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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 10:56 GMT
Antarctic base commander
Graphic, BBC
You quizzed Brian Newham, head of the British Antarctic Survey's Rothera base, on what life is like for those few people who inhabit the White Continent.

Michael Hudson, UK, asked: Do you use radios to keep in touch? Are they VHF or HF and what distance do you get using them?

Brian Newham replied: We use marine band VHF for local communication and the range for that is about 30 miles (50 kilometres). For longer distances, we use HF, which gives us the ability to talk to field parties, ships, aircraft and other Antarctic bases. The range for that can be worldwide, but that's dependent on atmospheric conditions. We routinely use satellite-based communications for contact back to HQ in Cambridge, UK.

I think everyone who winters here will watch The Thing - but probably only once!

Brian Newham
Paul Harris, UK: How do you communicate down there in Antarctica with the rest of the world? I know you have phones at the Halley base - what about at Rothera?

BN: We use satellite communication systems. That gives us both telephone and e-mail/data links. It's not cheap, so we only make a connection when we need it and we batch all of our e-mails together and send them three times a day.

Andrea Knott, UK: What do you miss most from home? Was working in Antarctica always an ambition for you?

BN: The idea of Antarctica came to me as an undergraduate by which time I was fully committed to mountaineering and visiting the wilder parts of the world. It was a natural progression and the only thing that got me really excited as a way of life. Returning home is always great - family, friends, trees and colours. It's a life of contrasts.

Harry Palmer, UK: Is your favourite film for those cold six month-long nights John Carpenter's The Thing?

BN: I think everyone who winters here will watch The Thing - but probably only once! Apart from that, we have a large video collection and we tend to watch them a couple of times a week. We take it in turns to choose the film.

Andrew Levens, UK: 100-200 is a small community, but large enough to create awkward situations, such as sexual competition and over-dependence on alcohol. How do you deal with that?

BN: In the Antarctic winters, numbers go down to around 20, so it is quite a small community. Most of the people that come here get a huge amount out of it. It's an all-absorbing way of life and people soon realise that what each and every one of us does affects everybody else.

Brian Newham answers your questions, BBC
Brian Newham answers your questions
Larry Diener, USA: Which is the worst factor: The cold, the wind, or the darkness?

BN: I love the environment here and it's part of what I came for. It has so many moods. You have to take what comes. Being prepared is the key to it.

Andrew Climance, UK: How do you deal with the large amounts of waste matter produced by your facility and reduce its impact on the environment? Do you employ any recycling technologies?

BN: All hazardous waste is returned to the UK for safe disposal. Other items such as drink cans and batteries are recycled in the UK and non-hazardous wastes are taken out of the Antarctic by ship and disposed of properly. We put a lot of effort into our waste management.

Roberta Sherette, USA: Do all countries participate in a collective effort to keep Antarctica free of our human impact?

BN: All Antarctic Treaty nations have adopted a protocol on environmental protection. As part of that, the UK has enacted domestic legislation to enforce that protection. We take it very seriously and are always looking to reduce our impact.

Hamish Smith, Derbyshire, UK: The Antarctic can be very cold in the summer making weather/climate research difficult. What happens in an Antarctic winter - do you batten down the hatches or do you all return to the UK?

BN: The summer months are very busy and we do all of our field science then, along with building maintenance work. In the winter, we reduce the size of the team to around 20. This is a mix of science and support. The science work continues but it will be more local to the station.

It's very difficult to get here and in the winter it's essentially cut off as the sea freezes and darkness descends

Charles Price-Smith, USA: I am seven years old and I have just read a National Geographic December 2001 article on Antarctica. How do you live in Antarctica when it drops to -85 degrees F (-65 Celsius) and have you ever touched real penguins?

BN: We try to get most of our outside work done in the summer when it's a lot warmer. In the winter months, it's dark as well so we have to be a lot more careful. There are several different types of penguins in Antarctica, but we try not to disturb them too much.

Andrew Smyth, USA: What is the warmest it gets there and for how long; what is the coldest and for how long? Do you think people would ever want to live there in large numbers?

