Sky News is travelling to the Antarctic to look at the vital research taking place in one of the most vulnerable places on earth.
Science Correspondent Thomas Moore is joining scientists on the Royal Research Ship (RSS) James Clark Ross for the 1,300 mile voyage south from southern Chile to British Antarctic Survey’s main science base on the Antarctic Peninsula and then on to the Falkland Islands.
The aim is to understand the rapid changes Antarctica is undergoing. It is feared that if the Antarctic ice sheet melts, it could add metres to sea levels, putting many low lying cities in the UK and around the world under water.
To find out more about the threat to the ice sheet, click or tap here.
Every day, Thomas will post an update, telling the story of what he finds. Follow his story below as he explores the bottom of the world.
17 January Day 19 – Antarctica, long seen as a victim of climate change, could also be part of the fix
There’s a fascination on our ship with mud.
The other day I wrote about the scoops of mud that the scientists brought on board to look for worms and other creatures that live in the sediment at the bottom of the fjord.
Today they’ve been taking mud cores – cylindrical samples of the sediment going down about 30cm into the seabed.
I watched in the aptly-named wet lab as the sloppy cores were brought through and then carefully sliced into sections from the top of the mud layer to the bottom.
Why? Because the mud could be part of the climate story. And the story picks up where I left off yesterday.
All life on Earth contains carbon. Plankton – tiny plants – absorb it to make energy and build their body structure, and that carbon is passed through the food chain.
When the creatures die their bodies are scavenged on the sea bed and are ultimately buried in the sediment, along with the carbon they contain.
The key question is, how deep does that carbon have to be buried in the sediment before it is locked away?
That’s what Dave Barnes is studying.
He told me that once the carbon-containing debris is below the level that oxygen can penetrate – down into the “smelly” layer, as he described it – the carbon can’t make its way back into the atmosphere.
That’s good news for the climate.
He wonders whether it’s possible to put a ‘value’ on capturing and storing all that carbon.
In the current climate crisis there has been lots of talk of carbon being captured from power stations and heavy industry, and stored underground.
The technology is expensive and as a result has only been used on a small scale.
But nature does it too, for free.
Dave believes the seabed in Antarctica probably does a better job of it than the rainforests.
Which makes it all the more essential to keep the seabed here undisturbed.
Icebergs in the shallows plough through the sediment, stirring up the carbon.
There’s not much you can do about that.
But you can protect the seabed in deeper water, he says, by preventing fishing or mining on the bottom, both of which would release the trapped carbon back into the atmosphere.
Which is interesting.
Antarctica, long seen as a victim of climate change, could also be part of the fix.
If we protect it.
16 January Day 18 – From humpbacks to krill, this place is teeming with life
There is an extraordinary amount of life in the shadow of the Sheldon Glacier.
At the eastern end two humpbacks were feeding on krill, shrimp-like crustaceans about the size of your pinky.
We first saw their blows in the distance, just beyond a blue-tinted iceberg, their broad backs arching through the water.
Then, one after the other, they lifted their tail flukes and slipped beneath the surface. Time and again they did it, circling the ship before heading out of the fjord.
Seals are abundant too. At one point we could see a bob of them on a dozen bergy bits – sometimes just a couple, sometimes five or six.
Three were resting on a lump of ice that drifted against the ship, so close we could see their whiskers. But the wildlife here is so unfazed by humans that they stayed put.
To have so many big animals around is a sure sign of a healthy food chain.
Amber Annett, one of the scientists on board, has been in Antarctica several times – on one occasion overwintering at the Rothera research station.
She told me that the water here can be as green as pea-soup in the spring because it’s so thick with plankton, the tiny marine plants that are the bottom of the food chain.
And the reason why the plankton do so well lies in the surround rocks.
They contain lots of iron, which is ground into a powder by the immense weight of the glacier and washed out into the fjord. The iron is a fertiliser for the plankton – which is why they thrive.
She’s studying how far the plume of iron spreads from the glacier. It seems to drop off quite sharply – iron doesn’t dissolve well in seawater.
