Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Meet NZ's extreme scientists

It's a dynamic and an occasionally explosive environment. Photo / Getty Images
It's a dynamic and an occasionally explosive environment. Photo / Getty Images

Tagging sharks, catching venomous spiders, walking on volcanoes and burning forests - science is a lot more than being stuck in a lab all day. Jamie Morton finds out how some researchers spend their days.

BRAD SCOTT: Walking on volcanoes

If you see Brad Scott quoted in the newspaper, it's usually because one of our volcanoes has thrown a tantrum.

The GNS Science volcanologist has clocked up more than 40 years in his field, which has taken him from the slopes of Mt Ruapehu to other active volcanoes in Antarctica, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, the Kermadecs and Vanuatu.

Every few weeks, Mr Scott catches a helicopter ride to White Island in the Bay of Plenty to take a range of measurements that tell him and the GeoNet team what's going on in the bowels of the rowdy volcano, which rises a staggering 1.6km from the sea floor.

GNS Science volcanologist Brad Scott at White Island. Photo / Karen Britten
GNS Science volcanologist Brad Scott at White Island. Photo / Karen Britten

It's a dynamic and - as last month's eruption again proved - an occasionally explosive environment.

Gas spurts out from the side of domes of rock and the sinuses are invaded by a potent cocktail of chemicals hanging unseen in the air.

On any given day, the island spits out 1500 to 2000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and up to 800 tonnes of sulphur dioxide.

Mr Scott has watched it transform from what it was in the mid-1970s to what it is now - a 100-metre deep, 300-metre wide crater that was dug out over a particularly fiery 12-year period now forms the sulphur-stained ampitheatre in which most activity happens today.

"There have been times when we've delayed trips because activity has changed to a point where it's deemed as too high risk," Mr Scott says.

"So, yes, there's a healthy respect for safety."

But he's constantly reminding people that, as furious as New Zealand's most active volcano can seem, there's no evidence to suggest that it poses any threat to mainland residents.

DR JAMES RUSSELL: pest-busting in paradise

Auckland University ecologist Dr James Russell distributs non-toxic bait on the subantarctic Antipodes Island. Photo / James Russell
Auckland University ecologist Dr James Russell distributs non-toxic bait on the subantarctic Antipodes Island. Photo / James Russell

Dr James Russell has been closely involved in many of the eradication projects that have helped make more than 100 of our islands pest-free.

As well as those remote spots that have been transformed into conservation strong-holds for threatened species, the University of Auckland ecologist has worked on those where the battle is still being waged.

Among them have been the subantarctic Antipodes Islands - a cluster of craggy, windswept pieces of rock 860km southeast of Stewart Island and deep in the Southern Ocean.

There, a population of around 200,000 mice have been putting pressure on its diverse range of bird species, with another eradication mission just about to start.

Several years ago, Dr Russell spent a month living there in an exposed hut that was later shifted 10 metres and spun around by a landslide.

Temperatures ranged from 0C to 10C, daylight lasted just eight hours, washing involved minute-long bucket baths and storms could be so ferocious that his team were stuck inside for two days.

More recently, Dr Russell has been assisting a pest eradication mission in the extreme opposite environment of tropical Brazil.

Fernando de Noronha, a playground for Brazil's rich and elite in the equatorial Atlantic Ocean, has been plagued by rats - up to 60 per hectare - along with populations of the three-foot-long tegu lizard and strange rodents called moco.

"The running joke is I tell my colleagues I'm off to a Brazillian resort island, and they're thinking it's all pina coladas and five-star hotels, but it's really long days and horrible temperatures," he said.

"Some days I'll be working in 30C heat in torrential rain trying to chase after these rats and lizards."

And then there was the fear of being bitten by a mosquito carrying Zika virus.
The ultimate goal, he said, was to introduce half a century of world-renowned Kiwi conservation strategy to the island in what is just a five-year project.

DR CRAIG CARY: camping in Antarctica

Waikato University microbiologist Dr Craig Cary. Photo / Jane Ussher
Waikato University microbiologist Dr Craig Cary. Photo / Jane Ussher

Over winter in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, temperatures have been recorded as low as -68C, while barely imaginable katabatic winds have swept through at speeds of 320km/h.

How is it that anything can survive in this alien world?

