Antarctica: No ordinary place, no ordinary assignment

Michael’s Story

How do I sum up my trip to Antarctica? In two words: Life changing. In two pages I hope to go into a little more depth and detail. For the full story however, you will have to wait for the novel. I went to the ice expecting intensive science tutorials and a bit of ice time. My expectations were blown out of the water.

The research, which is supported in part by Air New Zealand, was hands on and entertaining, breaking down my misconceptions about climate change and global warming. The people were diverse and interesting revealing themselves in ways only 24 hours of sunshine allows. And the Antarctic environment itself got under my skin, blowing my mind with the enormous expanse of the Ross Ice Shelf and the beauty that is revealed in so many shades of white.

The Antarctic Environment

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. Even in all my ECW’s (extreme cold weather gear) my ass became numb on the hard canvass seat. The discomfort was however, made up for by the sporadically placed portholes revealing the most spectacular white world outside. Broken ice flows blended into an ice pack which flowed seamlessly into continuous razor sharp peaks. From the air you can see the directional “flow” of the ice down glaciers, into ice bodies and onto the sea.

It wasn’t until we disembarked, however, that I really got a sense for the scale of the place. Our plane was a speck in the shadow of Mt. Erebus, the world’s southern-most volcano. The base which looked a short amble from the airport was in fact every step of a half marathon away (I found out the hard way during my failed marathon attempt).

Antarctic scale was put in greater perspective during a climb up Castle Rock, one of Mt Erebus’s coagulated lava vents. We climbed in bitter cold wind and poor visibility, covering every square inch of our skin to avoid frost-nip. In a divine manner the wind, snow and cloud that made the climb so treacherous disappeared at the summit revealing 360 degrees of spectacular viewing. Seeing Erebus to the north dwarfed by the never ending mountain range on the continent itself was reminder that we were on a tiny island at the bottom of the world.

I did my best to take it all in but there was too much to see. Below Erebus was the McMurdo Ice Shelf dotted with sharp black rock islands where we drilled days later with Dr. Martin’s team. To the west was the continent the Dry Valleys shielded by immense peaks and piedmont glaciers. And surrounding us was McMurdo Sound which had been solid ice two days prior but was now a glassy black body of water. While this flagged the warning that our airport escape route may be at risk of disappearing in a matter of days, on a positive note it provided clear passage for the pods of Minke whales which had been entertaining base residents all week.

Then the poor weather returned as though to remind us that the Antarctic environment is as unforgiving as it is beautiful. The decent was again shrouded in cloud with winds doing there bests to pull us from our volcanic rock shelter.

The Science

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.

This was the message I took from Nancy Butler and her team at GNS science in Wellington. Through drilling ice cores sometimes 800m long they are able to look back in time at the chemical makeup of the atmosphere from past eras. We touched 3,000 year old ice but the data goes back much further. This historical record in the ice provides greater understanding for the ongoing research that Air NZ is supporting of the effects of Polar Amplification. We are currently at critical levels in CO2 concentrations. Last time we were at this threshold the Ross Ice Shelf melted. This is the largest ice shelf in the world, with potential to release millions of tons of water into the world’s oceans changing currents and life around it. Not only that but the ice shelf is home to the Scott Base/McMurdo airport. A sudden melt may have left us stranded at the bottom of the world! Comforting information two days before travel.

Kiwi-born Cambridge PhD student Craig Stuart was doing similar work to add to our understanding of the ice shelf and how it interacts with the world’s oceans. While researchers like Nancy are coring immense holes 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 different densities of ice giving a profile of the ice below. This new science is allowing a record to be generated of growth or shrinkage of the ice.

This research on the Ross Ice Shelf helps build a picture for the future and inform biological study as to the environment Antarctic life may face in the future. From microbes to charismatic mega fauna like penguins and killer whales (only whale huggers call them orcas, scientists call them killer whales) change of the velocity currently documented will have a dramatic and potentially disastrous impact.

The Adele penguin for example has been adapting to climate change for centuries, changing their routines and evolving as a species to fit the change in their environment. However, if the change occurs in two to three years as opposed a multi-generational shift, I would be surprised to see these bossy fluff balls survive. Already a connection between year to year sea-ice extent and Adele population has been established. The main cause being their access to food. This is where the research further down the food chain gets even more important.

Dr. Andrew Martin is doing just that in his work on ice dwelling microbes at the start of the food chain. Marli and I got to join him on a data gathering mission on the sea ice at the base of Turtle Rock. Coring through the 6 foot ice we sampled these critters known as “extremophiles”, which have a sadistic penchant for cold dark spaces. Through a complex process of manipulation 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 down the food chain is a far greater mystery. It may mean a southern sea rich in microbes but devoid of the cute and cuddly that rely on the ice to survive.

The People & Base

Scott base was like a little lime green home away from home. While it is -25˚C outside, inside is kept at a balmy 20˚C. The base is essentially one long corridor stretching from a hand’s on kit bay and mechanics area at one end to a cozy science and computer lab at the other. In the middle are the living quarters, dining room and the Tatty Flag – the Scott Base bar. Running the length of this corridor are some of the most interesting people I have ever met and all of them have seemed to develop OCD, touching every wall beam as they walk. It’s something about the dry air on base, the polar magnetism and so many eccentric individuals under one roof that turns everyone into a walking cattle prod of static electricity. In a few short meters you have built up enough charge to short out a laptop or give a good zap to an unsuspecting rear-end. Luckily the metal beams are a far less abrasive point of discharge.

The base is made up of around 30 staff including the most personable military staff I have ever met, domestic staff, mechanics and engineers. It is their job to maintain control over the 40 plus “events” made up mostly of media and science teams.

The main focus of life on base was food. The days we were there we ate breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner without fail. All of it was cooked and all of it delicious. I personally justified it as packing on blubber to make myself more comfortable in the cold. The work in the cafeteria paid off too. I was able to stay shiver free while Jason rested his 800mm lens on top of my head whilst capturing the most relentless and moving battle between a baby Adele penguin and a Skua (a vicious Seagull-Kea cross breed). It wasn’t until the baby penguin ran to Marli and me for support that I broke from my tripod impersonation.

As well as a site for blubber building the dining room was one of the most social areas on base, second only to the Tatty Flag. Most days would involve a conversation with Regina and her Killer Whale tagging team about their latest mission, or trading war stories with other events about epic adventures up Castle Rock, to the Dry Valleys, or the Cape Bird Penguin colony.

If the base was home then the staff became family. It’s an amazing bond that is formed at the bottom of the globe where everyone is open to sharing weather it’s their backcountry cuisine, their blacked out dorm, their whiskey or their yarns.

You really can’t beat the look in a seasoned Antarctican’s eye when you ask them about their work on the continent. It shines with a passion that I can only aspire to reflect. The place is an addiction, a way of life and so much more. The mix of untouched beauty, relentless extremes, cutting edge science and the people that are attracted to the place make the whole experience like no other. It really was a trip of a lifetime and an experience I will never forget.

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, for putting up with 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.