In from the cold

by Mike Isle

Late last year, Lincoln Agritech research scientist, Dr Adrian Tan, travelled to Antarctica to equip a University of Canterbury drone with custom-built snow depth radar technology so that it could help measure snow depth over sea ice in Antarctica. Now back, he tells us that it was quite an eye-opening experience with a bit of fun thrown in.

Dr Tan said he was stationed at Scott Base and found the personnel at New Zealand’s main base on the continent friendly and welcoming.

“The capacity of Scott Base is about 100 people. At one point while I was there, we reached that capacity due to delays of inbound and outbound flights to Christchurch. Living conditions were cramped but comfortable. 

“Naturally, resource conservation is a big concern at the base due to the difficulty in obtaining supplies such as food, water, fuel and electricity. Luckily, the researchers and staff at Scott Base are friendly and easy-going.

“Doing fieldwork in Antarctica requires a lot of training, endurance and tolerance, as well as the ability to operate calmly when things go wrong. I was lucky to have been guided and supported by my University of Canterbury team members and the talented staff at Scott Base.” Dr Tan said he was kept busy on the project, but things didn’t always go to plan, and some aspects of the programme were “fun”.

“We conducted daily trips to locations on the sea ice around the ‘pressure ridges’ (located near Scott Base) and specific waypoints at McMurdo Sound to trial the drone and our snow depth radar in surveying snow depths on sea ice. 

“We accessed these locations using a track vehicle called a Hagglund. A Hagglund is a specialised vehicle able to traverse the rugged terrain found in Antarctica. Its heavy-duty tracks and engines allow it to handle the many ridges, crevices and deep snow that would otherwise stall a non-tracked vehicle.

“However, about half the time we were there, field expeditions were delayed by storms. While the storms blew through, we waited at the base and spent time completing unfinished work, preparing for quick deployment once the storm was over and engaging in indoor activities such as reading, watching movies, gym/yoga sessions and playing games.

“One of the fun aspects of the induction programme was the overnight camp where we built a snow wall. Snow walls are important as they protect campsites and tents from being inundated with blown snow, something that happens regularly at Scott Base.”

The only disappointment for Dr Tan was there weren’t more people in the induction programme.

“There were only two members on my programme,” he said. “When there is a larger group, the participants get to build an igloo.”

Dr Tan said that the work he carried out alongside glaciologist, Dr Wolfgang Rack, and the University of Canterbury team was important because its aim, is to increase an understanding of the weather systems and processes underlying climate change.

He said the trials he and the team undertook were successful, and they were successfully able to deploy the drone.

Asked to sum up his experience on the ice, Dr Tan replied: “My Antarctica journey was eye-opening. I loved the experience and would like to return to Antarctica to conduct more field measurements and to further improve the drone radar technology. 

“This snow depth radar technology enables large-scale accurate mapping of snow depth on sea ice. Before we designed and built this lightweight yet accurate radar technology, mapping snow depth was extremely challenging. 

“I feel honoured to be a member of this scientific team and fortunate to assist New Zealand in understanding the processes underlying climate change.”