That very question has under-pinned 15 years of research by Professor Craig Cary, a Waikato University microbial ecologist who has now made 17 trips to the ice.

When he first travelled to the frozen continent in 2001, those living things visible to the human eye, such as mosses and lichens, had already been well studied.

Less understood, though, were the microbial communities that could be viewed only through a microscope.

Analysing samples from the valley using new molecular genetic tools, Professor Cary quickly discoverered that this seemingly inhospitable environment was home to a range of microbes far more diverse than anyone could have imagined.

"Most extreme systems have a tendency to limit diversity, but in this case, the number of groups that were there rivals that in the soil in our back yards."

Gaining these insights - which have also opened up new ways to monitor subtle ecological shifts driven by climate change - has meant countless days and nights camping out in the Dry Valleys.

"In the valleys, when we are there in the summer the temperature can range from -5C to 8C, while in the evenings it can drop to around -20C."

But this was comparatively comfortable to the experience he and a team of Kiwi scientists had at Cape Adare - the north-easternmost peninsula in Antarctica's Victoria Land and one of the most exposed spots on the planet - late last year.

The group, which were surveying the area for a potential site to monitor environmental change, were stuck in their tent for 36 hours as 180km/h winds raged outside.

Professor Cary hopes the microbial communities at this place, too, would hold valuable lessons for scientists trying to understand what happen - and already is happening - to Antarctica as our planet's climate changes.

DR MATTHEW STOTT: Hunting in hot pools for the 'microbial kiwi'

Matthew Stott takes samples from a geothermal area. Photo / Jean Power, GNS Science
Matthew Stott takes samples from a geothermal area. Photo / Jean Power, GNS Science

If Professor Cary is constantly amazed at what can survive in Antarctica's deep freeze, Dr Matthew Stott is just as impressed at what is able to flourish around New Zealand's boiling hot springs.

The Taupo-based GNS Science geo-microbiologist is an expert in extremophiles - ultra-hardy micro-organisms that can withstand the conditions of extreme environments.

Such lifeforms can live among temperatures of 121C in the hydrothermal vents like those found in the Kermadec Arc; in New Zealand, they can exist amid the kind of acidity and alkalinity levels of hot springs around the Taupo Volcanic Zone.

We humans, by contrast, can't stand anything hotter than 40C.

Extremophiles are intriguing to scientists for a range of reasons - one of them being that they might possess anti-microbial agents able to be used as thermo-stable anti-biotics.

That's not science fiction - such a find from America's Yellowstone National Park ultimately led to researchers to develop a process using an extremophile enzyme to to effectively photocopy DNA, along with a Nobel Prize.

Dr Stott is keen to find if New Zealand has what he calls the microbial equivalent of a kiwi - an endemic extremophile found nowhere else in the world.

"We've got these fantastic eco-systems which are globally rare - but do we have globally rare micro-organisms within them?"

Around some of the North Island's most iconic geothermal landmarks, including the postcard Waimungu Volcanic Valley near Rotorua, he and his team collect small spring water and sediment samples that contain up to 100 million micro-organisms.

Back at the lab, the next step is to use molecular tools that can identify marker genes in their DNA which reveal their taxonomy.

Alternatively, the extremophiles can be cultivated in a lab, meaning the researchers don't need to step around the edges of steaming hot pools.

"A lot of the environments are pretty dangerous, when it comes down to it," he said.
"So we're very mindful of unstable ground, hot water and gas, which is the biggest one we worry about."

DR COR VINK: New Zealand's own spider-man

Arachnologist Dr Cor Vink has been fascinated by eight-legged creatures since childhood. Photo / Canterbury Museum
Arachnologist Dr Cor Vink has been fascinated by eight-legged creatures since childhood. Photo / Canterbury Museum

Many of us are terrified of spiders - but Dr Cor Vink goes into the bush hunting for them.

At least when he can - the arachnologist and Curator of Natural History at Canterbury Museum has other commitments that mean he doesn't get as much time as he'd like these days to go out in the field looking for new spider species.

New Zealand is thought to be home to around 2000 species - of which about 800 are yet to be named.

Dr Vink's research has taken him across the country to remote riverbeds and forests, and also away from the coast to places like Coromandel's Aldermen Islands.

"There was a species there that I knew was a new species, because I had the DNA - but I needed at least one adult males to describe the species."

