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Several degrees below canvas - camping in Antarctica

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Each year, dozens of British Antarctic Survey researchers head south for an Antarctic summer of science. For many, that means spending up to three months in a tent - thousands of miles away from home and hundreds of miles from the nearest research station. We find out how they cope under canvas in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, and why they do it.

In an era of satellites and super computers, it may seem strange that Antarctic scientists still need to spend months camping on the coldest and windiest continent on Earth.

According to glaciologist, Professor David Vaughan of  British

Living in the field
Antarctic Survey (BAS): "In my own area of research, we can get a lot of information from satellites but sooner or later you have to go there to verify that what you're seeing with the satellites is right, and to make measurements that you still can't make from space. Looking through four kilometres of ice really requires us be there, either in an aircraft or on the ground."

In his most recent foray into the deep field, Vaughan led a team of nine BAS scientists to conduct an airborne survey of part of West Antarctica. "The aircraft was packed full of geophysical sensors - gravity, radar and magnetics. The radar was the most important, as it meant we could look down through the ice to see the landscape beneath. Until then, nobody knew what was down there. We found mountains, lakes and glacially-carved valleys that had never been seen before, and which tell us a lot about how the ice sheet is behaving at the moment and how it may change in a warmer world," he says.

Although the first polar explorers would marvel at the sophisticated scientific equipment that BAS uses today, Scott and Shackleton would find that much of today's Antarctic field camp is the same as it was 100 years ago.

Camping Fact File
  • On winter camping trips from the BAS research station at Halley, temperatures can fall to –40°C with winds of up to 100 knots.
  • The BAS sleeping system is made up of a carry mat, a Therm-a-Rest®, a sheepskin rug and a 1,100 g down sleeping bag encased in a canvas cover to keep it clean.
  • Water – in the form of snow – comes from outside the door.
  • Keeping clean in the field can be difficult and some people don't bother. According to Professor David Vaughan: “When I started, it was unheard of for people to try and stay clean in the field. People have changed a lot now, and some people really do like to try and keep themselves a little bit more clean. On a static camp it’s easier than on a traveling camp – if you’ve only got a pyramid tent, there isn’t a lot of scope for washing your clothes and unless you’re going to put fresh clothes on, what’s the point of washing?”
  • Going to the toilet? If you’re in one place for long enough, it's not bad says Vaughan. “You can dig a good toilet, build a little snow wall around it, put some shelter on it and make a seat. One season we had a bit of plywood with a hole in it and that was great. If you’re not in the same place for very long, you just have to walk out with a shovel and toilet roll, dig a little hole and do your business while everybody else tries not to look.”

Tried and tested

According to Paul Dulson, whose job at BAS is to equip scientists with everything they need to operate safely and successfully in the field: "Scott would recognise most of a modern field camp. The tents, stoves, lanterns and sledge boxes are all quite similar to those used in the early twentieth century."

Take the pyramid tents that BAS scientists call home while spending up to three months in the field. Although now made of modern materials - Ventile® instead of canvas, and with aluminium instead of bamboo poles - the design remains essentially unchanged. "If you look at old photographs, you'll see similarities with what Scott and Shackleton used. The reason behind this lack of change in overall design is that it works very well. It's roomy inside and very strong. We know these tents survive 100-knot winds - and that's pretty extreme. It's a very cosy, safe environment for scientists to live in while they're a long way from home," Dulson explains.

The fact that field equipment has been tried and tested by generations of scientists counts for a lot in Antarctica, where losing a tent is a life-threatening event, not just an inconvenience. New is not necessarily better. According to Dulson: "We have tried new things but they've often failed. And we do use modern materials. Our small sledges are now made of fibreglass, but things like that break and can't easily be repaired."

As well as the tents, the Optimus stoves BAS scientists use to heat water and prepare food have altered little over the past 100 years. A direct descendant of the Primus stove invented in 1892 by Sweden's Frans Wilhelm Lindqvist, the Optimus remains an essential part of BAS's Antarctic field equipment. "They're very simple," Dulson says. "You can take them to pieces and refurbish them even in the field, and have them up and running again. Field parties carry a modern, lightweight stove as backup, but they're not as strong and they don't like being dragged around on the back of a sledge for hundreds of kilometres. They're just not as robust."

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Images © British Antarctic Survey / Words © Becky Allen.

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