Fish below the platelet layer

Fish below the platelet layer. Photo: Natalie Robinson

Case Study: Bespoke technology is advancing Antarctic research

22 August 2022

The long-term perspective of the Antarctic Science Platform has afforded research partners the certainty to invest in new equipment. Often, the innovative technology and capability needed to undertake Antarctic research is not yet invented so our teams have been designing, building and testing novel systems, devices, and sampling techniques.

Some of this equipment is jointly owned between organisations, and some carries additional sensors or modules from other organisations, leveraging collective resources to achieve common priorities. Together, the partners are safeguarding the strategic benefits of New Zealand’s scientific activity in Antarctica to improve scientific understanding of Antarctica’s impact on the global earth system, environmental and ecosystem vulnerabilities, and how these might change in a warming world.

Here we profile three bespoke technological developments that are advancing Antarctic research capability.

The sympagic community sampler is designed to quantitatively sample the life associated with sea ice and platelet ice habitats that accumulate under sea ice in some locations. During the 2021-22 Antarctic field season, the team showed that this new device (a top-down coring and sampling system) can capture the platelet ice layers, along with the water and organisms that inhabit the ice crystal matrix that constitutes the platelet ice. A video about this work is available online. This novel sampling approach maintains the biological profile of the platelet layers, so that the algae, bacteria, crustacea and fish that are living between the platelets can be studied along with their habitat. This world-first development will fill the significant current gaps in our knowledge about the causal relationships between the physical environment and its associated biology.

Sympagic community sampler in action

The first sample of platelet ice is drawn up into the Perspex tube using the Venturi system. Photo: Brett Grant/NIWA

Hauwai, an autonomous underwater biosampler, is designed to conduct year-round underwater sampling of planktonic communities living under the sea ice. Previously, collecting sympagic organisms (which spend some of their life stage living in sea ice) required fieldwork on the sea ice, limiting the sampling window to 4-6 weeks during early Austral spring. This new underwater robotics capability will, for the first time, extend what is known about sympagic organisms and their environmental conditions across all seasons, providing critical information on sea ice habitats and food webs. The Hauwai is ready to deploy to Antarctica.

Accessing the geological archives beneath the ice shelf required a new, specialised drilling system, able to operate in remote locations, drill through around 1000 metres of ice, pass through the ocean cavity beneath the Ross Ice Shelf (withstanding currents and salinity), and then recover rock and sediment core from the ocean floor. Our ice and sediment drilling system does exactly that, and has been deployed in Antarctica to reveal the secrets from the world’s largest ice shelf. The valuable archives of past climate and ice sheet behaviour found in sea floor sediment are used to reconstruct past climate conditions and ice sheet behaviour, to inform Antarctica’s future response to climate change.

Deployment of KIS-2B well pump

Deployment of KIS-2B well pump. Photo: Craig Stevens

Camera equipment being lowered.

The camera equipment going down the borehole. Photo: Craig Stevens

This Case Study was submitted to MBIE as part of the ASP annual reporting for the 2021-2022 year. It profiles three ASP-supported bespoke technological developments that are advancing Antarctic research capability.