Ice and Silence: Extreme Working for the British Antarctic Survey

Winter trip in The Rumples, 58 kb
Winter trip in The Rumples
© British Antarctic Survey
No doubt you're familiar with the question that always comes up in conversation. “What do you do?” Getting the answer right is maybe an honesty-balancing game. Do you claim to be a mountaineer? I don't think I'm fibbing when I say that I am a mountaineer. This is very odd seeing as I haven't seen a mountain for over a year, or indeed stood on dry land.

I live and work on an ice shelf. Halley Research Station resides on a 200m thick slab of floating ice, so my recent mountaineering has all been done a long way from land. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) employ all manner of trades, but the field assistant role is undoubtedly the cream job. We take our team members on missions off base, primarily to manage safety and facilitate Antarctic Science, to run depots & field camps, also training and recreational trips. It has been a year with many highlights: skidooing across the ice with the golden sun sparking in showers of diamond dust, the thrill of being absorbed into a huddle of 10 000 emperor penguins and just last week the exhilaration of co-piloting a twin-engine plane among the spires of the Pensacola Mountains.

The Shelf has only two seasons: a brief summer of hectic activity during which we are out in the field. It's a time of perpetual activity on base too, particularly with the extensive movement of cargo to and from the ship. Winter is the opposite. As a compact team of eleven at Halley, for us it is about winter trips and maintaining the field kit. BAS has other bases too. Rothera resides on a small peninsula in a ring of alpine paradise tucked just inside the Antarctic Circle and acts as the hub for the majority of British scientific expeditions.

Ultimately the job is about being part of a diverse team working somewhere very special. If you are thinking about doing something different, something worthwhile, get the atlas out for a quick ogle and apply.

“I work in the Antarctic.” – The Answer.

Rich Burt – Halley Wintering Field Assistant 2008

Surveying raised beaches on Horsehoe Island, 211 kb
Surveying raised beaches on Horsehoe Island
© British Antarctic Survey

Refuelling the Twin Otter at the Theron, 137 kb
Refuelling the Twin Otter at the Theron
© British Antarctic Survey

Rich Burt on the platform of The Laws building, 171 kb
Rich Burt on the platform of The Laws building
© British Antarctic Survey

The Halley Winterers below a mid-winter aurora, 199 kb
The Halley Winterers below a mid-winter aurora
© British Antarctic Survey

Antarctic pyramid Tent below a full moon, 52 kb
Antarctic pyramid Tent below a full moon
© British Antarctic Survey
It's not often you get to climb inside an iceberg. Held in the vice-like grip of the surrounding sea ice, the frozen colossus facing us was split by a deep crack. The bottom of the vertical cavern had at some stage flooded with seawater and refrozen. We jumped a sinister gash of open water and climbed inside the 'berg.

Earlier, we'd left our skidoos and field camp and had to abseil the ice cliffs to reach the sea ice: now we were inside the iceberg itself, awestruck by the azure glassy hardness and the immensity of it all. Soft powder snow adorned the entrance of the cavern, and crystals festooned the 'roof' high above our heads. As we descended the wondrous symmetry of the two ice walls eventually met in a hairline crack. Outside it was -40°C - our breath frosted heavily on our clothing and our crampons bit aggressively into the ice. In a matter of weeks this 'berg would break free of the ice and drift into immeasurable seas.

I've seen some pretty unusual sights, working as a Field Assistant for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Seals swimming under the ice you're standing on. Powder snow so deep your skidoo leaves a trench behind you. Frozen landscapes of implausible tranquillity take your breath away. I'm one of a team whose job is to support scientists going 'deep field' to investigate big questions like climate change. Antarctica is arguably the Earth's greatest natural laboratory and an early warning system for global change.

BAS operates five research stations, five planes and two ships. During the short summer months life is pretty hectic for everyone. As a Field Assistant, you spend a great deal of time off-station and get to experience the continent more than most.

In summer, before going deep field, I assist the pilot to load and fuel the Twin Otter aircraft before clambering on board. I often get to sit up front as 'co-pilot'. Watching the plane take off and leave as we set up a remote field camp is a defining moment for any Field Assistant or scientist. For two months we might work from a static camp, or travel by paired skidoo and sledge, linked together by thick rope for safety in crevassed areas. It's a heavyweight, 'belt-and-braces' expedition. Once the orange pyramid tent is firmly pitched, we brew up, crack a big bar of chocolate and enjoy the most comfortable camping imaginable.

In winter days when you're confined to the station there's all the maintenance work on field equipment. Servicing field kit takes time in the cold, dark and windy Antarctic winter. But when weather relents there's great enthusiasm for recreational trips that give groups a chance to have a break from station life and learn valuable field skills. It's often these trips that the most vivid memories of the Antarctic are formed. Which brings me back to that iceberg!

Paul Torode for the British Antarctic Survey

Evening stroll on Reptile Ridge above Rothera, 133 kb
Evening stroll on Reptile Ridge above Rothera
© British Antarctic Survey

Skidooing out to inspect a remote GPS station, 45 kb
Skidooing out to inspect a remote GPS station
© British Antarctic Survey

Penquin Colony of Windy Bay, 98 kb
Penquin Colony of Windy Bay
© British Antarctic Survey

Rich Burt after skiing around the perimeter at -45c, 132 kb
Rich Burt after skiing around the perimeter at -45c
© British Antarctic Survey
British Antarctic Survey - Recruiting Now - Field Assistants

Practical, organised and unflappable, you'll have what it takes to work in the most challenging climate on Earth - enabling us to conduct successful scientific research across Antarctica.

Excellent mountaineering skills are essential, as is the ability to effectively lead expeditions. You must also be a natural problem solver and a strong team player who can respond effectively to ever-changing situations.

Your core task will be to conduct scientific colleagues safely and efficiently within the polar environment on both the continental ice shelves and glaciated mountains. Of course, you'll also have to attend to many other duties, including assisting in scientific work, organising camp sites, handling radio equipment and ensuring sno-mobiles continue to work.

As you would expect, this unique role demands a range of skills. Excellent mountaineering skills are essential, as is the ability to effectively lead expeditions. You must also be a natural problem solver and be a strong team player who can respond effectively to ever-changing situations.

Salary package will be from £23,700 per annum pro-rata plus a possible performance bonus when your return to the UK.

Application forms are also available from:

Human Resources Section
British Antarctic Survey
High Cross
Madingley Road
Tel: (01223) 221508 You will need to be physically capable and medically fit to work in Antarctic conditions.

Please also send a CV of your climbing experience and other useful related experience e.g. Outdoor pursuit instruction

Please quote reference: BAS 03/10 .

Closing date 16th May 2010

Scheduled Interview Dates: w/c 21/06/10 and w/c 28/06/10

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