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Antarctic Atlas: risking everything for a map

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Life is full of hairy moments when you’re an Antarctic researcher.

Whether it’s skiing down a glacier trying to avoid falling into a crevasse while tied to a colleague or being trapped in a tent for days during a snowstorm hundreds of miles from help.

But for Peter Fretwell, a leading cartographer with the British Antarctic Survey whose new book Antarctic Atlas is out this month, things could have turned out very differently if he hadn’t decided to change his life when he hit his 30s.

“I wasn't an academic originally. Twenty years ago I was a retail manager for a DIY store. Then in my mid 30s I thought there must be something else in life than this. I decided to leave and look for something else."

Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: (43205221)
Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: (43205221)

Unsure what to do next, he decided to study for a Masters in Geography and found a job at the British Antarctic Survey as a temporary assistant map curator - and he never left.

"I decided I liked Antarctic science and soon realised I loved maps and was good at drawing them.

“One day a colleague noticed my Masters degree was looking at sea level change and suddenly I was being asked to go on a trip to the South Shetland islands with him looking at sea level change there."

Now he has been on four research trips to Antarctica and life has become considerably more exciting.

“You can get into the mindset that the job you are in is all there is, but if you do need to chase that dream, don’t be afraid to do it. I have always been a hill walker and climber and one of the things I considered becoming was a mountain leader before I became an academic."

Much of Peter's work has been done in front of a computer screen at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, often monitoring satellite images of the continent as part of his research into polar wildlife. But nothing can beat the experience of going to see the place for himself.

Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: with the team of field scientists.
Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: with the team of field scientists.

“Seeing Antarctica for the first time was amazing,” says Peter. “I think when you go to Antarctica it’s so different, it is so unusual and it's so spectacular it really does affect you and you do come back slightly changed.

“In my first two trips I was studying sea level rise on the South Shetland islands and I was being ferried around by helicopter, which was very exciting, especially visiting places few people have been.

“I spent six weeks in a tent there which was also quite an experience. There were just five of us for most of the time and I was in a tent with one other person.

“One of the things about Antarctica is there are no roads there are not people there is no WiFi connection; no signs of human habitation, no toilets no showers. You could be hundreds of kilometers from the nearest people with no connection to the outside world and its actually a very liberating experience because it is very unlike the world as we know it.

“At times the weather closes in and you can be stuck in your tent for days at a time. The last time I was stuck in my tent we had a storm and we couldn't go out for three days except just to the toilet tent. You are stuck with one other person so you talk a lot, you read a lot of books and you think a lot and it is a very unusual situation. You certainly learn about other people but yes you have to be quite tolerant. In comparison, lockdown for me isn't so bad.”

It turns out that some of the travel to the Antarctic can be a little intense too and requires special training. Peter’s wife Lisa, who drew many of the illustrations in the book, explains: “At one point in training they get turned upside down then they get tipped out into deep water, in a box, in the dark and they have to work out which way is up.”

Peter, who seems less bothered by the experience, adds: “We do things like crevasse rescue and rope work and mountaineering. We also do helicopter survival training and jumping off boats for sea survival training.”

Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: Peter's tent (43205215)
Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: Peter's tent (43205215)

This may seem a little overboard until you actually arrive in the Antarctic. Peter says: “In the past, the BAS has actually lost a lot of people through accidents whether travelling over sea ice or loss through crevasses or hypothermia but over the years we have developed very strict rigorous procedures to keep us safe .

“In 2018 I went to a range of hills called the Finlandia Foothills with a field assistant, a mountaineer. We skied down the glacier to the southern part of that range of hills where nobody had been before - which seemed incredible to me.

"When we ski we are roped up with one person at the front and one at the back with a rope in between about 30 feet apart. At one point we crossed over a glacier and it was full of small crevasses. The field assistant said 'Well, your field scientist is just over the other side of this glacier. There are lots of crevasses here so we have got to be careful but they are quite small so we should be able to get over'.

And I said 'What happens if we fall down?'

He replied, 'If I fall down you would pull me out - and off we went. Luckily we didn't fall down a crevasse but if you can imagine your heart was in your mouth. The crevasses are about a foot wide and they are so deep you can’t see the bottom.

Peter Fretwell meets a penguin in Antarctica (43205261)
Peter Fretwell meets a penguin in Antarctica (43205261)

“I discovered the trick was to keep my skis in his ski tracks to make sure I was following properly. You have to be sensible because if you are stupid the consequences could be really extreme.”

