Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Britain’s Antarctic future

Jane Francis with penguins Jane Francis with penguins BAS
24 Jun
2015
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

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe to Geographical!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

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

  • 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...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...

MORE DOSSIERS

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...

Wildlife

The demand for horseshoe crab blood – vital for testing…

Climate

One of the problems in getting accurate climate science out…

Wildlife

Italy is divided over the future of its wolves and…

Energy

A Scottish tidal power project in the Pentland Firth has…

Oceans

The world’s first full global analysis of beaches reveals the…

Geophoto

With the recent Saddleworth Moor fire, it can be easy…

Wildlife

Whale sharks have been found to not travel far from…

Wildlife

The Lone Star tick is spreading across North America, carrying…

Tectonics

Earlier this week, Indonesia was struck by a series of…

Energy

Efforts to reduce the energy drain of the internet are…

Energy

Coal’s rising popularity among climate-apathetic leaders is a worrying trend,…

Climate

Sharing the ideas of climate justice with a little humour…

Polar

Rising bedrock under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could prevent…

Oceans

Officially declared the world’s ‘most overfished sea’, the Mediterranean is…

Wildlife

An interview with biologist Chris D Thomas, author of ‘Inheritors…

Geophoto

Some may see using the 50mm lens as a regressive…

Oceans

With the war against plastic gaining publicity and popularity, one…

Wildlife

India’s booming domestic dog population is attacking some of the…

Energy

Soaring sales of air conditioning units over the next thirty…

Climate

Well-meaning promises and actions don't always have the best outcomes.…