Reporter 430, 1 February 1999

Fiery fossil followers find spicy southern comfort

A team of University geologists will spend the next three months breaking ice, hunting fossils and eating curry as they build up a picture of a more temperate Antarctica.

"For most of its history Antarctica was a green and pleasant land," said Dr Jane Francis. "By looking at its fossil trees and plants we can work out exactly how green and pleasant it was."

Dr Francis, Dr Imogen Poole and Richard Hunt left Leeds on January 2 for the Falkland Islands, from where they were due to sail for Antarctica with the British Atlantic Survey.

Camping in temperatures well below freezing and working underneath a hole in the ozone layer so large that it requires permanent sun screen and eye-protection weren't the only concerns about their temporary home. "I've been there before and after about a month I started to crave sensation," said Dr Francis. "There are no sounds, no colours, no smells and everything is so still that you can look in the same direction for hours and nothing happens. I made up for it by over seasoning all my food, which is fine until you come home and you find everything you eat then just tastes completely bland."

Many of the fossil plants are ancestors of those currently growing in Tazmania, New Zealand and South Africa. Studying them can help to preserve the delicate ecology of these forests amid extensive logging.

"It's a fantastic place to work as you can walk along the shore and easily find fossils instead of digging through a covering layer of plants and earth like in Yorkshire," Dr Francis added. "One of the advantages of climate warming is the appearance of an increasing number of fossils, and there are some truly great fossils under all that ice."

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