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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.

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