Measuring years from ice cores

February 15th, 2016 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

A reader asked the question in one of my posts about Antarctica:

DPF, while you’re there talking to these learned scientists, can you ask them how they work out how old the ice is. When they take an ice core sample how are they to know what year each level of snow comes from. Especially as there is continual snowing and melting over the ages. Its a little different to counting rings of a tree or looking at layers of sediment.

I duly asked the scientists and got this reply back:

You are correct to observe that there could be missing layers in ice cores – i.e. when there was little snow fall during that year, or when strong storms might have removed a whole year’s worth of snow or more.

Saying that our dating is first of all based on counting annual layers. We normally drill ice cores from the surface (at times with overlapping cores) and since we know the age of the surface (‘today’), we can start counting layers back in time. This can be done through geochemical indicators such as isotopes (show the seasonal temperature variations so we can count warm summer, cold winter as couplets of years) or water chemistry – such as changes in sea salt concentrations which comes from the seasonal changes in sea ice for example. There many, many different indicators that we can use and we like to use as many of those as possible to give us confidence.

But all of those would more or less suffer from the same issue that some year’s no snow remains or some years show signs of double peaks which we could count as two years. For this reason we also use absolute age benchmarks. These are often volcanic eruptions (which we can see as actual deposit of the ashes or though geochemical changes in the water chemistry). Other possibility are radioactive age benchmarks such as nuclear testing in the mid 1950 and 1960s or natural changes in the production of some of these isotopes (such as 10Be). These age benchmarks helps us to determine how many years might be missing between those benchmarks. Furthermore we use the greenhouse gas record to correlate between ice cores (this is for older ice – where annual layer counting might become difficult). Since greenhouse gases in the atmosphere mix very well across the world, when we have a really well dated ice cores (such as from Greenland where high snow fall makes annual layer counting much easier than in Antarctica) we can use the correlation between their greenhouse gas records to determine the age of another ice core. We also employ models to help us date old ice – such as the Vostok and EPICA ice cores which span 400,000 and 800,000 years each.

Quite fascinating stuff.

US and NZ in Antarctica

January 26th, 2016 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

The relationship between New Zealand and the United States when it comes to Antarctica is as co-operative and helpful as one can get. While McMurdo and Scott Base are run separately, there is a huge amount of assistance and co-operation between the NZ and US Antarctic teams.


One major area is transport. We flew on a US Hercules. They provide most of the transport to Antarctica for us. But the RNZAF also flies Hercules down, and sometimes US staff will ride on these.

The US provides overall air traffic control and co-ordination and maintains the three landing fields.


New Zealand built and constructed three wind turbines a few years ago, to reduce the use of generators. The wind farm now provides 30% of the total energy to both McMurdo and Scott Base.


McMurdo has the port where once a year an icebreaker will come in, followed by a fuel ship and a cargo ship. It costs around $2.50 a kg to ship gear to Antarctica and $16 a kg to fly it, so the port is a huge cost saving.


You can see McMurdo here. It has around 1,100 people in summer and 90 in winter. Unlike Scott Base which has all major buildings joined up, McMurdo has no linkages. This means that if the weather hits condition one, staff may be stranded in the building they were  in. It also means you constantly need to change clothing to go to another building.

I much prefer the way Scott Base has been constructed.


McMurdo looks a lot like an old mining town. There are huge piles of dirt, fuel tanks and timber yards everywhere.


This is one of the most popular places in McMurdo – the second hand exchange shop. A huge amount of gear here that people donate when leaving for others to use. Some people even get their own gear back a few years later by chance!


And of course they have lots of communications stations.

New Zealand would not be able to achieve a lot of what it does, without the relationship with the United States. Antarctica NZ works with the National Science Foundation’ US Antarctic Programme and the RNZAF works with US Air Force. But the relationship is deeper than institutional.

You often get staff transfer between different bases in Antarctica – some Scott Base staff have worked at McMurdo, the Australian base and the Italian base (they have the best coffee).

An example of the helpful nature of the US team is from one of the science teams I was at Scott Base with. Their GPS unit (cost around $250) wasn’t working, so McMurdo lent them a $30,000 GPS unit they had for their field work.

