Environment

Military Personnel Prepare For 300km Antarctic Climate Change Expedition

The team of eight will travel a perilous 300km journey across the Antarctic to look for traces of microplastics.

A group of serving and former military personnel are preparing for an Antarctic expedition to carry out climate change research.

The team of eight explorers will set off later this year to make a perilous 300km journey across the Antarctic Peninsula, travelling 10,000 miles from their base – Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth – to explore the untrodden ice fields of Antarctica.

The purpose of the expedition is to look for traces of microplastics – fragments and fibres of plastic less than five millimetres long, which, thanks to global pollution now contaminate every corner of the world and are being consumed by wildlife and humans.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) recently published a detailed strategy on Climate Change and Sustainability and the author of that report, Lieutenant General Richard Nugee, Non-Executive Director for Climate Change for Defence, is the patron for the expedition.

"The fear is that too much microplastics affect our abilities to digest because it doesn't break down, so actually it's like eating plastic in some respects," he told Forces News.

"So understanding how much of the world is covered in microplastics… finding microplastics in Antarctica is what we're looking to do – how much is there and how much of a concern should we have about it."

Travelling via Chile, the team will aim to land at Portal Point on the Antarctic Peninsula by mid-December before climbing 2,000 metres through crevasse fields to an area known as the Forbidden Plateau.

Watch: Expedition team member Colonel Paul Edwards explains the special kit the explorers need.

They will then work down to Foyn Point, on the east coast of the Peninsula, where they will carry out repairs to a GPS transmitter that helps indicate how much ice is melting due to global warming.

Expedition leader, Lieutenant Commander Paul Hart, told Forces News the terrain "is simply unforgiving".

"It's like trying to haul up the Khumbu ice field on the slopes of Everest," he said.

"Some of the terrain is, quite frankly, the most challenging you could experience on the planet and we will be moving through huge crevasse fields and trying to avoid falling in.

"As with all these things there is a bit of trepidation taking a team into the unknown and facing the risks we face.

"Clearly we want to make sure everybody comes back safe and that's the number one priority."

Lt Cdr Hart is not new to Antarctic expeditions, leaving his young family to make a crossing back in 2012.

"Back then they were young children and I was questioned about leaving young children," he said.

Watch: Explorer Anthony Jinman demonstrates survival skills.

"Well, we in the military do that, that's something we’re trained to deal with. 

"On this occasion, it was the fact that, actually, their very futures are going to be influenced by the effects of what's happening and what we're doing to the planet."

The risks involved in the expedition are high and as well as the risk of falling down a deep crevasse, the mountainous terrain means there is a very real likelihood of an avalanche.

The team will wear locator beacons and also carry lightweight probes which can be quickly deployed to help find a buried colleague.

Colonel Paul Edwards, from the Royal Logistic Corps, told Forces News you probe until there is "a distinct feeling, a thud when you hit a buried person".

"At that point, you get your shovel and you dig almost like a madman," he said.

"You've got a matter of minutes to get that person out alive – more than about four minutes, probably they will not survive."

For safety, the teams will be roped together in groups of four, allowing one team to help rescue the other if they fall into a crevasse.

Watch: Hauling tyres across the beach is part of training for the expedition.

Once the team has reached Foyn Point, before beginning the return leg of the journey, they will hold a special ceremony to toast the life of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Lt Cdr Hart said the team will "raise a glass of whiskey to Shackleton" overlooking the Weddell Sea, the site of his famous 'Endurance' expedition in 1915.

"That should be around 5 January 2022 which will be 100 years to the day of Shackleton's death on board the Quest," Lt Cdr Hart said.

As if the life-threatening environment wasn't enough, the personnel will have to carry all the equipment with them, using a pulk or sledge to pull between 100 and 130kg across snow and ice.

In order to train for the expedition, the team have been by pulling tyres across beaches in Devon.

Expedition logistics lead and former signaller, Staff Sergeant Richard Simpson, told Forces News he expects to be travelling for at least 12 hours a day in the Antarctic.

"Experience counts an awful lot and that's why the expedition leader's chosen the people that he has done, for the experience," he said.