Questions and answers from school talks on Antarctica Day
In celebration of Antarctica Day on the 1st of December, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) organised telephone calls with Rothera Research Station for primary and secondary schools. Over the past two weeks, the lab manager Ali, the marine assistant Sarah and I (and many other people on station who joined in) talked to about 15 different schools across the UK and Ireland. We shared our Antarctic adventures with children between the age of 4 and 16 and we came across some very enthusiastic teachers as well.
Most inspiring must have been talking to a school in Ireland which is specialised in preparing students for a career in uniformed services. The teacher kept repeating how happy he was to be talking to people in the Antarctic and the students were very much looking for career advice on how to end up working in the Antarctic.
Another memorable moment was a group of 60 ten year olds who sang us Christmas carols over the phone! Next to some very odd questions (a seven year old boy left me lost for words for a moment asking me whether penguins have knees), we received lots of similar questions from different schools that I would also like to share here.
Do you miss family and friends or any other things from back home?
Yes, everyone on station misses family and friends back home. We are lucky to have a good telephone connection and internet for emails, but it is not quite the same as seeing and talking to someone face to face. But it is not like we are all miserable down here! Because we live in such a small community (100 people in summer, 20 in winter), it is very easy to get to know everyone on station and many of us make friends for life while out in the Antarctic. In addition to missing family and friends back home, many people talked about missing hobbies such as cycling, swimming or even flying and many of us miss the colour green (there are no trees here). I also have to admit that there are many things we don’t miss, like commuting to work, traffic jams, busy calendars, mobile phones, doing groceries etc.
How do you travel to the Antarctic?
There are different ways to travel to Rothera Research Station. If you travel by plane, typically you would have a commercial flight from Europe to Punta Arenas in Chili and then fly with a Dash 7 aircraft from BAS to Rothera Research Station in 5 hours. If you travel by ship, typically you will fly to the Falklands Islands and board the RRS James Clark Ross which will take you to Rothera Research Station in 5 days along the Antarctic Peninsula. While we were talking to the schools in the UK, it became clear that people on station have different preferences for traveling South! While traveling by planes is fast and efficient, traveling on the ship is an amazing opportunity to see the Antarctic Peninsula.
How cold is it in the Antarctic and what do you wear?
The weather at Rothera Research Station is relatively mild in summer with temperatures ranging from -5 to 5 °C. In winter, temperatures can drop to -30 °C and with the lack of sunlight and strong wind it can be very cold. In general you would wear lots of layers while staying in the Antarctic whether it is summer or winter. In summer, these layers may consist of thermal base layers, an insulating mid layer and wind- and waterproof trousers and jackets as an outside layer. In winter, you would obviously wear many more layers, including thick down trousers and jackets, facial masks, multiple hats and very thick gloves and boots. I do also have to mention that most of us live on station while we are in the Antarctic and the buildings here are heated to room temperature. So inside the buildings we just wear regular clothes like jeans, t-shirts and sweaters.
Where do you get your food from?
BAS resupplies Rothera Research Station twice a year by ship. Each year, containers full of food are shipped in by the RRS James Clark Ross in December for the summer and by the RRS Ernest Shackleton in April for the winter. In addition, fresh vegetables and fruits are occasionally brought in by the Dash 7 in summer if there is enough space left on the aircraft. And if anything would go wrong, the food stores at Rothera are so full that we could last for a year without new supplies! Rothera is home to three chefs in summer and one chef in winter and they store and prepare all the food on station. Breakfast is self-service with cereals and toast, but the chefs then prepare food for the morning coffee break, lunch, afternoon coffee break and dinner. And each Saturday night there is a three course sit down dinner. I always find it amazing what the chefs are able to prepare for a large group of people and the food is surprisingly similar to things you would eat at home (we also eat potatoes, vegetables and meat). It is also good to realise that we are very well taken care of on station, since people in the field will often have to rely on ‘manfood’ which is similar to food that astronauts would eat in space.
What do you do with your waste?
The Antarctic Treaty states that the environmental impact of any activity should be kept to a minimum and it requires everyone who lives or visits the Antarctic to prevent littering. This means that we have to collect all our waste, even if people travel off station they are obligated to collect their waste and take it back to Rothera for appropriate disposal. At Rothera Research Station around 90% of the waste is recycled. We collect paper, cardboard, cans, glass, batteries, wood, food waste and any other small bits separately and all other waste goes into landfill. There even is a sewage treatment plant that cleans all our waste water. BAS does not locally dispose any waste from Rothera and all recycled waste is shipped back to the UK, while food waste is burned on station.
What kinds of vehicles do you have at Rothera?
Rothera Research Station is not that big and most people just walk around station. In case we do need to go further afield or have to carry heavy equipment, there is an arsenal of vehicles available on station. There are Dash 7 and Twin Otter aircrafts to travel to and from the Antarctic and around the continent. There are large vehicles like the PistenBully and the Snowcat and smaller vehicles like the Gators to work around station. On snow and sea ice, snow scooters and old-fashioned wooden sledges are used to travel around. And there are small rib boats that are used to travel on the water and for sampling by many of the scientists. For recreation there are also a couple of bikes, but these seem to suffer quite a lot from the Antarctic environment.
Which animals and how many animals do you see around Rothera?
Rothera Research Station is home to quite a lot of different animals, including Giant petrels, South polar skuas, Antarctic fulmars, Arctic terns, Adélie penguins, Gentoo penguins, Chinstrap penguins, Emperor penguins, Leopard seals, Crabeater seals, Antarctic fur seals, Weddell seals, Ross seals, Elephant seals, Killer whales, Humpback whales, Minke whales, not to mention all the smaller marine life like the Common star fish, Common limpet, Sea lemon, Sea urchin and Sea cucumber. Many of these animals only visit Rothera in summer and the Elephant seal is probably the most present animal on station during that time. The Elephant seals tend to lie around station at the most inconvenient locations, they make funny noises, smell pretty horrendously and really only move when they absolutely have to. My favourite animals are definitely the Adélie penguins, they are clumsy, curious and sometimes also terrified of things around station. We do have to respect the wildlife and environment around station and according to the Antarctic Treaty we have to keep at least 5 meter distance to any animals in the Antarctic.
Do you also have fun?
After a little giggle, we were able to answer this question positively, yes we do have fun in the Antarctic! Many people on station greatly appreciate the opportunity to work in the Antarctic and ours jobs here are very different – and mostly more fun – than back home. But of course we do not just work when we are out here, we also have spare time and the Antarctic does offer some amazing opportunities for new hobbies and adventures. There is an area of about 8 kilometres to the west of Rothera Research Station available for recreational use and people go out for skiing, snowboarding, hiking, climbing, camping and photography. There are also plenty of indoor activities and Rothera has a gym, climbing wall, art room, music room, library, cinema and bar for entertainment on bad weather days. It is basically impossible to get bored around here!
How do I get to work in the Antarctic?
There are many different jobs available at Rothera Research Station. In addition to the scientists, there are chefs, general assistants, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, doctors, field guides, marine assistants, diving officers, boating officers, pilots, communication officers, administration officers and stations managers at Rothera. The jobs here on station are really for all ages and the application process with BAS is very similar to that of any other organisation. Hearing about the different job application stories from people on station, I would conclude that people with a lot of experience in polar or remote regions and also people with no prior experience at all could end up working in the Antarctic. A good suggestion that many people seem to follow is to talk to people in your field of interest that have already worked in the Antarctic, they will have many good suggestions on how to prepare yourself for a future career in the Antarctic.