Science in Antarctica

January 22nd, 2016 at 3:47 pm by David Farrar

As fascinating as Scott Base is, and the old huts etc, the important stuff in Antarctica is the science. As the Antarctic Treaty basically turns the entire continent over to science, that is not surprising.

The plan was for me to go out into the field with one or two of the sciences teams so I could do first hand reports of what they do scattered around Antarctica. However the weather got in the way of this. This is not uncommon. Antarctica is a dangerous and wild continent, so it is more usual than not to have delays. Scientists may be planning for five weeks in the field, and only end up with three.

So my reporting on the science will be more second hand, than first hand, but I did get to chat to them all first hand.


This is Gary Wilson out in the field. If Antarctica had a NZ Chief Scientist, Gary would be it. He has been to Antarctica 25 times and his first visit in 1988 was for his thesis mapping the glacial and lake deposits in the Miers Valley.

His current project is working on being able to more specifically define what temperature increases are critical to effecting change in Antarctica, its ice sheets, oceans, biota and links between Antarctic systems, southern ocean systems and further north.

Antarctica is of critical interest to scientists in terms of the climate for two reasons. The first is that it is a frozen time machine into the past. If you want to know what the world was like three million years ago, you drill down a few hundred metres and can establish what the temperature was, was the land under water, what was the level of certain gases in the atmosphere etc.

The second reason is that the extent of sea level rise due to rising temperatures will be massively affected by what is happening in Antarctica, especially the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Now regardless of your views on the causes of climate change, and how to respond to it, you should be very supportive of bettering our understanding of what is happening in Antarctica. If sea level rises are far less than projected then hundreds of billions of dollars may be spent inappropriately, but likewise is the sea level rises match or exceed what is projected, then the economic costs are huge, and more money needs to be spent on mitigation and adaptation.

So regardless of your views on the policy issues, the need for better scientific understanding is paramount.


This is the AUT Antarctica drones teams. I was lucky enough to share field training with them, so got to hear lots about their project.

They’re going to three different sites (Taylor Valley, Botany Bay and Cape Evans) in the Antarctic (all specially protected areas) to fly drones to photograph the areas using both normal and infrared photography. And in case you think it sounds a fun jaunt, they’ll be camping out for two weeks in sub-zero temperatures not just having to operate their equipment, but also maintaining their camp. And as the areas they are in are protected, they need to have a minimal impact on the area.


This is one of their drones. They’re not like the ones you can buy as toys, but have serious grunt so they can go up and photograph several square kms at a time.

The main purpose of the research is establish the past and cumulative effects of human impacts on these vulnerable ecosystems so that they can be better safeguarded in future. They’re also working on a crowd sourcing tool where staff and scientists in Antarctica can easily report areas they has seen of environmental concern.


Photo: Len Gillman

This is a photo of some of them out last year in Antarctica.

Other projects include:

  • Richard Levy and Tim Naish (and team) are uncovering an ancient beach (now 300 metres above sea level) teeming with fossilised remains of sea life that lived when the waters around Antarctica were warmer, to learn more about how our coastal environment may change if temperatures rise.
  • Regina Eisert is studying Ross Sea killer whales to provide the scientific information needed to support the proposal for a Ross Sea Marine Protected Area. This includes information on whale abundance, diet, foraging habitat, and movements. As toothfish predators, killer whales are among the species most likely to be affected by fishing for toothfish, if the fishery reduces the availability of toothfish in areas where the whales feed.
  • Graeme Hill is  imaging the Mt Erebus magmatic system from source to surface to in investigate the role of geofluids in both volcanic and tectonics studies

The full list of the science projects in 2015/16 in Antarctica, supported by Antarctica NZ, is here.

While scientists obviously choose to come to Antarctica, it is worth remembering most of them spend relatively little time at Scott Base. They mainly are camped out around Antarctica in tents, cooking their own meals, running their experiments, and their only contact with the outside world is a radio which can communicate with Scott Base and McMurdo. It is I am sure an amazing experience, but not an easy one.

