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Student scientist’s two-week voyage to remote Antarctic island

University of Bristol scientist Emily Broadwell on Signy Island

Some of Signy Island's other residents

Emily with fellow members of the MicroLab team during a previous research trip to Ny Ålesund in Svalbard Iain Rudkin

Press release issued: 9 February 2024

A 26-year-old scientist has voyaged to one of the most remote locations on earth, where she will study a rare organism that could shed light on our warming world.

Emily Broadwell’s journey to Signy Island took two weeks – longer than it takes to get to the Moon – and saw her travel through the fearsome Drake’s Passage, where waves can reach 60ft.

She arrived on Thursday and will now live with five others in an ex-whaling station that has been used as a British Antarctic Survey research station since 1947. Their only company will be penguins and seals.

Signy Island is 370 miles from the Antarctic peninsula and 800 miles from the Falkland Islands. Without space to land a helicopter or aircraft, an emergency extraction takes seven to nine days.

Speaking during the journey, Emily, a University of Bristol PhD student, said: “It takes about 48 hours to travel to the Falklands, via Brazil and Chile. I was based there for a few days and I’m now on the MS Fram headed to South Georgia.

“The sea is pretty calm and the fog has lifted today and you can see for miles. I’ve spent some time birdwatching, highlights being a giant petrel and a snowy albatross!

“The journey goes via South Georgia and Drake’s Passage, which will take around a week."

For many, the three-mile by four-mile island is known for its penguin and seal colonies on the shores. But for Emily the focus is on the snowy and icy interior.  

She studies snow and glacier algae to learn how they survive in an environment of extreme low temperatures, abundant light and very few nutrients.

These tiny organisms live in places we once thought inhospitable to life. Studying them helps us track climate change in the areas affected most and builds our understanding of habitats downstream. 

The algae Emily brings back to MicroLab@Bristol - a University of Bristol research group that studies how life excels in extreme low temperatures - will be compared with other samples she collected in the Arctic and the Alps.

By studying their DNA, she could discover potential new species of algae.

Emily said: “For a long time people didn’t consider these extreme environments as habitats for life. Much of the research over the past few decades has shown the diversity of the life here, and it’s a race to study it before these environments are lost.

"These landscapes are changing fast, and arctic and alpine glaciers might be some of the first habitats we lose completely to climate change. 

“By researching them now we can capture as much as we can about them, including how they are adapted and how fast they are changing.”

Emily will be at the British Antarctic Survey research station until April, before it closes ahead of the Antarctic winter when temperatures on the island can drop to -44C.

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