A step forward for a Ross Sea sanctuary

October 30th, 2015 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

A New Zealand bid to establish the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica is a step closer after China agreed to support the project.

China is understood to be one of several countries which has previously blocked attempts to create the massive reserve in the Ross Sea, 3500km south of New Zealand.

This is very significant. The countries against were Russia, China, Japan, Norway, Chile and Japan. Getting China on board is a major achievement.

In order to secure its support, New Zealand was revising plans for the marine protected area (MPA), and would allow some research fishing to take place.

You need to compromise to get consensus. I just hope they define what level of research fishing is allowed, so it is not a huge loophole like the Japanese used with whaling.

The minister said Russia had also confirmed it was open to working with member states on an MPA ahead of the next CCAMLR meeting in 2016.

Like China, Russia has blocked the New Zealand proposal at past meetings.

Japan and Norway have also expressed concern about the permanence of the reserve, which prompted New Zealand officials to add a 50-year “sunset clause” which would allow it to be revised or scrapped.

The proposed MPA was originally 2.24 million sq km but was pared back in 2013 in a bid to gain support.

Russia will be the big obstacle, but sounds like they are coming around also.

The Ross Sea is known as the “Last Ocean” because it is the only intact marine ecosystem on earth, mostly untouched by pollution, overfishing, and invasive species.

This is why it is special. Like Antarctica itself, it is an untouched ecosystem which has huge benefits for scientific research. And blocking fishing in one area doesn’t decrease the amount of fish available for fishing – in fact it can increase it.

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Learning about Antarctica Part II

June 22nd, 2015 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

In Part 1 I talked about how we learnt why some parts of Antarctica are experiencing ice loss, and other parts are not. Basically the one sentence version is ice hates water – so the parts of Antarctica over water will react differently to warmer temperatures than the parts on land.

Part 2 looks at what we can and have learnt about the past from Antarctica. As the world’s only continent reserved for science, it is a unique area of knowledge.


These graphics are from Richard Levy, a paleoclimate scientist with GNS.

As you can see above there is a lot of ice down there, but also land below the ice.


One of the science projects NZ has been involved with has been a multi-million dollar drilling project where you drill through both the ice and then the ocean down into the earth below. And then a core section is extracted, so it can be studied.


This is a photo of the CIROS drilling base.

Eight countries (including NZ, US and UK) are involved in the ANDRILL (Antarctic Geological Drilling) program.


And what does it tell you? Well they drill down hundreds of metres, and it is a look back in history, as you get samples from millions of years ago – all wonderfully preserved under the Antarctic ice.


Printed copies of the core were given to us to look at. They comes from around 2.7 million years ago.


You won’t see much in this photo, but there is a huge amount of detail in these. The different colours, the presence of stones, any cracks etc. And through this scientists can work out what was happening millions of years ago – was this area under water, or above sea level. Were there glaciers there? They can also use proxies to work out how much CO2 was in the atmosphere.

What is the relevance for today? Well apart from knowledge for its own sake, the science programmes down in Antarctica allow us to better understand what the correlation in the past has been between temperature, sea level and carbon dioxide levels. No matter what your views on the strength of the relationship between carbon dioxide levels and temperature and sea levels, almost everyone should welcome getting better data and information on what has been the situation in the past. Science is not just about computer forecasts of the future, but very much about what we can learn from the history of the past.

So part of our work in Antarctica involves scientists  such as Richard learning about the past. And when I say learning, I don’t mean working at some desk in Wellington analysing data. They actually go down to Antarctica, spend weeks to months at remote stations like CIROS, living in tents, operating the drills, pulling the core up, and examining it there and then.

Antarctica is unique as a place for science such as this. The Antarctica Treaty which came into force in 1961 is one of the simplest, yet best. It sets aside Antarctica as a a scientific reserve, bans military activity, puts aside all territorial claims, and guarantees free access to all treaty state members and observers.


Learning about Antarctica Part I

June 9th, 2015 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

A couple of weekends ago I spent the weekend at Lake Ohau, attending a seminar for media hosted by the NZ Antarctic Research Institute.

