Product has been added to the basket

Fieldwork - but not as we know it

Conor Ryan in the field: Crevasse on the Reclus Peninsula, Antarctica


Conor Ryan* on fieldwork in Antarctica with a Geological Society fieldwork grant…

Geoscientist 10.08 October 2008

Being rudely awakened from my coffin-sized bunk at 4.00AM with a flashlight; struggling to stay upright while getting into cold, damp clothes and boots; emerging onto a freezing deck to be greeted by the cold spray of the heaving Southern Ocean. Struggling to change the sails with numb hands. This was fieldwork…but not as I knew it!

As part of the British Army Antarctic Expedition (BAAE) 2007-2008, led by Antarctic veteran Major Richard Pattison (Royal Anglian Regiment), I was fortunate enough to be asked to lead, design and implement a geological sciences fieldwork program. This was in keeping with previous collaboration on fieldwork in the Antarctic, from which I earned my PhD, through BAAE 2001-2002. Our work would see us spend several weeks exploring the Danco Coast and Palmer Archipelago area of the Antarctic Peninsula with the aim of mapping the geology of this inaccessible region and collecting samples for analysis. The results of previous work had already shed light on the last 100 million years. For this expedition we hoped to collect samples that would further our understanding of the tectonic evolution of Antarctica. But first we had to get there.

Our chosen method of transport was a 22m yacht named Discoverer - a very different undertaking from last year's voyage on HMS Endurance, a 100m ice-breaker. We set sail from Mare Harbour in the Falkland Islands in mid December 2007 with the daunting prospect of crossing Drake Passage. As this was my first introduction to sailing, I had a sneaking worry that I may have bitten off more than I could chew. The routine for the next six days on that great grey heaving sea involved getting used to a watch system that allowed little time for sleep or relaxation. The crossing of Drake Passage was a test for the stomachs of many of the crew. Thankfully I found my sea legs fairly quickly; ohers were not so fortunate. Changing sails on the foredeck as the boat pitched and rolled in rough seas, with freezing waves crashing over us was - invigorating work, to say the least.

The problem with life on the boat was that once something got wet, the cold air ensured that it stayed that way. Life in the galley was also a challenge. It was during the ocean crossing that we first witnessed the wildlife that awaited us further south, with Mincke whales to be seen following the boat for hours, under the watchful eye of the graceful Albatross. It was, however, with some relief that we reached calmer waters between the Antarctic Peninsula and the Palmer Archipelago on Christmas Eve. We were greeted by spectacular scenes as the Antarctic midnight sun hung low on the horizon, casting orange glows upon the snow-clad peaks, some of which soared over 2000m straight from the sea. Some mulled wine took a bit of the chill out of the air that evening, while we rang in Christmas Day with the bagpipes.

By Christmas morning we had moored up alongside the wreck of an old whaling vessel; it was time to get on with the business of geology. The day was spent visiting islands in Wilhelmina Bay in our motorised inflatables, sampling volcanic and plutonic rocks. The sedimentary rocks of the Trinity Peninsula Group eluded us that day, as the only exposure of these interbedded sandstones and siltstones was guarded by huge ice cliffs that regularly overturned. We pulled up alongside Discoverer that evening, tired, cold and wet, reflecting on the most memorable moment of the day, when we sped through a natural arch in an iceberg.

During the next few weeks we explored various areas along the Danco and Graham Coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula - Waddington Bay, Paradise Harbour and the Reclus Peninsula as well as Anvers Island on the Palmer Archipelago. Our usual tactic was to establish camps from which we would explore the area on skis. However, once it was time to move camp we had to employ the pulk, a canvas-covered sledge for man-hauling gear….and rocks. The pulk has its advantages in that it reduced the amount of gear on your shoulders; but it was a beast traversing steep ground … the pristine wilderness was polluted by the utterance of many expletives during those trying times. We also used pulks to transport snow-coring equipment across ice. This glaciological work involved using a hollow drill to take cores of snow, up to 10m below the surface, to examine accumulation rates.

Ice hole The art of pitching a tent in the Antarctic takes a while to perfect. The routine involves: digging the tent in, to improve stability should the wind pick up; levelling the site; excavating pits for cookers, and somehow managing to squeeze three fully-grown men into a tent cosy enough for one. The less said about the palatability of dehydrated rations…the better. The daily effort required to rouse oneself from the warmth of a sleeping bag to get the cooker going was considerable. In the evening, after a hard day man-hauling, we found we had to strike a balance between re-hydrating properly and avoiding the need to answer the call of nature in the middle of the night! However, the simplicity of cooking on a stationary surface was much appreciated after a swaying galley on the Southern Ocean.

The penguins we encountered were completely unfazed by humans and would gladly walk up to peck your boot laces. Humpback whales regularly came alongside the yacht, announcing their presence by jetting seawater from their blow-holes. The gentle giants would circle the boat for several minutes before diving to the depths and breaching the surface with their flukes. Orcas (killer whales) could also be seen from time to time, and seals were everywhere - often warming themselves on icebergs in the Antarctic sun.

At Paradise Harbour, towards the end of the expedition we finally succeeded in sampling the sedimentary rocks of the Trinity Peninsula Group. In addition, we collected granitoids from Mount Heogh in a vertical traverse of the mountain for thermochronological studies. We later learned that our exploits on the side of Mount Heogh generated considerable interest from the local Chilean base. Although climbing on the side of Mount Heogh was fairly exciting, the collection of the Trinity Peninsula Group sediments was arguably a much more dangerous exercise as we were infringing the territory of the local leopard seal who watched our exploits at quarters that were too close for comfort.

With our two final sampling goals complete it was time for the expedition to head north. I wondered if I would ever return, but then I realised I had thought the same though last year.

Life in the Antarctic is tough. The physicality involved in the everyday grind takes its toll; but it is mental toughness that allows one to thrive in this environment. The Antarctic is a place where you stand to lose much more than you could ever hope to gain - and perhaps that part of its allure. It is the constant danger and adversity that keeps the Antarctic explorer coming back for more. Back home, people ask me why I choose to put myself through needless hardship, and I am often left with no answer. I think it is probably a case of the old adage - ‘If you have to ask, you'll never understand’. Antarctica is a world away from the comfortable lives most of us enjoy but I found that when times were at there hardest, it was thoughts of home and loved ones that kept me positive - a sentiment shared by all my companions.

The rock samples that we collected have just been returned to the UK. They will now be curated at the University of Brighton and studied at various British and Irish institutions over the coming years.

I would like to thank the Geological Society of London and the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland for supporting my participation in this expedition through fieldwork grants. I would also like to thank my fellow expedition members, in particular Major Richard Pattison and Colonel Richard Clements, for all their assistance with the geological fieldwork.

* Dr Conor J Ryan, formerly of School of Environment & Technology, University of Brighton, Cockcroft Building, Lewes Road, Brighton BN2 4GJ. Email: