Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sailing North

Wandering Albatross

Leaving behind the small clutch of winterers alone on the ice, the Shackleton made good speed through the Stancomb-Wills ice stream, where one of the largest glaciers in Dronning Maud Land meets the sea, creating icebergs as it does so. March is late in the season to be sailing so far South and there was good evidence of sea ice thick enough to walk on for several days sail.

Snow Petrel

However, a decent storm made the passage easier breaking up the ice and making passage easier. Well, easier in some respects for the winds and rolling seas consigned most of the departing passengers to our bunks.

Another Wandering Albatross

'Our bunks', as for the first time ever I found myself suffering from the intractable nausea that plagues many who sail on the Shackleton, as it corkscrews through the Southern Ocean; the shape of its ice-strengthened hull predisposes it to an unpleasant rolling motion. I never had a problem on the long sail South even during the longer period we spent sailing between the sub-Antarctic islands; I suspect I will have more sympathy in future.

Frozen Winch Gear
With it well below zero sea spray freezes across the ship

After a few days of rough weather- during which I struggled to help with the indent of the ship's surgery before it sails into the North Sea for its summer work- the skies cleared, the wind dropped and albatross appeared trailing behind the ship.

Diomedea exulans- Wandering albatross

Its difficult to capture photographically just how large the Wanderers are, they have the greatest wingspan of any bird on earth, ranging upward from 10 - 12 foot across and watching them, they seem to soar for ever, without once beating their wings.

Yet More Albatross

I was very fortunate to visit one of their breeding sites, at Bird Island, South Georgia, on the way South, where amongst part of the BAS station's research work is the long-term monitoring of their numbers. Sailing north as we were to Cape Town, we were a long way from any islands yet albatross will quite happily travel across the whole length of the Southern Ocean without touching land.

Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross
Wanderers were not the only birds to follow us north

Unfortunately, of the 21 albatross species, 19 are considered threatened, the Wanderers particularly are vulnerable with only 8,000 breeding pairs, many of which nest on Bird Island. One of the greatest threats comes from long-line fishing, where trawlers trail long baited and hooked lines, which unfortunately attract not only fish but also a large variety of birds- often fatally. For more information about the threat to these spectacular birds and what can be done to protect them- Save The Albatross.

Evening Light Catches The Wanderer

'And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow'

I am not enough of an aficionado to tell whether all these photos are of the same albatross or whether over the several days that they hovered comfortably over the stern of the ship, we were visited by several different birds. As we headed north, circuit training on the ships heli-deck was made all the more unusual by the bird's presence overhead.

Even More Albatross

I have been away for 18 months now and it has been a fantastic period of time and I have learnt and done a lot, some of which is already making the news. (The photographs might be similar to some of those on this blog). As South Africa approaches so the temperatures rises and the Antarctic seems far behind. With Cape Town my job comes to an end and with it this blog. It will be a few weeks yet before I am back in the UK, as I am going to have a short holiday but I look forward to seeing everyone- for regardless of the material and slightly less tangible things that I have missed (which includes rain), it is friends and family that I have missed the most.

The Moon

I have been incredibly privileged to work somewhere so incredibly beautiful and untouched by man. I only hope that we can continue to protect and preserve the Antarctic as one of the last great wildernesses. However, the effects of climate change are already all too visible and that will ultimately be detrimental not only to the Antarctic but across the globe. We, as individuals, need to take responsibility for that now before it is too late.

Cape Town
My final destination

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Last Few Days

The Memorial

My last post from Halley has come around all too quickly, two summers and a winter have passed and it is time for me to head north, leaving the Antarctic far behind. The last few days were a great reminder, however, of why I enjoy this place so much.

With too many people on station to sail out to Cape Town on the Shackleton, a pair of Balser flights took a large number out flying them out across Dronning Maud Land. On the flights disappeared a large number of those who had wintered with me, they were in Cape Town enjoying salads and cocktails within the day. They were soon missed.

De-icing the Basler's Wings

However, the problems with flying this late in the season were only too apparent, the Antarctic winter is fast approaching and with temperatures dropping and bad weather increasing, the time-frame for flying plane starts to rapidly narrow. Moreover, with the low temperatures sea ice starts to form again and the escape routes north out of the Weddell Sea rapidly disappear.

