Saturday, 15 April 2017

Happy Easter!

At the moment, no oceanography is happening. In the mild terms of one of our seafarers, there’s a bit of a blow on. Or as one of our technicians put it, “Who ordered the howling gale?” So it’s all very much like a holiday on board- or it would be if you spent your holidays sliding up and down the floor and flailing madly at every bit of furniture that you went past. Surprisingly no one has been to see me about sea sickness tablets recently. This may mean that they’re all hardened sea farers or that they’re lying in their bunks groaning quietly and collectively. I was reading the monthly reports of my predecessors and one included the graphic and memorable phrase “...I don’t want to have to clean chunks out of my surgery sink ever again...” so I have to conclude that perhaps it’s for the best if people don’t wend their way to the surgery when feeling a trifle delicate and simply call me and request a home visit instead.
So how have I been occupying myself when not ministering to the needs of the poorly and mopping their feverish brows? Well, I did have the fun of teaching one of our scientists and a technician about wound care. An orange had Grievous Bodily Harm inflicted on it and then we variously steristripped, glued and sutured wounds closed.  For purposes of verisimilitude a face was drawn on the fruit with marker pen; he looked very jaunty. Sadly I may have destroyed our technician’s dreams of doing a Rambo and cauterising his own wound with gunpowder and then stitching it closed. I pointed out that this would probably hurt a lot and anyway it didn’t sound very sterile to ME. I then pontificated that “irrigation is the solution to pollution” before slashing the orange again and ripping away a bit of peel to create a more authentic wound. I may have slight anger issues. Our orange was then dubbed the “Franken-fruit.” Once we finished with him we deposited him back in the fruit bowl- complete with sutures still in situ. Unaccountably, no one seems to want to eat him...
Soundtrack suggestions... The first cut is the deepest?

The FrankenFruit!

I’m also completing the indent. Never fear, faint hearts, it is PRECISELY as dull as it sounds! I’m also not entirely certain that I’m doing it correctly. My duty this month, you see, is to order all the stuff that we need for the next year or so. Now we have a lot of stuff on board that is very much there as a “break glass in case of emergency” kind of thing. So quite often things need to be reordered simply because they’re out of date rather than because we’ve run out. Whilst it might seem excessive to keep re-ordering really arcane bits of medical equipment or drugs, I really, really wouldn’t want to be in the situation where they’re needed and not there.
In an exceptionally nerdy sort of way, I’m actually enjoying the work. It’s not exactly taxing- but my drugs cupboard looks so much sleeker and tidier now that I’ve got rid of some of the ballast! I’ve gone for the drugs cupboard first because most of the stuff is in drawers so if the ship moves a bit briskly I can slam the drawer shut. I have a horrible mental image of being crushed beneath a hundred-weight of life saving medical equipment and my bosses calling my next of kin to say that I was killed by sledge-hammer irony.
So I’ve had my laptop in the drug cupboard with me, playing Billy Joel and the Boss as loud as I can and singing oh-so tunefully to myself. No one has complained just yet, although I have noticed a sharp increase in the amount of beer consumed on board...
In terms of how else I’ve been amusing myself, I’ve been knitting a cardigan like mad for my other half. Apparently I have an extraordinary capacity to mess things up. I’ve had to rip it down and re-knit it so many times. By the time he gets it, I’ll actually have knitted it twice. I also keep looking at online fabric shops and lusting after their wares. I’ve been strong so far and not caved but I want crepe, I want silk! It’s not the clothing-in-potentia that I’m buying, you see. It’s just like a lottery ticket. I’m buying the hope that I will make something gorgeous and one-of-a-kind and then shrug and laugh and tell people, “Hah, oh it’s just something I made!” whilst feeling horrifically smug inside.
What this? Oh it's just something I made! Back and left front of the cardigan. He will LIKE IT!

And on that slightly bizarre note, Happy Easter! I trust you will all have a joyously chocolate-fuelled couple of days!

Possibly not the right kind of Easter chick...but I did try!

Friday, 31 March 2017

Fear and Despondency in Punta Arenas

Hello and greetings! Many apologies for not writing in such a long time. The truth of it is that on our way back from the Weddell Sea I really didn’t have anything particularly exciting to say- there were just a lot of grey and glowering waves- and then after our sojourn in Punta Arenas it felt like I had too much to say! So I kept putting it off as a bad job. I feel shame. I’m like Cersei Lannister- apart from, you know, the weird stuff.
The only excitement on our way into Punta Arenas- a huge flock of seabirds shadowed us!