NZARI is a charitable trust (launched by John Key in 2012) which partners with research agencies to develop a global understanding of Antarctica’s impacts and vulnerability in a changing global climate. It focuses especially on Antarctica and the Ross Sea and its job is to achieve  the  NZ  government Antarctic Science Strategy.


As you can see Lake Oahu is a beautiful place to be, albeit rather cold in May.  It was chosen as a location for the seminar, as it is a glacial lake itself, and the location for a lot of scientific work examining NZ’s past climate.

The purpose of the seminar, or winter school, was to explore what it would take to melt an ice sheet. However this wasn’t just a series of talks – we actually got to play with ice and buckets!

The total spend by the Government on Antarctica is around $20 million a year, which includes Scott Base, staff, and the 27 different science programmes we are involved in. So that’s around a cup of coffee per person in spending.

As home work we read five scientific studies on melting ice in Antarctica, plus a Guardian article.

The most useful of the scientific studies was this one titled “Accelerated West Antarctic ice mass loss continues to outpace East Antarctic gains“.

Going into the weekend, I had many questions about the studies, including:

  • How do they accurately measure ice mass?
  • Why would some parts of Antarctica be shrinking and others growing?
  • Is it only a problem if there is shrinking everywhere?
  • Isn’t the amount of shrinking far less than the annual change in sea ice cover?

The first question was answered by Nigel Latta, who spoke to us on the Saturday evening. Basically the continent is measured by satellites in space, which can detect minute gravitational changes caused by the land mass below being smaller or larger.

The issue of the changes being much smaller than the annual change in sea ice was also quickly cleared up also. Basically there are three types of ice structures and they are all quite different. They are:

  1. Sea ice – this is basically frozen seawater. It floats on the water and covers 12% of the world’s oceans. It does massively change during the seasons of the year. in the Arctic it can go from 5,000 cubic kms to 25,000 cubic kms.
  2. Ice shelf – a thick floating platform of ice that forms where a glacier flows down to a coastline and onto the ocean surface.  Ice shelves are from 100 to 1,000 metres thick.
  3. Ice sheet – a continental glacier ice structure of at least 50,000 square kms. Think of this as ice on land (even if some of it is below sea level).

Now when it comes to West Antarctica and East Antarctica, it is important to note that West Antarctica is mainly on sea bed below sea level. East Antarctica is not.

So what does this mean? Well we did some experiments under the supervision of Gary Wilson.



We all got given a two litre block of ice, which we weighed and then placed in large containers.  They were then arranged as follows:

  1. Ice in the shade (control)
  2. Ice in the sun
  3. Ice in the sun with dust on it
  4. Ice grounded in fresh water
  5. Ice grounded in salty water
  6. Ice grounded in warm fresh water
  7. Ice grounded in warm salty water
  8. Ice floating in fresh water
  9. Ice floating in salty water
  10. Ice floating in warm fresh water
  11. Ice floating in warm salty water



During the day we would weigh our ice blocks every hour, to track which ones were melting faster or slower than others.

Ice Melt Experiment Graph

The results are above, and what they showed was that the factor that makes the massive difference in speed of melting is whether the ice is just grounded in water (had around an inch depth around it), or whether the ice was floating in water. When you have water underneath the ice, it melts far far quicker. This is more significant than whether it was fresh or salty, or warm or cold – even though they also had an impact.

So what does this mean for Antarctica? Well this is why West Antarctica can be melting, yet East Antarctica can be staying the same, or even growing in places.

So if you think that there is not a potential issue with the West Antarctica ice sheet, because you’ve read that East Antarctica is growing or stable, well think again. Because WAIS is more exposed to the ocean, and because the ocean is warmer than in the recent past, there is a melting effect.

I’ll look into what the impact of this melting could be in future posts, as well as a fascinating look we had of photos of core drilled up from 300 metres below the surface of Antarctica, which gives us a picture of what happened to the continent over the last 2.7 million years.


Ross Sea protection

September 6th, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

New Zealand is likely to shift its position on protection for the Ross Sea in Antarctica, Prime Minister John Key has confirmed.

Fairfax NZ revealed yesterday that a joint NZ-United States proposal for a marine sanctuary is set to be scaled back after pressure from fishing nations.

