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Living and working in the Antarctic

Living and working in the Antarctic
Wednesday 4th November 2009 by C. Freeman
Year 10 Humanities students learned about daily life in the Antarctic during a talk by a member of the British Antarctic Survey. Mike Prior-Jones brought along food and equipment to illustrate his talk, and also showed videos of his time at the Rothera research station, including shots of Emperor penguins and an example of how soap bubbles blown into the air will freeze solid at temperatures of minus 20 degrees.

He outlined the history of polar exploration, recounting the heroic struggles of pioneers such as Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton before giving students a glimpse of the 21st century technologies now being used at the bottom of the world. Gone are the days of crude canvas tents and huskies; now cargos are hauled by a range of vehicles including specially-adapted John Deere tractors fitted with massive triangular tracks. Modern textile technology has meant that tents and outer clothes are made of a closely-woven windproof cotton which is made from the top one per cent of the world's cotton crop.

Mr Prior-Jones, a communications engineer, spent 15 months in Antarctica, where he was one of only 21 British staff who over-wintered there. The skeleton staff consists of a base commander, biologists, engineers, tradesmen, a boat handler, meteorologist, a cook and, of course, a doctor who is also also trained in dentistry. When it comes to the non-essential but necessary skill of hairdressing, the inhabitants have a 'do-it-yourself' kit and rely on the crimping skills of their fellow enthusiastic amateurs!

During the summer the BAS team expands by about a hundred, with staff either flying in via the Falklands or being shipped in on either the James Clark Ross, a cargo and scientific vessel, or the Ernest Shackleton, a logistics and cargo ship. They dock near the research station at Halley, to unload cargo and personnel but it depends on how much the sea freezes as to how close the ship can berth. Sometimes it's as little as two miles away but during a big freeze it can be up to 50 miles, which is why they need heavy duty vehicles to haul container-loads of supplies.

PictureDemonstrating the freeze-dried rations.

Once the equipment and personnel are in place then the day-to-day logistics can commence with scientists going out to conduct experiments in the field. The Sky Blu site consists of an ice runway, blown by the wind into a flat, blue skating rink. One pilot described landing on it as 'being like a one-legged man wrestling an alligator.'

Before 1994 the BAS used teams of dogs to tow Nansen sledges laden with supplies, but now they are mechanically hauled at up to 30 miles per hour. The sledges are traditionally made from ash wood, lashed together with ropes and leather. They are the same design as those used by the early Antarctic explorers but with the new-fangled addition of Teflon runners to help them glide over snow and ice. They can weigh up to one and a half tons when laden and the construction methods mean that they flex when going over frozen ice ridges, known as sastrugi. For safety the skidoos towing the sledges are linked together in pairs. This means that should one fall into a crevasse the other one should remain safe on the surface and be able to effect a rescue.

Life in the Antarctic is arduous and scientists in the field need to consume at least 3,500 calories per day. The BAS ration boxes contain tinned butter, freeze-dried food and chocolate rations and many familiar brands that we get in the UK. Each person is allocated half a bar of chocolate a day to keep their energy up although many still do lose weight during a stint in the extreme conditions. During winter the team may have to go up to eight months with no fresh supplies so tinned and dried food forms a major part of their diet.

PicturePolar-proof clothing.

A student volunteered to model the layers of clothing needed in sub-zero temperatures. They included a base layer of long-johns and top, a windproof jacket, Canadian mukluk boots, a fleecy neck-warmer, an outer jacket made of windproof cotton, topped off by a summiting jacket. Scientists also need either snowshoes or Nordic skis to get around on the flat or crampons used to grip the ice in mountainous regions.

When storms blow in the research stations are often swathed in snow. Personnel then have to dig their way out to reach other buildings in the complex, always remembering to brush every trace of snow and ice from around the frame or else it freezes meaning that the door cannot be closed. The conditions in the Antarctic are so harsh that there is very little wildlife and virtually no land-based animals. Emperor and Adelie penguins are the main inhabitants of the region, along with skuas, territorial birds similar to a large scavenging seagull.

Since returning from his Antarctic trip in February 2007 Mr Prior-Jones is now working on his PhD in Communications. He is developing a way of using high frequency radio transmissions to connect instruments used in the field with the base station at Rothera and back to the UK. This means that faulty instrumentation can be diagnosed quickly and that data can be recorded without time-consuming forays to and from various points in the Antarctic wilderness.

After the hour-and-a-half long talk he said: 'Going to the Antarctic was something I had considered for a long time. I've always been fascinated by it and I enjoyed it very much. You have to be prepared to get on with people and the weather conditions. In May we had 27 days of blowing snow, most of which seemed to be Saturdays! You don't get a chance to get outside and you can get a bit fed up with it. You learn to deal with the darkness and being in unfamiliar situations. You learn a lot doing it. I'm hoping I might go back for a short project at the end of my PhD. For me the wintering work was quite fun to do once but I wouldn't necessarily do it again but I would go back for a summer like a shot.'

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