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A Cool Experience in Antarctica

hero-experience-in-Antarctica

In my role as chair of the Sustainable Business Council as well as CEO of Toyota in New Zealand, I spent a week as a guest of Antarctica New Zealand in February.

It was a time when New Zealand’s presence in Antarctica was a news highlight with the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Scott Base, accompanied by TEDx talks and a series of celebratory events.

HISTORY

The Antarctic was the last continent to be explored by mankind (and consequently is a place where humans have had relatively little impact). The great age of exploration started in 1895 with the first landing (the continent was only first sighted in 1820) and continued into the early years of the 20th century. Perhaps the most famous exploit was the contest between Briton Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen of Norway, as they each raced to be the first person to reach the South Pole in 1911. In the end the Norwegian won by just 34 days, and the dejected Scott and his team perished on the way home. It is after him that New Zealand’s base is named.

But of almost equal fame are the adventures of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led three expeditions to the continent, including one in 1909 when he almost reached the Pole, but sensibly turned back to ensure survival. As his wife Emily recorded later: “The only comment he made to me about not reaching the Pole was, 'A live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn't it?' and I said, 'Yes darling, as far as I am concerned '.”

But his most famous expedition was the ultimately unsuccessful Trans- Antarctic Expedition in 1914-17. His ship Endurance was trapped and then destroyed by ice in the Weddell Sea, forcing the crew to camp on moving ice floes for over a year. However, they were unable to make land so eventually abandoned their attempt at a trans-Antarctic crossing and headed for Elephant Island in three lifeboats. They traversed the 557 kilometres in five harrowing days in the South Atlantic Ocean – and when they arrived on Elephant Island it was the first time they had been on land in 497 days. The problem was that no one knew where they were and Elephant Island was far from any shipping route.

So Shackleton and five companions decided to take one of the lifeboats (just six metres long) and head for the whaling station at South Georgia, 720 nautical miles away. Just over two weeks later they made it (a remarkable feat of navigation) and survived a hurricane that sank a 500-ton steamer in the vicinity. The next challenge was that they arrived on the uninhabited side of the island and had to call on their mountaineering skills to get over to the whaling station – this island traverse was not repeated for another 40 years. Shackleton then made four attempts to rescue the remaining team on Elephant Island, being foiled on his first three by sea ice. But eventually, four months after he’d left them, he rescued all 22, who understandably were sick of seal meat and many other privations. This is one of the greatest adventure stories – told in a gripping book called Endurance by Alfred Lansing.

New Zealand’s connections with many of the adventures came through our nation being a base for the exploration of the continent – South America and New Zealand offered explorers the last suitable landfalls for restocking supplies before setting off to an inhospitable land. And of course Sir Edmund Hillary also contributed to one of the great explorations in the mid-1950’s. The Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition achieved what Shackleton had failed to do – make the first overland crossing of the continent. It was led by Vivian Fuchs, who started from the South American side, while Sir Ed started from the New Zealand side. Sir Ed’s role was to set up supply depots from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole, which Fuchs could use on the second leg. In fact, the New Zealand team reached the South Pole a few weeks earlier than Fuchs, and thus became the first land-based expedition to reach the Pole since Scott 46 years previously.

My adventures in the frozen continent were much more modest.

MY EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

I flew down on a United States Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster – a massive plane with four jet engines that covered the 3,500km in a little over five hours. It was clearly a plane for carrying cargo – no sound deadening, no windows and the seats were simple frames along the side of the fuselage. The massive central hold was full of equipment on pallets.

We landed on the ice shelf and the first impression on leaving the plane was the whiteness – it is bright and flat and seemingly goes forever (I later discovered that the Ross Ice Shelf is the size of France). Slightly concerned for our plane sitting on floating ice I enquired as to its thickness – 800m was the response!

The second impression was the contrasting environment – it was a cloudless day and the conditions seemed mild, even benign. But within five minutes I was starting to appreciate the latent hostility of the continent.

The biting cold on any exposed skin, the glare that seared your eyeballs if you took off your sunglasses or goggles, the rugged conditions underfoot, and over it all the haunting presence of Hägglunds Erebus, which overlooks Scott Base and seems like a mild hill until you remember that you are at sea level and it is the size of Mt Cook – it is 40km away but seems much closer in the clear Antarctic air.

