This blog was first published on All photographs © Dr Fiona Shanhun, Chief Science Advisor for Antarctica New Zealand

Antarctica's Front Line on Climate Change Research

The detailed, on-the-ground stories about climate change – what’s already happening now and what’s likely to happen in the future – are emerging from every corner of the planet. But nowhere do those stories come across more powerfully than in the polar extremes of the Antarctic and the Arctic. As chair of the Air New Zealand Sustainability Advisory Panel and Director of Forum for the Future, mitigation of and adaptation to climate change is at the forefront of my mind. In this capacity, I was invited to see for myself some of the climate science under way in the Antarctic. This opportunity, supported by Antarctica New Zealand, was something I seized hold of with instant enthusiasm!

As it happens, I’d been to the Antarctic before – when I was just 18. In 1967, my father was appointed as the first New Zealand-born Governor-General of New Zealand, in which capacity he got to visit New Zealand’s Antarctic Research Programme at Scott Base. My brother and I were invited along for the ride – including a rather extraordinary in-and-out flight with the Americans to the South Pole!

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve retained few memories of that incredibly privileged experience. So to be offered a second chance, 50 years on, was something not to be missed.

Scott Base was officially opened, as a permanent research station, in January 1957, as part of New Zealand’s commitment to the 1955-58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. In the summer months (between October and March) it’s home to as many as 86 people at any one time, made up of permanent support staff and groups of scientists who come and go depending on the length of time they need to conduct their research on the ice. It has a weathered, well-worn feel to it, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that there are ongoing discussions with the New Zealand Government about a major redevelopment over the next decade or so.

Most of the time I was there the weather was spectacular, bright and sunny, with temperatures around or even above zero. The views from the base out over the Ross Ice Shelf and over to Mount Erebus are spectacular – whether you’re waking up to them or going to sleep! For fear of giving in too easily to my usual assumptions about accelerating climate change, I never actually discovered whether this warm weather was ‘unusual, but not abnormal’, ‘exceptional’, or ‘pretty much off the scale’! Climate extremes work a bit differently in Antarctica.

But we did have one day when the weather closed right in on us, just as we were making our way out to the first research project we visited at Cape Evans. This is not very far away from Scott Base, travelling in a tracked vehicle, but by the time we got there it was impossible to see more than a few metres ahead, and not much fun staying outside of the vehicle for more than a few minutes.

So I never actually got to see the great big hole in the ice that Associate Professor Ken Ryan and colleagues had opened up at Cape Evans to track the health of the microbial communities that live on the underside of the sea ice. An array of micro-sensors and other instruments allows them to see how these communities react to changes in their environment – including thinning sea ice, for instance, or heavier snow cover.

It’s all about establishing baselines against which any climate-induced changes in these ecosystems can be measured. And that’s important stuff. These microbial communities provide the building blocks for complex and delicate food chains, laddering up to other microbes, krill, small fish, bigger fish, penguins, seals and killer whales.

But as the researchers themselves acknowledge, projects of this kind are just pinpricks in the Ross Sea region. The region includes the vast Ross Ice Shelf, the largest ice shelf in Antarctica, which is roughly the size of France. In places, it’s several hundred metres thick, with around 90% of the floating ice below the surface of the Ross Sea.

This particular project is located just a couple of hundred metres from what is perhaps the single most famous landmark on the whole continent – the hut erected in 1911 by the British Antarctic Expedition, led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. It was from this hut that Scott and his four companions set out on their trek to the South Pole, which they reached in January 1912, just a month or so after Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team. The entire party died on the return journey.

There’s such an aura of tragic heroism surrounding this whole adventure that it seems somehow impossible that a simple hut could bear the weight of these historical connotations. But it does.

And being there is an extraordinary experience – made all the more fascinating by a comprehensive conservation of both the hut and its artefacts coordinated by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust over the last few years.

