Student's trip to Antarctic to help improve the way Global Positioning System works

Staff reporter

Last updated 3/7/2011 7:26:48 AM

University of Bath PhD student Joe Kinrade has spent six weeks in the Antarctic on an epic research trip to the South Pole with the British Antarctic Survey.

His research aims to improve the way the Global Positioning System (GPS) works by producing detailed data highlighting possible disruptions to radio waves high in an area of the earth's atmosphere called the ionosphere.

Disturbances to the ionosphere caused by storms on the surface of the sun can disrupt GPS signals, causing problems for satellite communication equipment.

Joe explained: "GPS is now an essential tool in modern society, and has countless global applications. We use GPS for everyday Sat-Navs in our cars, for migrational tracking of endangered species, and even in monitoring climate change through sea-level and ice thickness measurements made from space. The ionosphere poses real problems to the GPS, so it's important that we continue to study periods of atmospheric turbulence to help reduce its impact on GPS performance."

Joe's research closely monitors atmospheric disturbances in the magnetically dense Polar Regions, where incoming energetic particles from space can play catalyst to a host of interesting phenomena. These include the spectacular auroras of the Northern and Southern Lights, and are particular to the Earth's high latitudes.The long term study of these Polar conditions has allowed him to collect data that will now be used to develop a greater understanding of the ionosphere aimed at improving the way we use GPS on earth.

Joe and his team flew between a number of remote and isolated field sites, camping out for weeks at a time.The Eagle site, one of the many Antarctic bases Joe visited on his trip.

"Before we left the UK we went through intensive physical training; you have to be fit because the high altitude at the South Pole makes the air very thin and you can easily be exhausted just climbing a couple of steps," Joe said . "Jet lag is also a problem for field parties in the Antarctic as there are multiple time zones. Our team was travelling between various field camps on Antarctic Survey Time, to the South Pole which is on New Zealand Time, with a 13-hour difference!"

Preparations also included advanced first aid training as although the team had radio contact with one doctor, the group would have had to handle any emergencies themselves.They also completed a week of snow training on arrival in the Antarctic, acclimatising to the bright conditions and -35 degree centigrade temperature.

Joe added: "I couldn't really imagine how bright it was going to be until I got there – I wore goggles with an orange tint to take the glare off the snow whenever I was outside, and had factor 50 suncream on all the time. Even then my skin would feel as though it was burnt at the end of the day because ultra violet light is so strong in the Antarctic.

"There were a few scary moments on the trip, including a couple of bumpy airplane landings on the sea ice and a takeoff in which we had to dig the runway first, but overall it was an experience of a lifetime and I did really enjoy it. I was lucky enough to have some free time when I was dropped on an island where few people are allowed to go alone. I tentatively walked amongst an Elephant seal colony – they are absolutely enormous and really smell! I also saw killer whales, Adelie and Gentoo penguins, fur seals, Skua birds and a whole variety of other wildlife during the trip."

Joe kept in touch with the project headquarters and his tutor at the University of Bath by satellite email and telephone.

The PhD student has always had a passion for adventure, volunteering in Ghana as a teenager and kayaking in the open sea around his home on the Isle of Man. It therefore fits that his research should take him to exciting places.

"Very few people get to go to the Antarctic, and to be so early in my career and given the responsibility of being the project manager within an experienced team of people made the opportunity even more meaningful, " Joe said.