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Mullingar to Mount Erebus: Regina’s Antarctic odyssey

Monday, 16th April, 2018 11:05am

Mullingar to Mount Erebus: Regina’s Antarctic odyssey

Regina Clery at Scott Base Antarctica

By Regina Clery

My lungs fill with ice cold sharp air as I walk, following the line of people down the steps, out onto the airfield with my green bag slung across my shoulder.

There is no tarmac. The ground is hard, compacted snow. My sunglasses fog up and I take them off, but the glaring white light blinds me and I quickly put them back on. I pull my neck gaitor down from my nose to free my breath.

The smell of jet fuel from the US Air Force C-17 jet engines, still screaming in the background, just adds to the surreal scene all around me. The field of snow stretches for what seems like forever, edged with beautiful snow-covered mountain peaks in the far distance.

People dressed in orange, red or khaki are laughing, skipping, jumping and hugging, smiles peeking out from behind the many layers of extreme cold weather gear we are required to wear while flying over the ice, just in case. Huge red machines, part bus, part truck with at least ten sets of tractor sized wheels, are parked ahead waiting for us to jump in. Smartphones are out, and a selfie stick is waving around. And what’s that – a TV camera?

I prise off both sets of gloves to record it all on my phone, but the moving air has teeth and within seconds I decide to put my soft merino wool gloves back on. A quick selfie, snap.

“What’s an Irish woman, from Mullingar, doing flying the flag in Antarctica anyway, the cheek of ya!” I said to myself with a grin, “And sure why not,” I answered with an ear-to-ear smile.

It’s a question that has popped up in its many forms on multiple occasions since we landed in “Willy’s Field”, and one I tried to creatively answer each time. Until answering the question wasn’t as entertaining for me anymore, at which point I answered with “ah, I just chanced my arm”. With that reply there was the potential for a “bit of craic” in how the conversation might continue.

In a sense, my answer is true, I have “chanced my arm”, albeit in a somewhat calculated, partially planned way, with room for manoeuvre kind of approach to life’s opportunities.

By 2012, a sustained workload was not yet guaranteed in Ireland and I was done waiting for the economyto turn good. Having hopped on a plane to Canada a couple of years previous, I toyed with the idea of returning there, or else following the army of other Irish hopefuls to Australia. I mulled over my options for a short while and decided, “sure it’ll be grand”. I bought myself a return ticket to Perth, Australia.

Armed with my civil engineering qualifications from Athlone IT, a master’s degree in renewable energy from University College, Dublin (UCD), engineering experience under my belt and a one-year work-holiday visa, I officially emigrated from Ireland to Australia on May 31, 2012. Although, to say I’m an immigrant seems a little too permanent, because I am lucky enough to have had a good few visits home. Home – Mammy will be glad I said that.

I didn’t expect setting up in Australia to be easy and it wasn’t. But I learned the lie of the land quickly by talking to fellow immigrants and working holidaymakers. The Irish abroad are a great community; we share the wealth. All you need to do is listen out for Irish accents and we willingly help each other out with where to go and what to do.

I initially took on administration roles and eventually I had gathered the Australian experience I needed to get hired by construction and engineering firms. I’ll never forget the day I found myself on my own in a work ute, driving out to what seemed like the middle of nowhere, five hours inland under the hot Australian sun, to locate a construction site not yet even marked on a map. Experiences like this were at first nerve wracking but exhilarating. I happily got used to it.

Two years in, and I had gone through the process of becoming a permanent resident. I had secured a job working as a lecturer in engineering and loved it rightfrom the start. Again, I felt like I was chancing my arm when I first rang up to apply for a lecturing role, but by then I was confident in my engineering experience. My time spent in the Reserve Defence Forces in Ireland prepared me well for teaching in the classroom, and I quickly obtained the required Australian teaching qualification with ease.

As is the case with life in Australia, friends come and go. The culture there is transient that way, but I’ve managed to maintain a small international group of friends and acquaintances. I found my rhythm, but I am always on the lookout for new projects. My work as a lecturer has allowed me to explore and be creative. I am an advocate for women working in areas of industry that are typically dominated by men. It’s an initiative currently supported by Australian government. These areas are more commonly known as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

To provide real-life examples of women working in STEM to my students, I started to highlight success stories of women who have succeeded in positions of leadership in areas of STEM, using the alluring factor of remote locations as a type of hook. I became captivated reading articles about women like Margaret Bradshaw, a British born geologist who was awarded the Polar Medal for her endeavours in Antarctic research and the first woman to lead an Antarctic deep field party. And then there’s our own Sinead Hunt, an Irish mechanical engineer and military tank troop commander, who was chosen to follow in the footsteps of the unsung Irish Antarctic hero Tom Crean on the ‘Shackleton Traverse of South Georgia’.