Matakana Island female Katipo spider.
Matakana Island female Katipo spider.

Tramping with his parents and reading books by the renowned Kiwi naturalist Geoff Moon had already fostered a fascination for the natural world when Dr Vink's university studies steered him toward spiders.

Many New Zealanders don't appreciate the comparatively enormous diversity of spiders here - the US mainland only boasts as many as 5000 - nor do people realise how many are living around their own homes, he said.

"If I had a dollar for every time someone said, I've never seen this spider before, and it turned out to be a common one, I'd be rich."

"But it's good because it means that people are now opening their eyes to them and you can teach them a bit more about what's out there."

People also needed to know that spiders, as scary as some might appear, pose virtually no risk to humans.

Despite the stigma surrounding them, serious cases involving New Zealand's two venomous spiders - the endangered native katipo and its close cousin the redback - were rare.

There had been no recorded deaths involving katipo spiders since 1840, while in Australia where redbacks are common, as many people had died from redback bites in the last 100 years as had died from bee stings every year.

As for that other feared species - the white-tailed spider - there was no clinical evidence to suggest their bites caused anything other than temporary pain.

Dr MALCOLM FRANCIS: The man who tags great white sharks

Dr Malcolm Francis tags a great white shark. Photo / Niwa
Dr Malcolm Francis tags a great white shark. Photo / Niwa

Dr Malcolm Francis has helped transform what we know about great white sharks, makos and hammerheads - and it's meant tagging the big ocean predators from just metres away.

The NIWA marine ecologist works alongside other researchers in a range of projects that are slowly revealing the incredible migratory and navigation patterns of great whites, makos and hammerheads.

Dr Francis, who began his career tagging rig in the late 1970s, gets out on the water for a few weeks each year on shark-tagging expeditions.

Sharks are attracted to the research vessel using berley, trolled whole baits or lures, before the sharks are tagged from the boat with several different types of electronic tag.
Depending on the tag type, the tag might be "darted" under the skin of a shark with a tagging pole as it swims past the boat, or it may be attached to the dorsal fin of a captured shark while it's in the water alongside the vessel.

"We have tagged great white sharks up to 4.8 metres long, though most of the more than 80 sharks tagged were 2.8 to four metres long," Dr Francis said. "Special care needs to be taken to ensure the scientific staff are not injured or fall into the water during tagging, and that the sharks are not injured by our tagging procedures."

The tags, which send signals back to Dr Francis and his colleagues via satellite, have revolutionised our ability to collect data on shark movement patterns and our knowledge of what they get up to.

"Every tagging programme I have been involved in has revealed that shark species travel further and dive deeper than we had previously realised," he said.

"We have also learnt a lot more about where in the water column they prefer to live, what water temperatures they prefer, how fast they move, where they go to, and whether they return after being away."

The greatest question still facing shark scientists was how they navigate.

Most white sharks travel thousands of kilometres to small tropical Pacific islands north of New Zealand, and then return to their tagging location, such as Stewart Island, about six months later.

"There are many theories about how sharks find their way around the ocean with such precision, but none has yet been confirmed."

Dr Francis said, like all scientists, he was mainly motivated by a desire to discover new things - something that work with a group of poorly-understood, fascinating animals continually provided.

"Even more important is being able to use the new information we gather to help manage or protect the species from human impacts," he said.

"Sharks in general are highly vulnerable to over-fishing because of their slow growth rates and low reproductive rates, and they need to be managed carefully."

MALCOLM CLARK: Diving 2.5km below the sea

Malcolm Clark on board RV Tangaroa. Photo / Dave Allen
Malcolm Clark on board RV Tangaroa. Photo / Dave Allen

We know more than 15,000 marine species inhabit our territorial seas and our 4.4 million square kilometre marine estate - but there may be a further 50,000 yet to be found in our waters.

It's likely we'll never really know for sure just what we have.

In the past decade, new technology and collaborations with international scientists has revealed much more about New Zealand's sprawling marine estate.

An expedition last year mapped in stunning definition the Israel-sized Colville Ridge, stretching from within 500km of Auckland, while in 2014 a survey off the North Island's east coast uncovered a huge hidden network of methane gas, along with dozens of spectacular flares firing up from the seabed.

Few researchers, however, have been able to see our deep sea environments as close-up and clearly as Dr Malcolm Clark.

