© David Despau

“I love it because it’s so remote. It used to take me three days to forget about the rest of the world”

Dame Jane Francis, director of the British Antarctic Survey, tells Helen Pilcher about the pleasures of polar research, and how not to make ice cream in Antarctica.

What do you do? 

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It’s my job to provide leadership to the international polar community and to manage and represent the British Antarctic Survey. That includes overseeing all of our science, our research stations in Antarctica, the people who live and work there, and our aircraft and ships. We currently have two ships, and the RRS Sir David Attenborough which is being built.

And the infamous Boaty McBoatface? 

Yes. Boaty McBoatface was the name given to the small robotic subs that will be launched from the ship. The original naming competition was run by the Natural Environment Research Council, of which we are part. I think it’s great that Boaty will be gliding through the oceans collecting important data to help explain the role of oceans in climate change.

How many times have you been to Antarctica? 

I’ve lost count. I’m a geologist by training. I used to go on regular field trips and spend months at a time living in a tent. Fifty million years ago, the climate was much warmer and Antarctica was covered in dense, green forests. I’d go looking for plant fossils from this time. If we want to understand future climate change, it’s important to learn from the past.

What’s it like working in such an extreme location? 

I love it because it’s so remote. The tents, which are similar to the ones that early polar explorers used, are snug and windproof. It used to take me around three days to really forget about the rest of the world. After that, the only things I’d concentrate on were my work, the weather – because it can change so suddenly – and what we were going to have for dinner that night. Food became a major preoccupation.

What’s a typical meal in the Antarctic? 

It varies. Breakfast would be sugary porridge, washed down by loads of tea to avoid dehydration. Then we’d walk for miles to make observations and collect rocks, and stop in a sheltered gully for a lunch of maybe biscuits, canned cheese and Marmite… and lots of milk chocolate. Then we’d cook in the tent in the evening. One of the things you notice is that you lose your sense of taste. We end up putting tonnes of curry powder in our food to make it really punchy.

Any puddings? Arctic roll? 

I did try to make ice cream once. I mixed milk powder, a bottle of vanilla essence and water then put it outside the tent to freeze. At -25°C, we figured it would be ready in about five minutes, but half an hour later it was still runny. In the end, we left it outside for a week, and it still didn’t set. We later discovered it was synthetic vanilla, essentially made from antifreeze chemicals. We found it funny that we couldn’t make ice cream in Antarctica!

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How does one go to the toilet in Antarctica?

We have a small toilet tent on the edge of camp that has a special plastic tub with a seat on. When the tub is full it’s sealed then taken away from Antarctica and incinerated. There are strict environmental laws to make sure that we leave Antarctica as beautiful and pristine as we find it.


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