SciBlogs

Archive January 2010

O’er the World’s Tempestuous Sea Matthew Wood Jan 25

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Picture 1If you’re bound for Antarctica, and have a starting point as convenient as New Zealand or Patagonia, there is still one rather significant obstacle to overcome.

The Mercator projection maps pinned to the walls of our childhood classrooms have, for many of us, skewed our notions of world geography with a northern hemisphere bias — Antarctica usually being relegated to a thin white band of coastline separated from all points north by a inconspicuous strip of cyan.

But when we consider that to travel from Christchurch to McMurdo Sound is the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of flying from the Pyrenees to Svalbard, suddenly the Southern Ocean doesn’t seem quite so trivial a feature. This new perspective invites us to question whether we in Australia and New Zealand really are that far ‘down under’ after all.

To some, the Southern Ocean simply comprises the southern extensions of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Ocean basins and is not an ocean in its own right. There are others however, that recognise the Southern Ocean as a distinct and fundamental element of global ocean circulation. Lionel Carter, Professor of Marine Geology at the Antarctic Research Centre, is among the latter.

I first met Lionel during his time at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), where his work focused on the deep ocean flow and seafloor sediment dynamics of the southwest Pacific region. Now, at the ARC, he is involved with deciphering records of marine environmental change during warm extremes through the ANZICE programme, and applying the results of ANDRILL to see how localised changes in the Ross Sea can affect regional ocean circulation.

In this episode we discuss the attributes that define the Southern Ocean today, how it behaved 20,000 years ago during the last glacial maximum, and whether New Zealand’s visitation by icebergs several years ago could be a sign of things to come…

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All Journeys Begin With a First Step Matthew Wood Jan 18

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’Great God! This is an awful place…’Man and Iceberg

So wrote Robert Falcon Scott in January of 1912 upon discovering that the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, had beaten him to the South Pole.

A rather unfair review you might say, but then again, Scott was about to find out just how unforgiving a place the white continent can be. From the stoic characters of the heroic age of exploration through to the scientists and support staff of modern Antarctic programs, those who seek to work on the ice quickly learn that Antarctica can be a place of both serene beauty and uncompromising harshness.

While Antarctica’s capacity to pitilessly claim the lives of the unfortunate or unprepared has long been understood and respected, it is only recently that we have begun to appreciate the extent to which mankind’s collective actions have put this delicate environment in grave danger of collapse.

The global implications of rapid environmental change at the poles make Antarctic science, in my opinion, one of the most important endeavours of the modern world.

So, why make a podcast? After flirting with work in academia and industry I recently found myself wanting to try my hand at science media and communication. I guess I realised that I had become more comfortable as an ‘armchair’ scientist, fervently enjoying the works of popular science writers like Richard Leakey, Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins and many others. I’m also a big fan of the podcasting format and an avid listener of shows like Philosophy Bites, by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, and Science Talk: The Podcast of Scientific American, hosted by Steve Mirsky — shows that I highly recommend and that have clearly influenced the style of Journeys. In order to bring the stories of any specialist discipline to the masses there is a clear challenge to strike a balance between maintaining the interest of both the layman and those with existing knowledge. I hope this podcast will succeed in distilling the essence of each science story, but I would of course recommend any referenced source material to those seeking further information.

I first worked with the Antarctic Research Centre (ARC) as a field assistant on the Victoria Land coastal glaciers in late 2003, following my undergraduate study in geology at Victoria University of Wellington. After this unforgettable experience I maintained a keen interest in what happens on the ice and continued to work closely with colleagues in the ARC through research and teaching.

The man at the helm of the ARC is Professor Tim Naish, a man well known in geological circles for his application of cyclostratigraphic principles, developed in the Wanganui basin and the Canterbury coast of New Zealand, to the ice sheet fluctuations across the continental margin of southern Victoria Land in Antarctica (the Cape Roberts Project and more recently ANDRILL). In this first episode Professor Naish recounts his early impressions of Antarctic fieldwork, outlines the history of the ARC to date and considers the direction in which it is currently heading.

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Photo (c) Matthew Wood 2003

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