Since the 1950s New Zealand has conducted a comprehensive range of scientific studies in Antarctica. Early studies by New Zealand scientists centred on geology, glaciology and zoology. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, New Zealanders were responsible for extensive geological mapping and detailed studies of penguin populations in Antarctica. New Zealand government and university scientists made important discoveries that supported the theory of continental drift.
In 1967 New Zealand scientist Peter Barrett discovered the remains of tetrapods in Antarctica, a startling find that was reported around the world. The tetrapod finding supported what was then a new and radical concept: the existence of a super-continent (known as Gondwana) and continental drift. Tetrapods, a family of species including small lizard-like creatures and freshwater amphibians, have also been found in Africa and Australia.
Melting glaciers and sea ice
Long-term studies of glaciers in the dry valley region (on the opposite side of McMurdo Sound from Scott Base) have determined that most are receding. Rising water levels in Lake Vanda, fed by melting glaciers on the eastern edge of the dry valleys, led to the decommissioning and removal of Vanda Station (which, from 1967 to 1995, was New Zealand’s only base in Antarctica other than Scott Base).
There are about 1 million breeding pairs of Adélie penguins in the Ross Sea region. The penguin population declined in the early 1960s, but has risen markedly since then. The reason for this is now clear: an earlier and more extensive melting of the sea ice surrounding Antarctica has increased the access of penguins to the sea and hence to food.
Antarctica has a major effect on New Zealand’s weather, and meteorological observations have been made at Scott Base since 1957. Since the 1990s scientific studies in Antarctica have focused on climate change. The observed annual temperatures at Scott Base appear to indicate slight warming. However, carbon dioxide levels at the South Pole have risen consistently since the mid-1970s. Most climate models predict substantial warming and increased rainfall for polar regions over the next 100 years. New Zealand scientists working in Antarctica have also shown that the depletion of ozone over Antarctica is far greater than anywhere else in the world.
Antarctica has a major impact on the earth’s oceans and atmosphere. New Zealand scientists have played an important role in a succession of international drilling programmes designed to discover the scope and speed of previous glacial changes in the region. The programmes sought to discover what the history of the Antarctic ice sheets indicated about the timing and extent of climate change in the future. It was an international collaboration with scientists from other nations – notably Germany, Italy, the UK and the US – and supported by Antarctica New Zealand (the agency responsible for managing New Zealand government activities in Antarctica).
Artists to Antarctica
Painters, photographers, filmmakers, multi-media artists, musicians and writers visit Scott Base in the summer season. The first, who went in the mid-1950s, were usually New Zealand Defence Force artists.
New Zealand officials and scientists also monitor the number of tourists and their impact in the Ross Dependency. In the early 2000s around 40,000 tourists visited Antarctica annually. There was concern about the impact of tourists on the environment at landing sites which include historic huts and penguin colonies.
Tourist flights over parts of Antarctica were popular in the 1970s, but led to New Zealand’s worst air accident. An Air New Zealand DC-10 crashed into the lower slopes of Mt Erebus on 28 November 1979, killing all 257 passengers and crew. Air New Zealand has not resumed tourist flights to the continent. Antarctica has continued to intrigue and interest the public, but remained the continent least visited by New Zealanders.
New Zealanders began restoring the Scott and Shackleton expedition huts in the 1950s, adding Borchgrevink's hut in 1980. From 1987 the newly formed Antarctic Heritage Trust managed the restoration and preservation of all historic sites in the Ross Sea region.