Colourful Carbon – The solution to climate change?

With COP26 and new commitments from different governments to become carbon neutral in the not so distant future there has been a lot of talk about nature based solutions, restoration efforts, carbon capture and blue carbon. A few months ago, I went for a hike with a friend, I had just submitted a paper on blue carbon and, very excitedly, kept yammering on about it in great detail. He listened to me patiently and only when I finally stopped, did he turn around and ask: What actually is blue carbon?

So, I thought I’ll try and explain it here. First, we need to get back to an old acquaintance that has recently made big headlines. CO2 – carbon dioxide! For a very small molecule is has a big impact! CO2 is a gas that is being created when we burn fossil fuels or biomass (also called black and brown carbon) and upon its release creates a barrier in the atmosphere which reflects heat back onto the planet – thus the term greenhouse gas! There are others, but CO2 is by far the most prominent and why most people are so keen to reduce it. Normally abundance of CO2 is regulated by plants. They more or less feed on it. This occurs in three steps – uptake, storage and sequestration! You will have heard of the rainforest being called the green lungs of the earth as they take up CO2 and produce oxygen instead (this is part of photosynthesis). The crucial bit here is the breakdown of CO2 into carbon and oxygen, because the carbon it contains is actually a very important building block for all life. We humans, and almost every other organisms use it to build our cells. When plants grow, they essentially store carbon. Some can store carbon for many years (when growing woody bits) and some for a summer (when growing leaves). However, as soon as this organic matter is turning to mush and decomposing or burning for that matter– the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere again. In order to make sure this doesn’t happen, dead plants need to be removed from oxygen. This means that a lot of the bacteria normally responsible for decomposing dead plant matter cannot function properly and the carbon contained in these plants becomes sequestered. This is more or less how oil and coal have been generated in the first place and often occurs through burial of dead plants.

A nice schematic showing carbon storage and potential for carbon release in trees by the MN Board of Water and Soil Resources

Back to blue carbon! If rainforests are the green lungs of the planet, oceans are the blue lungs. The term blue carbon encompasses uptake of CO2, and storage and sequestration of the carbon contained in CO2 in the oceans. And the oceans are actually pretty good at that. It is estimated that about 30% of our yearly CO2 emissions end up in the sea. How, you might be wondering? There are a lot of complex chemical cycles going on that contribute to this, but a great deal of CO2 will be taken up by marine plants (mangroves, seagrass, saltmarsh) and algae (seaweed and phytoplankton) the same way plants on land take up CO2. Marine plants, which can be found around the coasts can store carbon similarly to plants on land. This is trickier in the open ocean or for that matter around the poles. Here, the only organisms able to take up CO2 are phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton are teeny tiny single cell algae floating in the water column (I recently learned the name comes from the Greek phyto for plant and plankto for wanderer). The problem is that they do not live very long. This means, although phytoplankton is great at CO2 capture, it is not so good at storage. Hence, these teeny tiny algae need to be eaten for the carbon to be stored and sequestered effectively. And this is where all the creepy crawlies at the bottom of the sea come in and our current paper on blue carbon in Antarctica. When animals eat phytoplankton, approximately 30% of the carbon that was originally captured is then used to grow that animal and store carbon. This is done by animals that live in the water column and swim and those that live attached to the sea bottom. In Antarctica, animals living on the seafloor can live for decades if not centuries and during this whole time they grow and/or build shells and reefs, which means they store carbon. The seafloor there is also fairly well protected which means the animals and the seafloor remain undisturbed by fishing for examples.

A bit of Antarctic seafloor: A crinoid nestled in amongst bryozoans (which are tiny colonial animals feeding on plankton). Photo credit D.K.A Barnes

We found that animals living on top of the seafloor (epifauna) and in the sediment of the seafloor (infauna) store a similar amount of carbon. This is exiting because, so far we only ever knew how much carbon is stored in animals living on top of the seafloor. And looking at both, showed that we have been underestimating this blue carbon storage by 50%. But the really big whammy here was that the sediment itself on and in which the animals live stores about 10 times the amount of carbon that is already stored in animals. Carbon storage in the sediment happens when phytoplankton and small swimming critters such as Krill die and trundle through the water column down towards the seafloor (this is also called marine snow). It also happens when animals living on the bottom of the sea poop. Over time this builds up more and more sediment and the marine snow and animal poop turn into carbon storage. However, less than 1% of the original biomass of phytoplankton reaches the seafloor. So, this is a very slow process.

The path of carbon storage and potential sequestration in areas of glacier retreat. CO2 is taken up by phytoplankton, parts of which are consumed by animals on and in the seafloor and a small part of it will be buried in the sediment. Increased sedimentation from the retreating glacier might help to bury such captured carbon below the level where it is recycled back into the system.

This is now getting more and more interesting because, as climate changes progress – ice on the poles will melt, meaning glaciers will retreat. Retreating glaciers, however, will create more space on the seafloor, while also generating a lot of sediment. Because, now the seafloor is not full of ice any more, animals will be able to live there and marine snow will be able to reach the sediment. Simultaneously, there will be more sediment from the glacier to bury any stored carbon. This means that more carbon can be stored and maybe sequestered. And the more CO2 we have in the atmosphere, the more ice will melt, the more space is created and the more CO2 is taken up by animals and sediment – the greater will be the reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is what is called a negative feedback cycle.

View of Sheldon Glacier on the West Antarctic Peninsula. One of the fastest retreating glaciers there.

So, fjords in Antarctica are able to store a gigantic amount of carbon (maybe up to 56909 t C/yr ~ similar to what ~21000 families produce every year) in the sediment and animals living in and on the sediment, actively fighting global warming. However, even though this seems like an incredible high number it pales in comparison with the 36 billion metric tonnes (this is a number too big to even imagine) which all of us produce together every year.

So, we can’t leave it all to the icy poles – we have to help them out a bit – especially because a world without snow and ice would be pretty sad for everybody who loves to go skiing, sledging and stuffing snow down the back their mates shirt. All of us can do small things to reduce our carbon footprint. But we can also make sure that we tell people in charge that we are actually pretty serious about this net-zero thing.

Nature is absolutely brilliant at sorting itself out – it will help us if only we are willing to help ourselves.

