In Part 2 I’ll talk a little about the scientific importance of studying the Arctic and Antarctic, and treat you to a ‘letter’ from a close friend of mine who is currently in Antarctica with British Antarctic Survey! (Part 1 here)…
As a human race we live in microcosms with microcosms. Individually we are very self-centered. While that gives us traits to be equally ashamed and proud about, it can narrow the focus.
Think what you know about the Arctic and Antarctica for example. How did you come about that knowledge? If it’s because you’ve seen either for yourself, you’re only 0.03% of the world’s population who has that first-hand experience (assumptions made, like every visit was a single individual in 2016-17). Last year (2016-17) the number of visitors to Antarctica was 44,202. So the vast majority of what we know, as the general public, comes from the media: documentaries, the news, internet articles…
A good game to play to see what common knowledge or queries the cyber-world has is the ‘Google autocomplete’ game. Typing “The Arctic is…” or “Antarctica is…” reveals that we’re, again, narrow in our focus and not very knowledgeable!
So with the knowledge that we do have, some of which is incorrect or based on misconception, how much of any of that is converted into understanding of these two parts of our world? Scientists are trying very hard to understand these places, and use them as a base of operations to help understand processes across the entire planet. Looking at a list of research stations in both the Arctic and Antarctic is proof that we are investing a lot of time, effort and resources into doing so. This article gives a good historical background and present-day update about the importance of such scientific work.
Ice cores, to me, are one of the most amazing things to come out of scientific research from the polar regions.
During my last week at NOAA I managed a visit to one of the labs they collaborate very closely with, the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR). It was a long overdue visit, and a shame that it came right at the end of the placement. Sylvia Michel showed me around the Stable Isotope lab, and yes, I should have visited sooner – for one, their equipment are named after Star Trek characters!!!
Measuring stable isotopes is exceptionally important work, two main examples are:
- Detecting the differing ratios of carbon isotopes in CO2 can tell us where carbon emissions are coming from (e.g. humans burning fossil fuels or naturally respiring from plants);
- Isotopes of oxygen act as a good thermometer. So measuring them in ice cores from the Arctic, Antarctic and high-altitude glaciers gives us historical temperatures.
Here’s a brief guide to some of the equipment and facilities at INSTAAR’s Stable Isotope lab:
There was also Picard (which I think was in a state of disrepair or being phased out… figures!) and Seven, but I admit I can’t recall what it does! NB: I’ve called dibs on naming the lab’s newest machine, whenever they get one! I’ve suggested Saru, from the new Star Trek: Discovery series.
Their own website does a good enough job of describing the work that they do and is worth a look.
Now to focus on the Antarctic. What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you think about Antarctica? Penguins? Ice? The colour white?
I am very fortunate that a best friend of mine works for the British Antarctic Survey. The BAS have a substantial bank of educational resources made in partnership with the Royal Geographical Society: Discovering Antarctica. Please enjoy and explore that yourself! Instead, I’ll treat you to something straight from the field. My friend Dan Beeden sent a lovely email giving his initial experiences during his first sortie to Antarctica as BAS’s air unit operations coordinator, and he has graciously allowed me to share an edited version of it:
[There is] very limited internet bandwidth here… The whole station (80 people or so currently) shares a satellite internet service about one fifth the capacity of a normal house broadband connection, so trying to send huge files will get you in trouble or worse, fed to an elephant seal(!)
Everything is brilliant here at Rothera. We arrived a week ago after an extended stay in Punta Arenas while we waited for parts to be airfreighted down from Canada for the Dash 7. … With the Dash 7 fixed we departed Punta last Sunday for the 5hr flight south. We were very lucky as the sky cleared half way through the flight meaning we got to see our first icebergs, followed by brash ice, then more and more ice until the ice shelf proper and then the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The visibility was so good that from the flightdeck we could see these mountains clearly when we were still over 200 miles away. I’ve attached a few photos of the flight down as well as a few other highlights.
Rothera itself is amazing – it feels like walking around in a David Attenborough documentary as these are the only places I have seen views like this before. Rothera sits on a peninsula where our runway is the narrowest part, before the headland itself which you can walk around in an hour or so. The bays are full of icebergs but the winds and currents move them around each day so the seascape is always changing. In every direction are huge snow-capped mountains. Glaciers feed down into the bays and calve off huge chunks of ice creating a continual stream of new icebergs. Not only do the icebergs move with the current, they also break up as they melt, others roll over and get stuck, some are brilliant white whilst others are blue. Those that have rolled over have a surface like a golf ball as that which was previously underwater is now above the surface. As the sea ice breaks up seals haul out onto small flows and slowly drift along with the current; fat, warm and content if their facial expressions are anything to go by.
