Q&A: St Laurence Jr School, Ramsgate

The Year 6 Students at St Laurence Junior School in Ramsgate are lucky enough to be studying “Extreme Earth”, so I visited to talk about Earth’s extreme cold. Two of the students wrote a report about it here. We talked about different types of ice (ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice), climate change and how/why scientists live in the Arctic. We even had volunteer yr6 polar explorers dressed up ready for an Arctic expedition! Yesterday, I was delighted to receive a bundle of letters from the students with some extra questions that didn’t get asked in class – so here are my answers….

Q: Do you have a spare tent in case one breaks?

A: Yes, we try to have spares of everything because you never know what might happen in an Arctic camp, and there are no shops to go and buy replacements. In summer 2017, our tent was destroyed by a storm so the spare came in very useful!

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Our broken tent!

Q: How much equipment do you own?

A: Quite a lot, but working in the Arctic means there is a lot of wear and tear on the equipment. It always needs to be in good working condition, so lots of things only last for a few years. Often the equipment is not owned by scientists, but is owned by a university or whoever funds the project.

Q: What is your favourite part of your job?

A: This is a really tough question. I really love working in remote, cold places because it is beautiful and challenging, but I also love the other parts of my job like computer programming, writing papers and articles, analysing data, and talking to students. Most polar scientists spend less than 20% of their time actually working in the ice and snow, so they have to learn to love all the other things too. I think that’s true of most cool-looking jobs.

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Q: Do your friends think you have a cool job?

A: Some do, and others don’t. Some people really hate the cold or don’t like the idea of being away from home comforts for long periods of time. Others don’t like the idea of working for a university. But mostly, yes, people think it’s quite cool.

Q: Where are you going next?

A: My next trip will be to New Orleans (USA) to talk to other scientists at a big meeting in December. After that, I’ll be going to Svalbard (Arctic Norway) in the spring. Then it depends how much funding I can find!

Q: Do you enjoy your job?

A: Yes!

Q: How long is the journey from here to Greenland?

A: We have to fly from the UK to either Copenhagen (Denmark) or Reykjavik (Iceland) and then get another flight from there to Greenland. There are several places to fly to in Greenland but often people go to Kangerlussuaq. There we take a helicopter to our field site, or if we want to work near the edge of the ice, we can trek in and camp.

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Dr Irvine-Fynn: out of the helicopter and onto the ice…

Q: How many people are in your team?

A: It changes for each project, but normally between 3 and 8 people. Less than three is not very safe, but more than 8 is awkward for cooking and keeping a well-ordered camp. There is also a limit on the number of people that can be squished into a helicopter, and it is usually too expensive to do repeated flights.

Q:  Will you ever quit?

A: Maybe! I really love doing this job at the moment, and I’d like to keep doing it. However, one of the downsides is that it is not very secure, and once my current contract runs out in 2019 I’m not sure what opportunities will be out there, so I’m totally open to looking outside of academia for the next challenge.

Q: What was your worst adventure?

A: We once had an eventful field season involving illness, broken equipment, arguing team mates and a car crash that was not very much fun!

Q:Have you ever found animal DNA in the ice?

A: Cool question – one of the things I’ve been working on is the microbiology of glaciers and ice sheets. One of the most useful tools we have to do this is gene sequencing, because by looking at the genes we can tell which microbes live in the ice. In class people were interested to hear whether I’d found any woolly mammoth, dinosaurs or UFO’s and I’m afraid I haven’t seen evidence of those in DNA extracts either.

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This is one of the microscopic creatures found in ice – it’s called a Tardigrade or ‘water bear’ or ‘moss piglet’. They scurry around eating algae! Ph from “Eye of Science”

Q: What food do you eat in the Arctic?

A: We cook on a gas stove and what we eat depends how long we are there for. In a one-week camp we might eat pouches of dehydrated food most nights because it is easy to make and compresses down for transport. For a longer field camp it is important to be well-nourished so we take more care to eat a more balanced diet. This is typically dried pasta, rice, spaghetti or instant mashed potato with tinned vegetables, tinned fish or maybe some cured meat. Some things can be kept cold by burying them in the ice.

Q: How much do you get paid a week?

A: This is a very common question and, while I’m not giving out a number, I do think it’s important to point out that this is not a job to choose if making money is a main motivation. If, however, life experience, challenge and positive impact are your main motivators, then it might be a really good choice.

Q: What is the scariest thing you’ve done on the ice? 

A: In September this year we explored a system of ice caves by abseiling in. As we were preparing to go in for the first time we knocked a piece of ice in to see how deep the cavern was – it took a full 7 seconds to hit the bottom, and when it did it made a huge echoing BOOM that told us it was very deep and very big! It wasn’t really scary, but it was really exciting!

Q: What is the coldest temperature you have experienced?

A: In Svalbard last winter we were working in -35 degrees. It was very difficult to do fiddly work on drones and other science kit because as soon as you take the big mittens off your hands go numb, even with thinner gloves on!

Q: What do you miss when you go away?

A: I miss my wife – Kylie – and my cat – Shackleton – like crazy!  And I miss food like fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh bread etc. But honestly, once I’m back on dry land I immediately miss living in a tent on the ice!

Thanks for all the questions! Best of luck with your Extreme Earth topic!

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