Sunsets Over The Fully Clad Podule

For me, however, the last week or so was a fantastic opportunity to spend time on base when at its most beautiful. For Halley has a very different feel between both the summer and the winter, not just in the number of people, the weather and the obvious contrast in day length but more subtle aspects such as the colours, the quality of the light and the stillness. Halley is a place that is very much more beautiful in the winter than the summer.

The Tag Board
Brass tags for winterers, wood for summer staff

With little time left there was a rush to document the seemingly routine things on base that make it so different from the outside world. Items like the tag board, where each individual is represented by a different tag so that, particularly during the winter, you can be accounted for immediately in case of a fire. The board is accompanied by a sign-out book in which the time expected back is also completed, such that an attraction of leaving here (and there are a few), is the freedom to go somewhere without having to indicate where or the need to carry a VHF radio.

Halley VI and V
Karl (Project Manager) gives a sense of scale to the new base.

Other things that will not necessarily be missed are items like Nido, the replacement milk powder and the all-pervasive smell of AVTUR (the generic diesel based fuel)- though even that I have learnt to love. I guess that after friends and family, I suppose what I am most looking forward to are food items: salads, real milk, crisp fresh fruit and seafood, not just for their flavours but their textures too.

Inside the Ice Cave
Photo thanks to Richard Burt

A last minute boon was a plan on the penultimate night to sleep in an ice cave that had been painstakingly excavated across the summer in the windtail of the CASLab. The last ice feature we dug, several months back for Ant's birthday, had rapidly filled in with drifting snow. This latest one meanwhile had plenty of space for three of us to bed down for a comfortable night's sleep; they insulate their heat remarkably well and the cavern was well above the external -25°C.

Rich Burt in the Ice Cavern

I was fortunate to be on the last Sno-Cat transfer down to the ship and with the slightly premature departure of the last flight to make the best use of a weather window, it meant a final night on a very quiet base. The new wintering team are only eleven compared to the eighteen from our year (with only Deano (Comms Manager), staying on for a second winter), it will have a very different feel to our relatively large team

Last Melt Tank Dig

A beautiful sunset, a few final outdoor jobs to be done and without the bustle of a large number of people, it all contributed to the ambience of a typical winter's day at Halley. Having consigned all my luggage that will sail home in the hold of the ship a week before, it was easy to enjoy without the pressure of last minute packing of my bags.

Final Ships Cargo
Hasty labelling of northbound boxes

Despite my absence of skis on the ship, the weather and the light was too perfect not to take a pair of base skis and spend an hour on the perimeter. I know all too well how much I will miss Halley, particularly standing in the semi-darkness, alone, in the middle of the Antarctic.

Panorama from the North of Base
Click to enlarge

With limited daylight and a need to get round the Stancomb-Wills ice stream in good light, it was an early start with a procession of Sno-Cats taking the last five of us to join the ship and the majority of the new winterers to release the ships mooring lines and wave goodbye. For us Cape Town should be less than a fortnight's sail away.

Leaving Halley

I would quite happily have swapped my place on the ship with any one of the small handful of people standing on the ice, waving as water appeared between us and the ice shelf. They will, I am sure, have a fantastic winter, I just wish I was spending it with them.

Leaving Creek 4
The winterers see us off

Friday, February 29, 2008

From Five to Six

Out With The Old....

The most exciting part of the summer is the new base starting to take shape. The summer has been good in respect of the weather and has meant that as the end of the season approaches it is possible to get an idea of what Halley VI will look like.

...& In With The New

There will eventually be eight large podules, connected to make the new base, excluding the large central podule, which will be built next year, the other seven are at various stages of completion. Only one of them will spend the winter clothed in the glass reinforced plastic cladding (as in the picture above), the rest will spend their winter under large tents ready for further work and the lengthy cladding process next summer.

Sastrugi at Creek 4

With hands needed on site to secure the tents, it gave me an opportunity to spend a day getting close to what will house my successors in a few years time. The buildings are impressive and a lot has been achieved over the last few weeks.

A 'Naked' Podule

Each podule sits on four large skis so that they can be moved, not only to the eventual site some 16 km from here but hopefully several times again in the future as the ice shelf continues to move the location of the base closer to the sea. Moving 50 plus ton objects across snow is a unique challenge, so the snow over the next year between the two bases will be groomed and compacted regularly to give a firm base to tow the podules upon and prevent them sinking into the ice shelf.

Inside the 'Command' Podule
The large box on the left will be the new surgery

Inside the steel superstructure that forms each unit, are pre-fabricated boxes containing the different rooms be they offices, pitrooms or wash blocks. The design means it is quicker and easier to fit as well as installing the power and heating in the limited time that the Antarctic summer allows on site.