Top Image: Climate strike 2019, Rothera Research Station. Photo credit: Ben Mack


Zwerschke, N., Sands, C. J., Roman-Gonzalez, A., Barnes, D. K. A., Guzzi, A., Jenkins, S., Muñoz-Ramírez, C., & Scourse, J. (2022). Quantification of blue carbon pathways contributing to negative feedback on climate change following glacier retreat in West Antarctic fjords. Global Change Biology, 28(1), 8–20. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15898

Guidi, L., Chaffron, S., Bittner, L., Eveillard, D., Larhlimi, A., Roux, S., Darzi, Y., Audic, S., Berline, L., Brum, J. R., Coelho, L. P., Espinoza, J. C. I., Malviya, S., Sunagawa, S., Dimier, C., Kandels-Lewis, S., Picheral, M., Poulain, J., Searson, S., … Gorsky, G. (2016). Plankton networks driving carbon export in the oligotrophic ocean. Nature, 532(7600), 465–470. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature16942

Barnes, D. K. A., Fleming, A., Sands, C. J., Quartino, M. L., Deregibus, D., Chester, J., & Quartino, M. L. (2018). Icebergs , sea ice , blue carbon and Antarctic climate feedbacks. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 376(2122), 20170176. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2017.0176

Bax, N., Sands, C., Gogarty, B., Downey, R. V., Moreau, C. V. E., Moreno, B., Held, C., Lund Paulsen, M., McGee, J., Haward, M., & Barnes, D. K. A. (2020). Perspective: Increasing Blue Carbon around Antarctica is an ecosystem service of considerable societal and economic value worth protecting. Global Change Biology, 27(1), 5– 12. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcb.15392

Carvalhao-Resende, T., Gibbs, D., Harris, N., & Osipova, E. (2021). World Heritage forests: Carbon sinks under pressure. UNESCO, International Union for Conservation of Nature, World Resources Institute.

Lovelock, C. E., Fourqurean, J. W., & Morris, J. T. (2017). Modeled CO2 emissions from coastal wetland transitions to other land uses: Tidal marshes, mangrove forests, and seagrass beds. Frontiers in Marine Science, 4, 143. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2017.00143

Deng, B. (2015). Fjords soak up a surprising amount of carbon. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/NATURE.2015.17464

Icebergs – What you gonna do when they come for you?

The science bit

Antarctica – the white continent, the most inhospitable place on the planet. Yet there is life here and I do not mean the bunch of scientists rambling around research stations who could not survive without the outside world. I mean colourful self-sustaining life. Where do you ask, since the most colourful life you can see is a penguin and that is black and white? Under the sea is my answer! Antarctic seas are teeming with life, they are wonderfully rich, filled with obscure little critters, some of which might seem familiar from a day’s rock pooling some of which seem to have come straight out of an alien movie but most of them supremely unique and only found in Antarctica.

Worms (Parabolasia corrugatus) that can grow over a meter long and expand or decrease their surface depending on oxygen concentration and sea urchins (Sterechinus neumayeri). These are some of the first animals to return after a disturbance to the seafloor Photo credit: C. Stronach
Worms (Parabolasia corrugatus) that can grow over a meter long and expand or decrease their surface depending on oxygen concentration and sea urchins (Sterechinus neumayeri). These are some of the first animals to return after a disturbance to the seafloor Photo credit: C. Stronach

Yet, like so many other of earths ecosystems they are under threat. In Antarctica some of this threat might come from an unexpected source – Icebergs! Icebergs can be a magnificent sight, providing a magical labyrinth of sculptures on the sea surface and range from being as large as a city to being a small sorry looking heap of ice in the water (perfect for a G&T). However, the saying the tip of the iceberg is a saying for a reason. What we can see of an iceberg on the sea surface is about 10% of the iceberg. A 10 m iceberg on the surface thus, is approximately 90 m deep. This means icebergs can be quite far reaching. Usually, icebergs are frozen into the sea-ice for large parts of the year.

Several icebergs covered in snow and frozen into the sea-ice
Icebergs frozen into sea-ice during winter at Rothera Research Station

Warming temperatures and changes in climate, however, reduce the duration of time icebergs are immobilised and mean icebergs drift around the sea surface a lot more freely moved by currents and wind. How, you might wonder, is this a threat to cheery little critters in the water? In general, there are two types of animals living in the sea, those that live in the water column (pelagic – like fish and jellyfish) and those that live on the seafloor (benthos – like starfish and anemones). Animals living on the seafloor move a lot slower, or might even be attached to the seafloor, than those living in the water column. When icebergs are moving around the sea, their submerged parts are very likely to bump into the seafloor and move along it, thereby scouring it. To the animals living on the seafloor this might be similar to a bulldozer in a forest for an Orangutan. Anything living in the wake of an iceberg will be removed and killed. This might sound harsh, but at a normal rate this is natures way of guaranteeing that there is a space to live for all animals, even for the weaker ones and it makes Antarctica’s seafloors even richer. Yet during 2007-2009 there was very little sea-ice along the West Antarctic Peninsula which meant that icebergs moved a lot more and a lot more freely than they used to. This in turn meant there was a lot more iceberg scouring on the seafloor and when we looked at it, we found that a lot of the animals that live attached to the seafloor had disappeared, the ones that we could find did not grow as old anymore and there was a lot more free space without animals on it.

(A) An iceberg grounded on the seafloor while frozen into the sea-ice and what the seafloor looks like immediately after being scoured by icebergs (B), after 10 years without disturbance (B) and when it has been protected from disturbance (C) – Source Zwerschke et al. (2021).

The seafloor was in crisis! Amount of different animals that could move around, however, stayed the same. We think this is because a lot of them are scavengers (animals that live of anything they can find such as vultures) and they are able to move into freshly scoured areas fairly quickly and munch on anything that is left over – after true vultures of the sea fashion. The outlook for anything else on the other hand, was fairly bleak. But don’t worry this is a good news story. After 2009, we started to see increases in sea-ice duration again. This meant icebergs were being kept in check more and more and the animals on the seafloor could start to recover. We kept checking up on them to see how many of the species had returned and how long they were living and we found that 10 years after the last big pulse of icebergs impact, the animals on the seafloor had recovered and the seafloor was again densely populated with vibrant, beautiful, bustling life.

Monitoring sea-ice cover and the retreat of Sheldon Glacier at a remote outcrop on Adelaide Island.

While 10 years might seem like a lifetime to some, it is actually incredibly fast if you consider how sensitive and delicate the ecosystem in Antarctica is (temperatures in the sea range from -2° to +2°C for comparison temperatures in the shallow Irish Sea are between 6.5° and 15.5°C. When the surface is covered in sea-ice the seafloor is shrouded in perpetual darkness with very little light reaching the bottom, and food in form of teeny tiny algae (phytoplankton) growing in the water column only turns up once a year). Even if you compare it to the average recovery time of a forest which is 40 years it again seems incredibly fast. Forest – 0, Antarctic seafloor – 1, I would say. Yet, before we get our party hats and streamers out, we should pause for a moment and have another good look at the data. What we see is that, actually, sea-ice duration is still not as high as it used to be and, actually, we still see a lot of iceberg impacts. At any rate more than we had seen before 2007.

