Tuesday 2 March 2021

Lockdown fieldwork

Brenneke Nunatak (photo: Andy Stevenson-Jones)
My phone rang. I glanced down; the number started +881. Unusual.

“Hi Pippa, it’s Jas”.

This was surprising for two reasons. One, the only person I know called Jas was somewhere in Antarctica. Two, there was no delay on the line, and I could hear this person loud and clear.

It was Jas. “I’ve fixed the GPS at Brenneke Nunatak, do you want me to add comms?”

This is not the sort of question that is easy to answer at short notice but having spent several years coordinating a complex Antarctic field program from my desk back in the UK I know that decisions sometimes need to be made quickly, and making the right decision relies on clear communication.

The last time someone called my mobile from Antarctica it was the middle of the night and I was kipping on a friend’s sofa in Sheffield. At least I had a computer in front of me this time.

GPS antenna at Mount Ivins (photo: Andy and Jas)

Jas was visiting one of the 30 or so UKANET GPS instruments that are attached to rocky outcrops across Antarctica and provide crucial data on how the land beneath the ice sheet is deforming. The information helps us determine how quickly the ice sheet is melting as well as providing information on the rheological properties of the Earth – essentially how squishy it is.

Jas had flown to this site in a small plane with two other people, pilot Ollie and field guide Catrin.

“Say hi to them”, I said. I had worked with both of them back in 2016 and, unlike some working partnerships, you tend to remember the people who landed a plane in tricky circumstances or hauled multiple sledge-loads of kit up an icy slope.

Important to have the right cable! (photo: Andy Stevenson-Jones)

Jas and I quickly established what he had done to get the instrument running and discussed possible next steps. It is invaluable to be able to discuss options with the engineers from the comfort of my spare room – one way in which technology has revolutionised our ability to carry out smart science in even the remotest locations.

Decisions made, I left Jas to fly to the next site and tried to remember what I’d been working on ten minutes earlier.


GPS antenna at Welch Mountains (photo: Jaskiran Nagi)

This season’s fieldwork is a monumental achievement given the pandemic restrictions that have been in place for the last year. I am aware that this is one of only a few projects to get field-time this season, made possible by the fact that I run the project from the UK, making use of the skills of BritishAntarctic Survey (BAS) personnel who were heading south anyway as part of the slimmed-down team. I am incredibly grateful to BAS for making the work possible.

The basic logistics of getting equipment and people in the right place at the right time is challenging in a normal year, but with constantly evolving rules necessitating multiple changes of plan, flexibility has been crucial this year, along with an ability to smile every time I receive an email that says, “things have changed somewhat since my email of two hours ago…”.

Our plan this year was to install new, state-of-art instruments at a group of sites where we have been struggling to gather year-round data. The new Resolute instruments, developed by Canadian company Xeos, combine a GNSS receiver with an Iridium modem in a single low-power unit that can withstand the polar winter. However, these precision instruments are not sitting on a shelf waiting to be deployed, they are custom-made and needed to be rigorously tested by UNAVCO – the international geodesy hub based in the US – before they could be shipped to me.

Resolute (lower left), batteries and a lot of wires at Traverse Mountains (photo: Andy Stevenson-Jones)

“Our cold chamber is broken, and we can’t find anyone to fix it.” This was in the depths of the pandemic. The period when we all realised this was serious and the planet went into shutdown.

I have no idea how they managed it, but somehow Xeos and UNAVCO sourced the parts and the personnel to build and test 7 Resolutes and ship them to the UK in time for earlier-than-usual BAS cargo deadlines. Due to the uncertainty of getting planes into Antarctica via a Covid-free route, everything was heading south on a ship this year, and that ship was leaving soon!

GPS antenna at Jensen Nunatak (photo: Jaskiran Nagi)

I am particularly grateful to everyone at Durham University who helped me track down someone who could pay the hefty import duty at short notice (universities are not letting academics loose with credit cards at the moment) and avoid the dreaded ‘return to sender if duty is not paid within 5 days’.