I had a fantastic time in Punta Arenas. I took delivery of a huge cargo of chocolate and many books. The purser is now charged with rationing me to a bar a week lest my Christmas podge re-appear. And I had letters from my lovely other half and from a friend of my parents which was amazing! I sat and opened my mail whilst drinking a coffee and gazed out over the Atlantic. I felt so cool; it hurt. Martha Gelhorn totally did stuff like this!
Once chocolate supplies were assured however, my main priority was going for a swim. As I’m not quite stoical enough to go for a dip in the Southern Atlantic, I booked into a hotel. I donned my bikini and shot into the pool and wallowed for hours. Apparently my presence dismayed the other pool users; they promptly fled the scene after I began swimming laps and created my own little bow wave that washed them into the shallow part of the pool. I then spread further fear and despondency in the hotel by wandering back up to my room clad in my towel and bikini. Judging from the looks of dismay that I received, I’ve suddenly realised that behaviour that is charming and amusing when you are 5, lacks a certain something when you’re 32.

I ate out almost every evening in Punta- including in a French restaurant which was very agreeable. I had pate and hare in the Magellan style if you’re interested. Followed by a trio of chocolate pudding-y goodness. The waiter had clearly taken my measure by this point because afterwards he brought me out a coffee with a little chocolatey thing sat next to it. Pisco sours then ensued. This is an utterly lethal beverage containing egg whites, syrup, Pisco, bitters and lemon juice. After a number of months of drinking only on special occasions, it hit me like hand grenade. Wow. Apparently I insisted on making friends with every single dog in Punta Arenas. There are a lot of dogs in Punta. It took me hours to get back to my hotel.

I was not defeated by this minor hiccup however and the next day I sallied forth- blinking fitfully at the bright sunshine- to book a trip to Torres del Paine. This is a rather lovely national park that sits in the Patagonian part of Chile. The Paine massif- an outcropping of the Andes mountains- looms over the park which is heaving with the kind of flora and fauna that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Approaching the national park
 Confused by Chile’s draconian laws about bringing in fruit or nuts? This unique environment is the reason why. Amongst the very exciting beasts that bound through the park are pumas, guanacos, rheas, condors and grey foxes! There’s a cave where prehistoric human remains have been found and there are three granite towers named Cleopatra’s Needles by a woman who gloried in the unlikely name of Lady Florence Dixie. What more could you possibly want in a park?
Bird of prey (any help guys?)

The guanaco

Cleopatra's Needles/ Torres del Paine

 I had imagined that it was too far to get to from Punta Arenas- but we found a tour company that were doing day trips. It did mean getting up at 5am to catch the minibus but it was well worth it.
My 5am face. I NEED that coffee

 We were exceedingly lucky; the weather is fairly unpredictable in Torres del Paine and we had a whole day of glorious sunshine. The joke goes “So, you don’t like the weather in Torres? Wait a minute.” Ho ho ho. Something of a dad-joke there. Our guide, Francesco, told us that the previous week he had taken a group to the park, waved at a wall of roiling clouds and said, “Well, the mountains are behind those clouds there. I can show you a picture if you'd like?” Our day was beauteous however and provided me with many an opportunity to take intrepid explorer photos. Such things are not to be sneezed at. I was enraged to see my buddy’s photos though. The little devil was taking photos on an i-phone and they looked far better than what I was taking on my cool, multi-lens camera. Only after stringing me along for several hours did he disclose that an I-phone lets you edit photos as you go along. Ah...
I'm an explorer! Just like Lady Florence Dixie!

We returned back to the ship at 10pm and exhausted by my dissipation; I crawled into bed. And that was it; the next day we were off! Back out to sea again. We’re in good company though; there are two science cruises aboard and most importantly, Boaty McBoat Face (the autosub) sails with us!

Cleopatra's Needles/ Torres del Paine

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Neck Pain and Ice

I taught my first aid team how to take a history the other day and as I did so a little shockwave of warmth and contentment ran through me. You see, history taking is a game that patients like to play with doctors where we try to garner enough information to establish a diagnosis and patients do their best to obstruct that process.

Me: So, Mr X, how long have you had this pain in the neck?

MR X: Oh, a while.