So not much of the fertiliser makes it out into the open ocean, and you don’t get anywhere near the same plankton “bloom” out there.
It begs the obvious question: could you artificially fertilise the oceans with iron to stimulate the growth of plankton, sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere?
Well, clearly you could. But according to Amber not on the scale you would need to fix the climate.
15 January Day 17 – In the big picture, these bizarre looking worms matter
We’ve got life on board our ship, but it’s not as you know it.
Buried in a sample of mud extracted from the seabed 370m below us were dozens of marine worms.
They looked nothing like the worms you’d find in your garden.
Some were flat, with dozens of “legs” for moving around the sea bed.
Others were long and thin.
But the one that caused the most interest was a priapulida.
It’s named after Priapus, the Greek god of fertility.
And it doesn’t take long to work out why.
Finding the worms is a mucky process.
Spadefuls of mud are tipped into a sieve and the dirt is hosed off to reveal the creatures within.
The hi-vis jacket and trousers combo issued to all of us when we joined the ship look a little less day-glo by the end of the operation.
Some marine worms are predators, snatching anything that wanders too close.
Others feed on “marine snow”, organic matter and detritus that falls from the water above.
Carlos Muñoz, one of the Chilean scientists on board, is looking at the diversity of the worms.
It seems that the variety of species diminishes the closer you get to the glaciers here in Antarctica.
They’re retreating of course, exposing new areas of the fjord bottom as they do so.
To start with the seabed is just rocks that have been freshly scoured by the ice.
So the first colonisers are the worms that can attach to hard surfaces.
Only when the sediment builds up over several decades would the burrowers make an appearance.
Scientists don’t know how the scavangers in the mud will be affected by climate change.
A lot of attention is given to Antarctica’s penguins, whales and seals.
But marine worms help to lock up carbon deep in the sediment so it can’t escape back into the atmosphere, where it would add to global warming.
So in the big picture they matter, however bizarre they look.
Day 16 – Elephant seals are the winners so far in changing climate
Confession: elephant seals are not my favourite animal.
They smell, snort and snore. They’re bellicose. And you really don’t want to get in their way.
The seals hauled out in Rothera are only juveniles, but they still weigh a couple of tonnes.
There are more than normal slumped on the roads around the research station this year.
Sometimes they’re on their own, fast asleep, looking uncannily like rocks. A trip hazard for the unwary.
But more often than not they mass in a pile of bodies.
I’m reminded of them because I’ve been editing a podcast that includes a conversation I had just five metres from one such group with Simon Morely, a marine biologist at British Antarctic Survey.
He told me they haul out while they undergo a “catastrophic moult” – their skin falls off in sheets over a period of three weeks or so and they can’t go in the water until it’s renewed.
It looked an itchy process – they would rub themselves on the ground and occasionally use their tiny flippers to scratch their sides.
They’re all young males and they’re learning the skills they need to be beachmasters – the six-tonne monsters that defend their harem of far smaller females against intruders.
Their fights are extraordinary pugilistic affairs, rearing up and then slamming their head – and teeth – into the necks of their opponent, often drawing blood.
Simon said elephant seals seem to be winners so far in the changing climate. The sea ice is forming later and melting earlier, leaving the seals with more of the open water they need to hunt for fish and squid.
But so much of the Antarctic food chain depends on krill, tiny shrimp-like creatures, and they need ice early in their lives to shelter and feed on small organisms.
So the krill is moving south to colder water as the Antarctic Peninsula warms.
The rest of the food chain may have to follow – scientists just don’t know.
Day 15 – Bergy bits and growlers show how active the glacier is
We’ve arrived at Sheldon Glacier, a majestic slab of ice that cascades down to Marguerite Bay.
Despite Rothera still being visible to our rear, the area has been surprisingly overlooked in the past. The sea bottom was surveyed only last year.
And I couldn’t find anyone on board who knew how big or how high the glacier was.
But with some smart mapping techniques Kate Retallick of the University of Bangor was able to tell me that the catchment area for the glacier – where it picks up it’s snow and ice – stretches 198 square kilometres.
