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    Refraction and diffraction of light through ice crystals in the clouds

  • Philippa On The Ice

    Philippa On The Ice Philippa Werry at an Antarctic research camp 2016

New Zealand Science Teacher

Science Education & Society

To the Ice

Air Antarctica!        To the ice!

by Philippa Werry


Would you want to go to Antarctica? Well of course, why wouldn’t you? Actually, people I talked to before my trip – adults and children –divided fairly evenly between the two extremes of yes, definitely and no, never. 

What’s the attraction of Antarctica? It’s remote, and beautiful, and still largely untouched; a continent of superlatives – the highest, coldest, windiest. It’s a place that few people get the opportunity to visit, and those who do mostly visit the Antarctic Peninsula, off South America.

It’s also imbued with history: tragic, heroic, poignant, awe-inspiring.

When that email dropped into my inbox: “Invitation to visit Antarctica – community engagement programme 2016-17”, I had a few moments of pure delight before they were swamped by nerves and apprehension. It was a long way away! So remote! I’m a writer, not a scientist, and not even a very outdoorsy sort of person, so I wasn’t sure how I would cope with the Antarctic environment. In Christchurch, trying on all the cold-weather gear, I commented that I’d never worn salopettes before. Haven’t you ever been skiing? asked Bob, the clothing manager,  in mild surprise. Well – no. 

Artists and writers in Antarctica

Under the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica is a continent formally set aside for peace and science, but it also has a strong tradition of art and literature, starting with the log books, diaries and sketches of the first voyagers and explorers.

The New Zealand research station at Scott base was founded in 1957.

For about 20 years, from 1997, the Artists to Antarctica Programme was run by Creative New Zealand in partnership with Antarctica New Zealand. The inaugural recipients, Bill Manhire, Chris Orsman and Nigel Brown, went to Antarctica in the 1997/98 season; together they produced a 16-page booklet called Homelight: an Antarctic Miscellany, written, illustrated and published at Scott Base.

(An Antarctic “season” refers to the six-month summer season,    from September to February, when most of the scientific work     happens. Until recently, no winter flights have been able to     land, and only a small team of staff are left to winter over at  Scott Base.) 

The Arts Fellows and Invited Artists covered a wide range of disciplines, from writing, music and painting to jewellery and furniture making. They included novelists, poets, painters, photographers, sculptors, printmakers, ceramicists, composers and sound artists.  Jenny Harper, Christchurch art gallery director, said that these schemes had changed the ways that New Zealanders thought about Antarctica. “Antarctica has a real cultural resonance with New Zealanders. Not just visual artists but writers and poets have transformed the point of view of Antarctica from something which is primarily a scientific base to something we can envisage much more imaginatively.”  (The Press, 13 November 2010). You can see the full list of recipients at http://www.antarcticanz.govt.nz/education/alumni/

More recently, 'Antarctica NZ' has set up its own Community Engagement Programme for artists, writers and media. This programme has a strong focus on communicating the value and importance of NZ science carried out down on the ice.  Successful applicants have included photographers, TV and radio reporters, artists, journalists and film makers. http://www.antarcticanz.govt.nz/education/communityengagementprogramme/


My project

I’ve always been fascinated by Antarctica, especially the journeys of the early explorers: not just Scott’s and Amundsen’s race to the Pole, but also Shackleton’s two expeditions, and lesser known ones such as the winter journey to Cape Crozier in search of emperor penguin eggs, the fate of Scott’s northern party and Mawson’s solo trek back to base after disaster struck his travelling companions. 

Antarctica is an astonishing but remote destination, and children can’t visit there at all. I put those two facts together, and came up with a proposal to link up with NZ school children and help them to appreciate the uniqueness of the Antarctic environment. Antarctica lends itself to being studied in a whole variety of ways: art, creative writing, science, history, social studies as well as science.  I aimed to build on my existing networks with schools (e.g. those I’ve visited with Writers in Schools), and reach out to others and to school librarians, with a pack of resources about Antarctica, an invitation to ask me questions about Antarctica and a daily blog while I was down there. On 1 December 2016, I was on a plane heading south.  


