Friday, June 05, 2015

Antarctican car nut interview

Charles is a Kiwi microbiologist by way of Taiwan. He was kind enough to sit down and answer my questions about working and living in Antarctica as well as New Zealand car culture.

1. I understand that you are a scientist who travels to Antarctica. What do you study there?

My main area of research in Antarctica is terrestrial microbial ecology, which means I study the microorganisms (primarily bacteria) found in "soils" (really more like gravel sand) in ice-free parts of Antarctica. Now, I'm not saying Antarctica is not a giant slab of ice and snow-- it is. But a tiny percentage of it (approximately 0.5%) is permanently ice-free. These areas are either the very tips of mountains that stick out of the ice sheet (the technical name is nunataks) or areas that are no longer covered by glaciers (they all were about 20,000 years ago). The biggest of such areas is the McMurdo Dry Valleys, which is ~4,000 km due south of New Zealand and my primary stomping ground.

Contrary to popular belief (you know this phrase is coming), these ice-free areas of Antarctica are not devoid of life-- they're just devoid of vascular plants and vertebrates. So no grass, no trees, and no animals that one would notice without being a specialist in them. Now, I know some people are going to mention seals, penguins, and other sea birds-- biologists regard them as marine animals. And polar bears are found in the Arctic, in case anyone is wondering. Anyway, this means that the ecosystem (and there is one) in the McMurdo Dry Valleys is primarily composed of unicellular microorganisms.

Now I should mention that microorganisms are the primary driving force of almost all ecosystems (including the lawn outside your window), so the Dry Valleys aren't unique for that reason alone. What does make the Dry Valleys unique are the facts that the food web is extremely simple (the "top predator" is a nematode) and that photosynthesis appears to be very restricted (it's a process that requires a lot of water). What this means is that the Dry Valleys can serve as a great model system for microbial ecologists like me to understand how microorganisms interact with abiotic environmental processes. I think it should be fairly obvious by now that my research in Antarctica is very basic science driven by curiosity more than anything else, but just because I haven't figured out how knowledge about Antarctic microorganisms can be applied doesn't mean no one ever will-- much of the technological advancement we have enjoyed for the past 50 years came from basic science that seemed esoteric and academic at one point.

This was me actually doing science in the field as a young postdoc. The white balance was not messed up--the tent was really, really yellow, which made color perception basically impossible.

2. Where have you worked in Antarctica? Do you hop from one research station to another? Or do you pretty much stay at just one location?

As mentioned above, I work primarily in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, and I have been to a few other spots in Antarctica. Before I dive into that, I should point out that the vast majority of my research is supported by Antarctica New Zealand-- New Zealand's Antarctic program(me). The American equivalent of it is the United States Antarctic Program (run by the Office of Polar Programs within the National Science Foundation). Antarctica New Zealand's primary (and only) permanent research station in Antarctica is Scott Base, which is located on Ross Island (about 120 km from the McMurdo Dry Valleys).

I actually spend comparatively little time in Scott Base since we establish and stay in field camps while we're in the Dry Valleys, so the goal is always to get ready as quickly as possible in Scott Base and get out into the field. There are people whose research is better supported out of Scott Base, and they spend extended periods there (weeks to months), but that's not how our research team works. In terms of other research stations, I have been to McMurdo Station (the largest research station in Antarctica, BTW) numerous times (literally too many to count), mostly because it's also on Ross Island and a short 5 minute drive away (or 45 minutes on foot). This is actually a privilege that my American colleagues do not enjoy-- they have to be invited to visit and/or eat at Scott Base. This has to do with the size of the stations: Scott Base peaks at around 80 people, and McMurdo Station can accommodate more than 1,200 in a pinch. So a few extra Kiwis showing up at the McMurdo Station galley is hardly noticeable, but certainly not vice versa. I have also had the privilege of going to the ice (that's the common expression) as part of the United States Antarctic Program, and I had to follow that rule myself (not showing up in Scott Base for dinner unannounced).

This is Ivan, Ivan the Terra Bus (get it?). Ivan is used to ferry passengers from Pegasus Field (NZPG, 3.7 stars on Google Map) to McMurdo Station. Kiwis normally jump on it as well and just get off at Scott Base.

I have also spent some time at the Italian Mario Zucchelli Station in Terra Nova Bay--it has the best food on the continent by far. There's a brand spanking new Korean station (Jang Bogo Station) right across the bay from Mario Zucchelli, but I didn't have a chance to visit it while I was there. The Chinese are planning on building a station at Terra Nova Bay as well, which I certainly would love to visit after it's built. I'm also trying to figure out how I can get myself to the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole-- it's not straightforward since there really isn't much microbiology at the South Pole, but I will figure it out one day.

