Rock hunter is heading for Antarctica in search of clues to global warming

Dr Jonathan Carrivick is not taking any chances. Alongside the boxes of technical equipment, waterproof clothing and camping gear which have already been shipped to Antarctica in readiness for a two-month study into climate change, the Leeds University academic admits he has packed his own stash of luxury items.

Like a sub-zero equivalent of Gillian McKeith, who smuggled stock cubes and garlic powder, in a pair of M&S' finest into the Australian jungle, Dr Carrivick has a plan he hopes will boost the flavour of the Army-style ration packs which will be his staple diet.

"It's best not to think how long ago the ration packs were first boxed up, but it's years rather than months," says the geography lecturer, tying up the final loose ends in the office where over the last few years he has plotted his latest expedition. Above his computer there are posters of the Mont Blanc panorama, press cuttings of a project he helped to organise in Greenland and in the corner there's the final small stack of cases and a pair of climbing shoes destined for the South Pole. "It's going to be pretty basic out there, but we've got some herbs, some spices, a little butter and a small supply of cheese to take the edge off it."

In the coldest, windiest, highest and driest continent on Earth, food supplies are limited, but before Dr Carrivick and the rest of the team even reach the rocky outcrop they will call home for at least eight weeks, they will have to negotiate a potentially more tricky problem.

On Sunday, he, along with two colleagues from the University of Aberystwyth will arrive by Hercules in the Falkland Islands. There they will be joined by an assistant from the British Antarctic Survey and all four will board the Royal Research Ship, Ernest Shackleton, sailing the 900 or so miles to James Ross Island just off the Antarctic Peninsula. The hope is they will land on shore by Wednesday.

"I've been warned that however good you think your sea legs are it can be pretty hairy," says Dr Carrivick. "There's often gale force winds, storms and as we get closer ice may be a problem."

While it's the ice many scientists head to Antarctica to see, it's the rocks the three British academics are going to study. They'll be based in an area which has already seen the glaciers disappear. The hope is that by studying the geology which lay beneath the ice and learning how it reacted in past climates it will help today's scientists map future changes in temperatures.

"The Antarctic Peninsula has suffered above average warming over the past half century, with temperatures increasing by about 2.5C since 1950," says Dr Carrivick. "As a result, glaciers and ice shelves have begun to melt and the fresh water has not only caused sea levels to rise, but has also influenced deep sea circulation and regional climate."

While much work has already been carried out in the region, scientists don't yet fully understand the relationship between air and sea temperature and the melting ice. They also don't know whether the increase in temperature is unprecedented or simply part of a geological pattern played out over thousands of years. It's this conundrum which Dr Carrivick hopes to solve, and to do it, he and his colleagues will work in complete isolation.

"Normally when researchers work in Antarctica they operate from a research ship or an established station. Because of where we need to be, that isn't possible. We will be dropped off with all our kit and left for two months with just emergency radio contact with the rest of the world."

Dr Carrivick is no stranger to extreme locations. His research work has already taken him to Greenland, Iceland and northern Sweden, but this expedition will be the longest he has been away from civilisation and from his wife, who he describes as "very understanding".

"In most places you get to go into a town or city every couple of weeks," he says. "It's a chance to restock, but it's also a chance to see people, to have a bit of normality. We won't be able to do that in Antarctica."

When they arrive it will be light for almost 24 hours a day, but the unpredictable and unforgiving climate means they will have to take every chance they get to collect the 100 boxes of rocks they will need to bring back to Britain for analysis.

"The easiest way to collect rock is with a motorised saw, but that needs fuel, so instead we'll have only hammers and chisels," he says. "It's hard work breaking up rocks and its even harder in Antarctica. When it's freezing everything takes longer. When we get there it should be 0C during the day and we should still be able to find streams with running water, but it's likely they will freeze over during the time we are there, with daytime temperatures dropping to –15C. At that point we'll have to start melting our own snow and that in itself can take hours."

While the team will walk up to 10 miles a day, they have also undergone training in quad bike riding and, more worryingly, high-end first aid and crevasse rescue.

"The biggest danger will definitely be the weather," he adds. "It can turn in a matter of minutes, so when it's good we could end up working 22 hours a day. Working out in Antarctica is all about taking precautions. We'll always go out as a group and we'll always have a stove and enough food with us to see us through an emergency. We've been told to expect to spend around a third of our time in the tent because of bad weather, but there will always be things to do whether it's catching up on sleep, rehydrating, mending that shoelace that's been annoying you or maintaining the equipment. When you're a physical geographer out in the field you have to be both a scientist and an engineer.

"In the rare moments we do have some free time, I've got an iPod and a laptop, although both are dependant on getting a satellite connection. Failing that, I've packed a few crossword books and I'm going to be keeping a personal diary to help pass the time."

The team expect to have the first results of their study six months after they return. The full report is unlikely to be published for another year after that, but, when it does, it could well change the way experts think about the progression of climate change and its effects not just on Antarctica, but the rest of the world.

"A lot of the research so far has been to do with the oceans or large-scale observations of the ice sheets," says Dr Carrivick. "This project is local and intensive, concentrating on one of the very few areas that isn't completely covered by ice. These rocks have a history and if we can find out what's happened in the past, it will help us predict what might happen in the future.

"The periphery of Antarctica certainly appears to be precarious, but what will happen next is still open to debate. Some think that while the fringe will disappear the rest will restabilise, but others maintain it's the start of a whole-scale collapse. Our work will hopefully give some indication which case scenario is the more likely."

The team hope to be back in Britain by the middle of March, but it could be longer if the ice sheets prevent their boat back to the Falklands from anchoring. There's little doubting the importance of the work, but Dr Carrivick admits he sometimes wonders whether he chose the right specialist field.

"Occasionally I wonder why I didn't study the geography of the Mediterranean," he says. "But the truth is, places like Antarctica hold a special kind of fascination."

The coldest continent

The first time anyone set foot on Antarctica was 1821 and the South Pole wasn't reached until 1911. About 4,000 people live on the scientific bases during the short summer, 1,000 in winter and the area attracts more than 30,000 tourists each year.

Fifty-eight times bigger than the UK, Antarctica has 70 per cent of all the world's fresh water, frozen as ice.

At its maximum, the ice is 15,670ft thick, the equivalent of 15 Eiffel Towers.

At the South Pole the temperature generally varies from –20C at the height of summer to –70 in mid-winter. However, in 1997, the lowest temperature on Earth, –91C, was recorded at an abandoned Soviet base near the centre of Antarctica.