Down on the ice

21:24, Apr 13 2014
LONG ARM OF SCIENCE: Michael Armstrong gently gathers adelie penguin chicks for research purposes.

A Nelson man has returned from Antarctica with new convictions about the value of ice science in unlocking the secrets of climate change. Naomi Arnold spoke to Mike Armstrong.

Forget the climate scaremongering, Mike Armstrong says. The way to reverse climate change is to get people excited about their world instead.

In January, the 25-year-old returned from two weeks on an all-expenses-paid trip to New Zealand research station Scott Base, on Ross Island in Antarctica. There, he assisted National Geographic photographer Jason Edwards in capturing the wildlife that live on the continent.

TENT TOWN: Michael Armstrong and Marli Lopez-Hope set up camp on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

The trip, called Voice for Antarctica, was supported by Air New Zealand, the National Geographic Channel, and Antarctica New Zealand. Armstrong travelled with fellow prizewinner Marli Lopez-Hope, an Australian student film-maker. The pair were selected from more than 2000 applicants over 52 countries.

Armstrong won the trip after he dubbed a comic voiceover on to a National Geographic video of waddling penguins but, despite using humour to snare the prize, he calls his journey "a huge wake-up call".

Those two weeks were life-changing. Armstrong says the landscape, isolation, beauty and enormity of Antarctica are things he won't be able to forget. But it's also reframed how he thinks about the world and humans' relationship to the environment.


UNLOCKING EARTH'S SECRETS: and Marli Lopez-Hopedrill into the ice core On the Ross Ice Shelf.

"Climate-change research should not be faced with so many hurdles as there's space for a lot of work to be done."

The great white cap at the bottom of the Earth has been called “ground zero” for climate change. All at once, it is a time capsule of trapped data, a harbinger of change, and a container for much of the frozen water that will result in rising sea levels, should it one day melt.

During his stint on the ice, Armstrong drilled and examined ice cores, touching 3000-year-old ice. He gathered data on adelie penguins, learned about ice-dwelling microbes, and discovered what laser scans of the ice shelf looked like below his feet.

"I was passionate about the environment before, but seeing the work going on down there and some of the really drastic outcomes or scientific findings that have been ignored in the past has really changed the way I consume that information, the way I seek out that information, the way I live my life and how we all live our lives in day to day living."

He says climate change has become "highly politicised" when it needn't be.

"It's being influenced by the wrong motives and needs to be taken at its face value and scientific value. The time frames that used to be one or two generations have now been shortened to one to two years. We're looking at really significant impacts that are being ignored, essentially."

Not surprisingly, he never had a dull dinner-time conversation at Scott Base, which he says was crammed with “interesting and exciting people”. During the trip, he said yes to everything he could, to experience as much as possible.

"I loved the conversations with the people who do this for a living. They work 12 hours a day with a smile on their face and get so excited to talk about the history of it and their findings."

He joked that scientists working with microbes rued the attention given to charismatic megafauna, such as whales and penguins, but says people have to realise the Earth is one big system, with humans negatively influencing those below; and thus, themselves.

"It's not about how one organism works or where you are in the food chain; it's the whole flow of the food chain. The impact is greatest at the top of the food chain. When you look at humans as an apex predator, I think we need to put ourselves back in the food chain and into the ecosystem and experience it from that angle. When there's a change in the environment that flow-on effect is much greater at the top."

Video of him stepping off the C-130 Hercules on to the ice for the first time shows his face split by a grin at the wonder of his new surroundings.

"It only really became a real experience at that stage," he says. "Boarding the Hercules was a life achievement for me; I never thought I would fly in an air force aircraft. But even then I was in disbelief that I was going to Antarctica and spending time in a place that has always been a dream of mine to visit."

He describes Scott Base as "a school camp in one long green corridor".

"[Nearby American base] McMurdo looks like an industrial town; 1200 staff on base over the summer, whereas Scott Base had 70 when we we there. In comparison [to McMurdo] it's just a small home away from home."

His bunkroom had wooden shutters, which kept out most of the 24-hour daylight.

But the constant light wasn't the issue in getting enough sleep; it was the sheer number of things to do.

More than half the nights he was there, he didn't get to bed until 2am.

When minke whales are diving in pools in the ice shelf nearby and the midnight sun is shining off the ice shelf, you don't go to sleep, especially when your photographer mentor is renowned for his work ethic.

Armstrong describes himself as "an outdoorsman" and, though he felt strongly about protecting the environment before, taking part in Antarctic science work has crystallised that connection.

He attended Nelson College and studied psychology and physical education at the University of Otago, and then gained a master of science in cultural studies and sociology at Florida State University, winning a full academic scholarship there. His parents moved to Nelson from just outside London when he was 7, and he grew up with an appreciation of the natural world.

"I've spent a lot of time in the Nelson ranges and out on the water. Seeking out adventure is something I really enjoy."

There was plenty of that on the ice. On arrival, they had two days of basic training on the ice shelf. The threat of the suddenly changeable, unforgiving environment was a constant companion.

"It's quite outrageous to be standing there in negative 10 degrees [Celsius] feeling quite comfy and warm, and having the instructor tell us what to do if our helicopter goes down over the ice shelf. It's not the sort of skill set you'd have growing up in Nelson."

He's now working for Auckland Tourism, Events, and Economic Development, a job he started just a couple of days after he arrived back in Christchurch. But he wants to continue working on trying to convey the importance of Antarctic research, and the science behind it, and to get more people feeling the same connection with the natural world that he does. From a sociological point of view, he's interested in how people understand scientific research.

"That's why I find it so interesting being back and looking at the impacts of this research and how it maybe isn't taken on board."

He's says he's glad Air New Zealand and National Geographic put money behind science communication.

"That space can definitely be built upon and it's something I'd like to try and be involved with; getting people excited about the natural environments that are out there and about the science going on. Once we get people excited they'll become informed and hopefully can lead to some positive social change.

"We have focused on the danger and scare tactics and fear-mongering around climate change and that hasn't worked. It's easier for people to ignore it or turn a blind eye. It's something that came through speaking to researchers. Their level of passion for the world and environment and trying to understand it [is] sometimes lost in the words and the science and the content matter. For us to be involved on the front line handling the penguin chicks and drilling the cores, you can see that these people love their job and love what they do."