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Inside the B.I.G. Expedition, a groundbreaking Arctic climate study

When a ‘simple’ mission to the North Pole testing for microplastics became impossible due to climate change a multi-trip, four year research project began. Now the results could fundamentally alter our understanding of a rapidly destabilising region. 

It’s been two months since Felicity Aston MBE returned from the frozen north of Canada. The final leg of a mammoth undertaking born out of doomed plans to reach the centre of the Northern Hemisphere to investigate the presence of tiny plastic particles in ice – the B.I.G. Expedition, or Before It’s Gone. 

Originally, the team – sponsored by Environment Journal – were supposed to make just one journey – skiing across the frozen Arctic Sea to the North Pole. Four years after the project began, this still hasn’t happened. Conditions in the region are now consistently too unstable it’s impossible to attempt travelling over the ice. Instead, the team have now made four trips to destinations within the Arctic, expanding the focus area of the work significantly along with the data set.

That this rethink was even necessary is an ominous reminder of a future rapidly unfolding. Or melting. So, while analysis continues to look at microplastics, it now also involves carbon and heavy metals testing, informing more fields of study than was originally intended. It would be a case of triumph plucked from adversity, if the wider implications didn’t look so bleak. 

‘When we went to Drangajökull, which is the northernmost glacier in Iceland, I’d been there the year before to do a recce, and found so much snow in the access valley we needed an alternative route into the glacier. The local farmers, I mean there’s only two, one is 85 and has been there all his life, they were saying they’d never seen so much snow. When I went back 12 months later with the team, I was preparing to find alternative routes, expecting a huge amount of snow… We got to the bottom of the valley and couldn’t see any, it was just grass,’ Aston says, recalling a vivid example of climate change in first person. 



‘So it was like, ‘oh my goodness, that’s 20km of grass we have to carry our sledges and equipment over, before we even get to the snow. You know, that’s a hugely traumatic start to the expedition in itself,’ she continues. ‘But the farmers were saying they had never in their entire lifetimes known there to be no snow at that time of year. That lack of being able to predict is what scientists have been saying for decades, that this will be a consequence of climate change and we’re seeing this now, along with weather patterns and seasons.’ 

As our conversation continues, we’re left under no false illusions that this situation is the norm. Whether travelling to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, or Nanavut, Arctic Canada, the team have encountered countless communities struggling to make their traditional systems work. Vital logistical routes, in place since the advent of modern haulage, are no longer ‘cutting it’ in today’s environmental reality. 

‘The climate debate is often spoken about in terms of the future. There’s always dates like 2030, 2045 being talked about. If we don’t do ‘this’ now, ‘this’ will be the future,’ Aston says. ‘I feel there is something to be said about changing our language – so we are talking about what has happened in the past. That’s news to some people, people who are still surprised when I say you can’t ski to the North Pole anymore because the ice is too inherently unstable.’

When we speak, the UK has been struggling to switch seasons, cool weather having dominated spring and early-mid-summer. While Aston’s anecdotes from an Arctic potentially changed forever by our shifting climate feel far removed from British weather complaints, both point to the painful truth that a crisis is worsening. Instead of asking ‘what’s going on?’, we should just look at the mountains of scientific data spanning decades pointing to this happening. Now it’s unfolding, and where from here is reliant on modelling. 

For Aston, this is a fundamental issue she hopes The B.I.G. Expedition can tackle. After hearing about her team enduring daily storms so severe their tents were nearly airborne, and the day visibility on Canadian ice was so poor they had to pre-plan for encountering the area’s sizeable polar bear population, she explains the significance of what comes next. ‘The field work is the really exciting bit, but also kind of like a holiday,’ she tells us.

Black carbon samples have now been sent to the University of Colorado and analysis has completed. Statistical analysis is currently underway, results informing a research paper which will be the first of its kind to be published on the subject. Microplastic content is in the hands of Aston and others at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, first results due late-2024. Heavy metals will also be assessed at the University of Southampton, which will take longer. Tests are expected to stretch into next year. 

Once complete, the impact could be profound. No existing methodology exits for working out the distribution and volume of microplastic in Arctic snow. Without this, it’s far more difficult for students and postgraduates to legitimise studies. So can B.I.G. contribute to the development of an urgently-needed framework? Could this prove the abundant data on heavy metals can be used to improve our nascent understanding of how microplastics are spreading? 

Certainly, the study will shed some light on the direct health impacts of microplastics on local communities. Sample analyses will identify most likely sources, helping those living in these vulnerable regions make invaluable decisions about infrastructure, waste streams, and behavioural changes. All of this adds to a rapidly growing bank of data records on the Arctic, which the public can also contribute to as part of a vast, international citizen science initiative asking people to take simple readings from snow-bound areas, from ski resorts or mountain refuges. 

Find more information on all aspects of The B.I.G. Expedition here

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Images: The B.I.G. Expedition 


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