Twenty-five men lived in that hut during the winter of 1911, and one can (just about!) get a feel for what they were eating, the research work they were doing, how they kept themselves warm and so on. And given just how mean the weather was outside when we visited, it certainly wasn’t difficult imagining how overwhelming that sense of relief would have been every time those men came back to their warm (some of them even complained that it was sometimes too warm!) and sheltered accommodation.

All that said, the bright and brilliant days that dominated my stay certainly made for easier visits to other research projects – especially on the one day when we flew by helicopter across the sea ice, over the utterly remarkable Dry Valleys, finally dropping down to the improbably named Botany Bay to visit Dr Charles Lee and his team.

As with Ken Ryan’s project, the focus here was also on really small critters, this time terrestrial, like springtails (at 1 – 2 mm in length, the largest living terrestrial organism in Antarctica!), soil microbes and mites, as well as mosses and lichens. And resilience was again the principal area of enquiry: just what sort of extremes can these organisms withstand when subjugated to various climatic stresses?

Some of this is done out in the field, creating artificial micro-climates under cloches to allow the ambient temperature to be raised, and some in their tent laboratory using a special bit of kit that can both ‘cook’ and freeze springtails, allowing them to take samples of DNA under these extreme conditions for further testing back in New Zealand.

This is one of the projects Air New Zealand helps to fund (through the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute), as part of nearly a decade’s-worth of support for different research programmes. It’s commendable that far from shying away from some of the ‘inconvenient truths’ regarding climate change (and the contribution that carbon-intensive sectors like aviation make to it), Air New Zealand is keen to encourage its customers to understand just how important Antarctica is in advancing our knowledge of climate change issues – as evidenced by the safety video shot in Antarctica back in December 2017.

Understanding resilience is all about measuring change on the ground, often over long periods of time. By now, I was getting used to that ever-so-fine filigree of connectivity between some of the biggest science on Earth (looking at whole-Earth climate systems) and some of the smallest creatures on Earth – with us lumbering human beings impacting both, directly and indirectly. And only just beginning to comprehend the true nature of our thoughtless ways.


Next – via a flight along the edge of the sea ice and the open sea, where I was seriously hoping to spot some orcas, but to no avail – we got to see some penguins! The project we visited at Cape Bird (with Dr Dean Anderson and colleagues) was just getting under way. It’s the breeding season for Adelie penguins out there, and whilst one penguin is minding their egg on a nest of stones and accumulated guano, with absolutely nothing to eat, its mate is off at sea eating as much as it possibly can to prepare for its turn on the nest. The team selected one mini-colony of around 90 pairs, within the much bigger overall colony, which was subsequently surrounded by a fence, with just one point of entry and egress – and a weighbridge that the birds have to go over to get in and out. Each bird is individually tagged, providing much more detailed data on the weight of the birds as they come and go, on foraging paths, environmental conditions and so on.

There’s a lot of work being done on penguins in the Antarctic (not surprisingly!), including an annual census of Adelie penguin colonies in the Ross Sea region that has been going on since 1981, correlating numbers of penguins with other ecosystem indicators.

And that’s just one of nine ongoing monitoring programmes that Antarctica New Zealand supports, looking at soil, climate, what is called ‘space weather’ in the upper atmosphere, toothfish abundance, daily weather conditions (with measurements taken since 1957), and so on. In fact, the oldest monitoring programme of them all was initiated by Scott’s expedition back in 1911, taking measurements of the strength and direction of the Earth’s magnetic field.

This kind of long-term monitoring provides the bread and butter of so much of the science undertaken in Antarctica – not particularly glamorous, let alone headline-grabbing, but fundamental to providing that flow of constant, baseline data on which so much of our knowledge now depends.

Which is why I was delighted, on my final day, to have a chance to visit the research facility at Arrival Heights, just a few kilometres from Scott Base. It is managed by Antarctica New Zealand, and houses equipment utilised by both New Zealand and United States researchers from a range of institutions.  