Fitting the Heating and Ventilation

The construction work is being carried out by Morrisons Falklands Ltd (MFL), while BAS provide accommodation and all the other features that are required to support a large work force in what, despite the summer sun, is still a very remote and cold environment. Though half their workforce is British, the remainder are South African amongst whom Afrikaans is very much the first language, even if everyone can converse easily in English.

On the Building Site

As the season winds to a close there was also a chance to look inside some of what will form the new accommodation. I realise at this point I have not included photos of many features from around base, including the pitrooms where we sleep. I have no idea why they are called pitrooms but the name is very firmly attached and all twenty of them on the Laws have two bunks in them. During the winter, there are enough rooms for one each but come the summer, every bed on station is filled.

Jules Kite-skiing

The great problem with the current pitrooms is the sound-proofing (one of the major design specifications for the new build), you can hear a book being turned in the next pitroom and the less sound sleepers are often woken by distant snorers. During the winter when the temperature was in the deep 20s and below, thick ice would happily form on the inside of the double-glazed windows and then subsequently slowly melting, leaving large pools of water across the carpeted floor. The new pitrooms look like they will avoid similar problems.

The Pitrooms
L- my current room R-Vicky looks around the future

While the building continues, the Shackleton has meantime returned from South Africa and rather than an intended run in the middle of the season to Cape Town, with not enough cargo to justify the extra journey it remains tied up against the ice. The ship also brings the dentist in for a check-ups on all the winterers, which for an afternoon meant that there was on base a surfeit of medical cover.

The Brunt Ice Shelf Medical and Dental Team
L to R: Penny (dentist), Myself, Hannah (incoming wintering doc), Mel (Shackleton doc)

The second arrival of the ship means more fuel to be laid down for the winter, while at the same time old fuel dumps have to be raised as the snow level rises and threatens to bury them.

Raising Fuel Dumps

The black drums draw in heat at times over the year they have been buried melting the surrounding snow, which then refreezes. As a result the drums at the end of a summer are firmly iced in but moving several hundred 45 gallon drums is a lot more pleasant in the warm sunshine than when the wind is blowing and it is -20 and it provides a good days work outside.

Working Ship Side
Jumbo on the sea ice

As cargo comes off the ship, so there is plenty to head north, all the waste from the winter has already gone but there is a fair amount of waste from the construction site, all of which must be removed from the Antarctic and heads north on the Shackleton.

Moving Fuel

The summer is drawing rapidly to an end and with it my time South. The sun is setting again and the temperature is dropping. There is just never enough time to do everything before I leave...

Frosted Beard

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Long, Cold Summer

Halley VI Rising from the Snow

Despite a weekend of escape down to the coast, with relief successfully out of the way it has been a busy summer season. The whole base continues to work twelve hours a day, six days a week in an effort not only to support the construction of Halley VI, which continues to rise out of the snow surface but also prepare the current base for another winter.

Twin Otter Close-Up

On top of this all, the Twin Otter (the workhorse aircraft on base), has been kept busy with plenty of field science to support and maintain as far South as 84°. There are various automated weather stations and low-powered magnetometers (measuring minute fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field), dotted around the continent, which require an annual visit, to both raise above the snow surface and download the accumulated data.

Twin Otter Returning From A81

For while a lot of science on base is being wound down for the next couple of years, while the base is transferred, there are more automated bits of science kit being set up in the field this summer. Along with the low-level ozone monitors, which gave me a chance to head out in the plane, one field party has spent a fortnight installing instruments to measure the earth's geo-electric field, while Sune is still out in the deep field to the west on an extended geological project.

Working on a Space Frame

On the construction site that dominates the west of the base, all but one of the modules that will make up Halley VI are starting to take shape; the last, central and largest module will come in next year. Once the space frame bases on temporary skis were offloaded from the Anderma and successfully dragged across the ice shelf on temporary skis, the Morrisons construction teams went straight to work making the best use of good weather.

Kiting Across the Brunt

Once transferred onto their heavier, permanent skis, which will eventually allow them to be dragged from their construction site on base to the eventual location of Halley VI, the internal modules (pre-made accommodation and work spaces) are loaded on and the steel frames that will support the external cladding then built around them. The photo at the top of the article demonstrates the modules in various states of completion.