Reading, researching and networking, I became interested in finding out more about what kind of work goes on in Antarctica. I am now living in the southern hemisphere – so it’s not that unusual, right?

For my endeavours, I was made aware of an opportunity to join an eclectic group of people from an array of academic and professional backgrounds, taking part in an intensive three-month Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies (PCAS). The program is held by Gateway Antarctica at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand and supported by the government body Antarctica NZ.

Field work in Antarctica, at New Zealand’s Scott Base, is part of the program to gather scientific data related to the Antarctic climate and ecosystems. I applied with enthusiasm, and was once again, with bags packed, on a plane hurtling towards a new adventure.

The PCAS course and all it encompassed allowed me to network with like-minded professionals and young graduates, among them a geologist, medical doctor, political scientist, microbiologist, politician, diplomat, a professor of virtual reality, marine scientists and engineers.

Out of a group of 15 people, most were female, four male, and all are interested in applying their field of expertise to science in Antarctica. During the program, every conversation I had and speaker I had the privilege to listen to resonated with me in some way, whether it be with my interests in climate change or the experiences I have had in my career so far. For instance, Dr Wolfgang Rack, a senior lecturer and glaciologist at Gateway Antarctica, spoke about how engineering calculations used for designing beams and columns in buildings, are also used in a similar way to calculate the geometry and dynamics of ice-shelfs in Antarctica.

This was a lightbulb moment for me because my experience as an engineer suddenly became relevant and could be applied to help predict the affect that any change in the iceshelfs in Antarctica could have on our climate worldwide.

After a couple of months of new learning and networking with the who’s who in Antarctic circles, we were finally in Antarctica ourselves, on our way in Hägglunds to build our field camp in a location known as Windless Bight.

While camping out on the snow and ice, under the majestic gaze of Mount Erebus, I ticked off a bucket list item that was never really on the list in the first place, simply because it seemed so far out of my reach: that was, to use an auger to take an ice core from an ice sheet and analyse the snow density and air trapped inside. It seems a random wish, but to watch the process on TV always fascinated me – and now I’ve done it and have the picture to prove it!

Ice cores are used by glaciologists to help figure out what was going on in the atmosphere as the ice formed from year to year. Again, what we learn about the climate in the past, we can apply to help predict the effects of climate change in the future. We also dug snow pits to compare data with the ice core. The snow pits were analysed in a similar way to how I would dig a trial pit on a construction site to determine the soil make-up before foundations are built. Except, in the snow pit I swapped out soil particle size for snow crystal size!

Speaking of camping on the snow and ice, I first had to go through Antarctic field training with the team so that we knew how to survive in the extreme outdoors. In my element! Our field guides at Scott Base in Antarctica taught us how to wear our extreme cold weather (ECW) gear: with seven pairs of gloves to choose from all with their own function, merino wool thermals, multiple tops and jackets, an ECW coat, an extra pair of ECW boots, neckwear, head gear, eye wear, getting too warm was more of a hazard than getting too cold. Shovelling snow with too many layers on causes sweating that can lead to getting cold afterward because your clothes are wet.

We learned how to construct a two-person polar tent, making sure to face the door away from the direction of bad weather. Our sleeping system was magic; I loved the black sheep fleece we had to lie on along with two sleeping bags, a cotton and a fleece liner, ground mat and another bag to hold you and everything else in place. We dug out snow kitchens sheltered with walls built from sawn blocks of compacted snow, sculpting a table with seats and shelving for cooking on as we dug down.

To avoid contamination of the camp site, remembering that we were living on an ice-shelf, we also adopted a toileting process that involved lined buckets, a pee bottle and pee barrel with funnel and for the ladies a “Shewee”. All in the name of science!

So, what’s next? Career wise, now that I have experienced science in Antarctica, who knows: I could end up in Antarctic research, studying the habits of Weddell seals or Adélie penguins.

Will I return to Ireland for good? Perhaps, my Australian citizenship is almost processed, so I guess I’ll be coming and going for a while yet. But, as the saying goes “níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin” (there’s no place like home).

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