Antarctica and Southern Ocean

“If it’s zero degrees outside, and it’s going to be twice as cold tomorrow, how cold will it be?”

Think about it.

Antarctica is a land of mystery and – clearly – totally deep philosophical questions.

Image: Anthony Powell



With New Zealand proud of its leadership in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, and Christchurch enjoying its status as a gateway to the most mysterious of continents, the location of NZ IceFest couldn’t be more appropriate unless it was at the South Pole itself.

Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest and highest continent. It’s technically a desert, with annual precipitation of just 200 millimetres along the coast and even less inland. The temperature has reached as low as -89°C, which means the only way for life-forms to survive there is to adapt to the extreme cold – both on land, with species such as springtails, nematodes, bacteria and algae, through to the larger marine animals such as penguins, seals, whales, phytoplankton, krill and the many wonders of the ocean.

About 98% of Antarctica is covered with ice – ice sheets, shelves and sea ice. That’s a lot – at 14 million square kilometres, Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent, and twice the size of Australia.

It’s something of an alien landscape – in fact, Antarctica’s Dry Valleys have been deemed Earth’s closest equivalent to what you would find on Mars. At Scott Base (77 degrees south), the summer brings four months of continuous sunlight, and the winter four months of continuous darkness – making it the best time to spot the beautifully cosmic Aurora Australis. The lack of permanent inhabitants means there’s very little light pollution, making the lights extra-pretty. It all adds up to a forbidding, beautiful world of its own – with the lion’s share of scientists descending on the continent during the relatively warm and bright summer months, the skeleton crews left behind to maintain the scattered bases throughout the winter find themselves in an almost otherworldly state of isolation.


The Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty has been signed by 50 nations, 29 of which are consultative members with active research programmes in Antarctica. The Treaty designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”

The Treaty was signed in Washington DC on 1 December 1959 by the twelve countries, including New Zealand, whose scientists were active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957–58. It came into force in 1961 and has since been acceded to by many other nations.

A large amount of the research coming out of Antarctica fills an important piece in the puzzle in understanding how the whole world operates. Antarctica’s extremely cold and saline waters drive the global thermohaline ocean circulation. Its deep ice and sediment cores offer a window into the planet’s past climate, enabling us to understand about past climate change and how this may affect us in the future. The geology in Antarctica was one of the key pieces in the puzzle in drawing together the history of Gondwanaland. The atmospheric influences of Antarctica drive most of the weather that we receive today in New Zealand. The continent and ocean’s varied wildlife allows us to lift the lid on different aspects of biology, such as teaching us about how organisms adapt to extreme conditions – from antifreeze developed in fish species, to the desiccation of springtail species.


image of whale in Antarctic southern ocean
Image: Stephen Lew/Shutterstock


The Southern Ocean

Surrounding all that ice is the Southern Ocean. As you might expect, these waters are the southernmost of the World's Oceans, and is where cold, northward-flowing waters from the Antarctic mix with warmer Subantarctic waters. It’s in this ecological melting-pot that some truly amazing wildlife flourishes.

The Southern Ocean’s array of marine animals exists and relies, directly or indirectly, on the phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean. Antarctic sea life includes penguins, blue whales, orcas, colossal squids, fur seals and toothfish.

Important research is being conducted in the Southern Ocean, most from aboard ships such as NIWA’s Tangaroa, with a special focus on the ocean’s still-mysterious marine ecosystems and ocean acidification.


The New Zealand Subantarctic Islands

These wild and rugged beauties – the Antipodes, Auckland, Bounty, Campbell and Snares Islands – are the five southernmost groups of New Zealand’s outlying islands, and are collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s about as far down as New Zealand gets, home to some of the most abundant and unique wildlife on Earth: many of its birds, plants and invertebrates can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The Subantartic Islands are particularly renowned for the large number – and wide diversity – of the penguins and other seabirds that nest there.

Scientific research staff lived at a meteorological station on Campbell Island until 1995, but today the islands are uninhabited except for their wildlife and the odd researcher or tourist. The New Zealand Subantarctic Islands are managed by the Department of Conservation and can only be reached by boat through the wild oceans and winds known as the roaring 40s and howling 50s, referring to the wild nature of the winds at these latitudes.

Heritage Expeditions offers journeys to the Subantarctic Islands as well as Antarctica on their tourist vessel operating out of New Zealand. The Subantarctic Islands don’t just play an important role in the Southern Ocean’s ecosystem – they also have a rich human history. Upon their discovery 200 years ago, they were exposed to an era of exploitation. In time, we began to understand their true worth. Today, we treasure them for their intrinsic value as wild and beautiful places. Visiting them is a pleasure and a privilege.


image of southern ocean albatross
Image: AndreAnita/Shutterstock


Christchurch, New Zealand as the Gateway to Antarctica

As well as being one of only five Antarctic gateway cities Christchurch is also home to the New Zealand, United States, Italian and South Korean Antarctic programmes, which all operate out of Christchurch International Airport. Lyttelton Port has been the jumping-off point for many Antarctic expeditions since the early 1900s; both Scott and Shackleton embarked from here during the heroic era, as did Sir Edmund Hillary in 1957 – the International Geophysical Year – on his way to set up New Zealand’s Scott Base and complete the first overland trip to the pole by tractor since Scott in 1912. More recently, research vessels such as NIWA’s Tangaroa and tourist ships such as Heritage Expeditions’ Sprit of Enderby have set off from this historic port.

Christchurch is also home to Antarctica New Zealand and the International Antarctic Centre. Canterbury Museum holds one of the landmark collections of Antarctic artefacts and history. And, of course, there’s the world’s most ambitious festival celebration of all things Antarctic, NZ IceFest.

New Zealand has been a key player in the Antarctic world for over 100 years. From its origins as the final stepping-off point for explorers in the heroic era through to its status as one of the first signatories of the Antarctic Treaty, New Zealand has played a key role in International Relations and Industry, as well as at the cutting-edge of Antarctic science.