A cool place to science

Studying the changes to Antarctica helps scientists understand the past and present, offering ways to protect the future.

One Māori name for Antarctica is Te Tiri o Te Moana – literally, the planting of the ocean – which is perfect really, considering that Antarctica drives ocean currents around the world. This vast continent has so much to tell us about how our planet operates and how it will respond to changing environmental conditions. It’s seen as a relatively simple system with minimal human interference and has always been a fascinating natural laboratory for study. 

New Zealand boasts world-leading scientists that cover aspects of Antarctic research from glaciology to marine biology. All are focused on understanding the past and present to figure out Antarctica’s role in global change and implications for the future. By studying the environment in the Ross Sea region and sharing their knowledge, scientists hope people will understand the importance of the area in order to value and protect it. 

Dr Fiona Shanhun, Antarctica New Zealand Acting Chief Scientific Advisor, says Antarctic scientists provide evidence for policy-makers around the world who are considering climate change response strategies. 

“There is urgency now - society is demanding better information,” she says. “We need refined predictions, with more certainty on how the system might respond so we can plan for the future. It’s not just ‘the ice is melting, the sea is rising’ but understanding what changes in Antarctica mean for the rest of the world.” 

New Zealand was one of the original twelve nations to sign the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. It’s a remarkably successful agreement which focuses on scientific research and international cooperation, and ensures the continent is used for peaceful purposes. 

While governments need evidence to support decision-making, it’s equally important that the rest of us understand what’s happening and how it will affect us. So an important part of Antarctica New Zealand’s mission is to tell people what the science on the southern continent is revealing. 

Air New Zealand is proud to be partnering with Antarctica New Zealand and the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute to support scientific discovery.

Dr Drew Lohrer, Resilience in Marine Ecosystems

Dr Drew Lohrer laughs a little when people describe the Antarctic as icey-white and devoid of life.  This is because he sees a part of Antarctica that few do—the coastal seafloor beneath thick sea ice—and it is amazingly full of large, abundant and colourful marine animals. 

For 20 straight days this summer, at a field camp 80 kilometres from Scott Base, divers in his nine-person research team spent up to 40 minutes, twice a day, under the ice in seawater of -1.9 degrees. Specific ice-dive training, tethers, and extra thermal protection under their dry suits kept the international team from Finland and New Zealand safe and warm. They ran a major seafloor experiment, collected a variety of environmental and invertebrate samples, and captured a stunning array of still and moving images of the under-ice environment in high definition. 

The team documented the trip’s progress with regular posts from the field via satellite link, and were followed by thousands of people from afar on their social media. 

Drew says the project is yielding some important new insights into how Antarctica’s coastal ecosystems work. 

“We’ve had some big surprises. Due to extensive sea ice break out several times in the last few years, there was a lot more food present on the seafloor this year than in the past. Very surprising to us is how quickly the animals responded to the change in food,” he explains. “It’s not the slow stable system that it was once thought to be – the diversity of the animal communities can change rapidly and in unexpected ways. Seafloor organisms in Antarctica are important bellwethers of change, and we are keen to process the rest of our results to better understand climate change impacts.” 

Dr Fiona Shanhun, Antarctica New Zealand Acting Chief Scientific Advisor, Penguin Census

Fiona Shanhun reckons she has the best job in the world – helping support New Zealand scientists studying Antarctica. Right now, she’s working with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to host a new funding platform for Antarctic research. This will support long-term, multidisciplinary research programmes and foster international collaboration. 

 “We have a great sense of pride and kaitiakitanga (stewardship) in Antarctica. We want to bring the best teams together from all over the world to help address some of the most pressing questions about the impact of environmental change on Antarctica and how this will affect the rest of the world”. 

Fiona first visited Antarctica in 2004, studying soils in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. She now leads the annual census of Adelie penguins in the Ross Sea which started in 1981. The census has become an important record that can act as an indicator of ecosystem health. Each year, hundreds of aerial photos of nesting areas are taken and the penguins are counted using semi-autonomous software. In the 2016/17 summer, extensive sea ice meant the birds had to travel long distances to feed. This season, the ice broke out early, so scientists are eager to see how this affects the population. 

“The census provides valuable baseline data from which we can detect and monitor change. Coupled with other environmental data such as sea ice extent, we can test hypotheses of population responses to variability,” she says. ”It’s a fascinating system and there is still so much to understand.”

Professor Craig Cary, Terrestrial ecosystems of Northern Victoria Land

A key question in Antarctic science addresses the vulnerability of the unique Antarctic ecosystems as the globe warms. New Zealand and Korean researchers are working together to gather the baseline data on terrestrial ecosystems - soils, microbes, mosses and lichens -  to determine how these communities might be used to help detect changing climate. They’re working on remote outcrops that have never been visited before in Northern Victoria Land. 

Craig Cary is a microbial ecologist which means he studies bacteria in the environment. His previous research was on high temperature hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean, but in 2001, he switched his research interest to the cold and dry environs of Antarctica. 

“Extreme systems like these generally support only a few very specialised organisms, with very low diversity,” he says. “But we discovered that the diversity here is way greater than we ever thought – at the higher taxonomic level, it rivals your normal garden soil. Why is it so diverse, and what maintains it? We are now getting hints that the complex range of chemistries and the role of very subtle changes in local climate could be driving the diversity. It was long thought that bacteria in this system were very slow to respond due to the cold condition but we recently found that they react to small changes in certain conditions very quickly and with a significant loss in diversity - that was unexpected, so now we are asking, how will these unique communities respond to a changing world?” 

