All-women research team heads to Antarctica

An all-woman research team from Te Herenga Waka's Antarctic Research Centre is heading to the ice this month to collect data on ice flow.

Girl doing thumbs-up on ice with science equipment around her and a plane in the background, in antarctica
The first all-women research team from the Antarctic Research Centre at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington heads to the ice this month.

Team leader Alanna Alevropoulos-Borrill said the researchers will be collecting data on ice flow at the Ross Ice Shelf to inform climate change models.

“The Ross Ice Shelf plays a key role in limiting ice loss from Antarctica so it’s important we understand how sensitive the shelf is to changes in climate.

“Data we’re collecting will help us predict future ice loss and how much the Ross Sea catchment will contribute to sea level rise,” she said.

Collapse of the entire catchment has the potential to raise global sea levels by about 12 metres.

The research team will be visiting six locations on the Ross Ice Shelf. At two sites, GPS units have been collecting ice flow data since January 2020. This data will be downloaded for use in the Antarctic Research Centre’s computer models. Instruments will be installed at the other four sites.

Ms Alevropoulos-Borrill, who is in the final stages of completing her PhD in glaciology, said it was “a huge privilege” to be leading the first all-women crew from the Centre.

“While our polar science teams are becoming more diverse, there is still a long way to go. We hope to change the dominant image of the ‘polar explorer’ and tell more stories about the women who work in the harsh conditions of the Antarctic continent.”

Dr Alexandra Gossart and Francesca Baldacchino are the other members of the research team. Dr Gossart is a research fellow at the Antarctic Research Centre and Ms Baldacchino is completing a PhD in glaciology.

The team is due to fly to Scott Base on 23 November 2021. To comply with COVID-19 requirements, they are currently spending 14 days in quarantine. The team’s trip is being supported by Antarctica New Zealand.

The researchers follow in the footsteps of Rosemary Askin, who in 1970 was the first New Zealand woman to undertake her own research programme in Antarctica, joining the University’s summer expedition to the ice. Professor Peter Barrett, who served as Antarctic research director from 1972 to 2007, had to push hard to get permission for her to join the expedition.

Nancy Bertler, associate professor of ice core paleoclimatology at the Antarctic Research Centre and Antarctic science platform director, said much has changed since Rosemary’s days.

“Over the past two decades, our field teams have achieved a 50/50 split between men and women. It’s wonderful to see we have reached a critical mass where a talented and capable all-female team is deploying to conduct critical scientific work in one of the most challenging environments on the planet,” she said.

Associate Professor Bertler has led 13 University field expeditions to Antarctica.

The Antarctic Research Centre is a centre of research excellence at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. Since 1957, staff and students have gone to the ice each year to carry out field studies.