Cartographer - Ursula Ryan

At age 13 or so, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I had no idea. But a little bit later I decided I wanted to do something that combined geography, art and maths, because I enjoyed them and was good at them. So I started looking and in Form Five [year 11] I went through a careers book and discovered cartography.

What town or city are you from?

Melbourne, Victoria.

What were your educational/technical qualifications when you first worked in Antarctica?

Certificate in Surveying and Mapping, Bachelor of Applied Science in Cartography (Maths).

What was your work experience before undertaking your position in Antarctica?

I had worked as a cartographer for RACV, as a surveying assistant for an engineering company, and a small amount of work for BHP Petroleum.

Why did you want to go to Antarctica?

While I was at uni I heard a lot about Antarctica from a friend who applied for a glaciology position with the Antarctic Division. So I chose to do my final year project on Glaciology, on the movement of the Denman Glacier using satellite imagery. As it was I actually went first to the Antarctic as a tourist, just after I had started work with the Glaciology Program.

What is your Antarctic experience?

  • As a tourist December-January 1990-91, when I went to Macquarie Island, Cape Denison, Dumont d'Urville, the Mertz Glacier and back via the sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand.
  • As a Glaciologist at Law Dome, near Casey, for four months in 1992-93.
  • As a Voyage Management Trainee in 1996-97 on Voyage 4.
  • As a Deputy Voyage Leader in 1997-98 on Voyage 5. (I have been to all Australian stations exactly twice!)
  • As an observer on a QANTAS overflight to the Transantarctic Mountains in February 1999.

What did you do in Antarctica?

At the deep drilling site on Law Dome I was involved in the analysis of ice cores (for climate change records). I looked after the nine centimetres by (up to) two metre long cores once they came out of the drill. I would bag and label them and do some initial analysis which would contribute to dating them and preparing them for further analysis back in Australia.

In the voyage management positions I was responsible for the logistics of the cargo. There are so many types of cargo - scientific equipment, freezer, fridge, hazardous, quarantine and warm-store. The crew stow these items, but I needed to know what was where and to be sure the crew understood the specific requirements for each piece of cargo. I needed to know the size and weight of cargo that was to be flown off by helicopter or loaded by crane onto barges.

I also oversaw the refuelling of stations by hose over the sea ice or over the open water. And I was responsible for working out the priorities of expeditioners so that I could decide who would get the first chance to go and/or stay ashore, given the constraints of time and weather.

What skills did you need to do that work?

At Law Dome my surveying skills were handy, and my computer skills were necessary. I needed to be a good team member, particularly living in such a small group. I also needed practical skills like driving large oversnow vehicles, using a bandsaw, and being a hands-on practical navigator (my GPS/radar skills were a huge advantage in this).

In my voyage management roles I needed communications skills and computer skills for the huge inventory of cargo. And I needed to be able to juggle a whole lot of things at once, coordinating people and cargo. A good knowledge of Antarctica was handy.

What did you like most about living and working in Antarctica?

  • The privilege of being able to go to Antarctica and see all its attractions.
  • The challenge of the work and the opportunity to do things that I wouldn't be able to do back here, such as driving bulldozers, organising the logistics of an Antarctic expedition and so on.

What was the scariest thing that happened to you?

Worrying about the consequences of fatigue in myself and others. People work hard and for long hours to make the most of the short time in Antarctica, and this is compounded by the long hours of daylight. This is a safety issue and though there was not so much a particular instance, it was in the back of my mind often.

What was the greatest challenge for you?

Getting extremely seasick while on the open sea. I've had the doctor come in threatening to give me injections! Now I try to minimise it by being on medication while in open waters and snacking regularly on bread rolls and tonic water. Another other great challenge is being able to do the voyage management job well - there's no second chance to get the right cargo to the right place, and there's so much stuff (25 semi-trailer loads of containers!). When I worked on the deep drilling project at Law Dome our greatest challenge was to finish drilling down to bedrock (1200 metres down), which we managed with only hours to spare!

What did you miss most about Australia?

I missed communicating with my family, especially at Law Dome when I spoke to them irregularly.

What was the most striking thing you noticed when you returned from Antarctica?

The amount of world news I missed out on and didn't find out until months later. For example, all the trivial things like Tom Cruise marrying Nicole Kidman! And being able to walk normally. Down there I had three layers of clothes on all the time, and had to walk flat-footed on the ice.

Do you want to go again?

I would go again if the opportunity arose, but I don't feel that I need to go. I'd only go on a short trip now, because I wouldn't want to be away from my current job.

Since first going to the Antarctic, I’ve completed a Graduate Diploma in Spatial Information Systems, and acted as the Antarctic Division’s first webmaster in 1994 (the very early days of the web).

I’m now the Geographic Systems Officer at the Antarctic Division's Australian Antarctic Data Centre and look after the spatial data. We have a central depository of geographical data on the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic. We're always adding to it and distributing the data. Some of the major outputs are maps and displaying results of scientific programs.

What do you think should happen to Antarctica in the future?

I’d like to see more collaboration between Government and tourism organisations so that more people can go to Antarctica, but under the strictest conditions so they don't impact on the environment. I'd also like to see compulsory Antarctic Division representatives on tourist ships, as there are on flights. Some tourist ships are going to places we know very little about, and therefore we can't assess their impact.

This page was last modified on July 2, 2014.