Tonight I'm going to talk to you about that remarkable continent Antarctica — remote, hostile and at present uninhabited on a permanent basis. For early explorers, it was the ultimate survival contest; for researchers like me, it remains a place of great intellectual challenge; while for the modern tourist, it's simply a wilderness of great beauty.
First, some facts and figures. Antarctica is a place of extremes — the highest, coldest and windiest continent and over fifty-eight times the size of the UK. The ice-cap contains almost 70% of the world's fresh water and 90% of its ice, but with very low snowfall, most of the continent technically falls unbelievably into the category of 'desert'! Huge icebergs break off the continent each year, while in winter half the surrounding ocean freezes over, which means its size almost doubles.
Research and exploration has been going on in Antarctica for more than two hundred years, and has involved scientists from many different countries, who work together on research stations. Here science and technical support have been integrated in a very cost-effective way — our Antarctic research programme has several summers-only stations and two all-year-round ones; I was based on one of the all-year-round ones.
The research stations are really self-contained communities of about twenty people. There's living and working space, a kitchen with a huge food store, a small hospital and a well-equipped gym to ensure everyone keeps fit in their spare time. The station generates its own electricity and communicates with the outside world using a satellite link.
Our station — Zero One — had some special features. It wasn't built on land but on an ice-shelf, hundreds of metres thick. Supplies were brought to us on large sledges from a ship fifteen kilometres away at the ice edge.
Living in the Antarctic hasn't always been so comfortable. Snow build-ups caused enormous problems for four previous stations on the same site, which were buried and finally crushed by the weight. Fortunately no-one was hurt, but these buildings became a huge challenge to architects who finally came up with a remarkable solution — the buildings are placed on platforms which can be raised above the changing snow level on legs which are extendable.