The chief meteorologist at Mario Zucchelli Station releasing his two-a-day weather balloon. I'm including this shot mostly for the Fiat 4WD in the background, although Lorenzo is plenty interesting to look at.

3. Are there any telltale and dramatic signs of climate change that you have witnessed in Antarctica?

It's an awkward question for scientists to answer. Intellectually we know that what we can observe within a few years can only be reliably attributed to normal climate variations that occur at annual or decadal scales, but we do see change, and we (as human beings) can't help but wonder if it perhaps is caused by CO2-driven climate change. However, at the continental scale, we definitely are observing (via satellite) destabilization of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and associated ice shelves and glaciers. This is all ice that is currently on land and will undoubtedly contribute to sea-level rise eventually. Scientists are trained to carefully qualify our statements (esp. in public) and only make statements unequivocally supported by evidence. However, we are not necessarily bound by these codes of conduct when making personal decisions. What I want to say is that I don't see myself buying beach-front properties in my life time (wink wink).

A really great shot of the Eurocopter AS350 B3 by @drisk_eh.

4. What is it like to live down there? What do people do when they are not working?

I would have to break this into two halves: at Scott Base and in the field. Scott Base is really kind of like an adult summer camp, especially after we return from the field and have finished all our work. The station is really well run and spotlessly clean, and the biggest hardship is eating too much and gaining weight. It's communal living--bunk beds and all, but it's very pleasant. For recreation, people read, watch movies, and go for a hike or cross-country skiing. There is also a bar. There is wifi internet access at Scott Base, but there isn't enough satellite bandwidth for Skype or FaceTime, much less video or music streaming.

In the field is quite different, obviously. We normally would have a big tent for analyzing samples and other communal activities, and people would sleep in alpine tents. At the most fundamental level, it isn't that different from regular alpine camping, except we move around using helicopters. 

Eurocopter AS350 B3 (known as A Star in the US) used by Antarctica New Zealand and operated by Southern Lakes Helicopter arriving at our camp in Taylor Valley.

Eurocopter EC130 previously used by Antarctica New Zealand and operated by Helicopter New Zealand. In case you're wondering, it was a cliff on the other side of the helicopter.

Eurocopter EC130 with its pilot, Rob, in the foreground. This is not a visual trick, and your depth perception is correct. Rob was very pleased that he managed to put the helicopter in that spot.

However, our activities are governed by a very stringent environmental code of conduct, which includes zero release of material into the environment (everything has to come back to Scott Base) and minimal disturbance to the environment. It's quite daunting at first, but one gets used to it pretty quickly. Recreational activities are actually very similar to what we do in Scott Base, except no skiing since it's the Dry Valleys. We don't have internet access in the field, and the upside of that is that people spend a lot of time talking to each other. Spending time with someone in the field is IMHO the best way to get to know them.

Camp life in the Dry Valleys. Here were three of my colleagues huddled around the heater/toaster looking serious. Chances are they were talking absolute non-sense.

5. What kind of land vehicles are typically used in Antarctica? Are they just used within the base and immediate surroundings? Any long distance land vehicles?

Wheeled and tracked vehicles are only used on designated roads around Scott Base and McMurdo Station (and all other research stations, I believe). In ice-free areas, this is to minimize unnecessary damage to desert surfaces. On ice, this is to prevent vehicles from falling through crevasses. The United States Antarctic Program does do a traverse from McMurdo Station to Amundsen-Scott Station occasionally, and this is done with big CAT tractors and various heavy tracked vehicles. They push a ground-penetrating radar in front of the caravan to detect crevasses before they get onto the plateau. Once on the plateau, it's really pretty smooth going, and you'd do okay even with a fat tire bike. In terms of the vehicle used, there are of course a number of custom-made vehicles (some of them in my pictures), but the fleet of "normal" vehicles at McMurdo Station consists of Ford F350 and E350 (with various levels of modification). Scott Base now runs a fleet of J70 Land Cruisers, which according to the mechanics I talked to, are very close to stock. We used to have a lot of Hilux pickups, but I think they became too sophisticated in recent years and more difficult to service than Land Cruisers. The Italian program uses Mitsubishi Triton/L200 pickups and various older Fiat vehicles, and I was told that the Korean program uses Kia vehicles exclusively.

