What I’ve loved this season: Antarctica 2019-2020

A few of my favourite things from the past season.

I’ve just returned from four months in Antarctica, working for the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust in the famous Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy through the southern summer season.  It’s been an overwhelming couple of weeks, as I reconnected to the rest of the world and remembered how to do little everyday things that were missing from my life over those 110 days.

Like using money and buying things I want from shops and bars, rather than just asking someone to bring things to me.  Driving, and even just moving around at a faster pace.  The colour green.  Or looking out the window and seeing animals that aren’t penguins.  I miss those penguins.  (Though the odour of penguin guano is still lingering on in the fabric of my outdoor clothing).

Then there was the added strangeness of adjusting to our new normal in the time of corona.  Reuniting with family wasn’t the hugs and long conversations I’d imagined I’d have, but waving through the window of houses as I stood outside in the garden, and staccato notes in what’s app chats and skype calls.  It’s tough, but I know that I’m not the worst off in this situation, and for that, I’m so very thankful.

These are a few of the things that I loved over my Antarctic season, living in close confines with a small team, on a little island with no escape.  There may even be a couple of things you find useful yourself over the next few weeks as we adjust to living in lockdown.

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Things I’ve loved during the southern summer in Antarctica

My Antarctica love list:

Nivea Factor 50 sunblock: The Antarctic atmosphere is ozone-depleted, and intense sun rays can penetrate through more easily, even on overcast days.  Harsh light is reflected back by ice, snow, and the sea.  I wore this every day to protect my skin, and I love the familiar summer-smell of it.

Cébé Summit sunglasses: As with the sunblock, these were essential everyday wear for working outside, even when it was an overcast day.  They have category 4 UV protection, transmitting less than 8% of visible light, so will become part of my ski kit.

Palmer’s coconut oil leave-in conditioner: Like the Nivea, it became an everyday essential to protect my hair from the wind and sun, and it smells wonderful.  Sometimes a blast of it was just enough to drive out the smell of penguin guano until my next shower.

Merino beanie:  This merino beanie hat from Findra is super warm but lightweight and breathable, and in my favourite colours.  Perfect for an Antarctic summer, and autumn in Ushuaia.  I’ll keep wearing into next season, as I’ve already had a couple of frosty mornings and snow showers this week in Scotland.

Splashmaps toob: I live right on the North Sea coast, so this is excellent for keeping the breeze off my neck on cold walks, and my hair out of my eyes as I run.  The Antarctic peninsula map and gentoo penguin design is exclusive from the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Rab powerstretch gloves: Super warm and stretchy gloves.  For all the reasons above.

There are two seasons in Scotland: June and winter.

Billy Connolly

The Storied Ice by Joan N. Boothe:  A fantastically readable book covering the history of the Antarctic peninsula region.  My recommendation for anyone interested in learning more about the continent before their visit, or gaining a vicarious overview of exploration and discovery.

Leatherman sidekick:  A pocket-sized multi-tool I’ve been using for everything from opening up generators to breaking down cardboard boxes.

Irish wheaten bread:  Kit introduces us to the delight that is Irish wheaten bread with this mix from the Cookie Jar Bakery in Newcastle, Co. Down.  Devoured still warm with butter donated from a cruise ship.

The Tin Can Cook by Jack Monroe:  While our provisions in Antarctica were mainly tinned or dried products, this was a consequence of our privilege to be in such a unique location.  For many others, tinned food is an affordable and nutritious necessity.  This brilliant book by cook and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe helped us put together tasty and inventive meals.

Berocca:  Fizzy multivitamins, these were essential for the days when “freshies” (fresh fruit and vegetables) hadn’t been available.

Bananagrams: A simple but addictive Scrabble-like game of assembling words.  This occupied several of our evenings, and according to the Lockroy rules, abbreviations and words in Finnish, te reo Māori, and Scots are all accepted.  As there was no google to check the veracity of claims, it all came down to how convincingly you could argue.

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1. Leatherman Sidekick; 2. The Tin Can Cook by Jack Monroe; 3. Palmer’s leave-in conditioner; 4. Nivea Factor 50 sunblock; 5. Berocca multivitamins; 6. Bananagrams game; 7. Merino beanie hat from Findra; 8. Powerstretch fleece gloves from Rab; 9. Cébé Summit sunglasses; 10. Port Lockroy Splashmaps Toob; 11. Wheaten Bread Mix from the Cookie Jar Bakery; 12. The Storied Ice by Joan N. Booth.