BN: The Antarctic is a huge place - one and a half times the size of the USA and the temperature varies a lot. Where we are the summer temperatures can rise to just above freezing and in winter drop to -30 degrees C (-20 F). It's unlikely that many people would want to live here. It's very difficult to get here and in the winter it's essentially cut off as the sea freezes and darkness descends.

Colin Field, England: Do you have a problem when you arrive back in the UK (or elsewhere) with driving, i.e. judging distances and so on? The reason I ask is I would imagine there's not a lot for the eye to reference on?

BN: At Rothera we are surrounded by mountains, so it's not quite the flat featureless landscape that there is elsewhere in Antarctica. When I get back to the UK I always find traffic and driving a bit of a shock - mainly because of the speed of it all and by being amongst large numbers of people.

Anand Raval, India: I would like to know what kind of research you are doing at Rothera.

BN: We cover a lot at Rothera - marine and terrestrial biology, geology, meteorology, glaciology, geophysics, and medical research. Some of it is carried out on the station and other work in deep field sites which we support with our aircraft. You will find lots of information on our website,

Simon West, UK: Do you think there may be traces of a lost civilization buried under the Antarctic ice?

BN: The Antarctic continent has never been populated, so we are not likely to find lost civilisations. Geologists often find fossils of marine life, vegetation and even dinosaurs. These were laid down before the continent drifted to where it is today.

Robert del Valle, USA: Not that I wish to see it happen, but are there any resources at the South Pole that can be used by man? Specifically, minerals or natural fuels.

BN: Nobody has found any resources that are remotely viable to extract and it certainly isn't something that we go in search of. In any event, the sheer logistics of access would be prohibitive.

Andreas Kuempel, Germany: What was it like to hear about the terror attacks and the war in Afghanistan while you were researching the environment at one of the loneliest points of the world?

It's almost like running two lives in parallel - my life here and my life at home in the UK

BN: It was a huge shock for people and difficult to comprehend that people wanted to do such a thing when the world is faced with so many important questions. We were worried at what we might be coming home to.

Steve, UK: How many people apply for work in the Antarctic, and what percentage of applicants are successful? Is there a large ratio of support staff to scientific staff?

BN: It varies from year to year and depends on the projects that we are working on and the speciality of the post. It might be as high as 50 applications for one post. We are always looking for skilled, adaptable and highly motivated recruits in a wide range of science and support roles.

Neill Renton, UK: We are bombarded almost daily with "bad" news concerning the environment and climate change. Can you tell us what your experience of Antarctica has told you about how the climate is changing?

BN: There is general agreement that we are experience world climate change. The big question is whether it is a natural change or one induced by human activity. Antarctica provides a unique laboratory to study this as there are long climate records stored in the ice, and we know that what we find here suggests a global picture as we don't have local pollution effects.

Nick, Scotland: How do you entertain yourselves down there?

BN: A lot of people are very keen on outdoor type activities - skiing, snowboarding, local mountaineering. The wildlife is special too and that, along with the mountain scenery, leads lots of folk into photography and video. Apart from that, it's more normal things like table tennis, gym work and the pool.

James, Scotland: We were just wondering if you have the opportunity to do a bit of skiing down there. By skiing I mean downhill not cross country.

BN: Skiing and snowboarding are very popular and we have a couple of good slopes nearby. We use ski-doos to tow people up and we use both alpine and downhill and Nordic telemark gear. For work purposes, we use alpine ski mountaineering kit.

Jan Muldor, The Netherlands: How long have you spent in Antarctica overall, and how has this affected your family life?

BN: I have probably spent over seven years of my life in the Antarctic now. It's almost like running two lives in parallel - my life here and my life at home in the UK. I like that variety and I think it makes me appreciate each one even more.

As base commander at Rothera, Brian is responsible for the 150 scientists and support staff who pass through the Bas centre in the course of an Antarctic summer.

Rothera is one of three British Antarctic Survey bases - the others being at Halley and Signy.

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