FRIDAY, 27 APRIL 2012Although the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) no longer has to worry about Nazi raiders, life in it is still tough. From its conception as a World War II survey post, to studying melting caused by global warming, the BAS calls for unusual researchers. Two such scientists—Pierre Dutrieux, an observational oceanographer and Paul Holland, a computer modeller—spoke to BlueSci about the unique nature of their work.
Finding out what happens beneath five hundred metres of ice in pitch-black darkness is not easy. Dutrieux describes his work with Autosub 3, a submarine designed to travel beneath the ice. The little submarine observes everything from ice thickness to water type by sonar, and is significantly autonomous. Not that it is infallible—the two men reminisce about a near disaster:
“It’s a bit like sending a robot to the moon.”
“It got stuck in a crevasse.”
“Sixty metres into the ice, away from any form of human life […] for two minutes, it was crawling along this wall.”
Such instances are not unusual. There are many researchers who ‘go south’ just to find that weather conditions make science impossible, and remain in tents for the whole trip.
Observation time is strictly limited as the Antarctic is only accessible for a few months a year. Britain lacks icebreaker ships and their object of study, the Amundsen Sea, is one of the most inaccessible regions, taking two weeks on a ship just to get there. The journey is rough on the nerves.
“In general you have sixty people cooped up on the boat, including only something like twenty-two to thirty scientists, and the rest just make the boat run. Most crews I’ve been with have been able to forget their egos for two months and get on with the job. Though there are some people who find it very, very difficult to adjust,” Dutrieux notes.
Holland agrees, “It was really, really long hours, no days off, and a night shift every day. I found it really hard to be stuck in a small ship with everyone every day. You learn to have to hide your emotions, but you get to see some amazing things. Seals, icebergs…”
That the modeller has also been to the Antarctic is surprising. “There’s a strong feeling that the observations should not just be treated as ‘the truth’. The people here felt that I needed to go South to understand the difficulties involved in what they were doing every year. And to learn how far you could trust the measurements.”
By some accounts, these experiences are still mild compared with the experience of other BAS staff. Rothera Ice Station “supports SCUBA diving through the entire winter period”. The inhabitants of Sky-Blu base refer to it as a penal colony. The non-scientific staff at the bases stay for 6–18 months at a stretch. “One Antarctic winter and two Antarctic summers is the traditional [amount of] time before people become completely insane,” Dutrieux notes wryly.
So how does one get this ultimate ‘away from the bench’ experience? Ironically, it is through the most in-the-library and at-the-blackboard skills. “For the job that we do, the critical skills are maths and physics. This is something many people suffer from, people who have done degrees in meteorology and geography will often not get a job in preference to someone who has no experience [but] has a background in physics, because people take the view that physics is hard to teach people while oceanography is easy to teach people. So, study maths.”
Hugo Schmidt is a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Biochemistry