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General Questions

Aerial view of Antarctica

What made you want to go to Antarctica?

Difficult one! I still don't know why I went the first time, a mixture of wanting a job that included physics, which I enjoy, and would get me out and about.

I keep going back because I now know what a unique wonderful place it is.

What have you been doing there?

I study blizzards (snow particles being blown about by storms) and what drives the winds that flow off the continent during winter (katabatic winds). This is to help us make better predictions of how the climate will behave in the future.

My job in Antarctica is to set up instruments that make automatic measurements of wind speed, temperature, pressure, humidity and turbulence. Sometimes this includes flying instruments under kites to make measurements high above the ground, and this can be quite exciting. Other times, the work includes launching small rockets, or dragging sledges behind skidoos with radars strapped to them. Every day is different.

How many miles is it from England to Antarctica

11,000 miles

Is Antarctica near the South Pole?

Antarctica is at the South Pole! It is a big continent, bigger than Europe, and the middle of Antarctica is roughly over the South Pole.

What made you want to go to Antarctica?

I've always been fascinated by ice and snow, and I've always wanted to go to Antarctica because it's one of the wildest, remotest places on earth, and I love wild places. It's quite an experience. I'm also very interested in finding out about the environment. Antarctica is a very important place as it has a big effect on the world's climate, even though it's so remote.

How many months will you stay in Antarctica?

Last season I was away for only 6 weeks but this coming season I may be away for 4 months. Some people go south for 2.5 years which is a very long time, they even spend the winter down there.

What are you studying in Antarctica?

I am looking at the effect of people on Antarctic wildlife. This last season I was looking at the effects of helicopters on breeding king penguins at South Georgia. From this work I will make recommendations for helicopter flying that will help protect penguins.

What have you been doing there?

I spent four months camped out on the ice sheet, a few hundred miles away from the South Pole. I was carrying out tests with 3 other people to find out what the ground underneath the ice was made of. We found out that in some places there is a layer of mud underneath the ice. In these places, the ice moves faster than in other places, as it is slipping on the mud !

Are there any plants of any kind in Antarctica?

There are many algae and lichens on the rocks on the Antarctic continent. There are also some flowering plants. Two varieties which have been increasing in numbers in the warmest part of the Antarctic where it has been getting warmer still in the last 50 years. When you look at the Antarctic it is hard to see any vegetation. There are a few moss banks. Less that 0.5% of the Antarctic is bare ground. Some microbes live inside rocks and suffer very low temperatures and extreme dryness. They are very clever to survive.

The flowering plants are found in regions where it is warm enough in summer for all the lying snow to melt and where there is also rain!

Is the ground very rocky near your camp?

In the British Antarctic Survey we have four Antarctic stations which operate year round. Two of these are on the rocky and mountainous island group of South Georgia which is roughly the same distance from the South Pole as Dorset is from the North Pole. However it is much colder in the Southern hemisphere and for much of the year snow covers the rocks and vegetation.

We have two permanent stations right in Antarctica. Both are on the coast. At Halley the temperature never rises above freezing and there is snow everywhere. The station would be buried by snow if it was not jacked up above the snow each year. The average temperature through the year is -17 degrees Centigrade. Britain has an average temperature of around 11 degrees Centigrade. No rocks can be seen.

Our other Antarctic station is built on rock although this time of year (the start of winter) there is a lot of snow about. Two cm of snow fell yesterday. There are mountains surrounding the station and impressive glaciers. The scenery is fantastic. Enough rock for skilled rock climbers and enough rock for lichens and moss. The station is called Rothera.

How was the Antarctic formed?

A simple question. But which would take pages to explain. For today, just believe the Antarctic was formed over a very long time period, and is still changing today. There are still volcanoes in the Antarctic, and still mountains being eroded by glaciers. What you might find interesting is that the ice sheet has been there 30 million years. Before that it was too hot, despite sitting over the Earth's South Pole.

Is the ground very rocky near your camp?

In Bird Island - yes, very rocky. However, we have more vegetation than most of the other Antarctic bases. Check the BAS website for pictures.

How windy is it near your camp? I read that it is very windy around the edge of Antarctica.

Yes - Bird Island can get so windy that gusts of wind lift up the water in the Bay into little tornados!! You often hear about the "roaring forties" in sailing races - there are big winds that roll around the bottom of the world as there's very little land to get in the way down there. Look on a globe and you'll see that it's the one place that winds can just go round and round!

Do you ever get bored?