As I said, the plan was to be able to report first hand on some of the science, but the weather got in the way.

Discovery Hut

January 22nd, 2016 at 10:00 am by David Farrar


This is Discovery Hut, the second oldest building on the continent. It was built by Robert Scott in 1901 and is on Ross Island, near McMurdo Base.

It was pre-fabricated in Sydney.


The hut wasn’t very well designed. It was colder in the hut than in a tent, and so it got used more for storage than sleeping. Each subsequent hut learnt from the one before and got progressively better.


The hut is under the care of the NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust who look after five historic huts. Some of their conservators spend all winter in darkness on the continent working at Scott Base, restoring and preserving the artifacts in the huts.




This is the view out one of the windows of Discovery Hut.


As I said, almost as cold inside as out!


You can see McMurdo from Discovery Hut plus the Polar Star icebreaker in port, having just cleared the way for the supplies and fuel ships to enter later this month.


A memorial to George Vince who died in 1904. He may be the first person to have died in Antarctica. However there had been earlier deaths in the seas around Antarctica.

The Hillary Field Centre

January 21st, 2016 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The largest part of Scott Base is the Hillary Field Centre. It is where people are equipped to go out into the field, and also to be supported when they return if they need to work on their experiments immediately.

It is just over halfway through a major $6 million upgrade.


This is the general lab area.


These are the cages. Each group going out into the field gets a cage where all the gear they need to survive and do their science is stored. it can take several days to get everything organised. Some gear may be late getting in from Christchurch, and sometimes McMurdo will lend gear out also.


They have scores of tents, including these polar tents.


This is the drying room, where after you return the tents and sleeping bags etc get dried.



One of the other labs.


A useful guide on penguin behaviour.


The boiler room.


The food store is almost like a supermarket. But there is no quartermaster issuing you the food. Each group decides for itself what food they want to take, and take it. The training is for people to make good decisions themselves.


This is the Scott Base webcam, which you can check out here.


The important (for me) server room.


And the computer lab.


I mentioned that there was a major renovation on. Contractors are working throughout summer and winter to do a major expansion. It will make for far easier loading of gear, departures and logistics.


More of the expansion work.


This structure was a long way away from the other buildings. I asked why, and the reasons is it is where the explosives are stored. I then told a Dad joke “Knock knock … Who’s there … Basil …. Basil Who …. Basil Brush, Boom Boom.” – sadly some of the younger staffers did not know who Basil Brush was!

Arrival Heights Laboratory

January 21st, 2016 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Arrival Heights is around 2 km from McMurdo and it is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area as its height and horizon make it ideal as an area with minimal electromagnetic interference to do atmospheric studies.

There are no lights up at Arrival Heights. If driving up at night you must have your lights turned off, and use moonlight. If at night you need to go from one building to another, there is rope joining them up so you can navigate in the dark.


NZ has an atmospheric research laboratory as Arrival Heights. It was built in 2007, but a previous one was there from 1959.



Most of the experiments and monitoring being done there are for NIWA, and include the upper atmosphere, trace gas monitoring, geomagnetic studies and air quality surveys.


This is the oldest running monitoring experiment. It has been going since the 1980s. You may note the computer is running DOS and the PC has a floppy disk drive!


The roof of the labatory has multiple egresses to allow monitoring.


This equipment was made in 1937 but still performs its function well – to monitor the ozone layer.

In case people wonder the value of such science, well it was the discovery of the hold in the ozone layer around Antarctica that led to the Montreal Protocol which phased out production of many substances that deplete the ozone layer. As a result the hole in the layer around Antarctica is recovering and it is projected to be back to “normal” by around 2050. The Montreal Protocol has been called the most single most successful international agreement to date.

A 2015 report by the U. S. EPA estimated that the protection of the ozone layer under the Montreal Protocol will prevent over 280 million cases of skin cancer and 1.5 million skin cancer deaths.

Many of the experiments are automated and need no human interaction. But some of them, including this one, require a technician to make selections and operate the equipment. Antarctica NZ has two technicians who operate the gear at Arrival Heights, year round.

