05/12/2016 12:18 GMT | Updated 06/12/2017 05:12 GMT

The Antarctic Field Season Begins, But Why Should We Care?


The vast, glittering and untameable continent of Antarctica has fascinated me since I was a young girl. As a geologist interested in what rocks and fossils can tell us about the Earth's climate in the past, I spent many months there, either in tent camps in deep field or in one of the British Antarctic Survey's research stations.

It is at this time of year - the beginning of summer in the southern hemisphere, the "austral summer" - that our team of world class scientists, engineers and support staff start arriving in Antarctica eager to get going with another season of research and exploration.

They will be searching for the oldest ice on earth, which will give us a window onto the earth's climate 1.5 million years ago. They will study the "boundary layer" between the ice and ground to gauge how easy it is for glaciers to slip into the ocean and so raise sea levels everywhere. They will drill bore holes through the ice with hot-water drills, collect images with ground-penetrating radar, and use GPS satellite data to measure the changes in ice thickness, which might indicate the imminent collapse of an ice shelf.


This year is a particularly exciting year for the British Antarctic Survey, as we prepare to move the Halley VI Research Station 23 km across the ice. This is the first time that the station, which has a re-locatable design to cope with life on a floating ice shelf, has been moved since it was towed from its construction site to its present location in 2012.

The station sits on Antarctica's 150 m thick Brunt Ice Shelf. This floating ice shelf flows at a rate of 0.4 km per year west towards the sea where, at irregular intervals, it calves off as icebergs. Halley is crucial to studies into globally important issues including the impacts of extreme space weather events (which cause billions of dollars in economic losses every year), climate change, and atmospheric phenomena. It was scientific investigations from this location that led to the discovery of the Antarctic Ozone Hole in 1985.

For although Antarctica may be at the end of the Earth, what happens there affects us all. Understanding how the Earth works, and in particular how it is responding to ever-increasing human pressures, is one of science's greatest challenges.

We now know that things happen in the Polar regions faster than anywhere else on Earth, so Antarctica is an early-warning system for changing conditions across the whole planet. When the ozone hole was discovered, our data provided an early warning of the damage being done to the ozone layer worldwide. It paved the way for international action and the signing of the 1978 Montreal Protocol, safeguarding life on our planet.

Today, the threat to life on earth is just as serious, as last year's Paris climate talks highlighted. We have already entered a period of unprecedented climate change. Earlier this year scientists declared the dawn of a new geological period, the Anthropocene epoch, signified by the impact of human activity on earth. It is the first time in the history of the universe that humankind has held the tiller controlling the destiny of Planet Earth.


Given this uncomfortable truth, our role is to equip policy makers and Governments with the very best scientific data available, to enable them to make decisions about how we can adapt to climate change and hopefully avert some of the worst scenarios.

This is why our teams of more than 500 scientists, engineers and support staff will spend the next few months living and working in some of the most remote and inhospitable conditions on earth, travelling over land, sea and ice in search of answers to some of the most pressing questions about the Earth's southernmost continent and its effect on our world.

Our ambition is to address scientific questions that affect the entire planet and the lives of the individuals on it. The answers to these questions will deliver real benefits to society and underpin national and international policies that will impact the future of planet Earth.

Professor Jane Francis is director of the British Antarctic Survey