We are back from Antarctica – at least physically, as I am still struggling to come back to reality… It was an absolutely special time on the ice with PCAS (the Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies). Teaching these passionate students about Antarctica has been the most rewarding experience of my life, and is the major stimulus to bringing my PhD project to completion. We were all very very lucky to have the privilege of going to the icy continent together ! I have received many questions regarding our trip, so here is a little Q&A session of the top 10:
What did you do in Antarctica ?
“10 incredible days in the most beautiful place I have ever seen. 15 students from 5 different countries had the trip of a lifetime through studying a Post Graduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies (PCAS) that made dreams into reality, taking us down to the icy wonderland of Ross Island. From building snow pits, to surveying seals, to recording weather to countless belly laughs and hiking in humongous boots- words still can’t even describe our experience. Science really is just measurable magic” – Chloe Marine (PCAS student)
Where did you stay ?
We stayed a few days at Scott Base on Ross Island. This is New Zealand’s only permanent presence in Antarctica. The base is built similar to a space station and consists of a long corridor with rooms to either side. It is relatively warm and you can wear normal clothes inside. After the Antarctic Field Training, we were allowed to leave Scott Base and travelled approximately 20 km East to Windless Bight. Here we slept in pyramid-shaped Scott Polar tents, used trenches as kitchens, set-up weather stations, dug snow pits and pulled ice-cores. Wearing thick down jackets, huge rubber boots and snow goggles made us feel like “ice-tronauts” on an icy planet.
What did you find in the ice ? A UFO ?
Unfortunately we didn’t find a UFO as in the popular Antarctic science-fiction movie “The Thing”. Our field trip takes place at approximately the same location every year. Last year’s PCAS group installed a scientific instrument that kept recording data throughout the winter. However, it was buried under almost 2 metres of snow and we had to find it using GPS and then to dig it out of the snow (which took us two evenings). I was so happy to see that little green light flashing inside the logger box – there is an awesome new dataset !
How cold was it ?
We were really lucky with the weather and just experienced one cloudy day. Air temperatures never went significantly below -15 degrees Celsius, but with a gusty wind from the Ross Ice Shelf it felt a lot colder. Temperatures on the ice can’t climb above 0 degrees Celsius, as that’s when snow and ice start to melt. Surface melting consumes most of the incoming solar radiation and leaves no energy to warm up the atmosphere around us.
What did you eat ?
At Scott Base you can theoretically eat five times per day (breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner). You eat so much to stay healthy and to have little toolbox meetings while eating. The food is delicious, with occasional Fish’n Chip Fridays, English breakfast on Sundays and 24/7 cookies in the bottom drawer (if you know which one). In the field, we ate oats for breakfast, crackers with tuna or sandwiches for lunch and freeze-dried meals for dinner. Some students even found the time to cook Chili-con-carne and sticky-date pudding in the evening – thanks for sharing guys ! Antarctica is not the place to be on a diet.
Did you see any wildlife ?
Yes !!! We were really excited to see so many animals around Scott Base and the American McMurdo station. Killer and minke whales, Adelie and Emperor penguins, Weddell seals and Skua birds were not particularly shy. My favourite animal was, however, a tardigrade under the microscope at McMurdo’s waste water plant. They are commonly known as “Winnie-the-poo-bear” and are water-dwelling, eight-legged micro-animals and the most resilient known animals on Earth.
Why is the ice melting, if Antarctica is so cold ?
Most of Antarctica’s ice is not melting at the surface. The ice mass is lost through calving off icebergs and melting of ice when it gets in contact with the ocean. We are currently just at the beginning of fully understanding these mechanisms. Our main problem is that ice-ocean interaction is a very complicated process and ground measurements are scarce. Satellites are clearly the way forward because they provide continental-wide coverage. But they are also far away from the ice surface, which makes interpretation of satellite data difficult. That’s why scientists will always have to go to Antarctica to validate their results.
How come we don’t know how much ice is melting ?
There are estimates about how much ice is discharged to the ocean and contributing to global sea-level rise. These numbers change every year – which is a result of refined computer models, improved understanding of the climate system and an increase in ground-truth measurements. Our main uncertainties are how much snow is actually falling in Antarctica and how thick the ice is along the Antarctic coastline. Estimates about water input from Antarctica to the ocean is then used by oceanographers and earth-system modellers to predict future sea-level rise with confidence. This information is then given to policy makers who hopefully guide us to the right path.
I read in the news that there is more ice in Antarctica – what’s the problem ?
This is a very common misunderstanding. In Antarctica, we find three different types of ice: (1) the Western and Eastern Antarctic ice-sheets, which are up to 4 km thick and are a result of snow-fall on the continent and further compaction of snow to ice, (2) ice-shelves which are the floating extensions of the ice-sheets on the ocean. They can also be kilometres thick and are very important to the ice-sheets, because of their buttressing effect (like a cork in a bottle) and (3) sea-ice which is simply frozen ocean water and only a couple of metres thick. Unlike ice-sheets and ice-shelves, sea-ice is not directly contributing to sea-level rise when it melts (it is like an ice-cube in a glass – the water level doesn’t change if it melts). However, satellites have shown that there is more and more sea-ice around Antarctica every year, but less and less sea-ice in the Arctic. The question why is at the heart of an ongoing discussion across the science community.
How does it feel to be back from PCAS ?
“The past 3 months of our PCAS (Post Graduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies) course would not have been the same if it wasn’t for all of you incredibly wonderful people. I’ve formed some lifelong friendships, heard some of the best one liners and jokes of my life, and probably shed enough tears to fill a (pee) barrel from all the laughter, joy and sad goodbyes. To be surrounded by such amazing and inspiring like-minded people who all share such a powerful passion for life and the natural world is something so unbelievably special, and to say I’m going to miss you all is an understatement. I’m beyond sad to leave the PCAS family, but I know I’ll be forever smiling about all the wonderful memories we’ve shared. ” – Chloe Marine (PCAS student)