A Scientist in Antarctica

View north of Mount Scott and Lemaire Channel

The view from my office window

Dear Joshua,

You have often asked me about working in the Antarctic, both with the British Antarctic Survey and with tourists.

I have shared with you the wonder of waking up to see stunning scenery from my office window, and the sheer joy of sitting on a rock by the shore and seeing whales feeding in the Penola Strait.

What did I do in the Antarctic?

You already know the answer to this one - I learned to ski, take photographs, spot wildlife and cook for a dozen people at a time! But really I was there to ‘do science’.

I joined the British Antarctic Survey (B.A.S.) straight from my physics degree at university. I was stationed at ‘Base F’ or ‘Faraday’ on the Antarctic Peninsula where I worked for three summers and two winters. This first photograph is the view from my office window – probably the best view I have ever had to work with! My job description was 'Ionospheric Physicist', and I was tasked with monitoring the earth's ionosphere and magnetic field.

The ionosphere is a layer of the upper atmosphere, between 75 and 1000 km above the earth’s surface. For reference, most passenger planes cruise at about 10 km and the ozone layer (another story completely) is about 15 to 35 km above the earth’s surface.

This illustration from NASA's Goddard space flight centre shows where the ionosphere is in the atmosphere.

NASA / Goddard illustration of the layers of the atmosphere, including ionosphere and aurora

The layers of the atmosphere with solar radiation on the right

The ionosphere exists because of the interaction of solar radiation with the earth’s upper atmosphere. High energy x-rays and ultraviolet light split electrons from gas molecules, creating ions (hence the ionosphere’s name) and leaving the free electrons which form layers that reflect radio waves. With more solar radiation there are more free electrons and stronger radio reflection. This was one of the things that we measured.

NASA / Goddard animation of the solar wind being deflected by the earth's magnetic field

NASA / Goddard animation of the solar wind deflecting off the earth's magnetosphere

The sun also sends out a ‘solar wind’ which is a continuous stream of energetic particles. The earth’s magnetic field, which we monitored continuously, spreads around the planet, acting as a shield to protect us from the solar wind.

When the sun is active, some of the particles from the solar wind follow the earth's magnetic field lines toward the polar regions and interact with the earth’s upper atmosphere to cause the aurora. There is a web site here which explains the northern lights, but the science is the same in the Antarctic.

The earth’s ionosphere and magnetic field react to the solar wind. If the sun is active then more energy comes our way and more energy enters the upper atmosphere. At times of high activity we get stronger, brighter auroras and radio signals travel differently.

But why is this important?

There are two main reasons - firstly, if the energetic particles in the solar wind were not deflected, they would scour the earth's surface like a sand blaster and we did not evolve to withstand that kind of high energy radiation.

Secondly, increased solar activity can affect ground communication, links to satellites and, in the case of big solar storms, sometimes electrical power grids. NASA has this to say about the 1989 storm:

Illustration of solar wind interacting with the earth's magnetic field to produce aurora. Source: https://scijinks.gov/aurora/

NOAA illustration of the solar wind interacting with the earth's magnetic field to cause aurora

“On Friday March 10, 1989 astronomers witnessed a powerful explosion on the sun. Within minutes, tangled magnetic forces on the sun had released a billion-ton cloud of gas. It was like the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time. The storm cloud rushed out from the sun, straight towards Earth, at a million miles an hour.”

The energy of this cloud of gas hitting the earth’s magnetic field caused spectacular aurora to be seen much further from the poles than normal - in the USA almost as far south as Florida - and also created electrical currents in the earth’s surface under much of North America. In turn, this caused extra power to flow in the electricity grids above ground. These extra currents caused the entire province of Quebec in Canada to lose power.

I was working in the Antarctic when this happened, and watched our monitoring instruments register the ionospheric and magnetic activity. Unfortunately, when I headed outside to photograph the aurora all that I saw was thick cloud!

There is a long read at the ABC about space weather which has some history of past events and thoughts about current impacts.

