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About the Band - Nunatak

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On 7 July 2007 British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera Research Station wintering rock band Nunatak made its global debut on TV and the internet as part of the Live Earth concerts to raise awareness of climate change. As Nunatak prepared for the big day Rothera Research Station doctor Alistair Simpson went behind the scenes to report on their progress.

It’s half-past two in the afternoon. The sun is behind the snaking curtain of mountain that is Reptile Ridge; it hasn’t been seen on base for weeks. The sky has taken on a pale grey colour, reflected in the gently rippling ice-filled water of Hangar Cove. It feels strangely cold, although the temperature is a comparatively mild −4°C. As I approach the northside of the aircraft hangar I’m greeted by the smiling face of Matt Balmer, Rothera’s physics engineer and Nunatak’s lead singer and guitarist.

Nunatak rehearsing at Rothera

Matt is also part of the songwriting talent behind Nunatak; “Well if you listen to Tristan these songs are hanging around in the air, and if we don’t pluck them out then someone else will”, he intimates. “But actually what interests me is the contemporary history of human occupation of Antarctica and how this is connected to the human spirit.”

The band is out scouting for a good location for their outdoor gig: testing for light and sound levels, image options and general ambience. Being so close to midwinter, the light levels at this latitude are low at best.

Despite the freezing temperatures it is paramount that they ensure that the technology works and they can transmit footage of Nunatak’s performance back to BAS Cambridge and the Live Earth team.

Tristan, the station’s communications engineer and Nunatak’s fiddler and de facto techie, busies himself by running around grabbing power cables. He is patient, despite how busy he is, finding time to answer questions on the band and their involvement in Live Earth.

"… we had no idea back then that it would be for Live Earth though."
Tristan Thorne, Nunatak

“Well... it was all a bit surreal. We were a loose collection of performers who’d played a few gigs during the summer field season. As winter got closer numbers dwindled and our loose line-up condensed into Nunatak. Then in February I get a call from Linda in the BAS Press Office asking if the band would be interested in being on television in July — something to do with International Polar Year. I said ‘yeh… we’d be up for that.’” Tris goes on, “we had no idea back then that it would be for Live Earth though.”

At this point meteorologist Rob turns up, wearing his BAS issue orange Ventile® jacket and sporting a new short (very, very short) haircut. He is relaxed and casual but this is at odds with his work ethos; his hard-hitting drum action is the very much the product of hours spent practicing in the Green Room — Rothera’s practice and recording studio.

Ali — Nunatak’s only girl — has taken a break from her diving for marine specimens to play with the boys. Petite and unassuming one might wonder how she fits into this male-dominated band. However, it is clear from her playing power that she is a force to be reckoned with. Her musical inspiration is perhaps revealing: “Foo Fighters, Eddie Izzard and Pink Floyd”.

As the band stand at the north end of the runway, a blur of people set up lights, cables, speakers and a generator. The serenity of the band’s five members is matched by the still icebergs sitting in North Cove, framed by a pinkish sky, barely touched by a sun which is refusing to rise. As the song kicks off, there was an understated feel to it, which matches the band themselves perfectly. In the peaceful glow of midday, it fitted the surroundings perfectly too. Nunatak have surely struck gold in the form of their Antarctic locale; surely few places in the world sport such majestic and unique features.

The band’s line up
  • Matt Balmer — electronics engineer with the physics and meteorology team.
  • Tris Thorne — communications engineer
  • Ali (Alison) Massey — marine biologist
  • Rob Webster — meteorologist
  • Roger Stilwell — Field General Assistant (polar guide)

Read more about the Band…

On the runway I meet up with Nunatak’s elusive bassist Roger. His job as Field GA (polar guide) entails frequent soujourns off-base. A studious musician, he’s hard to be drawn on band matters but today he was clearly pleased with how things are going. Nunatak has been practising a new song and Roger confides that he is pleased with how it has turned out.

Yet these five are not professional musicians: they are scientists, engineers and field assistants, all living and working on the Antarctic Peninsula — a part of the planet that has warmed by almost 3°C in the last 50 years. Their daily work is focussed on scientific research to understand how our world works and what impact humans have on the natural environment. As part of Nunatak, they have been given an unprecedented opportunity to help raise public awareness of climate change. They know that this is something special, and they are aiming to inspire.

Dr Alistair Simpson is conducting a medical research project investigating the effect of one year’s residence in Antarctica on fitness and body composition of science and support staff.