We counted days of sea-ice cover for every year – dark blue (A) and on average how often the seafloor was hit by icebergs each year – turquoise (B) and how many different types of animals there are for those attached to the seafloor in dark brown and those that are more mobile in light brown (C). The bit marked with the blue bar is the time when there was very little sea-ice. Amended from Zwerschke et al. (2021)

The recovery of the seafloor under these conditions is reassuring and shows that we have some tough little bastards down there which can cope with a lot of adversity. On the other hand, what if this is just a short rebreather, the calm before the storm? What if more years without sea-ice and increased iceberg scouring are under way? How much can these little sea aliens take before they have to give up and will perish forever? There is no doubt, that a decrease in sea-ice is linked to a warming planet and while the fate of a purple starfish might not rock your boat, the prospect of 5 m sea level rise, once all the glaciers have melted should at least give cause to a raised eyebrow and a slightly uncomfortable feeling in your stomach region. Far be it from me to preach, we are all creatures of comfort but there are still little things that every one of us can do and you have heard them all before (cycle, use public transport, up-cycle, eat less meat, don’t fly so often) yet even if the problem seems humongous (sorting climate change is a biggie) and it seems impossible to tackle for the individual –  every little bit helps. You cycling to work or taking the bus instead of the car matters! Swapping to green energy has an impact! Having cauliflower instead of a steak changes everything – in so many aspects! It’s a slow burner, you will not be rewarded the next day but your children or grandchildren might and the anemones will thank you!


Barnes, D. K. A., & Conlan, K. E. (2007). Disturbance, colonization and development of Antarctic benthic communities. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362(1477), 11– 38. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2006.1951

Barnes, D. K. A., & Souster, T. (2011). Reduced survival of Antarctic benthos linked to climate‐induced iceberg scouring. Nature Climate Change, 1(10), 365– 368. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1232

Connell, J. H., & Keough, M. J. (1985). Disturbance and patch dynamics of subtidal marine animals on hard substrata. In S. T. A. Pickett & P. S. White (Eds.), Natural disturbances and patch dynamics (pp. 125– 151). Academic Press.

Gutt, J., & Piepenburg, D. (2003). Scale‐dependent impact on diversity of Antarctic benthos caused by grounding of icebergs. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 253, 77– 83. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps253077

Jones, H. P., & Schmitz, O. J. (2009). Rapid recovery of damaged ecosystems. PLoS One, 4(5), e5653. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0005653

Oppenheimer, M., B.C. Glavovic , J. Hinkel, R. van de Wal, A.K. Magnan, A. Abd-Elgawad, R. Cai, M. Cifuentes-Jara, R.M. DeConto, T. Ghosh, J. Hay, F. Isla, B. Marzeion, B. Meyssignac, and Z. Sebesvari, 2019: Sea Level Rise and Implications for Low-Lying Islands, Coasts and Communities. In: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N.M. Weyer (eds.)]. https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/

Zwerschke N., Morley S. A., Peck L. S. , Barnes D. K. A. (2019). Can Antarctica’s shallow zoobenthos ‘bounce back’ from iceberg scouring impacts driven by climate change? Global Change Biology, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.15617

Fossil Bluff

Many moons ago, possibly on the edge of true Antarctic exploration (back when men were still real men who had a pretty good chance of losing their life in Antarctica), a small hut was set up on Alexander Island – Fossil Bluff. Its erection was a triumph to the first use of air planes in the Antarctic and to the Falkland Island Dependencies Survey (the predecessor of the British Antarctic Survey) which had aimed to establish a base there for several years.

The only remaining muskeg that has been brought from other previous bases such as Stonington Island or Horseshoe Island across the frozen sound

Three men were left to winter for the very first time in an incredibly remote location. No ship would be able to reach them as George VI Sound (the stretch of sea between Alexander Island and the Antarctic Peninsula) remains eternally frozen and the use of air planes was limited to a very short season and extremely good weather. Their mission was to gain geological and metrological data from this area. As the name suggests, Fossil Bluff is rich on fossils especially fossils of little marine critters from the Cretaceous period and their work provided the basis for a collection that is still ongoing.

Entrance to Belemnite Valley

60 years later – that hut is still there and is now serving as a summer field station and small airport for the British Antarctic Survey. From October to March the small hut also known as Bluebell Cottage is generally manned with two people providing weather forecasts and managing the refuelling of the Twin Otter planes on their way to field sites.

A Twin Otter that had just landed

Often, one of those people is a previous winterer on holiday from Rothera and towards the end of January it was my turn. Because flight operations are so weather dependent nothing is for sure, ever – and so in true field operations manager style I got told that I was scheduled to leave for Fossil Bluff the night before my departure. This meant I spent the evening frantically packing and unpacking and packing again (completely unnecessarily might I add – I changed my t-shirt once) and raiding the field kit store and sneaking treats out of the kitchen and trying to remember all the things I’ve forgotten during a sleepless night. Fossil Bluff is a 90 min flight away from Rothera along one of the most stunning parts of Antarctica. Rather than the perpetual flat whiteness of most of the Antarctic continent the West Antarctic Peninsula dressed up for the occasion. Razor sharp black mountain ranges grow out of a snowy blanket, interrupted, only, by the creases of tumbling glaciers and the deep turquoise melt pools which invite you to take a dip that you would – most certainly – immediately regret.

Flying past the mountains of Alexander Island

Bluebell cottage is nestled just on the edge of the sound and below Giza Peak, one of the scree covered mountains that mark the landscape. Although planes used to be able to land right next to the hut, changes in condition mean that planes now have to land on a skiway approximately a 15 min walk away. Far away from the buzzle of the ant hill which Rothera sometimes resembles, life at Fossil Bluff is simple and our daily routine seemed to me serenely tranquil. The person on weather duty would get up at 6.30, put the kettle on the refleks stove, turn the iridium on to download any emails (this can take a while) and go outside for the first weather observation. Generally still in their pyjamas and barefooted. Few things have felt so good than feeling the warmth of the sun soaked wood on your feet – especially after a year of wearing boots outside. By the time the other person woke up they, generally, had a nice cup of tea beside the bed and Rothera operations had sent through an initial plan of aircrafts that might come through.

