GUIDE: What you need to know to work in the Antarctic
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Many, many months ago, a work colleague and I submitted a proposal to the Collaborative Antarctic Science Scheme to undertake fieldwork in Antarctica during the 2017/18 season. In the proposal, we described how we would travel on a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) research ship and step out onto the Antarctic sea ice to collect snow/ice samples. The goal of this work is to help evaluate methods used to reconstruct past climate and validate some of the climate models we use at BAS.
I was reluctant to get my hopes up and thought that, even with the most optimistic odds, the scheme might let one of us go. Kira, my colleague, was on a temporary 18-month German Science Fellowship so we agreed that, if one of us was to go, she should take this opportunity. However, to my great surprise, our proposal cleared each logistical and administration hurdle until it was confirmed that we would both be travelling to Antarctica!
Max and some of the cargo
Antarctic logistics are in constant fluid motion, as projects are delayed, brought forward and weather windows open and close (an endless headache for the Operations Manager). For example, the ship we planned to join (the RRS Ernest Shackleton) spent 3-weeks last season stuck in sea ice, unable to progress through the busy itinerary. Eventually, the ship was forced to turn around and cancel the delivery of fuel and tractors to an Antarctic depot station; the research project that was relying on these supplies is now a year behind schedule. So, we were told that we would probably leave in early December and that we would probably be away for roughly 2-months, give or take a month!
Now for the reality, my trade is as a climate modeller… More specifically, I run climate models, numerical representations of the real world, to understand how climate has changed during the past. Essentially a desk job. With limited/no fieldwork experience I was about to go and see the real thing. Surly they were not about to let a ‘modeller’ loose, in the actual Antarctic, without a safety net or serious screening procedure?
No, of course not. The following months were spent with a medical exam and progressively getting more teeth ripped out (literally). Two months later, after learning that I possessed a ‘second-degree heart block’, enjoying a month of toothache and learning that we would be joined by a field guide whose primary job was to keep us alive (reassuring, I think), we were packing our equipment to send south on the ship; 3-large ice core boxes. Official preparations finished with a week of training designed to ready us for Antarctica. This included a 1-day sea survival training course, 3-days of pre-deployment training and 2.5-days first aid training.
The sea survival training was provided by an ex-Navy officer. Half of the day was spent in a classroom, hearing of unfortunate Naval mishaps, and half the day in the survival pool – equipped with wind, rain and wave machines. My highlight (but a skill that I am hoping never to use) was learning how to jump out of a helicopter – in wind, rain, waves and darkness!
I had previously thought that the eight mentions of ‘death’, noted while skim reading the working on sea ice risk assessment, was slightly exaggerated. However, at pre-deployment training, the BAS mantra – “Think Safe, Do Safe, Be Safe” – crystalized into something worth taking seriously as we learnt of the high stakes and unique risks involved when working south. Working on sea ice poses the greatest risk, with 7 of the 26 BAS fatalities occurring there (thankfully, the most recent was >35-years ago). This is one more than the number of deaths due to crevasse accidents. As our project was to collect snow/ice samples from the surface of Antarctic sea ice, this was a sombre wakeup call.
That said, it would also be important to maintain a positive mental attitude during the campaign. Once we arrived south, we would never be entirely off duty for the 2-month period; personal responsibility would extend beyond ourselves to those we would be working and living with. Ensuring that we were in the right place, mentally, physically and geographically, and in the right rig (kit choice in Antarctica can be a life or death decision) were stressed.
We were travelling to one of the most remote human environments on the planet. Even the sub-Antarctic islands were little touched by human activity, let along the Antarctic continent itself; ~800,000 people have visited South Georgia, the number of visitors to Bird Island are in the hundreds. This remoteness becomes a critical issue if a team member gets seriously ill or injured during a season. This detail was a frequently emphasised during the final 2.5-day intensive first aid plus training course, provided by the British Antarctic Survey Medical Unit.
As you might expect when travelling to the polar regions, first aid skills training focussed on dealing with injuries sustained in cold, extreme environments, with limited resources and accessibility/option of rescue. Topics included; ice axe injuries, tent fires, seal bites, severe hypothermia, broken bones etc.
New skills were reinforced with the BAS mantra; “Think Safe, Do Safe, Be Safe”, often in the form of comical anecdotes gleaned from decades of BAS operations. Many of the examples highlighted how compounding little errors can lead to possibly fatal consequences, or, as put by the Director of Operations; “lining up the lemons on the slop machine of chaos”. For example, being overly task focussed or suffering from ‘get home syndrome’ can cause rushed, incomplete decision making, cutting corners and taking increased risk. Mild hypothermia impedes decision making and the drive to get back inside and warm can motivate travel in bad weather – increasing the risk of accidents.
I departed feeling cautioned but excited and that I had learnt many important real-world skills – far removed from the skills used in my day job, such as coding, data-analysis and scientific writing. These new skills felt of far more practical use! The Director of Operations closes the week with a simple reminder; learning is not compulsory… neither is survival1. We had been provided the information that could determine more than just the success of our project. It was now over to us to enjoy the adventure, get the job done and, most importantly, get home in time for tea and medals2.
1Quote attributed to the American statistician, W. Edwards Deming. Full quote from the 1995 book by Frank Voehl, ‘Deming The Way We Knew Him’;
Continual improvement allows people pride with increased productivity. But remember there is NO instant pudding. It is a long journey. Don’t tell me ten ways I can’t do something; tell me one way I can! Learning is not compulsory; it’s voluntary. Improvement is not compulsory; it’s voluntary. But to survive, we must learn. The penalty for ignorance is that you get beat up. There is no substitute for knowledge. Yet time is of the essence.
2Black Adder episode, Private Plane;
George: Crikey, sir. I’m looking forward to today. Up diddly up, down diddly down, whoops, poop, twiddly dee – decent scrap with the fiendish Red Baron – bit of a jolly old crash landing behind enemy lines – capture, torture, escape, and then back home in time for tea and medals.