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Working as an Antarctic Scientist

Scientists study albatrosses

What are you researching at the minute and what is the most exciting thing you have found out so far?

The seal research on Bird Island mainly concentrates on the Antarctic fur seal and is based on both long-term monitoring programs and shorter experimental studies. Antarctic fur seals are highly synchronous annual breeders i.e. 90% of pups are born within three weeks of the year. The males come ashore a few weeks before the females to hold territories on the beaches where females will later give birth and breed. Questions we are trying to answer are as varied as how successful individual seals, both males and females, are at reproducing, and what, where and how do they feed once back at sea. To answer these questions, and others, we use genetic analysis to trace parenthood, observational reports and we deploy recording instruments on the animals before they go out for a foraging (i.e. feeding) trip. The instruments we deploy on fur seals record their position (we can map where they have been), how deep and often they dive (usually around 20m deep but some have been recorded at 181m) and what are the oceanic conditions where they feed. We have also in the past couple of years deployed some cameras and collected some very interesting and aesthetically pleasing pictures of the prey fur seal most abundantly eat: krill. I have attached a picture for you to see (below).

Picture of krill from camera on fur seals head

Penguins: We have breeding Gentoo and Macaroni penguins here at Bird Island. The basic penguin research on these species looks at the number of birds, how many chicks they produce (their reproductive success), and what they eat (diet). The population sizes are monitored each summer by counting the number of occupied penguin nests in certain colonies. The macaroni penguins are found in three colonies - Little Mac, Middle Mac and Big Mac. The population size has been counted at Big and Little Mac for the past 26 years and so the work carried out each year is part of a very long-term programme. This year Big Mac had 74 000 penguins in it! There is also much more intensive research undertaken on macaroni penguins at Little Mac. In the past few years we have attached satellite tracking tags to penguins and have found out where they go to feed (forage) and when. We also attach TDRs (time-depth-recorders) and these tell us how deep they dive and how often. When all of this information is put together with the diet information we have all the details of each trip to sea that the penguins make. Another recent project has studied the energy that a macaroni penguin needs to walk. For this penguins walk on a treadmill, similar to the ones that you might find in any gym at home!

The most exciting thing that I have found out so far is where the macaroni penguins go in the winter. After the penguins have finished breeding and moulting their old feathers out they go to sea for the whole 6 months of winter. Until just recently no one knew where they went, but in my first winter here we attached satellite tags to five penguins to see where they spent their winter. One of them swam half way to South Africa from here - about 1500 km in the rough Southern Ocean by a bird only about as big as a household cat!

Albatrosses: A lot of the work I do is with Wandering Albatrosses, who have the largest wingspans of any bird (over three metres across). They are having problems because many get caught by accident on fishing hooks, and although some fishermen are trying very hard to find ways to catch fish without catching birds, their numbers are still going down every year. There are "pirate" fishing boats who catch fish illegally, and they don't care if they catch birds as well, as long as they can catch lots of fish and make lots of money. One of the things I do is look for albatrosses that have hooks caught in their legs or mouths, so I can cut the hooks off.

To do that, I have to catch them, and it's quite scary, because they are as big as a wild swan but with huge hooked beaks like an eagle. They have to have very strong and sharp beaks for tearing into all the rubbery squid and scaly fish that they catch at sea, because like all birds, they don't have any teeth and can't chew. But this means they can also bite very hard, so I'm very careful when catching them! They are very quiet gentle birds otherwise, and will let you walk right up to their nests without flying away.

I also stick small satellite tags onto the feathers on their backs with strong tape. The tags send a message up to satellites orbiting the Earth, and can tell us exactly where the birds go, when they leave their chicks to go off and find food. The chicks are sometimes left alone for weeks with no food, so they have to be very fat to survive. Their parents fly across thousands of kilometres of ocean and can go up to 135 kilometres per hour, although they are so good at catching the wind that they hardly need to flap their wings!

There are also other species of albatrosses and petrels on Bird Island, and we study many of them. We put small metal numbered rings on their legs, so when we see them again and read the numbers we know exactly who they are (by checking in a computer database). For some of them, we have a record of every time they have nested on the island and even who their partners were, going back over 30 years.

I look after a couple of experiments that look at the Earth's atmosphere around 100 km above the Earth. There is a powerful radar that looks at a layer in the atmosphere called the ionosphere. There are a set of experiments that measure naturally occurring radio waves. Lightning in South America can produce these radio waves and the ionosphere can help carry them to our sensitive receivers here in the Antarctic. There are also experiments that measure how the ionosphere absorbs radio waves that were generated out in Space and there are experiments that measure how the Earth's magnetic field varies.