You can even get mail here

If we had planes stopping by, we would walk up to the skiway, carrying anything that we wanted to send back to Rothera on our backs. Dealing with the planes was easy: We would prepare the requested amount of drums of fuel and inform the approaching aircraft of any aerial winds via VHF. Once landed we refuelled the Twin Otters, had a chat and sometimes a cup of tea with the pilots and as soon as they had left, life would return to benign equanimity. Needless to say, all the work that I had brought with me remained untouched. I am not sure I’ll ever make a good academic as I seem to lack dedication and my long-suffering supervisor has resigned himself to the fact that I enjoy skiing more than writing papers.

A glacier terminus – often you are not even aware you are walking on a glacier because they are covered by dense scree

We filled our days with reading, walking up along the scree slopes – looking for more fossils and general house hold chores: Water was sourced from nearby melt streams, filled into jerry cans and carried to the hut where they were emptied into our reservoir tank; Cooking was an important part of our day – possibly because we both enjoyed eating – a lot! Because of the frequent air traffic we had fresh produce and meat and dairy products most of the time – yes, even on one of the most remote places on the planet, our snowflakedom was insured and we did not have to miss out on avocado toast or parmesan cheese. Our way of cooking, however, was limited to primer and refleks stoves. Yet, as it turns out, you can do quite a bit on these with a lot of patience and so we usually scrounged together a pretty good feast. I even managed to produce a brownie cake – which is what a smart chef calls a chocolate cake which has emulated the Roman Empire, by rising tremendously and subsequently falling pretty badly. At the peak of my culinary audaciousness I created our own pet in form of a sourdough starter (named Bluffy). Upon reaching maturity Bluffy produced a very respectable loaf – after baking for 6 hours that is.


The inside of Bluebell cottage – just right!

In as big and as busy a station as Rothera certain aspects of your life are, necessarily, governed for you. Food is made for you at certain times, walking/skiing/climbing outside a small travel area is only possible with an experienced field guide, recreation time is set by station management, specific tasks can only be done during certain times to not interfere with station life. Turns out, being transferred from practically having your life run for you to complete autonomy in 90 min can be fairly confusing. On my first solitary walk to Belemnite Valley I felt like I was missing a limb and I constantly turned around to check whether I’ve lost something. It appears you get used to being kept on a leash by a fieldguide who, arguably completely justified, has no trust in your ability not to traipse straight into a crevasse. Yet, who would have thought that freedom smells like onions, that you can cut when you want, where you want and if you want!

One happy hiker – look mum no rope!


P.S.: I’ve also just realised that I have completely neglected to take any photographs of the many fossils that have been found and can be found in the area – but here is a link to some lovely fossils that have been found in Antarctica.



We are now well and truly experiencing summer in Antarctica and the last three to four months, have brought a profound change to the station. Not only have numbers on station dramatically increased from 23 to 140 which comes with its unique set of challenges but the landscape has altered beyond recognition.

Sea ice still holding strong at the beginning of summer

Gone is the sea ice which extended beyond the horizon covered in thick snow drowning out any sound of the ocean. Gone is the eerie silence, caused by the absence of all animals only interrupted by the whistling of the wind and the sound of skis gliding over the snow. Gone is the night with its undisguised view to galaxies far away. And gone are the spectacular sunsets and sunrises which left you drunken with the glory of this incredible place.


Summer is busy in Antarctica and it turns a still, inanimate, solem landscape shaped by wind and ice into a hubbub of life. The first sign of it are the return of the birds which fly from the edge of the sea ice towards the continent in their search for nesting space. As the days get longer and the dark rocks of Antarctica emerge from the snow drifts on land, the sea ice develops cracks and leads of clear water start to appear allowing more and more seals to return to the station. In the beginning these are usually dominated by crab eater and wedell seals but once the first elephant seals have dragged their enormous bodies onto the sun warmed rocks and the first whiff of their very distinct smell is in the air, once you have been kept awake by the snorting sound they make when fighting – you know – summer is here.


The duration and the extend of sea ice varies between each winter. It is the life line of the marine team to the ocean during winter. But once it starts to decay and becomes unsafe it turns into a nuisance and becomes one of the main topics of daily conversation – generally ensued by a lot of nail biting and a close observation of wind and temperatures. This year, the ice was tenacious and would not let it’s cold grip on the sea be bend by the arrival of summer for a very long time. Ultimately, the sea ice is bound to submit to the force of the wind, currents and extended sunshine and break into the many pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. The breaking up of the sea ice is also marked by the re-appearance of orca whales which look for seals to prey upon on the ice flows in the bay. As soon as the last few pieces of ice get dispersed, vital light penetrates the upper layer of the ocean and allows plankton to grow. Within a few days the incredible clear waters of the Southern Ocean turn into pea soup. The plankton is so dense and so big that the single cells can be seen with the naked eye, yet seeing anything else while being in the water is near impossible. This abundance of food encourages krill, which are like little prawn to appear. And while they gorge themselves on this buffet of the sea they are the main attraction for minke and humpback whales which feed in these incredible rich waters.

Watching the sea ice break up

For the wintering team the pace of life has definitely picked up. Emerging from winter a bit bleary eyed and dazed we greeted the first plane, which was the precursor of a busy season to come. Soon our little tight community started to break up, the field stations in Sky Blue and Fossil Bluff needed to be opened, the last equipment packed for a long and hectic science season in the field. New arrivals needed to be trained, hand overs had to be done and the work load for the marine team has picked up.

Yet although our small wintering team is currently dispersed all over the continent we are still a close unity, an anchor for everybody who might get swept away in this tide of ever changing rapids of people and environments. We can talk to everybody in the field during the evening scheds and we tend to send out letters and goodies (for some reason, lemon drizzle cake is a massive favourite in the field) to field parties whenever we know a plane is going that way. Summer – necessarily inherently different to winter – is punctuated by the station almost bubbling over with noisy excitement and energy and is filled to the brim with things to do. – Yet, knowing that soon summer will – again – come to an end and we will return to civilisation, one cannot help but get the occasional pang of nostalgia wishing that – for just one more time – one could do the walk to work in the morning – alone – in the freezing cold still air of Antarctica under a starry sky only lighted in the North by a brim of fiery twilight and the only sound would be the snow crunching underneath the feet.

