Sunday, January 28, 2007

Planes, Cranes and Ski-doos

Bravo-Bravo at the Ski-Way
Dave Kully (Air Mech) guides the plane in, the Laws platform is in the distance far left

The summer proceeds to pass very quickly and there are only three weeks left now until the ship returns again for second and final call. Though, in some ways fortunately, there is not much medicine to be done at the moment, the whole base is working 11 hour days for six days a week to get the essential work done prior to winter. These include preparations for building Halley VI, the replacement for the current station (Halley V) which has lasted longer than expected since coming into operation in 1990 but whose fate is sealed by the inevitable and foreseeable calving of the Brunt Ice Shelf- more about which another time.

Camping Within the Perimeter

A large proportion of my time during the summer is spent at the ski-way- an aircraft runway on a snow substrate- which at Halley is located about 2 km north of the base. BAS operate five planes running mainly out of Rothera, which being built on rock has a proper runway. From there they transport field parties further south and re-supply them during the season as well as carrying out survey work. Most of this work is carried out by twin-engined Twin Otters, while the larger Dash-7 ferries goods and passengers from Falklands to Rothera and occasionally slightly further down the Antarctic peninsula but is unable to land on snow, unlike the ski-equipped Otters.

Halley International Airport

Halley is only accessible by air from mid-November until mid-February, so it will not be long before the plane that is stationed here leaves, outside these times the darkness, weather and cold forbid flying. To give an idea of how remote the station is, should the unfortunate situation arise that somebody needs medical evacuation from here (medevac) during the summer period, once a reasonable weather window arose, which even in the summer may take several days to appear, the flight to Rothera alone would be over six and a half hours, a distance of 900 nautical miles. For all intents and purposes, this is not an option come the winter.

Getting Ready to Re-Fuel

The role of the plane while it is here, apart from ferrying a few important passengers in and out of Halley during the summer and with no major field parties operating out of Halley this summer, is to work on the Low Power Magnetometer (LPM) sites dotted deep into the continent as far south as 85°S. These are sensitive instruments capable of detecting minute fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field caused by the effects of solar radiation in the earth's upper atmosphere, which is a particular area of study at Halley. Furthermore, a large proportion of the work is maintaining stocks of fuel at depots throughout the Antarctic, which support the complex logistics of deep field work. Fuel comes as 45 gallon barrels of Avtur (AViation TURbine fuel), of which a person can carry an empty drum, moving full drums is best done by machine or when loading them into planes with at least four people rolling up a shallow incline.

On Ski-Way Duty
The Doc's ski-doo with the fire sledge attached

The ski-way for take-off and landing is always staffed by two people on the ground. The doctor is present to provide first aid cover and staff the fire sledge, as well as assisting the Air Mechanic (Dave Kully- a Canadian with a lot of experience with Twin Otters) to re-fuel the plane, tie the plane down and various other jobs as necessary. Avtur, which is used not only for the planes but also for all the vehicles (bar the ski-doos), cranes and generators given its great performance at low temperatures, has the ability to permeate all materials and wicks away heat very efficiently, hence it is easy to get very cold hands while re-fuelling!

Operating the Fassi Crane on the Container Line
This sledge mounted crane can lift up to about a ton- the containers are used for storage

Away from planes, there is plenty of things for me to do, the last few weeks have meant the opportunity to learn to use cranes, of which there are a fair few types around base to assist with moving all the supplies and scientific goods. There is a rapid learning curve in not only how to operate the crane but also as a banksman in learning to strop cargo safely and crane signals. Relief being a busy period results in all of the incoming cargo being placed in a line, nigh on 200 metres long on the snow, all of which must be distributed and packed away before it requires too much digging out or even worse disappears under accumulated snow and ice that is constantly burying things as it is blown around by katabatic winds.

