By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


The climate crisis we’re currently experiencing is human-caused, but over the billions of years of Earth’s history, before humans and industrialisation, the climate has been an amorphous beast. In that time, tectonic plates have moved around, broken apart and formed the land masses we know as continents today, each with their distinct climates.

Incoming president of the British Science Association (BSA), and director of the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Dame Jane Francis has spent her career researching and for weeks, if not months at a time, living on one of the landmasses that can tell us the most about history of the Earth’s climate and the current climate crisis – Antarctica.

At her Presidential Address at the British Science Festival – held this year at the University of Exeter – Jane spoke to journalist Gaia Vince about her childhood, education and the early days of her career (in part one of this blog series), how she is seeing the impact of climate change on the ice caps before her eyes, and the urgent need for more climate education. 

A great place to study climate change

Over a hundred million years ago, Antarctica was part of a large landmass – or supercontinent – called Gondwana, which included what is now Australia and South America. Gaia asked Jane how Antarctica has changed since that time.

A hundred million years ago is really quite important because Antarctica was a continent over the South Pole at that time, so when I was doing my field work I was looking at rocks that were a hundred million years old when Antarctica was in a polar position yet I was finding fossil plants, fossil leaves, petrified tree stumps… We have amazing fossils and they all tell us that Antarctica was much warmer at that time because it was green, it had forests.

“Because the continent has stayed in that same position for the last hundred million years", Jane explained, "it’s a great place to study because we can see that changes are due to climate change, not because the continents have moved around.”

“When they melt, it sounds like Rice Krispies popping”

The effects of the current climate crisis are most pronounced at the Earth’s poles and Jane has had a front row seat to these changes over the last couple of decades. How does it feel, Gaia asked, to be on the ice caps and hear the gushing water as ice melts?

“About a month ago”, Jane said, “I was in our station in Svalbard – Svalbard is an island north of Norway – we have a research station there… This year I was there for a week and for the whole week I wore a t-shirt.”

Everybody was saying it shouldn’t be like this. There was really a sense of understanding that this was not good for the environment and you could see in the fjord near our station, there were plumes of glacial meltwater.

Jane had travelled north with poet laureate, Simon Armitage, and BBC radio producer, Sue Roberts, to record a radio show about the trip.  

We went out one night on a small boat to the foot of the glacier where a huge block had just fallen off. There were lots of bits of ice floating around so we just sat there and listened.

When the snow falls, it traps bits of ice that eventually get compressed into these tiny little bubbles in the ice that contain the ancient atmosphere from thousands of years ago. When they melt it sounds like Rice Krispies popping, and it does sound like a big change is taking place.

Should we be worried?

Antarctica covers 5.5 million square miles – it will surely take centuries to melt. Should we be worried now? Gaia asked. Jane replied:

That’s what we thought about Antarctica even say five years ago…but a lot of the research we do now is looking at the edges of Antarctica and we do see some changes.

She elaborated:

What is happening that we can really see now from our expeditions is that the winds are blowing warm water from the ocean…going underneath the ice shelves [around the edges of Antarctica] and melting it from below. And the worrying thing is as those shelves disappear, the glaciers on land flow down into the ocean.

That’s going to affect everybody on the planet who lives near a coast. It will affect the weather, it will affect how our oceans circulate. So, it really will have an affect across the planet.

Education is key

One thing that can’t be denied is that all of us - especially the generation of young people coming up through the education system today - need a stronger understanding of the climate crisis; why it’s happening and how we can tackle it.

Gaia asked Jane for her thoughts on the 1 in 5 project, an initiative that asks universities to make 1 in 5 of all students’ final dissertations relate to climate change. Jane absolutely supports it and added that we need to create a generation of young people who have comprehensive knowledge:

Personally, I think it would be really great for everybody who goes to university, whatever subject they do, whether it’s archeology, physics or maths, history or art that they do a module in their first year at university to understand climate change.

Is university not too late? Not all young people go to university, Gaia posed. Jane agreed:

I think it’s really important that this is taught in schools because whenever I’ve given talks about climate change, about Antarctica and how it’s changing, I get a lot of feedback from young people who have a sense of huge responsibility on their shoulders – that we’ve created a problem and the solution is theirs [to find], and how are they going to do it. So, I think we need to make sure that everybody knows how climate functions, how our planet functions.

Follow your dream

Jane faced many obstacles in her life, as a young woman graduating with a geology degree in the 1970s (read part one of this blog series). What, Gaia asked, is Jane’s hope, as the new President of the BSA, for students studying these subjects today? 

I think we still need to keep on improving the diversity in science, diversity of all kinds, but I think to do science you really need to have passion, you’ve got to really want to do it, and follow your dream. I think that the British Science Association should help people follow their dreams and make sure that the dream is open to as many people as possible in the future.


Read part one of the blog series on Jane Francis' presidential address

Photography by Theo Moye (link opens in new tab)