Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

At the icy frontier

The fate of Antarctica will impact directly on our shores, and New Zealand experts are leading the way in science on the continent, reports Isaac Davison from Scott Base

A view of McMurdo Sound from Hut Pt. Photo / Alan Gibson
A view of McMurdo Sound from Hut Pt. Photo / Alan Gibson

Our helicopter pilot is scanning the largest ice shelf in the world - twice the size of New Zealand - for three men. Twenty kilometres away is the Ross Sea, pushing dark-blue fingers through cracks in the ice. The only mark on the Antarctic horizon is Mt Terror, alongside Erebus, and a horizontal column of listless cloud. In every other direction is ice and snow, uninterrupted until the earth curves away from the line of sight.

Pilot Richard Hayes calls back to Scott Base to get the co-ordinates of a campsite for the third time. He asks the passengers to watch the left hand side of the aircraft, and he looks right.

"I've got them," he says a few minutes later, and angles the helicopter towards a tiny encampment of two yellow tents, three ski-mobiles and six sleds.

The men we are searching for on Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf are not lost. They are frontier scientists in the most remote laboratory on earth.

Craig Stewart, Tom Arnold and Paul Christoffersen's base sits on nearly 300m of solid ice. The warming atmosphere melting this ice from above has been well-researched by scientists.

But this group of oceanographers and glaciologists are more concerned about the temperature under the ice, where an invasive warm current could transform the continent from below.

Gary Wilson, from the Government's new public-private partnership New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), says: "You can argue it's quite hard with small changes in temperature to melt the ice from the top down. But actually, heat under that ice shelf may well be the game-changer."


In Antarctica, science is power. With military activity and mineral extraction banned under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, the more scientifically advanced countries on the continent had a far greater say in decision-making and policy. The nations that excelled in polar science were likely to decide whether the continent's future remained committed to peace and research, or conflict and mining.

As Prime Minister John Key visited Antarctica last week, scientists made their claim for increased investment in the region.

Antarctica New Zealand chair Rob Fenwick calls Stewart, a University of Cambridge doctoral student, a "face of the future".

He says his project epitomises the reason New Zealand is on the frozen continent - to lead the world in polar science and to show how Antarctica's changes impact directly on New Zealand's shores.

When the Weekend Herald visited Stewart's base on the ice shelf, the temperature was -10°C despite the full glare of a midsummer sun.

His research is dogged and single-minded.

"We really just work, cook, then sleep," he says. For the last four days the wind has blown sideways at 20 knots. Stewart has hunkered down in his tent and read Michael King's History of New Zealand and the biography of polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen.

"It's the wind more than anything. You just have to pop in the tent and put another coffee on."

The centrepiece of Stewart's campsite is a borehole dug for a separate project, the US-NZ collaboration known as Andrill. The drill cut 260m through the ice shelf and another 600m into the ocean beneath.

"It's kind of hard to believe,"Stewart says, pointing at the solid ice at at our feet, "But underneath us right now is fish and plankton and currents swirling around."

A remote camera sent down the borehole found never-seen-before oddities including an upside-down fish with no eyes.

Instruments fed through it measured ocean temperature, currents and salinity, and the team also used a ground-penetrating radar to detected tiny changes in the ice thickness.

The team are taking measurements from 70 sites and will return to make them again in future summers to develop a record.

Stewart says that if the Ross Ice Shelf melts, it would make little difference to sea levels because the water has already been displaced.

"It's like an ice cube melting in a glass of water, it won't make it overflow."

But the ice shelf acts like a buffer against the inland ice, where most of the world's fresh water is locked up. If the shelf is melted away by warm water from below, Antarctica's glaciers will flow more quickly into the sea and ocean levels will climb.

"Antarctica has so much fresh water in it that if it all melted sea level would rise by about 60m, which is sort of an unbelievable figure and you can only imagine what that would do to New Zealand and many other countries.

"That's not likely in the near future but the smaller changes, even of a few metres, would have a huge impact."

Scientists working at Pine Island Glacier, 800km north of the Ross Sea, have found that warm polar water - around 2°C - has quickly eaten away at the bottom of the ice shelf which protects the glacier.

This water, which is 4°C warmer than the freezing point for sea ice, has melted away 40m-60m of the shelf each year.

"If that water gets access into ice shelf cavities it can make a huge change, they melt, and that over time changes the shape of the ice shelf and the amount of resistance it can provide against the inland ice," Stewart says.

"If we saw changes like we see at Pine Island Glacier here on the Ross Ice Shelf then we'd start to see some dramatic consequences."