Peter Fretwell’s new book tells the story of Antarctica in maps and shows the continent in ways never seen before. He hopes the book will show people just how relevant the continent is to the future of the planet and that what happens there has alarming implications for everyone the world over.

“It is very remote and unworldly but actually it is really relevant to everyone because Antarctica affects us," says Peter.

“If changes are happening in Antarctica it is going to affect the rest of the world and also Antarctica is a kind of bellweather. The poles of Antarctica and the Arctic are reacting fastest to climate changes. We can see these really rapid changes and that can help us understand what might happen to the rest of the world.

"If Antarctica melts we will get a sea level rise. And it won’t just rise around Antarctica it will rise in the Fens and everywhere else. Even in my lifetime I think we will see sea levels increase by tens of centimetres and maybe more than that.

At the BAS he has pioneered the use of satellite imagery to find and monitor polar wildlife, a project that has led to him discovering almost half of the world's emperor penguin colonies.

He has spent the last five years making more than 70 complex new views of Antarctica. These maps are unique, offering an original representation of its history, people, wildlife, and ocean systems, as well as its geography, geology, its sheer scale, and its future. He explains how , more than a place of pristine beauty and human imagination, the continent is also a planetary safety valve, and Antarctica has just recorded its warmest year on record.

Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: visiting the penguin colony (43205219)
Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: visiting the penguin colony (43205219)

On one of his trips to Antarctica, Peter got the chance to visit a colony of emperor penguins which has been a large area of his research. He travelled there on the only ice breaking cruise ship as a cruise lecturing scientist.

“We were helicoptered off the ship each day for about five or ten kilometres to reach the colony. The penguins are beautiful and unique - I've seen lots of penguins and emperors are by far the most regal.

“Little penguins will squabble and fight and are much smellier because it is warmer where they live. But emperor penguins live where it is colder so you don't get that terrible smell. Also they have to huddle to survive, which means they have to be much more communal. Therefore they tend to argue a little less and be a lot more friendly than other penguins.

“But also these penguins have never seen humans before. You will most likely be the only human they have ever seen in their life so they are always quite inquisitive and if you sit still they will come up and peck your shoes. We have rules about how close you can get to penguins but the penguins don't tend to observe the rules.

"I had studied them for about five years before I went to visit them. We had been mapping them by satellite before. You may have seen emperor penguins on telly but they are actually incredibly hard to get to because they breed so far south and mostly in the winter. But spending three days in the colony was an incredible experience.”

Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: (43205217)
Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: (43205217)

For much of the time in Antarctica, the scientists will be unable to communicate with their families at home because it is so remote with no phone or WiFi signals.

This can lead to some very alarming messages. Lisa, Peter’s wife, who drew many of the illustrations in the book, explains: “It's a bit strange when he's away because I couldn't contact Pete at all and the first time that Pete went away out baby girl got. I couldn't let him know she was ill and we had to go to hospital so i had to get a message to the airport to say ‘come straight to the hospital,’when he landed.”

Pete adds: “Communications in the tent are very limited so when we first started all we got was a 30 second radio communication and you don't get to talk to your partner. There is just a message sent from home to BAS and then onto Antarctica. And then they radio it to you in your tent and with a radio everyone can hear it.

Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: leaving Antarctica (43205210)
Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: leaving Antarctica (43205210)

“So I gave Lisa instructions that information should be very short and succinct and not too personal. There were two messages I received in the tent from Lisa. One was ‘Your dad’s had a heart attack but he’s all right’ and the second one was ‘I’ve bought a house’.

“Then you are left thinking about that.”

In spite of the hardships and the danger that come with any field trip, Peter is keen to head off again - this time to the other end of the world. He will be researching walruses in the Arctic.

Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: (43205207)
Peter Fretwell, Antarctic Atlas: (43205207)

“We actually do get trained in using rifles if you go camp in the Arctic to protect us from polar bear attacks," he says.

"I have some colleagues who have been there and come back with scary tales.My polish colleagues said they had a polar bear follow them for three days. It was hunting them. Luckily it never actually attacked them but you can imagine the feeling if you have a huge three metre long bear following you for three days and you know what it is following you for. You wouldn't get much sleep would you?”

ANTARCTIC ATLAS: Maps and Graphics that Tell the Story of a Continent By Peter Fretwell

Published by Penguin Random House.

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