No not bored. Frustrated when the weather is bad and you have to stay in your sleeping bag. Frustrated when aircraft can't fly due to bad weather and your work is done and you want to get home. Never bored. It is too exciting an experience.

When we grow up some of us would like to be explorers and study wild life. Is there much wildlife where you are?

Yes - I was based on Bird Island - which is a small island (about 4 km long by 1 km wide) off the north end of South Georgia. This island is absolutely full of wildlife. We live in the middle of a colony of fur seals - so from about the middle of October the male fur seals come up onto the beaches followed soon by the females until the beaches are full of fur seals. They make a lot of noise and often keep us awake at night. As well as fur seals, there are breeding albatrosses (huge seabirds), penguins and lots of other species on the island.

What are you doing while you are in Antarctica?

Part of my project was to try to put a video camera on the back of a fur seal to look at how it feeds.

How thick is the ice in the Antarctic?

The ice in the middle of Antarctica is around 2500 m thick (a couple of miles) ! That's almost ten times the height of the tallest building in the world.

What is the biggest iceberg you have seen?

The biggest iceberg I have seen was probably as big as a house! but some icebergs can be hundreds of miles long, though I never saw any that big!

How is an iceberg formed?

Antarctica is covered by a thick ice sheet, as you probably know. Around the edges of this ice sheet, the ice is floating, rather than sitting on the ground underneath it. Floating sections of ice are called "ice shelves". There are often cracks in the ice . When the ice cracks all the way through to the bottom of the ice shelf, an iceberg is formed.

How long could you survive if you fell into the Antarctic Ocean?

We think about 5-15 minutes, even in the coldest months. The sea does not get colder than -1.8°C, and there is not much difference between this and say 5°C for the sea around Iceland, or winter time in the North Sea. Some people "take a dip" if they step on weak sea ice (frozen sea water) and, if they get out quickly, are no worse for the experience. The main worry with the sea is "man overboard", as it may take a while to turn the ship around and pick the person up again.

In the evening are the sunsets different to the English ones?

No. For a number of reasons, it is perhaps the sunsets which tell you that you are not just in Scotland on a snowy day. During summer the sun never sets, and during winter it never rises. At the coast, during spring and autumn, there are then hour long sun sets, as the sun sinks towards the horizon at a shallow angle. There are then often spectacular colours all over the sky, and peculiar mirage effects, where the temperature changes in the air distorts the sun and the horizon to give wonderful effects, and opportunities for the camera .

We also get even stranger "moon rises"

What colour is the sky there during the day and do the days last for 24 hours in the summer?

In summer, very very blue or very very white.

In summer, for three months the sun does not set, but travels round the sky. We get two sorts of weather - cloudless sky with no wind (wonderful!) or cloudy, windy and snowing (eugh!). The local names are Dingle (for nice weather) and Mank (for cloudy). The sky with no cloud is blue blue blue, with no aircraft trails. You do not often see this in the UK.

How many people work in the Antarctic?

Britain has 40 staff in the Antarctic this time of year. There can be over 200 British staff in the Antarctic in the Antarctic summer. Taking all 27 countries who work in the Antarctic there can be 5000 people there in the summer and up to 1000 in the winter.

How light is it in the day?

Too bright. Hard on the eyes. Snow goggles essential.

How light is it at night?

In the summer there is continuous daylight although the Sun is nearer the horizon at night and it is cooler. It is light enough for there to be no need for any lights. But come the winter it is pitch black except for the stars, the moon, and the aurora.

Do you live in an igloo?

No. We have very good tents that are made of cotton and can stand very strong winds.

Do people still visit Scott's hut?

Scott's hut has been restored by the Antarctic Heritage Trust and is open to visitors each day. The hut is close to the American McMurdo Station and closer to the New Zealand Scott Station. So I suspect everybody who depends some time at McMurdo or Scott will pay a visit. In addition the Ross Sea is a destination of some Antarctic tour ships which travel to the Antarctic from New Zealand. The tourists will all undoubtedly visit the hut.

What happened to Roald Amundsen's flag after they left?

Flags constructed from strong cloth may last a year or two in the Antarctic before they become so frayed that they disintegrate. The reason is the persistently strong winds on the continent and the abrasion caused by wind-blown ice crystals. The pole would have a longer lifetime, but even if it was not up-routed it would get slowly buried by snowfall year round. Currently a pole three metres long, with one metre buried in the snow, could take 20 to 40 years before it was buried at the South Pole. The tent and sledge left at the South Pole by Amundsen are certainly buried and have probably travelled around 1 km since they were left, due to the flow of the glacier ice.