Sno-Cat 'K19' Towing a Sledge of Cargo up the Laws Windtail

While the Brunt Ice Shelf, upon which Halley lies, is exceedingly flat, as the photo above illustrates there are some contours which provide some interest and relief for the eye. Along with the eponymous sastrugi, which at Halley are rarely higher than about six inches, any object generates a wind tail if left on the snow for a period of time. The downwind tail is influenced by the shape of the object and the length of time is has been present. They can form a trap behind any object, particularly after a big blow or in poor contrast conditions when they may be rendered invisible. The largest however, is that behind the Laws platform forming a small hill to the east of the platform given that the wind is predominantly westerly. It is possible to get an idea of the size from the photo above.

Trying Out the Ski-Doo on the Sea Ice in December

As for ski-doos, the base occasionally acquires the appearance of a Bond villain's secret hide-away with particularly the aging Alpine II ski-doos darting around. I am fortunate as it is perceived that the doc requires a reliable easy to start machine in case of an emergency, as a result I am fortunate to whizz round on a powerful brand new 'doo.

BBQ Outside the Drewry (Summer) Accommodation

Despite all the work, there has been time to relax, including the annual Drewry vs Laws football match, which this year was fortunate not to result in any injuries, unlike previous years. Unfortunately one side decided to cheat by actually using skill to win, though any particular attempts at overt proficiency were quickly ruined by a rapidly deteriorating surface.

Summerers vs Winterers Football Match
Photos courtesy of Bob Pratt (Z-Gen: Generator Mechanic)

The weather here is relatively balmy and has occasionally even crept above 0°C, at which point everything becomes wet and unpleasant. It has hit -10°C on a few occasions, however, it is the relentless wind that adds a particular chill to the place, since in the absence of any wind, the -5 to -8 temperature that predominates is more than comfortable. In these conditions most people are happy working outside in the ubiquitous orange boilersuits. A feature of the broad horizon on the Brunt is the contrast in colour of the sky over the Weddell sea- deep blue- as opposed to over the continent where it melts into a much paler blue, a stunning effect that is difficult to illustrate photographically, like many of the subtleties here.

The Laws Platform From the Piggott Platform
The Weddell Sea lies to the north (behind the Laws)

There has also been the opportunity to start our field training; we are all fortunate that during the winter we will have the chance to undertake at least two extended field trips away from base. Prior to that and before being allowed to do anything particularly serious off base it is necessary to know how to pitch the pyramid tents, light a Primus stove, Tilley lamp and have a good idea what lives in the numerable boxes that are taken on any trip. Hence a night camping in a pyramid tent within the base perimeter (see photo above)- all-in-all not too dissimilar from camping at the end of the garden as a kid.

The Halley Post Office

Given that we all currently live in the British Antarctic Territory (BAT), it is important to be able to send mail home or elsewhere round the world. Fortunately, as an Overseas Territory (along with Gibraltar and the Falklands- more information) the BAT issues its own stamps. (Unfortunately we also all have to pay BAT Tax!) My mother fails to believe that I currently live in a Post Office but the photos of the Laws front door should prove otherwise. Hence the occasional opening hours every fortnight or so in the summer, when after dinner the box of stamps and first day covers is brought out by Alex (Piggott Computer Wizard and Assistant Post Master)

Entrance to the Laws Platform

Detail on the Front Door
From underneath the 'Laws' sign

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Into The New Year At Halley

On New Year's Eve we broke through the ice and managed to moor up at N9, some 60km distant from Halley. It has therefore not unsurprisingly been a busy fortnight, hence the tardiness in updating the blog. N9 represents a location where the Brunt ice shelf, upon which Halley is built, slopes down to the sea ice allowing easy access of Sno-cats to the ship to unload cargo. There are creeks (see photo below) sighted much closer to Halley itself (as near as15km) but these are notoriously unreliable and again this year were enclosed by sea ice. N9 regularly forms a reliable if distant alternative particularly since the Sno-cats average no faster than about 10km/h.

The Ernest Shackleton at N9

There is only one year that the Shackleton has not made it in through the sea ice, which year the base had to be relieved by ferrying essential goods and passengers 300km by plane. It was a relief all round to finally make it through, as nobody would have wanted to return to Stanley (or even Cape Town) to re-fuel prior to making another go of it- least of all the Halley winterers desperate for mail, fresh food and new faces.

