The front of the Sheldon glacier
© Charlie Bibby

Frithjof Kuepper is an amiable man. He giggles a lot. He likes to chat and he is generally polite at all times. But Kuepper, a marine biodiversity professor at the University of Aberdeen, is also one of a select breed of scientists who dive in the waters off Antarctica, the coldest, loneliest and most daunting continent on earth.

That is where he was in January when he took out his laptop to type a plaintive message to fellow researchers in an irreverent Facebook group called “F**k the leopard seal”. “The horror,” he wrote, “is back.”

Kuepper was in Rothera, a station run by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) research institute. Dozens of scientists flock there between October and March each year, when the continent’s violent weather eases. Kuepper had come to study things such as how seaweed survives in the dark for months on end under ice, a quest that could lead to better cold-water washing powder and other products with the potential to slash energy costs and carbon pollution. 

His mere presence there was a small triumph. A scientist’s visit to Antarctica typically costs thousands of dollars and can take months of wrangling — with grant bodies for money, with university bosses for time off from teaching, and with spouses left back home at Christmas.

But more than two weeks after arriving at Rothera, Kuepper had failed to do a single dive. Bad weather delayed his flight from Chile to the station so much that he arrived on Christmas Day, a holiday. A diving officer injured an ankle jogging, stalling dive trips further. Then, just as Kuepper was finally about to hit the water, a strap on his face mask broke and he had to abandon the dive. Then came the leopard seals. 

Approaching the Sheldon glacier
Approaching the Sheldon glacier © Charlie Bibby

The sharp-toothed animal is a powerful Antarctic predator and although there is only one record of it ever killing a human, it happened at Rothera in 2003, when a 28-year-old British biologist was dragged to her death as she snorkelled near the base. Now, whenever one of the creatures is spotted, diving is aborted for four hours in the hope that the beast will depart the scene. A flurry of sightings put Kuepper’s dives on hold, yet again, but he was philosophical. “It’s kind of what you expect when you come to Antarctica,” he said. “A lot of things derail the schedule.” 

That was a serious understatement, as the FT discovered after spending 13 days at Rothera in January to report on a central scientific dilemma: the struggle to understand a continent whose fate affects millions of people worldwide, yet is fearsomely hard to study.

Science has long played an outsized role in Antarctica. Nations wishing to help run the continent, which has no indigenous people or central government, have had to prove their commitment to scientific research since the Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1961, turning the remote white expanse into a gigantic natural laboratory.

Antarctic scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer, along with ice cores that shed new light on the planet’s climate history. Yet for most of the 20th century, Antarctica was widely thought to be frozen in time. 

Not any more. Parts of the continent are changing fast, including sections of the massive ice sheet that covers it. This holds so much water that if it ever melted completely, global sea levels would rise by nearly 60m. This will not happen any time soon, but even small losses would affect coastal cities and islands around the world, as well as some of the most iconic polar creatures. The race to understand Antarctica has become more urgent, even as conditions on the continent remain as forbidding as ever.

Rothera consists of a cluster of pale green buildings surrounded by glittering icebergs on the Antarctic Peninsula, the part of the frozen continent nearest the bottom of Chile. For an idea of its location, make a fist with your left hand and raise it so that your palm is facing your nose, leaving your thumb to stick out. The Peninsula looks like your thumb, your fist is roughly the shape of the rest of Antarctica and the left side of the top thumb knuckle is approximately where Rothera is.

The British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera base, surrounded by icebergs
The British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera base, surrounded by icebergs © Charlie Bibby

The station was established in 1975 and is one of more than 100 research facilities dotted around Antarctica, some of which date back to the 1950s, when there was a surge in scientific exploration against a backdrop of cold war tensions. Rothera has a population of about 100 in the southern summer. This dwindles to just over 20 through the dark winter, when a skeleton crew keeps the base functioning.

The alien beauty of the Antarctic was evident from the moment we landed, as was its fragility. The first thing our feet hit as we stumbled down the plane steps was a tray of disinfectant, put there to kill any foreign organisms we might have brought with us. 

As we walked up to the station, gaping at the glinting white views, the air suddenly filled with a putrid pong and the indignant bellowing of a herd of elephant seals. I was told to keep at least 5m away from the creatures, which lead a happier life than local seals did in the past. The animals were once shot to feed the sledge dogs that lived on the base until Antarctic Treaty rules saw the last of them shipped off to Canada in the early 1990s.

Soon after arriving, I met Clem Collins, an air unit assistant who has been working on and off at Rothera since 1984. “We used to take about 150 seals a year,” he said, explaining how the animals were cut into blocks of dog food. “The more rotten the meat, the more the dogs loved it.” Food at the base is still sometimes called “man-food”, a legacy of the days when it had to be separated from dog feed. 