Despite one delivery notification reading ‘left at front door’ – you do not want to know the value of this shipment! – BAS patiently confirmed that all my cargo made it into the building, into the right pile of stuff, onto the right ship, and eventually to the right polar base.

From there the BAS engineers take up the reins. Like the cargo, they had jumped through various quarantine hoops and endured a long journey south on a ship. I usually meet with them face-to-face before they head south, to brief them on the project and this season’s tasks, but this year we were consigned to Zoom. These meetings are crucial.

Although the engineers will have detailed instructions for each site – necessary when snow is blowing in your face at -15  ̊C and your brain has frozen – it is important to build a working relationship and get them to trust me, and for them to realise that I trust them.

Good weather at Welch Mountains (photo: Jaskiran Nagi)

We share tips between incoming and outgoing engineers, and I explain that when it comes to coaxing technical instruments back to life, armed with a few spare bits of cable and a lot of sticking tape, they are the experts and I welcome their ideas. They have come up with some impressive solutions over the years, and as we head towards the end of fieldwork season, the new Resolute instruments have been deployed and are ready to face their first Antarctic winter.

battery box and solar panel at Mount Ivins (photo: Andy and Jas) 

Wednesday 13 June 2018


As people’s thoughts turn to summer holidays my friends keep asking me, “Are you doing fieldwork in Antarctica this summer?” I politely point out that it’s a bit cold in Antarctica at the moment, and dark.

As we head towards midwinter in Antarctica this is a nervous time for someone who has ~30 GPS instruments bolted to remote outcrops, measuring postglacial rebound across a 3,000 km swath of West Antarctica. The instruments rely on solar power between September and April, but as the sun dips below the horizon for a few months the power begins to drain out of the battery bank, and we must nervously wait to see if they make it through the winter.

Ice build-up inside one of the instrument enclosures after the Antarctic winter (credit: Alex Grievson)

We do have an alternative power supply at some sites: wind turbines. But your standard 2-foot wind turbine, which claims to be rated for ‘extreme conditions’ doesn’t always fare so well in an Antarctic storm. When we return the next year it’s not uncommon to find that the turbines have been sheared off their mounts or, if the circuit breaker didn’t kick in properly, the circuit board has been fried.

One turbine has been ripped off its mount and is nowhere to be seen, the other has a blade missing (credit: Alex Grievson)
Trying to service all the GPS sites during the short Antarctic summer is a logistical nightmare. Without knowing the state of the instruments it’s not easy to know what spares to carry. And all these spares have to make their way down to Antarctica in good time*. Once in Antarctica the kit needs to be flown to each GPS site in one of BAS’s four Twin Otters, hopefully in the company of an engineer who has the skills to coax an unresponsive instrument back into life, potentially in rather challenging conditions. It’s one thing mending a circuit board in the comfort of the lab, but quite another when the wind is hitting 50 mph and you have long-since lost any feeling in your fingers.

*at some point last season a cautious customs employee decided one of our cargo boxes was too dangerous to fly, so it got put on a truck somewhere in northern Chile with instructions for the driver to head south…that’s the last we saw of it for several weeks!

Ready for take-off in the Twin Otter. This is everyday work for pilot Vicky and field guide Catrin, but for electrical engineer Gábor having the opportunity to co-pilot a plane is an unexpected perk of the job 

On good days you can work with bare hands (why am I wearing one glove?!) and put your jacket down without fear of it getting blown into oblivion across the ice sheet (credit: Ian Potten)

…or you can sunbathe with a seismometer 

Although it looks sunny, this day was bitterly cold – we had to use a bungee cord to stop the lid slamming shut in the strong wind, and scoffed a massive bar of chocolate to keep morale up (credit: Al Docherty)

Some of you may be wondering how working in such challenging conditions can be described as ‘fun’, but anything that involves ski-ing to work is fun in my book, even if it means pulling a 50 kg sledge along behind you.

