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What is it like being a scientist in Antarctica? Geographical speaks with Peter Fretwell, senior GIS scientist

Scientists explore Antarctic icebergs Scientists explore Antarctic icebergs
24 Mar
Peter Fretwell is a senior geographic information scientist at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). He tells Geographical about his career, and what it's like being a scientist for BAS

‘I did a geography degree at Derby back in the late 1980s. After that, I became a retail manager for 11 years until my mid-30s and then I decided there must be more to life. I went back and did a master’s degree in quaternary studies at Coventry University, looking at Holocene sea-level change with Professor David Smith. Unfortunately, the year I was going to do a PhD was the year that the government changed its funding requirements and the quaternary studies department at Coventry folded.

I was looking for a job again and went into the job centre, where there was a little card saying that the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) wanted a temporary assistant map curator. It didn’t sound too appealing but I didn’t have anything else to do and I thought it would be good to work at BAS. I got trained up not just for doing map curation but as a cartographer as well, and it seemed that I’d suddenly found out what I was supposed to do. After six months, they gave me a job and for the next 15 years or so, I spent most of the time doing cartography.

BASThe British Antarctic Survey vessel RRS JAMES CLARK ROSS arrives at the Naval Base to take on aviation fuel before heading to the Antarctic for the winter months

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While I was doing cartography, I was also carrying on with science in my own time with Professor Smith. I wrote half a dozen papers with him, working mostly in the evenings. After a few years, I also started doing science at BAS, looking at sea-level change and then satellite imagery. Now, I spend most of my time doing geographic sciences using GIS and I lead several major projects for BAS, including wildlife and space projects, and the Bedmap project [Bedmap3 aims to produce a new map of Antarctic ice thickness and bed topography].

As a scientist, you watch climate change and ice loss through the satellites. You see science firsthand, before it goes to the media. You know that in some cases it’s worse than the media are portraying. And that’s what we’re seeing in Antarctica at the moment. In the past three years, we’ve had really bad sea-ice years in Antarctica. And it seems to have suddenly hit a tipping point that hasn’t really come out yet, because it can take a long time for scientific papers to be published.

I’ve done two or three different things actually out in Antarctica. Most of my work has been involved with sea-level change – surveying raised beaches on the South Shetland Islands. The last time I was there, in 2018, we were ground-truthing the satellites – going out and finding areas where the satellites said there should be vegetation and seeing if their estimates were correct or not.

The work is hard but it’s fantastic. You need to be the right sort of person – someone who likes to spend time cut off from the world. But it can be really life changing, spending time in a tent, sometimes for days on end, with just the environment and the elements. You can get up in the morning, look out through the tent flap and the only decision you have to make is based on the weather. If it’s a nice day, you go out and work; if it’s a bad day, you close the flap and you stay in your tent. You can be forced to stay in your tent for days at a time, so you’ve got to be able to do that.

I feel very strongly that this is a very collaborative job, both within BAS and internationally. Many Antarctic projects are very large and need international collaboration. There are the countries you would think of, such as the USA and Australia, but the Chinese and the Russians are also very important players. Sometimes, the international relationships may not be as good as you would like, but often, the scientific relationships we have are very strong and they’ll continue whatever the politics. What the top politicians think may not be a particularly good representation of what the scientists in a country are doing. Often they’re fighting for the same thing you’re fighting for.’

Peter FretwellPeter Fretwell is a senior geographic information scientist at the British Antarctic Survey

1989: BSc Earth and Life Studies, Derby University
2001: MSc Quaternary Studies, Coventry University
2002–2007: Cartographer and GIS specialist, British Antarctic Survey (BAS)
2007–Present: Senior geographic information scientist, BAS
2009–2012: Principle investigator on BAS fund: emperor penguin census
2014: Co-investigator on project to monitor Indian Ocean blue whales
2014: Principle investigator on the Wildlife from Space project
2016: PhD Remote Sensing and Ecology, Open University
2019: Chair of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research Bedmap3 project

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