave! The weather was mild, a glacier up valley was feeding a flowing river that ran alongside camp and further down valley into a lake. We received a great welcome as we touched down from the two scientists present at camp (probably because we were bringing in more supplies). They had been doing the lab work inside a large tent. The other four could just be seen as dots up in the mountains, but we managed to have a chat via radio. These scientists, along with others in the Garwood and Shangri La Valleys, are focusing on describing and interpreting the biocomplexity of terrestrial ecosystems in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. They record landscape and environmental factors and take soil samples, assessing their chemical and physical properties and checking for any kind of life. This research will provide much greater understanding of the region and help New Zealand manage it appropriately. After having a look about and a chat, it was time to fly elsewhere unfortunately.
We scooted down valley, over a ridge, over the campsite of the Shangri La group and turned toward a haze of snow that was spilling out of the Garwood Valley. Rob the pilot turned to me and said ominously, ‘that’s where we’re meant to be headed’. Leaving behind the clear air and the infinite visibility, you could physically feel the jolt as we penetrated the snow flurry. Visibility was instantly reduced so Rob kept us close to the valley floor. I get the feeling Rob knows these valleys better that the back of his hand. Word on the street is that he has been flying down here for around 40 years. I felt safe. As the second field camp came into view, we could see we were in for quite a different experience. The scientists still came out to greet us, but weather had brought their fieldwork to a holt for the day. We had a quick look about, but were restricted by time as the chopper was accumulating snow and we were turning into snowmen. Our stay was long enough to feel the scientists’ frustration at the weather, and the difficulty that comes with it. We loaded up their samples to be taken back to Scott Base and got out of there. They were brief visits, but long enough to see how well the camps are operating. I know the field groups appreciated having the contact, I imagine it can be lonely in these remote regions.
Just minutes after take off, we had traveled over the glacier at the head of the valley and we were back in clear skies. I hoped the weather would pass just as quickly for the field camp we’d left behind.
What a big day! Two personal high points for me in this visit to the Dry Valleys was seeing a mummified seal in the Garwood Valley and ventifacts in the Miers Valley. Seals and penguins often travel inland to die. It is quite common to come across a dead seal in the Dry Valleys. They remain remarkably well preserved in the dry and cold climate of these mountains. Ventifacts are rocks that have been weathered by the wind, forming very distinct angles and faces reflecting the prevailing wind patterns. For these rocks to form they must remain undisturbed for very long periods. Today’s experience has provided me with a very different view of Antarctica. I think it is going to take a while to all sink in.
Renee and I were on Scott Base dishes tonight. At the base, everyone pitches in to make light work of the domestic stuff. This is particularly the case on Saturdays when there is a base meeting and tasks are read out, for which people will volunteer. Tasks vary from helping with cargo, peeling potatoes, making new trail flags and today many surrounded the upcoming rugby match. Couches and chairs were being organised for spectators… it is going to be quite an event; I am looking forward to it.
Scott Base from the air, taken just before landing. Observation Hill can be seen in the backgound, beyond this in McMurdo Station (not seen)
Friday, January 9, 2009
It was the most fabulous, sun-filled day today. Perfect for our environmental monitoring of the windfarm development on Crater Hill. Antarctica New Zealand have been working towards this wind turbine installation and commissioning in collaboration with Meridian Energy for many years now. It will be the world’s southernmost windfarm and along with that comes many challenges. However the benefits will be enormous. The three wind turbines (37 metres in height, 330 kilowatt) will supply renewable energy to Scott Base and McMurdo Station through a linked electrical grid. The windfarm will significantly reduce the carbon footprint of both bases (1 242 tonnes of CO2 annually) and diesel fuel consumption will be cut by ~11% (463 000 litres). In addition, it will reduce the environmental risks associated with the transporting, handling and storage of diesel in Antarctica. This season the foundations have been installed. Next summer season the turbines themselves will be erected and commissioned and we will start to see the exciting results!
