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Antarctic Hazards

Crevasses present a hazard

Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation and if so how did you get out of it?

Antarctica is a potentially dangerous environment to work and live in. Hazards such as crevasses, glaciers, mountainous and coastal terrain, (sea ice during the winter months), low temperatures and generally being in a remote situation, many miles from outside help.

Some of us are employed not as scientists, but as field guides, to train and impart our experiences of campcraft, remote travel and how to operate comfortably at -30°C. Some of the scientific study involves travelling to very remote areas, either on foot in the mountains or by skidoo on the plateau, towing all of our living and research equipment on sledges. (In the past we used sled dogs).

This means that all members of the party have to have knowledge of mountaineering, rescue techniques, cold weather camping, weather forecasting, first aid skills etc. Everyone, whether they are a scientist, plumber, chef or doctor, undergoes a training course in the UK and them again when they get to their Antarctic station. This way the potential hazards that may be experienced from the harsh environment and elements can be greatly reduced.

Many aspects of the work I do involve putting yourself in potentially dangerous situations.

For example travelling across crevassed glaciers where you risk falling into some very large holes should a snow bridge collapse as cross over it. Experience, good judgement and a healthy respect for the dangers involved helps to minimise the risks. You are a long way from help should anything go wrong. Sometimes the distance you will be working from Rothera station is equivalent to the length of the British Isles. As it can take an aircraft more time to reach you than it would to fly from London to New York on a jet, it is a good idea to be very careful.


How often are there blizzards and have you been caught out in one?

This winter the weather has been generally bad. I am doing my second winter down here as I have a two and a half year tour. I prefer to think of it as two winters and three summers; it doesn't sound so long then. This is a continuous tour with no breaks at home. In my first winter we broke the wind speed record for Rothera with a gust of 89.1 knots or 102.4 miles per hour. It was officially a hurricane and was pretty impressive. This winter we have just had a two week period of fairly wild weather with strong winds and blowing snow. True blizzard conditions, often you could not see one building from another when they are less than 100 m apart. Watching these conditions from the inside of the buildings is great fun. Less amusing is crossing back to the main accommodation block, you dress up in full outdoor gear, struggle through a snow drift and then have to dig your way into the door. As soon as one person has cleared the door the blowing snow will just try to bury it again.

If you are out travelling in these conditions life becomes much more exciting. Our tents are rated for winds of 80 knots and a properly secured camp is fairly safe. I have been out this winter camping in winds of 60 to 70 knots (70 - 80 mph). The sheer noise of wind and snow hitting the tent prevents sleep. You need to have your tent secured well in advance of a storm. Some of our team are out camping at the moment and it took four people to struggle with each tent as they put them up in a blow.

Here are some interesting Antarctic weather facts.

  • Antarctica is the highest, windiest, driest and coldest continent on the planet and is ringed by the stormiest ocean.
  • It is the fifth largest continent and is 58 times larger than the UK and 95% of it is covered by snow and ice.
  • It has been covered by ice for 25 million years.
  • The ice sheet is on average 8000 feet thick. The thickest part is 15,670 feet thick.
  • Antarctica holds 90% of the world's ice which amounts to most of the world's freshwater reserves.
  • If the ice should melt there would be enough water to fill the Mediterranean sea 10 times.
  • The Ross Ice Shelf is the size of France.
  • The largest iceberg recorded was the size of Belgium.
  • The lowest temperature ever recorded anywhere on the planet was at the Russian base of Vostok on the 21st July 1983 with - 89.2°C.
  • Winds of 200 mph were recorded at the French station of Dumont d'Urville in July 1972.
  • At Rothera temperatures can reach plus 4°C during the day in summer, but fall to minus 30°C at times in the winter. The strongest wind recorded at Rothera was 89.1 knots. Snowfall is large during the winter when no melt takes place with snow drifts big enough to reach the roof of the buildings.