Rebecca Priestley's Dispatches from Continent Seven

Just a single day on the ice gave Rebecca Priestley a new found respect for Antarctica's early explorers.

Just a single day on the ice gave Rebecca Priestley a new found respect for Antarctica's early explorers.

At minus 20°C, on a 1300-metre-high, ice-free plateau in the Dry Valleys region of the Transantarctic Mountains, I hit my limit.

While the geologists I was with seemed unconcerned by the conditions, I ached with the cold. My limbs became heavy and even breathing felt difficult.

After our first day's work geologising we met in the Polar Haven tent, crammed around a small table and vying for position nearest the stove that cooked our food and warmed the air. But no matter how warm it got inside – the temperature reached 7°C – the cold rose up through my boots, into my feet and up my legs.          

Even one day at Friis Hills gave me a newfound respect for Antarctica's early visitors, the heroic age explorers and the scientists who followed them.

In 1912, Robert Falcon Scott and the other four men in his polar party marched, camped and died on the Ross Ice Shelf in conditions much worse than those I was experiencing. A century on, though, travelling to and surviving in this continent has become a very different experience. It took Scott months to sail from the UK to Antarctica, and on the final leg of the journey, between New Zealand and Cape Evans, his reinforced wooden ex-whaling ship Terra Nova endured a fierce Southern Ocean storm, followed by 20 days stuck in the pack ice. For me, Antarctica is an eight-hour flight from Christchurch on a ski-equipped Hercules.

Scott and his men had to pitch tent at the end of each day man-hauling a sledge. Our campsite was at the end of a 40-minute helicopter flight from Scott Base, and all our equipment had been waiting for us when we arrived.

While Scott and his men ate rations of pemmican, biscuits and tea, and finished most meals still hungry, in our field camp we had boxes of "freshies" to select from: we made nachos one night, stir-fried chicken, vegetables and rice the next.

A century on from the expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and his ilk, travelling to and surviving in Antarctica has ...

A century on from the expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and his ilk, travelling to and surviving in Antarctica has become a very different experience.

Scott wore an experimental collection of canvas, wool and reindeer fur, whereas Antarctica New Zealand had supplied us each with a sophisticated layering system made of lightweight, breathable merino and synthetics. My collection included four jackets, salopettes, jersey, six pairs of gloves, two pairs of boots, as well as balaclavas, hats, socks, goggles and thermal underwear. Wearing all of this, including the top layer of Extreme Cold Weather gear, I could expect to keep functioning to something incredible like minus 100°C.

The reindeer-fur sleeping bags of Scott's party became progressively icier and wetter each night from the men's perspiration and condensed breath, so that getting into them was like penetrating a frozen block of ice. In his book The Worst Journey in the World – excerpted in my anthology Dispatches from Continent Seven – Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who took part in a winter expedition before Scott's attempt on the South Pole, wrote of "that blissful moment of getting out of your bag". Come bedtime I pulled on my sleeping mask to shade my eyes from the 24-hour sunlight and snuggled down in my four layers of bedding – a cotton sheet bag, a down sleeping bag, a synthetic sleeping bag and a canvas cover – on my triple-layer sleeping mat: a foam pad, a Thermarest airbed and a sheepskin.

After two days and nights at Friis Hills, I upped my fat and sugar intake and started to acclimatise and better appreciate what was likely to be the most remarkable camping experience of my life.

The geologists I was with, there to investigate times in Earth's history when the continent was significantly warmer than it is today, drilled into the permafrost and recovered a short sediment core to take back to Wellington. The sediments disturbed by the drill crumbled easily, revealing the small distinctive leaves of Nothofagus antarctica, or southern beech. Correlating this land-based evidence with marine drill-core evidence – and determining the likely temperature gradient from mountain to sea – will help reveal what happened to the East Antarctic Ice Sheet during past periods of global warming.

Scott's second Antarctic expedition included scientists who studied geology, glaciology and meteorology and collected specimens of local birds and marine fish, invertebrates and mammals. Through the 20th century Antarctic science became even more diverse: as shown in my anthology, Antarctica attracted limnologists, meteoriticists, astrophysicists and more.

Today, a lot of Antarctic science is two-pronged: investigating what happened in Antarctica when the world was warmer, and cataloguing the impact that today's climatic and oceanic changes are already having on Antarctic species, seas and ice cover. Determining the conditions under which the East Antarctic Ice Sheet will collapse is important, but even without this we know Antarctica's ice is melting: current estimates are that 120 gigatonnes of ice is being lost each year.

Not many people get to visit Antarctica: the scientists, base staff, artists, journalists and tourists who visit are a privileged few, and inevitably come away with profound respect for the place and the people who work there. But out of sight cannot be out of mind: what happens in this region over the next 100 years will affect us all. At current predictions, average global sea level is due to rise by at least half a metre by 2100.

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The rise will not stop there. Some scientists now believe the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet may be headed for inevitable collapse, bringing an average sea-level rise across the globe of up to 3.6 metres. If parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet were to also collapse – a process likely to take hundreds of years – it could lead to additional sea level rise of 20 metres.

A recent ice sheet model developed by Nick Golledge – a glacial geologist who was part of the Friis Hills team I camped with in 2014 – suggests that if we can keep global warming below 2°C we still have a chance of saving the Antarctic ice sheets from major melting and collapse. That's a goal we can all play a part in achieving. 

Dispatches from Continent Seven will be launched by Awa Press and Victoria University of Wellington on Saturday evening at The Embassy Theatre's Black Sparrow Bar. Rebecca Priestley will also be part of panel discussing "Ice Science" at The Embassy at 5pm the same day. For more information, including ticketing, for both events, see 

 - Stuff


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