Many thanks to the students at Hope Valley College for their questions about Antarctica and what it’s like living out there for our field work. Thanks for your interest!
Q1. What is it like to survive in such cold conditions?
A1. It does indeed feel like survival! After all there’s no chance of growing your own food here, and we have to melt ice to make drinking water. As such, when here in Antarctica we are, by necessity, reliant on technology from the warmer parts of the world: travel is generally by planes and skidoos, we wear several layers of clothing and very thick boots, food is freeze-dried food, and ice is melted by burning kerosene. Even going to the bathroom (in a very cold toilet tent) is a different process, as there are no bacteria to break the waste down. And so when camping out here on the ice sheet, some 800km from the nearest base, we are constantly taking advantage of the latest advancements from back home — including the Iridium satellite device that allows me to send this message. But the advantage of all this is that it allows us to do science in a very special place (when the weather is tolerable) — in this particular case, to look for meteorites. Without these technologies and advancements we would not be able to survive here for long, it’s just too cold and lifeless for us to live without outside help.
Q2. Do you think that climate change is a problem in the Antarctic and if so, do you think it is a problem we need to address as a country?
A2. Yes, climate change is causing the ice sheet to loose mass at an increasing rate and become even less stable (meaning large amounts of ice break off from the continent and into the oceans). The upshot being increasing sea levels which impacts upon people, towns, and cities elsewhere on earth, particularly in low lying countries. In addition, with larger amounts of fresh water leaving Antarctica and entering the salty oceans, it can make the oceans currents behave differently which can then cause even more heating of the Earth’s atmosphere, and thus even more melting of the ice sheet, and so the problem gets worse and worse. The cause of this is not Antarctica itself, but the level of carbon dioxide that we are all pumping into the atmosphere. Yet given the scale of the problem, it will be change at the national and international government level that is the strongest weapon we have to reduce the impact. That all said, we don’t need to wait for politicians to get their act together: we can all do our bit, we can all plant trees, which are the ultimate weapon against climate change and help restore the natural world — how about planting some in your garden?
Q3. How do you cope with 24 hour a day sunlight?
A3. It’s hard! Our body clocks are messed up by it. The sun is always high in the sky, making it very hard to sleep. And sleeping in a tent means we can’t escape it by pulling the curtains. The best we have are eye masks, which aren’t too comfortable.
Many thanks to Beth from class 6R at Nottingham Girl’s High School for sending in some great questions from her class and her teacher about the Antarctic meteorite field work we did this season to look for meteorites. I have tried to answer them below. Thanks for your interest Beth and your class, and hope that you get to visit and work in Antarctica some day in the future.
P. S. There are some amazing women working at the British Antarctic Survey that I got to meet – from being a pilot, to an aircraft engineer, to a field guide, to being a base commander in charge of the station, a chef, being in charge of science cargo logistics, or a communications expert – there are lots of jobs to be done working at the research bases, on one of the ships, or out in the remote field. You can also find out more about some of BAS’s polar women scientists and what they do here.
1) What is your actual job title?
My job title – that is complicated as I seem to have a few! My university (the University of Manchester) calls me a Royal Society University Research Fellow as am funded by an organisation in London called the Royal Society to do scientific research. I am also called a ‘Reader’ which is sort of like a university teacher who also does research (sadly I don’t do as much reading as I would like though so the job title is a bit odd!). I would also call myself a lunar scientist as I mostly study the Moon, and a meteoriticist as I study meteorites from outer space. It shows you can have a few job titles being a scientist and not really know which one fits best.
2)What sort/how many meteorites did you find?
On our field trip to Antarctica this year we think we have found at least 36 meteorites, which is a good number to find. We will double check this when we get all the rock samples back to Manchester later this summer and can start to analyse them and check what type of samples they are. From some initial tests that we do in the field when we collect them I think that most are likely to have come from different types asteroids – but you never know, and when we have checked them more carefully I hope we might have one from the Moon or Mars.
3) Did you stay in the building on skis or just work there?
