Week 10

Back in the UK, is it all a distant memory?

Emperor penguins © David N Thomas

Emperor penguins © David N Thomas

We have been back in the UK for a week, and somehow it all seems to be a distant memory. It is difficult enough to remember coming into Cape Town harbour, let alone the ISPOL ice floe and all we enjoyed since November 2004.

The German research vessel Polarstern in the Antarctic © David N Thomas

The German research vessel Polarstern in the Antarctic © David N Thomas

Naturally, the first question that everybody asks is ‘was it worth it and did you have a good time?’ The simple answer is that it was more than worth it. Almost any data point that we can retrieve from that part of the world is a rarity and worth the efforts. We measured far more than we ever anticipated, and have collected data and samples that will keep a team of four of us in Bangor busy for the next two or three years.

However, not all our ideas worked out. For example, we had thought that the high concentrations of ammonium previously recorded in sea ice were a result of ultraviolet radiation breaking up dissolved organic matter. In our experiments during the expedition, the high radiation clearly does alter the nature of the organic matter, but doesn't end up producing ammonium. In fact, experiments we did with ice crustaceans showed us that the ammonium source was excretion by the small copepods, and also sea gooseberries and flatworms that live in and on the ice. But that is what science is all about - testing ideas and seeing whether they are true or not.

This was only a tiny part of the work we had to do. In many other areas, we do not have any results yet. We simply have samples on filters, sealed into glass ampoules or frozen into blocks of ice. These will be analysed in the various home laboratories in Wales, Germany, Belgium, USA and The Netherlands, and slowly over time we will piece the jigsaw pieces together to show what new information the ISPOL expedition produced.

There are aspects that, now we have had time to reflect, we wish we had spent more time on. If, or rather, when we go again we will sample in slightly different ways and address different issues. But again that is what science is about. This expedition was based on work we have done over the past 10 to 15 years. During ISPOL we have learnt some new things that we have to take forward in the planning of our future work.

Antarctic sceenery of ice and sky © David N Thomas

Antarctic sceenery of ice and sky © David N Thomas

The sensation of being at the end of the Earth coupled with the hostile beauty of the pack ice. Amazing wildlife encounters and the camaraderie of being together with old and new friends on a ship for three months. It was simply great, not without problems at times, but fortunately these were minor and in the grand scheme of things of no consequence. Time passed so fast, and at times I simply wanted it to stop so that we could savour the moments for longer. That has to be a good sign that we were enjoying what we were doing.

It is a curious period of adjustment to normal living again. It is not just the movement of the ship that you miss, but also the easy ship routines and, uninterrupted access to working on your research. The harsh reality of marking examination answers, lecturing and university administration and politics has already kicked in.

Oh to be back at 53oS rather than 53oN ... or even better 73oS where there is still some sea ice.

David Thomas
28th January
Menai Bridge, Anglesey, Wales
53°N 004°W