Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Time Runs Short on the Winter

Kirsty Launching the Daily Met Balloon

With the first plane bearing a tranche of new people due at the end of October, we soon will not be on our own. The last few weeks as a result have thus been a battle against recurrent bad weather to prepare the place for their arrival and the subsequent flights bringing people in. Nonetheless, with some good weather there is always some excuse to be outside working.

Tom Preparing the UAV for Flight

Unfortunately, the low level cloud and poor weather that has dominated the month, means poor contrast. As a result a lot of photos this month appear in black and white, since they don't look quite as dull as they would in colour!

Digging Out Cabling to the Garage
Photo thanks to Ant

High winds and bad weather have meant there continues to be plenty to dig out, though warmer temperatures means that a bulldozer is rarely far away. The continual digging focus of any winter here is the melt tank; the excitement that existed (at least for those of us spending our first winter here), at the beginning of the year in filling the tank has started to fade, particularly as wrists, shoulders and arms grow weary of the pounding of solid snow and ice.

Kirsty Digging Out the Weather Haven

However, given that the intention is that the Halley VI melt tank, when it is finished in three years time, will not be dug by hand, it seemed fitting that our winterer's photo should be taken atop the melt tank mound.

Halley Winter Photo 2007
Photo by Dave Evans- featuring all 18 of us

There are well over 40 years of winter photos that cover two walls of the dining room, while ancient portraits of a youthful Queen and Prince Phillip watch over our eating from another wall. Typically the photos are in black and white as they were processed on base but despite our digital cameras and printers, the B&W still looks better sitting in a wooden frame that Jim (Z-Carpenter), made especially for it from old Nansen sledge wood.

Emperor Penguin Chick

It is interesting how some winter group portraits are relatively formal, hopefully the relaxed and natural look to our contribution to the dining room decoration reflects the good winter we have had together. The intention is that the photos will move to the new base and hopefully they will as they are one of the few items of continuity that connect us with those who have wintered here, not just in the recent past, about whom stories are still told but also those who were here thirty and more years ago, when living here would have been a lot harsher but nonetheless have experienced the unusual nature of an Antarctic winter.

Tom Watching the Sunset from the Bar Window

Winter already seems a long time ago particularly as the sun has ceased to set come the end of October. The unpolluted atomsphere transmitted beautiful coloured sunsets and sunrises for the over the last few months which have been difficult to reproduce with any chromatic fidelity or the sense of space that accompanies them. But I have seen my last sunset for a while, probably until I arrive in Cape Town on my way home.

Ant Shows Off His Baking Skills

The end of winter also means a celebratory dinner with Ant managing to conjure up a pretty fine meal yet again, including some real potatoes which have been nursed through the winter. Hopefully, the first planes will bear some fresh fruit and even lettuces.

Dave at the Bar

As I continue to write this blog, I realise that I am writing it as much for myself as for friends and family. Not only is it an incentive to sort my photos out but will hopefully be something I can look back on in time to come. To that extent I realise that I am missing photos of what the inside of some of the buildings look like, which by now I have taken for granted.

Board Games in the Lounge

I remember the first striking impressions of the inside of the Laws platform, whose accommodation and living areas reminded me of a well-cared for youth hostel. The lounge is no exception, sharing the same room as the bar, which with pool table takes up just under half of the total space, it also doubles as a cinema twice a week.

Penguin Regurgitating Food for a Chick

However, for most of the time it can feel like a dentist's waiting room with low slung chairs pulled back against the walls and coffee tables heaving under the weight of old magazines; a ambiance that is exaggerated when a majority of base decant into the room after lunch and silently pick through the increasingly out-of-date titles or work on the Halley stare- a well-recognised gentle gaze into the middle distance that descends at the end of the winter. Without a prompt postal service each month the corresponding magazine issues from last year appear, ranging from Q to New Scientist to Cosmopolitan, the latter of which seems more popular with some men on base than for the women.

Me Learning to Weld
MIG welding cable supports, photo thanks to Ant

While, as ever, I have hardly been rushed off my feet medically, along with the usual waste and steel work, some of the science projects always need a hand. Tom, our German meteorologist, with the advent of warmer temperatures has got his UAV (an unmanned aerial vehicle), out flying again. The batteries which it runs on are, unfortunately, not great fans of the cold so flying through the winter has not been as easy as hoped for.