On arrival at Scott Base we were immediately given health and safety briefings, especially with respect to fire as not only is it a big risk in this driest of continents, but the normal escape of going outside is hardly recommended when the temperature might kill you if you are under-dressed for the weather.

The health and safety theme continued the next morning when we experienced several hours of survival field training (compulsory for all visitors). Before leaving New Zealand I had been provided with a massive amount of protective clothing: long johns, polar fleece trousers, water and windproof overalls, woollen socks, two different types of boot depending on conditions, polo top, two different types of jacket, balaclava, hat, goggles, four different types of gloves, etc. The whole point was that you could adjust your clothing to the weather and the types of task you had to do, although once dressed in ‘Michelin Man’ Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear, just moving around was a challenge. In our training we literally learned how to survive for several days if something went wrong and we were stuck out on the ice in inclement weather. Whenever people left the base (even if only to drive to the neighbouring United States McMurdo Station, just 3km away), taking a radio and checking in at various points was compulsory. Also compulsory was an obsession with leaving no environmental footprint – all food and human solid waste is taken back to New Zealand (liquid waste is treated before being pumped back into the sea).

That means when one is out on the ice one takes a pee-bottle and poo-bucket to ensure collection! One also must stay hydrated in such a dry environment – everyone carries water bottles with the helpful message of ‘Hydrate or Die’ emblazoned on the sides.

It is said that the English love to discuss the weather, but in the Antarctic the concept is taken to a whole new level, as survival depends on understanding what is happening and how to handle the climate. Around the base (and most helpfully in the locker room where one changes from jeans and a t-shirt into outdoor gear) there are signs showing the outside temperature and wind chill factor. It transpires that there are three basic conditions, the most dangerous of which, Condition One, which means limited visibility and the prospect of frostbite (i.e. dead flesh) on any exposed skin in less than five minutes. We enjoyed Condition Three for our visit, which meant frostbite could be staved off for at least half an hour and most days visibility seemed only limited by the curvature of the Earth.

It turned out that this survival training was not just to ensure compliance with New Zealand’s legal responsibilities – we did indeed have to survive on the ice, as part of our visit included a night outside! Actually to call it a night is an exaggeration as the sun doesn’t set until late February. However, four visitors (plus a couple of experienced personnel) were dispatched in a Hägglunds caterpillar vehicle to spend a night 10km apart from most creature comforts. Three of the team cut themselves ice caves using blocks they cut out to create walls to shelter them from the wind. This was all a bit daunting for me (being somewhat less macho than my companions) so I chose to pitch a tent on the ice, and sleep in that (encased in three sleeping bags, I managed seven hours of sleep, far better than I expected!).

Another highlight was visiting one of the historic huts on Ross Island. Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, from which he mounted his second expedition (when he nearly reached the Pole) has been restored to something close to its original state by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. As part of the restoration (which took eight summers to complete) three crates of Mackinlay’s whisky (and two of brandy) were discovered under the floor. One crate was sent to Canterbury Museum for thawing and conservation. From there three bottles were sent to Scotland for scientific analysis by Whyte & Mackay (the owner of the Mackinlay’s brand).

They subsequently issued a limited edition replica of the historic whisky based on the results of their analysis (a small bottle retails for £135). The original crate has been returned to the underfloor storage at Shackleton’s Hut.

WILDLIFE

In the course of my visit I saw Adélie penguins (slightly smaller than the famous Emperor) which were delightful in their antics as they crossed the ice floes together. They would waddle along (at quite a pace) in single file and when they came to an obstacle, such as a gap in the ice, they would consult one another before tackling the challenge.

One would get through and then check on the next companion and so on until all had navigated the obstacle. Cooperative community in action.

I was also lucky enough to see pods of killer whales (orcas) porpoising along channels between the ice. Their power, grace and speed were spectacular and I was fortunate not to see any violence towards seals that would have marred the experience of their beauty.

In the immediate vicinity of Scott Base the most common wildlife were seals, of which many sunned themselves on the ice directly in front of the base. Where the ice shelf butts up against the island, huge pressure ridges build up creating wave-like shapes along with multiple fissures and cracks. The seals can come out of the water to sun themselves in relative safety but can easily get back in the water to fish or cool off.

Our party ventured into the pressure ridges one morning. It was quite an adventure as it is a relatively unstable location with the ice of varying thicknesses. We had both a 2m pole and a 1m drill (perhaps the ultimate power tool) to test ice thickness and strength. As the pictures testify, some spectacular ice formations are created under the pressure of a glacier against the land.