Key said today officials are working on a new plan, ahead of talks in Tasmania next month.

An earlier bid, for 2.3 million square kilometre reserve, was scuttled by Russia during talks in Germany in July.

“This is the second attempt to get change, and if we are going to get change we are probably going to make some alterations,” he said today.

Restrictions already exist in the pristine environment, but officials in Wellington and Washington have proposed the worlds’ biggest marine protection area (MPA) to protect pristine waters and overfishing of toothfish.

New Zealand has some fishing rights in the sea – the US has none.

Other seafaring nations – including Norway, Chile, Korea, China and Japan – oppose the plan.

It is a reality that if you can’t get agreement on a marine reserve as large as you want, you have to compromise as a smaller marine reserve is better than no marine reserve. This is not a decision NZ can make unilaterally. One dissenting country out of 25 can block it.


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Russia says nyet

July 18th, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

New Zealand’s fight to establish a massive marine reserve in Antarctic waters has been delayed at least another three months after countries failed to agree on the ambitious sanctuary for a second time.

The proposal to create a 2.27 million sq km marine sanctuary in the Ross Sea, which was backed by the United States, failed yesterday after a consensus could not be reached within the 25 members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

A delegation from Russia did not support the proposal at the meeting in Bremerhaven, Germany, questioning whether the commission had the legal power to establish a reserve in the region. Along with Ukraine, Russia expressed concern about the increased restrictions on fishing in the plans.

This is a great pity. The Ross Sea should have the same scientific reserve status as the continent itself.

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The Last Ocean

June 1st, 2013 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Michael Field at Stuff reports:

New Zealand’s diplomatic bid to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in the Ross Sea is floundering in its Antarctic waters after China and Japan stridently opposed it.

Japan made it clear they don’t even want discussion on the 4.9 million square kilometre marine protected area (MPA) which is backed by US Secretary of State John Kerry.

The Ross Sea or “Last Ocean” plan went before last year’s Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) but failed for lack of a consensus and decision making was moved to a meeting to be held in Bremerhaven, Germany, from July 11 to 16.

That is a pity. Just as Antarctica itself has international agreements to preserve it for scientific research, the Ross Sea should have the same status.

But the nature of international agreements is you can’t force countries to agree.

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Ross Sea protection

March 21st, 2013 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Michael Field at Stuff reported:

The United States and New Zealand have announced they are planning to create the world’s largest marine protected area.

The 4.9 million square kilometre Ross Sea MPA in Antarctica would be nine times the size of New Zealand.

The plan has been announced in Washington by new US Secretary of State John Kerry and the New Zealand ambassador to Washington, Mike Moore.

They were speaking at the screening the National Geographic Museum of The Last Ocean by New Zealand film-maker Peter Young. …

The US, the European Union and 23 other countries including New Zealand will decide in July whether to approve permanent protections for the Ross Sea and for a second area in East Antarctica, or to allow large-scale industrial fishing to continue.

An attempt last November to create the MPA at a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, failed. …

Key areas to protect include a full range of marine habitats; from the ice edge to deep oceanic basins. The proposal protects the ecologically important features and habitats, including winter ice-free areas, the entire Victoria Coast from McMurdo Sound to Cape Adare, the Balleny Islands, and almost the entire Ross Sea continental shelf.

The large bulk of the MPA, the general protection zone, will be a no-take area.

Under the proposal the toothfish fishery would continue in areas outside the MPA.

It is good to have the US and NZ in agreement, as previously there were different proposals.

And it is good they are proposing a vast marine reserve for most of the Ross Sea.

But there is still an issue of whether the marine reserve should include the entire Ross Sea – just as all of Antarctica is protected for scientific research, not just some of it.

I don’t think there is a shortage of other areas to fish. Some ecosystems should be left undisturbed, and Antarctica is one of them.

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Scott’s last expedition

January 11th, 2013 at 2:36 pm by David Farrar

Just been to see Scott’s last exhibition at the Canterbury Museum. It is a joint exhibition with the National History Museum and the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

For those interested in Antarctica and/or the age of exploration, it’s a great exhibition. They have many original artifacts from his last expedition, and have even got a life-size model of Scott’s Hut at Cape Evans where 25 men lived and worked. The Antarctic Heritage Trust maintain the actual hut, which would be an incredible thing to observe.