There is a lot of wildlife – seals waddle around and spend their days lying on their backs in the sun. More and more seals are appearing as the sea ice recedes around the point; mostly they are Weddell seals but there are a few fat, gregarious and noisy elephant seals as well. We’ve seen a few Adelie penguins and a lot of seabirds (gulls, terns, skuas, petrels, fulmars). Everyone is hopeful that the killer whales will make an appearance soon also – they tend to follow the edge of the sea ice as it breaks up.
It is daylight 24hrs a day now and will be for most of the rest of the summer season. The sun goes down behind the mountains just before midnight leaving a lovely mauve-ish light across the landscape before it reappears a few hours later.
On arrival we spent a couple of days doing training so you can find your way around base, know the actions in events of emergencies, find the surgery, clothing store, boat store, aquarium, etc. We also do basic Antarctic survival training; survival boxes, putting up tents, cooking and lighting, staying warm, and so-on in case we up joining a field party deployment/retrieval flight and have to overnight in the field.
My time is split between the Air Operations Office on the main part of the base, and over at the hangar which is on the other side of the runway. It is great to get an insight into how air ops work here, and also be able to see how the scientists fit out the aircraft with all their survey and measuring kit that I know by name, but haven’t actually seen fitted into the aircraft.
The Dash-7 is mainly used for moving people and cargo between here and the Falklands and Chile, but it also lands on the ice runway and delivers supplies and people to Sky Blu which is one of our field bases a few hours flying time south of Rothera. The Twin Otters (we have 4) are busy taking science parties out into the field and opening up field bases. Drums of Jet-A1 are cached at locations across the continent allowing the Twin Otters to refuel between bases and give them the range to get to places they otherwise could not. These depots are ‘self-service’ so once you’ve dug the fuel drums out of the snow drift or ice, they are opened up and then an electric fuel pump kept in the aircraft is used to transfer fuel from the drums to the fuel tank. Although all these sites are GPS marked, they are also left with physical markers (usually an empty fuel drum on a post) so that the aircraft radar can pick them up. This is because GPS positions are not always helpful if the ice sheet or glacier has moved a few km since the fuel was deposited. I’m also busy working with scientists and pilots who will be flying the Iceland and Greenland science campaigns next February that we have been planning this year. One of the Twin Otters did a sea-ice recce flight on Thursday so that the pilot could advise the crew of the RRS James Clark Ross of the best way for them to get to Rothera through the sea ice – they are due here in about 10 days’ time having left the Falklands a few weeks ago.
Our office is opposite the Met. Office which is great as you get to hear the forecasters talking to teams via sat phone across Antarctica, BAS aircrew and visiting pilots, all keen to know what the weather has in store wherever they are going.
The main building on site is Bransfield House. This is where you find the canteen, the bar and lounge, TV rooms, computer rooms, visiting office spaces, kitchen, etc. The food is excellent and plentiful. In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, we have ‘smoko’ which is a morning break 1030-1100 where porridge or soup is served, as well as ‘afternoon smoko’ involving tea and cake. To avoid returning home looking like one of the resident seals, there is a gym, but many people either ski (great skiing nearby) or cycle or run up and down the runway after flying ops have finished. Push bikes are available for getting around station as are ‘gators’ – little 6-wheeled offroad buggies that we use for moving things around. Saturday nights are a special night so everyone dresses up a bit and a three course meal is laid on. There are movies on Weds and Sunday evenings, yoga classes, circuit training and a music room complete with guitars, amps and drum kits for anyone who fancies having a go. Other special days are also catered for – Thanksgiving for example. On Thursday night we enjoyed a super American-themed roast dinner followed by Pumpkin Pie… This went down especially well with the Americans currently here. We also have a shop where you can buy various Antarctic goodies and where you can stamp your own passport with the ‘British Antarctic Territories’ stamp.
That’s all for now… best wishes to everyone,
P.S. (9th Dec). I am just back from a few days on field operations which was really amazing. One picture attached of the trip home to Rothera yesterday.
Big thanks to Dan for sharing his experiences. To finish off, as I was editing this post a (now-ex) colleague of mine at NOAA sent through this interesting short article about the work scientists to. It mentions the polar areas, but makes it clear that for all the wonder and beauty these people can see when they work in the field, much of the work is repetitive and highly focused! https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2017/12/11/the-scientists-who-track-climate-change-in-the-field/
Update (16th January 2018): A recent update to NASA’s Earth Observatory, with some stunning mosaic imaginary taken from the air – Antarctica from Above: Flying for Science, Finding Beauty
Update (16th January 2018): As part of their Arctic Program, NOAA have recently released their 2017 Arctic Report Card. A short 3-and-a-half minute video summarises the report. The most striking conclusion is that the “Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades“. The term ‘New Arctic’ is now being used: