26th January 2013
So, the end of my fourth Antarctic adventure is in sight, with no-one (except possibly my immediate family) more surprised than me that as a home and land-loving being this is the path that my life has taken over the past five years. We have dried out and packed away all the camping and field equipment in preparation for its return to Rothera ready for another field party to use next year. Our precious samples are in the freezer (next to the lamb joints so hopefully we won’t see fried moss on the menu anytime soon) and the science cargo is indexed, and labelled with a complex combination of letters and numbers which means that it should end up in Cambridge in June. The ship is now focussed on completing some hydrograpical surveying and in a few days we will be heading north and really be on the home strait.
Yesterday we were given the opportunity to give a presentation on the ship to explain the rationale behind all our work and also show some photos from the fieldwork that we have completed with the support of the ship, both this year and last year, which was a great opportunity to thank everyone on board for their hard work on our behalf, and also give them a chance to ask us questions.
The presentation also made me think again about our project in a wider context. Having been so focussed for a long time on succesfully getting samples from Green Island, and wondering if we would spend five weeks on the ship without getting off if the ice was bad again; whilst also dwelling on the fieldwork season we had last year, and spending longer than is probably healthy counting down the days until we fly home; it was good to step back to think about why we are here and what is the justification for the significant expense in terms of resources and time that it has taken to get our samples and data. Hopefully we managed to convince our audience that investigating environmental changes that have happened over the recent past (hundreds to thousands of years) is critical to the understanding of both the climate at the moment, and how it might change in the near future. Even if these changes do not seem to be affecting our lives at the moment, they are very likely to have a significant impact on the lives of our children and grand-children. Although coming here to collect moss-peat cores when there are large expanses of much more accessible peat in many regions of the world (including the UK) may seem extravagent, as the Antarctic Peninsula is both particularly sensitive to warming (the presence of lots of ice currently just below freezing point, means that a 1C temperature rise here may have a more significant impact here than the same temperature rise in the UK) and is known to have undergone very rapid warming over the past fifty years, it is a particularly important region to study. In addition, although it may seem very remote, environmental changes that occur here may well impact on all our lives, particularly through the potential rise in sea level.
We are hugely privileged to be able to come and work in this exceptional region of the world, which although it is becoming more accessible to a small number of people (as evidenced by the cruise ships that we have seen, and the commercial flights that are now operating between South America and the South Shetland Islands), is still largely untouched, and even unexplored, with vast expanses showing no visual evidence of human influence. However, evidence from ice-cores, atmospheric measurements, photographs of the position of glacier tongues and chemical (isotopic) signals that we have measured in our moss cores show that man really has had a global influence, with, for example, evidence of the industrial revolution (which resulted in increased burning of fossil fuels, and consequently a change in the atmospheric gases) clear to see even here in the Antarctic, thousands of kilometres away from any industrial heartlands.
This will be my last trip to this region as our field work is now complete with instead many hours, days and weeks in the lab ahead of us. I’ve been lucky enough to see some incredible sights: icebergs, whales, penguins, seals, sun-sets; I’ve camped and lived in unique locations and worked with many skilled and dedicated individuals who enable work in this dangerous and unforgiving region to be carried out safely and effectively whilst also in the most environmentally sensitive ways possible. I have many memories of Antarctica that I’m sure will stay with me for ever, and I sincerly hope that for generations to come the same sights, sounds, smells and experiences remain possible as the wonder of the region is preserved forever.