In collaboration with Rolex Awards for Enterprise, Proudfoot Media and I have produced a documentary film explaining the latest research into the surprising hidden biology shaping Earth’s ice. The story is told by young UK Arctic scientists with contributions from guests including astronaut Chris Hadfield and biologist Jim Al-Khalili. We went to great lengths to make this a visually striking film that we hope is a pleasure to watch and communicates the otherwordly beauty and incredible complexity of the Arctic glacial landscape. We aim to educate, entertain and inspire others into exploring and protecting this most sensitive part of our planet in their own ways.
We think the film is equally suited to the general public as school and university students, and we are delighted to make this a free-to-all teaching resource. Please watch, share and use!
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
A short article I wrote for the EGU blog about biological darkening of ice and snow was posted last month. The article was built around an aerial view of our 2016 field camp on the Greenland Ice Sheet, where large areas of dark ice are clearly visible.
The dark colour is due to a collection of dusts, soot and algal cells, with the algal cells doing the bulk of the darkening. A second figure in the article shows the algal cells under the microscope along with the spectra of reflected light from the algal ice surfaces. This was one of several EGU blog posts about icy biology, including this one and this one!
Arriving in balmy Royan (France) straight from a frosty ice camp in Greenland was a welcome shock to the system. The small seaside town was home to a five day celebration of geographical and intellectual exploration – the Festival des Nouvelles Explorations. I had the pleasure of talking about icy science on Thursday afternoon and discovering some truly amazing work being done in the fields of virtual reality, art-science fusion, cyber-security, drone technology and conservation. Three short videos below explain some of the work on show at the festival.
The BBC Science team joined us for our first twenty-four hours on the ice this year, documented our work on algal darkening of the Greenland Ice Sheet. This started in the dusty town of Kangerlussuaq, where I took David Shukman, Kate Stephens and Jonathon Sumberg out to Russell Glacier. There, while I flew the drone to get aerial shots for the news broadcasts, the team did their ‘to camera’ pieces and filmed the melt pouring off out out of the glacier’s calving front. Here’s one of the short UAV clips showing the dramatic front of Russell.
The next morning it was onto the ice. We worked as quickly as possible to get a camp established, including the mess tent, personal tents, equipment cage and toilet. The BBC team filmed their on location pieces and Andrew and I flew the various UAVs and set up the science kit to demonstrate the measurements we’d be taking after the film team were gone. We all gave our interviews which were used for the 6 O’clock and 10 O’clock Evening News, the Morning News, Radio 4 and BBC On Demand. I also recorded a more light-hearted interview about living on the ice sheet which is linked to in the online news article.
The next morning the team packed up and shipped out back to dry land, leaving four of us (me, Andrew Tedstone, Stefan Hofer and Tom Gribbin) on the ice to start making our measurements of surface reflectance and algal growth. The picture below shows our camp from the air, looking roughly west.
One of our team, Tom Gribbin, also made this short film about the season using his GoPro camera.
The Western Park Museum recently got in touch to talk about their excellent Arctic World exhibition. I know the museum well as it is a two-minute stroll across the park from my office in Sheffield, so I was really pleased to offer some thoughts. The idea was to produce a new book (‘Everyday Wonders: 50 objects from Weston Park Museum’) that gives a whistle-stop journey through the museum, stopping by at 50 of the most iconic and interesting artifacts on display. I was asked to comment on Snowy, the polar bear – the centre-piece of the Arctic World exhibition. A photo of my contribution to the book is below, but I encourage anyone who is interested to visit the museum and perhaps purchase a copy for themselves.