National Portrait: Peter Beggs, the NZ boss of white, odourless Antarctica

Antarctica NZ boss Peter Beggs has been to the ice 10 times in four years.
JOSEPH JOHNSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Antarctica NZ boss Peter Beggs has been to the ice 10 times in four years.

Great white nothingness. How else to describe it? Antarctica is a place where things have been taken away. 

"Antarctica is a place where your senses are completely tested," says Peter Beggs, chief executive of Antarctica New Zealand. "There is no diversity of colour. It's white, a volcanic colour and sometimes blue sky and that's your lot, other than the green of Scott Base and what you're wearing. 

"There is no smell. There is nothing there that has a smell. There is no light or sound coming from anywhere other than your own operations. It's really cold and often windy and really dry, so no humidity. It's bizarre. Quite a surreal thing." 

Some people find it utterly miserable, an endlessly depressing landscape. Others find it meditative and spiritual, or maybe they just have a spiritual crisis. 

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"Antarctica New Zealand has a chaplain and that chaplain gets a lot of calls," Beggs says. 

"Our presence there is to continue the understanding of Antarctica. It's changing," says Beggs.
KARL DRURY/FAIRFAX NZ

"Our presence there is to continue the understanding of Antarctica. It's changing," says Beggs.

We are talking in the Shackleton Room at Antarctica New Zealand's low-profile headquarters near Christchurch Airport. Maybe the riotous abundance of colour here – a bright orange feature wall, some local art – is a response to the sensory deprivation of the ice. 

Beggs has been there 10 times since he became the organisation's chief executive. The flight south takes between five and a half hours and 11 hours depending on the plane. You go in summer, not during the constant dark of the Antarctic winter. 

The organisation has more than 30 employees in Christchurch, roughly the same number again at Scott Base during summer and a core team of 12 who stay there through the winter. 

It's about science, essentially. 

"Our presence there is to continue the understanding of Antarctica. It's changing. We know that. It has an impact on the rest of the world. We know that. How is it changing and what impact is it having on the rest of the world?" 

It has always been about science. New Zealand schoolchildren used to learn, and maybe they still do, about the heroism of Scott and Shackleton. The sacrifices, the noble deaths, the imperial age of exploration, the dogs and ponies, the race to the South Pole. 

"But that's mistaken," Beggs says. "Their missions were largely funded through scientific research. If you look at the records of those early explorers, they were picking up rock samples and penguin samples and bringing them back. The premise of science has not changed." 

Some people find it utterly miserable, an endlessly depressing landscape. Others find it meditative and spiritual.
REUTERS

Some people find it utterly miserable, an endlessly depressing landscape. Others find it meditative and spiritual.

Antarctica is vulnerable to a changing world and as it changes and warms, our weather warms with it. All is linked. Small changes there can have effects here. A 2 per cent change of Antarctica would mean a 1 metre sea rise. This strikes Beggs as a tiny fraction – imagine 2 per cent of an ice cube melting – that has a devastating impact. 

So climate change is not some abstraction contained in numbers but something that can be observed, sometimes in ways you never expected. Here is what Beggs calls a classic example, the story of the scallops and the crabs.

It sounds like Through the Looking Glass, but for real. Antarctic scallops have unusually thin shells that you could crush with your bare hands. Meanwhile, the warming oceans mean that crabs that would eat the scallops are moving further south every year. At some point the two will meet.

"There is no evolved defence that can cope with this predator coming in. That completely changes the balance of the sea floor. They are things we will actually see in our lifetime." 

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Are there other threats? Would tourism be one? Beggs has to step carefully around this. 

"We don't actively support tourism," he says, but New Zealand's role is to ensure any tourism to Antarctica is safe, well managed and does not impact the environment. This will come up at an Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in China next week. 

"One of New Zealand's key topics is responsible management of tourism in Antarctica. It's something New Zealand has led for the last couple of years. The environment needs to be protected for us to study it. It's also very tricky to get to. One incident from a search and rescue perspective is considerable for us to support." 

Examples have popped up from time to time. Remember when astronaut Buzz Aldrin had to be airlifted from Antarctica in 2016 after a medical emergency? Aldrin was there as an 86-year-old tourist. But at least the weather was on their side. 

At the time, Beggs said: "If we can get them out easily we absolutely would."

Aldrin had travelled with White Desert, a luxury tour operator whose website says it is "the only company in the world to fly into the interior of Antarctica in a private jet". The cost is around US $70,000 per person (NZ $101,500). But they needed a US military plane to get Aldrin out. 

A couple of years earlier, in 2014, 52 scientists, journalists and students had to be rescued when the research ship Akademik Shokalskiy​ was stuck in pack ice. Two icebreakers had to turn back before a helicopter finally reached them. "Helicoptering in places like that isn't a piece of cake," as US writer David Roberts told the National Geographic

The Akademik Shokalskiy continues to make voyages to the frozen south. "Get ready for some excellent wildlife photos!" the Antarctica Guide website promises. It is analogous to Mt Everest, where tourists want a dangerous experience to be easy and accessible. 

Tourism is "rising quite considerably", Beggs says. Over the summer of 2015-2016, more than 38,000 tourists visited Antarctica, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. Over 28,000 of them landed on the continent. 

The science that New Zealand does keeps costing. A redevelopment of Scott Base is in the pipeline, if Beggs can win over Treasury. It would need somewhere between $100 million and $150m. "Some of those buildings date back to day one."

Antarctica New Zealand got an extra $16.7m over four years in last year's Budget after Beggs warned a select committee that the funding that had stalled at $15.2m a year was not keeping up with research ambitions. This year? "We are hopeful but you never know."

 - Stuff

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