Craig leads a team at the University of Waikato’s International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research and is currently the Acting Director of the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute. His team analyses the DNA of samples collected on the four-week field expeditions to look at what the organisms are genetically capable of doing. Their aim is to understand how the ecosystem functions and how these functions might change under current climate predictions for Antarctica. Over the past eight years, more than 40 scientists on Craig’s team from a variety of disciplines have published some 60 studies. But you don’t have to be a scientist to find their research fascinating.  

“Our species has long assumed the responsibility of stewardship of the planet, but even now we don’t understand what we’re losing as diversity declines. That’s inherently unsettling,” he says. “It’s built into the New Zealand psyche that the environment, and the diversity it supports, is important. New Zealanders have a passionate connection with Antarctica, and the life it supports. So much is unknown about the Antarctic ecosystem. We haven’t begun to scratch the surface to help the planet understand how this ecosystem functions, what makes it so unique, and what might happen as our planet changes”.

Dr Christina Hulbe, Ross Ice Shelf Programme

Dr Christina Hulbe, Dean of the National School of Surveying at Otago University, has had a very focused summer of research, drilling through the Ross Ice Shelf to study the ice, ocean, and sea floor below. There’s an exciting array of fieldwork, with an even more exciting array of equipment: current meters, temperature sensors, ice sounding radars, seismometers, something called a “hammer corer” for sampling sediments on the sea floor and weather stations that talk to each other. But the real excitement comes from putting it all together into the bigger picture: the impact climate change will have on the Ross Ice Shelf and in turn, the impact a changing ice shelf will have on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, sea level rise and ocean and atmospheric circulation. 

“Ice and ocean processes operate on many scales across space and time, and that challenges us to make the right measurements and to put them all together in useful ways” says Christina. “We can’t limit ourselves to the old disciplinary ways of working and thinking. We have to learn to see the system how people with different expertise see it. We planned our research and our fieldwork to emphasise this interdisciplinary approach and it’s led to very rich and creative conversations, people saying ‘this is not what I expected, does it make sense from another point of view?’.” 

Astonishingly, the ocean cavity under Ross Ice Shelf has only been accessed once before, back in the 1970s. The floating shelf is the size of France, covering a volume of seawater similar to the North Sea. The research camp floats on a layer of ice 360 metres thick … that moves. 

This five-year research project, which started in 2015, will now move further inland to where the ice sheet lifts off the sea floor to form the ice shelf. This ‘grounding line’ is an important place to explain the interconnectedness of the two ice systems. This is not quick work. The final field data will be available after next summer, then the scientists will take another 18 months to make sense of it all. 

“Most of my work is on a computer, but getting out into the field reminds me that we still live in an age of discovery,” she says. “Every time we come here we measure something new, we also discover something that doesn’t look the way we thought it would. We know from paleo-climate studies that this place will change a lot as the planet warms but we don’t know how fast or where the thresholds are. Will the Ross Ice Shelf defend West Antarctica from rapid change or will it go quickly, like other ice shelves?” 

What she likes the most about this field camp is the way it makes her think about the connections between the large and the small. 

“Because the ice is floating, it’s really flat, almost featureless,” she says, “but if you look closely at the snow and think about how the wind and the ice surface work together, you can look at your little patch and know exactly where you are. I just love that.”

Professor Pat Langhorne, Measuring Sea Ice Thickness

Scottish physicist Professor Pat Langhorne did her first study on sea ice in 1976. Back then, women were not permitted in Antarctica with the British team, so she worked in the Arctic instead. By 1985, when she finally made it to the southern continent, its important role in climate change was only just becoming part of scientists’ psyche. 

Now, climate change is modelled using huge computer programs called Earth Systems Models which are millions of lines of code. There are about 40 of these models internationally - including the evolving ‘New Zealand Earth System Model’ - these are used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to make predictions of climate change effects. 

“It is really important to run the model from different starting conditions,’ she says. “Even a miniscule change of 0.00000000000001°C in initial sea surface temperature gives a different answer on a 30-year projection.” 

Land ice can be many kilometres thick, while sea ice (frozen ocean) only a metre or so. But remarkably, there are still many details that we don’t know. For example, satellite imaging can only estimate how thick the snow and land ice are. Even though sea ice covers an area about twice as big as Australia, melting every summer and refreezing every winter, it is difficult to get sea ice thickness by satellite. So Pat’s team is trying to get a handle on sea ice thickness. This matters because the sea ice around Antarctica is a player in our future climate. 

The study has some cool toys - an electromagnetic device slung below a DC3 plane to measure sea ice thickness - and is testing more - a snow radar and unmanned aerial vehicle. The team includes geophysicists, surveyors, oceanographers as well as technical designers from New Zealand (Universities of Otago & Canterbury; NIWA; Lincoln Agritech), Germany (AWI) and Canada (Toronto’s York University). 

“We’ve had a great season this year, did our first substantial flights and we now have sea ice thickness along a 1400-kilometre track, we’re pretty excited,” she says. “We’ve created a series of videos and we’re on social media.”