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Doing research with the "Kiwis"

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28.8.2019 | Logbook


From summer in Switzerland to winter in New Zealand: SLF scientist Yves Bühler and his family are spending half a year on New Zealand's South Island for a research trip. He was immediately spellbound by the landscape and wildlife. The only thing bothering him is that the houses have minimal insulation, meaning that it is just as cold inside as outside.


We're finally here, down under, in Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand – 18,500 km away from the SLF and Davos, on the other side of the world. After much planning, a lot of anticipation and some concerns, we set off in the middle of July. The first port of call was Singapore, followed by a four-day stopover on a small Indonesian island to adjust to the time zone, then it was on to Christchurch and, finally, Dunedin on New Zealand's South Island. My partner Ladina and I and our three boys, Nick, Andri and Corsin, will become Kiwis for half a year while I undertake a Research Fellowship at the School of Surveying, University of Otago.

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Kiwis typically say things like: "Are you cold? Get harder!" This is also why it's no warmer indoors than outdoors. Insulation is for wimps! Photo: Yves Bühler, SLF
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Dunedin is nestled between hills and bays on the South Pacific. Most houses have just one floor. Photo: Yves Bühler, SLF
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School of Surveying: the training centre for New Zealand's surveyors and my workplace for the next few months. Photo: Yves Bühler, SLF
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Nugget Point: 2,600 km to Antarctica, with only the Pacific Ocean in between. This is where the cold weather comes from. Photo: Yves Bühler, SLF
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New Zealand sea lions are often found on the beach and are not afraid of people. But be careful: if you annoy them, they can move surprisingly quickly, even on land. Photo: Yves Bühler, SLF
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Each student accommodation has its own name to make it easier to find where the next party is. Photo: Yves Bühler, SLF

The University of Otago is New Zealand's oldest university and is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. With around 20,000 students, it's the lifeblood and main industry of the city of Dunedin, which has a total of 120,000 inhabitants. The students pay relatively high fees of NZD 10,000-25,000 (around CHF 6,000-16,000) a year and thereby fund the university to a large extent. This doesn't leave them with much money for accommodation, so many live in very run-down 'shacks' with no heating, keeping themselves warm with parties and electric blankets. For this reason, the locals call student housing 'slumland', although 'decent' New Zealand homes are hardly any warmer than outside either.

Possibly the thickest snowpack in the world

The School of Surveying – where my research partner Pascal Sirguey teaches and conducts research – trains surveyors and remote sensing specialists for the whole of New Zealand and is located in an old hospital. As a Frenchman by birth, Pascal has a very good relationship with the French satellite operators, making him one of the world's leading experts in processing data from the Pléiades satellite constellation, which can record optical data with 50-cm resolution. In future, we want to use these data to comprehensively and accurately record snow depths photogrammatically, even in remote regions like the European and New Zealand Alps. This is the main focus of our joint research project, which is also financially supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, and which involves processing and analysing data collected about Davos and the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand. The Kiwis suspect that the snowpacks forming in remote regions of their country's mountainous west coast are the thickest in the world but they can't yet prove it as they lack the necessary stations and measurements.


Winter weather and beautiful beaches

Going straight from high summer in Switzerland to mid-winter in New Zealand is not exactly fun, especially because our winter clothes, which we sent from Switzerland, have not yet arrived. Fortunately, this region has a maritime climate, with minimum temperatures of around 5°C, so it's not as cold as Davos. We take comfort from the fact that an average winter's day here is like a bad summer's day in Davos. But we still had to visit the local outdoor shop to buy some decent coats.

On the bright side, Dunedin has incredibly beautiful beaches, both in the city itself and in the surrounding area. The breathtaking Otago Peninsula – part of Dunedin – has magnificent beaches where you can find sealions, fur seals, penguins and even albatrosses with impressive wing spans of up to 4 m. We managed to see all of these animals on our first trip there, much to the boys' delight. Now only orcas are left on our bucket list but they will probably be a bit trickier to find. Hopefully I'll have more to report in that regard in my next blog post.