Crater Hill has been chosen as the windfarm site as it is one of the few ice free areas (2%) in Antarctica with a ground cover of volcanic scoria covering the permafrost. It is close to both bases and sits high on Ross Island (190 metres above sea level) and therefore has a great wind resource. I definitely felt the wind up there today! Our job is to quantify the environmental impacts of the development and report them back to Antarctica New Zealand along with any recommendations to minimize further impacts, or steps towards remediation we think necessary. To capture all this information we carried out an assessment of terrestrial disturbance, did some photo monitoring, and a floral survey. Unfortunately, we cannot look for animals (other than skua), because the only ones we are likely to encounter are almost invisible to the naked eye. These include nematodes (worms), springtails (collembola) and mites. We were lucky enough to find a few tiny lichens, mosses and algal matts however. I took a few pictures of the vegetation we saw, just for reference. I didn’t expect to be able to identify them anytime soon. Then came along Roman Turk, the lichen king. I was casually flicking through my photos when a full species name came flying over my shoulder. Roman is an amazing biologist from Austria, he is a good laugh and passionate about lichens, although he admits ‘…they are senseless beings…’. He is referring to their habit of existing in some of the most vulnerable and most unlikely positions. It is so fantastic to be surrounded by so many experts here at Scott Base. Their enthusiasm and excitement for their upcoming field adventures is contagious.
I am hoping to awake to a similar weather tomorrow. I have my own little Antarctic adventure to partake in. We are scheduled to fly southwest into the McMurdo Dry Valleys to visit a field event and conduct an environmental audit of their activity. We will be jumping on a helicopter that is scheduled to pick up soil samples from the scientists at a field camp in the Miers Valley. The chopper and pilots will be from the American base. It is really common to share helo hours between bases, as New Zealand shares a joint logisitics and resource pool with the Americans and the Italians stationed at Mario Zucelli in Terra Nova Bay. I was lucky enough to visit the relatively new Italian Base last time I was in Antarctica. They traveled an hour over the sea ice in their shiny red FIATs to invite us to lunch. We of course made time in our busy science schedules for the event. The reception we received was amazing! We were treated like royal visitors. We were first greeted with a flute of champagne, followed by a macchiato (a short black coffee with a splash of hot milk). Then it was onto the dining room. There we were treated to delights such as marlin and salmon, fresh breads, cheeses and fantastic chocolate. One of my team members has since sought and ordered the same chocolate direct from Italy- it was something special! Last but not least was the gelato (they have their own machine) and limoncello to warm us before venturing out of the very comfortable base. They really know how to entertain. In return, and on limited resources, we invited them over for some scones a few days later. They were wrapped. So that’s a little how the resource pool works!
The seven pre-cast concrete foundations for turbine one, with a stage for the transformer on the right. Directly behind the stage you can glimpse Observation Hill that lies between Scott Base and McMurdo Station. It's a great view over the sea ice!
Roman Turk, the lichen king! What a great Austrian character. The photo was taken on our way down to the ice on the Herc
Stazione Mario Zucelli. The Italian base in Terra Nova Bay I visited in 2006
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Following lunch, the seven trainees jumped into a hagglund with Heidi at the wheel. A hagglund is a track vehicle that can be used on all terrains, and will float in the water. They look quite cumbersome but I realised they are amazingly maneuverable as we weaved through the transition zone between the land and the ice on our way to field camp. At this time of year, the transition is at its weakest. The ice is buckled and ice melt and seawater that has escaped through cracks form massive pools. Despite this, vehicles from both Scott Base and McMurdo Station must persist through this zone. It is their lifeline, feeding the aircraft runways, the ANDRILL site (an international geological project), the A-frame (a.k.a. the kiwi bach), a rugby field and field training sites. At this time in the year, almost everywhere else must be accessed via air (usually helicopter).
On the way to our field campsite, we passed the A-frame. This dwelling is just as it sounds - a little A-frame hut. The hut was originally owned by the Americans who decided they wanted to get rid of it. When things are to be gotten rid of at McMurdo Station they are taken to the ‘Skua bar’ where they can be ‘skua-ed’. Skuas are big brown birds found coastally in Antarctica. They have a bad reputation as they manage to be noisy 24 hours, are notorious scavengers and can prey on the chicks of the much-loved penguins. Many US personnel leaving the Station use this op-shop to offload any excess baggage. Kiwi’s are often found at the ‘Skua bar’ cashing in on free leftovers from the Americans. One year the A-frame was ‘skua-ed’! It is a decent sized, self-contained hut, that is always well stocked with food and can be booked. It provides a great retreat for Scott Base staff and visitors. Apparently, the Americans are now very jealous of this luxury.