Other science

The 'other' science done at Faraday was meteorology - studying the weather and lower atmosphere. We had an automatic weather station that monitored the temperature, humidity and air pressure, but someone had to look at the sky each day to note the types of cloud and how much of the sky was covered. Meteorologists also took regular measurements of the ozone layer directly above the base (it was Faraday's measurements that confirmed the ozone hole) and when there was sea ice we estimated its extent. I have found a couple of satellite photos from Google Earth that show the Argentine Islands surrounded by sea ice that is breaking up.

I challenge you to spot my old base:

This Google earth photo has my old base in its top left corner.

Here's a closer look: you can just make out some ski tracks to what were the magnetic instrument huts.

The station is now owned and operated by Ukraine. It was transferred in 1996. Since then Ukrainian scientists have continued the work that British scientists started.

Recently a friend of mine found a video on YouTube that was taken at my old base. The video is not in English, but it is worth watching to see the area that I worked in:

If you go to this point in the video, you will see the ice wall that I learned to climb on, where Ukrainian scientists are taking an ice sample with a chainsaw. The rocky beach at the base of the ice cliff which you can see in that video was hardly there twenty years ago. Not only has each winter's snow gone, but also some of the accumulated snow that packs down to ice. The wall itself has receeded quite a way.

The video, unlike the satellite photo, was taken when there was no sea ice.

Living in the Antarctic

This post is already quite long, so I will only briefly answer some of your other questions, and leave more for another post!


We got our water from the sea, removing salt and other impurities by distilling it. The sea water was pumped into the base and boiled at low pressure then the resulting water vapour was condensed into tanks for us to use. Because we only made a tonne of water (1000 litres) at a time, it was more cost effective than reverse osmosis, which is what most desalination plants would use today. The only challenge was for the diesel mechanic (and his designated helpers) to make sure that after use all of the hoses and pipes used to bring sea water into the base were emptied and the filter basket taken out of the water.


The base was built from 'structoply' - a thick layer of insulating foam sandwiched between two layers of plywood. The exterior was then clad in corrugated metal which kept 99% of the weather out. All windows were at least double glazed, and the exterior doors were also tight fitting and insulated. There was central heating, and unless I knew that there was a storm on the way I used to sleep with a window open. I only once woke up to find my feet covered in snow. Luckily the duvet was so good that it had not melted. And this will also tell you that the heating was more background than tropical!


We 'talked' once a day to Cambridge by fax over a satellite link. There was a phone attached, but in the early 1990s it was reserved for emergencies only. All of the local communication was by radio, either marine VHF for our closest neighbours - the American Palmer Station about 55kmm north - or short wave (HF) for everyone else. It was our station's job to collect meteorological summaries from the Britich stations and send them via HF teleprinter (!) to the Chilean base 'Frei' twice a day.

What happens when the ocean / bay area where the ships dock freezes over?

Well, it's like this. We wait for it to melt, or the wind to blow the ice out to sea. Most polar vessels are ice strengthened not ice breakers. This is why Antarctic bases carry a big over-supply (well, we did back then) mostly of dried food. It takes days at minimum for an icebreaker to get from a South American port to the Antarctic Peninsula, and longer if you are elsewhere on the continent.

If you are lucky, there will be a passing ship with a helicopter that can bring in anything desperately needed. There was a tradition that the first flight from 'Damoy' (a British summer-only base to the north) to Rothera (the main British summer expedition base) would fly over with mail, some fruit, and a box of biscuits. It would get thrown out of the co-pilot's window, and we would hope that it landed on dry land!

There is also a very well documented history of cooperation when there is a medical emergency. In that case, a rescue would be coordinated from HQ using any available local resources. I was fortunate that in the two years that I lived in the Antarctic we did not have any serious medical emergencies.

Possible topics for a future Antarctic posts:

I have put some images of Antarctic birds here.

Pages about the other wildlife; the vegetation; different types of iceberg and how were they formed; and camping trips will have to wait!

We also need to discuss the Antarctic Treaty and the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes only.