Commute to work by plane and ski (credit: Mark Beasley)

It can be a bit of a trek from the plane to the GPS site. Now, can we get these sledges moving…? (credit: Gábor Geréb)

End of a day’s work. The sledges are lighter but it’s an uphill journey back to the plane (credit: Gábor Geréb)
But there are smarter ways to do this. If we are able to monitor how the GPS instruments are doing through the polar winter we can come up with a more targeted servicing plan. Even better, if we can transmit the data from the instruments straight to data hubs around the world we don’t even need to visit them to download the data and clear the memory card. At present, 8 of our GPS instruments are transmitting data, and we can monitor the power status at a further 5; plans are afoot to boost these numbers in the coming season.

Wiring in a modem so that we can track the status of this instrument through the winter. Emergency satellite phone and cereal bar close to hand.

We’ll still get to visit these beautiful, remote spots when things go wrong, but as we equip them all with a satellite modem over the next couple of years we can turn our attention to untangling what the data are telling us.
GPS perched on an outcrop at the edge of the Larsen C ice shelf

Sunday 26 February 2017

In the name of science

Installing GPS and seismic instruments in Antarctica involves quite a lot of work.

First, you need to get together all the kit you will need: the instruments themselves, the power supplies for the instruments, the tools to install the instruments, the sledges to drag the kit across the ice, the mountaineering equipment to keep you safe as you drag the kit across the ice, plus a field guide, a plane, a pilot, and perhaps a spare pair of hands.

Organised chaos: loading the Twin Otter
Once you’ve found all of this, you need to weigh the kit (so the pilot knows how much fuel to put in the plane), estimate how long the work will take, and get ~350kg of odd-shaped items organized into a sensible number of sensible-shaped items so they can easily be loaded onto a plane.

For a standard install I got it down to around 20 items, ranging from a fierce-looking 5kg pick-axe to a large, unwieldy 45kg metal frame (which holds the solar panels), plus a large assortment of  durable boxes (cardboard and snow don’t mix) and lumps of metal. As the plane is loaded I can be seen carefully ticking off the items - my biggest nightmare was that I’d forget a crucial tool or instrument component.

Napping on P-bags during the flight
Along with all of this each person is responsible for bringing their own spare clothes, food, first aid and suncream for the day, as well as ensuring that their ‘P-bag’ is on the plane. Your P-bag contains your sleeping bag. Actually, it contains the fluffiest sleeping bag in the world, plus a karrimat, a thermarest, a sheepskin rug, a sleeping bag liner, and another rug-like layer that doubles as a pillow. The whole lot is bundled up into a large canvas bag that is very comfortable to lie on if you fancy a nap during the plane journey.

What I did not pack was a toothbrush.

Or anything to read.

On 11th November 2016 a chilled-out team of two scientists, two field guides, an engineer and a pilot loaded up a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Twin Otter aircraft and flew ~170 miles from Rothera to a small rocky outcrop at the top of Leppard Glacier, near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and just 40 miles from the Larsen C ice shelf. It was a little chilly at our landing site, partly because we were at ~1700m altitude and, well, partly because we were in Antarctica. But spirits were high as we unloaded the plane and began to drag the kit up to the outcrop that we’d spotted from the air.

An easy stroll to the outcrop - you can see the plane down on the ice
Hard at work installing the GPS equipment
It was a perfect outcrop. We quickly located a solid piece of rock for the GPS instrument – when you are trying to measure land movement of a few millimetres a year, it is no good placing the GPS on a pile of rubble – a were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves as we set about the final few tasks associated with the installation of this precision instrument after a swift three hours (this is good).

The radio crackled. Mark, the pilot, relayed information from the team who had headed up a mountain a few miles away looking for geological evidence of how the ice sheet has been thinning over time. They’d spotted some cloud drifting in and were heading back.

Mark heading back to the plane in the fog
Things happened quickly in the next hour. As Mike and Tom headed back from the mountain they were swiftly pursued by the cloud, and as we aborted our attempts to get the electronic components of the GPS up and running we scrambled back to the plane, which although only 500m away, was rapidly disappearing.

Too late.

The fog enveloped us and visibility dropped to 50m. Well, it might have been 50m; it’s hard to tell when everything around you is white.

