Antarctic report – the Italian connection

By Guest Author 24/01/2012

by Dr Craig Stevens, Physical Oceanographer at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)

Right on schedule we flew to the Mario Zuchelli Station in Terra Nova Bay run by the Italian Antarctic Programme. It is comparable in size to Scott Base, but as it is located a bit further north it is called the Caribbean of Antarctica — by some!

We had fantastic views from the Twin Otter on the way up as we crossed Ross Island and directly over the Erebus Glacier Tongue — the scene of last season’s big experiment. The sea ice has been far less stable this season to the extent that we probably couldn’t have conducted the 2010 experiment this season. As we headed further north we crossed open-ocean with diminishing pack ice in patches here and there.

Loading the Twin Otter for the flight north
Loading the Twin Otter for the flight north

Finally after around an hour or so of flying the Drygalski came into view. This stunning feature flows some 80 odd km out into the Ross Sea and is part of the reason we’re here. There’s substantial ice packed up on the south side but beautiful open water to the north. This beauty belies its normal function most times of the year — one of the coldest windiest bits of ocean in the world.

As ever, anyone not used to dealing with oceanographers is surprised by the amounts of gear we travel with. The Italian team that greeted us at the airfield (a smooth bit of glacier) piled all our gear with good humour into the back of a truck and we were delivered to the station. The base is surrounded by a whole new skyline which we have to familiarize ourselves with — along with the language and cultural differences.

The view from above
The view from above

We met our Italian collaborator for the first time, Dr Giannetta Fusco, who has worked in the region both at the base and aboard the Italian ship the Italica. She is proving a great host and showed us around the base, which has quite a different feel when compared to Scott Base or McMurdo Station. The Programme Director greeted us and wished us well in our scientific endeavours. We returned the favour with some fine NZ wines.

With focused process-based experiments where we look at how a specific set of mechanics works it is sometimes difficult to see how they fit into the big picture. From my perspective they contribute in two ways. First, the data in specific situations can be combined to build up a quantitative picture of behaviour. This directly gets included in models maybe as a new coefficient.

The second way that this work proves useful is that it exposes mechanics that hitherto had not been considered relevant. Thus, extra aspects might be added to a model or a different model altogether might be used. When I say models here I mean both snazzy computer simulations through to things that as not much more that collections of thoughts on the back of an envelope.

Tomorrow starts with some survey work south of the ice tongue to look for a suitable site. Anyway must run — it’s pizza night at Mario Zuchelli Station.