At Scott Base

Getting to Scott Base took seven hours in a noisy Hercules, crammed side by side along the outside edges with cargo piled up in the middle, very little legroom, no movies, no tea or coffee, packed lunch in a brown paper bag with a 1.5 litre water bottle, and the bathroom consisted of a bucket behind a curtain down the back of the plane, with hand sanitiser.  It’s certainly not luxury travelling, but it is an experience!

There were about a dozen Americans on board, and six of us Kiwis: Gerry, Andrew and Chris from LINZ going to do survey work, Jeremy from NIWA who would be checking weather recording instruments, and Guy Frederick, a photo-journalist on the same programme as me. 

People tell you that no matter how much you read and how many movies you watch, you can’t really imagine what it’s going to be like until you get there. That first moment of stepping off the plane is one you never forget, and all you can think at the time is I’m in Antarctica. 

The previous day’s flight had been postponed due to weather conditions, so it took off before ours, and there has to be a two-hour window between flights. As a result, we arrived later than planned, at about 7pm. That pushed everything in our programme back and the first two days seemed a hectic rush of fitting everything in, as well as finding our way around.  

But I think I was also feeling a weird mixture of culture shock, exhaustion, confusion, exhilaration and alarm. Culture shock (not jet lag, luckily, as it’s directly south, with no time difference) because it is a different culture down there, one focused firmly around science and scientists. Exhaustion from the flight, the temptation to stay up late in 24-hour daylight and the mental energy needed to be thinking all the time about what you’re doing, what to wear and what to take when you go outside. Confusion because you have to very quickly adapt to totally new surroundings, both indoors and out, familiarising yourself with the systems for meals and how the base operates, and meeting a lot of people in a short space of time, including roommates.  Alarm because I was in Antarctica and everything outside seemed so alien and potentially threatening that I couldn’t imagine stepping outside on my own. Exhilaration because I was in Antarctica!

Everyone has to do field training, including DVs (Distinguished Visitors), and the point is to introduce you to the environment, make sure you don’t take it for granted and teach you basic survival skills. So the following evening, less than 24 hours after arrival, we were out on the ice with Mark, one of the field trainers, showing us how to put up Polar tents, anchor guy ropes in the snow, lay out our sleep kit (four layers of sleeping bags), dig out cubes of ice with snow saws to build shelter walls and construct a camp kitchen. Eating dinner proved tricky when you had to work around gloves, goggles, balaclava and couldn’t quite see what you were doing, and any spilt food had to be carefully scooped up in its parcel of snow and deposited in the food contamination bag. At 11pm we were still sitting outside over cups of tea and hot chocolate, gazing up at Mt Erebus and watching the sun slide around the sky.

Field training was less intimidating than I had feared. We were lucky with the weather – sunshine and hardly any wind; the groups who went out a month earlier shivered through temperatures of minus 40 degrees celsius. The toilet tent was perfectly useable. And I ended up with a tent to myself (as the only woman in a group of seven) when Jeremy wanted to sleep in a snow trench. I’d said I was happy to share, but actually it was nice to have my own space after such a full-on day. Some people managed to sleep; I dozed a bit, but at least it was light all night, so at least you could read!



We had a full programme arranged of day trips and meetings with scientists to talk about their work. Guy and I joined in with the weekly base meeting – Saturdays at 3.15pm - and talked to as many people as we could, because everyone had a story to tell and a reason for being there.  

We climbed Castle Rock for astonishing views over the sea ice and towards the mountains of the Royal Society range. I had a tour of the US station at McMurdo, which is big and sprawling, like an Alaskan mining town, and made me appreciate the smallness and friendliness of Scott Base. Having said that, everyone we met at McMurdo was incredibly friendly, and I also met their writer in residence, Maris Wicks, who was working on an Antarctic graphic novel.

