Journey to “another planet”: students talk about their trip to Antarctica


Engineering students discuss travelling to the icy continent and learning more about climate change <em>– News</em>

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Wednesday 22 April 2009
By Colin Smith

A recent expedition to an icy wilderness has left engineering students from Imperial College London with memories of penguins and collapsing ice sheets - and a desire to do more to combat climate change.

Postgraduate Jeff Marlow , and second year undergraduate David Whittleston, both from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering, returned this month from a twelve day trip exploring Antarctica. Also on the trip was Chin Cheong, a second year student studying medicine.

The expedition gave the students the opportunity to learn from conservationists and climate change experts about the remote continent, which is one of the last unspoilt places on Earth and which is made up almost entirely of ice. The trio beat 1700 other applicants from around the world to take part in the trip, which was sponsored by British Petroleum.

“The ship bobbed about like a cork”


Antactica student expedition


The journey to Antarctica included 33 hours of aeroplane journeys and a hazardous two day trip on a research ship called the Academic Ioffee. This ship carried the students from the world’s most southern city, Ushuaia, across a treacherous stretch of water known as the Drake Passage.

Jeff Marlow (front) and David Whittleston (back) onboard the expedition ship to Antarctica

Jeff Marlow explains: “We hit a storm head-on. I was so sea sick. I could only get in and out of bed at hour intervals. The waves were reaching 40 foot and the ship bobbed about like a cork. I heard later that the captain said he would have never left Ushuaia if he had known the storm was to be so big.”

“Stepping off onto another planet”

On 30 March, after their eventful journey, the students arrived in Antarctica. Jeff describes his first impressions:

“Arriving in Antarctica was like stepping off onto another planet. In some parts it was like we were the only people that had ever been there before. I am still processing what we saw, but the views were absolutely amazing and it was so cold and quiet - except for the sounds that the penguins and seals were making.”

The team took part in a number of excursions whilst on the continent, seeing wildlife including whales, seals and colonies of penguins. One night they camped out under the stars in sleeping bags, at a place called Paradise Bay.

Jeff adds: “The scenery was breathtaking, with pristine white snow and amazing blue skies that were dotted with popcorn shaped clouds. The sea was so pure and clear. On a good day it was like a mirror reflecting the view before it.”

On one trip, the team watched a large glacier collapse into the ocean. David Whittleston says: “We were watching it from a fair distance, yet the glacier still looked huge. The chunks of ice falling into the sea were massive and the noise they made as they crumbled into the water was deafening.”

“Made me want to do so much more to fight climate change”

Melting glaciers are a visible sign of climate change in Antarctica. The temperature there has risen by three degrees Centigrade in 25 years, causing vast amounts of sea ice to melt and threatening the area’s wildlife.

The trip to Antarctica and the opportunity to meet with people who were interested in combating climate change has had a profound effect on the engineering students’ future plans.

David says that he is now interested in the politics and economics of climate change and wants to find ways to educate and influence people about the issue when he finishes his degree. In his undergraduate studies in Geophysics, he uses mathematics and modelling to look at the Earth, its climate systems and its oceans. While in Antarctica, he took the opportunity to meet people in the team who are doing the same type of work that he wants to do. He says:

“I have learnt a lot. My definition of success is now very different. I was very plugged into just achieving for the sake of achieving. I met some young people who are so driven and active in climate change policy and doing so much with their lives. The wilderness of Antarctica and the chance to be around so many inspiring people made me want to do so much more to fight climate change.

“Our whole trip to Antarctica cost ten tonnes of CO2 per person, which is the equivalent of how much the average person in the UK uses over a whole year. I know it has spurred Jeff and me to repay that debt by getting involved in policy change, which may do so much in the long run to offset all of our carbon costs to the planet,” adds David.


Jeff Marlow has been writing about his experiences in Antarctica for the New York Times’ Green Inc Blog. To read more click here

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