Haggis, Penguins, and Science: Research in Antarctica

“Probably the greatest enticement for those who today are devoting their lives to the study of the sea is the lure of the unknown, the challenge of the undiscovered, the thrill of discovery on what is truly the last frontier on earth.”

In Deep Challenge (1966) by H. B. Stewart. Published by Van Nostrand, NJ. p. 7.

Source: oceanexplorer.noaa.gov

It was late November of last year when Amber Annett, a masters student of Geosciences, sat in her quintessential cramped residence at the University of Edinburgh, sending off a few final emails to friends and family before setting off on a once-in-a-lifetime journey. She sat cross legged, sipped on tea (a recently acquired, UK inspired taste), and bounced her foot up and down in sheer nervousness and excitement, “Today is almost like Christmas, because I have been SO excited about it for SO long! ”

Amber and I first crossed paths four years ago at UBC, dissecting invertebrate sea creatures and pestilent insects for a zoology lab. We would reunite 2 years later, under the guidance of our biological oceanography professor, studying the microscopic plants that both regulate many facets of marine life and have a profound impact on global climate. A year later, and a friendship made, we founded UBC’s inaugural Oceanography Society and co-facilitated a seminar series focusing on marine chemistry as it related to ancient ocean processes.

It was then that the seed of traveling to Antarctica was first planted. Over coffee and seemingly endless mornings (seemingly because they often ran into the early afternoon), we discussed life, the future, and collectively dreamt about living and working at the bottom of the world. Later that year she would be notified she had received the coveted Commonwealth Scholarship. This opportunity would take her to Edinburgh, and at last Antarctica.

Soon she would no longer just be talking and dreaming about penguins and endless fields of ice, because in four hours, she would leaving her tiny bedroom and be on her way to Punta Arenas, Chile via Heathrow, Madrid, and Santiago. A few days layover, a patch of the Chilean flag sown on her backpack, a skip across the Cape and she would reach her final destination: Rothera station on Adelaide Island, Britain’s post at the bottom of the world.
Rothera Station
Rothera Station (credit: Amber Annett, all rights reserved)

I had the chance to interview Amber via email about her experiences way down south:

Dave S.: So you recently spent 3 months in Antarctica – was it really all that hot?

Amber A.: It was summer, but I think it topped out on some of the nicer sunny days at 3 degrees C. So we wandered around in t-shirts – the air is so dry that you really don’t feel the cold if you’re moving about. There were some days when the weather was “pants” – meaning blowing and snowy. That’s less fun because it means you can’t get out in the boats to go sampling. Our plan to sample every second day actually turned into 15 times out of about 70 days because of various issues, mostly weather. But when it was wasn’t too snowy and windy, it was pretty amazing.

DS: How did you feel as you approached the continent?

AA: Seeing the continent appearing in the distance, rising up out of the ocean like an icy Atlantis was an amazing sight. However many pictures I’ve seen really don’t convey an accurate sense of the vertical scale. We all crowded to one side of the plane, faces plastered against the windows and cameras zooming and clicking away like the frantic finale of a symphony. I was grinning like a mad fool and actually bouncing up and down in my seat. They guy I was sitting beside thought I was completely nuts. The first thing we saw was the edge of the sea-ice, but then all of a sudden the ice shelves and mountains just rose up out of the water. I got the impression that the continent was taller than it was wide. It was really surprising.

DS: I remember reading your blog, and thinking, “Wow! These are stories you would tell your grandkids in 30-40 years.” Did that ever cross your mind? What was your most memorable experience?

AA: “I ran a 10k marathon in Antarctica” and, “I went snowboarding on a glacier” sound pretty cool, I think. But my young cousins just want to hear about the penguins. It’s awfully hard to nail down a single most memorable experience, but one of them definitely starts with “So this one time, I was rappelling into a crevasse…”

Bottom of Glacier
View from the bottom of the glacier (Credit: Amber Annett, all rights reserved)

What sticks out most in my mind when I think about the whole experience is the scenery. It looks so pristine and untouched. And somehow it managed to look different every single day. Even speaking to people who had been there for 28 months – the longest contract you can do with the British Antarctic Survey – they said they still weren’t tired of just admiring the views.

DS: Any plans to head back to the great white south in the future?

AA: Quite possibly! I’m seriously considering starting a PhD next year that would basically be a continuation of the work I did last season. The chance to spend more time down there is a big selling point.

Amber on the water
Amber monitoring the CTD, a device used for measuring Conductivity (salinity), Temperature, and Depth (Credit: Amber Annett, all rights reserved)

DS: How might students get involved with this sort of work?

AA: If polar science is an interest, this is a great time for it, especially with IPY going on for the next ~16 months. Talk to people in your department working in your specific area of interest or use the internet. Network. Somebody will usually know somebody who is working on any given topic and looking for students. Then all you have to do is ask if there are any opportunities in their lab or research group for a new student.

I’ve come to realize there are certain people who will do great things in this world, and I believe my dear friend Amber is one of them. Not because of her world traveling, or scholarship winning, but rather because of her passion for what she does. As she put, “No slackers, no half-assing it. People are there doing what they love because they love to do it.”

I hope to maintain our friendship in the coming years and hopefully decades, both personally and professionally, and maybe she’ll let me catch a ride with her the next time she makes it way down south.

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: davidsemeniuk.com