Arrival Heights Laboratory (the white dome) seen from ground level. The area around the laboratory is a no-go zone (Antarctic Specially Protected Area, ASPA). Most ASPAs are designated for environmental or ecological reasons, but Arrival Height is an ASPA because any nearby EM emission would wreak havoc with the sensitive instruments there. Note the J70 Land Cruiser troop carrier used by Antarctica New Zealand.

Hägglunds Bandvagn 206, otherwise known as the most uncomfortable mode of transport in Antarctica. It does float on water (theoretically), which of course is a very useful feature for traveling on sea ice.

A shot of the brand new (i.e., recently refurbished) Hägglunds Bandvagn 206 that Antarctica New Zealand bought in 2014. I believe this shot was taken mere hours before it nearly sank in sea ice. Fortunately they eventually got it out. (credit @drisk_eh)

6. What is the most surprising thing about your experience down there that no one prepared you for?

Everything on my first trip, and really nothing after my tenth trip. It sounds cynical but it's true. And this is not because I'm becoming jaded-- it's because I have realistic expectations and a reasonable amount of experience. My motto in Antarctica is from Roald Amundsen: "Adventure is just bad planning", and my expectation is for our carefully laid out plans to completely fall apart (hopefully due to reasons beyond our control) and have to make new ones. Once I came to terms with this aspect of operating in Antarctica, nothing really came as a surprise anymore.

However, there was one instance that genuinely caught me by surprise. I was at a deep-field camp halfway between Ross Island and the South Pole, and I had to go out and use the facilities (indoor plumbing is difficult to achieve on a glacier). The weather was coming in, so everyone was making preparations to tie things down. While I was in the middle of my business, someone came and secured a cargo strap around the wooden structure in case the door got blown open and ripped off. Most unfortunately for me, there was a really strong gust of wind (probably ~40 knots) while he was doing this, so he did not hear my yell for him to stop. Now, these cargo straps aren't just regular ratchet straps--they're USAF issue and rated for 5,000 lbs. So I had zero chance of breaking out and a very real chance of dying in a frozen toilet. Fortunately the wind died down for a short period, and someone eventually heard my cry for help. I have played out the scenario in my head quite a few times, and I just can't see one where reasonable planning could have helped. I supposed I could have had a buddy system set up, but that's frankly ridiculous when you're just going to the loo in the middle of a 100-person camp. What's life without adventure, right?

A Twin Otter aircraft used by practically all Antarctic programs and operated by Ken Borek Air. This very aircraft unfortunately crashed in Jan 2013 en route from Amundsen-Scott Station to Mario Zucchelli Station. Sadly everyone perished, and the wreckage has yet to be recovered.

7. Are there any current geopolitical tensions involving Antarctica that we in the public are not aware of?

There is some geopolitical tension around sub-Antarctic islands south of South America among the usual quarrelsome pairs, but the relationship between all the national programs operating in the Ross Sea Region is very cordial and collaborative. In many ways, Antarctic research and field programs really represent ideal cases of diplomacy and international collaboration.

A shot of Lake Buddha and Joyce Glacier.

8. Is there any chance of a military or commercial/mining presence being established in Antarctica in the near future?

There is already military presence in Antarctica-- almost all national programs are implicitly or explicitly supported (or even run--particularly for Latin American countries) by their respective military forces. This is true for both New Zealand and the United States, but this should not be taken as a sign of military aggression. The truth is that asking national armed forces for logistical support is often the easiest (and cheapest) solution.

Having said all that, all national Antarctic programs exist in part to enhance strategic interests, and the United States stands alone as the only country that can get anyone from its capital to the South Pole in 24 hours without external assistance (except the use of Christchurch airport). Commercial fishing in Antarctic waters is already a reality (ever heard of Chilean sea bass?), and exploration of mineral and petroleum resources is actually listed as an explicit goal of the Chinese Antarctic program (much to other national programs' chagrin, but they're all thinking the same thing if we're being brutally honest). At this time (and the foreseeable future), extracting mineral resources from Antarctica is simply not economical, but I would say it's a matter of time. If oil is $2,000 a barrel, you can bet Exxon/Mobil will be drilling in Antarctica.

A shot from inside a USAF C-17 over Antarctica.

9. You live in New Zealand. Who has a greater influence on car buying trends and car culture there-- Australian carmakers, Japanese, someone else?

I have lived in New Zealand for about 12 years, and I have witnessed a couple of very distinct changes in New Zealand's car culture. When I first arrived, Australian marques dominated the new car market, and most of their sales were full-size sedans and utes (i.e., Falcon and Commodore). However, most people bought used imports from Japan (more on used imports later). Toyota was a clear third in the early 2000s (the volume model was Camry), followed by Honda and Nissan.