We were quickly whisked off for an intensive bout of briefings on how to live — and survive — at the base: what to wear (more than you think), when to eat (up to five times a day in the canteen), where to sleep (with strangers in rooms with a double bunk) and how to check in and out of each building so everyone could be constantly accounted for. 

Job definitions were loose. The engineer held yoga classes. Field guides turned into ski instructors on the slope behind the runway. A brisk tour of the station was led by the doctor, who also ran the post office. She later presented us with a fake foam bottom to teach us how to inject someone with morphine, should the need arise. 

Basic medical know-how is a must in a place where weather can make rescues risky. An American doctor who discovered she had breast cancer at the South Pole in 1999 performed a biopsy on herself with the help of a welder who practised by poking a needle into an apple.

An outdoor yoga class at Rothera
An outdoor yoga class at Rothera © Charlie Bibby

Each evening, radio operators in the station air tower check in with the scientists who camp out in the field, hundreds of miles from the base. Pinned to the wall is a map of Europe overlaid with dots showing how far away the scientists are working if one imagined Rothera as London. This year, one man was mapping the ice bed in the equivalent of Italy. Some were collecting equipment in what would have been Turkey, and another was drilling ice cores in a spot that would have been Saudi Arabia.

Many had flown out in planes with skis, landing in a way that would raise the hair on an ordinary passenger. With no runways to guide them, Antarctic pilots often have to make several low passes over a potential landing spot, hoping that the pressure of the trailing skis exposes any hidden crevasses before they eventually touch down. Even then, safety is not assured. A veteran pilot working for the Australian Antarctic Division landed safely in 2016 but died after stepping out and falling into a hidden crack in the ice nearby. 

The highest point at Rothera is marked with a cross surrounded by plaques in memory of those who have perished over the years. The pilots killed in an air crash. The station worker who got lost in bad weather. And the scientists who set off over sea ice to see a penguin colony and never came back. 

Scientists have been eager to study Antarctica since the 1820s, when explorers caught their first glimpses of the last continent on earth to be discovered. The memoirs of early researchers remain a stark record of the difficulties of working in a place where average temperatures can plunge below -60C in winter; winds reach hurricane strength and about 98 per cent of the land is covered in ice up to 4.8km thick.

The zoologist Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who joined the fateful expedition of Britain’s Robert Falcon Scott, wrote of “the horror” of trekking more than 100km through blinding winter blizzards in the dark in 1911 to collect penguin eggs. His chattering teeth shattered in the bitter cold. One of his colleagues nearly lost an eye when he was hit by a blob of sizzling blubber from the camp stove. “Anyone would be a fool who went again,” wrote Cherry-Garrard. “It is not possible to describe it.”

Frithjof Kuepper, a professor of marine biodiversity at Aberdeen University
Frithjof Kuepper, a professor of marine biodiversity at Aberdeen University © Charlie Bibby

Advances in everything from waterproof parkas to satellite phones mean today’s scientists work in more comfort, up to a point. Working at an Antarctic station is not for the faint of heart at any time, especially in winter, when the icy darkness can make evacuations impossible and tempers can fray. Historians say that in the 1960s, a Soviet scientist killed a colleague with an axe for cheating at chess, while a doctor at an Argentine base burnt the station down in 1983 to force an evacuation home. 

Jess Walkup, an ebullient 31-year-old with a PhD in evolutionary ecology, will lead the Rothera base this winter. She is believed to be the first woman to have spent a winter at three BAS stations, and will be the first to lead a winter team at two bases (she previously ran the UK’s Halley station).

“They say it’s the easiest job in the world if nothing goes wrong,” she told me. Her responsibilities already range from mediating staff squabbles to organising boat cargo and setting the price of beer in the bar. When I asked what kept her awake at night, she said: “Any kind of major incident involving a fatality.” 

Jess Walkup loads empty fuel barrels onto a forklift at Rothera
Jess Walkup loads empty fuel barrels on to a forklift © Charlie Bibby

Although female workers are far from a rarity on the station, they are still outnumbered. Women only joined the crews working through winter at Rothera in the late 1990s, which was, as one researcher wryly put it, “just a few years after the dogs left”. And sexism is not entirely dead. A few months earlier, Walkup had been told that because there would not be many women in her team over winter and most were in relationships, “that will be hard for the winterers”. “I’m like, ‘We’re not a commodity, we’re here to do a job,’” she said.

