Juggling polar research and family life

13 May, 2022 Diversity in UK Polar Science

It can be difficult for anyone to find the right balance between their career and family. For some jobs these challenges reach new levels when the role requires you to work away from home for months at a time.

This is most apparent for careers in the Forces or the Merchant Navy, but it is also true for many people who work in jobs that require field work, such as polar science. For a lot of people in polar science, the polar regions are their “raison d’être”! I’ve met people who love their time away, who choose to go year after year and who claim to have Antarctica in their blood.  Truly, the polar regions are beautiful and special, and there is a draw to going back again and again.

I’ve also heard people say that going away on field work is the greatest challenge of their job… The build up to leaving, saying goodbye to people they love and often to their children can be extremely difficult. For some, coming home can be just as hard as children adapt to you being away, and it can take time for them to adjust to your return. It takes a particular mindset to work this way and often a lot of patience, acceptance, and understanding from your family.

Things have changed a lot over the 30 years that I’ve worked in polar science though. Most notably, we’ve come on leaps and bounds in our communication. Gone are the days when a phone call from an Antarctic station cost £6 per minute. Now calls are charged at local rates and there is also internet and e-mail to keep people connected.  Surprisingly, you can even use WhatsApp to stay connected in real-time! If you’re in a camp in a remote location, sometimes referred to as “deep field”, then communication is harder, although satellite phones do at least make it possible to talk with those back at home.

Unfortunately, these advances are not magic bullets. Contact with home can be a reminder of the people you’re missing and if the dishwasher is broken, there’s not much you can do about it.

Another major change is the way overwintering contracts are run. When I started working at the British Antarctic Survey, overwintering was a two-and-a-half-year commitment. Even though at that time people were only eligible to winter if they were not married with children, I’m sure that their parents missed them, and vice versa! This was made worse as in the early days, communication was via HF telex – each month 100 words out and 200 words in – no phone calls at all! Those days are long gone, and the reduction to a 15-month stint that is generally required now for overwintering, makes this commitment easier.

The major change to polar science that reduces the challenges for families is the shift to being able to study the polar regions without necessarily having to spend long lengths of time there. Scientists can find out amazing things by using numerical models, or existing datasets. Satellite observations or instruments that are deployed and run autonomously, all provide routes to make novel and cutting-edge discoveries without the regular need to visit the high latitudes.

While it will always be essential for some people to travel to the polar regions, to immerse themselves in the environment, and study in situ, there are growing opportunities to study the poles while based in an office in the UK. This can be a blessing to those who are less keen to spend time away from home, and also easier on their families.

The allure of the poles has drawn those with a spirit for adventure and a thirst for knowledge away from the comfort of their homes since the great explorers over a century ago. For those who fall in love with the poles, the fruits of their labour will always justify the time spent away. A colleague once remarked how proud her children were of her job and that she travelled to Antarctica. She felt she was providing them with a role model and the importance of doing a job that’s exciting and fulfilling. That said, this doesn’t make the strain of working away any less real though. We must be attentive as a polar community to the difficulties faced by those with families and ensure every measure is taken to help bridge the gap between base camp and home.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out the following blog, which was written by a colleague, on how she dealt with leaving behind her children and husband during an 11 week field trip to Antarctica: