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A partnership between Airbnb and the charity Ocean Conservancy has created the month-long sabbatical

Why five volunteers will get a free trip to Antarctica to examine the effects of plastic pollution

By Kate Wills

Antarctic mountains like these will greet voluntary citizen scientists on a new sabbatical scheme (Photo: Airbnb)

We’ve all dreamed of taking a break from the 9-5. Maybe we’ll volunteer at a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica? Or perhaps we’ll just live la dolce vita in a remote Italian village.

But what about travelling to the Earth’s most remote continent for a scientific research mission? That’s the concept behind an innovative sabbatical project in which five volunteers will be taken on a free trip to Antarctica to examine the effects of plastic pollution on the region.

“People can be quite sceptical about citizen science,” says the Antarctic scientist Kirstie Jones-Williams, the mission leader who is currently doing her PhD in microplastic pollution in polar oceans at the University of Exeter.

“But there’s an awful lot of research that’s been done using citizen scientists in the plastics research community. It’s been proven to be really fruitful when it comes to collecting data we wouldn’t normally be able to get.”

What will it involve and how do you apply?

The rigorous application process for the sabbatical is now open. “It’s not only the best people for the job, but people who’ll work well together,” said Jones-Williams.

“They need to be passionate about the environment, but they don’t need a science background. They need to be curious and interested in pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. We’ll be sleeping in tents just off a glacier, with shipping containers converted into a lab, a bathroom and a dining area.”

During the month-long expedition in December, applicants will attend immersion training in Punta Arenas, a city in Chile’s southernmost region. There they will undergo extensive courses in glaciology and field sampling. They’ll then fly to Antarctica to begin their task: collecting snow samples and studying them for microplastics to determine how far waste and pollution has travelled across the world.

Depending on the weather, they will also get the chance to visit the South Pole.

Scientists will be collecting snow samples and studying them for microplastics to determine how far waste and pollution has travelled across the world and effects of climate change (Photo: MATHILDE BELLENGER/AFP/Getty)

What’s the point of the scheme?

The aim of the project is that by seeing one of the world’s least understood and most isolated ecosystems up close, the citizen scientists will be able to deliver insights into how the global community can protect both Antarctica and the planet.

“It’s really important we have everyday folk on this trip,” says Jones-Williams. “It’s a bit like when you see an animal in the zoo or in the wild that you’ve only ever seen in pictures before and then you think: ‘Now I really want to protect it.’ Antarctica is pristine, but this work will highlight the fragility of this environment and how as we mess with it and warm it, we’re threatening the ecosystem. Hopefully this experience will energise them in a world that really needs that.”Read MoreSir David Attenborough: we need the natural world to keep us sane – as climate change begins to bite

In partnership with the charity Ocean Conservancy, the project is being run by Airbnb. The last time the accommodation-rental company offered a sabbatical – to revitalise the village of Grottole in southern Italy – there were 280,000 applicants. But clearly that was a different proposition to a place with temperatures of -50°C, where altitude sickness is a given and frostbite is a constant threat.

How do you cope in such low temperatures?

“A lot of people don’t grasp how harsh the environment is,” admits Jones-Williams. “It’s not just a cold day, it’s inherently stressful for the body. It can be difficult to open that tent zipper in the morning when it’s freezing cold and you’ve been out there for 12 hours the previous day. Antarctica will humble whoever comes on this trip.

“It is such a foreign landscape. It’s so, so quiet and white and flat and still – although you can get ferocious winds inland.

“When I first entered Antarctica it was an incredibly emotional experience. It will be really nice to give that feeling to five volunteers.”

If you are thinking of applying, and you do end up making it to the southernmost point on earth, Jones-Williams has one very important tip: “Make sure you bring enough socks.”

To apply, visit airbnb.com/sabbatical

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