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Antarctica: unfreezing the continent

Students in polar tents in the Victoria University quad? What can this mean? The onset of winter? Protection against Wellington’s famous wind? No – the polar tents and students handing out ‘ice pole’ lollies are announcing a course on Antarctica, the world’s highest, coldest, windiest and most remote continent.

The second semester course is aimed at non-scientists, and provides a general introduction to Antarctica – its history, politics, literature, art, climate, geology and biology.

Topics include Antarctica’s geological development and its spectacular ice sheets, “life beneath the ice”, the continent’s whales and penguins, and the impact of future climate change. The course also covers the history of the Scott and Shackleton expeditions, Antarctic management and key environmental issues.

“Tutorials are a mix of discussions of significant issues, like tourism and environmental degradation, and hands on stuff, like setting up a polar tent, lighting a primus, and planning helicopter loads,” says course co-ordinator Dr Mike Hannah.

“Students have to plan an expedition taking them 140 kms from Scott Base, making sure they comply with all the rules and regulations. It can be quite interesting working out who would survive and who wouldn’t!”

“We also go out in the field to look at how Antarctica affects the Wellington landscape and climate.”

Dr Hannah says the course, which is open to all students, is a useful introduction to science for non-scientists.

“You don’t need to be a science major to do the course,” he says. “Antarctica is of tremendous interest to historians, writers and painters. It’s also of relevance to people studying public policy, foreign affairs and management. The course gives people from all backgrounds an opportunity to learn more about this fascinating continent.”

Lecturers include Peter Barrett, science leader of the Cape Roberts drilling project; political scientist Nigel Roberts; public policy expert Cath Wallace and guest speakers from Antarctica New Zealand, the Met Service and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Victoria University has a long history of involvement with Antarctica, with expeditions to the continent since 1957 and a major, ongoing involvement in the international Cape Roberts project. ‘Antarctica: unfreezing the continent’ ran for the first time in 1999. Dr Hannah says he hopes this year’s course will ‘unfreeze’ Antartica for even more students.

Victoria University Wellington

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