Sunday, February 25, 2007

So the winter begins- "We live, as we dream-- alone"

Coming Home From Work

The last fortnight has seen the complement on base dwindle as the summer season wrapped up with the last joining the Shackleton a week ago, leaving the wintering team alone on base. Unsurprisingly the last few days of the summer became a frantic rush to finish jobs and ensure everything that needed to leave was packed and ready to go.

The Long and Winding Road

The Ernest Shackleton returned for second call, having been back to the Falklands in the interim, along with undertaking a science cruise in the Weddell Sea. On this occasion it also carried a dentist, Burjor, whose main role is to perform check-ups and sort out any dental problems on those who are wintering for two consecutive years. It is also an opportunity for those about to winter to have a further check-up to ensure all potential problems are sorted before the winter begins, for though I received some emergency dental training as part of my time before coming South, problems are much better sorted by a true dentist before they get out of hand.

Return to the Shackleton at N9

Given that the surgery on the Shackleton is equipped to double as a dental surgery, it meant that we all had an opportunity to travel up to the ship. I stayed overnight to sit in on all of the dental work and improve my skills, meaning that I got to enjoy the luxuries on board of lettuce, a long warm shower and bottled English bitter- missed even over the six weeks since I was last on board.

Challenger 1 and 2 Ship-side

It also resulted in a fantastic ride on the back of a sled pulled by the large Challengers that have been brought in this year in preparation for the heavy plant work required for the Halley VI build, serenely crossing the 50 kms of the Brunt Ice Shelf to the ship with a limitless expanse of ice to the south, bright sunshine overhead and the ice sparkling as if covered in thousands of diamonds. A journey much more comfortable than the five hours back by Sno-Cat, whose suspension fails to deal with the sastrugi with comparable ease.

Jim (Z-Carpenter) Out Digging

After five days of waste and other out-going cargo being exchanged for incoming drums of fuel for the winter, time came for the last of the summerers to be taken up to the ship, which with a pyrotechnic display of expired flares, slipped its moorings and disappeared off into the fog.

The Last Summerers Leave Base

They were, however, not the last outsiders to leave Halley before our nine months of isolation. The skiway provides a refuelling stop for those planes looked after by other Antarctic operators, going to other destinations within the continent, particularly Queen Maud land. The German operated aircraft Polar 2, departed through here a few weeks ago and this left the last plane, a Basler, which services the large number of international bases to the east (a long way to the east!- see map), to depart; it arrived here just as the Sno-Cats were leaving so I stayed behind to provide fire and medical cover for the ski-way. Its arrival around the beginning of November will mark the break of our isolation.

As the Basler Takes Off, Winter Begins

I also had the opportunity to escape off base again to help with some exciting science work. Tom, who as part of a collaborative project between a University in Braunschweig, Germany and BAS, will be spending his winter flying an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a first in the Antarctic. Packed with both meteorological kit and infra-red sensors, it will be flown over the sea ice during the winter to enhance understanding of the physical processes that underlie sea ice formation (read more here).

Tom, Alex and the UAV

In the interim, the priority is to get it flying autonomously (under auto-pilot guidance) along a GPS determined itinerary, easy enough in Europe but sastrugi and cold temperatures conspire against that here- resulting in a few hiccups. For safety reasons the UAV is flown several miles off base with operations run out of the back of a converted Sno-Cat, which provides a warm haven when the ambient temperature is around -20ÂșC, as it has been since the ship departed.

Assembling the UAV on Site

With a two metre wing span and a weight of 5 kg its not a small thing to get off the ground, which is achieved by the use an elastic bungee and two lithium battery powered motors.


The absence of the summer team and the withdrawal of the ski-doos as the temperature drops, has meant that the base is suddenly much quieter. The eighteen of us that are here for the winter can all sit around one big table for meals. Before long, however, the numbers on base will drop off further as groups of four all leave for the pre-winter trips for a week at a time. I leave in a fortnight but before that there is plenty of organisation of the medical supplies to take place and medical research projects to sort out.

Sunset Over the Piggott
As winter draws in, sunsets return

Monday, February 12, 2007

Summer Days Drifting Away

Though the sun has yet to fall below the horizon since my arrival at Halley, there is a noticeable evening which was not present a month ago, indeed the sun will set for the first time this year in a few days time if only for an hour or so.

The Laws With a Silhouetted Kite-Surfer

The temporary disappearance of the sun coincides neatly with the end of the Halley summer season, for the ship is already keenly waiting for second call to begin and the long shifts of sledge towing Sno-cats will make the journey to the coast but on this occasion taking out the waste (including all the building materials) produced over the last six or so weeks. More importantly the bulk of the winterers from last year, apart from six who are staying for a further year, along with the summer team will also be leaving.

Aerial View of Halley
The main platforms from L to R- Simpson, Laws and Piggott

We have all been fortunate to spend some time up with the plane- I, particularly, since I had the opportunity to sit up front as co-pilot. All BAS flights require a second person to fly, as there is no solo flying by any of the pilots, all that the co-pilot training involves are basic field skills including pitching a pyramid tent along with lighting Primus stoves and a Tilley lamp, so that there is somebody to assist the pilot should poor weather force the plane to land in the middle of a storm. No flying skills or knowledge are required!

Biggles in the Antarctic
In the Twin Otter's co-pilot seat

Unfortunately, despite taking far too many photos, the poor contrast that has blighted a lot of the summer meant that there were few of great worth. However, the aerial photos of the base should mean that I can give a quick guided tour of the base, though I intend to elaborate on most of these over the winter.