The NZ Antarctic entities

January 20th, 2016 at 4:30 pm by David Farrar

There are three main organisations involved with Antarctica. They are:

On top of that you have involvement of other organisations such as the NZ Defence Force, MFAT, NIWA, most universities etc.

So what does each organisation do?

Antarctica New Zealand

Antarctica New Zealand is the government agency charged with carrying out New Zealand’s activities in Antarctica. They manage NZ’s presence in Antarctica, run Scott Base, support the world leading science and help protect the environment of Antarctica.

They have a seven member board appointed by the Foreign Affairs Minister.  They have 27 staff based in Christchurch and from 10 to 50 staff at Scott Base.

However many staff work in both Christchurch and Scott Base. You may be an HR manager most of the year in Christchurch but also spend two to three months at Scott Base helping with operations.

The Scott Base staff are in three teams – base services, engineering, and programme support. People can do multiple roles. For example the Winter Base Leader was also the domestic staffer (cleaner/chef’s assistant). She has a PhD but there isn’t much science over winter so she takes up the domestic role.

Their budget is $16 million a year of which most goes on operating costs such as $900,000 on flying within Antarctica, $680,000 on fuel, $435,000 on data/comms link and $202,000 on food.

New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute

NZARI is a charitable trust that partners with research agencies to support science in Antarctica, the Southern Ocean and the Sub-Antarctic.

Funding for NZARI is sought from organisations concerned with global scale connections to Antarctica and consequences of its changing environment.

There are multiple sources of funding for science projects in Antarctica – Marsden Fund, NIWA, universities, overseas Governments. None of them have a dedicated focus though on Antarctica, which is where NZARI comes in. Their aim is to:

  • Bring new money into the Antarctic Research sector
  • Help to grow the linked up research effort so that research teams can address more challenging scientific questions
  • Work in partnership with research organisations to facilitate the development of core scientific questions

Their Director is Gary Wilson who is the sort of head (in an informal sense) of the Antarctica scientific community. He’s been to Antarctica 25 times and a further 12 times to the Sub-antarctic.

They have an international science panel with members from the US, Australia, UK, South Korea, and Norway.

Their budget is $1.5 million a year plus they get support in kind of $1 million a year from Antarctica NZ. Major funders include the Aotearoa Foundation (set up by Julian Robertson) and Air New Zealand.

Antarctic Heritage Trust

The Antarctic Heritage Trust is also a registered charity. The trustees include the Ambassadors or High Commissioners from the US, Ireland and the UK.

They do an amazing job preserving and restoring five historic huts in Antarctica. These huts are not just reminders of the great age of exploration but they are also the first human habitations on the continent. And the only remaining first habitations on any of the continent. Until they were built there was nothing here.

The five huts they preserve and restore are:

  • Carsten Borchgrevink’s Hut, Cape Adare (the first building on Antarctica)
  • Robert Falcon Scott’s Hut, Hut Point
  • Ernest Shackleton’s Hut, Cape Royds
  • Robert Falcon Scott’s Hut, Cape Evans
  • Hillary’s Hut, Scott Base

They get funding from the NZ Government, but also from four museums, the Norwegian Government, Christchurch Airport and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Their budget is around $3 million a year.

The care and skill that goes into preserving the old artifacts is amazing. Professionals have restored thousands and thousands of artifacts with huge skill.

Hillary’s Hut

January 20th, 2016 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Yesterday we got a tour around Hillary’s Hut. Due to asbestos it is closed for general use, but you can be guided through it.


The hut is being preserved and restored by the NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust. They give the background:

In December 1956 HMNZS Endeavour left New Zealand for Antarctica to support both the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE) 1955–1958 and the International Geophysical Year (IGY) 1957–1958 with a major programme of science.

Fresh from conquering Mount Everest in 1953, Edmund Hillary was enlisted to lead the New Zealand party that would lay supply depots from the Ross Sea towards the South Pole for the first trans-Antarctic crossing. Led by the then Dr Vivian Fuchs, the expedition planned to cross the continent from the Weddell Sea.

