Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Very Busy Christmas

Up On The Continent
Putting ozone sensors in at 9000 ft

I finally did it! After almost a year in the Antarctic, I have at last stepped on the continent itself; for unlike the Arctic, the Antarctic is a continent with land underneath the ice cap. However, Halley, lying as it does on the Brunt Ice Shelf 150m thick, has water flowing beneath it and though on a good day we can see the continent gently sloping up into a plateau some 30 miles away, the closest I have been was into the hinge zone on my first winter trip, a few heavily crevassed miles short of land.

Crevasses at the Edge of the Continent
Wide enough to consume whole any vehicle (or plane...)

One of the summer science projects is the installation of a network of ozone sensors in the vicinity of the station (vicinity being a relative term as they cover an area that must be close to the size of England). Powered by their own wind turbines, a solar panel and a large battery, the sensors will record the low-level ozone levels across the year before being retrieved next year along with the data they have recorded. They form an extension to one of the projects at Halley to better understand the chemistry of ozone in the lower atmosphere, which has also seen amongst other things the blimp flights over base.

Digging the Kit In
Kirsty (Metbabe), Andy (Ozone Scientist) and Mark (Pilot) get started

Anyway, I got the opportunity to join a flight putting one of these stations in a few hundred miles from base up on the continent, for the other side of the Hinge Zone the continent rises rapidly to a relatively high plateau, noticeable when I came to lug the large battery box about a hundred metres and found myself more out of breath than I expected- they are heavy though! So after a two hour flight in the BAS Twin Otter, we found ourself near the preselected spot, a quick aerial survey suggested numerous crevasses, so Mark took us a few miles further on and then descended.

Flying Back Over the Hinge Zone

Field landings on ice always follow the same routine, a fly-over to make sure there are no crevasses, a descent and 'trail skis' (with the skis on the bottom of the aircraft running along the ground) followed by another fly-over to see if any crevasses hidden by snow bridges have opened up under the weight of the plane. All being well the plane descends for the last time; the beauty of the Tw'Otters is the limited space in which they can stop and take-off with the plane shuddering to a rapid halt.

Putting Up the Solar Panel

As ever, it is the space and silence that is so difficult to describe or capture photographically. Coming in by plane there are no tracks, no marker on the ground, nothing as far as the eye can see and the realisation that perhaps nobody or at least the very few have been across this area before. A brief 90 minutes of digging, a quick check to ensure the instruments are working and its back in the aircraft again for the journey home.

Co-Piloting Bravo Lima

Though the Twin Otters are single pilot planes, wherever they fly in the Antarctic a co-pilot always travels with the pilot, their main skill being the ability to put up a tent, light a Primus stove and Tilley lamp should the plane be forced to spend an unscheduled night off base (all carried in the rear of the plane). So on the flight back, I had the opportunity to sit up front next to Mark in the co-pilot's seat which affords a spectacular view of the Antarctic- a special journey. All the BAS pilots are very experienced and most have experience as instructors, so there was a great chance to learn about the seemingly daunting sets of controls and gauges.

Returning Home

Flying back we came over some spectacular crevasse fields, particularly as the ice sheet runs down into the Hinge Zone, where the Brunt meets the continent. The monster crevasses would easily consume a vehicle or two across their width. However, the most humbling part is as ever flying back in towards base and realising how insignificant our presence is on the whole shelf, with ice extending as far as can be seen around the small black dots that have formed my home for the last year.

The Shackleton At the Creeks

And then began relief. The Shackleton finally broke through a tough patch of ice to find a large lead that led all the way towards us and with a suitable site identified at the creeks, moored up a mere 14km from base; with the larger Anderma five days behind, the pressure was on to discharge the Shackleton to avoid having the second ship hanging around.

