Sunday, June 24, 2007


Midday Over the Garage

The winter solstice takes on a special significance for all of those in the Antarctic as it is supposedly the depth of the winter and a reminder that the sun and eventually fresh faces and fruit will return sooner than expected. In reality, we are yet to reach the halfway point until the influx of the summer team, which is still a few weeks away.

'Dozing the Melt Tank
On a weekly basis, when it is warm enough to run a 'dozer, the snow around the melt tank is 'dozed into a pile to make the digging over the week easier

However, across the continent the week of Midwinter (the 21st June), is a time for celebration and on the BAS stations a week off to relax and party- as much as anyone can take time off, when there are still generators to be cared for, food to be cooked, met obs to be carried out and repairs on both science and domestic kit requiring immediate attention.

Sune and the Pyramid Tents in the Garage

Prior to the Midwinter week, nonetheless, there is still work to be done. For Sune (Field Assistant), that means ensuring all the field kit is in good repair, as understandably nobody is keen on catastrophic tent failure in the middle of a storm on a summer field project, let alone the forthcoming winter trips when it frequently hits below -40°C, regardless of the rigorous contingency plans. Finding myself, fortunately, still short on medical work, I spent a few days taking apart and re-lashing these huge shelters, which would be impractical anywhere else in the world but are finely suited to the Antarctic climate.

Pete Celebrates His 50th Birthday
Photo thanks to Sune Tamm-Buckle

Notably, the run up to Midwinter, also marked Pete's (Z-Winter Base Commander), 50th birthday; the oldest member of the wintering team. An excuse for another cake making session for myself, as well as another party in the theme of Explorer's and Mountaineer's; all four members of the Met Team appeared roped up in Alpine Mountaineering style, causing them increasing problems as the evening progressed.

Before My Beard Was Tamed
A consequence of running around the perimeter in the cold- photo by Sune

A week off did not mean a week in bed (for most at least), for from table-tennis to a competitive cross-country running there was plenty going on. I have always been fascinated by Nordic Biathlon (a punishing combination of cross-country skiing and shooting), so substituting snowballs for high-powered rifles, half the base turned out for a race, which not unsurprisingly given his Scandinavian roots and superior fitness, resulted in Sune trouncing the field.

Crazy Golf
Sune and Dean play a hole down the main Laws corridor

One of the traditions of Midwinter is the plethora of messages of goodwill between the various teams wintering across the Antarctic. Though there are significantly less than a thousand people in the Antarctic at the moment (a majority of them are at the American McMurdo base on the other side of the continent), our notice board is covered with photos and greetings from most of the bases scattered across the ice. Representing various nationalities from Ukrainian to Indian to French to Argentinian, they invariably include an invitation to dinner on the 21st June with the reassurance that a response is not expected.

Before the Midwinter's Day Meal
Photo by Dave Evans

The highlight of the week, is of course Midwinter's Day, though plenty were served breakfast in bed by the Base Commander, Ant (our outstanding chef) had been up since 6 as he had been for several days in a row, preparing the Midwinter dinner. Despite the lack of any fresh vegetables apart from onions, the multiple courses of stunning food meant that by the time we sat down for the Midwinter broadcast, everybody had eaten enough to last until the ship comes in.

Ant Preparing the Midwinter Meal
(Click on menu to enlarge) Photo courtesy of Tom Spiess

The BBC World Service transmits a Midwinter Broadcast each year destined for the four BAS bases composed mainly of messages from home. Despite the relative ease of communication now, as compared to even a few years ago, sitting as a group after dinner listening to the broadcast over our High Frequency (HF) radio is still a poignant experience, even if the message is, as mine was from my mother, a reassurance that if I fail to fit back into medicine in the UK, I can always do a bakery course instead- she has clearly not eaten any of my bread! The broadcast can be heard here.

Sastrugi Illuminated By The Sun

Each base chooses a song to accompany their messages, our choice of 'Echo Beach' by Martha and the Muffins (the song of the moment on base- even if it is from 1980), was definitely usurped by the team at KEP in South Georgia with The Muppet Song, while we all had visions of the four-member team on Bird Island dancing round their small base to their chosen 'YMCA'.

Celebrating Midwinter
Photo courtesy of Sune

The other highlight of Midwinter is the exchange of presents; at dinner the night the last summerer left, we each drew the name of a base member from a hat, with the intention of making a gift for them for midwinter, with the recipients identity undisclosed until the day. Several months on and many furtive hours in the workshops, including some frenetic activity over the last few days, resulted in some spectacular pieces of work.

The Collected Midwinter Presents

From a miniature brass model Primus stove correct to every detail, to pictures painted and framed on base, to a zoetrope, the range of presents produced, with the limited resources and large workshops can only reflect on everyones ingenuity. Andy Mac (Generator Mechanic), however, had an advisory role in a large number given his capacity to make or repair anything around base. I meanwhile received a stunning sculpture of a figure manhauling on skis around base, made for me by Mat (Vehicle Mech), from welding rods, a great reminder of one of the ways I particularly enjoy working around base.

Opening My Present

If you want to see the deserving overall winning entry in the base winter photo competition, follow this link. Dave's blog has some outstanding photos throughout.

As such, a week's holiday rapidly disappeared through the fingers. Halley is a spectacular place to be at this time of the year and I have to keep pinching myself to realise how beautiful a place it is and a great group of people to be here with.

