NIWA kicks off busy season in Antarctica


NIWA scientists are this week making the final preparations for one of the organisation’s busiest summers at Antarctica.

About a dozen NIWA scientists and researchers are heading to the ice from next week to work on several projects, including examining crystals that form in the extremely cold water of the ice shelf, studying the biodiversity on the sea floor and ensuring atmospheric monitoring instruments are working properly.

Continuing greenhouse gases and ozone focus

This weekend principal atmospheric technician Dan Smale heads to Arrival Heights, near Scott Base. There, in a small laboratory which houses equipment for atmospheric measurements, he will carry out specialised annual maintenance and calibration. These instruments make important measurements of greenhouse gases and trace gases such as ozone.

Mr Smale will also train two new technicians to run and maintain the instruments. One will be based on the ice for summer, while the other will remain for a full year. In January atmospheric technicians Gordon Brailsford and Mike Kotkamp will also go to Arrival Heights for further maintenance and replacement of specialised parts. Mr Brailsford has been to Antarctica almost every year since 1992, and says the harsh climate means jobs take longer to complete, and must be fitted in around the weather.

“You’ve got to be a jack of all trades, make sure your gear is all in good working order and give yourself longer to do the job. But it’s a fantastic environment.”

Looking at coastal biodiversity

Meanwhile, specialist divers Drew Lohrer, Rod Budd and Peter Marriott head to Cape Evans on October 17 where they will undertake a MBIE-funded coastal biodiversity study in collaboration with the University of Canterbury and the Korea Polar Research Institute (KOPRI). The divers will be videoing the sea floor, collecting samples and making a number of measurements. After Cape Evans, they will travel to the Korean base, Jang Bogo Station at Terra Nova Bay. Dr Lohrer said there was a growing need for long-term data from all over Antarctica in areas with different sea ice conditions.

The visit also marks the start of a New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI) project focusing on the resilience of Antarctica biota and ecosystems that will continue through 2019.

How ice shelves melt

On October 20, marine physicist Dr Natalie Robinson heads south for her Marsden-funded project to look at ice crystals that form between the ice shelf and sea ice. Dr Robinson is leading a team of five trying to better understand why sea ice is expanding at Antarctica and how ice shelves will melt as the ocean warms. 

“One of the outstanding challenges of climate modelling is to get the trends in the growth of Antarctic sea ice correct and this is what we think we can contribute to,” Dr Robinson says.

The team will set up a camp comprising eight shipping containers about 50km from Scott Base, and travel to several different sites to make the measurements. They will drill holes in the ice and measure the size of the crystals that form as water becomes supercool – or colder than freezing – when it rises towards the surface. This super cold water contributes to thickening of sea ice, especially near the coast. Dr Robinson will test how the crystals affect turbulence and heat transfer in the upper ocean.

With her will be NIWA marine physics technician Brett Grant, a veteran Antarctic visitor, part of whose job will be to ensure all equipment is working and ready to go each day they are there. Two other specialist staff will also accompany them, along with artist Gabby O’Connor, making her second visit to the ice.

One of the containers at the camp will operate as her studio. While she will also be contributing to the science taking place, she will be photographing the crystals and building on the work she did last year.

Dr Robinson’s team returns in late November. Then, in early December oceanographer Dr Craig Stevens will be working on the McMurdo Ice Shelf as part of an NZARI programme led by Christina Hulbe from the University of Otago with colleagues from Victoria University of Wellington. 

Theirs will be a test expedition to develop and prove methods for the main expedition in a year’s time to put a sampling hole through the centre of the Ross Ice Shelf to look at melting processes affecting large ice shelves.  This will be the first such expedition of its kind on the Ross Ice Shelf since the 1970s.

Multi marine measurements

Marine physics technician Fiona Elliott will be aboard the Korean Icebreaker IBRV Araon during February helping maintain NIWA's instrumented science moorings. These are lines of instruments that sample through the year capturing precision data on currents, temperatures and salinities. She will also be collecting ocean mixing data along the front of the Ross Ice Shelf along with US and Korean colleagues. The work is supported by NZARI/MBIE funding as well as the Korean vessel support. 


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Dr Natalie Robinson and Brett Grant and Gabby O'Connor - finding out how ice crystals form under the ice. [Photo: Dave Allen, NIWA]