Me: I see. Erm...any idea how long “a while” is? Are we talking weeks, months, years?

Mr X: Well, it started after I bought the new playstation.

Me: Riiiiiiight....I’m not quite sure when that was, Mr X.

Mr X: Well, you know, just after the TV.

Me giving up: OK, fine, fine. So what does the pain feel like, Mr X?

Mr X: Well, you know, it’s bad. Really sore.

Me: OK, yes, but you know how a burning pain is different to say, a stabbing pain? Which is different to an ache? Well, what does the pain feel like? Because that might help me to differentiate what the problem is.

Mr X: Well, it’s just bad really.

Me getting slightly high pitched: So I get that the pain is severe, but what I’m really trying to get at Mr X, is what the sensation feels like.

Mr X: Oh I see. Well it’s like a burning, stabbing, achey kind of pain really.

Mr X, this last in a helpful voice: But it’s really bad. Very sore.

Me: So, Mr X, do you have any previous medical complaints?

Mr X: No, none.

Me, nearly crying now: Are you quite, quite sure Mr X? Any idea why you might be on this cornucopia of medication then?

Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that doctors are impatient and intolerant individuals who bark questions at their patients and are never satisfied with the answers. No, indeed. We’re all lovely people. I, in fact, have a certificate of niceness! But the above conversation is one that will definitely be familiar to all of my colleagues so it was with a sweet sense of recognition that I saw very similar interactions being played out by my first aid team.

I had split the team in half and given one set of first aiders the scenarios and the others were to try and take a history from them using the SAMPLE (symptoms, allergies, medications, past medical history, last oral intake, events leading up to illness)  framework. It was so satisfying. I watched my first aiders struggling to gain the correct information from patients who decided entirely without prompting to be obstructive and withhold key nuggets of information. Perhaps my favourite moment was when I took on the role of the consultant on a post-take wardround (the consultant who reviews patients after admission and clerking by a junior doctor) and had various angry first aiders squawk, “Hey, you told me you had a pain in the neck, not in the buttock!” Welcome to hospital medicine lads. Welcome.

Joking aside, my first aid team are doing brilliantly. We’ve covered using splints, taking X-rays, history taking, wound and burn management, major trauma, managing severe allergies, and hypothermia and cold related injuries. I couldn’t be more pleased with them. But I wouldn’t be human if I hadn’t experienced a flicker of schadenfreude during the history taking...

That rather bold interlude aside, let’s talk about ice. As, I’m sure you’re aware, ice is the solid form of water. And as anyone who has ever had an iced drink will know, ice floats on top of water.

 Now this happens because ice is rather less dense than water and so it’s able to float. Think of water molecules as square dancers interacting with each other. In liquid water the music is playing and the dancers are gliding past each other, swinging their partners round and stripping the willow with glee. In ice, the music hasn’t started just yet so the dancers remain at a fixed distance from each other and they don’t move.

So what makes our icy square dancers so stand-offish? Well, water molecules have something called hydrogen bonds holding them together. In liquid water the hydrogen bonds are constantly breaking up and reforming, rather like our square dancers taking new partners. As water gets warmer, the particles within it have more energy so they move about more and break and remake the hydrogen bonds more frequently. The reverse happens as water gets colder. As water turns to ice, the water molecules stop moving about and stay still. The hydrogen bonds within the ice stop breaking and reforming and instead are fixed- just like the dancers when the music stops. Because the hydrogen bonds aren’t continually breaking and reforming, the water molecules are forced away from each other by the fixed and outstretched hydrogen bonds and thus the liquid water is denser than the ice because the molecules in liquid water can get closer together.

Now this is quite handy. If ice was denser than water it would sink to the bottom of our oceans and seas and these bodies of water would freeze from the bottom up. This would be rather a shame for all of the organisms that dwell at the bottom of our seas but it wouldn’t just be those organisms that suffered. Some scientists hypothesise that were the seas and oceans to freeze, they would reflect solar heat back out into space and in very little time our lovely home would turn into a massive ice ball.

The other rather nifty trait of ice is that it’s transparent. Light passes through ice to illuminate the water beneath. This enables photosynthesising organisms to make their home under the sea ice down here in the Southern Ocean whilst being protected from the wrath of the elements by the carapace of ice. The algae and young krill that live under the sea ice are a vital part of the food web of the Southern Ocean- without the sea ice these food webs could start to come apart and the cute little weddell seals and penguins might start to struggle.

