Heather Purdie

Heather Purdie

Heather Purdie completed a challenging PhD with the Antarctic Research Centre and the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences.

Heather began her academic study with an extramural BSc from Massey in Physical Geography, inspired by her love of the mountains and the New Zealand landscape. She studied part time while working full time at a range of jobs and also gained a teaching qualification.

“I’ve been everything from a pharmacy technician to a weed sprayer and glacier guide. I’ve also worked as an emergency control room operator for the New Zealand Police, taking 111 and dispatching police patrols to jobs. It could be quite stressful, intense and exciting, and has made most other jobs seem rather ordinary!” Heather says.

During her Masters, studying the Fox Glacier, Heather was exposed to various research opportunities and doors began to open for her. “I’d always thought it would be good to do a PhD, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever get there.

One challenge was the geographical spread of her supervisors, who were based in different parts of New Zealand. Professor Andrew Mackintosh based in Wellington, Dr Wendy Lawson in Christchurch, Dr Brian Anderson (an associate) on the west coast of the South Island and Heather in Twizel. “All these people were chosen because of their skills and not because of where they live. It was a bit tricky at times, but we got there.

The aim of Heather’s work was to better understand how snow accumulation varies on mid-latitude maritime glaciers, and centered on the Tasman and Franz Josef glaciers in the Southern Alps. Heather’s PhD thesis is completed and has already been partially published, as a series of papers, which has enabled her important work to enter the literature rapidly and increase its usefulness.

Heather Purdie
Deep holes (and lots of digging) are needed to measure winter snow accumulation on Tasman Glacier.

One part of her thesis was investigating the snow accumulation processes of these glaciers high up in the Alps in real time over a month in winter. That meant basing herself at the snow-bound Centennial Hut at 2300 m and measuring snow accumulation every day, during and after storms. She also had “a very good friend” do the same at Tasman Saddle Hut, so she could obtain parallel sets of data for the two areas from the same weather events. Conditions were challenging during the freezing winter weather, with temperatures inside the hut dropping to -10oC at times.

Other work investigated the source of snow deposited in the Alps using isotopic analysis and trace element chemistry. Results showed the snow to be predominantly from the Tasman Sea, and deposited during low pressure troughs and fronts.

Heather is a passionate advocate for the environment and has spent much of her time “running around the mountains”- tramping and climbing. She shares concerns that mountain glaciers are already responding to climatic warming. Heather describes changes in the Tasman Glacier that she has observed in her lifetime, comparing the present snow and ice coverage with photographs taken in her teenage years. “It’s exciting and frightening to see earth processes happening in my lifetime. I hope my research will contribute valuable data to our climate models and that I can continue to challenge and educate people about our environment and the importance of looking after it.