Ice and Silence: Extreme Working for the British Antarctic Survey

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by Paul Torode and Rich Burt – BAS 31/Mar/2010

It’s not often you get to climb inside an iceberg. Held in the vice-like grip of the surrounding sea ice, the frozen colossus facing us was split by a deep crack. The bottom of the vertical cavern had at some stage flooded with seawater and refrozen. We jumped a sinister gash of open water and climbed inside the ‘berg.

Earlier, we’d left our skidoos and field camp and had to abseil the ice cliffs to reach the sea ice: now we were inside the iceberg itself, awestruck by the azure glassy hardness and the immensity of it all. Soft powder snow adorned the entrance of the cavern, and crystals festooned the ‘roof’ high above our heads. As we descended the wondrous symmetry of the two ice walls eventually met in a hairline crack. Outside it was -40°C – our breath frosted heavily on our clothing and our crampons bit aggressively into the ice. In a matter of weeks this ‘berg would break free of the ice and drift into immeasurable seas.

I’ve seen some pretty unusual sights, working as a Field Assistant for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Seals swimming under the ice you’re standing on. Powder snow so deep your skidoo leaves a trench behind you. Frozen landscapes of implausible tranquillity take your breath away. I’m one of a team whose job is to support scientists going ‘deep field’ to investigate big questions like climate change. Antarctica is arguably the Earth’s greatest natural laboratory and an early warning system for global change.

BAS operates five research stations, five planes and two ships. During the short summer months life is pretty hectic for everyone. As a Field Assistant, you spend a great deal of time off-station and get to experience the continent more than most.

In summer, before going deep field, I assist the pilot to load and fuel the Twin Otter aircraft before clambering on board. I often get to sit up front as ‘co-pilot’. Watching the plane take off and leave as we set up a remote field camp is a defining moment for any Field Assistant or scientist. For two months we might work from a static camp, or travel by paired skidoo and sledge, linked together by thick rope for safety in crevassed areas. It’s a heavyweight, ‘belt-and-braces’ expedition. Once the orange pyramid tent is firmly pitched, we brew up, crack a big bar of chocolate and enjoy the most comfortable camping imaginable.

In winter days when you’re confined to the station there’s all the maintenance work on field equipment. Servicing field kit takes time in the cold, dark and windy Antarctic winter. But when weather relents there’s great enthusiasm for recreational trips that give groups a chance to have a break from station life and learn valuable field skills. It’s often these trips that the most vivid memories of the Antarctic are formed. Which brings me back to that iceberg!

Paul Torode for the British Antarctic Survey

Original article with many more beautiful pictures and more information here

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