When we first get to Antarctica we stay in buildings that look more like normal houses (called Rothera) and then we traveled onto the building with skies (called Halley). These are both permanent research bases that are run by the British Antarctic Survey.
At Rothera research station, which is located on the Antarctic peninsula, there are about 120-160 people living and working there in the summer months (in UK winter time) and in the Antarctic winter (in UK summer time) there is about 25 people living there. There are several buildings including accommodation blocks (we share rooms between two people), a lovely big building with a cafeteria, a library and a TV room, a building with offices for people to work on their science projects and to monitor the Antarctic weather, an aircraft hangar so they can maintain and repair the planes we use, and workspace for waste disposal and recycling and for vehicle repairs.
The station called Halley, which is the building with skies we visited, is a really cool looking structure – it is made up of several different modules that all have different functions – from a command centre and accommodation rooms, to a field work preparation zone, to an area with a table tennis area and some nice chairs to relax. The neat design is that when there is a lot of snow the whole structure can pick up its feet one by one and step itself up to a higher level to get out of the snow! It can also travel across the snow if it needs to, to move to a completely new area (it last did so in the year 2017). This year we worked in the building to prepare our field equipment, and to speak to the people who predicted the weather forecast so that we could leave to fly out to our field site.
4) What were the cabins like that you stayed in?
At Halley I stayed in a little cabin called a caboose – it was very cosy and warm and had four beds and a little table and chairs area. I was on the top bunk bed so had to climb up to get in and out which was quite interesting as I am not as good as climbing as I used to be!
When we were in the field doing our work to find meteorites we stayed in orange coloured tents with two people in a tent.
5) Where exactly in Antarctica were you? Did you get to the Pole?
We visited an area about 600 km or so from the coast, at an altitude of 1100 m above sea level. It was quite a flat region, but we could see mountain ranges around to give a sense of scale.
On this 2018-2019 field trip I did not get to visit the South Pole – it was about 900 km south of where we were staying. However, on the last trip to Antarctica I did when I was helping out an American meteorite research team, I was very lucky and did get to visit the South Pole for a few days, which was really cool. At the South Pole there are actually two poles there which is odd – one is the real South Pole geographic location site and the other one is the ceremonial one they have surrounding by flags for good photo opportunities. I made sure that I walked around both of them for good measure to say I have been there. Incidentally, in November later this year people will celebrate the 50th anniversary of when women visited the South Pole for the first time (you can read more about this here).
6) What was the temperature during the day/night?
Most of the time in the daytime it was between about -5 degrees centigrade and -10 degrees centigrade, but a few times it got as chilly as -20 C. What made it worse was when the wind blew, and it felt a lot colder with ‘wind chill’ than the thermometer told us. At night when we were there it never really got dark, but it did get a few degrees colder as the light levels dropped.
You have to make sure that you are wearing enough layers in these temperatures to work for a long period of time – when I went out I had five pairs of trousers on (thermals, thick thermals, a fleece layer, thin down trousers, and thick salopettes), on my feet were very thick boots that had a protective plastic sole and a removable insulated liner, and on top I wore a vest, a thermal layer, a thick thermal layer, a thin down jacket, an insulated layer, a thick jumper and a big protective out layer), and I wore a face mask to protect my face from the wind and cold! I looked a bit like the Michelin man, but it kept me warm.
7) How close did you get to the penguins?
I got about 5 to 20 m away from the penguins. You cant get too close as you don’t want to disturb the penguins and we want them to stay relaxed in their home environment. Once I saw three penguins going for a walk along the plane runway which was pretty funny, although they loved across pretty quickly as I think they are used to aircraft traffic coming through!
8) Do you know what breed of penguins they were?
The penguins I saw were called Adele penguins – they are very cute at about 60 cm in height and are one of seven types that occur in Antarctica. I normally saw them in pairs, or in a group of three sitting alongside the coastline. Every time I saw one I still got excited – it doesn’t really ever get boring to spot one 🙂