It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon on Friday. After tensely waiting in the plane for a couple of hours, poised to take off if the visibility cleared, we conceded that it was time for a brew. The temperature had dropped to minus 20 outside, and it was getting chilly sitting inside a cocoon of metal, so we dug a stove out of the tail of the plane and began melting snow. I decided not to point out to the others that I knew the chefs were cooking pizza back at base.

Time for a brew - thanks Al!
Updates from the meteorological team in Rothera suggested that a break in the clouds might be heading our way. So after tucking into a rehydrated meal the decision was made to keep watch for a gap in the clouds through the night. This isn’t as hard as it sounds as it doesn’t actually get dark; ‘night’ just refers to a time when it is a bit colder. Well quite a lot colder.

Camping next to the plane

Three of us piled out of the plane to put up a tent and snuggle into cozy sleeping bags, while the other three found themselves a space on the floor of the plane. Now, I love camping in Antarctica, and actually enjoyed a toasty night’s sleep, but apparently it was a less pleasant experience sitting silently in the cockpit of the plane for several hours, peering through ice-covered windows, looking for a gap in the clouds...

It was day two, and from this point I can’t be sure of the precise order of events, but I think you’ll see why. The strange thing about being stuck in the middle of nowhere is that you don’t know how long you’ll be there. There’s a certain hope that pervades for a while, an assumption that you must get out sometime that day. This lasts throughout the morning as you feast on a cup of tea and some broken biscuits liberally smeared with tinned butter, awaiting the next weather update from Rothera, but it fades in the evening as your feet and hands go numb with cold and you resign yourself to another dehydrated evening meal.
Mmm, breakfast
Good spirits in the back of the plane (L-R): me, Mike, Octavian, Tom, Mark in the background and Al behind the camera

Mark, our pilot, keeping warm
The worst thing was having nothing to do. No book, no pack of cards, no music. I’d brought some knitting, which hopefully didn’t drive the others too mad(?), and one person did have a kindle on board, but we managed not to fall out over the pursuit of reading matter (and I suspect the batteries didn’t fare that well anyway). Octavian did pounce on the opportunity to read the handbook listing the rules and regulations for flying an aircraft in Antarctica, and good humour was maintained by discussing who we would eat first if we ran out of food, and seeing who could hold out the longest to go to the toilet. In fact, one of the things that struck me throughout our extended mini-break was the fact that no-one got cross. It is not easy to spend four days stuck in a small, cold plane with people you don’t know that well and not get a little tetchy, and in particular our pilot Mark was incredibly patient, especially given that we’d forced him to miss Sunday brunch.

Daily entertainment involved heading outside for an hour or two to dig the plane out of the snow that the wind repeatedly packed around the skis, and on the third day we were very excited to see the shadow of the wing on the snow outside! A shadow means sun, and indeed, peering upwards the sky certainly seemed to be tinged with blue, but gazing horizontally we were still only greeted with fog. We were surrounded by ridges of mountains, and since the pilots rely primarily on visibility rather than instruments for navigation, we needed the fog to shift before we could head anywhere.

Mark clearing snow from the top of the plane

By day four we had run out of chocolate, and optimism was wearing thin by the early afternoon. Al headed outside without explanation, and we wondered if we’d missed him saying ‘I may be some time’, but then we spotted him doing some headstands in the snow. This seemed to bring the luck we’d been missing.

The butter was getting low...

The view out the window on day 4 - is this a good sign?
A little later one of the other BAS planes made a detour to check out our location and there followed a cheery radio conversation along the lines of:

Them: We can see you, the cloud isn’t very thick.

Us: We can see you too, we just can’t see sideways!

But soon afterwards the outcrop where we’d been installing the GPS three days earlier came into view, and then the mountain beyond, and suddenly it looked like we might make it home that day after all. After another flurry of digging, we secured the cargo and all eyes were on Mark. Ok, he nodded, this could be it. There followed an unbearable half hour where the fog drifted in and out, never quite lifting, never quite giving us a clear view… and then we were airborne.