Heading Down to the Ship
Sitting on sleds behind a Challenger

The creeks are headlands created by the turning force on the shelf as it slowly flows towards the Weddell sea while still grounded on the underwater hills that form the McDonald Ice Rumples. As the shelf slowly moves westward, the creeks gradually open up until their headlands eventually calve off. With a kilometre of sea ice between the ship and the cliffs, along with a steep ramp created in a day by a pair of bulldozers, Creek 4 provides an ideal site for relief, particularly as the large Cat Challengers can cover the distance from the base to the cliffs in about half an hour.

Returning Home
Kirk (FGA) and I get the ski-doos ready

As mooring the ship up on the ice takes several hours, with the creeks so close by there was a chance on the first evening for a handful of the winterers to spend a few hours down at the ship for a change of scenery and fresh food including the best salad I have had in a long time!

Unloading Refrigerated Food

Relief means all hands to the pump, as all the supplies for the year come in and need to be stowed somewhere. With the increased number of people on station for the summer, that also means a larger Halley V relief in terms of food and drink. Already working twelve hours a day, as we will be for the whole of summer, the whole place moves up a gear, with teams on twenty-four hours a day, in two shifts.

Craning Food Onto the Platform
Jules and Deon get ready to unload the fresh food

Christmas Day, meanwhile, disappeared in a blur of cargo movement, unpacking and the general mayhem of relief. However, the chefs managed to find some turkey from somewhere and as ever rustled up a fine dinner.

The Laws Corridor Lined With Food

With the whole place plunged into relative chaos, space has to be found for items in the already tightly packed Laws. Unpacking the food is a particularly painful process, as each cardboard box is filled with shredded paper to cushion the contents on the journey South. However much care one takes, the paper goes everywhere before being scooped up and compacted so it can be sent back to the UK for recycling.

Solar Halo With Sundogs and Parhelic Circle

In the midst of this epic restocking session, the clouds cleared and what appeared to be diamond dust suddenly appeared, producing for no more than five minutes the optical effect I have wanted to see all winter- a full parhelic circle. That is the horizontal line in the photo above continuing to form a much larger circle over our heads than can be seen in this relatively narrow angle photo. Before I could capture the whole thing in a photograph, it had gone.

Loading Empty Drums For Shipping Out

Having emptied the ship of all its cargo, including around 2000 full fuel drums and several new vehicles, it was time for the waste to head out. Along with all the waste I have spent the winter packaging up, are several hundred empty fuel drums heading back to South Africa for re-use. At nearly 50lbs each, it was another knackering full day's work loading them on to sleds to transport down to the ship, made harder by miserable weather.

The First Load Of Empties Heads Out

The bulk of the moving cargo used to be done by Sno-Cat but the Challengers brought in last year, speed the whole thing up. In essence they are large tractors with special tracks retro-fitted for the snow, which can take much heavier loads at greater speeds across the shelf. The last kilometre or so on the sea ice, though, is still carried out by older and more expendable Sno-Cats taking each sledge individually across the potentially precipitous ice.

Footprints in the Snow

To finish I have at last managed to capture one of the odder sights that are common here, that of footprints in the snow around which the less compacted ice has blown them away leaving them as 'positives' standing proud of the ice surface rather than the usual 'negative' pressed into a surface. It seems therefore appropriate to show the negative as a print, rather than a positive- confused yet?


This comes with best wishes to all my friends and family for this my second Christmas away from home and hopes for a Happy New Year- it will not be long before I am home again.

My Other Home

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Fleet Is On Its Way

Alpine 2 Ski-doos Buffeted By The Wind

Just as we (the winterers), were getting used to having a few more people on base. The successive Basler flights have brought the complement on base up to around 60 people. The once empty dining room is now overflowing at meal time while the boot room has become a battle ground, strewn with orange boilersuits and jackets.

The Surgery Office
Photo thanks to Melanie

However, a large number of people on base means that work can start on some of the larger jobs that are needed to keep the base running all year round. Raising the fuel depots falls into this category. The drums contain Avtur, a form of kerosene, which powers almost everything on base, from the generators to the vehicles and planes.