There is a great relationship between the Kiwis and Americans. There is a bus that runs between the bases (although it is easily walkable) all day, free of charge. Scott Base is so popular with the Americans that it has got to a point where their visiting is restricted to invitation only. For example, tonight is ‘America night’ in the bar, an invitation for them to visit. At McMurdo Station, kiwis have their own parking spaces marked ‘kiwis only’. We travel to McMurdo Station (a.k.a. MacTown) for the company and facilities that are more extensive than those of Scott Base. They have a doctor, a bigger shop, a coffee shop and a burger bar for example. However, that doesn’t stop the Americans from coming over here and buying out all the Cadbury chocolate apparently!
There is also a healthy rivalry that comes with being neighbours. We also passed a rugby field on our way to the field campsite. This was a strange site; the goal posts seemed to almost float against the white backdrop of the ice and sky. The annual match between New Zealand and the USA is scheduled for Sunday, I hope to be there… and may even be playing I’ve been told! It is not to be taken lightly however. This year the New Zealand Rugby Union has donated a shiny new trophy to celebrate the contest. Although New Zealand has won every year to date, there is definitely a little added pressure this time.
After a thirty minute drive, we arrived at our field campsite. Here we learnt how to erect a few different tents. My choice was the most commonly used tent in Antarctica, Scott’s polar tent. The design used today is not far different from that originally used by Robert Falcon Scott during his expeditions. Scott was a famous British Antarctic adventurer who led both the Discovery (1901 – 04) and Terra Nova expeditions (1910 – 1913) in pursuit of scientific discovery and claiming the South Pole for Britain. It was his second expedition that claimed his life. There became a race to get to the South Pole in the early 1900's. Earnest Shackleton (a former co-voyager of Scott’s) came within 180 kilometres of the Pole on his Nimrod expedition and Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian party were on their way. Scott reached the South Pole only to find the he had been pipped-at-the-post by the Norwegians. Sadly, Scott and his four companions died whilst returning from the Pole due to hunger, cold and exhaustion. Around eight months later the bodies of Scott and his men were found in their polar tent.
The polar tent is said to be popular because it can be set in a short amount of time, it is secure in strong wind, you can stand at full height inside them, and they have a bright yellow colour that gives a happy ambience inside. This is the tent I lived in for a month whilst stationed at Terra Nova Bay in 2006. It was my little sanctuary then, so I was keen to re-visit that feeling last night!
As part of our AFT, we also learnt how to make emergency snow shelters in case of sudden weather change. Such shelters are designed to keep you out of the wind first and foremost. Although the ambient temperature in Antarctica often doesn’t seem that low, once you add the wind chill factor, the temperature can fall quickly, and sometimes dangerously. We were given ten minutes to build a rough shelter and the rest of the evening to elaborate if we wanted. It is amazing what you can achieve in as little as ten minutes. We all managed to build something that could quite possibly save our lives in future. For this reason, it was quite a reassuring and empowering exercise. Last time I did my AFT I persisted with my snow cave and had a very restful sleep in it. This time I could see bad weather coming in over the sea ice from Black Island, so opted for the polar tent! Those who slept out in their shelters had a much quieter sleep without the flapping of the tent in the wind, but some woke covered in fresh snow! Either way we all had a fun night out. It is amazing how much fun a little distance and time away from normality can be.
After cleaning up camp today, we traveled to a nearby icefall to practice snow travel and climbing. Practicing ‘self arrests’ was an adventure! To do this, you purposely gain great speeds whilst falling down the slope and stop yourself using either you fists and toes, or an ice axe. Great fun. The rest of my day was spent scoping out my Crater Hill field site. I am looking forward to getting stuck in tomorrow!