By the late 2000s, Toyota was the clear leader (Corolla now the volume model), and Holden and Ford were fighting for second place, with comparatively few full-size sedans being sold--we all know what that led to. Mazda became a mainstream brand, as did the Korean duo. Honda and Nissan new car sales plummeted-- as did Mitsubishi (but it deserved it). In recent years, the VAG brands became much stronger, and Nissan is enjoying a nice resurgence thanks to reasonably priced models imported from the US. Toyota remains the favorite of fleet purchase managers, so it's holding onto the top spot. A few Chinese makes have also entered the market: Great Wall (Haval), Chery, and Foton. At their rate of improvement, I expect the Chinese carmakers to play a much bigger role in the New Zealand car market in coming years once people got over the stigma like they did for the Korean brands. Oh, I should mention that New Zealanders (myself included) own more Subaru per capita than any other country.

A J70 Land Cruiser flatbed used by Antarctica New Zealand. (credit @drisk_eh)

Used imports are a very New Zealand phenomenon. As far as I know, no other advanced economy imports quite so many used vehicles for retail sales. The used imports predominantly come from Japan, followed by Australia (yes New Zealand is the poor cousin) and Singapore. If my memory serves me, in the late 90s and early 00s, more than 90% of the vehicles sold for the first time in New Zealand were used imports.

I didn't find used imports a particularly good value, partly because I knew how much those vehicles cost when they were new and that used cars were close to worthless in Japan. Many popular vehicles were selling at close to full retail price even though they were more than 5 years old (I remember one salesman trying to convince me that a 5 year old Mitsubishi Legnum [non-VR4] was a good deal at $20,000-- it sold for little more than ¥2,000,000 when new). Prices did come down after more and more people got into the used import business, eventually leading to a bubble (everyone and their uncle was opening a used car dealership) that burst in the late 00s.

Since then, New Zealanders have warmed up to the idea of buying brand new cars. In the space of 2-3 years, nearly all new car dealerships in my city built or moved into much bigger showrooms (with Honda and Mitsubishi being notable exceptions), and nearly all the large used import dealers had closed or changed hands. I still wouldn't buy used imports because they tend to be very poorly spec'ed on safety equipments-- can someone from Japan please explain the rationale of dropping $60k on a Toyota Alphard and opting for just two airbags? But prices are generally reasonable now except on really popular models (cough, RAV4, and cough, CR-Vs). Overall I think having used imports as an option is a really good thing, and I wish more countries opened up their automotive market like New Zealand has. It's nice to know that I can buy and register a Toyota Century or Nissan Stagea tomorrow if I wanted to (although I probably won't)-- all those exotic JDM cars are available legally to us Kiwis.

USCGC Polar Star coming into McMurdo Sound. An icebreaker is required to carve out a channel for the supply vessels to arrive in late January. The added benefit is that whales come in through the channel, making things much easier for researchers who work on them. (credit @drisk_eh)

10. Why do you love cars?

I think my dad had a lot of do with it. He was an executive at one of the largest automotive part manufacturers in Taiwan, and he dabbled in automotive light designs every now and then. In fact, he supposedly (i.e., according to my mom) designed the very distinctive hexagonal cell tail lights of the Yue Loong (aka Yulon) Feeling 101. As a result of his job, one of my earliest childhood memories was him giving me a tail light from a Yue Loong Sunny (aka Datsun Sunny B310) as a toy. That's all kinds of messed up, but chances are I asked for it. Unfortunately he passed away when I was a teenager, or I'm sure he would be involved in the booming Chinese automotive industry right now, working out deals to supply parts and designing tail lights.

The other explanation is that cars greatly satisfied my natural curiosity before I discovered computers (this is the 80s, remember). Just knowing all the nitty gritty about all the cars I see on the roads, and making it clear to the adults around me that I know vastly more than them about a particular subject was very satisfying to me. Who knows-- perhaps I wouldn't be as interested in cars had I had access to the internet growing up. Having said that, my daughter is getting very good at recognizing cars as well without me intentionally asking her to, so perhaps it's all genetic. I only hope that cars with full manual control (and perhaps even manual transmission!) are still available (and road legal?) by the time she grows up so she gets to experience learning to drive like I did. Perhaps I should go buy a FiST and garage it so there is one when that day arrives (not that I learned to drive in anything nearly as exciting as that)?


Alan said...

Nice read.

What the hell is a FiST?

Maxichamp said...

@Alan: I'm guessing Fiesta ST.