Still, she has faced far worse. She once spent more than a year as a field assistant at a remote BAS station on Bird Island, off the island of South Georgia. One day, she spotted a giant petrel with a leg tag that needed to be read. She crept up on the bird as it was feasting on the contents of a dead seal’s anal passage.

But as she got closer, it took off over her head. She cried out just as the startled creature vomited a load of rotting seal poop that dropped straight into her open mouth. “It was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said. It was easy to believe her.

Antarctica’s brutal history is etched in the names of its landmarks: Cape Disappointment, Exasperation Inlet, Destruction Bay, Delusion Island.

Unsurprisingly, much of the continent has long been a mystery. The first broadly accurate map was not produced until 1983. The UK always thought the highest mountain in its part of the continent was Mt Jackson but in December BAS researchers said new satellite data had revealed it was actually Mt Hope, which was 55m taller.

People regularly confuse it with the Arctic, an ocean surrounded by land with a permanent population of about four million. The Antarctic is a continent surrounded by water and a shifting population that can rise to about 10,000 in summer and falls to some 1,000 in winter. It is visited by more than 35,000 tourists each year (many of whom never get off a boat). 

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Until this century, there was more known about the shape of ice on Mars than Antarctica. Satellites that could measure the Red Planet’s ice caps in detail were launched in 1996 — seven years before an equivalent mission for Earth. “It sounds crazy, but that’s just the way it was back then,” said Andrew Shepherd, a professor at the University of Leeds who had come to Rothera on his way to study how fast global sea levels could rise as Antarctica loses its ice. 

Not that long ago, such a question would have seemed odd. The earliest reports from the UN’s 30-year-old Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the gold standard of climate research, suggested Antarctica was likely to gain ice as the atmosphere warmed, because higher temperatures would cause more snowfall at the poles.

That view began to change in the early 2000s as scientists learnt how to detect changes in the ice sheet far more precisely and satellite images revealed a series of spectacular collapses of some of the floating ice shelves that fringe the edge of the continent.

Ice shelves, unlike ice sheets, are big floating slabs that form as land ice spreads out on the ocean. As they grow, icebergs eventually snap off at their edges, though not always as dramatically as the Delaware-sized slab that split from the Larsen C ice shelf last July. Because they are floating, ice shelves do not raise sea levels themselves when they break up (think of how a glass of Coke doesn’t spill when its ice cubes melt). But scientists gradually realised that the shelves act like gigantic door-stoppers, stemming the rate at which ice from land — which does raise sea levels — flows down into the sea.

Flying over the icy terrain on the way to Fossil Bluff
Flying over the icy terrain on the way to Fossil Bluff © Charlie Bibby

It soon became clear that some glaciers were indeed moving faster where shelves had broken away, and there was growing evidence that the continent as a whole was losing ice, especially in West Antarctica. The last report from the IPCC in 2013 suggested Antarctica’s ice sheet would only contribute a few centimetres to sea-level rise by 2100. But some researchers now think parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet could have tipped into a state of unstoppable collapse. One US study in 2016 suggested that if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, Antarctica’s ice loss could raise sea levels by more than a metre by 2100.

That research remains controversial. But Shepherd said the bottom line is we do not know for sure: “There is a small chance that sea-level rise could be much bigger than everyone is expecting, because some models do predict extreme rises.” Some scientists have already begun to say that tens of billions of dollars should be spent on massive engineering projects to stall ice loss, such as artificial islands that could pin ice shelves into place in front of glaciers.

In a sign of growing concern, the US and UK agreed in 2016 that they would spend up to $25m, a fortune by Antarctic science standards, on a five-year study of the area around the huge Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Researchers describe the region as the continent’s “weak underbelly” because its collapse could eventually trigger more than 3m of sea-level rise. Ted Scambos, one of the US scientists behind the study, said: “This is the biggest glaciological study the two nations have ever attempted together, and it’s going to take our best effort to do it.”

Up in the Antarctic Peninsula, Rothera is already showing how quickly parts of the continent are changing. One morning, a bunch of people gingerly lowered themselves into an inflatable boat to go and see something remarkable near the Sheldon Glacier, a huge long lump of ice that oozes down to the sea not far away. Everyone wore puffy orange immersion suits because falling into the icy water would have spelled death in minutes. The boat had to steer clear of icebergs, which can topple over and crush anything near them, as well as the towering glacier cliffs, where falling chunks of ice can be equally deadly. 

Some of us had never been to the Antarctic before and were openly agog as we motored past floating ice where pods of fat seals lazed in the sun. Cries of “My God!” and “Look!” filled the still air as we rushed to take selfies in front of the edge of the glacier that reared up from the shoreline like a jumbled white cathedral, pocked with electric-blue ice. 

