Thursday, March 12, 2009
Christchurch and the International Anarctic Centre
Arriving at the town centre, instead of opting for the Museum or the Art Gallery we bought tickets for the International Antarctic Centre which sounded very intriguing indeed.
Christchurch has long been associated with the Antarctic since the Scott and Shackleton expeditions sailed from here between 1900 and 1912. But today all the New Zealand, USA and Italian groups leave by airplane from Christchurch to man their permanent year round stations on that continent. The centre is situated near the airport in the middle of the expeditions operations and until two weeks ago when the summer season officially ended it was a hive of activity nearby as the personnel and provisions were airlifted to their bases. We saw on the tarmac the US Hercules aircraft which remains ready in case of an emergency to go there, as with technical advances in flying the stations are no longer cut off for the six months of winter as they previously were.
Antarctica is the fifth largest continent and is twice as big as Australia. Once it formed part of the large continent of Gondwana and it was warm and covered with trees and animals as has been ascertained by fossils found there. Eventually it broke apart and ended up where it is today, the coldest place on earth and also the driest with very little precipitation. The lowest temperature recorded there is minus 89.2 degrees Centigrade and winds have been recorded at 320 km per hour. It is completely dark for six months and survival for the personnel living there is totally dependent on modern technology.
At Scott Base, the New Zealand station 30 people live there all year round while at the US McMurdo Station there are 200 people all year round. Scott Base was established in 1957 became permanent in 1961, while being completely remodelled in 2005/6. The South Pole is situated on a thick slow moving sheet of ice and moves about 10 feet every year so it is constantly being surveyed and relocated.
There are usually about 35 research projects each year, involving about 200 scientist around the globe. Of course one of those is the study of the hole in the ozone layer situated over Antarctica. When measured in 1998 it was larger than the whole of the North American continent and had been steadily growing since the early 80s. With the banning of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and halons growth has ceased and it is expected to begin to reduce in 2010 and be fully recovered by 2080.
Considered the last true wilderness Antarctica is a very fragile environment. While many minerals have been discovered there there can be no mining for at least fifty years under the Protocol for Environmental Protection for the area, even if it were economically viable, although it may never be so.
Few plants grow there, just a few algae, lichen and mosses and one species of tussock grass. However the region is home to many animals and birds, foremost of all the different species of penguin which I will leave for another post. Of the 43 species of birds, all but 5 live mostly at sea.
However with a constant sea temperature of minus 1.9 degrees Centigrade there are many types of marine life which live there. Ten different kinds of whale are found there while seals live there year round, but do holes which are kept open in the ice for them to surface in order to breathe. There are 35 species of fish and over 1000 invertebrates in the region. Some have antifreeze in their blood and one species, the ice fish, has no red blood cells at all. All in all it is an area much richer in marine life than you might imagine.
After we completed our tour of the centre we were taken for a wild ride in a Swedish made Hagglund all-terrain vehicle, used by the personnel at the Antarctic bases. Our driver took great delight in scaring the heck out of us as he put the vehicle through its paces on a special course designed to show its versatility on all types of land conditions and in the water for it is an amphibious vehicle.
I found this a most interesting place to visit and was glad we had opted to go there.
Afterwards we wandered through the lovely gardens in the city centre and by the river and we also toured the Cathedral which was decorated with flowers for the festival, including a carpet of flowers along the length of the main aisle which was truly beautiful.
Photos will follow at a later date when internet access is not so poor. It is unbelievably slow on the ship, much slower than it has ever been before so it is truly frustrating, even trying to keep up with my email. I will never complain about my broadband service at home again.