The Fuel Depots

The 45 gallon drums are stored in miniature pyramids, three drums high and like everything else on the snow surface rapidly accumulate snow around them. Worse still, the black drums warm rapidly in the sun, melting the snow around them, which then refreezes as ice. Raising the depots is hard and potentially tricky work, even when using a large Nodwell crane to pluck three drums at a time off the top of the depot.

Raising Fuel
Drum shackles are attached to the drum, which are then freed by the crane

However, as the older hands, who are here for the summer and have accumulated many years experience over the last decade, are not slow to remind us, we have had a lot easier as large bulk tanks now store a large proportion of the fuel, saving us the difficult winter tasks of raising depots and refuelling direct from drummed fuel. Avtur, apart from its pungent and distinctive smell, has the unfortunate ability to permeate into every item of clothing, where it rapidly conducts heat away and means very cold hands should you splash it while refuelling.

Bad Weather at the Garage

The empty fuel drums are mostly shipped out for re-use, though some are reborn as markers along drum lines as the bases spreads its tentacles across the ice shelf. The familiar black specks dot the distance marking both the perimeter and the frequently travelled routes to other important sites (such as the sea for the forthcoming relief), enabling navigation on the otherwise ceaseless and featureless shelf.

Watching the Balser Take-Off
Lance, having refuelled the ALCI plane, watches as it struggles into the air

One of the most difficult things as a winterer, that I have had to get used to over the last few weeks, is the transition from a small team of 18 working together to help look after everything that we do from cooking, to science work, to the general work around base, to the situation where there are more than enough people to cover their jobs and rarely need a hand. In fact while we wait for first the two ships to arrive that bring both the cargo for the relief of Halley V and the construction of Halley VI, there are days when work is thin on the ground and any chance to get outside and dig is coveted. A situation made worse by a miserable five-day blow confining everyone inside and covering the whole place with wet, warm, sticky snow.

Tom and Ant Raising the Perimeter Drums

Melanie, who has been the BAS doctor at King Edward Point for 2007, whom I visited on my journey south also arrived on the last Basler flight in. Having spent almost a year at South Georgia, she will join the Shackleton when it arrives at Halley later this month and provide the medical cover for the ship over the austral summer as it shuttles back and forth between Cape Town and Halley. Meanwhile I have yet to meet Hannah, who is currently on the ship and will swap places with Mel as she starts her job as the Halley wintering doctor for 2008.

Tom Mixing Techno Tunes

That means that unusually there will be two doctors at Halley over the summer period (Hannah and myself), as the outgoing Halley wintering doctor (myself this year), would cover the Shackleton while it was South until it sails home. However, given the large number of people on station this summer and the heavy construction work, there will be two of us providing cover. That said, I hope that neither of us has to do much medical work!

MedEvac Training
Mark (pilot), watches on while Mel sets up the stretcher during an exercise

The Shackleton will call three times at Halley over the summer, the first call or relief, is the usually the longest as all the cargo for the year ahead is unloaded. Relief of the station is always a busy time but this year will be unlike any relief so far, as the MV Anderma, a ship hired to carry a large amount of the construction materials for Halley VI (the new station, whose build will start this summer), is planned to arrive five days or so after the Shackleton.

Caught in a Blow

Both ships have now left Cape Town and are heading South with the Shackleton well into the ice and the larger Anderma a few days behind. Between us and them, though, is the sea ice, the thickness of which is largely unknown until it is tested. The trip down last year took longer than expected due to heavy ice but with a lot of construction work that needs to take place this year, there is a lot more riding on the two ships encountering good ice conditions.

The Extent Of Sea Ice In November
Image courtesy of National Sea Ice Data Centre (

A large number of winterers, mainly from the science teams, will depart with the Shackleton when it leaves at the end of relief, whereas I will be heading out on its third and final departure from Halley around late March. The departing winterers will mean the end of the band formed over the winter at Halley- 'Z or Dead', who have tortured us with Friday night rehearsals and provided some great Saturday nights in the bar.

