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MULTIMEDIA FEATURE

HANDS OFF GREENLAND AND ANTARCTICA, SAYS NEWCASTLE-BASED SCIENTIST

-Northumbria University geologist prepares for her third trip to the Antarctic
-Dr Kate Winter argues polar regions should be off limits to development (and purchase offers from Donald Trump)
-Research gives insight into climate change and, potentially, how to reduce its impact
28 August 2019

Kate Winter in Antarctica. Image: Kate Winter/James Linighan/International Polar Foundation

“I really want to put up a sign saying ‘Not for Sale’,” says scientist Dr Kate Winter. “It’s something I want to see with the North Pole region completely.”

She is reacting to the recent news that U.S. President Donald Trump wanted to buy Greenland from Denmark.

The geology researcher based at Northumbria University is wary of the search for shipping lanes (and oil) as the northern ice sheet melts. But she wants to encourage regular visitors, as one way to take pressure off Antarctica, which is popping up on more people’s Instagram list of places-to-go-and-impress-your-friends.

“Greenland’s got a lot to offer. It’s got a lot more wildlife that’s really accessible. There are local communities you can visit and you can buy things from them to support them. For people who want to explore an icy region, I think Greenland’s a fantastic place.”

She would know, having visited as a teenager and later becoming a polar region expert. Winter was awarded the prestigious Baillet Latour Antarctica Fellowship in 2018.

From a Scottish village to the ice fields

Winter grew up in Arbroath, a Scottish coastal town an hour south of Aberdeen.

“When I was a child I always questioned why,” she says. “Why is that rock there, why is that mountain so high, why is the sea blue? I must have driven my parents mad. I guess I was always questioning and my parents encouraged the questioning.”

Kate training on her crevasse rescue technique. Image: Kate Winter/James Linighan/International Polar Foundation

A two-week trip to Iceland at the age of 16 meant saving hard, but the payoff has lasted a lifetime. “It was fantastic. That was where I stood on my first glacier and just loved it. It really was one of those magical moments, and I said to my teacher ‘I’m going to do more of this.’”

Not long after that, she went on a six-week trip to Greenland with the British Exploring Society, and she knew she had found her niche.

Rocks tell stories about life’s origins, and its future

Winter’s first degree was in geology and geography, with a special interest in rocks and sediment.

“Rocks tell a lot of stories,” she says.

 

”You can pick something up and it will tell you how it formed, where it’s been, what the climate was like at the time. If you see fossils in it, it can tell you about life at the time. So I think there’s an awful lot you can learn from just a rock. It’s a very quick window into the past.”

This week’s announcement that ‘space dust’ from a supernova has been found in Antarctica is more proof that the world of rocks and sediments is more exciting that it might seem to the novice.

Uncovering Antarctica’s secrets beneath the ice

Winter’s PhD took her to Antarctica for the first time (feeling like “a space explorer”), and she got back this year from another six-week trip.

Her research is multi-pronged. She uses a drone to take photos of mountains and track changes year-to-year.

She takes rock samples, without drilling, retrieving only material that the ice brings to the surface.

 

And she uses a lot of radar to check what’s under the ice. This examines ice flows from the past to see any changes in how quickly rocks and ice are travelling from the mountains to the Southern Ocean.

Kate with a drone mapping changes in the mountains with photos. Image: Kate Winter/James Linighan/International Polar Foundation

She has a simplified explanation of what she does, ready for pub conversations: “I say it’s a bit like an x-ray. You take an x-ray of your body and it allows you to see beneath your skin and see the bones and you see if there are any problems with the bones.

 

"And it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt the ice, but it allows me to take a look at the health of the ice. And I can compare it. I can go this year and go in 10 years’ time and see if there’s any change.”

A snowmobile is used to tow a radar to penetrate through the ice.  Image: Kate Winter/James Linighan/International Polar Foundation

And the pub version of why it matters? “Sea level. If we put a lot of pure water, pure ice into the ocean, the sea levels are going to rise and that’s going to impact lots of people around the world. People can relate to that.

 

"If we melted the Antarctic ice sheet, the sea levels would rise globally by metres and metres and it would be an absolute disaster. So that’s the absolute worst-case scenario. We’re going to flood large parts of the UK, Florida’s going to go, Holland’s going to go.”

Is there hope on the horizon for Antarctica?
Is there hope on the horizon for Antarctica?

Winter says the thickest part of the ice, in the East Antarctic ice sheet, is still stable, so she doesn’t want to cause alarm.

Meanwhile, the focus of her current research is the presence of so-called ‘bio-available’ iron in the rocks heading slowly to the ocean.  

 

Iron can cause phytoplankton blooms, which are a building block for sea life but which also capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and hold it in the ocean. It’s too soon to say how much iron is entering the ocean and how much it could help reverse global warming.