The exhibition tells the story of the ill-fated Terra Nova exhibition. Most of us know the basic story including Oates saying “I am just going outside and I may be some time.” and Scott’s final words of “It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more. R. Scott. For God’s sake look after our people.“. Oates’ body was never found. There are photos of the burial site and cross for Scott, but they estimate this is now under around 75 feet of ice.

But you also see and hear about other aspects such as the journey to Cape Crozier for Emperor Penguin eggs. In temperatures as low as -60 °C, and blizzards with force 11 winds, they survived in an igloo and tents. Amazing endurance and survival.

The deaths of Scott and the other four are controversial. His reputation was as a hero initially, then as a bungler, and in later years more balanced. For my 2c I think their deaths were a combination of some poor planning decisions but also some of the most extreme weather that the continent has seen.

A very good and interesting exhibition. They also have a permanent more general Antarctica display on their third floor.


Shane Jones on Q+A on Ross Sea

October 23rd, 2012 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Shane Jones appeared on Q+A at the weekend to defend the Government’s position on fishing in the Ross Sea, from the Greens. This was notable for several reasons.

  • Jones is currently suspended as a spokesperson for Labour, so shouldn’t be agreeing to go on TV shows unless he no longer regards himself as bound by caucus discipline
  • He was (again) attacking the Greens
  • He was implicitly defending the Government’s position

Shane said:

I actually think the Kiwis are in a fantastic position of leadership, etc. They used a science-based approach. The science around that particular fishery is considerable, not only based on published papers from our own scientific community, but acknowledged by the Aussies and a host of others. Now, if it comes to pass that we completely lock it up, etc, well, that will be a decision that’s made on the basis of values. The fishing industry are there at the moment. I don’t think that their impact is anywhere near as destructive as Gareth would have it. I mean, if you take that money out of the industry, and it’s vastly more than $20 million, I mean, what is the industry to do? It can retire back home and find fresh activities. They’re not going to find activities with Gareth’s approach where they’re banning aquaculture and they’re banning fish farming.

And on the Greens and Greenpeace:

Um, I think Gareth ended up doing the bidding of the green priests, otherwise known as Greenpeace. They are an international franchise organisation, and they raise a great deal of money from our country, and they should expect to be criticised, as we are. Did the workers deserve to be dissed by the Green Party? No, they didn’t. I mean, I think it’s hypocritical at one level. Russel, someone I considerably respect as their leader, is up in a manufacturing inquiry, and Gareth is out there acquiescing with the deprecation and humiliation of New Zealand workers. You can’t have it both ways.

So what does this mean. It certainly fist my theory of Shane being happier in NZ First. NZ First love the fishing industry (especially their cheques).

Claire Robinson noted on the panel:

Interestingly, you know, Shane Jones – that could have been a government representative sitting up there talking to you. He was so much along the lines of what the government might say.

Imagine what the rest of the Labour caucus feels, having a Labour MP on the coveted Q+A show defending the Government.

Scott Yorke blogs:

 Despite not being Labour’s spokesperson on conservation or fisheries (he’s not the party’s spokesperson on any issue, after being stood down pending the Auditor General’s investigation of the William Yan matter), Jones appeared to endorse the government’s approach to the marine reserve issue. He made no attempt to distance his own views from the official Labour position.

Labour hasn’t actually determined its position on the issue. So why did Jones appear at all? Did he get clearance from David Shearer before appearing?

Labour having no position at all, is confirmed in this story:

Labour says it has not taken a position on whether to back the United States proposal for a large reserve in the Antarctic’s Ross Sea or the Government’s proposal for a smaller reserve that are about to be debated in Hobart.

Conservation spokeswoman Ruth Dyson confirmed yesterday that the party had not taken a formal position, after colleague Shane Jones appeared on TVNZ’s Q&A supporting the Government’s reserve.

“Our consistent policy has been to make sure we always use the best science,” Ruth Dyson said, as it had done to support the net bans to protect Maui dolphins.