Pram Point, on the edge of the McMurdo ice shelf and four kilometres from the United States’ McMurdo Station, was chosen as the site for Scott Base. In January 1957 the team completed the buildings (six interconnecting units and three detached science buildings) that would form the antecedents of the modern-day Scott Base. A party of 23 men wintered over at the newly formed base.

This team basically founded Scott Base. Hillary of course also got fame for making it to the South Pole on a tractor. His job was to lay out depots for the British explorers. But after he had done that, and as he was only 80 miles from the South Pole, he decided to head on down there and beat them to it 🙂


I love the address.


The main room in the hut.


A very old beater.


And even older phone.


I like how they say “Today’s Guess” instead of “Today’s Forecast”. The weather here can be quite variable.


This is the emergency exit in case of fire.


And with the exit open. Would not be great fun crawling out through that!

NZ History has more details of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Hillary was the first person since 1912 to reach the South Pole overland.

Scott Base

January 20th, 2016 at 10:00 am by David Farrar


Scott Base is the home of the New Zealand presence in Antarctica. It is where everyone starts and ends their activities in Antarctica. It is where you get equipped to go into the field, and is home to the base staff who support the scientists.

However it is not where most NZers in Antarctica spend their time. Most science projects are not done from Scott Base. They are done throughout the continent. In fact the scientists get grumpy when they end up at Scott Base for too long, as their purpose in being here is not to live at Scott Base, but to do their work in the field.

So while Scott Base is a critical part of what New Zealand does in Antarctica, it is not an end in itself – more a means to an end.

But without Scott Base, none of the science could be supported.


The atmosphere is very dry here so you need to drink constantly. Almost everyone walks around with their drink bottle and you are recommended to drink four litres a day of water. The bottle even helpfully tells you how to stay hydrated with sarcastic instructions about how you open the lid, pour water in, close the lid, drink the water and repeat four times 🙂


This is the kitchen and mess. Meal times are easy to remember – 6 am, 12 pm and 6 pm. The food here is great, and done by a very small team.


This is my favourite place – the lounge. You see right out over the ice sheet from here and a beautifully serene place to just take in the views, chat or read.


The biggest risk to Scott Base is fire. Most staff are trained firefighters – they spend a week being trained before they get deployed.


Because of the dry atmosphere there is a lot of static electricity. They have these metal plates everywhere so you can ground yourself. If you touch a phone or computer or camera before grounding, you may break it.


This has been my temporary office.


They have a small room for movie watching and a pretty good DVD collection. I’ve not seen it used much in summer (rather go outside) but I imagine in winter gets a lot of use.


Having a quiet drink in the bar. It’s a good area to socialise and unwind. As Antarctica is not part of any country, the drinks are quite inexpensive due to the lack of tax. However no one I’ve seen has had more than a few social drinks. You get up way too early in the morning for that. Plus there is a huge emphasis on health and safety. Over indulgence would not go down well with others.


A small gym.


And you can go mountain biking. There are also running trails and a small ski area. Important to keep fit down here.


A good sense of humour as seen by various office notices.


And also by this sign.


This sign is not a joke. Some staff and scientists work night shifts, and sleep during the day. Being noisy inside the sleeping areas is a cardinal sin. They are for sleeping, not talking, and you even get taught to gently close the doors, rather than let them make noise shutting automatically.

A major part of Scott Base is the Hillary Field Centre which is halfway through a major renovation. I’ll cover that in a separate post.

Setting up our Antarctic Field Kitchen

January 19th, 2016 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar


It is a very very very bad idea to cook inside your tent, which means you are cooking outside on the snow.

In case you are rather stupid, the reason you do not cook inside your tent is two-fold. The first is you may burn it down with yourself inside it. The second is carbon monoxide poisoning.

So you need to construct a field kitchen. You use saws to cut out blocks, and then shovel them out.


There’s three things you are doing. First you cut out one row of blocks to create rows to sit on. Then you cut out two rows of blocks next to that, so you can put your feet down there. and you create a wall with the blocks to help shelter from the wind.

It was snowing the entire time we were out there building the kitchen, and cooking.


And the kitchen is complete.


Out comes the cookers and food.


