Icy reception for Antarctic season opening

The Scott Base team removing the Sea Ice Mass Balance Station during COVID Photo by Jamie Mc Gaw
21 October 2022

By Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Sarah Williamson

There’s nothing quite like an Antarctic polar blast hitting Aotearoa to remind everyone season opening is upon us.

As temperatures plummeted earlier this month bringing unseasonal snow, here in Christchurch it was rather fitting. We were in the middle of Days of Ice.

The festival takes place every year to celebrate Ōtautahi’s Gateway City status and the opening of the summer science season.

Talks, educational activities, science, history, a family day and more was on offer across the city and Selwyn showcasing our unique connection with the white continent.

It was great to see so many locals experiencing their own taste of Antarctica and connecting with the work that happens there.

Over the last month, it’s been pleasing to see many international Antarcticans enjoying Christchurch’s hospitality while they prepare to head south. There’s also been a lot of plane spotting action on the Operation Deep Freeze apron at Christchurch International Airport.

The NZAF Boeing 757 has been in and out of Christchurch after starting main body flights and the USAF C-17 has been parked up on the tarmac.

There was plenty to celebrate at Days of Ice, especially after last year’s line-up was canned (twice) due to the pandemic.

The cancellation was yet another reminder of how disruptive COVID-19 has been. Our programme was not immune.

To keep the virus off the continent we had to limit the number of people travelling there and develop a strictly managed isolation plan.

During the 20/21 season, we worked hard to support long-term science monitoring programmes, some of which have been in place since 1957, to ensure these important datasets continued.

This also meant getting a little creative where we could to keep experiments ticking over.

We were lucky to have some amazing staff at Scott Base who, after phone calls, Zoom meetings and detailed instructions from scientists, were able to collect data and move equipment.

For the first time ever, our team retrieved the Sea Ice Mass Balance Station, which measures the thickness, temperature and formation of the ice, on behalf of scientists.

The seasonal growth and melt of sea ice is one of the largest geophysical processes on earth, and this station has been measuring it for over 20 years.

I’m always impressed with the work our long-term science programmes undertake each year, which is supported by our Scott Base science technicians.

Some of their equipment looks pretty old school, but these records began in the early to mid-1900s.

Measuring weather, climate, atmosphere, sea ice, soil, biology, sea levels, space weather and populations, these programmes are part of important global networks.

While they may seem far away, the data they collect has a greater impact on Kiwis than what many might think.

Take the Scott Base Geomagnetic Observatory for example. Now operated by GNS Science, it’s been going since 1957 and is one of the most important observatories in the world due to its proximity to the South Pole.

Every time you open a map on your phone, you are using data collected from there.

As well as smartphone orientation, geomagnetic measurements from Scott Base are used for air and ship navigation, aurora forecasting, and modelling the Earth's geological and geophysical activity.

Since the 80s, teams have been using different technology to monitor the hole in the ozone layer.

From Scott Base to space – we’re supporting University of Otago scientists who monitor space weather. This improves our knowledge of climate change and lightning.

This work is also helping to develop a warning system for explosions on the sun, known as solar flares, which disrupt communication systems and aviation navigation used globally.

Established in 1957, the Scott Base tide gauge is the longest running on the continent. Each year Toitū Te Whenua collects the data to understand sea level trends, a hot topic with climate change.

Next year, New Zealanders will fill out their forms as part of the five-yearly census. This season we will conduct our own annual census – Adélie penguins from the air.

That, combined with NIWA’s toothfish survey, helps to tell us how healthy the Ross Sea ecosystem is.

A series of soil monitoring stations at Scott Base and the McMurdo Dry Valleys have been in place for over 20 years, and weather recordings date back to 1957.

This data, along with the other science that operates from base, helps tell us how the environment is changing as the world warms.

We had another good reason to celebrate Days of Ice this year. It will be the first full science season since the COVID pandemic. So, it was fitting to have the Minister of Foreign Affairs the Hon. Nanaia Mahuta in Christchurch for the final reception and to formally open the season.

We will have another special visitor travel to Scott Base with us next week.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will visit the base for four days to see the critical research undertaken by Kiwis on the ice. The visit will also celebrate Scott Base’s 65th year.

We’re looking forward to showing her long-term and seasonal science, and how it can help New Zealand better plan for a climate changed future.