Niwa man ice-bound

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Central Otago may be heading into spring but National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research atmospheric technician Wills Dobson is gearing up for another trip to the Antarctic.

Mr Dobson works from Niwa’s Lauder facility, where he services and maintains a range of instruments that measure atmospheric trace gases.

He leaves for the icy continent next week, where he will spend about three weeks at Scott Base servicing similar instruments.

This will be his fourth trip to the Antarctic, and on top of his regular work he will be training two other technicians who are contracted to maintain the instruments on Niwa’s behalf.

“People from the Lauder team go down every year. We obviously have these two technicians operate these instruments on behalf of us but they’re not experts on these.

“The instruments we put down there are very similar to the ones we’ve got at Lauder but they’re pretty specific science instruments, so unless you’ve operated them before you probably wouldn’t know about them.”

Temperatures will be sitting at about -30degC during his visit. Because of the extreme climate, instruments that could be automated elsewhere in the world had to be operated manually, he said.

“This is a harsh environment down there. These sort of instruments do tend to struggle.

“There’s problems with technology at -30 degrees; things like greases and lubricants freeze up and don’t work. The chance for something to go wrong, and more, just the consequences of something going wrong, are pretty dire – we could lose an instrument, which is expensive.”

Like instruments at Lauder, those stationed at Scott Base were measuring trace gases, including CFCs and ozone, he said.

Chlorine monoxide, the “smoking gun of ozone destruction and a byproduct of CFCs”, was measured by a microwave radiometer, dubbed “ClOE”, that was one of only three of its kind in the world, he said.

The Antarctic was of particular interest because of the hole in the ozone layer, he said, and this was continually monitored. Having accurate, long-term data was important for measuring and comparing atmospheric changes, he said.

“It’s the exact same as data from Lauder; it just gets put into global networks that people can access.”

There was also collaboration between other organisations, he said.

Niwa scientists shared a laboratory with institutions such as the University of Canterbury and the University of Otago, and operated an instrument on behalf of the United States Naval Research Laboratory.

It might be cold, but it’s civilised

It is not just the instruments that are affected by the Antarctic cold, Mr Dobson says, and one of the main challenges is the amount of time it takes to get jobs done at the base.

Cars needed to run for at least 15 minutes before being driven and everyone had to pile on numerous layers before venturing outside.

Workers were required to sign in and out of camp and carry radios, he said.

“What takes a matter of seconds here can take 20 minutes, half an hour, down in Antarctica.”

The most surprising thing about the Antarctic was the level of civilisation, he said.

Scott Base has infrastructure to support about 90 people, while the United States’ neighbouring McMurdo Station houses up to 1100.

“I thought I was going to the edge of civilisation – the final frontier sort of thing – but Scott Base is very organised.”

He described the station as a “military style camp,” with infrastructure such as roads, showers, a kitchen, bar and even a sauna, along with limited internet connection.

“Half the base returns to the bar for a beer and a yarn and we’ve got a TV feed back to the news in New Zealand so everyone knows what’s going on.

“We should be able to watch the elections from down in Scott Base.”

Other Niwa scientists at the base measured everything from ice activity to seals and fish, Mr Dobson said.

Although there was a social aspect in the evenings, work came first and he would only have one day off a week.

“The summer season is really busy down there and it’s all hands on deck.”

“It sounds like some glorious holiday, but, in all honesty, you get pretty tired and relish your days off.

“That being said, it’s an absolutely gorgeous place, and when you get the chance to go and do something, you take it.”