And dehydrated meals have never tasted so good!


As I said, it snowed a lot.


This is the infamous P bottle.


And the toilet is a bucket with two plastic bags inside it and a very cold lid.


This is getting ready to boil water the next morning. The mat is to soak up any fuel, and you remove before cooking.


And then the fun part of demolishing the field kitchen. I took the direct approach of running into the walls several times!

We then headed back to Scott Base around midday Monday.

Setting up our Antarctic Field Camp

January 19th, 2016 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Your first two days in Antarctica, if a newbie, are spent doing Antarctic Field Training. Basically you get taught how to operate out in the field. There is a huge emphasis on health and safety, but their approach is not not so much rules based as teaching people how to make good decisions. Once you are out in the field, you need to decide a lot of stuff on the spot.


After an initial hour inside, you go out for a walk on the sea ice. There are hundreds of sea lions lazing about.


You really do not want to fall into the water!


On average we have two metres of ice over the Ross Sea, but less in some areas.


Then we spend a few more hours inside learning how to use the cookers, selecting tents and gear and then outside into a Haglund.


We travel around 5 kms away from Scott Base to set up camp.


The first tent up (and was already there) is the toilet tent. Antarctica NZ is passionate about leaving minimal impact on the environment so all human waste is collected, including urine. You all have a pee bottle to use also.  There is no going behind the rocks.


Time to start setting up the tents.


First you smooth out the area you want to pitch the tent. Then you pitch the tent, and finally weigh it down by covering the sides with snow.


This is the tent I was in. You have to basically crawl into the tent through a small tunnel, so there were lots of jokes about it being a birthing chamber 🙂


One of the other tents our groups had. The three media type people did field training with a group of four from AUT who are down to map sensitive areas of Antarctica using drones. I’ll cover their work in a later post.


And finally we have the tents all set up.

The entire time it was snowing. Lightly at first, but then more heavily. 99% of the time the snow is dry (Antarctica generally is extremely dry) but that night it was wet snow, so by the end of the night (well it is never night but you know what I mean) we were a bit wet.

After the tents were done, we then had to make our field kitchen which I’ll blog about later also.

The Antarctic Treaty

January 18th, 2016 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Antarctic Treaty is one of the most successful and succinct treaties in international law.

At the height of the cold war,  12 countries agreed to make Antarctica a continent with no wars and no commercial activity – to protect it as an area for science. These countries were Argentina, Australia, Belgium Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the UK and the US.

The treaty has stood the test of time. No country has tried to set up a non-scientific presence in Antarctica, and another 41 countries have signed up to the treaty. It has preserved Antarctica as a unique area for science, where you can learn the history of the world by drilling down through the ice. It is the planet’s dedicated science laboratory.

One extraordinary thing about the treaty is how short it is. The TPPA is 6,000 or so pages. The Antarctic Treaty is only 12 pages long. They must have kept the lawyers away from it. The later environmental protocol is much long at 50 pages (and smaller font!)

It does three main things:

  1. Established that Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only

  2. Mandates freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end

  3. Requires scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available

All countries have effectively put aside (but not dismissed) their territorial claims. And they have agreed that all facilities are open to inspection by any other country. Nominated observers have complete freedom of access.

If the treaty had never been agreed back in the late 1950s, Antarctica might be a very different place today. Rather than a continent open to anyone, it may have become a land closed to the territorial claimants only.  It was the first arms control agreement of the cold war.

The summary of the main articles is:

  • Article 1 – The area is to be used for peaceful purposes only; military activity, such as weapons testing, is prohibited but military personnel and equipment may be used for scientific research or any other peaceful purpose;
  • Article 2 – Freedom of scientific investigations and cooperation shall continue;
  • Article 3 – Free exchange of information and personnel in cooperation with the United Nations and other international agencies;
  • Article 4 – The treaty does not recognize, dispute, nor establish territorial sovereignty claims; no new claims shall be asserted while the treaty is in force;
  • Article 5 – The treaty prohibits nuclear explosions or disposal of radioactive wastes;
  • Article 6 – Includes under the treaty all land and ice shelves but not the surrounding waters south of 60 degrees 00 minutes south;
  • Article 7 – Treaty-state observers have free access, including aerial observation, to any area and may inspect all stations, installations, and equipment; advance notice of all activities and of the introduction of military personnel must be given;
  • Article 8 – Allows for good jurisdiction over observers and scientists by their own states;
  • Article 9 – Frequent consultative meetings take place among member nations;
  • Article 10 – All treaty states will discourage activities by any country in Antarctica that are contrary to the treaty;
  • Article 11 – All disputes to be settled peacefully by the parties concerned or, ultimately, by the International Court of Justice;

