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An Intrepid Look at Winter with Climate Scientist and Adventurer Felicity Aston

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Felicity Aston is a British adventurer, climate scientist and STEM advocate, who in 2012 became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica. At 23, Felicity left the UK to spend three years living and working in the Antarctic as a meteorologist with the British Antarctic Survey at Rothera Research Station. On her return, she was part of the first all-female team to complete the Polar challenge, a 360-mile endurance race across the Canadian Arctic. A year later, Felicity led the first British women’s crossing of the Greenland ice-sheet. Since then she has gone on to lead numerous expeditions including the Kaspersky Lab Commonwealth Antarctic Expedition, the largest and most international women’s expedition ever to ski to the South Pole.

Felicity Aston. Credit: Copyright Land Rover / RGS (with IBG)

“Our comfortable thought about Antarctica as a static cold monolithic environment is over as we’re now seeing it as a living being that’s dynamic and producing change. Change that is being broadcast to the rest of the world, possibly in response to what the world is broadcasting down to Antarctica,” a glaciologist aptly sums up his observations of the changing landscape in Werner Herzog’s documentary on Antarctica “Encounters At the End of the World.”

This resonates with the British climate scientist and adventurer, Felicity Aston, who is very familiar with the global environmental issues that she says threaten our planet. She is also an advocate for promoting awareness and understanding.

Having this year taken part in a photo shoot for the Guinness Book of Records after becoming the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica, Felicity is now well under way with her next major challenge.

Following winter

Traveling 30,000 km across northern Europe and Siberia over three months, Felicity and her three-person team will chase winter to the Pole of Cold, the coldest place in the world outside of Antarctica. Here they will explore the social, cultural and physical effects of living in the most extreme climates, engaging with local communities and researching how they have adapted to life in sub-zero temperatures.

“The team will track the extreme weather through scientific and creative means, documenting the physical, human and cultural geography as we go along,” says Felicity. “We’ll be looking at the day-to-day reality of life in the harshest of conditions and hope to bring alive the fascinating local stories. There are so many curiosities around how for example you use an iced-over lake to heat a house or whether it is possible for temperature to rise with altitude rather than drop?”

Extreme climates

The team get set for their "Pole of Cold" expedition (left to right): Gisli Jonsson, Felicity, Manu Palomeque. Credit: Copyright Land Rover / RGS (with IBG)

Felicity has a strong track record when it comes to extreme climates. Her record breaking ski across Antarctica in 2012 saw the adventurer cover 1,744km in 59 days, traversing the continent from the Ross Ice Shelf to Hercules Inlet on the Ronne Ice Shelf, via the South Pole. However what really gave her the mental strength and knowledge of working in such conditions was her first job as a meteorologist with the British Antarctic Survey. In this role she spent two and half continuous years in the Antarctic, living and working at Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula between 2000 and 2003.

“At the age of 23 I chose the most alien part of the world, away from civilization, to start my first role in science. At times it was an intimidating and a brutal environment on a small base territory with a population of around 85 people living through contrasting periods of both 24-hour daylight and four months of complete darkness. The strangest and hardest times were when the ships would leave with the majority of the team on and not return for another 7 months. “

As well as monitoring ozone depletion and climate, Felicity’s role involved looking after a small outpost and an aviation re-fueling depot during the austral summer. At times, Felicity and a colleague were the only people on an island roughly the size of Wales.

On her current trip, as recipients of the Land Rover Bursary, run by the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), the “Pole to the Cold” team will be collecting data and findings from the deepest, most remote parts of Siberia.  As well as recording daily podcasts, video, photos and using social media, the team will be creating educational resources for schools to use and learn from. “The aim is to get people thinking about the climate and winter in particular, and the impact the environment has on the way ordinary people live their lives. In Siberia, graveyards are on stilts, pipes and wiring are on top of the roads, children go to school in minus 30 Celsius, but can’t go out at break times, and some locals use flame throwers to start their car engines. Often the sporadic meetings with locals offer the biggest insights in the most extraordinary circumstances.”

Science education

As one of only three pupils to have studied physics in an all-girl’s school, Felicity is a keen advocate for promoting the benefits of STEM education to today’s students. After completing her first degree in Physics and Astronomy at University College London (UCL), Felicity went on to gain a Masters in Applied Meteorology from the University of Reading.

“As one of very few females to have studied sciences as a youngster I’d be eager to see certain attitudes change towards STEM education. It may be a case of re-branding it to broaden the appeal to more young female students and to talk about science in a way that involves adventure and hands on exercises and research that are not just laboratory based.

“The idea that all of us are carrying out scientific experiments all day every day is wrong as there are so many fascinating roles within science that a curious mind is ideal for. I’ve worked with so many interesting people from marine scientists diving in the farthest flung oceans, to biologists carrying out wildlife surveys in the deepest jungles; the benefits of STEM education are endless.”

Climate change

The team did the majority of their preparation in Iceland prior to the expedition. Copyright Land Rover / RGS (with IBG)

When it comes to educating young people today on climate change and the impact it is having, Felicity is concerned that the real messages are getting lost in the negativity. “Speaking at a lot of schools on Antarctica and the effects of climate change, the messages coming out of every classroom are that of doom and gloom, that it is up to tomorrow’s generation to fix it.” She notes it is a worrying trend by many students of “why bother, if it’s already gone too far.” “We need to be messaging it in a completely new way talking about the positives achieved through research and science.”

She argues if something as big and influential such as the Antarctic Treaty can be passed in times gone by, then climate change is not out of reach. “Setting aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishing freedom of scientific investigations and bans on military activity on the continent was a big deal. The issue of climate change needs to be combated. The ozone hole depletion was largely successfully curbed and the problem of carbon emissions not untameable. The key here is we need to adapt and stop arguing whether it is or is not happening. We need to progress to a stage where we are looking at what we can do and educating young people about how they can make a difference.”

So, with the Guinness Book of Records behind her, Felicity’s achievements are almost effortlessly piling one on top of the other. From leading the first all-female team to complete the Polar challenge, a 360-mile endurance race across Canadian Arctic, to leading the first British women’s crossing of the Greenland ice-sheet, and countless other expeditions, she is a true “adventuring” scientist in every sense of the word.

Her current expedition is scheduled to return from the Pole to the Cold in February 2014. The team’s journey can be followed on Twitter @poleofcold2013. There will be a major exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in May bringing art, science and adventure together.

 





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