In the first of a new series of interviews with young researchers, Eloise Gibson talks to Wellington scientist Huw Horgan about drilling into the Antarctic ice – and what it reveals about the future of New Zealand’s beaches.
There is no storming away from a fight in Antarctica – there’s nowhere for a mad scientist to go. It takes particular qualities to do good research when you’re camping with your workmates on an expanse of ice, says Huw Horgan of Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre. “Tolerance, endurance and good humour. It’s not somewhere where you can disagree with someone in a heated way, because you’re with them for the next two months,” he says.
Crawling out of your tent each morning, you emerge into a vast white landscape with seemingly no horizon, says Horgan. “There’s nothing higher than your tent .. It’s a lot like being out on the ocean.”
Horgan is part of a team that drills into the West Antarctic ice sheet to reveal the secrets underneath. He looks for previously unknown creatures and finds frozen records of past climate and ice melting. The West Antarctic ice sheet is the size of France and 800m thick in places. How well – or not – it will resist melting is the big unknown when it comes to predicting sea level rise. So far scientists have only looked underneath the ice sheet’s interior in two places. They want to know how warm it is under there, how much freezing and melting is happening now and what’s happened in the distant past. That means camping right in the middle of it and drilling.
When we think of Antarctic adventurers we might think of solo trekking, but, in Horgan’s working environment, important discoveries are more likely to result from persevering with a slightly stinky tent-mate. “The age of the individual hero in the Antarctic is gone,” says Horgan. “What we need is groups of people working very closely, with very complementary skills.