Caricature of scientist Peter Barrett standing in the ocean. He is holding a melting piece of ice on which two penguins sit. By Murray Webb, 2004.
New Zealander Peter Barrett discovered the first tetrapod remains in Antarctica in 1967. Subsequent research that identified the remains provided the first evidence that land vertebrates had roamed Antarctica when its climate was warm, and lent support to the then controversial theories of continental drift and Gondwanaland. But Barrett's contribution to Antarctic science goes beyond his ‘serendipitous discovery' as a doctoral student. He has also been acknowledged as the 'supremo' of the geological drilling community in the Antarctic for his work in this area from the 1970s onwards.
Barrett's first Antarctic expedition was with the University of Wisconsin in 1962. The following year he completed his MSc (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was subsequently accepted into the graduate programme of the Institute of Polar Studies at Ohio State University. While completing his doctorate Barrett and two others were awarded a grant to map the geology of the Beardmore glacier area. The group spent two summers between 1966 and 1968 exploring the area. It was during their second season that Barrett discovered the tetrapod remains. Research subsequently identified them as being from the early Triassic period. This was the first evidence that land vertebrates had roamed Antarctica when its climate was warm. They were also identified as coming from a group of long-extinct freshwater amphibians known to have lived in Australia and South Africa. The find was considered so significant to the advancement of the theories of continental drift and Gondwanaland that it was reported in Time and Newsweek magazines.
Barrett was awarded his PhD in 1968 and subsequently took up a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Victoria University of Wellington to run an Antarctic expedition. In 1970 he was appointed as a senior lecturer and as director of the university's Antarctic Research Centre. In 1972 he also became involved in the first deep-sea drilling cruise onto the Antarctic continental shelf. In the following years he was the chief scientist on several drilling projects in McMurdo Sound: MSSTS-1, the CIROS project and the Cape Roberts Project.
He has continued to advise on drilling projects, for example as a member of the Antarctic Drilling Project's (ANDRILL) Science Advisory Panel. He has also continued as a professor of geology at Victoria University. In 2007 he stepped down as director of the Antarctic Research Centre, but took on responsibility for the Joint Antarctic Research Institute and the Climate Change Research Institute.
Barrett has been honoured at home and abroad for his contribution to Antarctic science. In 1993 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and in 2004 he was awarded the Marsden Medal by the New Zealand Association of Scientists. In 2001 he was awarded the Premio Internazionale ‘Felice Ippolito' by the Italian Academy of Humanities and Sciences. In 2006 he received the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) President's Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Antarctic Science.
In 1963-64 the New Zealand Geological Survey Antarctic Expedition named a glacier in Antarctica after Barrett. It was officially recognised by the New Zealand Geographic Board in 2008. Barrett Glacier is about 30 km long, flowing from the vicinity of Mount Llano, north-west and then north-north-east to the Ross Ice Shelf.