Accessibility Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Navigation Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Site Map Menu

Reflections from Antarctica: Tom Lord

Tuesday, 7 March 2017 10:41am

Image of AntarcticaThinking back to the hours spent sitting in POLS104 lectures a few years ago, there is no way I could have guessed then that studying politics could take me to Antarctica. Despite occupying around 10% of the earth’s surface, the continent is nearly exclusively reserved for scientists and research support staff, and therefore very few people have the privilege of traveling there. For two weeks over Christmas and New Year, however, Nita Sullivan (MIntSt graduate) and I found ourselves in sub-zero temperatures and 24 hour daylight, along with fourteen other students studying towards a Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies (PCAS) at the University of Canterbury.

Nita and I, both recent graduates from Otago’s politics department, made the move from Christchurch to Dunedin in November for what turned out to be an incredibly intense, challenging and rewarding three months of study that was unlike anything we’d ever done before. PCAS is a 14-week multidisciplinary course offered each year by Gateway Antarctica, the University of Canterbury’s centre for Antarctic studies and research, and gives students an introduction to Antarctic science and some of the contemporary issues facing the Antarctic. The two-week field trip to the ice is undoubtedly the highlight of the course for both staff and students, and provides first-hand experience into living and working in Antarctica. The sixteen of us came from a variety of different backgrounds, from the physical and natural sciences to humanities and social sciences, but by the end of the course has gelled into tight-knit group.

For the first couple of months we had daily lectures with Antarctic experts from all around the country, as well as visiting international academics, which covered nearly every aspect of Antarctic research; from terrestrial and marine biology, meteorology and the effects of climate change, astronomy and particle physics, to the history of human engagement with the continent and the complex geopolitics and legal arrangements. Throughout the course we worked on four main assignments: a literature review on our choice of subject, four science reports from data gathered in the field, a major group report including a presentation to the wider Christchurch Antarctic community and individual supervised projects, again of our choice.

During our time on the ice we collected a range of scientific data to be used in our assignments, including undertaking a seal census, taking daily weather measurements, setting up a GPS and radar system to measure ice-shelf depth and movement, and collecting snow and ice samples. There was also time for exploring around Scott Base and the adjacent American McMurdo Station, and learning all about the goings-on at both bases. It’s difficult to describe what it was like to be there – there’s a strange beauty in the vast open white landscape contrasted with the deep blue sky, and frequently we’d have to pinch ourselves to remind ourselves we were actually there.

On our return, our supervised projects were a chance to carry out an in-depth independent and original piece of research. Nita used to opportunity to investigate if traditional international relations theory is applicable to the interaction of states in Antarctic affairs, while I examined the involvement of environmental NGOs in the success of the recent Ross Sea Marine Protected Area agreement. We both realised how fascinating and complicated Antarctic politics is, yet unlike other areas of international politics there is relatively little material on it. The lecturers at Canterbury were really involved and supportive of our research, and encouraged us to link with other researchers internationally.

Applications for PCAS open in the middle of the year, so if you’ve got a special interest in the Antarctic and are keen to be involved in a growing area of research I’d strongly recommend applying for the course. Despite the incredible experience, however, two weeks in Antarctica just wasn’t enough. The big question Nita and I are both asking ourselves now is how do we get back?


Tom Lord is a BA (Politics) graduate. He has recently moved to New York for an internship with the New Zealand Mission to the United Nations.