And the front of the glacier undulates between 10 and 45 metres above the water surface.
Kate uses the echoes from sound waves to map the seafloor – it’s fascinating, and more of that later in the week.
But she was able to use her data to tell me that the glacier was resting on the sea bed at a depth of up to 200m.
So the ice front is huge, a towering wall. And it’s retreated by 2.5km in 50 years.
It’s tricky to film the ice in the flat light we have at the moment – it really needs sunshine to give the it texture.
It’s even trickier to film ice tumbling into the water. It’s down to luck whether the camera is pointing in the right direction.
David, my camera operator, just missed what one of the ship’s crew later said was the biggest calving he had ever seen.
The James Clark Ross, which was several hundred metres away, was rocked by the waves.
But we’re going to be here for a few days while scientists take samples of water, sediment and marine life.
And judging by the number of bergy bits and growlers in the bay, Sheldon is quite active.
So we will get another chance.
Day 14 – Science is finally under way on our floating laboratory
There’s a buzz around the ship.
After more than a week spent unloading supplies for the Rothera research station – which has been frustrating for scientists, eager to crack on – the James Clark Ross shifted position to drop a string of instruments into the water.
They’ll measure the sea temperature, salinity, currents and turbulence over the next year to give scientists a handle on what’s going on several hundred metres below the waves.
Over a cup of tea Mike Meredith, one of the senior scientists on board, gave me a run down on why the data was important.
He recently published a paper which led to a complete rethink on what’s driving the warming on the Antarctic Peninsula, the long finger of land that stretches up towards South America.
It had been assumed that the glaciers round here were melting from above because of rising air temperature.
But Mike and his colleagues showed that it’s actually being driven by warm seawater being pushed up onto the continental shelf and underneath the glaciers that stretch out over Antarctica’s fjords.
So it turns out that warm water is melting the ice from below.
The string of instruments we put in the water will give scientists a more precise measure of what’s going on in the Marguerite Trough, a deep scar on the seabed that channels warm water towards the Sheldon Glacier.
The glacier has retreated by around 2.5km since 1969 and we will spend the next few days intensively studying the area.
From midnight the scientists split into shifts for round-the-clock work, sampling water at various depths, mapping the contours of the seabed and assessing the impact of the retreating ice on creatures that live on the sea bottom.
Some will have different shifts each day – sometimes several short shifts every day.
I’m told it’s like permanent jet lag.
11 January Day 13 – Flying into dark clouds
It would be foolhardy to fly a small plane into a dark cloud in the UK. But here in Antarctica pilots seek them out.
They call it “water sky”, a name that originates from the days of explorers like Ernest Shackleton.
He noticed that reflections off the ice made clouds whiter than those over water.
And there are times when it’s safer to fly over water.
As any skier knows, when it’s overcast it can be hard to see bumps.
And in cloudy, low-contrast conditions in Antarctica the unwary can fly into the ground.
The featureless landscape of the continent’s interior – the “great white desert” – can rise from sea level to 6,000ft (almost 2000m). Pilots need to keep a constant eye on their altitude.
David Landy has been flying in Antarctica for three years. I met him in Rothera’s hanger as his dark red Flying Otter was being stripped down and checked over by engineers.
The twin-propeller Otter is the workhorse of British Antarctic Survey, not just carrying out aerial surveys and atmospheric science, but flying teams and their equipment around stations and field sites up to 1000 miles away.
Think London to Moscow. It’s a vast area and there are fuel depots – drums, inevitably buried in snow – along the way.
David’s plane was fitted with a combination of traditional wheels and skis for coping with the snow, ice or gravel runways.
He tells me hair-raising tales of landing in areas that humans may never have visited before.
On his first pass he scouts for cracks and bumps. Then he lightly brushes the plane’s skis over the surface, loops round and returns along the same line to check whether he has exposed hidden crevasses.
Only then does he commit the weight of the aircraft, taking care to land on exactly the same ski marks he made before.
He says it’s best to have “a plan C, D and E” because the weather can change so rapidly.