Z or Dead- Live at the Garage

To celebrate the influx of people they put on one last gig, taking advantage of an unusually empty (as in vehicles rather than people) garage to host a Saturday night party. Along with Tom's German techno warm-up act, it was the finest night from a band whose rock covers have livened up many winter nights.

Raising Drums

Now the fleet are sailing South, this time feels very much like the lull before the storm of the Halley V and VI reliefs. The paucity of things to be done reflects how enthusiastic everyone has been to get jobs done, with any work going quickly snapped up and sorted and perhaps that is why I enjoy working here, generally surrounded by other enthusiastic people who are all here because they want to work, as a rule enjoy what they do and take pride in it. It feels in distinct contrast to NHS hospitals which I have (temporarily) left behind, where those three things may have been true a few years ago but are no longer, broken by ill-planned reforms and external interference.

The Laws Legs in a Blow

Friday, November 30, 2007

Eeking Out The End Of The Winter

Baby Emperors

After a few weeks to get used to an extra seven people on base, the rest of November has seen several more flights bringing people, such that by the end of the month there are over sixty people on base. Despite all the flights in, it was also the end of our time together as a wintering team as Sune disappeared off on a flight out into the deep field to start his summer field project.

Unloading the Twin Otter- 'Bravo Lima'

Regardless of all the large Basler flights coming through, there is something quite exciting about the arrival of the first BAS Twin Otter on station, which will be based here for most of the summer. Its role is putting in field parties carrying out BAS science projects in this part of the Antarctic. Despite all the construction work, this is going to be one of Halley's busiest summer science seasons, partly as it is the International Polar Year (IPY), which means the skiway is going to be busy.

Simpson Science Team Head Back for Lunch

All the flying means I have been spending a fair amount of time at the skiway as one of the Doc's jobs is to provide medical and fire cover for all take-offs and landings, along with helping out with fuelling and loading and unloading the planes.

Halley International Airport
The BAS Twin Otter (foreground) refuels while the Basler unloads passengers

Usually almost all the summer staff arrive on the Shackleton, which will not be here until mid-December but in order to get as much done this summer as possible, the ALCI operated Baslers are being used to fly people in en masse. Moreover, there would be no space on the Shackleton, as almost all the berths are taken up with the incoming Morrison's construction team.

The Cliffs at Windy

The first field project out of here, bearing the sledge call-sign Yankee, was Sune as part of a two-man geological project out in the Sverdrupfjella- the Norweigan name for a mountain range in Dronning Maud Land (Dronning meaning Queen in Norweigan), not far from their station at Troll. This map should give an idea of how far away this all is, incidentally the stations at Kohnen, Wasa and Svea are all summer only leaving Neumayer as our closest wintering companions.

Loading Sune's Kit Onto a Basler
Chris (an ALCI pilot) supervises the process- photo thanks to Dave Evans

Given that he is going to be in the field for nine weeks and travelling nearly a thousand miles on ski-doo around the mountains, there was enough cargo for two planes. Hence one of the Baslers, returning back towards their base at Novo took some of it as far as Troll, where Sune caught up with it a few days later, flown over by Twin Otter, putting some field depots (of food and fuel) in on the way.

Sune & His Birthday Cake

Bad weather, as ever, slightly delayed his departure but it meant that he got to celebrate his birthday on base. He admitted to being keen on shortbread, so continuing my birthday cake making role, I made a half-Nansen sledge from shortbread decorated with field boxes and jerry cans made of sponge. He had an emotional send-off, as much since we will miss him (he will not be leaving via Halley) but also as his departure marks the break-up of this year's winter team.

More Chicks

With the arrival of the ship fast approaching, it has also meant the UAV project gradually winding up, as Tom and his small planes will be leaving with the ship at first call and there is at least a week's worth of packing to be done before the start of relief.

