• Climate hub
  • 5 Jul 2022
  • 5 min read

Jack Beagley: Antarctica awakening

From researching melting permafrost in Antarctica to analysing New Zealand’s deep fjords, Jack Beagley is passionate about climate science — the study of natural forces, past, present and future, that control the climate.

By Robert Tighe

Researcher Jack Beagley in Doubtful Sound
Researcher Jack Beagley in Doubtful Sound

Imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by the thunderous sound of a glacier collapsing just 150 metres from your campsite. It’s an experience Dunedin postgraduate student Jack Beagley won’t forget in a hurry.

Jack’s trip to Antarctica at the end of 2021 as a BLAKE Antarctic Ambassador strengthened his resolve to do his best to raise awareness and increase our understanding of climate change. During his time in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, the 26-year-old worked with some of the world’s leading researchers to understand future climate changes caused by melting permafrost. He also gained a new appreciation for just how hard-won scientific insights are.

“It was arduous yet very rewarding work,” he says. “We walked up to 20 km each day, carrying 30 kg of equipment on our back in temperatures that ranged from -15C to 0C. It’s not flat ground either. Picture the Tongariro Crossing with lots of loose soil and big rocks, only a hell of a lot colder. We walked through snowstorms and under clear blue skies. Being able to work and survive for several weeks in such an environment was a surreal experience.”

“It was incredible stepping out of the tent in the morning and being greeted by a vast, 4 kilometre-wide glacier in front of the campsite. These glaciers are tens of thousands of years old. They look healthy enough from a distance but up close you can see the debris left behind as they melt and retreat. It was humbling seeing the effect our decisions have had on this once pristine environment. Worse, was considering the consequences the melting glaciers and permafrost will have on our future.”

Making connections

There have been lots of studies done into how much greenhouse gas is stored in Arctic permafrost — a mass equivalent to 500 million cars according to one study — but this is the first time similar research has been done in Antarctica. As the earth heats up and the permafrost thaws, more greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere, generating more heat and creating a vicious cycle.

“I think one of the biggest problems we face today is the disconnect between what we hear from scientists about climate change and the practical changes people can make to do something about it,” says Jack. “The problems can seem very abstract and hard to make sense of due to the sheer scale and magnitude of the problem.”

Understanding how things work and coming up with solutions to challenging problems is what drives Jack. Ironically, it was when he started driving as a teenager that he connected the dots between his decisions and his environmental footprint.

“I’ve always been a critical thinker and I’ve grown up in an information age where you couldn’t but be aware of the climate change crisis,” he says. “But that direct link between taking oil from the ground to put petrol in my car that released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, just so I could get from A to B, really hit me hard.”  

At university he studied engineering and physics before discovering his calling in climate change research and earth science. He was the chief engineer of an electric race car project at university and his first job out of college was with Seachange, a company developing hydrofoiling electric car ferries. Currently he’s studying New Zealand’s fjords to understand the significant role they have in storing carbon — potentially up to 20 percent of the country's annual emission — and the vulnerability of that process in a warming world.

Jack Beagley on a research trip in Antarctica
Jack Beagley on a research trip in Antarctica

Decision time

The doom and gloom of climate change reporting can lead to many people switching off, however Jack sees his colleagues and the work they do as a reason to engage.

“It can be overwhelming, but I find it really motivating that all these intelligent, passionate people have dedicated their lives to understanding the climate. It’s reassuring to know such capable people are working on these issues and it’s something others should be reassured by too.” While he’s focused on the big picture, Jack is also passionate about the small changes we can all make.

“Every single thing you do has a footprint,” he says. “It's something I take into account with every decision I make. I’m not perfect: I don't always make the smallest footprint decision, but it’s always top of mind. I think about my diet, how I get around, and the activities I do with my friends. In my work, I want to help bridge the gap between science and practical solutions so people can better connect with climate change.”

Research on its own won’t help bridge the gap but Jack is hopeful that organisations like Blake NZ that encourage and promote environmental awareness and education can make a difference.

Recently he was part of an expedition that took a group of teens to Doubtful Sound to help with an $8.6 million Otago Uni research project to map seafloor sediments and understand how carbon is buried and why fjords are so crucial. Both the Antarctic and Fiordland research will help feedback into Government policy. Ultimately though, it comes back to the decisions we make every day, he says.

“It seems like these issues are too big for any one person to do something about but everything you do is an opportunity to make a difference — even little things like riding a bike instead of jumping in your car or reducing your meat consumption. The challenge we face is daunting but it's not too late to do something.”

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