Flying the UAV is a ideally a three man job, with Tom flying the plane for take-offs and landing, before it flies an autonomous flight plan, Alex running a laptop communicating via a telemetry system with the UAV in-flight and myself launching the UAV. Though the batteries power two electric motors, the initial power for take-off is supplied by pulling the plane back on an elastic bungee, whose recoil sends the UAV skywards, at which point the motors kick in.

Surveying Under the Laws With Jim

The plan is to gradually to collect data about the low level atmosphere, particularly in respect of turbulence over the snow surface (with and flights on base) and eventually over sea ice. However, before getting to that point the system needs to be as reliable as possible to reduce the risk of losing delicate and expensive probes irretrievably over sea ice.

Alex Heads Into the Simpson

All the lower atmospheric science runs off the Simpson platform, named after Sir George Simpson, who worked on Scott's Terra Nova expedition, (which covered Scott's attempt on the pole) and subsequent director of the Met Office. It also houses the Metbabes, who on top of the all the long term monitoring experiments and observations that they run, are bringing the blimp flying season to a close.

Dave in the Blimp Tent

The blimp is used to study low level (tropospheric) ozone and its depletion during the Antarctic spring on base during ozone depletion events. (This is distinct from the high level (stratospheric) ozone, whose depletion in the Antarctic leads to the ozone hole).

Dave Retrieves the Sondes
Suspended beneath the blimp the sondes collect data during ascent and descent

Ozone depletion events are thought to take place over the Weddell Sea, due to the catalytic effects of halides released from sea water. Sunlight is required to drive the reaction that results in the breakdown of ozone and so the last few months since the return of sun have seen several of these events take place, all of which have precipitated a blimp flight. In parallel a set of instruments were deployed 15km east of base on the coast at Precious Bay studying these events as well.

Sunset Over the Blimp Team

Unfortunately, poor weather took its toll on both sets of kit. The main blimp was destroyed in a storm earlier in the season, which nearly also decimated the weather haven. The reserve blimp has been clocking up the flying hours, while the the Precious Bay instruments also suffered from the extreme winds and cold. Nonetheless, the blimp was still flown more times this winter than previous years, mainly due to the dedication of the trio of Metbabes (Tamsin, Dave and Kirsty).

Climbing Up the Cliffs At Windy
Photo thanks to Dave Evans

Despite the bad weather, there was still a window one weekend for another trip to the penguins. It was also a relief as for the first time a penguin trip that I led actually got down onto the ice- I was starting to worry I was blighted. Though not technically difficult or far from base it is interesting how taxing taking responsibilty for a group of people in the middle of the Antarctic actually is. I have all the more respect for the work of the Field GAs!

Crèche of Young Penguins

The chicks continue to grow and have started to huddle together to form crèches to keep warm as the parents head out to sea to find food. Both the adults and chicks are increasingly inquisitive and will waddle comfortably to within a metre or so. As I finish, I remember that one of the reasons I fell behind in writing the blog is as I wrote the September base diary for the BAS website. Given that very few planes are coming in from the Falklands via Rothera this summer, my postal address (at the bottom of the webpage) has also changed.

More Penguins

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Winter Trip

Emperor Penguins

As winter becomes a fleeting memory, there is plenty to be done outside in respect of both work and play. The impetus to write a regular blog also evaporates as other attractions become more enticing- such as skiing or making the best use of the weather to get work done, whatever time of day.

Chris Walking to Work

The weather had to improve, for the last month or so has been plagued by high winds, particularly unfortunate as the bulk of the post-winter trips have taken place over the course of the month. My trip, taking the exciting name and slightly inappropriate name of Sledge Hotel, was due out in late September but our departure was curtailed for four days by poor contrast and high winds. (Each trip takes a sledge name with a radio call sign, invariably unofficial versions of the call sign are thought up but this year none of them have really stuck).

Nansen Sledge at Windy
A fully laden 'half-unit'

However, we finally got underway though slightly depleted, as a trio rather than the usual four, which precluded any time in tents. So, led by Sune, who as Field GA runs all the trips, Chris and I headed the short 18 km or so to the caboose at Windy Bay, where the main attraction is the penguin colony.

Lots of Penguins

Though we could have camped elsewhere on the Brunt ice shelf if we had tents, the advantage of the caboose, apart from being able to stand up in it, is a powerful Reflex stove in the corner, which keeps the place well above the external -30°C.