Fuel depots are two to three hours apart and planes can be diverted.
Even then pilots sometimes get caught out.
David was recently sent to pick up a team studying meteorites near the Hudson Mountains, but got stranded by bad weather at a fuel depot. All he could do was tie the plane down with snow anchors and sit it out for three days.
Fortunately the planes carry survival gear and food to feed a team of four for a week.
The pilots who’ve been in Antarctica for many years have seen significant changes to the landscape as the climate warms.
Areas that were once safe to land on are now heavily crevassed. And mountains that were white have turned black as the melting snow has exposed the underlying rock.
“The impression is that things are changing and melting out,” David tells me.
10 January Day 12 – Everyone and everything is accounted for
For good reason the ‘Ops’ or Operations Tower is called the “heart of Rothera”.
It rises above the other buildings on the research station. From here you can look out in every direction, from one end of the 900m runway to the other, and beyond. On a clear day you can see mountain peaks 50 miles away.
And what the AGROs – the Air-Ground Radio Operators – can’t see, they hear.
Their job is far bigger than just controlling take-offs and landings.
They’re in regular radio contact with aircraft as they hop between ‘blue ice’ runways up to 1000 miles away.
There’s no radar down here, so pilots confirm all is well as they pass ‘standard reporting points’.
On the wall there’s a large map of Western Antarctica, all the way down to the US research base McMurdo, with moveable icons for the Dash-7 and four Twin Otter aircraft, as well as our ship the James Clark Ross.
The half-dozen science teams in remote areas of the ice are also marked.
Everyone and everything is accounted for. If there’s an emergency this is where it’s managed.
Emma and Alex were on shift when I climbed up the tower.
They were unflustered by the barrage of radio requests to cross the runway, weather reports phoned through from field teams, and contacts from pilots.
An important part of their job is the ‘scheds’ every evening – scheduled calls with remote teams.
We had one earlier in the week when we were camping on the ice.
It’s a 10-minute slot in which the AGROs check all is well.
They pass on world news, football scores, and updates on activity around Rothera. There might even be a quiz.
For the remote teams it’s healthy contact with the outside world. They look forward to it.
For the AGROs it’s a chance to assess the teams’ well-being.
If they’ve been confined to their tents for several days by bad weather, morale is likely to dip.
Antarctica can be hostile, even in summer – and a bit of TLC from the mothership can help with the hardship.
9 January Day 11 – The water is warmer than the air
In the winter, when the sea freezes over, Antarctica is a very different place.
Above the ice it is a desolate, monochrome world. Ice and rock.
But in the water below it is a riot of life and colour.
Few have seen it. But Zoe Waring and Nadescha Zwerschke have.
They’re marine biologists at the Rothera research station, and they spent the winter down here.
They told me what it’s like diving under the ice. And it sounds a magical experience.
First-off they cut a hole in the sea ice with a chain saw. Not easy when it’s a metre thick.
You would imagine that plunging into the water would be hell.
But it’s a lot warmer than the air, so protected by a dry suit and a full face mask they insisted it’s not so bad.
The view under the water is ample distraction from the chill.
A eerie blue light penetrates through the ceiling of sea ice.
It illuminates starfish, sea urchins, anemones, sea spiders, and lots more down on the sea bed.
Life is abundant and diverse. And big.
The cold Antarctic waters contain much more oxygen, so animals grow much larger. Creatures that might be thumb-nail sized in the UK can grow to dinner plate size down here.
The divers collect some creatures to study close up in the aquarium.
One of the experiments they are running is on their tolerance of warming water.
In other parts of the world marine life is used to big seasonal fluctuations in temperature.
But in Antarctica the water is consistently cold. It varies little through the year.
The creatures are perfectly adapted to the sub-zero temperatures – some of the fish have anti-freeze in their blood.
But scientists are concerned that some marine species may not be able to adapt to climate change fast enough.
They take a long time to reproduce, potentially slowing down their ability to evolve.
So what, some might say. Adapt or die.
But the loss of biodiversity is on our watch.