Out of the cloud at last!
It’s amazing how quickly you return to normality. As we landed at Rothera we were greeted by a few more folk than usual at the hangar, but the main task was to unload our cargo, stow it in the right container, and get the plane prepared for another day’s work. Delivering science in these extreme circumstances is all in a day’s work (or four) for the team at Rothera. They are not only some of the most skilled people in the world at their job, but they’ll also keep you alive in the process.

I headed over to the Operations Manager: “Now about that unfinished GPS installation…”

Rothera. Home.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

The same, but different

I’ve been back in Rothera for two weeks now.
Some things are just the same, while others are very different...

The first thing that is the same is the fact that I’ve been (almost) continually busy ever since I arrived. The first few days were filled with refresher training sessions – first aid, working around planes, communication systems, how to give a weather observation, and various field techniques including crevasse rescue.
In the field you'll often be travelling on skis. Now, do they have size 4 boots...?

The next few days were spent locating all of my kit again, charging batteries, testing equipment, modifying some of the electrical systems, pre-building kit to save time in the field, mending a few bits and pieces, and training up the people who’ll be helping me with my instrument installs.

Testing a seismometer - one of the instruments I will install in the field
And then suddenly it was time to fly! But more of that next time…

Base life
Many things about life in Rothera are the same as my last visit:

It was great to be re-united with the winterers, and hear their stories of hardship and camaraderie. My delivery of climbing magazines from the last six months went down well the field guides, and we were treated to a live gig by the “winterer’s band” last weekend.

Reading material in the toilets - tractor-driving is an important skill here

It’s also exciting to return to a place where you’re so close to all the action. There is a runway right next to the accommodation block, and people head out to wave to the planes as they take off and land.

The beautiful Dash-7 landing at Rothera, just outside my office

The communications tower is visible from all over base and the comms team are constantly in touch with planes and field parties all over the continent. All around base there is the reassuring crackle of VHF radio as people ask permission to cross the runway or track down items or people. There is an aircraft hanger across the way; a generator shed that ensures constant power across the base; workshops for carpenters, electricians and plumbers; a lovely crew of chefs in the kitchen keeping us all fed; a boating shed; a recycling shed (very little ends up as normal ‘rubbish’); a sewage treatment plant; and a busy garage that keeps all the tractors, skidoos and other large machinery in working order.
Comms tower surrounded by 6-foot deep snow - care is needed not to walk off a small cliff!

By far the weirdest thing that is the same about Rothera is the smell! I’d not noticed it when I was here before, but each building has a particular smell. In fact, different parts of the some of the buildings have a distinctive smell that I instantly remembered as I walked along the various corridors. I guess you notice these things when you are otherwise just surrounded by rocks and ice.

Supermoon from Rothera

Things are different too:

I was previously here at the end of the summer, and to get between buildings you had to walk across an expanse of large cobbles. Not so in November! When I arrived everywhere was covered by several metres of squeaky snow, making the trek between buildings a very pleasant experience.
Accommodation block - the view isn't great out of some of the windows

However, the tractors have been hard at work, and in the last week that lovely snow has largely been bulldozed away. We’re not quite down to the cobbles yet, but with the increased number of people on base traipsing around, and warmer temperatures, the whole place is now covered by sheet ice. Eek!

Exposing those wretched cobbles!

The other thing that is different is the sea, or lack of it. Rather than being surrounded by open ocean dotted with icebergs, we’re surrounded by some pretty stubborn sea ice that is showing no sign of breaking up. We’re due to have a ship call in to re-supply the base in two weeks, but at the moment the ice extends around 30km to the south and 100km to the north! The boating crew are looking very bored, and it means no penguins so far this year.

Icebergs trapped in sea ice between Rothera and Porquoi Pas Island (20 km away)

So I was just getting into the swing of changing my shoes every time I entered a building, and dealing with the contrasting temperatures inside and outside, when we jumped on a plane and headed off to do some science. Unfortunately, this was the point at which the weather turned, and a day’s work turned into a long weekend away stranded many miles from anywhere…
Kit for the field - do I have everything I need?

Saturday 29 October 2016

Ready to go!

