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University research results in icy expedition

It’s a small world after all for Clare Beet and Dean Sandwell who found themselves on the same flight to Antarctica to partake in research for the University of Waikato.

Clare Beet, a Waikato University Master of Science student and Dean Sandwell, a Waikato University Earth Sciences Technician, are both born and bred Raglan locals and grew up living as neighbours on Upper Wainui Road.

The two each visited Antarctica for the first time last month, both for research, but both focusing on quite different aspects of science.
Clare’s trip was funded by a New Zealand Post Antarctic Scholarship from Antarctica New Zealand and a Research Institute Scholarship of $12,000, which she was awarded by the University of Waikato late last year. She is undertaking her research with the university’s Environmental Research Institute.

Clare’s research involved collecting soil samples, in particular samples containing springtails – a 1.5mm long, six-legged insect-like creature – and mites. Springtails are the largest land-based animal that live year-round in Antarctica and are sensitive to climate-driven environmental changes. To assess the changes in the environment, Clare looked at the subtle differences in the genetic structure of each species, comparing them with other previously examined populations in Victoria Land.

“We had a really successful trip and got samples from some amazing places – a few of which may be the first time springtails have been collected there. The whole experience was just surreal. Every time I looked around I was ‘wowed’ all over again,” says Clare.

Technician Dean Sandwell was in Antarctica to service several long-term soil-climate monitoring stations, as part of a cooperative project with Landcare Research, United States Department of Agriculture and the University of Waikato.

“Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth with 98% ice cover, at an average of 2100m thick and is the Earth’s largest fresh water reserve. Of the ice-free ground, only 0.3% is available for soils to form. Relatively little is known about soil climate in Antarctica and the effect that it has on pedogenic processes (processes that lead to soil formation) and viability of microorganisms, invertebrates and plants. Most importantly this data provides base-line atmospheric and soil climatic information in an area sensitive to global climate change,” says Dean.

Getting to Antarctica is no ordinary journey. Dean and Clare flew eight hours on a United States CL-130 military plane, with retractable skis to land on the ice. On arrival they underwent survival training and spent the night sleeping in an ice trench.

For the remainder of their stay Dean had the luxury of staying at Scott Base with daily helicopter flights to climate station sites. “Flying in the helicopter was amazing. Watching killer whales stalking the sea ice edge while penguins dashed for a safe water entry was a once in a lifetime experience,” says Dean.

In contrast, Clare and her team were camping in a remote field location north of the Dry Valleys, over 250 km from Scott Base.
“After almost a week of isolation the noise of an approaching helicopter became one of my favourite sounds, especially as it meant more food and drink rations. Flying in the helicopter surrounded by some of the most picturesque landscapes Antarctica has to offer was definitely one of the highlights,” says Clare.

Natalie Guest

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