And surely, when life has triumphed against the odds in such a harsh environment, that has to give you pause for thought.
7 January Day ten – Camping, sheepskins and ‘man food’
You don’t have to go far from Rothera to get a sense of just how vulnerable you are in the Antarctic wilderness.
I hopped in the cab of an ageing Sno-Cat, a beast of a machine that takes on ice at impossible angles, to drive a few miles up on to glacier.
At the wheel was Mike Brian, the research station’s leader.
And in the back were a couple of recently arrived scientists and bundles of camping equipment.
This was a training exercise for the scientists, who are soon flying to a remote part of the continent to study ice quakes.
And I was joining in. Our first ever night on the ice.
Mike used to be a field guide, essentially an expert who is assigned to groups of scientists to ensure their safety in the harsh environment, so we were in good hands.
Our camp was in a beautiful spot, just below the jagged spine of Reptile Ridge and overlooking a stretch of water strewn with icebergs.
Mike showed us how to pitch our bright orange pyramid tents. They weigh around 30kg and have four long wooden poles, but the design has been perfected over time to withstand the ferocious Antarctic winds.
The bedding is also tried and tested. To insulate ourselves on the ice we were given a wooden board, a foam mat, an inflatable mattress and a sheepskin.
On top of that we unrolled a double-thickness down sleeping bag and a fleece liner.
Mike has slept in temperatures of minus 35 – far colder than it was for us.
We also had with us a box of ‘man-food’.
That’s not intended as a gender reference. It’s a hangover from the days when they used dogs to haul sledges in the Antarctic and had to make sure provisions were clearly labelled.
Our menu included ‘biscuits brown’ topped with tasteless tinned cheese, rice with shredded beef (full disclosure: we cheated and brought fresh meat from the base kitchen) and a selection of dense, but not unpleasant, vacuum-packed slices of cake.
In all honesty it wasn’t the best night’s sleep. It was certainly warm enough, but the wind picked up, rattling the tent.
Scientists can spend weeks or even months camping on the ice.
I’d get used to the tent and the food. But I’d really miss a hot shower.
7 January Day nine – A harsh and unpredictable environment
Rothera, Britain’s base on Antarctica, is a construction site.
Work will shortly start on a polar science building. But for now the effort is in finishing the extended wharf for the Sir David Attenborough, the new British Antarctic survey ship that could be heading down here in a year or so.
The contractors, BAM, shipped 4,500 tonnes of plant equipment and materials down here last year including a couple of huge cranes.
They are lifting steel sections that have been manufactured as a kit from parts in the UK and then shipped out for assembly.
The workers are on target for completion at the beginning of April, which is remarkable given the challenges of working in a harsh and unpredictable environment.
Martha McGowan, senior project manager for BAM, told me there are just 26 weeks over the spring, summer and autumn when the site can operate.
Last year, they lost just under three and a half of those.
Some of the lost time was due to high winds or large waves making work in and around the water dangerous.
But the location has some more unusual hazards. Icebergs drift close by – their immense bulk an obvious crush risk.
As for the divers in the water, there is the threat of orcas, or killer whales, and leopard seals.
Martha said the animals are curious and can come close, but a marine biologist snorkelling in the shallows here a few years back was drowned by a leopard seal – so they take no chances.
A spotter stands the sea for signs of activity before the divers are allowed in the water.
And if any potential predators enter the bay, the divers are hauled out for two hours after the all-clear. Even when the wharf is completed, the job is not done.
Under the Antarctic Treaty no construction waste can be left behind in Rothera.
Everything will have to be shipped to the Falklands or the UK.
Tidy builders indeed!
6 January Day eight – One of the most rapidly warming places on the planet
Helium balloons have a nasty habit of slipping out of children’s grasping fingers and heading for the heavens. Cue tears.
So it seems a sensible precaution that the grown-up meteorologists of Rothera inflate their bigger and more expensive helium-filled weather balloons inside a container.
Even then, Hannah Walker admitted, as we crouched on the floor tying a knot in the balloon’s neck, that she has sometimes let go too soon and had to retrieve it from the ceiling.