But the outstanding highlights for me were two visits to historic huts: Discovery Hut, near McMurdo, from Scott’s first expedition, and the hut at Cape Evans from his second 1910-1913 expedition. I can’t think of many similar buildings that are so important historically, untouched for so long, carefully preserved and so full of human interest. 

 Terra Nova Hut

Terra Nova Hut, Cape Evans, Antarctica.


Things I didn’t know

I didn't know there would be so much happening on and off the base. When you’ve only got limited time, and it’s light all day and night, there is a temptation to keep working all hours – so Scott Base has a firm policy of 9-5 work hours, with morning and afternoon tea breaks as well as lunch. The base culture of “work hard, play hard” means there is a lot going on: talks, film evenings, American nights, social events. There’s a library, gym, shelves of DVDs and even a costume room full of dress ups. The fire crews were competing in a series of dessert evenings called My Crew Rules; lists were going up for overnight trips over Christmas, and we just missed the much-talked-about Skirt Party.

It wasn’t always as quiet as I expected. Around the base, and between Scott Base and McMurdo, there are always vehicles moving about, going to and from the airfields or out to science camps or just clearing the snow.  When we did spend a day out at the science camp on the ice, there was the noise of the generators and boilers, and engines kept idling on vehicles.


Back in the world

A week might not seem like a long time, but it was one of the most intense weeks I’ve ever experienced.  A phrase that stuck in my mind was a scientist talking about something happening “back in the world”, and it did feel as if we had been to a different world. Going into town the day after getting home, I felt overwhelmed by so many people and wondered how the base workers re-adjust after six months or a year on the ice.  I also found my head full of ideas, thoughts and images. I think going down to the ice is an experience that sinks deep inside you and may influence you in different ways for years to come. 


Science down on the ice

Guy and I talked to as many science teams as possible to get an idea of the range of projects being worked on. Each project is given an event number, and they can arrange from one or two person projects to large groups. Some are ongoing projects; others are one-offs. This poster shows the 2026/2017 projects: http://www.antarcticanz.govt.nz/assets/Science/161012-Antarctic-Science-Programme-Poster-2016-17.pdf


Some of the teams we talked to were: 

  • K800: Cape Adare evaluation

Cape Adare is 750km north of Scott Base, and it’s the site of a huge Adélie penguin colony, numbering nearly one million penguins. Last season, a team put locator tags on 78 of these penguins, and this season they went back to try and retrieve them. The tags aren’t GPS-monitored, because that would make them too heavy, so it might seem an impossible task (“like looking for 78 needles in a very big haystack”), but penguins usually go back to nest in the same area, so the team did get about a quarter of the tags back. Examining this data will show where the penguins have travelled over the previous year, and how far north they had to swim for food, and will also provide base line data (as no similar surveys have been carried out before) for an area between the Ross Sea and the Southern Ocean where some of the most rapid climate change is happening.  


  • K050: Measuring tidal ice flexure in the Darwin Glacier grounding zone

This team was using radar to investigate the ice at the downstream boundary of the Darwin Glacier, where it starts to flow onto the Ross Ice Shelf. They were looking at how it was melting under the ice shelf and how it was affected by the tides. They hoped to use their findings to help interpret satellite measurements of the movement of the ice, again linked to climate change.


  • K041:  Past sea level rise, Northern Victoria Land

This team worked at Tucker Glacier, collecting rocks that have been exposed as ice has melted down over the past 20,000 years. Back in Wellington, they hope to work out when that ice melted by measuring the amount of cosmogenic nuclides (rare atoms formed when Earth materials are bombarded by cosmic rays). There aren’t many ways you can date things in Antarctica, because there is little organic material for carbon dating. These guys were very enthusiastic – it was one of them who said “all children are natural scientists” – and they gave us a great experiment (How to reveal subatomic particles at home) that would show this in action. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wN_DMMQEhfQ


  • TAE hut: a team of conservators from the Antarctic Heritage Trust were working on restoring Ed Hillary’s hut in time for the 60th anniversary celebrations in January


