Thursday and Friday I spent out on the hill at the back of Scott Base completing a vegetation survey with Antarctica New Zealand’s Environmental Advisor, Ceisha Poirot. You might be as surprised as I was that anything grows in this inhospitable place, but lichens and mosses are pretty hardy organisms and have special adaptations that allow them to withstand living in extreme environmental conditions. For example, these species are able to photosynthesise even while covered by a layer of snow. Snow creates a microclimate that protects the vegetation from wind, windbown ice, and sand particles. They have orange pigments which prevent sun damage during th eintense 24 hours of sun durin gsummer, and they can even absorb water from frozen snow.
Even though mosses and lichens can grow here, don’t expect a garden. The extreme conditions keep the number of species low, widely dispersed, and their size small – for one specimen to grow just a few millimetres might take decades. Thus, knowing the abundance of vegetation around the base is important as it helps to manage the activities that occur, and helps to protect the region’s environment.
Last year’s Sir Peter Blake Youth Ambassador, Aaron Whiteford, spent his time down on the ice working with Ceisha developing the research method to do the vegetation survey. They used Global Position Systems (GPS) to grid out the hill and then used a random number generator to work out the GPS points to survey. Ceisha and I started out where Aaron had left off to complete the survey. We used handheld GPS to find the points, laid out a tape measure 13 metres from the GPS point and used a 1 x 1m transect square for sampling. Samples were taken at 1, 4, 7, 10, 13 metres. All the vegetation within the square was counted to obtain the abundance and all species present were noted. It took two days of walking up and down the hill, clambering over the rocks, and getting down at ground level with your face in the dirt to complete the survey. All our data was then inputted into the computer system and sent off to GIS specialist to make a map of the vegetation distribution. It will be really exciting to see the final map when it’s finsihed and see all our hard work pay off. This information will be vital to establish changes over time around Scott Base, and to determine whether climate change is affecting the vegetation.
After our workday on Thursday, I walked up Observation Hill with a National Geographic photographer, Jason Edwards. It was a great experience to see him in action, listen to his stories of working with wildlife all around the world, and hear of his passion about using photography as a tool for driving conservation initiatives. He was kind enough to give me some tips to better improve my own photos and allowed me to take photos using his specialised lenses. I was careful not to drop them, as some are as expensive as a car! Fortunately the weather was perfect at the top of the hill and the views over Ross Island were spectacular. The visibility was so good that you could even see a large pod of orcas patrolling the sea ice edge, waiting for a yummy penguin to dive into the water for their dinner.
BLAKE Antarctic Ambassador 2013