“We really don’t know the answer at the moment,” she says. “It could be very little. But even very little, if you have lots of very little, it adds up doesn’t it? So I think it’s important to quantify.”

Winter says the thickest part of the ice, in the East Antarctic ice sheet, is still stable, so she doesn’t want to cause alarm.

Meanwhile, the focus of her current research is the presence of so-called ‘bio-available’ iron in the rocks heading slowly to the ocean.  

 

Iron can cause phytoplankton blooms, which are a building block for sea life but which also capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and hold it in the ocean. It’s too soon to say how much iron is entering the ocean and how much it could help reverse global warming.

“We really don’t know the answer at the moment,” she says. “It could be very little. But even very little, if you have lots of very little, it adds up doesn’t it? So I think it’s important to quantify.”

Local children get an insight into the frozen continent

What’s also important for Winters is sharing her knowledge and her adventures with regular visits to  schools in the North East.

“I’m really passionate about outreach and engagement. I don’t just want to go to Antarctica for me. I want to take as many people with me as I can. I think it’s really important for us to explain what we’re doing as scientists. We’re funded by the taxpayer so it’s important to give back and explain what I’m doing and why I think it’s important.

“So I go into schools and we actually get them to do the science. I don’t want to stand in front and preach. So we bring in rocks that have been in Antarctica. How many people have held an Antarctic rock? And you see the faces lighting up. ‘Wow!’ You know, they’re really inquisitive.”

Left: Laser scanning allows Kate to map mountains. By subtracting scans, she can see if rocks have fallen between the two-scan interval. Right: Noting precise co-ordinates of the drone's take-off position, so Kate can return to the same spot on her next trip to photograph the mountains. Images: Kate Winter/James Linighan/International Polar Foundation

Students have tracked Kate in real time, creating graphs by comparing the temperatures in Antarctica and Newcastle.

 

And she conducts experiments for them that they have to develop. “Recently at one school, this little boy who was kind of mucking around a bit, when given this task he said ‘Miss, what would happen if you froze my school jumper?’”

So Winter took the jumper to Antarctica and filmed it getting progressively more frozen until “it just creaked and cracked.”

Life on the Ice

The climate at the South Pole isn’t just harsh on jumpers. It can be treacherous for people, too, but for Winter that’s part of its appeal.

“The weather can be ferocious but it’s really beautiful when it’s like that. You hold out your hands and you can’t see them because the snow just whips up and the clouds come in and it’s just white. They call it white-out. It’s a bit like a dream. I suppose it’s what you imagine when you think of heaven, the idea that you’re passing through to something else, something that you don’t understand. It’s not scary.”

The weather can be changeable, and dangerous.  Image: Kate Winter/James Linighan/International Polar Foundation

“It’s quite magical when the wind picks you up off your feet, and the wind comes out of nowhere. You can have your friend very close by but the wind is howling, and you can’t hear them so you can’t scream for help. You really have to make sure you’ve got supplies with you, warm clothes, but if the weather’s really bad, you can’t survive in Antarctica for very long.”

That means reading approaching clouds for signs of trouble and heading back to base, in her case the Princess Elizabeth Antarctica (PEA) station, which is funded by Belgium and operated by the Brussels-based International Polar Foundation (which also designed and built the station with help from sponsors).

A base with a 'James Bond vibe: Princess Elizabeth Antarctica station.  Image: Kate Winter/James Linighan/International Polar Foundation

Twenty-four hours of daylight means setting her own schedule for work and rest.

 

“Life is so simple there,” she says. “Time doesn’t matter, money doesn’t matter. There’s no point in stressing because it won’t make any difference. And what I really love is that I don’t have ready access to the internet so you can have a good conversation, a really good argument and Google won’t tell you the answer.”

Her mother worries about Winter being so far from a hospital, but the scientist is somewhat fatalistic: “If something happens to me, just leave me down there. I was happy, that’s what I say.”

Back in the UK, but missing Antarctica

Winter admits she is more comfortable with life in Antarctica than in the UK (“Don’t tell my husband!”) and it takes time to re-adjust to crowds, noise and smells. 

 

“And having a phone again. I think it’s your phone pinging all the time. So I came back and deleted lots of apps. I don’t need that in my life,” she says with a laugh.

Kate Winter in Newcastle. 

She will start preparing soon for her next six-week trip, with a plea to the public. “I think it’s a beautiful pristine environment that we need to protect, and in order to protect it we need to understand it.”

She encourages people to ‘explore’ Antarctica themselves, including via Google Earth.

“Go and take a look and see what interests you, because the more we know about something the more we care about it. And we need to care about Antarctica, because we don’t want it to go.”

Video: Watch Kate Winter talk about work, and life, in the Antarctic.
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