Emperor Penguins

Emperor Penguins in the water

Now, you may wonder why the fate of a weddell seal is even remotely important to you. After all, that seal is a long, long way away. It never calls on your birthday and it certainly never sends you a Christmas card. All it does, in fact, is help to trap carbon that was in the atmosphere in its own body. Our friend the seal eats the krill, which feeds on the algae which strips carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The southern ocean is a carbon sink of incredible importance and without the ice it might not do its job as well as it does. So if you’re opening a bottle of wine tonight, or perhaps enjoying a gin and tonic, I’d like you to raise your glass to the ice. Saving our planet, one cube at a time!

Monday, 20 February 2017

Dr Frankenstein I presume?

This may sound like a funny thing to assert, but I’m not really sure that I believe in cricket anymore. I’ve been sailing since September of last year, but never has the world of cricket, supermarkets, graffiti, rain, Coffee Number 1 (shout out to Cardiff there) and Dorothy Perkins seemed so remote as this week. We’ve spent the last four days in a place that looks like the spitting image of the ice planet Hoth (if you don’t know what I mean- find someone as nerdy as me to explain it) and I’m struggling to believe that such diverse conditions can really exist on one planet. Admittedly the earth is a fairly big place but it is mind-blowing to believe that whilst I’m shrugging myself into a decidedly unattractive padded onesie to go outside and face temperatures of -20°C, somewhere people are playing cricket and going into supermarkets. So I’ve dealt with the incongruity by deciding that cricket does not exist. Already my world is a great deal better and I feel a significant lightening of my spirits!

It has been incredibly cold here. Enjoyably, mind boggling cold. At 0°C, the cold is almost refreshing. It’s novel and exciting. It brings a flush to the cheeks and you can wear jeans outside. At -20°C, going outside to take photos for ten minutes requires preparation. It requires quiet grunting and effort as thermals are hauled on, clothes layered on top of that, followed by a padded boiler suit, thick socks, boots, a buff, sunglasses, a hat and two layers of gloves. After all of these layers are applied I have the light agility and grace of the Michelin man, but fortuitously I’m well padded for when I ricochet off walls with my unaccustomedly large proportions!

I tested the warmth of my layers a few days ago when we flew the quadcopter from the deck of the JCR. The quadcopter is a fun little robot helicopter that is ostensibly used to take measurements of the ice in difficult conditions and is also useful for ice navigation. It also just happens to take fantastic aerial photographs. We had wonderfully bright and clear conditions a few days ago so we put the quadcopter up on her first flight. It was rather a tense mission as these toys are eye wateringly expensive but she was flown in style and came home without getting lost amongst all the icebergs or indeed getting dropped in the sea. Early on I inserted myself into the proceedings as “communications officer” which in practice meant that I took lots of photos and only intermittently stuck my hands in my armpits and bounced frantically up and down. It was -21°C and I feel that behaviour was entirely legitimate!
The Quadcopter returning home

The quadcopter looking a little bit like the Empire's Recon Droids on the ice planet Hoth

Flying quadcopters aside, we actually went into the ice a few days ago in the hopes of finding our biologists some seals to tag. Breaking ice is hypnotising to watch. Standing at the bow of the ship, there’s a constant rasping, rumbling noise as the ship shoulders aside smaller icebergs. They spin off like graceful waltzers, only coming to rest as the ship brushes past them. Occasional shudders run the length of the vessel as she hits the larger icebergs, backs up and then heaves into them again. The ice shows the strain, crumbles at the edges and then a large crack snakes its way the length of the sheet and the JCR thrusts her way through to the clearer water ahead. It’s mesmerising. In amongst the vast plates of ice that make up the pack are veritable mountains of ice. They look like the kind of thing that steely eyed people apply for permits to climb because “it’s there.” It’s an utterly bewitching landscape; ever changing, infinitely beautiful and deeply perilous.
Plates of ice in the Weddell Sea

Vast icebergs in the Weddell Sea

 Up until two days ago our efforts to tag seals had been foiled; wildlife is always uncooperative and sneaking up on weddell seals in a big red ice breaking ship is something of an art form. We finally found a seal that fit the bill two days ago. Our little friend was the right species, lying on an absolutely vast ice flow and most importantly didn’t show the same rude tendency to precipitately vanish into the water as soon as the JCR hove into view. Our seal taggers were winched onto the ice flow and then slunk their way towards their prey, stopping only to test the ground for crevasses full of snow that might tumble them into the icy water.
Getting winched onto the ice