Waiting for the UAV to Return
Tom waits by K24

The three of us involved in flying the UAV (Tom- pilot and project leader, Alex- managing the telemetry and me- launching), have managed to get off base a couple more times, trundling down to the coast at Windy Bay in our specially modified Sno-Cat K-24. As a result we have had several more successful flights out over the sea-ice collecting data as part of a BAS science project to better understand the transfer of energy between sea, sea ice and the lower atmosphere.

Launching the UAV
I pull the plane back on a long elasticated cord and then let go...

In order to get as many flights in as possible, we spent a night out at the Windy caboose. With the UAV's batteries recharging and unable to fly further that day, the three of us took the opportunity to visit the penguin colony down on the sea ice for the last time. (The UAV does not actually fly over the penguins at Windy- the bay is big enough for it to fly several kilometres to the east of the colony itself).


Each visit is special and this one was no different. I cannot remember if I have written about this before but it is unusual for any creature to come so close and yet not be perturbed by us and in turn for us not to be endangered in any way. Though it may be anthropomorphic to suggest, the trust they place in us in approaching so close is one of the most thrilling aspects of visiting the colony.

Emperors Up Close

It will be difficult to forget lying flat on the ice taking photographs and being mobbed by inquisitive penguins. We are keen not to disturb any of the birds and aim never to encroach closer than five metres or keep our distance if appears we are upsetting them in anyway, however stand still for only a few moments and the most curious will start to waddle much closer.

Inquisitive Penguins
Tom and Alex approached by waddling adults

At one point, lying prone on the ice photographing chicks with a long lens, I found myself surrounded on four sides by quietly inquisitive adults and chicks all happy to approach within a few feet and watch as I flailed around on the floor with a large rucksack on my back. However, with the sudden descent of low stratus cloud, a rolling bank of fog appeared in the distance and it was time to get off the ice and to leave the penguins behind for probably my last time.

Crepuscular Rays and a Faint Ice Halo
A halo formed by refraction of light through ice crystals high in the cirrostratus cloud

As expected, it is an odd feeling finding what used to be our home increasingly swamped by people who have not spent the year down here with us and are not necessarily attuned to some of the unwritten rules that exist amongst a community of people who have been living together for so long. Furthermore it is also interesting how by benefit of having spent a good winter together, the work of all those coming in is much easier than if there were profound hostilities between the 18 of us. A happy base is understandably more productive.

A Basler Taxis Into Re-fuel
Chad (Z-Air Mech) guides the plane in

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Planes Both Big & Small

First Contact
The first plane arrives- photo by Sune Tamm-Buckle

The last person I saw, other than those 17 other people I have spent the winter with, was on the 18th February. Now for the first time in eight-and-a-half months there are new faces, mail and fresh fruit & veg, though not necessarily in that order of priority.

Waiting for the Plane

It was a night of snatched sleep on the 1st November as the arrival time of the first plane gradually drifted backwards along with frantic last minute preparations to ensure everything was ready. After its long flight from the BAS base at Rothera and then out over the Weddell Sea, it arrived at half four in the morning with a large proportion of the base huddled on the reassuringly cold skiway apron, trying to catch a first sight of the Basler as it circled over the Brunt.

Unloading Pax and Cargo

Having been deprived of new people for the best part of the year, it is difficult to describe the excitement of speaking to someone new and at the same time the realisation that the great winter we have had together is at an end. Though it is thrilling having new people around and the sudden progress in work taking place is great, deep down there there is a slight resentment, even if jokingly, to new people invading what has been our home for the better part of a year.

Me at the penguins
Photo thanks to Sune

The first plane brought not only our new Base Commander, Vicky, in but also six other people and the base does suddenly seem very busy. It may seem daft but one of those things which miss already is sitting around a large table at lunch time chatting; the influx of a batch of new people means that the previously spacious dining room almost induces claustrophobia.