Our camp kitchen, even with an ice kitchen table. A polar tent can be seen in the background. Flags are used in Antarctica to mark hazards (black signals crevices, thin ice, deep holes), fuel lines (blue) and safe routes (red and green flags), in case of snow cover and/or bad visibility
Me in an emergency shelter, with an igloo behind. We practice building both of these types of survival shelter on AFT and some people sleep in them
Front door view from our polar tent
Practising self arrest methods on an ice fall. In the background you can see the hagglund we used to travel to our field camp
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
The Antarctic Treaty (June 23, 1961) is a legal agreement that dedicates the area south of latitude 60°S, including the entire Antarctic continent, ice shelves and offshore islands to peace and science. This sentiment and the Treaty were inspired by the international scientific community, whom despite territorial conflict among nations and the prospect of military activities in Antarctica, designated 1957-58 as the International Geophysical Year. This worldwide effort involved twelve nations cooperating in Antarctica on globally important scientific research. The ensuing Treaty suspended any political claims to territory and banned all military activity on the continent, except that in support of scientific programs.
The Antarctic Treaty has proven very effective and continues to be significant for international relations, scientific endeavor and the environmental protection of Antarctica. Forty-five countries, representing two thirds of the world’s population have signed the Treaty. Signatory nations cooperate and share responsibility for this unique region that has no indigenous peoples, and that no one owns, but that constitutes 10% of both the world’s land surface and oceans. The Treaty encourages the free exchange of scientific resources, plans, information and personnel among signatory nations. Through this collaborative research of international scientists we have gained a much richer understanding of Antarctica, the Southern Ocean and our world. Thus, we are better equipped to protect the Antarctic environment. Although the Antarctic Treaty itself does not stipulate any environmental protocol and is not binding, it has created the spirit and underlying philosophy to which the behaviour of signatory nations adhere.
Crater Hill lies directly behind Scott Base and McMurdo Station and is around 10 minutes drive away. We were there to check out the site of the three wind turbines Antarctica New Zealand and Meridian Energy are constructing to generate power for both Scott Base and McMurdo Station. Our role is to undertake an environmental monitoring project of the activity at the site. At present, only the turbine foundations have been put in. The towers and turbines will be erected in the next austral summer and will be commissioned the year after (see links for information on Meridian Energy's website).
So we’ll have an office with a view! Prior to getting stuck into the work however, we will have to undergo Antarctic Field Training (AFT). AFT helps you adapt to Antarctic conditions and operate safely in them. The training includes a combination of snowcraft, survival methods, Antarctic camping, glacier travel, GPS, special information about the Dry Valleys, and vehicles depending on the needs of your field party.
We had an AFT briefing this morning from Heidi, a Field Instructor on base. She covered many key points about keeping safe in Antarctica, but a couple in particular have stuck in my mind. The first was to do with natural instinct. Basically you can’t trust it down here. This land is so different from any environment our natural instinct has been learnt in, it just doesn’t hold up. I guess over a number of seasons your instincts may be appropriately shifted. However, from what I gather, every season is different, you never know what Antarctica is going to throw at you! This all adds to the charm of the continent according to a few base staff and scientists I have been chatting with, ‘…that is why I love this place’ said Blake, a field coordinator/camp manager.
Blake is (hopefully) heading out to the Darwin Glacier to set up a field camp site tomorrow, but it is all dependent on the weather. I think anyone else in a similar job in New Zealand would be at the end of their tether! I feel like everyone here either has, or has been forced to develop, a laid back demeanor and even temperament. Dr. Ken Ryan, one of the scientists I worked with during my last adventure to Antarctica, said you always have to be prepared to ‘hurry up and wait’ in Antarctica. I think that sums it up nicely. Make sure you can be ready at a drop of a hat, but be patient too. This explains why even though we are in peak season and everyone is stretched and working incredibly hard, the base staff maintain amazing morale and composure.
The second point of Heidi’s that stuck in my head was ‘teamwork’. Teamwork is one of Antarctica New Zealand’s quoted core values and you definitely see it continuously around base amongst everyone, whether they be staff or scientists. You also see it on a much larger scale amongst bases and nations. In AFT, teamwork is signaled as being important for survival. It is vital we continuously check each other for cold weather injuries as you cannot always feel when you have frost nip, or frost bite. An individuals' thought processes can easily become wayward down here, mainly due to dehydration (it is the driest continent), but also hypothermia - you have to look out for each other. This is definitely where I feel the culture of teamwork and cooperation stems from. The environment gives you no other option, you could not go it alone. This culture has also been written into the Antarctic Treaty, to which every nation in Antarctica adheres (see my next post for more).