It is a unique agreement which covers 10% of the world’s land surface and 10% of its oceans.

The US State Department has background on the initial meeting:

By the 1950s, seven nations — Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom — claimed territorial sovereignty over areas of Antarctica. Claims of Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom overlapped. Eight other nations — the United States, the Soviet Union, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Japan, and South Africa — had engaged in exploration but had put forward no specific claims. The United States did not recognize the claims of other governments and reserved the right to assert claims. The Soviet Union took a similar position.

Activities in the Antarctic had generally been conducted peacefully and cooperatively. Yet the possibility that exploitable economic resources might be found meant the possibility of future rivalry for their control. Moreover, isolated and uninhabited, the continent might at some time become a potential site for deploying nuclear weapons.

Fortunately, international scientific associations were able to work out arrangements for effective cooperation. In 1956 and 1957, for example, American meteorologists “wintered over” at the Soviet post Mirnyy, while Soviet meteorologists “wintered over” at Little America. These cooperative activities culminated in the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958 (IGY), a joint scientific effort by 12 nations — Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States — to conduct studies of the Earth and its cosmic environment.

In the years after World War II, as interest grew in keeping the continent from becoming militarized, there began diplomatic discussion of the possibility of formalizing a demilitarization arrangement. On May 3, 1958, the United States proposed to the other 11 nations participating in the IGY that a conference be held, based on the points of agreement that had been reached in informal discussions:

(1) that the legal status quo of the Antarctic Continent remain unchanged;
(2) that scientific cooperation continue;
(3) that the continent be used for peaceful purposes only.

All 11 nations accepted the U.S. invitation. The Washington Conference on Antarctica met from October 15 to December 1, 1959. No insurmountable conflicts or issues divided the conference, and negotiations culminated in a treaty signed by all 12 nations on December 1, 1959.

As I said at the beginning, few treaties have been as successful as The Antarctic Treaty.

The Antarctic Treaty

Landing in Antarctica

January 17th, 2016 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar


The last 90 minutes of the flight gives you amazing views of Antarctica and the sheet ice. These photos are through a small window so don’t capture the actual panoramic view, but may give an idea.

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We landed dead on schedule, and the rear door opens up to give us our first view of Antarctica from the ground.


We landed at Williams Field. It has two snow runways. On average eight metres of snow on top of 80 metres of ice, floating on the water.


A Hercules on the ice.


And a close up of the skis they land on.


We then boarded the Terra Bus for a 20 minute trip to Scott Base.


The front of Scott Base.


And my home for the next few days. Not that I’ll be sleeping inside every night. For the next day and a half I’ll be out in the field doing training, so won’t be back on base until late Monday.

Flying to Antarctica

January 17th, 2016 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar


All packed for the flight. The green bag is carry on luggage. The black bag is all the Antarctica NZ gear. The suitcase is all my other clothes, and the boots you put on once ready to board.


Headed over to the International Antarctic Centre.


Got checked by the US Centre for Disease Control that I don’t have Ebola and then into the departure terminal.


It seems Mike Moore actually got to open a building during his six weeks as Prime Minister!


And got this far and then got told our flight had been cancelled due to very strong winds causing turbulence near the bottom of the South Island.

We had been warned this could happen, but it is unusual that it is bad weather conditions in NZ that stop a flight, as opposed to Antarctica.

So we trekked back to the hotel we had checked out of 30 minutes earlier and managed to get our rooms reissued to us for another night. Spent the day in Christchurch and then we tried again the next morning.


