My mum always says that wherever I go, the sun goes down when I leave. That is not to say that her world is darkened when I leave my hometown in Scotland, but more that when I leave my field sites, the midnight sun begins to lurk beneath the horizon, if only for a few hours or so. My interest in all things icy started, rather appropriately, in Iceland during a geography class trip when I stood on my first ever glacier and immediately caught the glaciology bug. Having spent last boreal summer in Svalbard (79 degrees North) and the recent austral summer in Antarctica (80 degrees South) I can tell you that I still haven’t managed to shake off my first love!
However, the two regions couldn’t be much further apart, both geographically and metaphorically speaking. Grassy squares, derelict buildings and two Russian workers greeted me upon arrival at 79 degrees north in the northern archipelago of Svalbard. In contrast an immaculate silent, white landscape with a smattering of distant mountains was all that I could see when our British Antarctic twin otter plane circled around our desired camp site, trying to find a suitable landing spot in amongst the steep sided sastrugi. The impeccably pristine environment of our field site in Antarctica could hardly have been more of a contrast to that of the abandoned town of Pyramiden that I visited 6 months previously, with its imported grass, broken windows and rusting iron. Was this the fate Antarctica narrowly missed out on? Saved by the Antarctic treaty, which permits only peaceful endeavors and scientific observations to be carried out there?
Putting political matters and debatable land use issues aside and moving onto my more selfish needs, it was fantastic to swap my long and tedious night-time patrols of camp armed with a flare gun and rifle in Svalbard for a peaceful night’s sleep in Antarctica.
However, sleeping was not only a night time treat in Antarctica – it gradually became a daytime routine as ever more frequently the 40 knot katabatic winds and extremely poor visibility kept us from carrying out radar traverses and geological investigations of Patriot Hills, in Horseshoe Valley, West Antarctica. To begin with the rest days were welcome, but as they dragged on and worries of how to collect the remaining data crept in, I started longing for the warmer days in the north. My mind wandered back to Svalbard where life flourished – with arctic terns and puffins aplenty, along with lush vegetation and countless crevasses and meltwater streams to jump over or inject with Rhodamine dye.
So do I have a preference? Well, not really. Despite the obvious differences in landscape and swapping the odd encounter with a bear, with numerous penguins at Rothera base station, I feel equally at home in both places and can’t wait to go back!
Adélie Penguins at British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera base station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica