Felicity Aston

Interview: Felicity Aston – Part of First All-Female British Expedition Across Greenland

As part of the first all-female British expedition across Greenland, Felicity Aston has witnessed the impact climate change has had on our planet. Spurred on by her passion for sustainability, she is returning to the North Pole in 2022 to study the progression of global warming, and collect scientific data.

In our interview with the inspiring polar explorer, we discovered how Felicity has witnessed climate change first-hand. Find out more, below:

Q: Could you tell me about The B.I.G. North Pole Expedition 2022?

“The mission involves going back to the North Pole, and the reason why I’m so focused on the North Pole in recent years and the near future is because, in maybe as little as five years, it’s going to be impossible to make this journey anymore.

“So, for example, the last time someone made a full distance journey to the North Pole, they started on dry land and skated over the Arctic Ocean to get to the North Pole. The last time that happened was 2014 and it’s largely believed that’s the last time it’s going to be possible. It’s still possible now to ski a partial distance to the North Pole, but that’s only because there’s one logistics operation that is still willing to take on the hazards of the Arctic Ocean.

“Already it’s only possible to access that part of the world for three weeks of the year, so April each year is the only time it’s possible. And really, it’s only a matter of time, maybe five, six, seven, certainly less than 10 years until it won’t be possible to have supportive logistics on the ice and therefore, it’s not going to be possible to ski to the North Pole anymore.

“And while maybe the world doesn’t care if people can’t plant their flag at the North Pole, I think it serves as a very vivid demonstration of just how quick and how fundamental this change is.

“It’s important to know, this is not a hypothetical change in our future. This is something that’s already in our past. This has happened. There’s no combating this change. So, the journey in 2022 is very much focused on science because this is our last chance to get out there on skis to collect data that isn’t easily collected in any other way.

“And the reason why that’s important is a lot of our ability to work out what change might happen in the future, as well as to unpick the changes we’ve got right now, they depend on computer models and computer models are only as good as the data you put in. So, if you don’t have that data, then you can’t rely on the computer models.”

Q: Why is it called The ‘B.I.G’ North Pole Expedition?

“The B.I.G expedition stands for ‘before it’s gone’. And it’s very simple, we’re going up there to collect data, to fill in some of the existing holes and data blanks that we have before it’s too late, before it’s impossible to do that or impossible to do that very easily.

“We are collecting data that will particularly look at black carbon and we also look at microplastics. Those are the two areas that we’re focusing on. And again, it’s an all-female team doing that, and it’s very much rooted in citizen science.

“So, this is not a bunch of career academics going out and doing this, this is everyday people who really want to challenge themselves, see an amazing part of the world, but also do it in a way that contributes, because I think everyone’s very conscious of the fact that to go to these fragile environments now, you need a strong justification.

“The team is enthusiastic about the fact that we’re contributing to really important, meaningful science as well as the journey itself.”

Q: Can you describe when you have seen the effects of global warming first-hand?

“I find it so interesting that people are more willing to ask me about global warming and climate change, and yet to really be able to say anything meaningful about it, you need to have gone back to the same place year after year to spend your life studying it.

“And of course, we’ve got people that have done that, we’ve got highly qualified scientists who have spent their whole life working this out. And yet no one seems willing to listen to them. We’re more willing to listen to Leonardo DiCaprio fly around in a helicopter for half an hour than we are to someone who spent their whole life studying this and have the data to back it up.

“They’re not just looking out a window going, ‘oh, that looks nasty that iceberg is falling off’, they’ve got actual data is quantifying what is going on.

“And yet, we still somehow seem – the public as a whole – generally distrustful of science. I don’t quite know how this has happened because, by definition, science is the process of going out there and measuring things.

“But, having said that, it’s reached a point where even someone like me who was a visitor to these regions rather than someone who’s there all the time studying it, it’s impossible to ignore. But then, it’s not just me that seeing this, it’s everybody.

“The increase in extreme weather events, the flooding, the droughts, all of these things, we are all witnessing massive climate change – you don’t have to go to the North Pole to see it.

“When the town down the road floods or you see these massive weather events, that is climate change.

Q: How does climate change impact our planet outside of the UK?

“What I’m seeing right now here in Iceland is a complete collapse of puffin colonies. This is driven by changes in sea temperature, which moves the fish that they feed on to somewhere else.

“So, in the south of Iceland which used to have really dramatic populations of puffin, now there’s none, there’s literally none. So, where I live, we still have a very healthy, thriving population of puffin. But we’re watching it carefully because it’s only a matter of time before the same thing sadly happens here.

“Back in 1969, the first man undisputed to cross the surface of the Arctic Ocean to reach the North Pole completed it just a few months before the first man stood on the moon, which I think is very poignant.

“So, in 50 years we’ve gone from the first man to the last man to get to the North Pole. What further dramatic evidence do you need?”

Q: What is the most memorable location you have visited?

“My goodness. I mean, they’re all memorable for different reasons. There is a special place in my heart for Antarctica. I’m not sure particularly why. Maybe it’s because it was such a fundamental experience in my life.

“I first went to Antarctica when I was 23, I was posted there. It was my first proper job after university, so it was quite an instrumental period in my life. I think your first proper job is always a bit of a moment anyway.

“And for that job to be in Antarctica and then for that job to be posted to a station, which I knew when I arrived there in December of 2000, that I wasn’t going to leave again until April 2003 because that was the standard length of the contract at that time.

“You knew you weren’t going to go home or leave Antarctica for any reason for that great big, long period. I got to see Antarctica on really wonderful days when there was nowhere else in the world I would rather have been. And I got to see Antarctica in the middle of a very dark winter when it was with a skeleton crew of just 20 that I didn’t get to choose. Having breakfast, lunch and dinner, working with them, socialising with them, everything.

“There were days where I would rather have been anywhere else in the world, quite frankly, than in that situation, and so perhaps that’s why Antarctica has embedded itself so deeply and is still a part of the world that I have a very special place in my heart for.”

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