New ice drilling technology developed in Wellington on its way to Antarctica

A brand new piece of ice drilling technology developed in Wellington has begun its journey to Antarctica.

It will help scientists understand the impact of climate change on the platelet ice crystals of the Southern Ocean.

The 'sympagic sampler' has taken three years to build at NIWA, and it's only been tested in a barrel of ice. 

Antarctic oceanographer Natalie Robinson says it's exciting to put it to the test in Antarctica. 

"To get to this point it's quite a relief," Robinson tells Newshub. "It represents an awful lot of work actually not just mine, but a whole team of people."

It will collect samples for the first time of the ice crystals that form in the Southern Ocean and float up against the bottom of its solid sea ice, known as platelet ice.

"The actual data that we're getting has not been possible to collect before," Robinson says. 

There are two key aspects to the platelet ice. The algae that feeds the ocean food chain, and the Antarctic silverfish which hatch their eggs amongst platelet ice.

"What we need to understand is how vulnerable the habitat itself is to potential changes under climate change," she says. "We know that this habitat represents what could potentially be a key function of the ecosystem."

The new tool has an 'off the shelf' concrete cutting drill and a customised sampling barrel. 

"We want to collect a sample without ruining the structure of it, keeping the ice, the water, and the biology all together in one package," Robinson tells Newshub.

It will be in action for most of November, then be brought back to New Zealand for further development. 

"It's going to be an exciting season to see it in action," she says. 

Antarctica NZ's CEO Sarah Williamson says the pandemic has made getting people to Antarctica is much harder. 

They have to be fully vaccinated, isolate in Christchurch for two weeks and have multiple COVID-19 tests.

"The real challenge is trying to put as much limitation as we can so COVID doesn't reach Antarctica," Williamson tells Newshub 

"We have minimal ability to cope with COVID-19. We have normal day-to-day medical facilities in Antarctica, but we just don't have the sophistication that's needed for a COVID-19 case."

This season 200 researchers will go through Scott Base, compared to about 350 before the pandemic.

Watch the full story above.