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Last photo of the wintering team before summer. Photo credit: Ben Mack

The winter field trip – a second attempt

With the return of the light in July, we started to emerge from our dark burrows, rubbed our eyes and blinked in the sunshine, becoming a bit more active as the second round of winter trips was about to start. This time round I got lucky and the weather during my week in the field looked very promising. Again, we’ve decided not to go to the other side of the island, but stay closer to base were we’d have a plethora of opportunities for climbing and skiing. Our whole party consisting of 3 fieldguides and us 3 tourists (for want of a better word) left base on a lovely cloudless Monday morning to make our way to camp at Trident East.

Camp at Trident East. Photo credit A. Flink

After we set-up camp, we still had time for a little exploit up our house mountain – Trident.


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For some reason we’ve decided that skiing the south face of it would be a really great idea for the next day, as it hadn’t been done very often before. Turns out there is a reason for that. After we got up bright and early we skinned (this is when you essentially put carpet on your skis to give them grip and allow you to walk up-hill with them) up to the ridge of Trident and from there to the top. We hadn’t quite accounted for the wind during the night and morning, blowing away the soft snow and scouring away on the remaining harder snow creating beautiful sastrugi (essentially waves in the snow). The harder surface of the snow made getting up the mountain fairly easy with a few tricky bits, but made skiing it down incredibly hard and surprisingly little fun – obviously also related to my lack of skill. So, I spent most of my time trying to slowly pick a line down a steep slope across all the icy sastrugi, trying very hard not to fall flat on my face. Some of the others were more successful with that – I, however, was not.

After giving my burning legs a rest and a quick lunch, we spent the afternoon a bit more relaxed by exploring a nearby crevasse. It wasn’t very big and we were running out of light, thus did not spent too much time there. However the experience was definitely worth the effort: abseiling into an icy cathedral where wind and weather have created wonderful sculptures out of ice, felt pretty amazing.


The next day we found a sheltered ice climb, called Spiritual Harmony and spent the day ice-axing and scrambling it up. The one thing I have learned from this climb is, that I definitely need more food when trying to be active at -15°C. I’ve found myself halfway up this climb, hanging on an icy wall, the tips of my crampons ramped into the ice as much as possible (obviously having a bit of a disco leg going), desperately trying to hack a hold into the hard ice with my ice-axe while feeling like I am about to pass out from hunger. A feeling causing not a small amount of snippiness and sarcasm when being asked how I am doing by my fieldguide. I guess being hangry is a thing and yes I know I should have just had more porridge in the morning.

The next day was a beautiful blue bird day. No wind and lots of sunshine. It was one of my favourite days as we spent it climbing and skiing down a peak called Wendy. As always with any activity in Antarctica, a lot of faff is involved with getting ready and travelling between locations, however soon we reached the site, roped up, got all our crevasse and avalanche rescue kit packed, ditched the skidoos and started to head down a small slope towards the frozen sea before ascending Wendy. The snow sparkled in the sunshine like the place was covered in diamond dust causing my heart to definitely skip a few beats for the pure joy of being in this incredibly beautiful place. While we were skinning up the hill, in the knowledge that only a handful of people have ever been here, all that could be heard was our breathing and the crunch of the snow as we were moving across it. With the sea frozen as far as we could see, there were not even birds to break the silence. Lunch at the peak provided a stunning view across the North of Adelaide Island. Rugged mountain ranges breaking through the downy snow blanket which soften the landscape unspoiled by humanity. The descend was brilliant fun, the smooth slope being covered in a layer of powdery snow certainly helped us to regain confidence in our skiing abilities and more than made up for the slog that was Trident. It was a long and tiring day and we made it back to camp as the sun was about to set, feeling very content and ready to leave for base the following day being told bad weather is coming our way.


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However, once we woke up the next morning the weather was equally lovely to the previous day and by the time we had packed up camp I had coerced my fieldguide into doing another climb on the way back – the mentioning of scrub out if we arrive back too early might have done the trick. He did concede to climb a small ice gully on the way back to base. Contrary to Spiritual Harmony which basically felt like an endurance climb and could be climbed with fairly little skill, this climb although a lot shorter, was also a lot more technical with the crux in form of an overhanging rock at the very end of it. My fieldguide lead the climb while I belayed him sitting in the sunshine on a protruding rocky outcrop, the base just below us. Hearing a skidoo rumble in the distance, for a short moment I had a déjà vu of summer in Europe, going climbing while somewhere somebody is mowing their lawn. Reality soon dawned on me again, once I started to second him up the climb. At one point I found myself edged in the gully pushing my back up against the rock with my feet on the other side – rock and ice cheerfully crumbling away – immensely thankful for being on a top robe and praying to any potential deities that the anchor my fieldguide was attached to would hold my various attempts off clambering to the top which most certainly would be followed by a fall. After a lot of faffing and probably a lot of blasphemy I eventually managed to scramble my way over the top and got rewarded with a lovely view over Laubeuf Fjord.

After spending my first winter trip more or less sedentary perfecting my culinary skills over a primer stove, this trip has definitely reconciled me with adventuring in Antarctica, even if it turned out that camping at -15°C feels a lot colder than camping at -5°C – who would have thought 10°C make such a difference.



Through The Ice

As winter has settled in Antarctica, we can see the changes to the landscape. Rock that was exposed during the summer is now covered with thick layers of snow and many of the buildings on station have snow drifts build up to the roof but one of the most striking changes is the formation of sea ice.


During summer the water temperatures in the Ryder Bay are about 2°C. Unlike fresh water, sea water freezes at -1.8°C owing to its salt content. So after a few weeks of low temperatures and little wind, the surface layer of the sea was cold enough to freeze and the area surrounding Rothera point was completely covered with ice.

now what!
What to do when your sea has turned solid? Photo credit Z. Waring

This brings several changes to the station; the most noticeable of all is the absence of animals on land, as seals, penguins and most birds follow the edge of the sea ice where they can still hunt and most importantly, especially for seals find holes in the ice through which they can breathe. However the area has also become almost eerily still, as the normal background noise of waves breaking on shore has ceased. For the marine team, sea ice brings a significant change in the way we operate. Where usually we would travel by and dive of a boat, we are now using skidoos and sledges to get to our site and instead of dropping of a boat we are now sliding in a hole in the ice. Once we established that the ice is thick enough for safe travel (ca. 35 cm) we bring a chainsaw to our desired dive site where we cut a hole in the ice (this is very easily said – however took in fact almost a day to complete, as chainsaws apparently aren’t keen on very cold conditions and seawater – who knew?).