But our launch went without a hitch.
At ground level weather balloons are an arm-span across.
But they rise rapidly through the atmosphere, expanding as the air gets thinner until they are the size of a double-decker bus.
Eventually, at 29km (18miles) or so, even the most elastic latex cannot stretch any more and they burst, plummeting back to Earth.
The balloon rots away in time, but it seems out-of-step in these plastic-aware times that the box of electronics that dangles underneath cannot be made out of something less damaging to the pristine environment of Antarctica.
But that aside, the weather balloon provides an extraordinary snapshot of the atmosphere.
Temperature, humidity and air pressure are checked every second and transmitted back to the ground – helping meteorologists to improve weather forecasts.
But because balloons have been launched from Rothera for decades, the data tracks the changing climate.
Hannah is an atmospheric scientist at the British Antarctic Survey base.
She told me that the temperature at ground level has increased between 2 and 2.9C over the last 60 years.
That makes the Antarctic Peninsula one of the most rapidly warming places on the planet.
The cause is the surrounding ocean.
For decades it has been absorbing much of the heat that stems from our greenhouse gas emissions.
Now it is giving it back, like a vast radiator.
The western side of the Antarctic is taking the brunt.
The enormous ice sheets are melting.
And the seas are rising.
5 January Day seven – Stay five metres away from wildlife
I’m quickly learning that you don’t make hard plans in Antarctica.
Everything is weather dependent – and the weather changes fast.
What had been forecast to be overnight rain turned out to be heavy snow.
By 7am a good 10cm (4in) covered our ship, the James Clark Ross, and it was still falling.
Visibility was poor, filming conditions abysmal.
But with our time limited here at Rothera – the ship is resupplying the station for the next few days – we caught an early morning cargo tender over to the jetty.
Hopes of filming were pretty much abandoned, so we joined a series of induction sessions: one on life at Rothera, another on aircraft safety in case we manage to blag a ride on one of the Twin Otters that fly between British Antarctic Survey’s bases, and finally a survival session for camping on the ice.
So, a few tips I learned today.
Stay at least five metres away from the wildlife. Particularly the elephant seals. They’re enormous, have no fear of humans and flop down for a doze right next to the buildings.
Rothera is really hot on saving energy (every drop of fuel has taken several drops of fuel to get here, we’re told) and recycling (46 different waste streams, from aerosols to DVDs).
And those living on base can get free toothpaste, shampoo and sanitary products from a store, but not deodorant – apparently, it’s not considered essential.
In truth, a lot of thought has gone into making Rothera as homely as possible. Many people stay here for several months; the “over-winterers” even longer.
So there’s the Ikea lounge, so-named because of the flat-pack furniture, where eight members of the knitting club were in full clickety clack.
In another building there’s a cardio gym, with a weights room that doubles as a storage area – from floor to ceiling – for boxes and boxes of sugar. There’s motivation.
And for entertainment there is a cinema room, a hill for skiing and what must surely be the world’s most southerly cycle club, Seals on Wheels.
Sadly, there are no spare beds on the base. So many scientists pass through in the short summer season that we’ve had to come back to the JCR to sleep.
Tomorrow we go ashore again in the hope we can start filming.
It’s forecast to be a clear day. But there are no guarantees.
4 January Day six – My first Antarctic iceberg
I saw my first Antarctic iceberg just after 5 o’clock his morning, a huge frozen slab looming out of the mist.
It must have been 3-400 metres long and 30-odd high. But it’s impossible to be sure without something to give it scale.
Up on the monkey island, the observation deck at the top of the ship, there was a huddle of people gawping at the scenery.
It was barely 3 degrees, the wind was whistling through the wires, and there were flurries of snow.
In other words, bitter.
But there were still plenty of excited faces as we finally saw the steep mountains of Adelaide Island, our destination.
Dr Matt Warner, of the British Antarctic Medical Unit, said he felt dwarfed by the scenery.
“It’s been a long journey to get here. You feel like you’re at the end of the Earth. It’s a beautiful place,” he told me.
