Monday, July 30, 2007


The light will be back soon enough but the last few weeks since Midwinter have been plagued by poor weather, I wrote the piece below to remind myself of one of the less good days within the last fortnight.

Venturing Outside in Bad Weather

"It is my week as part of the melt tank triumvirate. Darkness still has its grip over this part of the Antarctic, the appearance of the sun is still many weeks away and there has been no light seen creeping over the horizon for days given the cloud cover. Despite the appointed hour for digging the tank being nominally 0900 every morning, given the use of lightboxes this week at that time, two of us have been going out at 0730 to break the back of it, whilst topping it up later in the day. When we went out this morning the wind was picking up and AMPS (the model that provides our local weather forecast) was predicting a large blow, though the reality is rarely of the magnitude predicted.

Vivid Colours Illuminate the Melt Tank on a Better Day

It has however, underestimated it this time. The wind has built rapidly over the day to nearly Beaufort Force 10- an official storm. The building rattles and sways on it stilts, water in toilet bowls splashes over the sides and one of my predecessor’s wind chimes in the surgery clank irritatingly away as the building moves. Regardless of the weather the melt tank still needs filling, though having topped it up once already it could be left until tomorrow but the blow is forecast to continue for several days. We decide to get on with it.

Alex's Hot Air Balloon

The first Montgolfian effort flew a few metres downwind before bursting into flames

Doing it just before dinner, the three of us along with a couple of eager volunteers garb up in the boot room. Putting on the reliable padded orange overalls, despite it being merely -25
°C (partly as a result of the cloud cover that comes with the bad weather), I opt to put on a ‘windy’ jacket and subsequently spend 5 minutes trying to secure the crotch strap that secures the back to the front to prevent it being blown over my head. Balaclava, goggles, ‘neckie’, hat and bear paws- mittens on an overhead harness- finish it off, along with a VHF radio. Fortunately, everyone else is ready to go within a few minutes off each other- too long inside and heat stress sets in.

The Laws From a Depression on the Perimeter

The first one opens the heavy door that separates us from the hostile external world. Scuttling across the open platform in its bright lights, it is clear that it is windy but its not until we reach the bottom that it is clear how windy. Like a tsunami of snow, the 50mph winds churn up the surface of the ice shelf, such that there is a rippling wall of white coming from due east. As I turn to head towards the melt tank, less than a hundred metres away into the wind, I realise I do not know where it is; the bright sodium lamp that illuminates the hole in the ground and its surrounding mound of snow has vanished into the swirling snow-filled darkness.

and Mark During Fire Training in the Main Corridor

With no local fire brigade, everyone has learnt to use the breathing apparatus to search for any missing casualties in the event of a fire

I remember to reach for the hand-line, moving to its upwind side I head towards the signpost. There
automatically turning left, I take the line heading towards the Simpson platform; I cannot even make out the form of the man who is no more than a couple of metres before me. A way down the line there is a gap with a pole leading to the melt tank on my left; I grasp onto it and move rapidly towards where there is now a faint light. However, before I can reach it, I stumble and swear, tripping on a knee-high sastrugi. Regaining my feet I make it into the pool of light next to the A-frame that marks the site of the tank’s jaws and acts in itself as the opening to the tunnel system below.

Aurora Over the Piggott and CASLab

Grabbing a shovel off the frame, I throw myself into the crater of the snow mound, I am instantly hit by the drop in wind and the reduction in noise. The first job is to dig out the steel plate that protects the opening of the long subterranean neck of the tank, a job made significantly harder by the layer of snow that has accumulated from the spindrift off the windward lip of the crater. A couple of minutes of digging and a good heave and the top comes off. In the interim the rest of the digging team have spaced themselves around the rim of the caldera about a metre above me and start trying to shovel snow down into the void. That would work but for the wind- at least half of the snow is blown off the shovel before it starts to fall into the hole. We are going to be out here for a while.

North From the Perimeter Over the Container Line

I start digging, my main role is to keep the top of the shaft clear, large chunks of ice block the neck of the hole and snow builds up behind, so I need to keep the hole patent. In between this I try and shovel what I can from around where I am standing. I gradually realise that I can now hardly see my hands- it dawns on me that the insides of goggles have fogged up. There is no choice but to take them off, knowing that as I do so the condensation will freeze over, rendering them unusable. As I lift them off, facing the east, my eyes are blasted by the fine granules of snow and ice, while my skin starts
rapidly to chill. I turn my back into the wind and struggle to resume what I was doing, rendered temporarily blind.