What you see here is a somewhat humdrum photo of me standing next to a pretty ancient bit of kit called a Dobson spectrophotometer (or just simply a ‘Dobson’) used to measure levels of ozone in the atmosphere. This is one of around 120 machines made since Gordon Dobson first came up with the design in 1924, of which just 50 are still in use. Work done by scientists from New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) at Arrival Heights (using both the Dobson and a much more sophisticated laser spectrometer) is still making a massive contribution to the science of the ozone layer.

But this is almost certainly the most famous Dobson anywhere in the world today. And that’s because it’s one of the two used by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) which discovered the so-called ‘Ozone Hole’ back in 1984. In fact, just to my left, stuck somewhat irreverently to the wall with Blu-tack, is a scruffy photo of Joe Farman, the principal BAS scientist who led that pioneering work in the 70s and 80s.

And this created an instant connection for me. In 1984, I’d just been appointed as Director of Friends of the Earth in the UK, and one of our most successful campaigns (from 1985 onwards) was to get consumers all worked up about the depletion of the ozone layer, highlighting the way in which chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration and aerosols were contributing to that increasingly threatening problem.

Joe Farman, as a very punctilious and careful scientist, initially took Friends of the Earth to task for ‘sensationalising’ all the amazing work that BAS had done. As you can imagine, that became a bit of a problem for us! So we met up, and discussed at length the dilemmas associated with making complex science of this kind available not just to non-specialist audiences, but to the ‘general public’. We worked hard to get our campaigning language aligned with the scientific language that Joe and his colleagues insisted on – so much so that he was subsequently delighted when no less a celebrity than Princess Diana came out in public to say she wouldn’t ever again be buying aerosols because of the damage they were doing to the ozone layer! Job done.

All of which made me reflect on how much harder it’s been to bring about the same uncomplicated, get-it-sorted change of heart regarding public attitudes to climate change.
Astonishingly, for all the brilliant science now in the public domain showing how little time we have left to avoid catastrophic runaway climate change (an infinitely more damaging prospect for humankind than the depletion of the ozone layer), that awareness is still not there. Most people still seem to think we can just truck along with our current consumption-led growth economy, whilst tinkering around with a bit more energy efficiency and renewable power.

Unfortunately, that complacency is seriously misguided. But it remains so hard to persuade people to get serious about the data, and what today’s state of climate science really tells us. It was even quite difficult to dig down into the implications of that science with all the wonderful scientists and support staff I met at Scott Base! Everybody acknowledged that it’s bad – very bad – but having to acknowledge that accelerating climate change constitutes an existential threat to the future of humankind can be a very painful thing, both personally and professionally.

And yet, by one of those weird coincidences, on the day I got back to the UK a new report from NASA was published, revising some of the estimates of the speed with which East Antarctica’s glaciers are melting: 

“In recent years, researchers have warned that the Totten Glacier, a behemoth that contains enough ice to raise sea levels by at least eleven feet (about three metres), appears to be retreating because of warming ocean waters. Now, researchers have also found that a group of four glaciers sitting to the west of Totten have lowered their surface height by about nine feet since 2008 – before that year, there had been no measured change in elevation for these glaciers.”  

Scary stuff! NASA scientists are of course quick to point out the huge uncertainties associated with research of this kind, in terms of understanding the ways in which ocean waters circulate near the continent, or how the continent’s bedrock is shaped below the ice shelves, and the impact of all this on rates of melting. But it’s hard not to hear in such findings a series of alarm bells to awake even the most indifferent and comatose of politicians.

For all sorts of reasons, Antarctica finds itself at the heart of much of today’s climate science. There are now 53 countries that are party to the Antarctic Treaty System – 29 of them have voting rights, gained through demonstrably conducting substantial research activity on the continent. New Zealand has been at the heart of that collective research endeavour from the very earliest days in the mid 1950s, and Antarctica New Zealand is currently coordinating 19 different projects, over and above the long-term monitoring programmes, with Scott Base the epicentre of an extraordinary community of scientists from around the world.
All of which made this particular visit, 50 years on from my first visit, an absolute delight.

All photographs © Dr Fiona Shanhun, Chief Science Advisor for Antarctica New Zealand