Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Britain’s Antarctic future

Jane Francis with penguins Jane Francis with penguins BAS
24 Jun
Geographical talks to Jane Francis, director of the British Antarctic Survey, about the organisation’s future plans for exploration

For over sixty years, the British Antarctic Survey has led scientific research in Antarctica from Cambridge. With over 400 staff and five research stations, the organisation has an annual budget for 2014–2015 of £50.4million. With £12million spent on the science programme, and £38.3million on organisational support.

Jane Francis has been BAS director since 2013, and won the Polar Medal in 2002. Before being appointed BAS director, she was Professor of Palaeoclimatology at the University of Leeds:

We’re working on a new internal plan. Our mission has expanded from just working in Antarctica to also working in the Arctic, where Antarctic expertise can also be applied.

We also have one of our geoscientists in the Himalayas looking at using the best equipment to estimate the volume of water in the glaciers, which are important water resources for the region.

Our expanded role came about through recognising that the scientific and organisational skills our people have cover both Poles, and that the scientific goals are not restricted to one region. We are in the process of writing a strategy for the future.

In Antarctica, a major topic will be looking at the impact of climate change on ice sheets. At the moment we have projects looking at the Pine Island glacier. We have a big project called iStar looking at West Antarctica, which has one of the fastest melting glaciers at the moment. We have two field teams there, and we hope to expand these teams to look at the ice shelves. What’s happening is that the global oceans are warming and melting the ice shelves from below.

We are using tractor trains more now. This is something that was used many years ago, but was replaced with Twin Otter aircraft. A whole expedition was supported by two tractor trains, which pull a caboose and a sled with all the equipment. Behind it is a plastic sled with bladders that carry all the fuel. Once unloaded by ship, the tractor train can move around like a caravan, and people can actually do science while carrying the supplies and living quarters with them. It’s an incredibly efficient way of transporting the people and doing science at the same time around complicated areas. It is also cheaper and more effective than flying in fuel over long distances.

We’ll be using the tractor trains in others parts of Antarctica. We have a new Polar research vessel – a new icebreaker. We’re right in the middle of planning for that so there’s a huge amount of frantic activity in building, designing the ship and finding the shipyard. The ship should be ready in 2019. It will be stronger and able to go further south than before, carrying more scientists. We will operate one ship instead of two.

Another big area we are working on are the marine systems, and one of the big projects is what is happening to the marine biota that are intolerant of warm temperatures. Some of our biologists have designed experiments that allow them to monitor what small creatures live on heated plates placed into the Antarctic Ocean. This will tell them what will happen to marine biology in a warmer ocean.

The way forward is using autonomous vehicles. In particular, we’ve been using devices called gliders – which look a bit like a torpedo – and contain lots of scientific equipment. A huge amount of information is being returned from these. These devices can sense swarms of krill, for example. We have a device called ADIOS, which has a GPS sensor, and is used to put a sensor in areas that are remote and dangerous, such as icebergs. These ADIOS beacons are dropped from an aircraft to an iceberg, and wings come out to stop them sinking into the snow. As a glacier breaks off or as a glacier flows we can monitor the position.

I think there will be more science done remotely. Scientists will not spend as long in Antarctica, but for some disciplines there is no substitute for going directly. There’s some fantastic innovation, which means we don’t have to risk lives.

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital have a green future,...


NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...


Bonnethead sharks, the second smallest member of the hammerhead family,…


There’s more than enough plastic in the world. That’s why,…


The recent discovery of more than 200 million termite mounds…


The new year still remains a popular time to set…


After decades battling environmental crises that threaten to rob the…


As another new year beckons and the fight to protect…


A half century has passed since the ‘Earthrise’ photograph – widely believed to have…


Are howler monkeys being adversely affected by ingestion of pesticides containing…


Why unprepared tourists are putting themselves at risk in order…


The majestic and mighty polar bear is in danger of…


Exciting news for wildlife and photography enthusiasts alike – the…


A new system of robotic aerial vehicles is revolutionising the…


Technology used in creating safe urban environments is now being…


Brazil’s shift to the right of the political spectrum could…


Laura Cole travels to Orkney to find out why numbers…


The unprecedented frequency of winter tick epidemics have resulted in…


Ocean debris, mostly composed of plastic, reaches remote Atlantic islands…


With motion detectors becoming ever more sophisticated, and clearer, crisper…


Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of…


The reason for the unusual location of Mount St Helens…