Natural social distancing

Natural social distancing – my first field season in Antarctica

Rebecca Schlegel


It was late November 2018 that I, for the first time in my life, had to think about how to spend time during social distancing. What do you do if two humans are isolated from the rest of the world by several hundred kilometres of ice in Antarctica? In the UK I am used to going hiking and climbing on the weekends, but what will I do on an ice stream that is more than 150 km long (flat) , approximately 30km wide and temperatures as cold as -30C? This time taught me some lessons about myself but also it made me aware of all the external influences we are exposed to by media, news and people on a daily basis.

From 250,000 to 60 to 2 people in a 5m^2 tent … Isolation in Antarctica

My journey began on December 9th when I departed from the medium-sized city, Swansea (UK), to London Heathrow, on the way to my final destination: Rothera Antarctic Research Station (UK). Arriving around 2 days later at Rothera, we got a tour of the station and were introduced to the station life. We then had a station safety induction followed by training in first aid, crevasse rescue and driving skidoos. A few days later, we left Rothera and said goodbye to staff and scientists and headed towards our study site, the Rutford Ice Stream. The Rutford Ice Stream is a fast flowing (~1m per day) ice stream, draining into the Ronne Ice Shelf, about 1000 miles from Rothera.

During fieldwork I realized how important a daily routine is.

Together with my colleague, Andy Smith, I got dropped off onto the Rutford, right in the middle of a snowstorm! We couldn’t see much more than our hands in front of our faces, but when the weather did finally clear up we were granted a jaw dropping view of the Ellsworth mountains. With 24 hours of daylight it felt eerily as if time stood still, the only signs of time passing were the sun circling in the sky, weather changes and the fact that the location of our camp changed with the one meter per day ice flow. It was as if we had our own personal conveyor belt and got to see the stunning mountains from many perspectives over several weeks. During the day we spent 10-14 hours driving a Skidoo, towing a radio-echo sounding behind us to record the bed topography. As the aim of that field season was to get a high-resolution bed topography dataset, we were following a pre-defined grid in as straight lines as possible, at a constant speed for about 30 minutes, then turning around and doing the same with a spacing of 20m to our previous line. When people ask me what I did while driving the skidoo for 2-4 hours without a long break in between, I can’t really say. Time passes very differently when the sky doesn’t change, when your only task is to drive straight lines, when you have nothing to do but listen to music or audio books. I attached sticky notes of Italian vocabulary to my skidoo and tried to memorize those. At the end of the season I was even able to speak a bit about food and introduce myself in Italian! Andy and I spent lunch breaks talking about music or odd topics that wandered into our minds as we drove. You might think that after 10 weeks of social distancing and isolation there is not much left to talk about. But there always is something to laugh about, even if it’s me trying to dance to abba music, (mistakenly) thinking nobody would see…

Fieldwork is a lot about company, weather and food.

Getting back into the tent gave us the chance to have a chat with colleagues from station, read emails, every now and then call our families. I have never heard that little news, chatted that little to my friends and family than during those 10 weeks. But during this time I had the chance to get to know my colleague Andy, myself and the amazing landscape of the Rutford very well. Funny things we know about our families or ourselves from that time still crop up in meetings. Since the main goal in fieldwork (probably always) is to get as much data as possible we only took days off when we found ourselves in the middle of a storm, where life outside the tent was not possible (which luckily only happened during 3 days). During these 10 weeks, we only managed once to play a card game, other time was spent reading, backing up data, starting to process data, learning more Italian and, my favourite part, cooking pancakes.

From 2 people to 60 and back to 250000

After just the two of us have been in the field, isolated from anyone and anything else for 10 weeks, we got back to Rothera station, meeting 60 people, which was already a shock. It took me quite some time to get used to that crowd, the constant chatting, news, 100s unread emails again. But after spending ~10 days with new made friends and amazing people at Rothera, I was ready to depart back to Swansea, where the crowd counts 250,000.

The experience of this season, including the social distancing, was one of the most challenging but also one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I am looking forward to much more field seasons to come, and even more excited about the data that will be collected!

View onto the Ellsworth mountains with our campsite in the foreground

Our daily routine, driving the skidoo, towing a radio-echo sounder to collect data of the bed topography. The 3 sledges that are towed include different parts of equipment. Straight lines in the snow are from the data acquisition. The crevasses in the background are in the area of the shear margins.

Lunchbreak with a cup of tea and some cheese and biscuits.

Our campsite, with the sleeping tent, with many boxes of food, spares, clothes and equipment arranged around the tent.

Rebecca Schlegel

PhD student at Swansea University as part of the BEAMISH project working on ice stream dynamics and beds

Part of the EGG committee

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