National Geographic to follow Waikato scientists on the ice

Monday 31 October 2011, 8:01PM
By University of Waikato

A team of Waikato University scientists is heading to Antarctica this week and a team from National Geographic will be tracking them.

Professor Craig Cary, Associate Professor Ian McDonald and Dr Craig Herbold are going to the most isolated geothermal sites on earth, at the summit of Mt Erebus, and National Geographic will be photographing them at work. There’ll be a photographer, writer and lighting technician from the magazine accompanying the three Waikato scientists and two advanced field operators from Antarctica New Zealand.

Professor Craig Cary is director of ICTAR, an international Antarctic research centre based at the University of Waikato, dedicated to understanding Antarctica’s unique and fragile terrestrial environment.

“We’ve been working up on Mt Erebus for the past three years, studying the unique bacteria that live in the hot soils - 65° degrees,” says Professor Cary. “We’ve got temperature probes placed all around the volcano that we’ll be recovering this year along with extensive sampling. We’ll also be drilling ice chimneys and scaling down them into caves to collect soil samples. It’s cold and dangerous stuff, it’s hard work but it’s so exhilarating.”

Professor Cary says they’re finding that the microbes appear archaic. “We believe they may come from the deep subsurface of the continent and are specifically adapted to life in these extreme conditions. They’ve been isolated from the rest of the planet for a long time and may contain the last vestiges of an ancient life, and we hope to find the genetic fingerprints of old organisms.”

He says they hope that by looking at the genetics of this rare microbial community they’ll discover how long since gone microbes adapted and survived these harsh conditions.
Before coming to Waikato University eight years ago from the US, Professor Cary had National Geographic funding for an earlier research project on geothermal fields. The current project, which has taken the scientists from Yellowstone volcano in California, through several sites in South America, Deception Island and Antarctica, is funded by a Marsden Grant.

“The person who contacted me for this National Geographic project had no idea I’d worked with them before. But in the last few months it’s been full on getting organised. It’s an exciting project for New Zealand Antarctic science, Antarctica New Zealand and Waikato University.

The group travelling to Erebus gets together in Christchurch on Tuesday and leaves for Antarctica on Wednesday.