Laura Paterson

Way down south

14 August 2013

The Met Office has had a long-standing involvement with scientific research on Antarctica. Here, Laura Paterson, Met Office Forecaster, describes her work with the British Antarctic Survey at its largest Research Base, Rothera.

2012 marked the 100th anniversary of Captain Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated expedition to reach the South Pole. Scott and his men perished on their infamous return to their camp after reaching the Pole on 18 January 1912, only to discover that Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian polar explorer, and his men had beaten them there by merely 33 days.

But Scott's expedition was not one purely focussed on exploration and the ambition to reach the South Pole. It was a primarily a scientific mission to collect data from the little known continent of Antarctica, and the team's dedication to science undoubtedly inhibited their safe return. Scientific data captured during Scott's expedition provided the first real knowledge about Antarctic weather, geology and glacier movement and the data his team collected is still used today in cutting-edge climate change and environmental science.

Penguins

The Met Office has had a long-standing involvement with scientific research on Antarctica - not only providing the instrumentation used to conduct the meteorological observations on the expeditions, but Scott's team of meteorologists also included George Simpson - later the Director of the Met Office from 1920 to 1938.

Even now, the Met Office provides forecasters to work with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) each year at its largest Research Base, Rothera - and in 2012 they let me go!

I have now returned from spending three months at Rothera on the Antarctic Peninsula forecasting for all BAS operations. The area BAS works across extends from the South Pole to South America and is comparable to the size of Europe. BAS fly long distances on a daily basis in a part of the world that sees the most ferocious climate on earth, so there was a lot of weather to keep my eye on!

A day in the life of an Antarctic weather forecaster is long, and not just because the sun never sets! I started around 5 am every morning and could be called upon at any time until flying stopped for that day, which could be as late as midnight! Sometimes it could feel pretty relentless.

A day in the life of an Antarctic weather forecaster is long, and not just because the sun never sets!

In the mornings I would deliver a daily Met Brief to the Air Unit, quickly followed by a trip up to the Air Traffic Control Tower to brief all BAS aircraft across Antarctica over high-frequency radio. Plans can change at short notice throughout the day depending on the situation so I would really need to keep on top of things in order to optimise weather windows for their operations.

Plane in Antarctica

The afternoons usually allowed some rest time if all was going to plan, unless an inbound flight had declared 'PNR' when I would be required for more briefings. Declaring 'PNR' meant that the plane had reached its 'Point of no Return' and no longer had enough fuel to divert to anywhere other than our own base. You'd have to be pretty confident in your forecast to be happy for them to declare PNR, because if the weather suddenly changed, there would be nowhere else for them to land.

Later in the afternoon I would give a planning brief to the Chief Pilot and Field Operations Manager in order to decide on aircraft movements for the following few days. When working with BAS you really feel like you are an integral part of the planning team, which makes the job incredibly rewarding.

Of course the weather also makes it pretty interesting at times! Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on earth, and aviation forecasting has some very different requirements on these uncharted grounds compared to the runways of the civilized world.

Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on earth, and aviation forecasting has some very different requirements on these uncharted grounds compared to the runways of the civilized world.

One base I visited was called Sky Blu. At 75° South and at over 5,000 feet high it was one of the most challenging sites to forecast for. When I visited it was minus 25 °C, with 30 mph winds and heavy drifting snow. The runway there is on Blue Ice, a natural surface created by the constant strong winds in the area that blows fresh snow away, leaving a flat icy sheet. It looks and feels just like an ice rink, so much so that they even have ice skates there for recreation. This does however make it difficult to land the plane and pretty risky even just to step out of the plane.

Antarctica

Some of the aircraft land on ski's instead of wheels and can land all across Antarctica on any flat safe surface they see from the air. This however requires sunshine to give some contrast and definition to the flat white ground in order to spot dangerous crevasses that would be unsafe to land near. All in all it's some of the most interesting work I have ever done.

It's not all work though, especially now that BAS aim to have two forecasters around for the busiest part of the season. Base life is fun and sociable with plenty of activities right on your doorstep. In my three months I learnt to snowboard in the nearby area; there's no chair lift here though, just a ride on the back of a skidoo. I was able to abseil into crevasses seeing an incredible array of turquoise ice crystals that constantly change with the moving ice sheet. I went on frequent boat trips seeing wildlife that people pay thousands to see. Adelie penguins and a variety of seals and whales are all residents of Ryder Bay and can sometimes put on quite a show.

Seal I also helped with some of BAS's research in my free time, hunting for mushrooms on the neighbouring Islands, and collecting water samples from around the bay for the marine team. I was even lucky enough to stay a night out on one of these islands by a campfire surrounded by snowy mountains, glaciers and icebergs, with only a few friends and the resident Elephant Seals for company.

But one of the most special things about being at Rothera is getting the chance to co-pilot flights around Antarctica in the most spectacular scenery I could ever have imaged to witness. One of our flights involved flying only a couple of hundred feet off the ground around giant icebergs that had been refrozen into the new sea ice. That is something I'll remember forever and makes the pain of the 5 am starts utterly forgettable.

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