Two UOW scientists named as Antarctic Science Foundation ambassadors

Two UOW scientists named as Antarctic Science Foundation ambassadors

Scientists kick off their new role with a New Year’s Eve flight over Antarctica

It’s not every year you can say you spent New Year’s Eve aboard a 787 Dreamliner flying over Antarctica, but for University of Wollongong (UOW) scientists Ms Georgia Watson and Dr Melinda Waterman, ringing in 2023 will be one to remember.

“It was so special to be able to cheers a glass of champagne while in the air over Terra Nova Bay at midnight, ringing in the new year over Antarctica with a group of passionate and interested people who care about the future of our planet,” Ms Watson said.

Ms Watson and Dr Waterman were flying over Antarctica in their new roles as Ambassadors for the Antarctic Science Foundation (ASF). The organisation supports world-class scientific research that enhances the understanding and protection of the Antarctic, Southern Ocean and subantarctic natural environments.

Ms Watson is a UOW-based research officer with Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future (SAEF), an Australian-led research endeavour funded by the Australian Research Council. She is working on a long-term moss monitoring project, exploring how moss health responds to changing environmental pressures. 

Dr Waterman is a research fellow with UOW and also works with SAEF on Antarctic moss research. She is involved in projects analysing the protective mechanisms mosses use in extreme environments and developing ancient mosses as proxies for past Antarctic climates. In 2022, she worked with Ms Watson on Antarctic Futures: an art exhibition and community engagement event.

While both scientists have been to Antarctica many times collectively, it was the first time Ms Watson had seen it from the air and only the second time for Dr Waterman. Ms Watson and Dr Waterman were on board the Antarctica Flights chartered 787 Dreamliner as ASF Ambassadors, to share their stories and to answer passengers’ questions about Antarctica.

“My eyes welled up with tears of joy at the first peak of the Transantarctic mountains, with Reeves Glacier bringing everyone to their windows to catch a glimpse. We saw giant crevasse fields, mountains, glaciers and blue lakes,” Ms Watson said.

“Some of the crowd favourites were Mount Minto, Mount Melbourne and the Tucker Glacier, with passengers taking turns to be awestruck at the window seat.

“One of my favourite parts was seeing the McMurdo Dry Valleys, where Melinda and my colleagues from the Auckland University of Technology have camped when collecting data for moss and drone mapping research, to see how the moss beds are coping in areas of glacial retreat.”

Ms Watson and Dr Waterman moved around the plane, answering questions about life in Antarctica, how climate change and ozone depletion are already affecting the continent and its inhabitants, and talking about the research that ASF supports through philanthropic donations.

“For a lot of people, this was a bucket list trip, and I don’t think there was anyone on board who could say we saw anything less that spectacular,” Ms Watson said.

“Many of the passengers thought they were having a tourist experience, but a lot of them left feeling like they knew a lot more about how special Antarctica and its wildlife are.”

Ms Watson said a highlight of the trip was witnessing a passenger have an ‘aha moment’ when they realised the genuine urgency of climate action.

“If that was the only thing I achieved on the flight, then that conversation alone was worth it.”

As Ambassadors of the Antarctic Science Foundation, Ms Watson and Dr Waterman will use their knowledge and platforms to highlight the importance of Antarctic research and the work of the ASF.

Antarctic Science Foundation Chief Executive Andrew Kelly says in-flight Ambassadors are unique because they’re scientists who can explain research outcomes because they’ve actually done the science on the ground.

“Science provides the path for tomorrow. The unique partnership between the Foundation and Antarctica Flights brings much-needed attention to the importance of Antarctica and the future-focused science done on the icy continent,” Mr Kelly said.

Images: Dr Waterman and Ms Watson during their Antarctic overflight (photo credit Georgia Watson 2023)