Inside Windy Caboose

With four days lost on base to poor weather, the last five were almost a further white-out but were saved by the last day when we had superb weather. That said, on each day the contrast improved enough for us to escape for a few hours and explore the cliffs and the area around the caboose. With the wind rarely below the acceptable 15 knots for venturing onto sea ice, we still managed to watch the sun set from the cliffs overlooking the main colony.

Roped Up as an Alpine Three

The contrast is vital, not only to be able to see the cliff edge but any possible crevasses or other hazards. Poor weather also prevented as from travelling across to the Rumples, where the shelf is grounded on a raised area of the sea bed and is littered with crevasses as the Brunt ice shelf, upon which we live, moves around this fixed point.

(Un)Dressed For the Field
Fashion shoot on a low contrast day

All our field clothing is supplied, fortunately, as the total cost of it all would be several thousand pounds, however, most of it (except certain items like longjohns for instance!), is reusable. The clothing system works on a layers principle mostly made up of lightweight artificial fibres. The top layer of thick Canada Goose jackets are issued for the depth of winter and are almost too hot to do anything in, apart from a lot of standing around when its very cold or skidooing.

Sastrugi at Windy

Much more useful as an outer layer is the thick cotton Ventile material that makes the 'windy' top as well as the tent fabric. Though it would be less useful in the UK, as the cotton would soak up water, here it forms a superb, wind resistant fabric. Underneath that, when it is very cold in the field, I wear another 3 layers on top plus a long-sleeved thermal top. Walking or any exercise and the layers are rapidly shed. Notably everybody finds some different combination of clothes, particularly headwear and on the hands, works better for them.

Solar Halo over the caboose
Sun Dogs and a faint upper tangent arc are also present

As for feet, it is either thick, artificial mukluks or mountaineering plastic boots. While on the hands I wear a pair of 'thinnies', robust liner gloves for fine work particularly the climbing metal kit which would otherwise freeze to bare hands, over which almost everyone wears 'bear-paws' (large mittens with artificial fur on the back), attached by what looks like a toddler's harness round the neck so that they can be shaken off to use the more precise thinnies.

The Cliffs at Windy

Finally, on top there is a long 'neckie' to cover the gap between the clothes and a balaclava or two along with a hat on top. The greatest problem with this last set-up is preventing goggles misting up, if you wear too much on your face, your breath eventually freezes on the inside of the lens, too little and you risk frostnip on the tip of the nose. However, most of the time you are more than warm enough, even down at -40 with a decent wind. Around base the ubiquitous orange padded overalls take the place of several of the layers and the mukluks are almost all steel-toe capped, which unfortunately means feet get cold very fast.

Lots More Penguins

It has been interesting watching the chicks grow up on various visits to the colony; now able to venture off their parents' feet, they have become quite adventurous. and are often seen tottering around chased by a concerned parent. However, there is plenty of evidence of chicks that did not make it with both eggs and small bodies littering the ice. Moreover, there is the occasional scuffle between chick-less parents and parents with offspring over the latter's free-roaming grey balls of feathers as the former appear to attempt to nab the chicks as their own.

Out Walking On the Cliffs

Sune's title as Field Assistant slightly understates his extensive experience and role on base. On base is also slightly inaccurate, for over the winter he spends as much time in the field as actually on base even taking into consideration that nobody travels off base during the darkness. Most GAs (for General Assistant, even though the full title has changed), have mountaineering experience, Sune is no different and as such is responsible for the safety of everyone travelling off-base.

Sune Illuminated By a Tilley Lamp

Along with leading all the field trips both pre- and post- winter, his time is taken up maintaining the field kit from Pyramid tents and Nansen sledges to Primus stoves and Tilley lamps. The field trips along with a chance to get away from base for a period of time and a change of scenery, is also considered training time in field work, again for which the GAs are responsible for teaching. He will be the first to leave here, probably in mid-November, to take an incoming geologist on a deep-field project in Dronning Maud Land to the east of here.

The Wind Picks Up
A Nansen laden with fuel jerrys

The Antarctic can prove to be a hostile place and difficult to predict. On our final day, having enjoyed the best weather of the trip and spent a few hours with the penguins, we had completed our packing and were within half an hour of leaving for base, when the weather rapidly changed and a gale descended over the course of the subsequent fifteen minutes. It meant another unscheduled night away from base. The shower on our return, however brief, was all the more welcome.


The end of the winter trip is a reminder that the first plane is not far away, bringing with it new people, fresh food and possibly post. Before that, should the weather hold, there is still plenty of things to be done around base to prepare for them and the busy summer that lies ahead.

A Cornice at the Windy Cliffs