Cutting the ice with a chainsaw. Photo credit: C. Stronach

Preparing the dive hole. Photo credit: C. Stronach

Sometimes these holes get discovered by seals who then become very possessive of them and will not let the divers safely enter the water or even worse re-surface. Because of this we need to cut a secondary hole as a back-up in case the primary ice hole becomes occupied. As normal, preparations to go for a dive entails a lot of faff and diving through the ice means even more faff. We put hot water bottles in with all the vital equipment such as our masks and our hoods and gloves, our dive kit is being covered with a thick blanket during transport and we are squeezing ourselves in even thicker undersuits – which makes moving on land feel like being drowned in jelly.

A bunch of crabeater seals coming to check out this great new haul-out site


Generally by the time you are ready to go in the water you resemble a bug on its back on hot tarmac. Your kit pins you down and is too heavy to move when sitting down, you feel hot and sweaty despite the cold temperatures and extremely uncharitable with anybody attempting to prolong your agony (who needs pre-dive checks anyway – you know you’ve opened your air cylinder!… or – have you?).

Dive set-up from above. Photo credit: M. Steel

Dropping through the ice hole brings a feeling of immediate relief, not only are you cooling to an acceptable temperature but movement becomes so much easier as the weight of the dive kit and suit are removed.

Looking up thourgh the ice. Photo credit: C. Stronach

After this first feeling of liberation, we become aware of our surroundings and discover that all the effort we have just gone through was completely worth it. The water underneath the ice is incredibly clear with up to 30 m of visibility, we are surrounded by grounded icebergs frozen into the sea ice rising up imposingly from the sea bed. Some are perfectly smooth and rounded, some are more perforated and degraded showing the impact of the elements and time. Looking up, icy stalactite are hanging on the ceiling formed by the sea ice above us and the water itself is sparking with ice crystals.

Formation of icebergs under water. Photo credit: Z. Waring

It feels like the world under water has come to a standstill – yet is still supremely full of life and colour in an otherwise black and white and very still world. There is no current or waves to waft up the sediment or disturb any of the animals. The sea floor is covered in sea urchins (red spikey things), Anemones, Sponges, Nematodes (fairly disgusting, almost eel like worms), brittle stars, lots and lots of limpets and the occasional fish. All of these animals are incredible adapt to this environment and are fantastic in surviving these extremely harsh conditions.

One of the fish species down here: Notothenia sp. Photo credit: C. Stronach

Nematodes (Parabolasia corrugatus) and sea urchins (Sterechinus neumayeri). Photo credit: C. Stronach

Starfish: Odontaster validas. Photo credit: C. Stronach

The filter feeders are able to starve over almost 6 months, as the plankton bloom (all the teeny tiny algae in the water column) is intense over the summer months, but also very short lived and one reason why the water is so clear underneath the ice, is because there is virtually nothing in it at the moment that mussels or sponges could feed on. Everything in this environment has to cope with temperatures below freezing point. Marine mammals obviously are well insulated with blubber, invertebrates or fish however, manage differently. Some fish have anti-freeze proteins in their blood, and many invertebrates have proteins that prevent their cells from freezing while the space outside their cells freezes.

Collecting bivalves for a long term study involves a lot of digging. Photo credit: C. Stronach

This underwater world is incredible and full of wonders, many of which we haven’t even discovered yet. Diving next to gigantic icebergs and sharing the world of these small survival artists even for the shortest amount of time, must surely be one of the greatest privileges about my time here.

Walking up side down on the ice – because we can. Photo credit: C. Stronach

Winter is here

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Winter shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon mid winter’s day

                                                            (W. Shakespeare – paraphrased obviously)

A sunrise on the sea ice

During the past weeks and months, as the days started to shorten and the nights grew longer, as the clouds started to pile up, darkening the horizon – chased across the sky by the unforgiving blizzardous winds, as the cold started to creep in, slowly freezing the sea and leaving powdery snow piled underneath our windows and blanketing the mountain tops, the station became quieter.  – First the planes went, taking with them the majority of people stationed down here during summer. And then – finally at the 17th of May well into the Antarctic autumn – the ship came to take the rest of the summer crowd to the other side of the world.

The last summerers leaving the station

We have been waiting for this day since we first set foot on Rothera. We have been crossing the days in the calendar, praying for its fast arrival while simultaneously wanting the days of summer to last longer and not wanting what have become good friends to leave. As the embarkation time came closer, the whole wintering team started to assemble on the jetty, saying good byes, giving last hugs, shouting last jokes across the ship and then – the James Clark Ross left. We saw her off with flares and rockets and as she fainted on the horizon and the flares started to fizzle out the meaning of winter suddenly became very clear. We were truly alone in Antarctica. No more planes, no more ships, nobody but us for the next 5 months. Although this was a slightly sombre thought, we were also extremely excited that – finally – the station belonged to our little family. Winter was here!!

Waving goodbye to the last ship. Photo credit B. Mack
Waving goodbye to the last ship. Photo credit B. Mack

And although winter generally means the pace of life slows down a bit, we haven’t gotten around to that part yet. With the advent of winter comes a variety of duties, ceremonies and also whenever possible fun. The weather very much played ball, as soon as the ship left the temperature plummeted to a stable -16 and the wind eased off. Meaning we got to experience the extended twilight during beautifully clear, calm and cold perfect winter days. We took a few days off to recover from a very busy season. Most of this time was filled with adventure and skiing. A few of us spent a day climbing up a steep snowy gully at Leonie Island, just across the station. And although we had low cloud for most of the day and the view was limited, this actually emphasised the feeling of isolation which we had longed for so long. Climbing through powdery snow and along the occasional ice sheets our path guarded by rugged icy rocks distinctly resembled the gateway to Narnia. These first few days of holiday were a first test of how well we would work together as a team over the coming month. While everybody got to enjoy time off to do whatever they liked all of us chipped in a minimal amount of effort to keep the station ticking over and running smoothly and very importantly stay clean.

Photo credit: T. King
Who says work can’t be fun. Photo credit: T. King

Photo credit: T. King
…Especially when combined with a bit of exploration. Photo credit: T. King

One big part of making the station our own – is the winter scrub out. Yes, this means cleaning absolutely everything and winterising buildings and rooms that we are not using, but it also means we can be a lot more comfortable. The canteen has turned into our living room, we have reclaimed the bar and this is where we mostly socialise and the best part of it is we are now travelling around the station by skidoo rather than gators.

Stratospheric clouds over Rothera
Stratospheric clouds in the morning

Only a week after the ship left, we celebrated flag down. When the sun vanishes behind the horizon for the last time, the Union Jack at the highest point of the station is being pulled down by the oldest member on station. At Rothera this date does not necessarily coincide with the meteorological sun set as the mountains on the northern part of Adelaide Island are blocking the sun to us earlier than that. However this means we get long beautifully drawn out twilight during all light hours (not that many anymore), colouring the surrounding mountains in pink and gold and blue.