The John Deere Tractors Stowed for the Winter

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Lightboxes and Circadian Rhythms

Looking Back Towards Base
From right to left: Laws, Piggott, BART caboose and Simpson platforms

The above view is taken from just below my favourite spot on base. The Laws platform lies at the centre of a large oval that describes the perimeter with a diameter of upto a couple of miles; it is this oval that effectively defines the extent of our world for most of the periods of darkness. Hence ski-ing, walking or even running (a sport reserved for super-fit Field Assistants), around the perimeter is an attempt to explore the very edges of this world and an important diversion from the necessary and mostly enjoyable proximity of the 17 other inhabitants of this isolated microcosm.

Aurora Over the Piggott

As one heads back towards the Laws from the Optical caboose (one of the science cabooses housing important new radar equipment), on the southern edge of the perimeter, the SHARE windtail- the mound of snow that accumulates behind any object on the snow surface- creates a rolling hill that shields the south from the bright lights that spill off the platforms. As you crest the brow of the windtail it feels as if it were a meadow with the bright lights of a village laid out below. This sense of delight is heightened by an absence of vehicles in the southern sector of the base at any time of the year (given the delicate science equipment), which means that the snow, bar the low-lying sastrugi, is a pleasure to ski across.

Moving fuel round base with a 'dozer

A majority of my work through the darkness is spent in running one of the biomedical science projects on base. Halley provides an ideal location for the study of the role of light in the regulation of human circadian rhythm. Circadian ('around a day') rhythms manifest themselves most obviously in our sleep-wake cycles, yet many other physiological and biochemical processes vary over this time frame. This rhythm is generated endogenously (that is from within ourselves) and probably by every cell in the body, though it is regulated from a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. If we were left in a dark room with minimal external stimuli we would revert to our own internal circadian rhythm. The exact length of the cycle, however, varies significantly between individuals; some people have an innate cycle length of 23.5 hours while some may be as long as 27 hours, though the majority lie at around 24.5 hours.

Aurora Over the Halley Signpost

Given that our body would prefer to work off a cycle that is not exactly 24 hours long, it is clear there needs to be a mechanism that resets (entrains) the internal clock so that it synchronises with the world around us. Light is one of the most important cues in this synchronising with the external world. Given the disappearance of the sun here, for 3 months of the winter, those wintering tend to develop problems associated with the inability to synchronise their internal clock with the 24 hour day, the most obvious being sleep disturbance.

Lightbox Exposure

Work over the previous 20 years here has had benefits not only for subsequent winterers, in modification of ambient lighting on the main platform but is also applicable to all environments where there are extended periods of low ambient light. However, as worldwide we move to living 24 hour days, it is in the understanding of shift work and the health problems associated with it, that the work at Halley has had a wider impact. If you want to read more then try this link to pages at the University of Surrey. For more in depth reading the following review is a good place to start: Arendt J. Melatonin, Circadian Rhythms and Sleep. New England Journal of Medicine 343: 1114-1116.

Die Feuerzangenbowle
Tom introduces us all to a German pre-Christmas tradition as we head towards the mid-winter celebrations

The emphasis of the study this year in brief, is to see whether an exposure to a high intensity bright light for an hour in the morning, improves sleep-wake cycles, activity and cognitive performance. The study runs over the period of sundown and is dependent upon the willing and enthusiastic participation of many of those on base. As sociable as it may seem sitting in a room together for an hour in front of bright lights, the whole hour seems to pass in polite silence in order not to disturb the sensibilities of some of those on base who are not at their best in the mornings.

Moving Rubbish off the Laws

When it comes to waste regardless of each operator's international obligations (the Antarctic Treaty obliges all of its signatories to remove nearly all the waste that they produce from the continent), there is a strong ethical case for doing so and minimising the effect that we have on this near-pristine environment. During the winter the base doctor at Halley traditionally takes responsibility for the waste management role that is important as part of keeping the base running; it is the same this year and takes on average a day a week of my time. It does not mean that I go round emptying every bin or sorting it but like a glorified Antarctic bin-man, I ensure it is correctly packaged, compressed and ready to ship out come the first call of the Shackleton.

Manhauling the Food Waste
(Thanks to Ant Dubber for the photo)

We send back to the UK and Falkland Islands a phenomenal amount of the waste that is produced here for recycling, from the everyday plastics and cardboard to waste oil and photo processing chemicals, there is very little either on the industrial or domestic side that cannot be recycled and as a result the sled on the outgoing cargo line part-filled with waste destined for landfill, is far outnumbered by those labelled for recycling.

Sune Overhauling Primus Stoves
Winter gives the opportunity to clean and maintain all the field kit before next season

Again, in a situation not dissimilar to our water use, it is an eye-opener to quite how profligate we are at home with our waste and how much could be recycled saving energy and raw materials, not so for Tom, our German colleague on, for him this is not unusual- reflecting quite how far we lag behind Germany in minimising the amount of rubbish we simply bury.

More Aurora
Demonstrating some of the more transient colours seen in the displays

The picture below illustrates nicely our standard outdoor kit around base for mild weather or when out digging- as in the melt tank in this case. Depending on how cold it is, people wear trousers or shorts and a t-shirt or warmer top underneath the ubiquitous padded boiler suit.

Dean Modelling at the Melt Tank

These orange all-in-ones start off the colour of the jacket in the photo but rapidly fade from daily wear and the harsh UV when the sun is around. The jackets, known as a 'windy', made from the same cotton Ventile material as the pyramid tents but thinner, are great windproof pieces of kit. On the feet, we wear mukluks, boots with a separate warm liner and given the industrial work around the place all have steel toe-caps. Goggles, hat, padded gloves and a 'neckie', a hoop-like piece of material that covers the face and neck completes the ensemble. As it gets colder (anything below -25), the priority is to ensure that all exposed skin is well covered to prevent it getting frostnipped (the early, reversible stage of frostbite).

The Laws Platform