The Sun's radiation affects the Earth's ionosphere and we get e-mailed reports of how the Sun has been behaving over the past couple of days. It's then fascinating to see how what we have read about the Sun, affects our experiments a couple of days later.

The SHARE (Southern Hemisphere Auroral Radar Experiment) radar at Halley is part of the SuperDARN (Super Dual Auraral Radar Network) project currently involving 15 radars in the Artic and the Antarctic. It is run as an international project between Arctic and Antarctic researchers in U.S.A, Canada, UK (between BAS and Leicester University), South Africa, Japan, France, Australia, Italy, Sweden and Finland.

The SHARE radar can be thought of as a giant radar gun, like the police use to catch speeding motorists. It looks like 16 giant Television Aerials in a line and it measures the speed and direction that the plasma in the ionosphere moves. The faster the plasma is moving the more particle energy from the Sun is entering the atmosphere. This is what causes the aurora (lights in the sky at an altitude of around 100 km). The particle energy from the Sun is guided by the Earth's magnetic field lines (it helps to think of the Earth as a large bar magnet) so that it is deposited around the North and South Polar regions, triggering the aurora. The radar scans 4 million square kilometres of the ionosphere every two minutes.

The data collected forms a worldwide picture of the movement of the ionosphere and this is helping scientists understand how solar energy interacts with the upper atmosphere (above 100 km) of the Earth. Because of the remoteness of Halley and the sheer quantity of data collected the files are transferred once a year to BAS in Cambridge for analysis, the data takes up to 24 CDs every year and this data is compressed as much as possible to squeeze it onto the CDs.

I am responsible for the running of the radar and most of my time is spent making sure it is working properly and making upgrades to it when necessary

Useful web links for more information on the SuperDARN radars:

The maps below show the radar sites worldwide and the total coverage of the ionosphere, the center of the drawings are the North and South Poles (Halley is base H).

Northern Hemisphere:

Total coverage - north pole

Southern Hemisphere:

Total coverage - south pole


And there's more! We also take regular measurements of the weather including wind speed, wind direction, temperature, solar and UV radiation, pressure, and humidity. We have experiments that record incredibly small changes in pressure (thousandths of a millibar) over a small area and others that profile the different density layers in the lower atmosphere. We take precipitation samples, profile katabatic winds using echoes from an array that beeps, we use different filters to make measurements of the air chemistry. Of course we also take regular ozone measurements and in fact it was here that the ozone hole was first discovered!

Do you enjoy doing research/spending time in the Antarctic, and what are the people at your research station studying at the moment?

I do like the life down here, as it is the ultimate adventure. I am just about to start preparing the equipment required for the coming summer project. I am lucky to be able to work with the best scientists in the country. As Field Assistant I am there to help and keep everyone safe. My first summer we were studying algae and lichens, clinging on to life at the edge of what is survivable for them. Conditions must be difficult for plant life as water is frozen, so not available, and the UV levels are high. My second summer project was spent extracting cores of sediment from the bottom of freshwater lakes; these have never been seen before and will contain a record of climate change over the last few million years. This summer coming I am working on a meteorology project studying the precipitation process in the Antarctic so we can better understand how the world's weather works. Just the most interesting job in the world.

Doing research in Antarctica must be one of the most exciting places to do it. I am very lucky because I have field sites on the local islands, around the base and at a distant location where I get to camp every year for a few weeks. I have learnt how to drive a boat, rock-climb, abseil and ski, and all because of my job as biologist. Our local area has some stunning scenery and wonderful areas of vegetation. I couldn't ask for a more beautiful place to work.

There are three scientists on base just now, two marine biologist and a terrestrial biologist. I am the terrestrial biologist and I am studying the effects of UV radiation on Antarctic bacteria. There are very few plants, insects and microbes on Antarctica and they have to survive in a very harsh environment. BAS scientists are very interested in how these organisms cope with natural stresses, such as very low temperatures, but we would also like to find out how they cope with new stresses such as increased exposure to UV radiation caused by ozone destruction.

Our two marine biologists spend a lot of their time diving in the sea around Rothera which sometimes involves diving through several centimetres of sea-ice. We have an aquarium facility that is full of beautiful and colourful marine organisms that they have collected. There are several kinds of starfish, as well as sea lemons, sea cucumbers, spiders, clams, corals and limpets, to name just a few. The marine team are interested in how the colonisation on rocks, the feeding patterns and the growth of these marine organisms changes throughout the year.