The B.I.G North Pole 2022 Expedition: In Conversation with Felicity Aston, MBE

The White Feather Foundation is a proud sponsor of this Sea Ice Research expedition.
Felicity Aston

The journey will consist of an all-female team of six explorers to gather crucial data about the sea ice in that fragile area Before It’s Gone (B.I.G).

TWFF spoke with Aston, the first woman to ski alone across Antarctica in 2012, who will lead the expedition, about how she built the team, the dangers they will face and how they’re preparing for the trip of a lifetime.

There's a clock ticking against us.

Felicity Aston (FA)

TWFF: What was your inspiration for this expedition?

FA: Back in 2015, I was traveling backwards and forwards to the North Pole on a Russian Ice Breaker and we were collecting sea ice data. The questions we were being asked were very basic like, “Directly underneath the sea ice, is the water less salty?” Simple things we don’t know about this environment and yet it’s disappearing before our very eyes.

We rely so heavily on computer models to understand our world, particularly about climate change and its possible outcomes, but those models are only as good as the data you put in. This is what started the thread of thought: While we can still get out on foot on the Arctic ocean, we can collect data that’s really needed. Very soon we won’t be able to do it any more, so there is an urgency to it.

There’s a clock ticking against us.

TWFF: Tell us about the route your team will take.

FA: It’s only possible now to do partial distances to the North Pole, which is what we’ll attempt. So we’ll start around 89 degrees North and head 110 – 120 km to the North Pole … but when you land on the ice you’re not landing on a specific point, you’re landing on an ice raft that’s moving around, which is unpredictable. It’s called “the drift,” so we’re constantly moving across the drift. When we pitch our tents, for example, we’ll be moved while we sleep and we don’t know what direction we’ll be moved in or how far we’ll be moved, but what is sure is that we’ll be going a lot further than the 120 km. straight line distance because not only are we always correcting for this movement, but also we have to make our way around all the obstacles on the ice.

When the ice is pushed together by the current underneath and the winds above, you get these walls of ice rubble that can be as tall as a room. So depending what we come across, we may have to take long detours around. And then you find in other areas that the ice has been pulled apart to reveal the ocean. We call those “leads.” If those leads are too wide, we just have to walk in one direction to try and find a way around them to come to a place where we can cross safely. So we end up walking a lot further than that straight line distance.

All along that distance we’ll be taking samples from the snow and ice, and looking for a different age of ice, which is quite important to the microplastics research that I’m doing. We’ll take some snow and ice samples from the surface, but we’ll also take deeper samples through the ice to the water beneath where we can. And open water samples.

We also have to capture the data around it—a lot of the focus is on scooping up that little bit of snow, but then you have to get position data, temperature data, pressure data—all sorts of measurements around it, so you have a clear idea of where those samples were taken.

TWFF: What will you use to navigate the ice?

FA: We’ll be on long Nordic cross-country skis; they’re quite wide, they’re not the racing ones; about the width of the foot and as long as your height or a bit taller, and they’re only fixed at the toe, so it’s pretty much like walking when you’ve got stocking feet on a shiny floor. Nothing about it is graceful (laughs).

One of the challenges of our expedition is under normal circumstance, you get lighter as you go because you eat the food and you use the fuel. Our weight on this expedition will get heavier quite dramatically day by day. We’ll start off with 40 – 50 kilos, but by the time we finish, we’ll be at around 80 kilos. It will be a team effort to get these types of weights up and over things.

Women can be explorers and scientists, and there are plenty of women who have been fantastic explorers and scientists through history—it’s just that we don’t talk about them.

TWFF: How did you select your team?

FA: I’m a bit unconventional in how I put teams together because I have a big belief that polar exploration is one of those things that has this sort of aura around it that you have to be superhuman to do it. I truly believe anyone can do anything if you put your mind to it. This is my small contribution to the feminist movement in my lifetime: To try to challenge the stereotype of what a polar explorer is. Women can be explorers and scientists, and there are plenty of women who have been fantastic explorers and scientists through history—it’s just that we don’t talk about them.

A lot of the teams in the past that I’ve put together have been complete novices, never done anything like this before and who look as far removed from that classic view that comes to mind when you think of a polar explorer. So no beards (laughs); small, skinny—whatever form people come in. And also trying to get some more representation, so not only an all-female team, but one with different ethnicities. I’m very clear that the climate challenge cannot be solved by one group of people—it has to be a global solution. We can only do that if we’re understanding each other a little better.

This team was a little different because it’s going to be so challenging. I needed women who had a degree of experience so even though none of these women have done anything like this, they’ve all taken on really tough challenges in the past and succeeded. They have that knowledge of pushing through and that resilience that I really need for this expedition.