Hauling the tagging supplies

The seal was thrilled by his visitors and promptly showed his open and trusting nature by rolling onto his back and waggling his flippers at them. Regrettably our scientists were most impolite and instead of waggling their flippers back, attached a small tracking device to him. This device is attached with glue and is designed to come off in the first moult next year. In the interim it should give us lots of information about weddell seal behaviours like feeding and mating and most importantly shouldn’t cause Martin the seal any distress. We’ve since tagged a further two seals and are hoping for a total of eight.
Our research contributor!

There was time for more philosophical discussions today. Some of our engineers were desirous of having the concept of kidney stones explained to them, so I drew a renal tract (kidneys, bladder etc) and explained how everything works. This just led us on to more questions about basic anatomy and more and more subpar drawings from myself. Never try to teach an engineer anatomy. I was eventually fixed with a bemused look, and told that actually it would be far more efficient to have two hearts and possibly some sort of acid rinse system to stop the kidneys from being bunged up by stones. Marsupial pouches and chlorophyll impregnated skin were also posited as ideas. He’s not quite certain of the details, but he thinks he can have a few ideas sketched out for me by next week. Ah. I guess that makes me Dr Frankenstein then?

And some Emperor Penguins! Just because you've been so lovely!
Aren't these guys great?


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Ice breaking movies

Hello! I thought that I would give you all a special treat today and let you all watch some ice getting crunched. It's almost as satisfying as popping bubble wrap... It was a decidedly bracing -16°C whilst I was filming this and the wind chill made it feel a lot worse! I had thermal layers on, my clothes, my jacket, a hat, a scarf and my gloves and I still felt rather chilly.


Just so that you guys are aware, as we head further south (we're currently sitting at a very exciting 77deg South) we may start to lose comms as we lose our satellite link. So I promise, I haven't stopped blogging. I may just not be able to communicate!

Saturday, 11 February 2017


I came across a very interesting piece of gossip the other day. Now obviously this is top secret, so you mustn’t tell anyone. Apparently Bird Island, Signy and King Edward Point Stations used to have darts tournaments over the radio. But, and here’s the kicker, unbeknownst to all the competitors only two of the three stations actually possessed a darts board... Now I tell you this, not to encourage you to distrust all those who have spent time at KEP, Signy or Bird Island (although I certainly wouldn’t play poker with the little devils) but to simply admire the can-do attitude and chutzpah of the people on the bases. These proud men and women of the British Antarctic Survey were not to be foiled by the mere absence of a darts board and they improvised, they adapted and they overcame adversity. And only incidentally won the cup three years running...
So I thought it might be fun to consider times aboard the ship where we have improvised to get around a tricky situation. The delivery of a consignment of unshelled nuts, for example, led to one of our engineers creating what I like to call the “nut vice” which crushes the nuts between two plates. The results are somewhat lively with shards of shell pinging through the bar area like shrapnel, but the point is that we improvised and also learned a lot about the importance of safety goggles.  

The Nut Vice

Our chief engineer deeply enjoys weight lifting. So he requested that one of our motormen build him a weight rack. It looks quite a lot like something that might have been used by Laura Ingalls in “Little House on the Prairie” had she been keen on squatting- but it does the job. This is somewhat disturbing because it means that when I’m leading the circuits class (I know, what was I thinking?) the sessions are punctuated by a very burly man making the sort of noises that I normally associate with an obstetrics ward. But he’s happy and that’s the key thing.
Laura Ingalls-Wilder's Squat Rack

The reason for my madness in starting circuits classes up is that I thought it would force me to exercise. I can’t put up signs suggesting that everyone join me for an invigorating session of circuits every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then not show up myself. It’s a little bit nerve-wracking. I don’t even like having birthday parties in case no-one comes along, so you can imagine the terror that assails me every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 5.15. What if nobody comes? It’s a nail biter, I know. I was deeply unimpressed by our deck engineer who didn’t share that he used to be a personal trainer in the military until AFTER the first circuits class! However, as I’ve since stolen all his workout plans and used him as “my glamorous assistant” who demonstrates all the exercises, I can’t complain really.
And what is the JCR doing at the moment? We’re progressing further South; we crossed into the Antarctic Circle some days ago which means that I got a certificate (the Hermione Granger part of me is deeply happy) and that there are a lot of icebergs about.
I'm in Nerdvana


We even got to 75°S which meant that I was one of the most southerly doctors employed by BAS; how’s that for latitude attitude! We saw our sister ship, the Shackleton, zipping about the other day- she’s planning on mooring at the edge of the ice shelf to make some deliveries to Halley. And we’re doing a number of CTDs whilst we progress on our merry way.

