A Picture Perfect View of the Polar World

In January of this year (2020), I travelled to Antarctica for 2 months, to help carry out scientific research relating to the impact of global warming. We were primarily studying the changing levels of phytoplankton in Antarctic fjords, and whether they are influenced by the increase in fresh water from the melting glaciers. Phytoplankton supply more than 50% of the world’s oxygen and are the first step of the marine food chain. Simplified, this means Sunlight -> Phytoplankton -> Krill -> Whales, Seals, Penguins and Sea Birds. The project involved working out the concentration of phytoplankton, collecting samples and analysing them under a microscope, as well as recording the salinity of the water at each location.

Aside from the research, I had the opportunity to participate in a wide range of polar excursions, including camping out on the ice and a polar plunge, where we jumped into the freezing water surrounded by the towering glaciers in our swimming costumes. With a crowd forming to watch, I decided to rise to the occasion and dive into the water. A mistake I only discovered when I hit the water and my body froze, and realised I was now a long way from the boat and my towel! A month later I was below the Antarctic circle and a second polar plunge was on the cards. This time I opted for the pencil jump into the 0.8° water, also influenced by the leopard seal I had just spotted on the nearest piece of sea ice.

Antarctica has a brief human history of just 200 years, most of which is dominated by explorers fascinated by the last truly wild place left on earth. The variables of being somewhere so wild are too many and too wide to predict, meaning every day is unknown and out of human control.

For a famously hostile environment, it remains a mystery how I felt so at home there.

When you enter Antarctica, you cross latitude 60 degrees south and you enter a world without wifi or internet, you enter a geological masterclass. Being a polar desert, it is the coldest, windiest, driest place on Earth.

There were moments however, when I was gliding through the water in a zodiac, surrounded by silence, except the crackling of the ice, the deep sound of whales breathing and the gentle lapping of water against the side of the boat. It was complete serenity. As an 18-year-old I can’t imagine a more inspiring location to give me a new perspective on life.

I kept coming back to what David Attenborough said, ‘No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced’. I feel very privileged to have experienced somewhere so valuable and peaceful and wild, and I have an even stronger desire now to protect it. This year I am starting at Edinburgh University to Study Politics and Philosophy with additional modules in oceanography and sustainability. Whether I go into environmental politics or become a polar guide, I hope I’ll return to this once in a lifetime continent.

Katia Boulton (Class of 2019)