Health and Safety and the journey across the world’s largest ice shelf

Siple Coast traverese Jono Leitch
28 April 2021

Every year Antarctica New Zealand staff traverse over 1000km across the world’s largest ice shelf, to an area called the Siple Coast. Not only is the route cold and remote, it’s also dotted with crevasses.

For the outsider, this journey sounds like a health and safety minefield, but the processes, planning and procedures guided by our health and safety principals help our team navigate the challenges.

Operations Solutions Manager Johno Leitch explains

We’ve successfully completed four traverses to the Siple Coast, I’ll start from the beginning.

The scientists wanted to get to the Siple Coast for research purposes, we had two options by aircraft, or by overland traverse. It’s kind of like the tortoise and the hare.

The aircraft can get there in a few hours, but the aircraft might encounter a month-long delay because you’ve got to have the weather aligning in three locations, and aircraft are limited from a cargo and fuel perspective, and we needed that hardware out there. An overland traverse is like the tortoise, you take 15 days to get there and the risks are different.

In the past our model utilised aircraft, and that’s easy because you hire external experts who take care of many of the aircraft related risks. But we knew pretty quickly we had to get traverse capability to support this science.

The easy bit was buying the kit and the vehicles to get us out there, the route was the tricky part to navigate, along with developing great people to support a safe and successful traverse.

We looked at the Ross Ice Shelf, this huge thing, and for selecting a safe route contracted Dr Dan Price from the University of Canterbury to lead the process, which involved consultation with the international science community to utilise years of experience studying the dynamics of the Ice Shelf. The use of remote sensing technology played a key part, we used satellite radar imagery to detect crevasses allowing the safest route to be selected remotely, before we set out across the Ice Shelf.

It was pretty scary when we first saw the satellite radar imagery of the sub surface crevasses. You can wander around out there and see nothing but flat white, but from the satellite every little bridged crevasse shows up.

We also researched what other programmes do, the British, Australians, Germans and the Americans, and how they assessed their own traverse activities. In an ideal world you’d go straight to your location in the shortest route, but we had three crevassed shear zones (areas of extreme pressure and movement in the Ice Shelf) to get past. In collaboration with the US National Science Foundation it was decided to use the South Pole route, a proven route, go south over the Crary Ice Rise (CIR) to avoid the second shear zone, and then north to get through the third. Not the most direct route, but the safest.

Once we had the proposed route using the remote sensing technology, we then needed to prove the safest route on the Ice Shelf itself. This was done using GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) on a boom in front of the lead vehicle to ground test what the satellites are telling us, and for an extra layer of protection. This is to keep everyone safe through the shear zones, we couldn’t be too careful.


It’s critical to get our recruitment right, getting people with the right attitude to fit with our culture, and critical thinkers with an understanding of the risks. We put a lot of effort into that, and to develop procedures and training. It’s not just about getting experienced individuals; sometimes new people bring in diverse experience and help us constantly make improvements. We need to make sure we’ve got a likeminded team with a mix of skills, allowing them to cope in a unique work and living environment with many risks. It’s a very dynamic environment that we can’t control, so the team out there has to make safe decisions. We need to ensure there’s no complacency in the team decision making, as the risks aren’t always obvious with all the buried crevasses. The team also need to be very mindful of fatigue, as the workload and challenges facing the team varies for each person as they move across the ice shelf.


We use our Health and Safety reporting system to catch every incident, no matter how minor. While the team are out there they report every incident, or near miss. These are entered into our HSE system for review and investigation, and to check for emerging trends. We then review all of them again at the end of the season as well. It helps us understand why something was missed, or why it happened.

Still learning

Although we’ve managed this safely for the last four years, we are continuously implementing smarter ways of working. The Living Module is a great example of this, this is vital for wellbeing and sustainability. The first time we went out the team was living out of the traverse vehicle cabins, now we’ve got this specially designed green caravan, which makes it a much more sustainable experience for the team. We are very aware of needing to take care of our people out there as they are our greatest asset.

The traverse isn’t the only challenging logistics operation in Antarctica, there’s the Priestly Glacier work further north in Terra Nova Bay and the work up on Mt Erebus, as well as our day to day business from Scott Base. When researchers come up with a new location, or new field sites they want to visit, the last thing we want to say is ‘no you can’t do it’, but we have to find ways to do it safely, or adjust the location slightly to be able to execute it in a safe manner.

Caring for each other and the environment is one of Antarctica New Zealand’s core values, and the systems and process in place for the traverse is just one example of how we live this value to prevent harm to our people and places.