Level up: putting my feet on Larsen

A few days ago I got the chance to do a co-pilot flight to Larsen. This was mainly my prize (read: bribe) for agreeing to do the met obs for 10 days after the MASIN team left Rothera to go back to the UK.

I was a little bit excited.

excited face
My excited face.

We went over to raise one of the oceanographic instuments at site F111, in the South of the ice shelf, near Joerg Peninsula. Interestingly, this is one of the most important suture zones (which I have described in this post) that prevents existing rifts and cracks propagating across the ice shelf, and I could see several large crevasses in the distance as we descended.

Not to brag or anything, but mostly I think I got to go because they’ve heard how great my digging skills are…

dig for victory
Digging for victory

…because that’s mostly what we did.

The site, which uses a string of thermistors to measure basal melting (from underneath) and temperatures under the ice shelf, needed servicing and then raising. The F111 site hadn’t been working properly for a whole year, because the instrument had been damaged by meltwater and removed the previous season. Now all fixed, we had to reconnect everything and bring everything closer to the service. The amount of snow that falls each year means that this is an essential task for all instruments deployed out there on the ice shelf – if it gets buried too deep, the instrument gets lost. So, we got stuck in and dug down to drag the batteries and cables out from under a couple of metres of snow.

can you dig it
The snow mining in action

I think I might have been the most excited to be there, and not JUST cos of the digging. It was incredible to actually set foot on the Larsen: for me, I think it was more of a spiritual experience. It makes everything I do worth it, and brings everything crashing into context.

It brings home, especially to someone like me who spends most of their work life using abstract tools like climate models from a desk in the UK, what the science we’re doing at BAS really means. We’re truly at the cutting edge, expanding our knowledge of the polar regions and what changes here mean for the future of the planet.

It’s a reminder, too, that science is not purely an academic pursuit. I use weather station data every day, and the amount of time, money and effort it takes to dig out, service, repair and redeploy those stations is immense. The aircraft measurements that I use don’t come out of thin air (pun fully intended) – they require the backup of a huge logistical team – pilots, air mechanics, polar logistics specilists, radio operators, met forecasters and observers, engineers… the list goes on. In short, science is a collective effort by everybody. That’s is why I feel so strongly that it’s vital that we communicate science effectively. Science is for everybody, not just scientists: we all have a stake in polar science because climate change affects us all. It’s easy to forget that when you work in an academic institution.

On a personal level, coming down here has really reminded me of why I got inspired by Antarctica in the first place, and why I care so passionately about climate and atmospheric science.  This is why we do science – to inspire people, and to learn so that we can do better.

I decided to take a bit of Larsen snow home with me, to put on my desk and remind me not to lose sight of the bigger picture while I’m in Cambridge. That passion and excitement is something that I’m going to need to keep me going through the long hours of thesis writing.

larsen snow excitement
Still in awe.

I leave tomorrow, to return to the real world. I haven’t used money, a mobile phone or seen darkness for nearly 6 weeks, and it’s going to be a shock. Mostly though, I’m going to be sad to leave this incredible place, which has occupied a part of my heart and my imagination since I was a kid. But I know that I’ll be going back to work with renewed vigour and resolve to do the best science I can to learn more about this absolutely captivating part of the world.


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