Yes! Today we got to check in and went to the pre-departure lounge where you spend around 45 minutes watching videos. Very different to commercial flights. For example on a Hercules there are no oxygen masks – instead they have oxygen hats or helmets you put over your head.

There were 32 people flying today and the capacity for a Hercules is 30, so they said two people would be bumped to a later flight on the basis of their priority list. I was convinced a blogger would be bottom of the priority list, but didn’t get bumped so went through security screening and then onto the bus.


The bus takes you from the terminal out to the tarmac.


And time to board the Hercules. There are other planes that fly to Antarctica but at present the runway is a little slushy so the only planes that go there are the Hercules as they can land on skis.


The other planes have actual seats. The Hercules is basically a cargo plane and they just make room for a few humans around the side. So it is an eight hour flight on webbing.


The cargo is in the main body of the plane with you, at the rear.


Got allowed up to the cockpit.  Great view from there but the glare means you need sunglasses.


And this is the toilet. Not quite the same level of privacy as on a commercial plane!

The Hercules is very very noisy. You can’t have a conversation over the noise and you wear headphones or earplugs for the entire flight.

I’ll do a separate blog on the views coming in, and the landing.

Getting kitted out for Antarctica

January 17th, 2016 at 10:00 am by David Farrar


They day before we fly out to Antarctica, we get kitted out by Antarctica New Zealand in Christchurch. It’s nice and warm in Scott Base (model of which is above) but outside it can range from a relatively pleasant 0°C to a less pleasant -57°C. And further afield it has been known to be as low as -90°C.

So Antarctica NZ make sure everyone travelling down has gear for all conditions.


Their warehouse has a wide range of styles and colours, so long as they are orange!


First to go on is the base layer. Thanks Icebreaker!


Then the mid layer.


Then the overalls.


Then you out on the first jacket.


Then a second jacket


And finally a third jacket. And as we were in a well heated warehouse, you can imagine how hot I am at this stage!


You also get two pairs of boots.


And a headband, hat, balaclava and neck gaiter!

Plus of course three pairs of gloves and mittens.

I am now confident I can spend a long long time outdoors without being cold. If anything the danger is overheating.

Also you need to wear much of the gear for the flight down to Antarctica – you can’t just change into it once you land. This is in case you crash. So I’m expecting (I wrote this before I landed) a warm flight over!


By chance there were some visiting huskies when I was in at the Antarctica Centre in Christchurch.


I got to play with all seven of them. Such gorgeous dogs. I want one!

Then headed back to the airport hotel for dinner and the final sleep. Was glad to find the report in time on Friday had changed from 6 am to 8.30 am. Due to leave at 11 am and arrive at 7 pm. Will blog the flight separately.

Kiwiblog in Antarctica

January 16th, 2016 at 8:57 pm by David Farrar


For the next week I will be blogging from Antarctica, having just arrived at Scott Base on a United States Air Force Hercules.

Technically it is night time here but of course there is no night – the sun doesn’t set for around three months. But we landed early evening.

I’m here, along with the NZ Herald’s Science reporter, to report on this amazing continent, what New Zealand does in Antarctica, the science projects done here and the work of Antarctica New Zealand. We successfully applied to come through their Community Engagement Programme which brings down media, artists and writers.

Words can not convey how excited I am to be here. It’s been a dream of mine for many years to come to Antarctica, and to actually be able to live at Scott Base, interview staff and scientists, and spend a week on this amazing continent is beyond amazing.

I thought I would start with a quote from one of the many books I have read about the continent. This is from Gabrielle Walker’s Antarctica – an intimate portrait of the world’s most mysterious continent.

Antarctica is like nowhere else on Earth. While there are other wild places or ones that seem extreme, this is the only continent in the world where people have never permanently lived. In the interior of the continent there is nothing to make a living from – no food, no shelter, no clothing, no fuel, no liquid water. Nothing but ice. …

There are no trees, or indeed plants of any kind; no land animals; nothing but glaciers, snowfields and sepia-toned rocks.

Expect lots of photos, and lots of stories as I explore Earth’s largest science laboratory.


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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.