One Antarctic veteran pulled out a bar of Cadbury’s milk chocolate that had been stored at Rothera for years, swearing it tasted better than anything sold today. Another explained how to chip off bits of glacial ice for gin and tonics back at the base, where it pops as it melts and releases bubbles of air trapped for thousands of years. 

A researcher treks towards a British Antarctic Survey hut at Fossil Bluff
A researcher treks towards a British Antarctic Survey hut at Fossil Bluff © Charlie Bibby

In the giddy atmosphere on the boat, one man was more subdued. He was Peter Fretwell, a geographer at BAS, where people say he works in magic. This stands for the Mapping and Geographic Information Centre, which draws up maps for scientists, pilots and anyone else visiting Antarctica. Fretwell kept frowning at a satellite map he had brought, which showed the large bay we had come to was not quite what it seemed. In fact, 25 years ago, it would not have been there at all. 

Back then, it would have been covered in thick ice flowing down from the mountains. But the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming places on the planet. Temperatures on the west coast have risen by around 2.9C in the past 60 years, about three times the global average, while surface sea temperatures have gone up by more than 1C.

The Sheldon glacier began steadily shrinking back in the early 1990s, and what was once ice is now a large bay of open water. “It’s beautiful and fantastically impressive,” Fretwell said, staring out at the view. “It doesn’t look like a system that’s in turmoil and rapidly changing, but it is.”

The speed of change has had another impact on Fretwell. For the past five years, he has helped to manage a huge international database that is used to create the most up-to-date maps of the Antarctic. These rarely needed much redrawing in the past. But over the past decade, as the ice has changed and remote sensing technology has improved, the number of revisions has surged. “Now we’re updating every year,” said Fretwell. “It’s quite a task.” 

Antarctica’s shifting ice may eventually pose a problem for humans, but there are already signs that it is affecting the continent’s wildlife. Back on dry land, Simon Morley, a marine biologist with BAS, was in an aquarium at the base’s laboratory, checking on the creatures collected from the icy waters.

Morley has lost count of how many times he has been to Rothera but as the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed, he has found himself in conditions he never expected to experience. A few years ago, he jumped into what he expected to be freezing water and discovered it was 4C, warmer than some waters he had been in during a UK winter. “Just imagine,” he said. “You come down here preparing to dive in the Antarctic and it’s four degrees. It’s crazy!”

A seal spotted near the Sheldon Glacier
A seal spotted near the Sheldon Glacier © Charlie Bibby

That spelled problems for some of the creatures in his tank. His research has shown that limpets, a vital cog in the ecosystem, lose the ability to turn over and protect themselves from predators once water temperature rises above 2C. But Morley was also preoccupied by what he called the “monstrous changes” on the sea floor that have occurred as the duration of winter sea ice has steadily declined.

The state of Antarctica’s sea ice is not straightforward. Like the Arctic, the seas around Antarctica freeze every winter and melt in summer. But unlike the Arctic, where the extent of ice is shrinking at record rates, Antarctica’s sea ice has grown in some years and reached a record high in 2014. Comparing the two very different environments is fraught.

But Morley was focused on what was happening around Rothera and, in particular, icebergs. As they drift around, icebergs scour the seabed like gigantic white bulldozers, leaving a mass of crushed plants and creatures in their wake. There is less devastation when the sea ice is frozen solid and the bergs are trapped in place. BAS researchers have found that between 1997 and 2007, the sea ice froze solidly for up to 200 days a year. But after 2007, the number of days with solid sea ice plunged to 100, freeing bergs to float around the bay.

For more than a decade, Morley has been monitoring a patch of seabed in a cove near Rothera that has revealed an unsettling change. “There was a massive increase in marine-life mortality,” he said. “It is as if someone started cutting down a rainforest repeatedly every year so there was no hope of any seedling growing to become a mature tree. That’s what has happened in this cove in the last decade as the duration of sea ice has reduced. It’s one of the most startling natural changes in the seabed that we know of in the world.”

Sea ice duration is critical for other Antarctic creatures, including the famed Emperor penguin. This species breeds on the ice, which in turn shelters one of its sources of food: tiny shrimp-like krill that are also a staple for seals and whales. BAS scientists have already found evidence of four Emperor penguin colonies breeding on ice shelves instead of sea ice, even though it means they have to travel further for food. Other researchers’ estimates suggest the total population could halve by 2052. In 2012 the species was reclassified from one of “least concern” to “near threatened” but some scientists think it now deserves to be regarded as endangered.