In 2013, the NIWA principal fisheries scientist, who has been involved in more than 70 surveys, joined a team of Kiwi and Japanese researchers on a biological investigation of two seamount ridges northeast of New Zealand - the Louisville Seamount Chain and the Kermadec Arc.

A picture NIWA marine ecologist Dr Malcolm Clark captured of Brothers Volcano in the Kermadec Arc venting during a deep-sea expedition in 2013. Photo / Malcolm Clark
A picture NIWA marine ecologist Dr Malcolm Clark captured of Brothers Volcano in the Kermadec Arc venting during a deep-sea expedition in 2013. Photo / Malcolm Clark

During the trip, he climbed aboard one of the world's most advanced deep-diving submersibles, the Shinkai 6500, capable of plunging 6.5km below the surface.

Inside the tiny submarine, which could squeeze three people within its bubble-like confines, Dr Clark was able to descend to a depth of 2.5km.

"On one hand, it's a little bit scary - if something goes wrong when you are deep down, there's little chance of someone being able to help you - but on the other hand, you feel incredibly privileged and excited to be in that position."

The submersible allowed researchers to pick up and collect animal and rock samples, inspect bubbling hydrothermal vents with temperature probes and view previously unseen deep-sea ecosystems up close.

"Looking out the porthole of a submersible, you're not putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and hoping you're getting it right, which is what we have been doing with nets and dredges - you are actually seeing real life and the way things are undisturbed in situ."

Dr Clark, who has also been in US-operated Pisces deep-submergence vehicles, said new species were found on every expedition, including new sponges, corals and crabs on the 2013 expedition.

Globally, it is estimated that the 250,000 known marine species - excluding microbes - is only about one quarter of what is believed to really be out there: something we need to keep in mind when using the ocean as an economic resource.

"In New Zealand, to balance human activities and conservation, it is important to know how many species there might be, but also to understand how the different species interact and function, which ultimately create stable and productive ecosystems."

GRANT PEARCE: The science of fire

Scion fire scientist Grant Pearce, at an experimental burn. Photo / Scion
Scion fire scientist Grant Pearce, at an experimental burn. Photo / Scion

They may appear like unpredictable, uncontrollable beasts - but wildfires can be understood and even influenced.

In New Zealand, fire crews typically respond to around 3000 rural and vegetation fires each year, costing millions of dollars and blackening thousands of hectares of productive land.

Trying to unravel the complex physical mechanisms through which fires start and spread is the focus of Grant Pearce and his colleagues at the Scion Rural Fire Research group.

Since the group was formed more than 20 years ago, it has studied fires through more than 130 experimental burns, lit in a range of conditions on specially-prepared plots around the country.

When it's safe to do so, research staff personally monitor how these experimental burns and wildfires spread and make first-hand observations about their behaviour.

In more extreme fires, they use drones and a range of instruments, including cameras and temperature-logging thermocouples, placed within the fires to study them.

More recently, cutting-edge technology has been used to measure specific factors, like wind profiles at the time of burning and atmospheric turbulence around the flame front, which contribute to extreme fire behaviour.

Grant Pearce (right) and a researcher at an experimental burn. Photo / Scion
Grant Pearce (right) and a researcher at an experimental burn. Photo / Scion

Mr Pearce says these experimental fires are tightly controlled and experienced researchers are only allowed in the burn zone with full protective firefighting clothing and accompanying fire crews.

"Where we are able to safely do this, we are definitely exposed to heat and smoke effects which can make this part of the job uncomfortable for short periods, much as they are for firefighters working on wildfires."

But it's been well worth it: the burns have informed a range of detailed fire prediction models, along with field manuals and specialist software - even fire behaviour calculators for smartphones - that today help fire managers more effectively combat out-breaks.

Mr Pearce said he particularly enjoyed the wide variety of research he was involved with - "pretty much every day is different" - and was proud that it was benefiting those firefighters on the front line, and helping to protect at-risk communities.

"Ultimately, it's this feeling of being part of a team that is making a difference that keeps me wanting to continue in fire research."

DR DEBBIE FREEMAN: Our underwater wonderlands

Debbie Freeman dives in a giant kelp forest. Photo / Vincent Zintzen
Debbie Freeman dives in a giant kelp forest. Photo / Vincent Zintzen

Much is made of New Zealand's stunning landscapes: yet too few of us ever get to see what we also have just below the surface of the water.