But Antarctica is more than just the scenery. It’s a utopia, where nations work together and the environment is carefully preserved.
“It’s almost like a blank page, where we can start again and learn the lessons for the rest of our planet. It represents hope,” he said.
Tom Gillum Webb, an engineer on the James Clark Ross (JCR), said the scenery brought home what’s at stake with climate change.
“It’s quite difficult to think anything other than we might have gone too far already.
“But you just have to hope that there is a chance we can do something about it.”
3 January Day five – Dodging the ‘bergy bits’ and ‘growlers’
We’re well into the ice-risk zone now.
Past 60 degrees south, the chances of encountering icebergs that have broken off from the vast Antarctic ice shelves is much higher.
And that means the crew have to be particularly vigilant.
I spent some time on the bridge – the ship’s nerve centre – with Scott and Mark as they came off a four-hour shift.
Scott’s a Geordie and Mark’s a Scot. When on watch it’s their responsibility to navigate and keep the James Clark Ross safe.
They have to look out for ships and whales. But ice is the biggest worry this far south.
Even though the ship has an extra thick hull, running into a sizeable lump at our speed of 10.5 knots (12mph) would cause considerable damage.
“We give everything a wide berth, at least one nautical mile,” Scott tells me. “You just don’t know what’s underneath.”.
They also try to pass upwind because large icebergs leave a trail of ‘bergy bits’, lumps of ice between one and five metres above sea level, and ‘growlers’ which are below one metre.
But even a growler can be the size of a lorry.
Although there is a sensitive radar on board to spot hazards, it’s not reliable if the ice is low in the water or if the sea is rough. So they both keep their eyes peeled.
There are times when they have to navigate through sea ice. Where possible they follow cracks or ‘leads’ in the ice because it’s easier going.
But the JCR can punch through ice a metre thick – if it’s younger than a year old and still relatively soft.
“It’s loud,” says Mark. “It can be exciting, once you get used to it and can sleep, which takes a couple of days. It’s crunching and grinding 24/7.”
They both have total respect for the explorers of the past, who ventured into the ice in small wooden ships with no means of calling for help if they got stuck.
Remember what happened to Shackleton’s ship Endurance in 1915? Crushed and sunk in the Weddell Sea.
“I take my hat off to them,” Mark says of the first explorers.
“It must have taken some effort to get to where we are. Especially with the amount of ice they would have had back then.”
2 January Day four – Cooking up a storm in choppy seas
It’s getting rougher as we head south. The James Clark Ross (JCR) is now rolling so much that people are being thrown across the room. Yet somehow the three course meals keep on coming.
They’re all made from scratch too – no microwave dinners here.
The galley team is led by Victoria. She’s been on board almost a year and has perfected a way of bracing herself so she can safely use a knife, even when the ship is rocking violently from side to side.
It’s tough on the legs though, she tells me.
When the weather’s rough she does change the menu. No point making a quiche if it’s going to slop all over the oven.
There are some set meals to help people mark the passage of time in such a remote place: fish Friday, fake-away Saturday and roast Sunday. But otherwise the menu is varied and nutritionally balanced. It’s a world away from the grim rations of the early Antarctic explorers.
Before joining the JCR, Victoria spent 15 months in the kitchen of Halley, a research station on a remote Antarctic ice sheet.
She over-wintered with a dozen others and came to understand how important mealtimes can be.
When people are far from home, particularly at special times of the year, food bonds people together. “It’s like cooking for friends,” she says.
It was down in Halley that she learned how to keep food fresh for long periods.
The polar atmosphere is extremely dry, so as long as there is air circulating around the crates of fruit and veg it doesn’t rot.
She also freezes garlic and ginger, and just grates what she needs. Ingredients are precious when you can’t pop down to the shops to buy some more.
But most remarkable of all is her technique of turning eggs every day to make them last.
At Halley she kept them edible all the way through the polar winter from March to October.
And if you’ve got eggs, you’ve got cakes. Lots of cakes. “People gain weight and then moan at us,” she laughs.