THE AMERICANS 

New Zealand’s Scott Base is located just 3km from the American McMurdo Station, which is about 10 times the size. There is massive cooperation between the two operations. New Zealand is basically dependent on ships bringing fuel and equipment, and regular US air support delivering fresh food, people, and other supplies. At the same time the US gets great cooperation from Christchurch Airport and Lyttelton Port as staging posts and the two bases are constantly working together.

A perfect example of that was seen with the three Meridian windmills that sit on the ridge behind Scott Base. For practical reasons these feed power to the US base, but in return for this free feed of power from a New Zealand power facility the Americans provide us with a supply of their diesel fuel stock.

In a harsh environment, cooperation is the best strategy to both survive and enhance the science work.

On touring Arrival Heights, where much of the atmospheric research takes place (including the monitoring of the ozone hole), the American operations are housed in New Zealand’s more modern building and thus bring a whole extra level of equipment and scientific expertise to the table.

Also critical to survival on the ice are links to the outside world – both air and sea. Although New Zealand has its own helicopters, planes and land transport (including a number of Toyota Landcruisers), the airfields on the ice shelf and the roads around Ross Island and on to the ice shelf are largely maintained by the Americans.

McMurdo also has a dock that in summer allows for supply ships to bring in bulk equipment, fuel and supplies.

The dock is basically constructed from ice and access is determined by sea- ice thickness and the ability of icebreakers to keep a sea channel open.

While there, I had an opportunity to visit a fuel supply ship and see the icebreaker in action. The scale of these operations is daunting and New Zealand benefits greatly from its location adjacent to a much larger base.

GEOGRAPHY

Antarctica is 14 million square kilometres which makes it twice the size of Australia and 30 per cent bigger than Europe. It is 98 per cent covered in ice sheet that averages about 1.6km thick. This constitutes about 70 per cent of the world’s fresh water – if it all were to melt, the sea level would rise about 60m devastating most of the world’s cities.

Large sections of the surrounding sea are covered in ice shelves – where glaciers have pushed out over the sea. One of the largest and closest to New Zealand is the Ross Ice Shelf, which is roughly the size of France. In winter, sea ice also forms, which makes the continent even bigger and icebreakers are required to carve through it to make landfall. The sea ice makes no difference to sea-level rise as it is formed from the sea itself. The potential sea-level rise comes from the glaciers coming off the ice sheet to form ice shelves and then melting.

The continent is the driest on Earth with 200 millilitres of annual rainfall on the coast and far less inland. The temperatures can be quite cold, with -63 degrees Celsius being the average in winter. For my visit it was a relatively balmy -10 to -15 degrees on most days. The wind is the challenge – it can drop the effective temperature dramatically knocking anything up to 20 degrees off the ambient temperature.

The continent is surprisingly high (the highest average elevation of any continent) – much of it is over 3,500m above sea-level, with the highest peak at almost 5,000m. For Kiwis, Mt Erebus is etched on our consciousness – it is the largest volcano on the continent and is about the same height as Mt Cook.

The Antarctic Treaty basically commits nations to using the Antarctic for scientific and peaceful purposes. Not every nation has signed up to the treaty, but other than science there is only a small tourism and fishing presence, both conducted from outside Antarctica. During summer there are around 5,000 scientists and support staff on the continent at 70 research facilities from 30 countries; in winter (when it is dark 24/7) the number drops below 1,000. At New Zealand’s Scott Base this year only 11 are wintering over.

New Zealand’s presence in Antarctica dates back to 1957 when Sir Edmund Hillary established Scott Base close to the US McMurdo Station on Ross Island. The island, 3,800km due south from Christchurch, is in the Ross Sea close to the edge of the ice shelf, on which the aircraft shipping people and supplies from New Zealand land several times each week during the summer.

THE SCIENCE

The overwhelming activity undertaken at Scott Base is supporting scientific research. Each summer around 100 scientists travel to Antarctica to conduct various research projects and Antarctica New Zealand’s role is to provide support for them. During the winter there is continuing research in the form of data gathering, but the scientific programme is heavily curtailed while it is dark. There are too many projects underway to describe them all, but many are related to understanding mankind’s impact on the planet.

