Fire and ice: the Antarctic volcanoes that hint at our climate future

If there’s one piece of advice Professor John Smellie would give to would-be Antarctic explorers, it’s ‘don’t be a hero’. 

“I often see newcomers coming to the Antarctic who immediately adopt a heroic persona, and I hate that,” he says. “To me, I'm down there to do a job. I'm there to enjoy it, but I'm going there intending to come back home again, and there are no rocks down there that are worth my life or anyone else's.”

Professor Smellie is no stranger to the perils of Antarctica: he has carried out no less than 27 expeditions there. He has visited and worked on more volcanoes in Antarctica than any other person, living or dead, earning him the nickname ‘Mr Antarctic Volcano’.

Such is his dedication and passion for the subject that he has just been honoured with the Polar Medal in the New Year Honours 2023. It’s the second time in his career that he has received it, joining less than two dozen people to have been similarly honoured in its 150-year history.

In 2010, following a long career with the British Antarctic Survey, he joined the University of Leicester as an Honorary Professor in what is now the School of Geology, Geography and the Environment, where he mentors students and continues to conduct his research. But his fascination with the volcanoes of the Antarctic still draws him back to its cold climes and the insights to be found within its ancient rocks.

Frozen in time

“Audiences are always surprised to hear that there are volcanoes there, which is brilliant from my perspective because it makes them interested from the get-go.” He says.

There are several dozen volcanoes in Antarctica, predominantly in West Antarctica and Marie Byrd Land, of which eight or nine are regarded as active. Three have been observed in eruption, and many more have the potential to erupt.

With an early interest in volcanoes developed at University, Professor Smellie joined the British Antarctic Survey and was given a project studying volcanic rocks. With Antarctica largely covered in snow and ice, he investigated whether there might be evidence in these volcanoes for interaction with that ice. 

 “I began to look at the volcanic sequences and worked out ways to extract an ice sheet history,” Professor Smellie explains. “And it turns out that every single eruption from most of these volcanoes records a rather beautiful snapshot for what the ice sheet was doing when it erupted at that time. So you could get ice thickness, ice surface elevation, ice thermal regime, ice structure just from looking at volcanic rocks and this was radical about 20 years ago.”


Hot topic

His most recent trip, in October to November 2022, Professor Smellie was in an area called northern Victoria Land, mapping a cliff section formed through a series of volcanic eruptions. “It's 30 kilometres long, one and a half kilometres high and it's quite staggering. You stand at the foot of these cliffs looking up and you're looking effectively a mile in the air to the cliff top.

“The idea was to look at the volcanic record and to pull out the environmental story from that. Additionally I've discovered in the last several years that there's an interglacial story in there as well. The rocks are aged between five and seven million years old and that's a period when global temperatures were three or four degrees above modern. So the ice sheet itself was climatically stressed and what happened to it is a good guide to what is going to happen in future if global temperatures continue to rise.”

Brutally beautiful

Researching in the Antarctic is not without its hazards. Professor Smellie recalls trips in which his ship ran aground, another in which it caught fire, crash-landing in a helicopter and, perhaps most unpleasantly, a ‘tent-shredding experience’.

He explains: “If you have very strong winds and a combination of warm daytime temperatures and cold night-time temperatures, the surface melts slightly during the day, then freezes at night. And then if the wind gets up, it breaks up the now-frozen snow surface and it throws these plates of ice at the tent, which gets sliced to pieces.”

A recent investigation included the two southernmost volcanoes in the world, situated just 300 km from the South Pole. He had to wait almost 25 years until the conditions were in place to get him there. It was one of his coldest seasons in Antarctica, with temperatures typically minus 25°C. And as usual he was camping.

“I had wanted to work on those volcanoes ever since I heard about them in the late 1980’s,” he says. “I already had experience working on the high polar plateau and its low temperatures. I knew that any exposed skin feels like it has razor blades being thrown at it. 

“But the scenery is brutally beautiful as well as extremely remote. Just two small exploring parties had ever been there, so it was a privilege for us to visit.

“I've been saying for several years that this would be my last time in Antarctica. And then I keep going back. This season, in some respects, it felt like my last season. But I have one more proposal going through the system just now. If it’s funded, the fieldwork would take place at the end of 2024 and I'm giving it serious thought right now. 

“It's an extremely scary environment, and it's also an incredibly breathtakingly beautiful environment and you can go through many, many days, indeed, weeks of awful weather where it's the last place you want to be. But as soon as the sun comes out and the wind goes away, you can forgive it anything. It is a wonderful place.”