Vicky in Front of Polar V

While the first BAS plane, one of the Twin Otters, is a while off arriving yet, in the interim two further planes have already been through. All three are Baslers, which are converted DC-3 airframes, which would have been flying during the Second World War but the conversion adds turboprop engines and a major overhaul of most of the planes apart from the airframe itself. Operated by ALCI, an independent logistics operator, the planes are on flying in to support the multinational bases to the north-east of here in the Dronning Maud Land.

Refuelling at the Skiway

One of those planes, which ALCI are also operating, is the new Polar V, the latest plane to join the AWI's (German Antarctic program) operations. It will operate out of Neumayer, about 800 km north of here and our nearest companions during the winter. Painted in the AWI's usual stunning livery, their Basler cuts an impressive sight against the white polar background.

Polar V

We will see a lot more of the first two (all-white) Baslers over the summer as they will shuttle in several flights of BAS personnel from the Russian base at Novolazarevskaya on the north tip of Dronning Maud Land, which is connected to Cape Town by a large Aleutian transport plane. It is unusual for many people to come in much earlier than the Shackleton, the BAS logistics ship, but given the busy season ahead the extra month should make a difference in getting the base ready for the start of the Halley VI build.

More Steel Work
Jim and I back at work on the Laws legs

Going back to the arrival of the first plane, with Ant (our chef) preparing to head off on the last winter trip, I found myself in the kitchen, admittedly cooking for a worryingly large 28 but in amongst the mail was a 10kg box of fresh vegetables. I had the privilege of cracking open the first iceberg lettuce, in preparation for our first salad in a long time, which despite the constituents long journey, was all in good shape.

Refuelling the Polar V

In the UK I find iceberg lettuces bland and disappointing but I hope I never forget the delight at ripping the heart of the lettuce open and smelling its unprocessed core, with the faint suggestion of their origins from a plot of soil somewhere. The texture of crunchy cucumbers and sharpness of fresh oranges also bore a novelty created by their prolonged absence.

Lettuce Worship

The photo above reminds me that the beard is going to have to come off before I return to civilisation, it may provide some warmth in the Antarctic but I think its days are numbered!

Moving the Drewry

With three extra vehicle mechanics, one of the first jobs was to move the Drewry (the summer accommodation building), a 60 tonne structure on skis. During the winter, as with everything else on the snow surface, it had started to disappear with a snow scoop nine foot high around it. Having carefully groomed and compacted the snow with two John Deere tractors and four 'dozers the move was all done in a morning.

Preparing for Field Science
Ryan and Toddy about to set off base

Better weather, meant more successful flights on base for Tom with his UAV experiment, which I have been putting my bulk behind as part of the take-off procedure. With the prerequisite number of flights completed on base, it was time to take off into the field.

Waiting For the UAV to Return
Sno-Cat K24 acts as the specially adapted flight centre for the off-base UAV flights

The goal of the project has always been to fly the plane over sea ice to understand better the transfer of energy between the ice and the lower atmosphere. However, if the UAV were to go down, it would be irretrievable hence the desire to first prove the system works in the Antarctic in the proximity to base.

The UAV Approaching to Land

Tom has had a long and at times frustrating winter overcoming problems with the UAV, that are unique to the Antarctic, mainly related to the limitations the cold places on the whole system. In the process there have been a handful of crashes and lengthy repairs to three of the four UAVs he brought with him. Hence, there was great excitement when it completed its first autonomous flight out over the ice and returned from its 20+ km round trip intact.

The Misfits Photo
L-R: Me (Doc), Dean (Comms), Sune (Field Assistant), Ant (Chef)- photo by Dave Evans

As well as the main Winterer's photo, there is a burgeoning tradition for the science platforms and the technical services team to each take a group photo to hang in their various workplaces. Not to be outdone that left four of us who work off the Laws with no photo to join hence the tongue-in-cheek team photo out by the signpost.

Altocumulus Over the Signpost