Antarctica: Team Awesome

By Dave Risk

So, you know that I’m headed to the Antarctic Dry Valleys, and with a team of scientists.  But, who are these folks, and what are they trying to accomplish?

Charlie Lee. Microbiologist specializing in extremeophile microbes. University of Waikato (NZ). Our Commander-in-chief and acronym aficionado who can also take a good joke. Lover of Antarctic science in all its forms. Project goal: To coordinate a multidisciplinary project using cutting edge tools to examine the distribution and activity of biological communities, winds and microclimate, and mechanisms of sediment redistribution.

Ian McDonald. Microbiologist specializing in extremeophiles. University of Waikato (NZ). Eleven-time Dry Valley veteran has it all mastered, and can DJ the best electronica mess-tent dance party in the Dry Valleys. Project goal: Support our science as the senior overseeing logistician.

Marwan Katurji. Meteorologist specializing in localized flow in complex terrain. University of Canterbury (NZ). Not easily fazed except by delayed dinners. Frequently gives understated nods from across the room that, without words, say “That’s the way it is, my friend”. Project goal: To fly UAV across and down our Dry Valley to map small scale wind fields.

Paul Bealing. Technologist specializing in geo-informatics and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).  University of Canterbury (NZ). A modern day MacGuyver, lover of Ukranian vodka, and old motorcycles of any nationality. Possibly the Southern Hemisphere’s quickest-draw wit. Project Goal: To keep the Canterbury UAV off the ground.

Jayne Belnap. Specialist in arid-region surface processes. United States Geologic Survey (USGS) Moab. A delightfully positive shoot-from-the-hipster American, who has seen it all, and knows no limits. A true curiosity kid. Project Goal: To establish the role of wind in redistributing Dry Valley sediments, and healing human landscape scars.

Maggie Lau. Extremeophile microbiologist specializing in harsh region (poles, deserts) microbial communities. Princeton University (USA). The quick learner, quiet observer, and detail master, nothing slips past Maggie. But she is not all business and is always good for a big (100 lb-er) belly laugh. Project Goal: To step in seamlessly for a missing team member, and co-pilot a UAV with multi-spectral camera that she’s never flown let alone seen, and conduct related ground truth sampling of several kinds.

Len Gillman. Forest ecologist come pinch-hitter UAV pilot. Aukland University of Technology (NZ). Chillaxed rock-climbing university administrator, exposed this trip to the mind altering stress of piloting (and landing) a high speed computer controlled drone for which he had received only a couple days training. Alternated between joke-making from the camping chair, and teeth clenching – but he pulled it off! Project Goal: To capture spectral images that would allow for identification of map algal mats from the sky.

Dave Risk. Soil gas emissions expert specializing in harsh regions and instrumentation. St Francis Xavier University, Canada. Poor sod obviously went too far south for his winter vacation this year. Frightfully limited wardrobe as a consequence of a long lasting luggage snafu, but did just fine thanks with 2x underwear purchase before heading to The Ice. Project Goal: To Check on an existing instrument that measures microbes breathing, and to undertake related spatial sampling campaigns.

For a portion of our field work, we also had two honorary members embedded in the group:

Trey Ratcliff.  A computer science graduate photography wizkid artist who is sought as much by fun as he seeks fun himself. Discovered red wine only in his forties and won’t likely ever look back. Project Goal: Experience one of the remotest places, and capture images that mortals cannot even see.

Stu Robertson.  A Kiwi videographer and photography artist. An artistic olympian who will adapt, stretch, or contort – whatever it takes to get the prize. A great storyteller that in Antarctica could be bested only by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen themselves. Project Goal: Live his dream of visiting Antarctica, and return with unforgettable media.

While the bios that are a bit tongue in cheek, they emphasize both the multidisciplinary nature of the team, and the personalities of the actors in my Antarctic drama. Charlie (and Craig Cary who wasn’t along but is heavily involved) both recognize the types of work needed for these unique regions, and have worked hard to put together international teams to get ‘er done.  Personally, I met Charlie and Craig 4 years ago when they found me at a meeting in Norway, and we have collaborated ever since. This process is very representative of the way that science works. And, throughout the project we naturally developed areas of overlap – where our individual work could be enhanced by additional imaging or sampling of the same sites in different ways. It’s only good luck that our team was so colourful, but for that I’m especially thankful.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Antarctica New Zealand and Scott Base as partners. ANZ supports all logistical demands of NZ government funded Antarctic research. Working in the Antarctic is challenging.  Basically, ANZ makes sure that the scientists are provided for, safe, and can do their work without worrying about the minutiae of gear shipments, helicopter logistics, tents and gear, climbing equipment and vehicles etc. These services are provided almost free to the scientific teams. As such, New Zealand punches above its weight in Antarctic research. While the U.S. has some similar mechanisms for Arctic research, Canada does little more than contribute some additional funds for work that is done in our own north. Here, it is generally up to individual researchers to make all their own logistical arrangements – which can be extremely challenging (and discouraging). Both ANZ and Scott Base are extremely well run. They are environmentally conscious, work smart, allocate their funds to the right things, and work collaboratively with the other international bases in the region including the U.S., the Italians, and others.

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