Somehow I've made it through the last few weeks! I've had a lot of fun learning about ocean circulation and atmospheric chemistry with the undergrads, I've submitted a paper, contributed to a couple more, attended some really productive project meetings, enjoyed shaping the progress of PhD students old and new, hosted some great speakers at Durham, spent some time discussing how we can support our colleagues through the next REF exercise, sat on an interview panel, been patched up by my physio, survived the annual round of freshers' flu, tied up fieldwork odds and ends, got linux running on my laptop, and fielded those emails from all time zones that begin "if you have time before you go away...."

So as you can imagine, I'm looking forward to heading south - away from convenient internet and a packed diary. But this also means heading away from my friends and colleagues, who keep me smiling even when things get a little crazy. My husband, Duncan, has tidied up the chaos that I've left in my wake as I've rushed around these last few weeks, and I will miss his amazing ability to make me laugh every single day.

While I'm away I'll make new friends, and catch up with old friends who have been overwintering at Rothera. It's difficult to step into another community, especially when the work I'll be carrying out can be stressful at times, but I know from last year that Rothera is a special community that instantly makes you feel at home.

My final important achievement this week has been to get my two piece of hold luggage under 23kg. Now I just need to get them safely to Newcastle - Heathrow - Madrid - Santiago - Punta Arenas, and eventually Rothera. I can't wait to step off the last plane into a biting cold wind...

Tuesday 4 October 2016


There’s less than a month to go before I head back south to Antarctica and everything is …well ... nearly ready. It’s a little more complicated than just packing my warmest clothes and jumping on a plane, so here’s a run-down of what I’ve been up to preparing for this field season.

The instruments I installed last season have been sitting out the Antarctic winter. We expect there to be some interruption to the measurements since our main power source is solar, but now the sun has risen again everything should have powered up and we should be recording data again ...although, in reality, we have no idea whether anything is working!

At the moment our instruments aren’t transmitting data to the outside world, and chatting to BAS staff last season it became apparent that this puts a big strain on their resources. These sort of instruments currently needed to be visited every year to check everything is working. But if everything is fine they could just be left to record data for a couple of years without going through the hassle of trying to get a plane out to these remote locations (although I suspect the pilots secretly enjoy the challenge!).

So over the past few months I’ve been liaising with other scientists who run remote instruments, including my colleagues on the UKANET project, to find a solution. We’ve managed to pull together just enough in the budget to purchase five XI-202's - clever little yellow boxes that can be programmed to send updates via satellite, letting us know that everything is working as we expect.

This isn’t the end of the story though. Ideally we’d like to install slightly more sophisticated (and hence more expensive) systems that won't just transmit 'state of health' messages, but also all the raw data straight to our computers back at home, thus removing the need to ever visit the sites again… well so long as the electronics and power supplies survive the Antarctic weather. Watch this space!

New toys
A box full of instruments and cables arrived in Durham a few weeks ago, and with the help of the patient folk at UNAVCO I’ve been trying to work out how everything fits together. I think I’ve got everything sussed...

let's just get everything out...

and this should go in here...

or maybe...erm...

...perhaps it goes in here?

I wonder what the instructions actually say?

ah! It goes in here :-)

The next step is to make sure all our paperwork is sorted so we make it smoothly through customs on the journey south. Some of the equipment we’ll be installing this season has already been shipped direct from Australia to Chile, although apparently some of it ended up in Belgium!! Why is nothing ever simple?

There won’t be much time spent dreaming of penguins and snow over the next few weeks as the undergrads are back in town and somehow all my teaching has to be packed in before I leave. But with the crack across Larsen C having grown significantly over the austral winter it's even more important to get the final few instruments installed and recording the background rate of land uplift before this ice shelf potentially goes the same way as Larsen B.

To help get a better handle on the changes that are happening in the Antarctic Peninsula I’ll be accompanied by Antarctic addict Mike Bentley, who will be piecing together the glacial history of the region. This will be his 12th(?) trip to Antarctica, so I’m sure everything will go smoothly…

Thanks as ever to everyone who has provided training, equipment, advice, and funds. This project is led by Matt King and funded by the Australian Research Council, with logistical support from the British Antarctic Survey.