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Waikato scientists put on ice for summer

Eighteen scientists led by the Waikato University will spend four weeks in Antarctica this summer as part of a project to compile a detailed picture of the Ross Dependency.

The scientists will spend most of January in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys as part of the university’s project to create a Geographic Information System model which links the biodiversity, landscape and environmental factors of the region.

In 2008, the university won nearly $1 million in government funding under the International Polar Year – a two-year international programme which aims to further human understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic environments. It’s led by the International Council for Science, and the World Meteorological Organisation, and in New Zealand, the Labour Government funded six major Antarctica projects – three with Niwa and one each with Waikato, Victoria and Otago universities.

Dr Ian Hogg, one of Waikato’s principal investigators, said the aim was to map the lifeforms there from bacteria to invertebrates and then create a geographical model that anyone could use to “fly through” the valleys to see what is there. “It means that if there’s an area that is particularly important for animals or plants and you’ve got helicopters landing in that area, you will be able to do that in another location by looking at the model,” Dr Hogg said.

“Antarctica is one of the simplest terrestrial ecosystems on the planet,” Dr Hogg said. “For things like climate change, you can pick it up a lot quicker there because of the way the system is – it’s like an early warning system.”

Although the two-year International Polar Year actually finishes in March, Waikato is just coming to the end of its first year of its three years of funding. In November 2008 a team of eight scientists were in Antarctica for three weeks doing “ground truth” work – looking at whether what is being seen on satellite images matches up with what is actually on the ground.

In January 2009, a team of 18 biologists will take that a step further and examine the biodiversity at more than 600 individual sites. The team involves 10 Waikato scientists joined by scientists from universities in the UK, Australia, Spain, Germany, South Africa and the US for the polar year project. Once the team has analysed the biodiversity, the information will be uploaded into the GIS model.

Waikato University has had a long-standing relationship with the Antarctic, but the funding opportunities thrown up by the International Polar Year provided a chance for staff and PhD students to spend more time on the ice.

“The number of staff and students that have been involved in Antarctic research from this university is phenomenal,” Dr Hogg said. “In the past five or so years, we’ve had 40 staff and 38 masters students, PhD students and post-doctoral fellows work in Antarctica.”

Waikato University had also had more than 50 scientific papers published about its ongoing research in Antarctica during that time. That research has spanned everything from the deterioration of the wood in the historic expedition huts, to where the southernmost worm is found, and the uniqueness of Antarctica and its potential for commercial success.

Waikato’s work was well regarded internationally, Dr Hogg said, particularly because of Professor Allan Green’s long-term work on Antarctica and also that of Professor Craig Cary. They are the other lead investigators in Waikato’s polar year project, along with Canterbury University’s Professor Bryan Storey.

“Waikato’s Antarctic work tends to be more well known overseas than in New Zealand,” Dr Hogg said.

The International Polar Year project team, which brings together Waikato staff from biological sciences and geography, was recently granted $50,000 from Waikato University Vice-Chancellor Professor Roy Crawford for project expenses.

Dr Hogg said spending time in Antarctica was incredibly expensive, even considering the logistical support from Antarctica New Zealand.
Scientists spending time on the ice must have thorough medical and dental examinations, an ECG, then there’s flights to Christchurch and accommodation and food costs while in Antarctica.

“But it’s an amazing experience and one Waikato is very proud to be able to give to so many staff and students.”

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