Antarctic Adventures

The discovery of a giant sub-glacial trench in Antarctica has made headlines across the globe. Researcher Dr David Rippin talks to about the highs and lows of working in the coldest place on Earth

Photo credit: David Rippin

Photo credit: David Rippin

Dr David Rippin, a senior lecturer from York’s Environment Department, has recently been part of a monumental discovery in Antarctica. Alongside researchers from various UK Universities and the British Antarctic Survey, David has helped to unearth a huge trench, many times larger than the Grand Canyon, hidden deep under the West Antarctic ice sheet.

The sheer size of it seems unfathomable, but David illustrates it brilliantly: “Imagine setting out from York by car, and driving to London. For your entire journey, out your window you can see a valley that’s twice as deep as the highest mountain in England, and it persists all the way to London! Not only that, but it’s 25 km across too. That’s pretty big!”

One of the most interesting aspects of this unexpected discovery is how it reminds us that there is still so much to learn about the world we live in. David explains that they “weren’t explicitly looking for this feature”: the revelation was an exciting surprise. The scientists were trying to discover what the terrain under the ice sheet was like, with no idea, however, quite how extraordinary it may be.

“We didn’t expect to find something so big”

The scientists initially used a technique known as radio-echo sounding in order to determine the terrain at either end of the trough but it wasn’t until they used satellite data that they could really appreciate the magnitude of what lay beneath. “We were expecting to see valleys and peaks, but we didn’t expect to find something so big!”

As it turns out, the canyon, formed tens of millions of years ago, is so big that it can be seen from space. “We looked at satellite imagery, and we actually see an expression of this canyon in the ice surface – i.e. it’s so big, that the location of the canyon is visible (as a change in ice surface properties) even though it lies beneath ice that’s up to 3000m thick. This is pretty astonishing!”

Photo credit: Neil Ross

Photo credit: Neil Ross

The discovery provides useful information that will allow scientists to figure out what Antarctica used to be like and how it may change in the future. The research shows that the trench was not formed under the current ice sheet.

As David says, “It helps us to understand that at some point in the past, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was different to now, and was also much smaller. It therefore grew from this situation to the ice sheet we see today. As our climate warms, it also gives us a hint as to what we might expect in the future.”

David explains that Antarctica must once have looked more like modern-day Arctic Canada; it would have consisted of large individual glaciers cutting through the landscape, rather than a landscape submerged by a huge ice-sheet. This is important information as it allows researchers to predict what will happen in the future as the climate changes.

“You need to be willing to be away from loved ones for an extended period of time, sometimes without contact”

“If the ice sheet changes in the ways that we fear, in response to continued climate warming, then perhaps one day it will look like modern day Arctic Canada,” David explains. The Antarctic Ice sheet accounts for around ninety per cent of the world’s fresh water, meaning that such a change would result in dramatically higher sea levels, hugely altering the world as we know it today.

Although David worked only on the planning side of this research, such as the project design and data-analysis, he has been quite the Antarctic explorer in the past. Having spent months in the east of Antarctica back in 2001 and 2002 doing similar research, he knows how tough it can be. “You need to be willing to be away from loved ones and home for an extended period of time, sometimes without much contact for a while. You also need to be willing to keep working, even when the weather is poor, but also to accept that you may spend days on end tent-bound. The team in the field on this latest project was tent-bound for a few days on more than one occasion.”

Photo credit: Neil Ross

Photo credit: Neil Ross

To most people, camping out in Antarctic conditions may seem unthinkable, but according to David, it’s not always so bad. “The bases are quite comfortable,” he comments. “In the field there is no luxury. However, I was quite fortunate when I was there, as although it was cold (air temperatures of about -22°C), it was bright and still. You have a very comfortable sleeping bag with lots of liners to keep you warm at night, but outside you need to ensure you are properly wrapped up! If there’s any wind, then it can be biting! It’s not unheard of for there to be storms of a week’s duration.”

Antarctica covers more than fourteen million square kilometres and has no permanent residents, resulting in a very isolated environment. “When I was there earlier, we didn’t have internet access so to speak. We could email, but these went out (and came in) via a satellite link twice a day. Now though, I believe that internet access in the bases is easier. In the field we have a radio-schedule so we speak to the bases once a day (mainly to get a met report and to check in) and we have a satellite phone for emergencies.” The weather and remoteness make life in Anarctica hard and dangerous, but also, seemingly quite boring. “You need to be able to keep yourself occupied, so as well as carrying out preliminary data-analysis, lots of books are a good idea!”

“It’s not unheard of for there to be storms of a week’s duration”

Despite the difficulties and the feeling of isolation, David doesn’t complain. “You need to be aware that you’re pretty privileged – that you’re in a unique place that not many people get to experience, and so you want to be able to do the best job you can – to make your time there worthwhile, and so do good and worthwhile science. You need to have a real interest and enthusiasm for what you’re doing.”

Photo credit: David Rippin

Photo credit: David Rippin

Hearing the highlights of David’s time in Antarctica, I can certainly see the perks of the job. David’s reminiscing would make anyone want to hop on the first plane heading south. He tells me how amazing it was “seeing the continent for the first time, to finally get to somewhere I had wanted to visit for a very long time. I remember the first time I took a walk around Rothera (the main British base, where you first fly into). It’s perched on the edge of the Antarctic Peninsula, surrounded by ocean, mountains and glaciers, with huge icebergs floating in the water, and hundreds of penguins, seals and sea-birds all around. That was pretty spectacular!”

Nowadays, David is focused on Arctic research, working on glaciers in Svalbard and Arctic Sweden. Wherever he is working, however, he is obviously passionate about his research, describing one of his favourite things as “the great sense of satisfaction you get when you know that you’ve successfully collected all the data you need”.

Featured Image Credit: Neil Ross

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