The Shackleton

CTD stands for conductivity, temperature and depth, which is by strange coincidence, exactly what it measures! Now, I’m not the best person to explain the wonderful world of CTD (that would be Chris on his blog “Chris’s Climate and Oceanography Blog”. Look it up- it’s funny and clever!) but it involves dropping a metal ring with several bottles welded to it, over the side. The bottle lids are triggered to ping off at different depths, which means that we can collect water from different levels of the ocean and then analyse it for things like dissolved gas or the presence of metals. Probes are also present on the metal ring and they measure the conductivity, temperature and depth of the
water around the device.

One of the things that I’m most excited by is the seal-bothering. Apparently one of our science groups wishes to tag seals. Seals on the whole, are less keen on tagging and so they tend to require a short trip off to sleepy land which is where things get slightly more complicated. Previously scientists used dart guns to shoot the seal with a tranquiliser and then tag it. However administering a successful dose of the tranquiliser is very dependent on seal weight which is rather tricky to guesstimate. So our intrepid scientists are going to try gassing the seals down. Please bear in mind that these are not cute, fluffy, little things, but rather fanged monsters that smell like dead fish and weigh a few ton, so asking it nicely to wear a mask smelling of sevofluorane (anaesthetic gas that smells like lilos) may not work. I have to admit to a slightly sadistic feeling of curiosity as to how well this is going to go... Joking aside, they seem to have a very good protocol worked out, so I’m sure that it will be fine.
Icebergs behind me- I feel this photo is like a proof of life!

I had cause to use my X-Ray machine in anger the other day. I tested it out on a few bits and bobs first of all. It’s proper, old fashioned radiography; I load my X-ray films into cassettes, shoot the X-ray and then develop the films in my dark room. Developing the films is pretty much the same process as photos used to require many years ago. There is a developer bath, a water rinse and then a fixer bath. The film has to spend the right amount of time in each tray so that the image is usable after it’s processed. And with X-ray films you only get one go at developing the image, so you’d better get it right on the first go! This was all incredibly fun even if my dark room does double as the surgery’s bathroom. If I want to develop films in there I have to turn the red light on (Roxanne) and stuff towels into the crack under the door so that daylight doesn’t get through and fog the film. And then because I can’t see my watch in the red light, I have to count “1 elephant, 2 elephant...” It takes a long time to get to five minutes. But despite that it was strangely addictive and I find that I’m quite curious to know what things look like on the inside. So if you’ll excuse me, I just need to irradiate my makeup bag...
*The part about the scallywags winning the darts championship cup three years running isn't entirely true. I don't even think there was a cup!

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

How the Doctor got a Bird Island T-Shirt

Peat is more interesting than you’d think. Not only can it be used to flavour whiskey, but with a bit of ingenuity it can also tell us a lot about the world around us. One of the scientists, Angela Gallego-Sala, is particularly interested in what it can tell us about the carbon cycle. Peat represents plant matter which grew and then died in water saturated environments like wetlands or bogs. Whilst the plants were growing they trapped the energy of the sun and used it in conjunction with carbon dioxide to create glucose or sugar. This traps carbon inside the plant. Under normal circumstances, this carbon is returned to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when the plant dies and decays. In peatlands, things are slightly different. As the plant matter in peatlands decays, it does so in an environment which is saturated with water and thus starved of oxygen. The decomposition of the plant matter is therefore a lot slower and most of the carbon stays safely locked away in the partially decomposed plant matter.

This may all sound terrifically familiar to anyone interested in fossil fuels. And that’s because it’s pretty much the same stuff. Peat is just a few million years off turning into lignite coal. It’s still used as a fuel around the world. People in areas that are extremely low on trees have always tended to use peat to fuel fires instead. This is why Scottish and Irish whiskies have that distinctive smoky flavour; the malted barley used to make the spirit is dried over peat fires.

