Never has there been a more crucial time for young explorers to partake in scientific research.
The golden age of exploration has not ended, but the purpose has changed. Why go to the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility? Why risk limb and life? Easy! The job of an explorer has never been more crucial. The task far more urgent. Expeditions show how climate change has affected all four corners of our world and is a key contributor to global change science. As we all know, climate change affects everyone.
It is these reasons which have motivated Matt Bell to take on a gruelling training programme in order to travel on an Arctic expedition, as part of the Ice Warrior Project, in 2023. If this expedition wasn't already fascinating enough, what makes it particularly unique is that the team Matt will be a part of is made up of ordinary people from all walks of life doing extraordinary things, in the pursuit of scientific research.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Matt talks about what inspired him to become an explorer and join the Ice Warrior training programme, how his time at Plymouth so far has prepared him for his forthcoming expedition, as well as what the future beyond the Arctic may hold.
Matt at the Ice Warrior Basecamp trying on expedition gear
- Current BSc (Hons) Marine Biology and Oceanography student
- Arctic explorer in training with the Ice Warrior Project
- Diving Student Ambassador for the University's Marine Station over summer 2022
- Guest on University's Beneath the Surface podcast series and BBC Breakfast Show
In conversation with Matt Bell
How to become an ice warrior
You are preparing for an epic Arctic exploration challenge in 2023. Let's start by talking about how did you first find out about the Ice Warrior project?
I attended an online talk about extreme environments: the Arctic, melting permafrost in Siberia and Antarctica. Jim McNeill was a guest speaker and talked about the Ice Warrior Project, the project he founded, and that he was encouraging ordinary people to join him on a science expedition to the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility. I emailed Jim McNeill, and he replied, inviting me to a selection weekend.
What was the selection process like?
The selection process is a series of tests on our mental and physical attributes, which Jim has designed for his project, taking us to an inhospitable environment surrounded by severe dangers and risks.
Whom will you be completing the expedition with?
The expedition comprises 28 ordinary people from different backgrounds and experiences led by Jim and his specialist instructors, Sam Clifford, Alan Thompson, and Michael Petit.
Why is it crucial to explore the Arctic?
Why is it crucial to explore the Arctic?
The polar regions are the barometers of our planet. By understanding them, we can understand our effects on the Earth. The Arctic regions are classed as the last and first frontier. A better understanding of the extreme environments can help us predict the climate crisis and climate scientists develop new solutions.
This expedition to the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility is not just a world first but an extreme example of how citizen science through ordinary people can make a difference and show a willingness for a greener, more sustainable world.
What type of research will you be doing?
We will be conducting an 800-mile transect over 80 days, collecting ‘crucial data sets’ for scientists worldwide. Most notably, the NASA-funded Snow and Ice Data Centre and the closer-to-home Marine Biological Association.
How will it help us understand more about climate change?
The data we collect will further the understanding of sea-ice geophysics to make modelling and predictions more accurate. Alongside this, we will be collecting data on the weather, in particular cloud cover and temperature, alongside snow depth, ice thickness and the number of polar bears.
All this will help with the recent implementation of the NASA ICESat satellite (Ice, cloud, and land elevation satellite) system to a new degree of accuracy. This will also give satellite validation to the latest technology, crucial to a better understanding of polar regions and the effects of climate change and global warming.
Through this monumental citizen science expedition, I can only hope policymakers and big corporations take new messages onboard and implement the change needed.
You will participate in one of our time's most ambitious polar expeditions: the first expedition in history to reach the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility. Can you tell us what this means scientifically, historically, and personally?
On a scientific level, this is a fantastic opportunity to gather on-ice data, and it should prove to be critical in the validation of satellite data and help scientists to understand the changing environment from the coastal regions to the middle of the ocean and how everything from the micro to the macro environment changes caused by human activities.
From a historical point of view, it is a global world first; the team comprises people from all different nationalities and the UK, reflective of our multicultural world and advances in modern engineering.
We will be following the last unfulfilled adventure of Sir Ernest Shackleton, which not only has immense historical, but also political, social, and economic importance.
On a personal level, I am very excited to embark on an expedition which is a unique challenge, testing my determination and resilience. I want to do my part to inspire individuals and companies to engage in tackling climate change together.
What has inspired you to become an explorer?
I was inspired by stories of adventures around the world from both my mother and grandmother. My grandmother is full of her crazy tales in the Arctic Circle and riding an ostrich in Australia to the deserts of Africa.
I have been fortunate to have travelled ‘exploring’ new places and taking in different cultures. However, after listening to Jim's talk, he inspired me to become a ‘young explorer’.
What do you think the role of an explorer will look like in 2022?
It is not just about finding a new world, new species, and setting new records.
There is an urgency for new explorers to participate in our race to save our planet, the only home we have, from an emergency crisis because of human activities.
The Northern Pole of Inaccessibility
Core skills training on Dartmoor
Last Pole training in Sweden
Preparing for the expedition
How do you begin to prepare physically and mentally for the harsh conditions of the Arctic?
Training for this expedition demands your full attention and consists of core skills and team bonding. We have been taken to Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole – to experience the harsh cold climate conditions, test our determination and resilience, and learn survival skills.
There is more training to be undertaken in the winter months, learning to tackle emergencies and survive long hours of darkness.
I have fantastic people supporting me, from my family and the Ice Warrior team.
What are you most looking forward to on the expedition?
Using my newly acquired skills and equipment, testing my determination and resilience, making memories and history, and helping achieve our goal.
Naturally, I am excited and apprehensive simultaneously to participate in a global endeavour. I know the benefits of collecting scientific data sets in countering and preparing for our climate crisis.
Do you have any advice for students wishing to follow you down a similar experience or career path?