  • K-001-C: Hot water drill commissioning

I was included in a day trip out to the site of the hot water drilling project, about an hour by Hagglund (faster by skidoo) from Scott Base. This demonstrated the real difficulties of carrying out science down on the ice.  The project had been dogged by bad luck: equipment that didn’t arrive in time, broke down or didn’t operate as expected under the extreme Antarctic conditions, and finally an outbreak of gastro in the container camp. It was a test project for another site 300km further south next season, but was still frustrating for everyone when things didn’t go as planned, especially when the costs and logistics of getting equipment and scientists in place are so considerable. I found it fascinating to listen in on conversations about how they were going to proceed, and how they were coping with things not working – a great example of resilience, initiative and teamwork. This posting on my blog attracted a lot of attention and made me think about the importance of talking to children about what we do when things go wrong.

In all these talks, the interesting thing was finding out the way how the science works, as much as what they were trying to do – how they organise the transport and other logistics of getting people to the right place with the right equipment. 


Ideas for class teaching

There are lots of resources available, for example these ones put together by Antarctica NZ:  http://www.antarcticanz.govt.nz/education/classroom-antarctica/ and this collection of images: http://antarctica.recollect.co.nz/

Also look out for Antarctic art, photography and exhibitions. Gabby O’Connor is one artist who has worked closely with science teams and school children to create some amazing projects: https://gabbyoconnor.wordpress.com/


Writing to Scott Base

It's very easy to get in touch with the staff at Scott Base. They don't have Skype but they can sometimes arrange video conferences, and you can also write to them - send your letters to Scott Base Team (Antarctica), c/o Private Bag 4745, Christchurch. There will be about 10 staff wintering over: the chef, one domestic/medic, a field trainer, mechanic, carpenter, electrician and power and water engineers and two technicians. You can read here about some of those roles: http://www.antarcticanz.govt.nz/about-us/want-to-work-with-us/

Pilippa on the ice Other ways to get to Antarctica

You might want to let your students – or colleagues! - know that there are other ways of getting to Antarctica, apart from going as a tourist. The Enderby Trust offers scholarships on expeditions to the Southern and Pacific Oceans for young people aged 18 – 30, aboard the Spirit of Enderby. These are the details for the 2016/2017 season (now closed): http://www.anta.canterbury.ac.nz/documents/Enderby_2016_release_SO1617.pd.pdf


The Sir Peter Blake Trust, in partnership with Antarctica NZ and others, provides opportunities for New Zealanders aged 18 – 25 to work on projects in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Read more here: http://sirpeterblaketrust.org/blake-ambassador-programme

Keep an eye on seasonal job opportunities with Antarctica NZ, or volunteer work with the NZ Antarctic Society: http://www.antarcticanz.govt.nz/about-us/want-to-work-with-us/,  http://www.antarctic.org.nz/pages/projects/paint.php 

There are some post grad science scholarships, or the 14-week Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies at Canterbury University. This is limited to 16 places and includes one field trip course to Antarctica, but you pay full course fees.

And, of course, you can read about it! We all know the power of the imagination and a good book. My schools pack has a list of books for children and young adults. Other recommended places to start are The wide white page; writers imagine Antarctica, edited by Bill Manhire (VUP, 2004) or Rebecca Priestley’s Dispatches from Continent Seven: an anthology of Antarctic science (Awa Press, 2016). Or go back to the classics: the original diaries and travel accounts, like The worst journey in the world by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (many of these are out of copyright and available online).  

To finish, here’s what Dave Dobbyn said before heading south: 

“I think this trip will expand my horizons for years to come. As for songs, words and pictures, I can only make myself useful. What ultimately comes will be revealed to me. To the ice, then, eyes wide open.”
(The Press, 13 November 2010)


My blog and Schools Pack

You can find my blog at http://kiwikids2antarctica.blogspot.co.nz/

It includes answers to questions I've been asked, and I'm happy to receive more (use the Ask Me About Antarctica button on the blog).

I'll also be loading the Schools Pack on there soon, or you can contact me to ask for a copy.

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