Saying our policy is to use the best science is a slogan not a policy. The question is quite simple – does Labour back the US proposal or the NZ proposal?

Scott continues:

Labour needs a leader who will bring wayward MPs into line, because the voting public will not enthuse over a party that does not have a clear and consistent message. If some MPs won’t accept that then they need to be encouraged to consider their futures.

Or maybe he already has. Either way, the ball is in Shearer’s court.

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The Ross Sea

September 13th, 2012 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Adam Bennett at NZ Herald reported:

New Zealand has brushed aside a US offer of cooperation over the establishment of a reserve which would protect the Antarctic Toothfish in the Ross Sea and submitted its own more conservative proposal.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully this afternoon announced New Zealand will submit a proposal for a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Ross Sea.

The proposal would be submitted tomorrow which is the deadline set by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the 25 nation group which manages fishing and conservation in Antartic waters.

“If successful, this will be the largest MPA anywhere in the world – nine times the size of New Zealand”, Mr McCully said in a statement.

New Zealand had discussed the feasibility of a join proposal with the United States, “but each country will offer a separate proposal for CCAMLR’s consideration,” he said.

Some protection for the Ross Sea is better than no protection, but it is disappointing we are not supporting the entire Ross Sea having the same protection as Antarctica itself has.

I am very pro-fishing – both in an economic sense, and also because I love seafood. But there are two areas where I think fishing should not happen.

The first is when a species is endangered or falling below a sustainable level. I’ve got no problems with hunting whales, so long as the population is large enough. Fishing should be sustainable.

The second area where fishing should not happen, is in marine reserves. Just as we have some parts of our land which we leave untouched as nature designed them there are areas of our oceans where we should do the same. And the world has enough oceans for us to have plenty of space to fish in.

Antarctica is a stunning example of a pristine environment, where human activity is minimal and pretty much solely scientific. I think it is the most amazing area on the planet, and will refuse to die until I have actually got down to the continent myself. The various countries that signed the Antarctic Treaty were visionary in setting aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve.

However the treaty only applies to the land, and not the surrounding Ross Sea, This body of water also has huge scientific value, and it should be one of those areas on the planet where fishing is not allowed.

I saw a film called The Last Ocean at the recent NZ Film Festival*. It makes a strong case for protecting the entire Ross Sea, to preserve the most pristine marine ecosystem on Earth.

Claire Trevett reports in the Herald:

Marine expert Sylvia Earle says New Zealand needs to step up and seek as much protection for the oceans of the Antarctic as it gives to the land area.

Dr Earle, feted for her ocean exploration by the White House and named Time’s Hero for the Planet, is backing the Antarctic Ocean Alliance’s call for a marine reserve in the Ross Sea to halt fishing of krill and the Antarctic toothfish by New Zealand and other countries.

“You’d think every nation would say ‘wait we must protect this. It’s valuable to us, to our knowledge to our future.’

“Yet they are taking wildlife out of this very special part of the Antarctic waters that belong to everyone – they don’t just belong to New Zealand or Australia or the US or Russia.”

This week, the Government rejected a USA proposal for a marine reserve which would have offered greater protection than New Zealand wanted for the Antarctic toothfish in the Ross Sea.

The US has no fishing interests in the Ross Sea, but New Zealand companies take a large proportion of the annual Ross Sea toothfish catch – last year they landed 730 tonnes with an export value of $20 million.

The Herald understands the joint proposal was thwarted in Cabinet by ministers Gerry Brownlee, David Carter and Steven Joyce on the grounds it was not consistent with the Government’s economic growth objectives.

I think this is a regrettable decision. There are many other areas where companies can fish. I support having the Ross Sea given the same protection as Antarctica itself.

*The film is a good watch. I especially recall it as I was sitting next to a Herald journalist and as the lights when out I whispered to her in very bad taste and said “Is this when the Joker appears?”. I then realised there was a more apt Batman villain, and said “Or will it be The Penguin?”. At that exact point in time the film stated with a shot of a penguin on ice. Said journalist and myself started to piss ourselves with laughter, as other film goers were staring at us wondering how the hell we could find an image of a penguin so funny. I suspect she won’t sit next to me in any more films!

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