Antarctica: More than just penguins

The South Island may be know around these parts as ‘the mainland’, but the 1000 scientists descending on Auckland last week had their sights set on even higher latitudes: Antarctica. New Zealand hosted the biennial Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) conference from August 25-28, attracting glaciologists, biologists, geologists and astrophysicists from all around the globe. Their talks had titles that mentioned sub-glacial lakes, penguin guano, and ‘alien invasions’, but all had the frozen continent in common.

Often depicted as an icy wasteland, Antarctica is in fact a treasure trove of information about the past of our planet. Uncovering that knowledge via fossil records, ice cores and microbiology can help scientists to understand the world we live in, and to predict what will happen far into the future.

While Antarctica’s very low precipitation rate means it is technically a desert, the kilometres of ice that coat the continent hide a labyrinth of sub-glacial lakes and rivers. These cold, dark lakes have been isolated for thousands of years, which, as Trista Vick-Majors from Montana State University explained, make them “great analogue environments for life on other planets.” Research undertaken in Antarctica can therefore tell us both about our own planet, and others in our wider solar system.

‘Alien invasions’ also got a mention at the conference, but in a much more local context. Using the words ‘alien’ and ‘Antarctica’ in the same sentence may bring to mind images from John Carpenter’s film ‘The Thing’, but the introduction of non-native species to Antarctica from other parts of the world is a real threat. Those ‘aliens’ include seeds, insects, and – arachnophobes beware – spiders. Melissa Houghton presented a poster with her findings that a total of 7 house spiders were detected at Australia’s Antarctic stations in the season studied, much to the horror the scientists who had headed south in the hope of avoiding any encounters with 8 legged critters during their 6-18 month stays.

Remote sensing offers one way to find out more about Antarctica without going to very out of the way places, reducing both research costs and the risk of introducing pests such as the dreaded spider. Dr Wolfgang Rack from the University of Canterbury travels to Scott Base each summer to make measurements of sea ice thickness using the EM-bird, a torpedo-shaped device that is suspended beneath a helicopter and emits electromagnetic pulses. When the pulses hit water beneath the sea ice they send back a signal, allowing his team to measure sea ice thickness without manually drilling through the ice in every location.

Satellites are also a useful tool for measuring the extent of the annual Antarctic sea ice, for creating detailed maps, and even for helping penguin biologists to determine what the birds have been eating. Casey Youngflesh from Stony Brook University explained that penguins that eat fish produce white guano, while krill eaters’ excrement is pink. He hopes to combine on-the-ground research with satellite imagery to learn more about the creatures that star in ‘Happy Feet’.

Joseph Hatch, one time NZ MP (1884-1887) and penguin harvesting entrepreneur also made an appearance in a presentation by the Tasmanian literature scholar Dr Elizabeth Leane. Hatch rendered King penguins on Macquarie Island for their oil, leading to public outcry over the cruel methods and spawning the first celebrity environmental campaign, supported by such polar heroes as Sir Douglas Mawson and Frank Hurley. Dr Leane’s presentation highlighted the history of human engagement with Antarctica and reminded the audience that humanities and social sciences scholars also have an important role to play when examining both Antarctic histories and futures.

Although science and narrative are often thought of as polar opposites, a central theme of this Antarctic conference was communication. Science is the currency of Antarctica, as the Antarctic Treaty of 1961 designates the continent as a place for peace and science, but that research does not happen in a vacuum. Instead, the public are important stakeholders. When many maps simply stop at 60 degrees south, however, Antarctica is simply not on their radar. Paul Morin is trying to change that, and has worked with a team to add several Antarctic sites to google streetview. It is now possible to take a tour of Scott’s hut or the US McMurdo Station from the comfort of your own home, and gain an insight into the history and science.

The next SCAR meeting will take place in two years in Kuala Lumpur, but the upcoming summer Antarctic field season is fast approaching. With the ‘Icefest’ Antarctic festival due to open in Christchurch on 27 September, we can expect to hear plenty more about ‘The Ice’ in future.

The upcoming Icefest Antarctic festival in Christchurch, which opens on 27 September, will incorporate displays about much of the scientific work presented at the SCAR conference. http://www.iceberg.co.nz

Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, which designates the continent as a place for peace and science. The treaty came into effect in 1961 after being signed by 12 nations, including New Zealand, who are known as the ‘original signatories’. Several annexes have been added over the years, including CCAMLR to govern fishing in the Southern Ocean, CCAS to protect Antarctic seals, and the Environmental Protocol, which prohibits mineral resource prospecting. To date over 50 nations have acceded to the Antarctic Treaty System, illustrating the growing interest in the southern continent. Many of those 50 nations and more were represented at the conference in Auckland, with delegates travelling from as far afield as Norway, Malaysia, Korea and Argentina to discuss and share their scientific findings.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian 30/31 August 2014. Image: Dr Wolfgang Rack

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