At other times, however, the birds at Rothera can seem too robust. One day, the weather was calm enough for another boat trip to a small nearby island, where Open University plant scientist Kadmiel Maseyk was keen to look at moss. Only a handful of plant species can survive this brutal environment but no one knows exactly what will happen to them as the continent’s climate changes. 

Maseyk had brought bags of cutting-edge instruments to measure the way moss behaves. But he had failed to include a more basic piece of equipment: a big stick with a black flag on top that scientists use to ward off the south polar skua, a brown bird that grows to half a metre long and is notoriously proficient at dive-bombing.

Maseyk arrived, breathless, where other scientists were gathered, urgently seeking one of their flagpoles. “There was a moss patch I wanted to see but couldn’t get there because of the constant skua bombardment,” he said. “The sky was black with them! I hightailed it out of their way while I still had everything intact.” He ended up getting about 20 minutes’ worth of data on a trip that had taken hours to prepare.

Back at the base, Richard Phillips, a seabird ecologist with BAS, would not hear a bad word about the belligerent skua. He has been studying seabirds in the Antarctic for nearly 20 years and speaks of them as some people describe their children. He is as fond of the “lovely little” snow petrel (despite its habit of projectile vomiting) as he is of the Emperor penguin, which grows so big you can “barely get your arms round a full-sized one”. He looked visibly pained as he described the decline of the albatross, which drown in droves each year as they dive on baited hooks trailed by fishing vessels. 

A skua swoops down to steal Richard Phillips’ hat
A skua swoops down to steal Richard Phillips’ hat © Charlie Bibby

Even the scrappy skua had its charms. “They’re beautiful creatures,” he beamed, as he prepared to show sceptical visitors one he claimed was so smart it had learnt to steal his hat. Sure enough, as he approached the bird, it dived at his head, snaffled his woollen hat and took off with it for about 100m before wheeling back to drop it at his feet.

But Phillips was also perplexed. He is one of the BAS scientists who have been studying about 25 pairs of skua at Rothera since the 1990s.

Until a decade ago, breeding failures were rare. But in five of the last 10 years, very few or no chicks lived, and last year only three pairs laid eggs. No chicks survived.

“We don’t know why the skuas are failing,” said Phillips. But once again, changes in the sea ice might be to blame. One possible explanation, Phillips said, was that more ice had hampered the birds’ ability to find fish. But it could also be that less ice had meant less krill for the fish, and therefore more hungry skua.

As our visit drew to an end it was evident that, for all the obstacles scientists faced in the Antarctic, many had made solid progress. Frithjof Kuepper finally started diving. Andrew Shepherd successfully tested satellite gear. Simon Morley found seaweeds never seen near the base before. Kadmiel Maseyk learnt a lot of new things about moss.

But there were also signs of the difficulties that lie ahead. 

Peter Fretwell, the geographer who took us to the Sheldon glacier, had another mission. He was one of four scientists planning to check on something no human had ever seen before. In 2015, an anomaly had shown up in his satellite data suggesting that there could be a sizeable colony of birds on an island south of Rothera. 

Satellites have led to enormous advances in understanding Antarctica, but scientists often need to check what they show by visiting sites in person, or at least getting close enough to fly a drone above them. Fretwell and the others planned to go to the island, document the colony and the surrounding plant life, and then declare the area a special protected zone.

BAS geographer Peter Fretwell at Rothera
BAS geographer Peter Fretwell at Rothera © Charlie Bibby

The trouble was, the spot was in a part of the island known as the Finlandia Foothills where no one had ever been, and for good reason.

It was lashed by storms, pitted by crevasses and so remote that it would take two hours of flying to get even close to it. Fretwell went over first with a field guide but the weather was so bad he was confined to his tent for days and the rest of the party were stuck back in Rothera. Eventually, they all got there, only to discover a lot of snow and ice and rocks but no birds. The anomalous reading had been caused by an unusual type of rock.

A team of US scientists made better progress. In March they reported that, using satellites backed up by drones, they had found a “super colony” of about 1.5 million penguins on another island near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. 

Fretwell was not discouraged. He now knew how to correct the satellites so they did not make the same mistake again. “That’s the thing about working in Antarctica, you really are working on the edge of knowledge,” he said. “It is probably the only place in the world where we are still making discoveries on an almost weekly basis. The reason why it has kept its secrets so long is the remoteness and the incredibly harsh and difficult conditions that scientists and support personnel have to endure.” 

This was just another story of the challenge of studying Antarctica. The question is whether we will we be able to learn enough about the vast white continent before it changes beyond measure. 

Pilita Clark and Charlie Bibby travelled to Rothera with the British Antarctic Survey, an institute of the Natural Environment Research Council

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