1 January Day three – Our ship sings!
It’s a long, tuneful call, not unlike a whale. And to hear it you have to go deep down into the cargo holds of the James Clark Ross (JCR).
Rising above the sound of waves rushing against the thick ice-hardened hull, you can hear the anti-rolling tanks at work.
They’re a system of valves and vacuums that push tonnes of water from one side of the ship to the other to help stabilise us in the increasingly large Southern Ocean swell. And the sound is incredibly soothing.
Simon Wallace, the chief officer, who took me down into the cargo holds laughed when I asked what it would be like if the system wasn’t working. “You’d really notice it,” he said.
The ship is “tender”, not “stiff” as I said in my first post (the nautical lexicon can be confusing for landlubbers!) which means the ship has a natural tendency to roll.
Simon is responsible for squeezing the containers, crates, boxes and bags into all the available space on deck and down below.
The JCR is more than just a floating laboratory for the scientists on board. It’s the lifeline for British Antarctic Survey’s stations on the continent.
So we have two tonnes of refrigerated fruit and veg, more than 30 tonnes of frozen food and several large containers of dried goods.
But that’s just the start. There are diggers, snowmobiles, wheel barrows, pallets of cement, and much much more. About 450 tonnes in all.
Much of it will be unloaded when we get to Rothera, BAS’s main station on the Antarctic Peninsula.
And when that’s done, Simon and the deck crew will help scientists with their work, craning heavy sampling devices off the side of the ship to monitor the impact of the changing climate on the oceans and the life within.
The days are long and the working conditions sometimes brutally cold. But he says it’s still the best job he’s ever had.
“When I first came here I was, like most people, concerned about getting the job done,” he told me. “But as you talk with scientists you get more involved. It becomes really motivating.
“I have never met a scientist who says climate change isn’t happening. It is real and what we are doing here is fundamental to our understanding of it so we can better educate ourselves and other people in ways to stop it from happening.”
31 December Day two – The journey begins
We slipped our moorings just after sunrise, manoeuvring past an enormous American icebreaker, then heading out into the Strait of Magellan and the South Atlantic.
It wasn’t long before we picked up an escort of Southern Giant Petrels, huge hook-billed seabirds that are also known as the vultures of the Antarctic. They’re scavengers and, unusually for birds, they have an excellent sense of smell.
They circled the James Clark Ross, gliding past us on their two-metre wingspans, then looping over the bow and racing back down the other side.
At the stern they would occasionally dive into our wake, almost certainly feeding on fish that had been churned up by the propellers.
Later we were joined by several black and white Commerson’s dolphin, which darted around the hull, trying to ride our bow wave.
The scientists watching with us on “Monkey Island”, the name given to the ship’s observation deck, were just as mesmerised as we were.
So far, the sea has been relatively calm. But once we clear Cape Horn in the next few hours we’ll feel the force of the Southern Ocean’s rollers.
Everything is lashed down on deck and inside. Filming the marine life may well be the last thing on our minds.
30 December Day one – Excitement over what lies ahead
The wind’s picking up in Punta Arenas and that’s not good news for our voyage south to Antarctica.
We have to cross the Drake Passage, 700 miles of notoriously rough water where the Southern Ocean is squeezed between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Captain’s predicting four-metre waves – almost the height of a double-decker bus.
The good news, he tells me, is that the James Clark Ross is a “stiff” ship, so the roll isn’t too bad.
But we’ve come prepared with pills, patches, ginger and acupressure bands. Hopefully one of those will settle our stomachs and keep us upright.
The journey is going to be cramped. Scientists and support staff that should have flown on the Dash 7 that also shuttles between Chile and the British Antarctic Survey bases are hitching a ride.
The aircraft is currently marooned at a remote field station on the ice awaiting a spare part and an engineer.
So every bunk is taken, they’re working out a second sitting for meals and we’ve stashed some of our kit in the linen cupboard because space is at such a premium.
But put all that aside because there is a buzz on board the ship.
Antarctica gets under your skin – so for first-timers and the returners, there is huge excitement over what lies ahead.
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