I’m looking out the window and it’s snowing! What was dark gravel on the ground has become a white fluffy carpet over the last half hour. This is the first snow I’ve witnessed in Antarctica. It’s actually quite a rare event. I’ve heard snow only occurs when it is warm and humid, otherwise the moisture just falls as ice crystals. Most of what covers the ground and looks like snow in Antarctica, is not fresh snow, but is snow drift carried from elsewhere. Although it is beautiful right now, I hope that it stops falling for those people on base who are looking to fly into the Dry Valleys tommorrow. They need good visibility to fly, and many of them work on lichens and mosses that are hard enough to see on bare ground, let alone snow covered ground!
Monday, January 5, 2009
I am feeling incredibly tired and excited at the same time. Today was long and my body definitely feels that it is time to sleep, but my mind is distracted by the fact that there is a bright blue sky outside and all the potential that offers . . . I must close the black out shutters and try my hardest to pretend that Antarctica isn't still lit up.
Sunday, January 4, 2009
We trundled straight over to the Antarctica New Zealand clothing warehouse where Chris was waiting. He had neatly laid out all my clothing ahead of time (even correctly sized). Antarctica New Zealand has a completely new kit this year, which is quite different to what I’d used previously; but not to fear, Chris gave me the run down. I know exactly when to wear each of my six pairs of gloves and four jackets, including the individual purpose of each pocket (there are up to ten).
And then came Woody (a.k.a. Paul). Just as you start to feel daunted by the fact that you will have to be wearing all this gear because it is ACTUALLY pretty cold in
Just to bait our excitement a little more, Renee and I visited the Antarctic Attraction right next door. It worked. I am so ready to get to
We are scheduled to fly south around tomorrow aboard a Royal New Zealand Airforce Hercules (C130). The flight should take around seven and a half hours. We will be on base for dinner . . . definitely there before dark (ha ha). There is always the potential for delay and cancellation on these southbound flights, so fingers and toes crossed that everything goes to plan. I’ll be wearing my red socks from the Sir Peter Blake Trust too, just for a little added luck.
There was a lot of gear to pack!
The lucky red socks
Friday, January 2, 2009
I have known of my upcoming trip to Antarctica since August when I was awarded the Antarctic Youth Ambassadorship. However, in the midst of some of the hottest days we have had this summer, when everyone is on holiday, it has been difficult getting my head around the fact I will be in Antarctica very soon. What a contrast it is going to be. All the more exciting I say!
My excitement is not one bit diminished by the fact I have already visited the continent either. My last trip was during November and December of 2006. I was lucky enough to be taken down as a research assistant alongside scientists from Victoria University of Wellington working on the Latitudinal Gradient Project (LGP). The LGP is a long running and multinational initiative aimed at understanding the coastal, marine and terrestrial ecosystems that exist along the Victoria Land (read more here http://www.lgp.aq/). We were sampling and studying communities of algae and bacteria that live in the seasonal sea ice that forms around the continent annually and that fuel the ecosystems of the Southern Ocean. Our study site was Terra Nova Bay, where we based our scientific activity out of the German Base ‘Gondwana’ and slept in polar tents on the ice for a month. It was an amazing, eye-opening and wonderfully rewarding professional and personal experience (trust me, I will convince you in days to come . . . some of you may take more than others!).
On leaving Scott Base at the end of this research venture, I was very reluctant to leave (to say the least). I remember expressing this to Brain, our camp manager, to which he said, ‘See you next time then’. How unrealistic that seemed at the time! I am still pinching myself.
I have a jam-packed itinerary whilst on the ice. However, given that it is Antarctica, activities may well vary depending upon logistics and weather conditions. I will be updating the blog daily, tune in and join my adventure!
Gondwana Station, Terra Nova Bay 2006. Our camp set up: polar tents in the foreground, Gondwana Station in the mid ground and the sea ice where we worked beyond
The members of event K043, from left to right: Andrew Martin, Dr. Ken Ryan, me, Dr. Simon Davy and Snout (a.k.a. Daniel McNaughtan)
Snout and I drilling sea ice cores for sampling and analysis (Photo: K. Ryan)