In her 20 years with the Department of Conservation, marine scientist Dr Debbie Freeman has dived all around the country and says much of what's down there is still waiting to be discovered.

In 2009, Dr Freeman led an expedition to the subantarctic Bounty and Antipodes Island and explored underwater spots that had never before been dived.

While there was little colour to see above the water - the seabird and fur seal crowded Bounty Island boasts neither soil nor vegetation - the sea below was a visual banquet of bright orange and yellow sponges, huge barnacles and giant spider crabs with shells the size of dinner plates.

Dr Freeman recalled fur seals racing around her, spinning and blowing bubbles as they zipped through the blue.

"One night there was a lot of phosphorescence in the water, and the fur seals racing around the boat looked like furry bright green comets."

Along the way, her team took genetic samples, documented new species of sponge and seaweeds, and returned with the smallest pigfish ever collected for Te Papa.

Off the coast of Gisborne, Dr Freeman once tagged 7000 crayfish to track their movement and growth patterns.

"I had one experience where I was lying on the seabed observing a crayfish feeding about a metre from me, when it decided to move towards me, found I was in its way, inspected my head for a bit with its feelers and then ploughed its way beneath me to get to where it was heading."

In another instance, while diving around Stewart Island and the Snares Islands, she had her head down observing marine life when she encountered a sea lion with an impressive set of teeth peering over her shoulder.

"I've also had the experience while scuba diving of being circled, bumped into and then followed up to the surface by a sevengill shark."

There have also been adventures to the Poor Knights Islands, surveying the wreck of the MV Rena, tracking southern right whales around the East Cape and the icky job of retrieving the stomach contents of a deceased sperm whale at Mahia Beach.

"Just looking at the surface of the sea can't give you a true appreciation of the diversity of New Zealand's marine environment, or its condition," Dr Freeman said.

"There's also always the element of surprise - even in places that are commonly visited or that have been well-studied, there is always so much to learn about even some of our most common species, and the environment is constantly changing."

DR URSULA JEWELL: The coolest job in science?

Antarctica New Zealand staffer Dr Ursula Jewell. Photo / Ursula Jewel
Antarctica New Zealand staffer Dr Ursula Jewell. Photo / Ursula Jewel

Imagine driving through Antarctica's perpetual winter night, then spending half the day, by yourself, in a darkened research station on top of an exposed ridge.

This is Dr Ursula Jewell's daily reality. And it's a job she loves.

Since last October, her daily commute has been the 5km drive along a gravel track from Scott Base, past US-operated McMurdo Station and up to Antarctica New Zealand's research facility at windswept Arrival Heights.

Being in a radiation-quiet zone, it's a critical part of the planet from which to measure changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere and inform climate change models.

At the lab, institutions including NIWA, Otago University and Canterbury University operate a range of instruments, including spectrophotometers that utilise solar radiation to measure gas species, such as ozone.

While most of the instruments require sunlight for the measurements, in the dark winter months, sunlight reflected off the full moon can still be used to measure the amount of ozone in the atmosphere.

When the sun was up, Dr Jewell enjoyed cycling up to the station amid 24-hour sunlight to conduct measurements. Photo / Ursula Jewell
When the sun was up, Dr Jewell enjoyed cycling up to the station amid 24-hour sunlight to conduct measurements. Photo / Ursula Jewell

When the sun was up, Dr Jewell enjoyed cycling up to the station amid 24-hour sunlight to conduct measurements, but now that temperatures have dropped below -40C, a bike ride through the dark isn't such an attractive option anymore.

"Driving up in the dark can be challenging, in particular since we cannot use headlights as the lights would interfere with some of the measurements," she says.

"However, it is surprising how bright the snow makes the whole landscape, in particular when there is a full moon."

More of a task is driving in windy conditions, when blowing snow can mask the road entirely, forcing her to stop every 50 to 100 metres.

"With the wind chill, I have already experienced temperatures down to -50C, but it can get colder than that, down to -70C in mid-winter."

Working by herself in the lab doesn't bother her, she says, as she's aware what impact the sometimes tedious work means for the world.

"I'm passionate about science and this job gives me the opportunity to contribute hands-on to some incredible science that is shared around the world."

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 25 Oct 2016 12:58:23 Processing Time: 721ms