Another Snow Petrel

As a result New Year's Eve was spent on the ship, celebrated at midnight by the traditional ringing of the ship's bell. By tradition given that midnight represents eight bells in nautical timekeeping, the eldest member of the ship's complement rings four bells to ring out the year, while the youngest rings the second set of four. And so began 2007.

Ringing in 2007
James Morrison (Z-Carpenter- L) and Charlie Chalk (Bosun- R)

The ship calls twice at Halley during the summer, now (first call) and at the end of summer (second call) to remove all the summer-only staff and waste generated over this busy work period. However, the outgoing Halley doctor is one of the few who leaves the station at first call as they are required to take my place and provide medical cover on the Shackleton. As a result I was very fortunate to get flown the twenty minutes from the ship down to base rather than the six hour Sno-cat journey so that we could start our handover as quickly as possible.

The Creeks From The Air
The Brunt Ice Shelf is on the left surrounded by sea ice

I can not imagine a more magical way to start 2007 and a year living in the Antarctic. To first glimpse the buildings that will form home for the forthcoming twelve months from the window of the BAS Twin Otter was exhilarating. The arrival at the ski-way several kilometres away from the main platform and to be surrounded by flat white ice as far as the eye can see, meeting cloudless uninterrupted blue sky surpasses my limited descriptive and photographic abilities. Indeed like a lot of the voyage down, though I have seen lots of photographs and film of Halley nothing captures the sense of space and the flat glistening expanse.

First Glimpse of Halley

The relief of the station is a major undertaking as all the supplies (including fuel, food, medicines, science equipment and building materials for the summer) have to be brought up to the station, as well as all the waste from the previous year removed. It usually takes about seven days and did so this year despite the weather stopping operations occasionally. Once the wind starts to pick up (a blow) it whips up the ice off the surface leading to a rapid deterioration in visibility along with a complete loss of contrast.

Tying the Twin Otter Down for the Night in a Blow

Of the four Twin Otters that BAS operates, one is assigned to Halley over the summer (more to follow about these another time). During relief it ferries a lot of the fragile and delicate goods that would suffer if they froze on a sledge attached to the back of a Sno-cat. Amongst these fragile items is over a quarter of a ton of medical supplies, which once relief is over will be unpacked and put away, while the out-of-date kit is packaged up and returned to the UK for incineration.

Off-loading Medical Supplies

However, the majority of the incoming goods make the slow journey overland, including a thousand-plus 205 litre barrels of Avtur (AViation TURbine fuel) that forms part of the fuel requirements of the base generators and plane, along with a limited amount of petrol for the vehicles. The empty barrels at the end of the year then have to be returned to the ship to be removed to comply with our obligations under the Antarctic Treaty. This means a certain amount of digging as they are stored in stacks three high but are now buried deep in snow and frozen solid.

Digging Out Avtur Barrels

Relief like most of the year round at Halley is epitomised by hard physical labour for everyone, whether that being manhandling large boxes, moving barrels of Avtur or digging, digging and digging- the customised cranes and vehicles can only do so much given the nature of the Antarctic. Smoko- mid-morning and mid-afternoon break- is a welcome relief to warm up and eat more food.

Vicki Hands Over the Base Medical Supplies

Given the brief time I had with Vicki, the outgoing winter doc, and the plethora of things to do, time flies away particularly as the ship- now behind schedule- was champing to get away. There is a lot of new information to acquire rapidly from day-to-day mundane material to discussing the Major Incident Plan, should the worst happen. She has has a relatively quiet medical year here and jokingly rues not even having had the chance do any suturing, I can only hope that mine is similarly peaceful.

So as the fifty-first Halley doctor It is phenomenally exciting to be here at last since I known that I have wanted to work here for a long time and I know my year will live up to those heavy expectations.

Halley Research Station Panorama (click to enlarge)
Platforms from left to right: Laws (Accommodation)- Simpson (Science- Meteorology) - Piggott (Upper Atmosphere Research)