Aerial Map
Again from the north-east as above but further away

From Left to Right:

CasLab or Clean Air Sector Laboratory- (off the map) it sits almost 2 miles from the base towards the plateau and is surrounded by a large no-entry sector allowing ultra-clean chemical sampling to study the chemistry of the interaction between the atmosphere and ice-sheet.

Simpson platform- one of the three main platforms at Halley, it houses the offices of the meteorology team (known ubiquitously as MetBabes- Kirsty, Tamsin and Dave) along with some of their equipment. Thomas also works from here running an exciting project to be covered another time but involves flying an unmanned aerial vehicle.

SHARE- there are seemingly innumerable acronyms within BAS Science and I cannot remember what this stands for. Basically, it is a long structure dominating the southern portion of the base involving a sequence of large pylons used to study the upper atmosphere.

Part of the SHARE Apparatus in Fog

Piggott platform- the second of the two science platforms, along with the Simpson. From here Alex, Jules and Chris look after the many upper atmosphere experiments (including the SHARE), that run around the base and further afield.

Laws platform- the centre of the base and the largest structure. It houses all the accommodation and living areas (including kitchen and dining room), as well as many of the technical services workshops (into which category the surgery should probably also fall). The Base Commander's office, Comms (communications) office and Field store are also all here.

Drewry- though the Laws can accommodate up to 40 people, this is exceeded substantially in the summer, for which the Drewry provides further accommodation along with a mess room and kitchen (complete with cook). In a few days it will be closed down and its generator switched off, though it provides a back-up should a catastrophe wreck the Laws.

Flying Over Crevasses

Garage- life at Halley would be difficult without the large vehicle fleet, which are maintained all year round from the garage. Like the Drewry, it is a large building on skis and is annually dug out from the large windtail it accumulates and moved to a new site.

Container Line- given the reasonable but limited space on the platforms a long chain of containers provide alternate storage year round, which extends at the northern end to the winter dump line, where vehicles and large objects not needed for the winter are placed on large mounds of snow so that when the summer returns, they should be level with the snow again.

Skiway- the airstrip for Halley (see Planes, Cranes and Ski-doos)

Fuel Stores- the various fuels, the large majority of which is Avtur, is stored in large bulk fuel tanks or in its original 45 gallon drums, well away from the main area of base for obvious reasons.

There are plenty of other smaller buildings and features around the base, which fail to appear in the photo above.

The Piggott Platform
At around 20 knots snow blows across the ground like a sheet

The three platforms are built up on stilts to allow them to be raised frequently to keep them away from the snow surface, which would result them in being buried. The previous Halley bases, were abandoned as they sunk deeper under the ice surface and were crushed by the accumulated weight. The raising of the Laws platform usually provides a labour intensive and painful focus to the summer, given the imminent re-location of the base in probably three years, this happened for the last time last summer.

Lenny and Gaz Jacking the Laws

However, all still the platforms need some tweaking given the different snow accumulation around each leg and the resulting strain on the buildings, which the steel erectors (steelies) have spent at least a week rectifying.

A large proportion of my time in the last few couple of weeks, has been spent planning the base Major Incident Plan (MIP) exercise. Given that the base during the summer has only a single doctor, an accident involving two or more seriously injured people would stretch the capabilities of the base; this is in stark contrast to the much larger scales of disaster required to trigger a MIP for a hospital in the UK.

Preparing the Incident Site the Night Before
Andy Warner (outgoing Z-Met) secures the gas stillages

The purpose of the exercise was to test the logistics that should support the response should such a disaster occur here. The scenario revolved around a welding accident resulting in a loose gas cylinder acting as a missile- a not unforeseeable though unlikely disaster wherever welding occurs. Given that only myself, the casualties and observers were aware of the nature of the scenario- though the rest knew the exercise was going to take place- it was important to make both the incident site and the casualties as realistic as possible, while ensuring the risks of a real accident were minimised. Hence- beware pictures of fake blood below!

The Incident Site
Note the empty upturned oxygen bottle- photo by Pat McGoldrick

Alongside myself the medical response is provided by a handful of advanced first aiders, who in addition to the extensive Antarctic first aid course that everybody who goes South attends in Cambridge, they spent some extra days in Plymouth covering a variety of advanced skills, including cannulation and suturing prior to coming South. Doc School, which all the Docs run at the various bases through the winter, will give everybody a chance to learn more as well as stopping me getting too bored!

Transferring a Casualty On a Sno-Cat Pulled Sled
From the back of the Laws looking north with the Drewry in the background- photo by Simon Coggins

The exercise had four simulated casualties, though not all at the site of the initial incident, all of whom were made-up and acted out their injuries- they all did a great job and the exercise would not be as realistic without them. As the photo below hopefully shows, a lot can be achieved with golden syrup and red food dye.

Kirsty (Met) Finds the Fourth Casualty
Photo by Pat McGoldrick

The whole thing lasted a couple of hours and then took almost as long to tidy away. The most noticeable problem here is hypothermia, even in the UK MIP exercises frequently note that hypothermia is a significant problem, a feature exacerbated in the Antarctic, even when one is aware before hand that it is a problem and try to keep the casualties as warm as possible and is despite the weather being not inclement on the day of the exercise.

The Worst Casualty Arrives In the Surgery
photo by Simon Coggins

The whole exercise was certainly useful not only for myself but also the first aiders and refining the base Major Incident Plan, should the worst happen. As the summer draws to a close, there is frantic activity preparing for second call and the long winter that lies beyond it.

A Pyramid Tent Pitched on the Perimeter
Black fuel drums mark the base perimeter- a safe crevasse free area