Peatlands are extremely efficient carbon sinks. Any carbon dioxide emitted by the decay of plant matter is used in photosynthesis by plants living at the surface. Peatlands tend to work as net-extractors of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Not only that, but they allow us a window back in time. Because the plant matter falls in layers and the deposition is very slow (peat layers form in millimetres each year), taking core samples of peat enables us to see what plants flourished thousands or hundreds of thousands of years ago. And we can also extrapolate what conditions might have been like at those times.

Angela’s research is attempting to outline certain aspects of climate that may impact on the carbon cycle- in particular wind speed. As winds move around the Southern Ocean they find little in the way of land masses to impede their progress. As such they pick up enormous amounts of sea spray and deposit it on any land masses that they encounter. This means that in times of greater wind speeds, more salty water is deposited on the land.

Angela’s team have noted that certain species of testate amoebae live in the peatlands. Different communities of amoebae will flourish at different levels of salinity. Core samples of the peat will therefore contain different communities of amoebae depending on how salty the peatland was when that layer of peat was being formed. This can then be carbon dated and we can work out what wind speeds would have been like at the time when the peat layer was formed. Why is this important? Well, when wind speeds and currents align, the southern ocean has a tendency to stop being a carbon sink and instead releases carbon into the atmosphere again. So if we can establish under what circumstances this is liable to happen, we can predict in future when we might lose the safety net which the southern ocean carbon sink provides.

This was a very long winded (but hopefully interesting) way of saying that Angela and her team will spend the next few months island hopping in the Sub-Antarctic islands. She’s working in conjunction with French, Russian and American scientists who are likewise attempting to map out the carbon cycle in the southern ocean. And all this meant that I got to visit Bird Island which is clearly the most important aspect of the whole thing! 
Bird Island
 Bird Island lies just off the North Western tip of South Georgia and has had a BAS research station there since 1957. It was spruced up a few years ago and now consists of about 3-4 buildings all in the tasteful muted green that BAS seems to like! It’s only accessible by sea and the jetty is in fairly shallow waters which meant that we had to approach in the Humbers (little power boats). I had been asked if I wouldn’t mind popping in to answer a few questions on medications (Bird Island does not get their own doc, you see, just a team of advanced first aiders) and first aid protocols. Trying my hardest to rein in a massive smirk, I said that it would be a hardship, but I would see what I could do. And despite the fact that I got into the world’s biggest boat suit which made me look a bit like a telly tubby mated with an astronaut, the day was a triumph!

We shot forward into a wall of low-lying cloud which eventually parted to expose the station and the bay in which it lives. The barks of seals filled the air, as did the reek of salty, fishy decomposition that impregnates the island! Our little boat dodged around floating rafts of kelp and rounded a rocky promontory on which seal pups crawled anxiously calling out for their mothers. Smooth and sleek adult seals jetted through the waters near the boat, hunting for prey in the grey-green waves. A photo at this point would have been wonderful but I regret that I was otherwise engaged in clinging on for dear life.
Fur seals frolicking in the water (photo taken by Sara Labrousse)

At the jetty, there was a massive welcome party. We were escorted towards the base and I was impressed by the nonchalance with which our hosts shooed the fur seals out of our way whilst the furries barked at us, exposing their questionable dental hygiene. These little charmers are quite aggressive during the mating season and seal bites are very liable to get infected. Even the pups seemed to learn grumpiness early on, with tiny little seals growling at me as I went past.
The welcoming party  (photo taken by Sara Labrousse)

Great teeth on a furry  (photo taken by Sara Labrousse)

We were given tea and cookies (chilli and chocolate cookies- absolutely amazing!) and then I cracked on with helping with the first aid stuff. But not before I’d issued the most important command “I don’t have much time. Quick, go get me a Bird Island t-shirt!” Must-Be-Branded.
Most important job achieved- a T-shirt! Excuse the smirk- I struggle with selfies!

It was great and the time passed all too quickly. But soon enough I had to scuttle back outside, along the metal walkway that the fur seals have decided to colonise and onto my little boat. Angela and her team were left behind to do their research and we bounced back along the crests of the waves to the ship. As we were winched up to the deck the sun came out, burning away the mists that covered the island. It was possible to see the birds that give the island its name, swarming about the cliff face and livening the air with their cries.  
Being winched aboard  (photo taken by Sara Labrousse)

Ak- the birds!