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Key faces questions over extra Antarctica funding

Saturday 19 Jan 2013 5:26 p.m.

The Prime Minister has arrived in Antarctica but has had to cancel a much anticipated trip to the South Pole after bad weather grounded his plane.

John Key says he's fine after fainting at a Christchurch restaurant the night before the long flight to the frozen continent.

If the trip had departed as scheduled at 6pm on Thursday, the Prime Minister could have sparked a serious medical emergency in the air over the Southern Ocean.

But he says he passed all the tests, feeling fine and privileged to be on the ice for the second time with his wife, Bronagh.

As Mount Erebus and the vast Ross Sea ice came into view, the Prime Minister was still unsure of the mystery illness that caused him to sweat profusely then collapse in a Christchurch restaurant.

“Bronagh came up to me and said ‘are you okay’?” says Mr Key. I apparently just didn't answer and the next thing you know I just collapsed. The only thing I can remember is some noises and voices in the background. Apparently I was out for a couple of minutes.”

But he was determined to make it to the southern-most part of the world, and his Ms Key wasn't treating him with any sympathy.

"I was obviously keen to come down here,” he says. “I wouldn't have done something stupid if I wasn't cleared medically. I wouldn't have taken that risk."

This isn't a journey you would want to make while feeling ill – eight or more hours in a US Hercules LC130, with the possibility of turning back five hours in thanks to bad weather on the ice runway. It's sweltering because you have to wear the full safety kit and it is loud, like a helicopter taking off next to you the entire way.

“It's fantastic to be here,” says Mr Key. “It's unique isn't it? Not many New Zealanders get to come here, but our country has had a really long association with Antarctica.”

The United States supplied Hercules, equipped with skis to land on permanent ice, 200 metres thick. 

"As you can see it's definitely a little mushy,” says Maj David Panzera, pilot of the Hercules. “A big dust storm come off of Black Island and all the particulate that you see in the snow gets heated by the sun and it just causes havoc."

Dust is like cancer to ice, and it's also been unusually warm – up to 5degC.

"We look at the Australian bushfires, and it is climate variability,” says Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Lou Sanson. “We are noticing warmer summers here."

It's that variability New Zealand scientists want to investigate, using funds from a joint public and private venture – the newly formed Antarctic Research Institute.

"We've got to get some fundamental science questions answered in the Antarctic space about how Antarctica might respond in a warming climate,” says Gary Wilson, director of the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute. “We know it's warming."

The Government spends $26 million on climate research every year. The Prime Minister says that will increase.

“There's always an issue of money but we can find money for the right projects," says Mr Key.

And he'll certainly face more questions over the next three days about where that money will go.

This evening the Prime Minister will host a dinner with seven delegates from the US McMurdo base, part of a programme that scientists in Antarctica say they hope will lead to more joint research projects and more funding.

He'll also deliver 300-year-old bottles of whiskey from Ernest Shakleton's 1907 Nimord Journey, which were found under his hut and have been replicated by the whiskey makers in Scotland.

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