Whatever you choose, do it passionately, and you will enjoy it. If you do not know what to do now, you are not alone. Don't be afraid to participate in anything that may be interesting because it may inspire you and even lead to a career path.
Advanced Polar training in Svalbard
My time at Plymouth
We've been looking ahead to your adventures but let's look back and talk about how you have reached this point so far.
Why did you choose to study Marine Biology and Oceanography at Plymouth?
I toured several universities in the UK offering the course on their open day. I was immediately impressed by the Plymouth lecturers and undergraduate students' enthusiasm and passion for their subject. I was impressed by the
Marine Station and the equipment ready for use in practical coursework. What attracted me most was the HSE commercial diving course which other universities are not offering.
When did you discover your passion for diving?
I discovered diving while on holiday in Madeira in a saltwater swimming pool. A police diving instructor saw me eagerly watching and passed me his regulator to try breathing underwater. I was 12 when my parents took me to the Philippines, and whilst there, I had the opportunity to do my Junior Open Water licence, which started my scuba diving journey of exploring a new world underwater.
What have been your most memorable dives so far?
There have been many for a multitude of reasons. However, you will never forget the wow factor on your first open water dive.
My most memorable open-water dive was in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. It was full of biodiversity and visibility was remarkable.
We counted over 300 species in our one-hour dives. The night dives at Raja Ampat exceeded all expectations. We saw a blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus), a sleeping turtle and other magical bioluminescent creatures.
Whilst completing my SSI Diver Stress and Rescue course, I was lucky enough to see a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) in Thailand. I was astonished by its size. It was so graceful as it swam past us.
Can you tell us how you got your diving qualification licences at Plymouth?
You must hold an open water licence to be selected for the HSE course. It started with an aptitude test and your name is entered into the system if you succeed.
You must, after that, complete the HSE medical to secure your place on the HSE course, including a First Aid at Work qualification and an Oxygen Administration qualification.
The HSE course runs over four months, from June to September, with 14 participants per month.
You have been selected to be a Diving Student Intern for the Marine Station over the summer – could you tell us what this will involve?
I will be working as a member of a team, assisting the Academic Diving Manager or a nominated staff member. This will include preparing diving equipment, filling the diving cylinders, and servicing and repairing the diving equipment.
I will also be helping on the surface at dive sites, diving when required and piloting the powerboat when necessary.
Do you have any advice to give to students about maximising opportunities available to them while studying – from placements to internships?
I have gained invaluable knowledge and experience from maximising my opportunities which I hope will make me more employable after graduating.
It would help if you considered planning your placement early to be better prepared. You will be amazed at the opportunities presented to you.
Ask the placement team and start searching; this is where all those Royal Societies and associations you have joined will come in handy.
There are many questions and challenges to be overcome. Travel grants? Where are you going? Is there a grant specifically for what you are doing? So it would help if you were determined.
The power of science communication
Let's talk about networking and the important role communication plays in sharing the research you will collect during your expedition.
You have appeared on podcasts, including the Plymouth Beneath the Surface series and BBC News. How important is the role of citizen science and science communication?
Our planet is in crisis and the message is not getting across to everyone. Scientists can do an awful lot, but they need the participation of ordinary citizens.
Science needs to be accessible, understood by all and effectively communicated. There is so much misinformation circulating that needs to be addressed urgently.
How can digital and social media platforms help spread critical messages in accessible ways?
Digital and social media are very effective platforms and most accessible for individuals, and it is being used by everyone who has a smartphone.
It has been proven that social media platforms have influenced citizens to adapt and change their lifestyles.
Despite coming from a science background, how big a part does marketing play in preparing for an expedition like the Ice Warrior Project?
To make this expedition safe and successful, the costs of planning, equipment and training are substantially high. Encouraging big corporations and ordinary citizens to contribute is vital.
Marketing also helps corporations and individuals change their operations and adapt to be more ecological.
Ice Warrior selection weekend
Looking ahead again to 2023, do you have any personal aims in mind for the Ice Warrior Project expedition?
I hope to inspire others by showing ordinary citizens can participate in extraordinary challenges. I want to understand the climate crisis better and share my knowledge.
I hope this expedition will add value to other current climate change research projects on retreating glaciers, melting ice sheets and causes of increasing record temperatures, proving our planet is warming to a level that will endanger our world and those living on it.
I hope media exposure about our expedition will highlight the importance of tackling climate change now and to persuade those in power to take appropriate actions based on science and urgently tackle the issue.
How do you think the experience will affect the rest of your time studying at Plymouth?
I wish to return with better confidence and be more resilient to challenging tasks ahead of me. I believe my polar experience will assist me in managing my degree's final year successfully.
Looking beyond the Ice Warrior project, do you have a dream job you would love to do?
I aim to work as the Resident Marine Biologist for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
I remember sitting in Geography A level, learning about glaciers and the landscapes and I was immediately fascinated. I have invested a lot of my time watching documentaries and videos explaining the geomorphic processes, which seeded the idea of working for BAS.
I hope to graduate in Marine Biology and Oceanography at Plymouth, setting the path needed to achieve my dream job.
Thank you very much for your time, Matt. It has been fascinating to find out more about you and your plans.
We wish you every success with training and preparations ahead of your Arctic expedition in 2023. We look forward to future updates.
Around 70 per cent of our planet is ocean with an average depth of 3000m. To understand the biology of this vast area, we must also understand the oceans themselves.
Develop a host of practical skills that will prepare you for your chosen career and make you attractive to employers. You will have the opportunity to gain the HSE PRO SCUBA qualification, for those with a suitable background in diving. You’ll also gain invaluable experience on a six or 12-month international placement during your third year, or working in a local host organisation alongside your studies.