The Halley VI Energy Modules
The tent goes on the first module

The first modules to disappear under the temporary tents which will protect the structures through the winter, were the energy modules (inspiringly named E1 and E2). The generators and other plant that will be required to power and heat the new station are now in place and with the tents on, the next job is to put in all the M&E (mechanical and engineering), works to power and fuel them, even though they will not be up and running for a couple of years.

Fog Descends on Base

While most of the work is taking place at the site of Halley V, there is a long season of preparatory work for a small team of people at the eventual site of the new base. A journey of just under an hour in a Sno-Cat, took me the 16 km to the where the base will stand in a couple of years time once it has been completed. I went with the nominal excuse of helping with some maintenance work (though I think the only useful part was making the packed lunch) but it was a chance to see where the new station will be- even if is just a large expanse of flat, white snow like the rest of the Brunt...

Halley VI Construction Site

The team working out there have been marking out the sites for where each of the pods will end up, as well as running cabling between them and the outlying science buildings and masts that will support a lot of the science equipment, particularly the radars which formed an iconic part of the Halley skyline before they were taken down a few months ago.

Current Halley VI Skyline
Coiled cabling sits on mounds above the snow

Meanwhile, on base the summer is an opportunity- given good weather, a surfeit of personnel and some time- for general maintenance required to keep the base running over the next few years. It has been good weather, in that there have been far fewer manky (local, long-standing slang for overcast and dull) days or days dominated by blows than last year but cloudless skies have meant that January was on average the coldest January since records began at Halley, edging as it did into positive Centigrade on only a couple of occasions and even then for only a few hours.

The Emergency Clothing Container Indent

Generally the base is in a good state of repair and would last many years yet if it were not for the threat of calving of the ice shelf taking the immobile buildings with it, however, the one area where its age is showing are the tunnels.

Descending into the Melt Tank Silo

A couple of the bases prior to Halley V, were built underground but soon had to abandonned as the weight of accumulating snow and the movement of the ice stream that leads the base to move 1.5 metres a day, gradually warped and crushed them rendering them uninhabitable. Though the current tunnels are nowhere near that state, the strain on them is beginning to show; the new base will not have a similar system as its fuel and melt tanks will be sited above the snow surface.

Digging at the Bottom of the Melt Tank Silo
Brian and Andy look on as I am supposed to be digging- not taking photographs

As a result I found myself back in the tunnels, digging places where the encroaching ice threatened to cause problems. Digging snow continues to be a major part of life at Halley be it on the surface or 35 metres down.

Looking East Over the Laws

Along with the extra (but not exactly significant) medical burden of living on a construction site with a hundred people around, there are other various medically related duties to discharge, one of those is looking after the Major Incident Plan, covering the response should we have two or more seriously injured people. Though such a scenario could be comfortably dealt with in the UK, with the limited resources in the Antarctic, it becomes a lot harder to handle.

The Exercise 'Accident' Scene

With the constant turnover of staff, its become an annual event to run an exercise based around a realistic scenario to ensure that the plan is fit for purpose as well as a chance for individuals to rehearse their role should the worst happen. Given that Hannah, the new wintering Doc is also on station, I took the opportunity to step back and watch the scenario I had set up unfold.

The Drewry 'Hospital'

Despite the inherent pandemonium that ensues in a scenario where the participants are unsure as to what is going to happen, it all went reassuringly well, though it remains the hope that it will never have to be tested in reality. Planning the whole thing was made harder as we had an acute shortage of petrol on base which power the ski-doos; that said a petrol shortage has made the whole base a lot more pleasant with less noisy ski-doos whizzing around and more people on skis.

The Fassi Crane in Action

Despite the long hours, I have managed to get out frequently across the week to ski; my cross-country is coming along and I am finally getting to grips with the dark art of ski-waxing. The winds have not been that great for ski-kiting and regardless, as I am unlikely to be doing much once I leave here, my large kite is being passed onto one of the new winterers.

Winterer's Sunday Afternoon Trip to the 4km Marker
Photo thanks to Dave Evans: L to R- Dave, Ant, myself and Deano

Worryingly, time runs on fast and I am full aware that before too long I will be heading out for Cape Town on a ship. As whenever one approaches the end of a stint somewhere, there is some excitement about the next steps but this is heavily overshadowed this time by the realisation that I am going to miss this place a lot, made worse by the knowledge that I am very unlikely to come back.

Sun Pillar Over Halley

Not long now before the first sunset of 2008