I put a call out on social media and had a response from hundreds of women. I didn’t intend for it to be an all-British team at first, but there were three women that had skills and perspectives that would just be great and I wanted this to be a team of six, so I decided to make the final two members British as well. We range in age from 28 to 56 and come from all backgrounds and life experiences. It’s going to be a great team and we’ve had lots of time together online, but our training expedition, which will be here in Iceland in November, will be the first time we all meet in person.

TWFF: Do you have fears that anyone could back out after the training and if so, do you have alternates who could take their place?

FA: It’s always a risk when you put together teams—nobody knows what their future holds. Injuries can happen, and once we get up on the glacier and do this for real, there could be someone who says, “This isn’t for me.” But with this expedition and this team, I think that’s less likely because they’re so committed and they’ve all done hard things in the past. 

I actually don’t keep people in reserve because I think that’s a really tough position to fill. I’ve had more success in the past if I’ve had a gap to then find someone who would fit.

TWFF: How long will the training last in November?

FA: 10 days total. The practical skills we can learn quite quickly. Cross country skiing is not terribly technical; you may as well have a floorboard strapped to your feet for all the skill that’s required (laughs). After two days skiing, the team will be pretty good at that, and then the camp craft of it—getting the tent up and down together as a team; learning what roles we’re having within the team—certainly over the course of 10 days, we’ll have that down. We’ll try out the scientific kit, and that might take us a little longer to get because we’ve got to be careful not to contaminate the samples, plus all the detailed labeling and storage of the samples, which is really vital. That will probably take the most time, but we could go back to that bit of training in a non-cold environment if needed.

Then there’s the mental aspect of it, which is such an important part of expeditions and that we will return to again and again. We’ll work on the psychological preparation before we leave, because so often when an expedition fails the reason given is something quite practical; the weather or something specific, but when you dig into the story, actually what’s gone wrong is the team dynamics have fallen apart and that’s created a situation in which someone has gotten injured, so it’s a very important bit of the preparation.

TWFF: What about the dangers involved on a trip like this? You must be fearless to sign on to go.

FA: Actually, I completely disagree with you (laughs). If you don’t feel fear going into such a dangerous expedition, you’ve got a real problem! Of course we go through a risk assessment process, but you can never completely get rid of those risks, it’s just a matter of lessening those risks to a point where you’re comfortable.

On this trip, we have to be aware of the dangers of polar bears—they’re a real threat. Though it’s unlikely we’ll encounter them, it’s entirely possible. And, we’re sleeping on ice every night that’s usually less than a metre thick and is moving around under us. It could crack open under our tent. You have to force yourself to think about these things and put in place measures and systems to lessen risk. We have “bear watch,” for example. So while we sleep, there’s a team member outside and awake the whole time, but not only are they looking out for bears, they’re looking out for the ice conditions. If a crack opens up too close to the tent or if anything changes or happens, they can wake the rest of the team.

So if you’re not scared, you haven’t looked hard enough at the potential problems—this environment can kill you. I feel it’s my responsibility as a leader to make sure the team has all thought about that before we go out there, and that they know I can’t make it 100% safe.

This expedition is short, but intense. You’re against the clock from the moment you land; you’ve only got a really tight window to get a lot of ground covered and a lot of things done.

TWFF: On the scientific side, do you have any predictions for what you might find?

FA: Sadly I believe we’ll most certainly find airborne microplastics. If we don’t, we’ll likely find other forms of airborne pollution like heavy metals. Similarly with black carbon, everyone hopes that you won’t find much, but probably we’ll find quite a lot.

Dr. Alia Khan at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., who will study our data, is working to create a map of distribution of black carbon, so we’ll learn if it’s uniform across the Arctic ocean or if there are areas where there’s more black carbon deposited than others; that’s the sort of question she’s hoping to answer.

Then there’s the psychology. We’re field testing this Artificial Intelligence (AI) app Manchester University is creating, DRIFT, that’s aimed ultimately at being used in space exploration and in those incredibly remote situations. They want to determine how you keep a small colony of people psychologically healthy and prepared. Our form of testing that app is plugging in our data that will contribute to these long-running studies, which will examine the team dynamics of small groups in extreme environments under pressure. 

This expedition is short, but intense. You’re against the clock from the moment you land; you’ve only got a really tight window to get a lot of ground covered and a lot of things done.

And we’re all women … and they have next to no data on women.,

The B.I.G North Pole Expedition departs in April of 2022. Watch this space, as The White Feather Foundation will provide regular updates with Felicity and her team, as well as the scientists analysing their expedition data in the months leading up to, during and following the trip.

In the meantime, find more information on the B.I.G Expedition at their official website and learn more about Felicity and her past experiences on her website.

Photo courtesy of Felicity Aston.

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