 

What’s next:

Well, who really knows what the answer to that question will be?  I’m back home in Aberdeenshire, and finding myself at the end of a contract at a terrible time to find any work, let alone in the travel and outdoor sector.  However, I have a roof over my head and food to eat, and time to process the experience, which I think is all anyone can ask for right now.

Here’s to a bit of time enjoying the great indoors.  Stay safe, and thank you for following These Vagabond Shoes.

Vicky

I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to, and how you’ve been dealing with time spent in isolation or lockdown.  Let me know in the comments below.

18 interesting facts about the Arctic

A selection of facts about the Arctic you’ll find rather interesting.

While researching ahead of my time in Antarctica, I was continually side-tracked by snippets of information relating to the Arctic, and articles making comparisons between the two polar regions of our globe.  Stories from the rich history of the people who make the region their home, and the explorers seeking new discoveries about the region; the unique ecosystems and wildlife; fascinating geographical phenomena and the spectacular natural beauty of a landscape carved from rock and ice, dark and light.

I’ve long been fascinated by the polar regions, and have travelled widely in the European Arctic.  I accidentally booked a bargain ski break to Finnish Lapland at the end of the polar night*; road-tripped from Tromsø to Kautokeino, Kirkenes, and Nordkapp in the never-setting sun; and sailed southwards from the Norwegian Arctic (ending up in the Algarve), crossing the circle on the way down.  I’ve explored the north coast of Iceland, and the southern tip of Greenland, though whether those constitute the actual Arctic depends on the definition you prefer (see below).

*where I taught myself to ski Nordic-style and discovered the magic of saunas and salmiakki. 

In the process, I’ve uncovered several interesting facts on which to hang my own experience and understanding, and I’m sharing the best of them here.

Arctic Facts

  • The Arctic polar circle is an imaginary line circling the earth parallel to the equator at latitude 66°33′ N.  Locations north of the line observe least one day of midnight sun at the June solstice, where the sun remains above the horizon, and at least one day of polar night at the December solstice, where the sun doesn’t rise over the horizon.

