NIWA’s Unprecedented Antarctica Experience

Ambling across the frozen untouched sea, often 180 metres above the deep ocean with a scientific expedition on their mind.

Natalie guides her team to capturing and collecting unprecedented platelet ice samples from the bottomless Antarctic.

Natalie, the project manager describes their mission as carrying out cutting-edge science, crucial for understanding Earth’s climate in the dynamic and relatively unknown physical environment of Antarctica.

Natalie Robinson, NIWA
“Our latest research project required us to collect samples of a delicate two-phase (i.e., ice/water) lattice structure, known as platelet ice, which constitutes an important habitat of the Southern Ocean. This was the first time anyone had attempted this, and the sampling required a bespoke engineered solution which we successfully tested over the summer.”

In order for Natalie and her team to successfully drill the sea ice plug samples, they needed a core barrel. This core works similarly to an apple corer, plunging into the ice without any spin. This allows platelet ice layers to be captured along with the water that fills the gaps between the ice crystals, without the structure collapsing. Maintaining the platelet layers allows bacteria, algae and animals living between the platelets to be collected with their habitats.

Brett Grant, NIWA

Therefore, the core barrel had to meet specific requirements to be light enough for the team to move, carry and maneuver to their sampling locations. As well as being strong enough and stiff enough to withstand the relentless bitter cold environment, and the fierce drilling process. Natalie exclaims she was over the moon with how the expedition went.

Left: Ken Ryan, VUW - Right: Brett Grant,

The new technique worked even better than we hoped, producing great samples. Allowing studies of the ecosystem in a way that hasn’t been possible before. The platelet ice is a several-metre thick layer of thin ice crystals, locking together to create a fragile maze, an environment like no other on earth. The habitat exists on a knife edge, needing specific conditions to form, making it a rarity. Platelet ice forms a protective habitat for algae and bacteria, but small shifts in the environment can change where and if it forms, causing a huge risk for the organisms that underpin the entire food chain. For decades, this mysterious platelet ice ecosystem has been theorised as being incredibly important to the marine food web.

...It’s fragility and rarity make it notoriously difficult to study. The more we can learn about it, the more we know what we stand to lose and how to protect it.
Steve Parker, NIWA

C-Tech are extremely proud to be a part of a project which is ultimately aimed at helping the environment and investigating the extremities of Antarctica through research. We are always eager to push boundaries and challenge our team in endless ways. We look forward to doing more work with NIWA in the future. NIWA Colleague, Craig Stewart who designed the new drill system comments on his experience;

“Working with C-Tech was a pleasure, they were consistently helpful, professional, and went the extra mile to make sure the project was a success."
Left & Right: Natalie Robinson, NIWA - Middle: Steve Parker, NIWA