A flurry of Antarctic scientists

By Victoria Metcalf 22/08/2014

Antarctic scientist gets close to study subject, a Weddell seal. Antarctic scientists tend to feel passionate about their subject areas.
Antarctic scientist gets close to study subject, a Weddell seal. Antarctic scientists tend to feel passionate about their subject areas.

For those of you living in Auckland, New Zealand, happily going about your daily lives you might be blissfully unaware that approximately 1000 Antarctic scientists are currently beginning to infiltrate the city.

Think of them like a flurry of snowflakes chaotically dashing between talks and workshops in the CBD discussing everything that encompasses Antarctic science, which is an incredibly broad array of topics.

In fact, Antarctic science could in reality mean global science as much of the science conducted on the ice has global implications. A common theme for a lot of the science we do is the umbrella of climate change, but that’s certainly not all. From understanding what happens out in space through to confirming life as present 4000m under the ice in sub-glacial lake there’s a lot going on down on the frozen continent.

The event is the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) Open Science Conference (OSC). All up I’m in Auckland for nine days with related workshops and committee meetings either side of the five-day conference kicking off Sunday. It’s going to be intense and I may nearly explode with information overload by the end.

SCAR sits as a body under the International Council for Science (ICSU), and this higher level body (which guides and governs science around the world) will also be meeting here at the end of the August, meaning many of the world’s top scientists are temporarily making Auckland home.

But wait, there’s more. Also meeting at the same time is the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Program (COMNAP). These are the people involved in running Antarctic scientific programmes on the ice and all the infrastructure and manpower that involves (in other words the more logistical side of things).

Right now I’m sitting in an all-day workshop on Antarctic Near-Shore and Terrestrial Observing Systems (ANTOS)- Antarctic work just loves acronyms which can make it seem as if we’re talking a foreign language at times.

It might sound a bit dry but what we’re looking at is developing a co-ordinated framework for long term monitoring on the impact of change on Antarctic life.

This is important stuff and it’s challenging to implement long term programmes in a short-term funding world but there are successful precedents such as the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) programme.

With change happening so fast in the Antarctic, there’s a real sense of urgency to get this new activity started. Other challenges aside from the hurdles of funding include managing across nations, choosing regions within the Antarctic and subantarctic, the logistics of the work and ensuring data is managed and comparable.

One way to view outcomes of the research and monitoring framework that would eventuate from this initiative  is to feed into the desire to have an organised suite of protected areas across the Antarctic and subantarctic. And that’s something that would I think have a lot of public support.

Although the near-shore (marine) scientists are well outnumbered at this session Annick Wilmotte from Belgium, who sits on the Committee for Environmental Protection commented “marine ecosystems are in fashion …. there’s a  problem with perception of terrestrial ecosystems because we just ‘walk on them’.”

The SCAR OSC homepage has a constantly updating Storify of all the tweets being released about the conference or you can look for #SCAR2014 on Twitter to gain snapshots of what this conference is all about.  You can find me tweeting about SCAR2014 on @VicMetcalf_NZ. New Zealand Icefest 2014 is also hosting some taster events next week.

There will be some fascinating information coming out- we’d love you to do the polar plunge and dive into our world of Antarctic science. And if you’re somewhere in Auckland over the next week or so and you hear someone mention the Antarctic, do come over and chat to us about what concerns or interests you have in the Antarctic region. Unlike leopard seals we don’t bite.