And as the daylight continues to shrink we are all preparing for midwinter when the sun in the Southern Hemisphere will be at its lowest point. Everywhere people are busy working on their midwinter gifts or preparing menus, movies and other surprises for this particular day. Obviously the returning winterers have the upper hand but everybody is very much looking forward to this special day in Antarctica and the countdown has already started.

Photo credit: B. Mack
Wintering team, celebrating Flag Down. Photo credit: B. Mack

Sledge Lima – Or how much orange is good for you?

One big perk of wintering for the British Antarctic Survey is that they offer winter trips to their wintering staff. This means everybody gets a fieldguide assigned, packs a sledge, jumps on a skidoo and gets to bugger off into the white heart of Antarctica exploring the surrounding mountains and live in a tent for a week. While this is of course pure unadulterated fun, it is also meant as a training exercise for potentially being able to help out at some of the deep field sites next summer season.

So after I’ve spent the summer being (- how should I put this -) minimalistic positive about the limited ability to get off base, I was very much excited for my winter trip. I knew exactly that I wanted to do all of the climbing and skiing possible. I made the, admittedly for an ecologist, unexpected decision to disregard a potential visit to the Southern coast to see more abundant wildlife (I had enough of wildlife – all this wildlife has constantly kept me out of the water during summer – I would argue we have too much wildlife here already) for the opportunity to stay closer to base but within easy traveling distance to many, many climb and skiable peaks. Three sledge parties went out before us and they all came back with brilliant stories of fun filled adventures ranging from climbing icy waterfalls to building igloos. So by the time my trip finally came around I was absolutely buzzing with expectations of a brilliant week ahead.

There are many things to consider when packing for a week in the snow – again – you don’t pack lightly in Antarctica. Luckily my fieldguide took care of most of the list (mostly fluffy warm things, camping equipment and radios) and seeing as it’s more my area of expertise I was responsible for upgrading our food box a bit. Most of it consisted of freeze dried ready meals and a lot of chocolate. So I added some fresh frozen food and extra treats and about a years supply of peppermint tea.

Setting up camp. Photo credit D. Stojanovic

All of this gets packed into customised boxes and stacked and lashed onto a big Nansen sledge. A trimmed down version of the same equipment gets lashed onto another sledge – the half unit – to take out on day trips, in case it is not possible to return to camp the same day – which would mean you are having a really bad day.

Everything still nice and neat. Photo credit D. Stojanovic

When all of this is sorted you set off in linked travel which means skidoo attached to a sledge attached to a skidoo towing a sledge. When being on the skidoo you are also tied to the skidoo. All of this is in case one of you falls into a crevasse. About an hour after leaving base we reached our site – Tridont East.  Here we set-up camp, which involves erecting the pyramid tent, toilet tent, building a little parking bay for the skidoos and cutting snow for making water. And after finishing all the immediately important tasks which help you to stay alive with great comfort, the rest of the day was ours to explore the surrounding mountains. Well – daylight availability allowed us to scramble up one mountain which probably can only be classified as a hill in the normal world. A venture during which I discovered, that not only did I pick boots that are too big for me – because I was terrified of having cold feet for a week – but I also managed to break them straight away. This of course didn’t help my bumbling scientist reputation which is already pretty established at base. My inability to walk properly in my self-made misery aside, it was a lovely short climb with a couple steep slopes over icy and snowy terrain and the view on top gave outlook over the extending mountain range during sunset allowing us to make plans for the coming days.

However we soon learnt that the universe had a different plan. After return to camp and a quick dinner it was time for evening Scheds – a short radio chat with base to ensure we are all still alive and give field parties an update on the weather. And the weather is a funny thing in Antarctica – if I wouldn’t know it better I’d say we definitely angered the weather gods as the outlook for the coming week was bleak to put it mildly. In lieu of a first-born to sacrifice we made our peace with the situation and resigned ourselves to spending a couple days in the tent with the hope that it would improve during the days to come – the weather forecasts down here are seldom accurate. This time, however they were. One could say they were even annoyingly accurate. And if they weren’t accurate you could bank on the fact that the reality would be even worse than the already bad forecast.


Inside a Pyramid tent – we hadn’t cleaned up

It wasn’t all bad, I had plenty of time to perfect making pancakes for breakfast on the Primer stove, the pizza went fairly well too. And there is something incredibly apt about reading the worst journey in the world while stuck in a pyramid tent in an Antarctic blizzard. It was incredibly comforting to know, that at least they had it worse than us. So, we spent a very tranquil week, sleeping (apparently my fieldguide was worried about the tent ripping during the 70 mile winds – since he only shared his concerns in the morning, I slept noticeable better than him), reading, cooking (a lot of melting snow to make water), with the occasional weather window, which we spent digging out our sledges, tents and skidoos. Since we seldom went outside we spent all day in the nice warm orange glow of the pyramid tent and didn’t even realise how quickly the days have become shorter. I also didn’t realise that myself and everything I own that was in that tent has started to smell of Kerosin. I don’t want to say that we stank, but I think we did. The price that you pay for keeping a Tiley lamp going all day to keep you warm.

Visiting the other happy campers in their tent. A lot of strategic leg folding going on here. Photo credit D. Stojanovic

However, once we finally had a weather window and made it back to base, I lay in my warm comfortable, clean bed at night – longing for a pyramid tent being rattled by the wind, a down sleeping bag and the infinite white vastness of Antarctica.

Weekend Retreat

One of the things we sign up to when we accept a job in Antarctica is, that we will not be able to leave for 18 month, with the exception of a medical emergency of course. This means that for any holidays we might want to take we cannot just go on a little stint to Spain. And although we do have a significant amount of shoreline most of it doesn’t lend itself to a beach holiday, really – too many cobbles and the deckchairs tend to get blown away by the wind. However from time to time, even such a well-equipped station like Rothera feels a bit claustrophobic and after a very intense and busy summer period, it is often beneficial for the sake of our sanity to leave the station for a couple days. Fortunately Rothera comes with an Island Resort including authentic Antarctic luxury accommodation with a rustic touch.


Located on Lagoon Island a small isle just a 30 min boat drive away from Rothera station (2 hours on an icy day or 20 min on a very calm day) lies Lagoon Island Refugee. It consists of two islands connected by a tidal path that provide shelter from wind and swell. On one of the islands a small hut was erected more than 20 years ago. It primarily acts as refugee for the marine team, in case the weather suddenly changes while boats are on the water and a return to station seems unfeasible. However it is also being used to allow people a mini-holiday away from station and has been in frequent use this year.


