Scott. Shackleton. Oates. ‘I’m going outside, and I may be some time,’ and all that. Britain’s most celebrated Antarctic explorers are a noble bunch, all stout of heart, all nobly self-sacrificing, all terribly brave – and all men.
Alison Davies is still getting her head around the her part in an adventure which sought to redress the balance. Late last year she was on board a ship in Antarctica with 76 of the most accomplished scientists, engineers, astronomers, doctors and physicists in the world. Now, the 24-year-old meteorologist is back working for the Met Office at RAF Leeming near Northallerton. Unsurprisingly, she’s had an ‘absolutely manic’ month since arriving home.
‘It still feels quite surreal,’ she says. ‘It’s not somewhere that people really get to go to. It kind of feels like it’s something that extreme scientists and documentary makers get to go to, and nobody else does.’
In December, though, a boatload of some of the most accomplished and promising women in science set sail for Antarctica under the aegis of Homeward Bound, a new scheme dedicated to helping women in science to ‘build conviction around the importance of their voices’ and develop their confidence and skills for leadership roles, as well as seeing first-hand the damage which climate change has already done to Antarctica.
It’s an important mission. The WISE Campaign, which seeks to promote women in the science, technology, engineering and mechanics (STEM) sectors, says the proportion of women in science and engineering jobs fell from 50 percent to 41 percent, a loss of 14,000 individual women from the sector, between 2015 and 2016. ‘I’ve generally been in quite male-dominated environments and I think we need more female leaders, so bringing the two together seemed perfect really,’ says Alison. Being stuck on a boat in the middle of some of the most inhospitable landscapes on Earth might not make for a particularly orthodox networking session, but it worked.
‘The other women on board were fantastic: such a range of backgrounds and sciences, some women really high up in their careers with great wisdom and knowledge to pass on,’ Alison says. ‘But there were also people like me, right at the start of our careers, so it was great to talk to them about where we could go next, what we could be getting involved with, how we could get our foot on that leadership ladder.’
Having already seen the Arctic via Svalbard, a group of islands off the north of Norway, and the south Shetland islands, you’d think Alison would be pretty au fait with big, bleak, really rather nippy places at the edge of the world. The southern polar region is a different beast to the north, though: a vast ‘icescape’, as Alison puts it, with no plants or settlements beyond scientific outposts dotted around the alien tundra. ‘You just don’t get the grand scale that you get with Antarctica,’ she says.
It’s that grand scale which enraptured her as a child, when she was usually glued to nature documentaries. ‘I loved the polar regions; they just looked so remote and wild,’ she says. ‘The Antarctic seemed such a far-off place – a bit like managing to get to the moon or something. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to see, one of the last proper wildernesses that’s left in the world.’
That said, a trip to the British post office at Port Lockroy on the west of the Antarctic peninsula provided an unexpected reminder of home: one of the staff there was from Yorkshire. ‘It was quite strange going all the way to the other side of the world and bumping into someone who lives about an hour down the road from me,’ Alison says.
Antarctica’s a wilderness which is increasingly under threat, though. The effects of warming brought about by man-made climate change are all too obvious. While visiting Carlini Base, an Argentinian research station, one of the resident scientists pointed out a glacier in the distance, a good couple of kilometres away. ‘When I first came here,’ he told Alison, ‘it was only a hundred metres away.’ Local adelie penguin colonies’ nesting grounds are melting away too, and they’re being forced further and further south to find icier areas. All this makes the impact of climate change far less abstract. ’A lot of the impact of climate change doesn’t seem very visible,’ says Alison. ‘Seeing things like that make it a lot more real.’
As well as seeing the practical effects of the the science she’s studied, the experience has steeled Alison’s resolve to make a difference. It’s made her more confident, ‘mainly about putting myself out more, not being afraid to say, “I’d like to do this,” even if I think I’m only new here and I won’t be able to do it; the worst that happens is they say no and I’ll just go, “Okay, well next time I’ll try again.’”
While she’s back at RAF Leeming for the time being, Alison’s already scoping out more extreme climes. The Met Office’s summer expeditions to Rothera, a British base on the Antarctic peninsula, are particularly appealing: ‘We don’t have as much observation and data about the area and it feels like a really good challenge.’ She’s also keen to go to developing countries to help build up weather forecasting services. Alison’s got a lot of plans, and the expedition’s given her fresh impetus to make them happen.
‘It just made me feel like I can do this and gave me a support network of women I can ask for advice because so many of them have such great experience in these areas,’ she says. ‘I think it’s given me a lot of motivation to do things, and helped me feel like I can do actually make a difference.’