The Compactor Room
One of my jobs is to compact most of our waste prior to shipping it out

Given that we are shovelling a lot of soft snow that has accumulated around the pit in the wind, there is a risk that it will stick somewhere down the 35+ metre chute that leads into the melt tank. I radio the main platform to check that the level on the tank is still rising. There is a pause while the person on the other end scurries off to look at the meter cocooned in the warmth of the main corridor.

Refuelling the Flubbers Supporting the Laws

The reply of ‘Two point one four’ is barely audible over the howl of the wind. There is still a fair bit of digging to hit the required 2.24, another ten minutes probably, given that despite the number of people out, most of the shovelled snow is disappearing off towards the Laws.

The Last Apple- 17th July
A few of the apples were kept back for a while but nonetheless the last ones still have a welcome

Digging away, I feel a shooting ‘pins and needles’ sensation down my left arm and into my hand. It persists and like a hypochondriac, I wonder if I have managed to acquire an ulnar neuropathy (nerve damage) at the elbow from the repeated digging. My mind is distracted for a few moments, mainly by self ridicule, until I am conscious of the same happening in the right hand after swapping the shovel over to rest my left arm.

The Laws

Stupidly, I realise that it is not a pathological process but static electricity. The dry atmosphere along with the strong wind must have built up a substantial static charge. Given that I am wearing rubber-soled mukluks, the charge is earthing through the metallic spade hence the continuing sensation. It is a not uncommon problem inside in the Antarctic but I have never experienced it outside, nor as persistently, as it occurs every time I strike the ice with my shovel.

Digging Out Frozen Cables
During the summer, we were able to walk beneath these cables comfortably but each blow brings a new dump of snow

Suddenly a shout goes up, for like a festive decoration the red and white lights on the frame have lit up, signifying that the tank is adequately full. I scramble out of the caldera searching for the plate and its marker pole. Finding their long leash, I heave them towards me, toppling as I do so over the top of the tunnel and collapsing in an awkward heap on the bar guarding the entrance to the chute. There follows a few moments of flailing limbs, as like a wading hippo, I try to extricate myself from the depth of the hole and replace myself with the plate. After several more moments of floundering I succeed in satisfactorily positioning the plate so that there is no risk of snow freezing the top of the lid shut. I wedge the marker pole on top and head back the few metres to the hand-line, where I meet the rearguard of the party concernedly but I sense impatiently waiting for me.

Venus and the Moon Off the End of the Garage

It is fortunate that the reverse journey is heading out of the wind, for regardless of the non-existent visibility, in my goggle-denuded state, I can barely open my eyes if I turn into the wind. After a short while the lights on the Laws emerge overhead like a Spielberg UFO. As I turn to walk up the open stairs, I am hit again by the force of the storm as it squeezes through the steel grating. Beyond our front door, emblazoned with the EIIR Post Office sign, the warmth rapidly defrosts the snow that has drifted down backs and into boots leaving, even once the outer layers have been shed, a damp feeling that mingles with the light sweat raised by the exertion of digging.

Descending the Laws Stairs in a Blow

However, rapidly over dinner the experience of the previous half an hour is forgotten and I wonder what all the fuss was about."

The Weekly 'Dozer Work on the Melt Tank

Ant (Z Chef), filmed one of the days that week, a short clip can be see here on YouTube. As we pass through the third quarter of our time down here, it is reputedly not the weather but living in a small community of people that is perceived to pose the greatest personal challenges while South. This is partly why Antarctic stations have provided a model for long-distance space travel, as discussed in a recent magazine article. Certainly, I have been very lucky to pass my winter with a great team of people and as for the weather, though it can challenging at times it occasionally produces spectacular phenomenon such as the one below.

A Lunar Halo
Identical to solar phenomena but in this case involving moon light through diamond dust

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sastrugi In Colour

The depth of winter and there is still a warm glow on the horizon on cloudless days, with bright oranges and reds, it not only temporarily lights the northern sky but its warmth suffuses across the ice and sastrugi.

Man on the Perimeter

Sastrugi are sharp long ridges of snow that form in the direction of the blowing wind, generally found on polar plains, they can grow upto at least a metre high. Starting as small imperfections in the ice, as the windward side is eroded and ice deposited on the leeward side, they grow long and thin, lying generally parallel to the direction of the wind and each other.

