No ordinary place,
No ordinary assignment.

In late 2013, Air New Zealand launched a global search to find an environmental enthusiast keen to share the wonders of the Antarctic frozen continent with the world.

Australian student filmmaker Marli Lopez-Hope and Kiwi ‘outdoorsman’ Michael Armstrong were selected from almost 2,000 applicants across 52 countries to travel to Antarctica on assignment with Air New Zealand.

Marli and Michael deployed to Antarctica in January 2014, where they spent two weeks assisting National Geographic photographer Jason Edwards capture life on the ice and to help draw worldwide attention to scientific research and the environment in Antarctica.

This is their story.

The journey to the ice

By Marli Lopez-Hope and Michael Armstrong

The harshest place on Earth stands up to its reputation of being remote, extreme and of grand scientific significance.

Watch the Journey
Scroll down to explore the story or Watch the full video here

The nine hours in the Hercules was described to me as sitting on a deck chair in a cookie tin.

A deck chair would have been more comfortable. The discomfort was made up for by the sporadically placed portholes, revealing the most spectacular white world outside. But it wasn’t until we disembarked that I really got a sense of the scale of the place. The base (which looked a short amble from the airport) was a half marathon away.

Scott Base

Humbly perched on the edge of Ross Island with a beachfront view of the frozen Ross Sea is Scott Base.

It was a little lime green home away from home and the staff became family. Running the length of the corridor were some of the most interesting people I have ever met. It’s an amazing bond that is formed at the bottom of the globe when everyone reveals themselves in ways only 24 hours of sunshine allows.

-11.6°C

Average temperature at Scott Base
during our stay

487,000sq km

is the size of the Ross Ice Shelf
(about the size of France)

A Changing Environment

The Earth’s climate changes in natural cycles. It has for centuries. So simply noticing a change in the global climate is not a real issue. It’s when human actions disrupt these cycles and produce drastic climate change that it becomes a potentially catastrophic concern.

Respect for science is more important than ever when the world is faced with an uncertain future. This research impacts not only those living in New Zealand or at Scott Base, but people from all across the globe.

The Little Things

Meet Andrew Martin and Marius Muller, two scientists who are studying some of the smallest living organisms in the world. At the bottom end of the food chain and calling the bottom layers of sea ice home, are the extremophiles (algae). They can influence the entire Antarctic ecosystem. The healthier the algae, the healthier the ecosystem. Looking out the kitchen window at Scott Base, at the sheer scale of the continent, I had not a clue as to how the scientists find a creature invisible to the naked eye.

It looks like the extremophiles will survive an iceless world. What this means further up the food chain is a far greater mystery.

Coring through the 6ft ice, we gathered data on these critters. Through a complex process, Dr. Martin and his colleagues are able to assess the likely survival of such a key part of the ecosystem if things carry on the way they are trending. Initial findings are positive. It looks like the extremophiles will survive an iceless world. What this means further up the food chain is a far greater mystery.

Skating on Thin Ice

Scientists know a lot about the surface of Antarctica, but far less is known about the landscape under the ice. Kiwi-born Cambridge PhD student, Craig Stuart and his two-man team, Ricky and Tom are conducting a two-year study the level of the Antarctic ice-shelf melt on the Ross Ice Shelf. This is the largest chunk of floating ice on the planet – about the size of France and between 100m and 800m thick!

Craig and his team spent the Antarctic summer in a skidoo train dragging radar equipment across the ice shelf. For weeks at a time they battled wind, crevasses, melting ice and sastrugi (windblown ice formations that stop a skidoo in its tracks) to document the makeup and changes in the ice shelf. Their radar, attached to an old wooden dog sled, bounces back from the different densities of ice, giving a profile of the ice below.

This record in the ice provides greater understanding for the ongoing research that Air New Zealand is supporting of the effects of Polar Amplification.

If all of this ice melted, it could cause a 60m sea level rise! In other words, almost all of my city of Melbourne, Australia would be underwater, and my town of birth, Byron Bay, would not exist anymore.

Not-so Happy Feet

If spending two months with one other person, squatting in an outhouse bucket-toilet, with no Internet or phones while enduring long hours counting animals every day sounds like an awesome life, then Landcare scientists, Amy and Hamish have the greatest job in the world.

It is a mystery as to where the Adelie penguin lives when the sea ice refreezes and the temperature plunges to -45 degrees Celsius in winter. The more Amy and Hamish learn about the dynamics of penguin population, the more we understand about the complex nature of global climate change and bird species.

Armed with a long bamboo stick and hook at the end, Hamish stands amongst thousands of penguins, reaching out ever so gently to coax a chick into his arms. Whilst Mike and I helped to de-tag and record the individual grey fuzz-ball I couldn’t help but feel my maternal instincts kicking in

Sitting amongst predatory Skuas and 60,000 smelly breeding pairs of Adelie penguins and chicks in Cape Bird was one my most exhilarating experiences.

The more they learn about the dynamics of penguin population, the more we understand about the complex nature of global climate change and bird species control

Jason rested his 800mm lens on my head whilst capturing the most relentless and moving battle between a baby Adelie penguin and a Skua. It wasn’t until the baby penguin ran to Marli and me for support that I broke from my tripod impersonation.

Against all odds, the chick escaped and survived.

Final Thoughts

I have walked away from this experience with a greater level of understanding about Antarctic science and the need to continue supporting relevant and essential scientific research here and around the world.

You really can’t beat the look in a seasoned Antarctican’s eye when you ask them about their work. It shines with a passion that I can only aspire to reflect. The place is an addiction, a way of life. The mix of untouched beauty, relentless extremes, cutting edge science and the people that are attracted to the place makes the whole experience like no other. It really was the trip of a lifetime.

I am immensely grateful to Air New Zealand for the opportunity

To the Base staff: Graeme, Trotts, JP and everyone else for looking after us and sharing such a magic experience with us, and in eternal debt to Jason for teaching me so much about photography and beyond. I can only hope to play my part to preserve this amazing part of the world and perhaps be so lucky to make it back to experience it again.

Antarctica holds a very special place in my heart. I will never forget this extraordinary assignment.