Agnieszka Fryckowska grew up in Auckland, not knowing much about Antarctica – but that’s where she ended up. In 2004, she went to Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey. It was her first visit and she was at Rothera Research Station for 34 months, over two long winters. Since then she has worked in a number of different British stations, including five winters altogether, some as station leader. In April 2016, she went to Buckingham Palace to receive the Polar Medal for her work.
Agnieszka was back in New Zealand recently and kindly agreed to have a chat and answer some questions.
What was your childhood like?
My parents are Polish and they met in England after the Second World War, and later came to New Zealand. My sister and brother are 11 and 17 years older, so I was a bit of a loner. I grew up on an orchard and then on Waiheke. I used to love running round the orchard, beaches and forests and nature. I was a daydreamer and liked to dabble at lots of things.
We moved around a bit – one year I went to four different schools – and I failed lots of things in school and university. So I’d like to say: just because you’re not the best student in the class, doesn’t mean you can’t get anywhere. Don’t give up! If you like something, try it. If you don’t, try something else!
What did you know about Antarctica when you were at school?
Nothing! I was brought up in Auckland, so there wasn’t much snow there. At Otago University, I did a BSc in physical geography. I was interested in rivers, but one professor taught alpine science – snow and glaciers. He did fieldwork in Mt Cook and every year he took some Masters students to Antarctica. I thought, “this is so cool – how do I do this?” But I was never a straight A’s student, so I didn’t get the chance to go down with him.
Later in the UK I saw an ad for a meteorologist in Antarctica. A friend said, “you could so do this, with climatology and the other subjects in your degree.” So I applied, but I didn’t even get an interview.
I got my Masters degree in hydrology and was working as a consultant, but I kept looking now and then on the website. Then I saw a job advertised for a meteorologist, but the deadline was the very next day. I uploaded my previous application, just adding the Masters degree but no other changes, and I got the job.
Can you remember your first impressions of Antarctica?
I remember stepping off the plane and thinking, “OMG what have I done??” because on that base, the snow melts in summer and it looks like a quarry.
I couldn’t believe I was there. No matter how much you picture it in your head, it’s different when you get there.
What was a typical day for you as meteorologist at Rothera?
In winter I’d get up at 7am and have coffee in the dark. I’d check the weather by looking at the machines that feed into the computer, measuring wind and cloud height and temperature, and I’d look at the overnight records for trends.
Then I’d put the weather balloon in a plastic bag and warm it up in the incubator. This helps it to be flexible and expand – by the time it bursts, it’s the size of a double decker bus. I put my outdoor kit on to walk about 10 minutes away, because you can’t release the balloon amongst the buildings. I did this in all weathers, and sometimes there would be seals on the runway that you couldn’t see, but you could hear them and they could bite you!
Then I inflated the balloon in the hangar, attached the radio instruments and let it go. The weather balloons are released at the same time all around the world.
After that I’d have breakfast and base duties, and every three hours until midnight I’d be doing weather obs. [observations] On different days, I’d have different experiments to check. At midday I’d check the Stevenson screen, which is a white box like a beehive sitting on a post. It contains a thermometer and a wet and dry bulb, the difference between them gives you the humidity reading.
My work day finished at 5pm, except that I still had the 6pm, 9pm and midnight weather obs to do.
What was it like working down there for two winters?
I jumped into everything I could. There’s lots to do: mountain climbing, camping in tents or igloos, going out on the sea ice or in boats, fancy dress parties, cooking, carpentry, rebuilding a skidoo.
The station at Rothera sleeps 120 in summer, but large numbers go through all the time so it’s more like a hotel. The winter team is only 25, so there’s a special bond that forms with winterers. The first winter can be a bit nerve-wracking because you don’t know how you will cope, and you’re the only one who can do that job. In the second winter, you know what to do.
What did you miss most?
The colour green! And fresh fruit and veges.
What were the best things about being there?
Being reliant on the team you’re with. It's like a big family. Everyone helps each other.
Work didn’t feel like work. You could look out at amazing glaciers and clouds – you were surrounded by beauty all the time.
What was it like going back to the outside world?
On the station, it’s all about safety and constant risk assessment. Whenever you go out, you have to get permission, tag in and out and carry the right gear and a radio, and if you’re running late, you radio in before they issue a rescue party.
We sailed both ways, there and back. On the Falklands, which was our first port of call on leaving, we’d forgotten that you could do what you wanted – you could go wandering off without needing to sign out! Also we were used to knowing everyone on the base, so we’d smile at everyone, and we gathered up our cups and plates after we’d eaten at a cafe because we were used to helping. Another time, I spent an hour in the supermarket, just looking at a weird assortment of things that I hadn’t seen for two years.
What would you like to tell people about Antarctica?
It’s an amazing place that can teach us a lot about the planet, about climate and looking after nature. You don’t have to be a scientist to get down there, you can be a plumber, carpenter, cook or cleaner. It’s really special and we need to look after it. And you can look at animals – penguins are cool, and it’s the best place to see them – they just ignore you, they’re not even curious.
You can hear a great radio interview with Agnieszka here (and see a photo of her talking to Prince William when she got her Polar medal).
And here are some articles about her Polar medal:
Royal honour for Kiwi ice queen (NZ herald).
New Zealander awarded prestigious Polar Medal for work in Antarctica – a TV clip of Agnieszka at Buckingham Palace for her medal presentation (in a fabulous dress and necklace)
Polar Medal for Otago alumna (University of Otago)
And here are her top tips for going to Antarctica!
- It’s super dry so drink lots of water.
- Keep looking around all the time. Talk to everyone. Get involved. Ask “do you need a hand?” – you might get to go somewhere with them at the last minute. Have your kit ready and camera changed all the time
- Take lip salve, your own shampoo, conditioner and moisturiser, a familiar merino and slippers, and some bright ribbon to thread through bootlaces and zips, because everyone’s gear looks the same.