Oddly Enough

Some Antarctic scientists train in British mud

YELD FARM (Reuters) - There hasn’t been a glacier in England since the Ice Age so Antarctic scientists flock to a muddy field here to learn how to survive on the world’s coldest continent.

Climbing experts at the British Antarctic Survey prepare to train scientists and other students at Baslow Edge in this September 17, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Alister Doyle/Files

Camped in tents and sometimes sharing a field with horses or geese from Yeld Farm, they learn skills such as lighting a frozen paraffin stove or escaping from a crevasse -- taught dangling from ropes on nearby crags in the Peak District.

Since the 1970s, the British Antarctic Survey has trained hundreds of staff here -- cooks, pilots, mechanics and plumbers as well as glaciologists.

Its three-day course in Derbyshire in the Midlands, where the average daytime temperature is about 15 Celsius (59 Fahrenheit), is the closest thing in England to life at the frozen South Pole.

“We try to prepare people for life in Antarctica and some of the dangers,” said Rod Arnold, an organiser at the British Antarctic Survey. These might include rescuing an unconscious colleague from a crevasse or tackling carbon monoxide poisoning from a stove.

Exercises include wearing snow goggles covered with white tape and then stumbling blind through heather attached to a rope to try to find a person pretending to be “lost in a snowstorm.”

About 40 people took a recent safety course, among them scientists from the United States, Germany, France and Spain.

Antarctica is the world’s most inhospitable continent, where Russia’s Vostok station recorded a temperature of minus 89 C (minus 128 F), the coldest documented on earth.

Scientists can spend weeks in remote locations with a lone assistant, so need to know how to survive.

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“The climbing really helped,” said Rebecca Rixon, a 22-year old doctoral student at Exeter University, who learnt how to abseil down a rock face on Derbyshire’s Baslow Edge and climb up the rope again, to mimic getting out of a crevasse.


“But it was weird doing it in the sunshine in England when in reality you’d be freezing cold,” she said. She will study similarities between ice cracking on the Antarctic peninsula and in Scotland at the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago.

Many other nations that study Antarctica have glaciers -- such as the Alps, the Andes or the Arctic -- on which to train. Australia also offers some training in warmer Tasmania.

The United States trains most of its staff at a “snow school” at McMurdo base in Antarctica, the biggest on the continent with a summer population of about 1,000 people.

Visitors travelling outside McMurdo learn “how to operate a stove, a radio, set up a tent, basic first aid -- such as recognising and preventing hypothermia,” said Peter West of the U.S. National Science Foundation.

They also learn how to set up a snow shelter and how to cut snow blocks to make walls, he said.

The British Antarctic Survey also has a giant laboratory in Cambridge, where ice cores are kept at minus 20 Celsius. Scientists work in the room examining the ice but do not try to live in the freezer, for instance sleeping or cooking meals.

So in England, students wanting to learn how to live in Antarctica must get by without snow or ice. Some noted that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin practised for their 1969 moon landing in barren Iceland.

Preparation is essential -- Antarctica has claimed scores of lives. Robert Falcon Scott and four other Britons died in 1912 on the way back from the South Pole after Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat them by weeks to be the first to the South Pole.

“It helps people gain confidence before going south,” Arnold said. “And you get to know people you may have to be with for up to two and a half years.” That’s the longest possible Antarctic stay.