At present, the polar water under the Ross Ice Shelf is still very cold. It is melting at a rate of 20mm a year.

Professor Wilson, a marine scientist appointed to head NZARI, says sea level rise would be just one of many consequences of a melting ice shelf.

Antarctica is the engine room for the world's ocean currents, and determines the direction, temperature, and nutrients in the oceans around New Zealand.

"It's not just about sea level rise here. It's really about what happens in terms of our climate long-term, which is controlled by this engine in the south.

"If there are major changes in Antarctica ... there are profound downstream effects on fisheries, farming, primary industries in New Zealand. We can't escape it."

He adds: "We can have these discussions like, 'If it's that important, why isn't America not working on it?'.

"But we're right next to Antarctica," he says, showing New Zealand's closeness on a map. "And America is up there. It's not in the firing line. It's a big terrestrial landmass, it regulates its own climate, as does Australia. We do not."


The itinerary for Prime Minister John Key's four-day visit to Antarctica highlighted the depth of New Zealand's connection to the frozen continent.

He returned bottles of Ernest Shackleton's 115 year-old whisky to Scott Base after it had been sent to Scotland for analysis. Explorers Shackleton and Robert Scott used Christchurch as their launching point in the early 20th century.

Key attended a whisky tasting at the hut of Sir Edmund Hillary, who lobbied for New Zealand to establish Scott Base in 1957, and he took a helicopter flight over Mt Erebus, the site of New Zealand's worst air disaster in 1979.

These events introduced New Zealanders to Antarctica, but it is the science that has sustained and developed the country's connection to the continent.

Developing countries such as China and India have spent up to $500 million on Antarctic activities, but they do not have the same clout as New Zealand on the ice because their polar science is in its infancy.

Key made no new commitments to Antarctica last week, but hinted that that the funding pool could be expanded.

New Zealand's Antarctic funding of $26 million has remained steady despite cuts in many Government departments since the global economic downturn.

Antarctic governance experts say there are numerous benefits in investing in science at the end of the earth. "Science is the currency of Antarctica", says Brian Storey, head of the Gateway Antarctica programme at the University of Canterbury.

Joint science projects could encourage closer relations between New Zealand and Antarctic countries, in particular China and the US.

At the South Pole, Americans are investing in "Big Science" projects worth tens of millions of dollars. National Science Foundation polar programme director Dr Kelly Faulkner told the Weekend Herald of the use of a massive telescope to prove part of the Big Bang theory.

Key said the Government would commit to a second phase of a high-profile joint project, Andrill, if the US was prepared to fund the bulk of it.

In a special dinner at Scott Base, the Prime Minister told a delegation from McMurdo Base that US-NZ relations were "at their strongest ever".

These relations have, however, been tested in the past two years.

The National Science Foundation planned to use a nuclear-powered icebreaker to cut a path for its supply ships in 2011, but ditched the proposal after desperate lobbying by New Zealand officials.

And last year, New Zealand rejected a US plan for a marine reserve in the Ross Sea, a decision which reportedly left some United States officials "flabbergasted".

Also, environmentalists feel New Zealand's fishery is a blot on our proud scientific record in Antarctica.

In the Ross Dependency, scientists and workers cannot remove a single snowflake or leave a speck of waste. Scott Base workers urinate in a bottle when they are out in the field, and anything that cannot be recycled is shipped offshore. Tourism boats cannot discharge waste while south of 60 degrees in the Southern Ocean.

Yet within the Ross Sea, three New Zealand fishing boats have removed around 700 tonnes of Antarctic toothfish each summer.

The depth of feeling about toothfishing is evident on the ice, with all locals holding a view on it.

On Sunday, American scientist David Ainley held a screening of anti-fishing documentary The Last Ocean at McMurdo Base to coincide with Mr Key's visit.

Former Antarctic diplomat Stuart Prior says that when the potential for science on the frozen continent was considered, "the last thing you want to be involved in is toothfish".

He describes Antarctica as "New Zealand's outer space", with inexhaustible opportunities for world-leading research like Craig Stewart's.


At the end of our visit to the Ross Ice Shelf, Stewart ropes together his team's snowmobiles in a 140m chain in case they run into a crevasse on their next trip. He hoped to cover 8000sq km in his 20 days on the ice.

As he sets off to his next testing ground, he points out that his team had just one borehole in an area the size of France.

"Man and submarines don't go under there. It's incredibly hard to get instruments in there - there's under half a dozen instruments in the world under an ice shelf. They are probably the most isolated places on earth.

"But there is so much to know here. We are only just beginning to understand."

- NZ Herald

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