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  • Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard, at 78° 13’N, experiences 125 days of midnight sun, where the sun never fully sets, between mid-April to mid-August.  The polar night there lasts from mid-November to the end of January.
  • The Arctic Circle passes through Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, USA (Alaska), Canada, Greenland, and the very northernmost island of Iceland.  Only 5 cities or towns with a population greater than 15,000 lie north of the circle: Murmansk, with over 295,000 residents; Norilsk, over 178,00 residents; Tromsø, around 76,000 residents; Vorkuta, around 58,000 residents; and Kiruna, over 17,000 residents.  The largest settlement in the North American Arctic is Sisimut in Greenland, with around 5,000 residents.
  • The name Arctic is derived from the Greek arktikós.  Arktos means bear, and arktikós, the land under the bear, referencing the northern constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear).  The brightest star in Ursa Minor is Polaris, also known as the Pole Star or North Star, which lies in-line with the earth’s rotational axis almost directly over the North Pole.
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Arctic sea ice. Photo Credit: Patrick Kelley
  • Unlike the Antarctic, a continental landmass surrounded by ocean, the Arctic is a small, relatively shallow, ocean basin surrounded by the continents of Eurasia and North America.  The Arctic Ocean has an area of around 14 million square kilometres, making it just a tenth of the size of the Pacific Ocean.  Much of it is covered by ice, which varies in thickness and extent with the season.  The maximum extent is seen in April, the minimum in September, and the difference between the two is somewhere around 7,000,000km2 (2,702,700 square miles), about the size of Australia.
  • The first nautical crossing of the Arctic Ocean was made in the Fram, captained by Otto Sverdrup, between 1893 and 1896.  The expedition was led by legendary explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who attempted to ski to the North Pole while Fram was locked in ice, reaching a record of 86° 13.6′N before being defeated by the southerly drift of the sea ice.
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Fram photographed during Amundsen’s Antarctic expedition, showing the distinctive Colin Archer lines that enabled her to drift with the Arctic sea ice.
  • Another definition of the Arctic is the region where the average temperature in July (the warmest month) is below 10°C (50°F).  The isotherm marking the boundary slices across Iceland from northwest to southeast, sweeps up north of Tromsø, wiggles along the northern coast of Russia, before dipping down to take in the Aleutian archipelago, back north to Nome, then roughly tracing the polar circle across Canada, taking in northern Hudson Bay and Labrador, and passing far south of Cape Farewell at the southern tip of Greenland.
  • The coldest temperatures observed in the northern hemisphere aren’t actually found in the Arctic, rather in the interior of Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Russia’s Far East.  Despite the extreme cold, with a record low of -67.7°C (-89.9°F), the region isn’t considered “Arctic”, as the continental effect on the climate means summers can be as warm as 15°C (59°F).
  • Seven of the eight nations in the Arctic (Iceland is the exception) are home to indigenous peoples, who have lived in this region for millennia.  Their cultures and customs have been shaped by the unique environment of their home, and their relationship with the landscape, natural resources, and climate of the region.
  • Reaching the North geographic pole had been a goal for explorers since the late 19th century, and the first undisputed expedition reaching the pole was on the airship Norge in 1926, led by polar veteran Roald Amundsen.  Previous claims by Dr Frederick Cook in 1908 and Robert Peary in 1909 had dubious veracity or were lacking in detailed records allowing independent verification, casting doubt on their assertations.
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Routes through the Northwest Passage
  • Roald Amundsen also holds the distinction of leading the first voyage to traverse the Northwest Passage, the fabled sea route through the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean discovered by John Rae.  He took his ship Gjøa from Norway to Greenland, then through the Canadian Arctic archipelago, to Nome, Alaska between 1903 and 1906.  On the way, he spent two winters in the area now known as Gjøa Haven to learn skills from the Netsilik Inuit that proved rather useful later in his exploration career.
  • The Greenland Ice Sheet is the largest body of ice in the northern hemisphere, and second only to the Antarctic Ice Sheet.  It covers approximately 94% of the land area of Greenland, to a mean altitude of 2,135 metres (7,005′), and is over 3km (1.9 miles) thick at the thickest point.
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The entrance to the Global Seed Vault in the polar night.  Photo Credit: subiet.
  • The Arctic hosts one of the most remarkable examples of international cooperation.  The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard (Svalbard globale frøhvelv) is constructed deep inside a mountain, and currently holds 980,000 specimens of seeds from around the world to safeguard genetic diversity for the future, and provide resilience in the event of a natural or anthropogenic disaster.  You can make a virtual visit here.
  • Arctic plant life is characterised by adaptation to a brief, bright summer, and short growing season, followed by a cold, dark winter, often over permanently frozen earth creating a biome known as tundra.  The boundary between the tundra and the boreal forests found further south is known as the tree line, which roughly follows the July 10°C (50°F) isotherm around the globe.
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Reindeer on the Svalbard tundra. Photo Credit: Per Harald Olesen
  • The tundra supports a range of specialised wildlife, including herbivores like arctic hares, lemmings, muskox, and reindeer (caribou), and predators like wolverines, arctic foxes, snowy owls, and arctic wolves.  It is also home to many species of birds that take advantage of long days and abundant insect life to lay eggs and raise their young, before migrating south for the winter.
  • The Arctic Ocean is also home to a rich diversity of unique wildlife, including walruses, ribbon seals, and harp seals, belugas and narwhals, long-lived bowhead whales, and the apex predator of the region, the polar bear.  Many of these creatures are dependent on the edge of the ice to find the ideal conditions for feeding and hunting.
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Polar bear leaping on sea ice in Svalbard. Photo Credit: Arturo de Frias Marques
  • All is not well in the Arctic.  As a result of climate breakdown, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth, resulting in the loss of sea ice, melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and rising sea and air temperatures.  It has been predicted that the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free in summer before the end of the century, and in worst-case scenarios by the end of this decade.
  • The Greenland Ice Sheet was found to be melting at a much faster rate than previously thought, having lost more than 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992.  Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet contributes directly to rising sea levels around the globe, as the ice rests on a landmass, unlike the floating sea ice.