For people based on station, spending a few days on the island is properly one of the experiences most likely resembling life in the era of heroic polar exploration. Preparations for an island visit are extensive and reach from sleeping system (– sheepskin, camping mat, sleeping bag and many layers in between that I frequently forget), to a seal-bite kit, water, fuel, food and of course a lovely, lovely poo-bin (no bathroom on the island). All of these things need to be piled in the boat, preferably with some space left over for people and upon arrival at the island carried ashore – basically if you are the kind of person that packs two big suitcases for a weekend trip to cover all eventualities – Antarctic travel is for you.

Once all provisions are safely brought on land, you get to wave the boat off and it is then and only then, that it starts to dawn on you, that you are in the middle of Antarctica on a tiny Island, the only shelter a small and admittedly very cosy one-room hut, no electricity, no wi-fi, no running water. Heating is provided by a reflex stove and cooking is done on a primer stove. Your only ways to contact the outside world is a VHF radio and an Iridium phone. Needless to say after dealing with a station bursting with people all summer long we were giddy with joy and spent a minimum of time on the most important tasks (essentially the Antarctic way of turning the heating on), before dispersing across the island to explore every nook and cranny and experience the wildlife – which was much more abundant than on the mainland.

Weddell Seals are the cutest of all the Antarctic Seals

In fact, the island was brimming with elephant seals (these are the really big ones with the funny nose – that smell really bad) and fur seals (the ones that can walk on their flippers, and arguably almost smell worse than elephant seals and in many other ways very closely resemble one of those bad tempered tiny, yappy short haired terriers that always try to bite your ancle) and Skuas (also out to get you – especially if they just had chicks). The Adelie penguins offered a short respite from the more aggressive wildlife. Most of them were moulting at the time and the various stages of their plumage did provide some comical value.

Adelie Penguins
Adelie Penguins on their way up the shore

Lagoon life – Photo credit: S. Gibbs

As night set-in we started to congregate in the hut for cups of tea and dinner. Cooking and eating by the glow of a tilleylamp is probably the cold weather equivalent to a campfire and has the same mesmerizing quality of making you feel warm and protected against the wilderness. Even if that wilderness is the Southern Ocean and its inhabitants are probably more than able to bulldoze over your accommodation should they feel like it – talking elephant seals here.


No matter how adorable Fur seals are when they are asleep they are proper agressive as soon as they wake up. Talk about getting up on the wrong foot.

I am not sure sharing your sleeping space with four (for want of a better word) men does much for your ability to get a good night’s rest (however to their credit, I have to say, I spent worse nights in hostel rooms), yet it is certainly an experience to be told that they have their pee-bottle at the ready for any mid-night emergencies – if not it would be seal dodging on a dark, cold and cobbled beach.


All in all a weekend on Lagoon island might not be a spa treatment, and you tend to leave more tired than you arrived (some more so than others) but it certainly gives you room to breathe, do a few cartwheels and re-discover the joy of living in this incredible and unique environment.


Antarctica from above

When I first got offered the opportunity to work in Antarctica, I imagined it to be pretty adventurous – braving the elements with limited resources, a handful of people surviving on dry biscuits and vitamin pills at an outpost of humanity – that kind of thing. While this might be true for some of the jobs that are based in the field – life at Rothera is pretty cushiony and brimming with people (during summer that is). Not only is the station packed with amenities such as TV-rooms, a music room, a gym, a lounge, a bar, a bouldering wall but we are also being catered for 3 times a day by some excellent chefs. In this kind of environment it is very easy to forget a little bit where you are and get bogged down with work while neglecting to look around and appreciate the incredible place you are in. One way to remind oneself how remote and isolated Antarctica really is and get a new sense of its stark beauty, seems to be to fly across it. Rothera is the central supply hub for field sites. When the summer season is in full swing the charismatic red twin otter (or twotters) planes are constantly coming and going – bringing fuel, food, people and science equipment to Sky-Blue and Fossil Bluff (the BAS maintained field sites further down the Peninsula) or to even more remote locations deeper into the continent. Each flight needs a co-pilot and these are generally people working at the station. For divers this isn’t quite so easy as we have a 48 hour embargo on flying after every dive, so when I did have the chance to be a co-pilot for a fuel run to Alexander Island (Lat. 71°19’59″S, Long. 68°16’40″W) I jumped at it – more or less literally.

The twin otter at Fossil Bluff

A flying day starts off with a meteorology brief, at the uncivilised hour of 7.45 (yes, it is a tough life out here). The brief mostly includes a weather forecast and although the presenter has the typical pleasant aptitude and voice of the weather person at your local news station the similarities stop there and I generally have very little idea whether whatever he just said means there is good or bad weather. Fortunately the pilots do and make a decision on their flights based on this forecast. Once you’ve been given the green light you need to scramble all your essential kit together (peppermint tea and avocado sandwich – after all we are still civilised down here) and head over to the hangar for a quick induction before climbing up into the lofty cockpit – pilots seemed to have found an elegant way of doing this; I, on the other hand, am very much going with the seal approach of throwing myself at it and then pulling the rest up. My pilot for the day was Vickie, who not only is a brilliant and experienced pilot but has a tremendously inspiring life story of starting her career as a meteorologist before discovering her love for flying and deciding to become a pilot for BAS. After settling down in the cockpit and all necessary pre-departure checks, it didn’t take long until we were on the runway and taking off.

Having arrived by ship, this was the first time I saw Rothera and especially the Antarctic Peninsula from the air. It’s only a short 1.5 hour flight from Rothera to Fossil Bluff, but it is one of the most stunning routes heading South along the mountain ranges of the Antarctic Peninsula. It is a supremely surreal feeling to fly across white planes barren of any kind of human impact, the snow completely untouched; across the frozen sound that no ship ever sailed on, along mountains formed by thousands of years of glaciation. The planes have skies fitted to them so that we can land and start on snow, which is exactly what we did. We only spent a few minutes at Fossil Bluff to drop off full fuel drums and pick up empty ones.

Unloading cargo at Fossil Bluff

Seeing as this was my first time there I was released from helping out and encouraged to do the tourist thing – mainly running around the plane and taking pictures. On the return journey the sea ice was breaking up in ever smaller perfectly rectangular squares the further north we got. The whole journey only took half a day – yet was a perfect reminder that even though life on base is perfectly comfortable, we live at an extremely remote and secluded place few people have seen before and a very far away from civilisation.

View of the sea ice on the return journey