There are a number of projects relating to the Ross Ice Shelf (which is not only the largest in Antarctica but also important as a major extension of the ice sheet that covers most of the land mass). Understanding how rising air and sea temperatures (along with the acidification of the sea itself) affects on this massive body of ice is critical to our future on the planet.

Some of this research is looking at what is currently happening, but some is also focused on understanding how stable the ice shelf is over a long period of geological time (when the planet has undergone similar climate changes to what we now face in coming decades).

Although Antarctica is largely covered in ice, some parts are relatively ice free – the nearby McMurdo Dry Valleys are a case in point. Here scientists are trying to understand how fragile ecosystems can survive the hostile conditions and how they will handle future climate changes. There is also a significant amount of work taking place under the ice to understand the impacts of ocean changes (in temperature and acidification) on the marine ecosystem.

There is also an extensive body of research into the atmosphere, most notably a continuous monitoring of the hole in the ozone layer. The ozone in the atmosphere is what helps to protect the planet from over 95 per cent of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. Although the amount of ozone in the atmosphere moves around the planet due to temperature change and high-altitude winds, it was discovered more than 40 years ago that some of the chemicals in aerosols were depleting the total supply of ozone. In 1985 a major hole in the ozone layer was discovered above Antarctica. Within just a few years most nations of the world had taken action (the Montreal Protocol) to eliminate the numerous chemical substances causing ozone depletion. The result of combined global action has been a partial recovery of the situation; today the ozone hole still exists above Antarctica, but its presence is now just a matter of months each year when climatic conditions cause the hole to re-open. The progress that has been made gives one hope that similar action can avert a climate change crisis.

LIFE IN ANTARCTICA

The team at Scott Base are a mixture – there are scientists visiting to conduct research and study for brief periods before returning to their universities, Crown research institute or NIWA. There are a significant number of staff supporting that work: cooks, domestics (who keep the place clean and tidy), field trainers, engineers (who keep equipment operating) and a variety of other support services.

The total headcount can vary between 11 (in the winter) to well over 100 (in the summer). At any one time, there will be scientists living out on the ice doing their research – they may not return to base for a number of days so they need to be supported remotely.

Remote locations may be supported by helicopter, ski-equipped Hercules aircraft and, Hägglund or a pisten bully. The last is a caterpillar equipped monster that can not only plough snow and transport half a dozen people in relative comfort, but also tow several containers that are effectively fully equipped mobile laboratories.

Of course for simple work around the base, travelling to McMurdo or even going out to the airfield on the ice shelf, a Toyota Landcruiser is ideal. Equipped with strong door hinges (the wind can be so severe it will rip a door off), grates to scrape snow off your feet, a heater to keep the engine warm when not operating and a change of fuel to avoid freezing, the vehicle is perfect.

Scott Base itself is a series of green buildings connected by enclosed corridors and ramps. The colour green is reputedly due to an early visit by a designer coming from an English village where the houses were white in a green countryside; he thought that green buildings in a white landscape would make a nice contrast. The linkage of buildings means that many people can complete a day’s work without stepping outside. Inside the base the temperature is a constant 18 degrees, so jeans and t-shirts are normal wear.

In contrast McMurdo is a disparate group of buildings and to move from a dormitory to a meal to an office means multiple changes in buildings and consequently many changes in clothing.

The staff sleep in dormitories: four to a room with communal bathrooms and eating. The cooks put on three meals a day with good, wholesome food (again a contrast to McMurdo where burgers and pizzas seem to be common fare). There is a strong focus on avoiding waste so a meal may be repeated over several days: what may be beef steak one night could be a stew on a subsequent night.

Everyone does their own dishes and there is a real sense of community as everyone eats together and shares what is happening in their particular role.

That sense of community carries on into recreational activities – with a limited amount of connectivity to the outside world, the team are very proactive in finding ways to build participation and enjoyment into their non-work hours. Many of the summer staff will be involved in outdoor activities like mountain biking and even skiing – a number of enterprising Kiwis have established a small ski field on the side of Ross Island, complete with its own ski tow.

However, for health and safety reasons the traditional ice dip (appropriately roped) is now a thing of the past.

In summary this is an amazing continent and there is inspirational work being done by Antarctic New Zealand to facilitate science in this most remote and at times hostile location.

Thanks to Antarctica New Zealand for arranging and hosting this visit.