On the South Pole, they slap on suncream as they watch the ozone hole grow

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The Independent Online

For one young woman sitting in one of the most isolated Antarctic research stations on the South Pole, tales of torrential rain and five days of flooding in the Home Counties cut very little ice.

For one young woman sitting in one of the most isolated Antarctic research stations on the South Pole, tales of torrential rain and five days of flooding in the Home Counties cut very little ice.

Alexandra Gaffikin is living in a survey station floating on the Brunt Ice Shelf on the edge of the Antarctic Ocean, where the winters bring darkness for 105 days, magnificent auroral light shows, and the temperatures plunge to below minus 53C. It is the sort of place where hot coffee poured from a cup freezes in mid-air. Even then, coffee only arrives at the Halley station twice a year, brought by a ship that moors up on the edge of the ice shelf, seven miles away by sledge.

Ms Gaffikin, 24, a meteorologist for the British Antarctic Survey, has her own concerns about the impact of humanity's continuing use of chemical pollutants that destroy the earth's atmosphere.

While political leaders, scientists and environmentalists in The Hague debate tougher measures to combat global warming, she is applying Factor 30 sunblock to protect her skin against exposure to intense UV radiation coming through a growing hole in the ozone layer above her adopted home.

In one of Ms Gaffikin's monthly e-mails home to her mother Brenda in Balham, south London, she explains: "We get a panoramic view of the sky, the clouds are weird and wonderful and the sunsets are mesmerising.

"But the hole in the ozone layer is getting bigger. It reached its peak in September this year and was the largest ever recorded. The UV is not just dangerous to humans, but animals and plants too, and as the hole widens the chances of it reaching more inhabited places are likely. During the Arctic spring we have to cover our faces and wear Factor 30 sunblock cream."

The Halley station, which specialises in atmospheric sciences but also covers geology and glaciological surveys, is famous for uncovering the first substantive evidence of the hole in the ozone layer in the region. It was first founded in 1956, named after the astronomer Edward Halley of comet fame. Now the fifth station on the site, its buildings are built on platforms with steel legs that get jacked up routinely to keep above the snow.

Given its extraordinary isolation of the station and its extreme environment, there are, not surprisingly, psychological risks. Ms Gaffikin, who also writes an e-mail diary forthe Royal Geographical Society's monthly magazine, believes her cooped-up team would be ideal candidates fora rehash of the voyeuristicpsycho-soap Big Brother.

During the long Antarctic winter, she lives alongside only 15 other people, including the station's doctor. All the members were vetted and evaluated for compatibility before being taken on. The summer group grows to 65 staff and visitors.

Despite the purity and beauty of her surroundings, she does have bouts of homesickness for the capital. "London has a dirty, mouldy lived-in smell that I miss," she recently told her mother.

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