A Surface of Ice Shortly After a Blow
A photo from March

However, Halley for various reasons does not experience the unrelenting katabatic winds experienced elsewhere on the continent, the wind frequently changes direction and it may well be because of this that the sastrugi fail to achieve particularly large sizes. Nonetheless, they are still hard on the ankles when running and will catch a ski-tip if not vigilant.

Sastrugi and the Laws

Sastrugi, as an English word derives from the Russian zastruga, variably translated as a furrow or a small ridge. Scott frequently mentions them as obstacles ('The hard surface gave place to regular sastrugi...'), in his final journal, hinting there at the common frustration as moving across smooth firm ice is hindered by the appearance of these undulating ripples of ice. As for the blog's titular sausages I have to admit I am not quite sure why, apart from the alliteration, they appear!

More Melt Tank Fun
Digging the melt tank in a small blow

With the Midwinter celebration behind us there is still at least another six weeks until the sun makes its appearance and any considerable amount of outdoor work becomes feasible. The average temperature of June was -31°C with a monthly minimum of -47.5°C; regardless of the wind, most machines refuse to even think about working at these temperatures, so what has to be done is done by hand or postponed until the temperature improves. However, though one is not able to adapt physiologically to cold environments (as opposed to tropical climates where humans do tolerate heat better), for reasons that are not terribly clear, -30°C no longer seems in the least bit cold on a windless day.

More Sastrugi in the Dark

Midwinter marks an important time for me on base- the Midwinter Dental check. All the Docs coming South spend some time on a dental first aid course at RAF Halton in the UK prior to our deployment. I supplemented my time by sitting in with the BAS dentists both in the UK and on the annual visit to Halley from the Ernest Shackleton. Since it will be six months before a dentist comes here again, a check-up, even if it is being done by me, should be of some benefit.

Dave Does Dentistry
Dave (ZMet) gets to grip with a dental probe and mirror on me

There is an increased risk of dental problems while South for various reasons, including that the water being melt-water is almost entirely free of fluorine, along with the change in diet that most people experience while they are here. Interestingly, supposedly a third of all military medevacs from Afghanistan are for dental related problems, even accounting for trauma and injuries. It is easy to forget, particularly as doctors unused to dentistry, the morbidity associated with dental problems, hence the need for surveillance and good dental hygiene while South, as is also needed in the Armed Forces.

My Dental Check-Up
Clockwise from Ant (wearing safety glasses), Brian, Mark, Tamsin & Dave

As the only Doc on base, when it comes to my turn for a check-up it turns to the rest of the base to have a go; seven or eight took the opportunity to extract revenge by playing around with dental tools and a polishing brush in my mouth.

Dave Successfully Practising Intravenous Cannulation
From before my before my Midwinter shave (Photo by Pete)

Part of my time during the winter is spent preparing for a weekly DocSchool session on a Thursday afternoon. The rationale is to train a number of people up to cover me in my absence from base, be in a position to help me should I need assistance with a procedure or sick individual, as well as consolidating their knowledge of first aid for time in the field or elsewhere. The latest session, covering blood grouping and transfusion, given that everbody is a potential donor should the need arise, also reassured everyone that most of the participants are not form-shifting aliens. The concern about this possible infiltration by different life-froms arises from the infamous Antarctic horror B-movie 'The Thing' (prescribed Midwinter viewing), where the only way to identify the true alien is from blood-letting each base member into a petri dish.

DocSchool in the Dining Room
The TV screen in the corner displays the current weather data outside

Post-Midwinter also means more medical science projects and the collection of other bodily fluids from base personnel ready to volunteer. Apart from the continuing lightbox project, which requires a fortnightly urine collection for 48 hours to quantify the levels of the hormone melatonin, most people are also participating in a collaborative project related to cortisol levels (a human hormone produced in response to stress), over the course of the period we are alone down here. This requires intermittently a three-day saliva collection, a process involving cotton wool balls to absorb the saliva at several points during the day, not unlike leaving a Jacob's water biscuit in the mouth for five minutes. I am as ever grateful for everybodys willing participation in all the projects, even if the novelty starts to wear off rapidly.

The Laws In Orange

In the eastern area of the base, which is nominally a recreational area, free from buildings and windtails, there stands a small memorial. It remembers those few people who lost their lives while working at Halley, the most recent being over twenty years ago. Made from a small sledge and no more than a metre high, it cuts a clear shape against the northerly glow.

The Memorial in the Eastern Perimeter