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Preview: Solid Sea and South Island - Scott Base and Dunedin

Solid Sea and Southern Sky - Alex's Halley Journal

My time as a Data Manager at Halley for the British Antarctic Survey

Published: Mon, 27 Dec 2010 22:07:52 GMT


Back to the South

Mon, 27 Dec 2010 22:07:52 GMT

My return to civilisation went very well. It turns out that twenty four years spent learning to act like a normal human being aren't erased by twenty four months living without regular deliveries of lettuce. In fact, it doesn't take long at all to settle back into the usual scheme of things, and have conversations that aren't about snow or penguins. The details of my trivial rehabilitation don't need to be recounted but here are some highlights of the last few months...

[ There was nowhere left to hang my coat so I left Halley ]

[ the ice cream team took me to Cape Town ]

[ where even penguins sunbathe ]

[ people forced me to drink wine ]

[ and elephants ate my elephant-mix ]

[ There were the mountains that inspired Tolkein ]

[ and border posts that did not ]

[ There is sand in Namiba ]

[ and some trees ]

[ back in the UK it was raining and misty ]

[ while in Prague they have air guitar gargoyles ]

Antarctica has grown on me, or at least the cold has, and I'm now embarked and arrived on the next stage of my life, in which I'm studying sea ice physics at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand including fieldwork based out of Scott base on McMurdo sound. This journal therefore lives again as "Solid Seas and South Island". The main URL will become and the RSS feeds will be merged together. Along with some mountains and lakes and forests I can even promise further pictures of penguins along with my continuing adventures in Antarctica.

[ Oh, and it's stunning in New Zealand ]

Halley V and Halley VI Reliefs

Wed, 16 Jan 2008 23:00:00 GMT

Relief went on a while this year, as we had not one but two ships to unload. For both phases of the task I worked as a sea-ice driver's mate, following the loaded sledges over the sea ice in a skidoo, ready to watch and laugh should the driver ahead plunge into the ocean. After taking photos I suppose I would have thrown them a line and pulled them out before laughing a little more. The job is one of the many small tasks that create a safe route for cargo between the sea and the station. It's simple (driving a skidoo slowly, and loading cargo onto sledges), but satisfying, and I like the scenery of the ship and the shelf. The whole process works something like this: First we have a ship sitting in the sea. This ship is full of stuff. We want to get the stuff to Halley which sits on an ice shelf about 30m above sea level. As luck, or design, would have it, at the edge of the ice shelf there are some features called creeks, where the shelf has opened up a bit and filled in with snow to form a ramp to sea level. Stuck to the edge of the ice shelf (which is formed from many years of accumulated snow) is some sea ice (frozen sea) covered with snow that fell this year and last year. This sea ice supports Sno-Cats pulling loads on sledges which weigh something like ten tonnes and, as it is many meters thick, won't crack under the additional strain. We get stuff to the base, then, by lofting it from the ship using the ship's cranes, landing it carefully onto a sledge. This sledge is pulled up onto the ice shelf by a Sno-Cat and left at a depot. Sledges are collected from this depot by heavier vehicles which can drag three or four loads at once and taken twelve kilometers along a drumline to the base where they are unloaded onto the snow using mobile cranes. The sledges then come back empty, get filled up, get emptied, get filled up, and, well, this goes on all day for three or four days, with two teams working twelve hour shifts. [ Loading barrels into the Shackleton's lower hold ] [ Sending gas stillages to Halley ] [ Jim and his Sno-Cat, loaded with waste ] Once the Shackleton is unloaded, waste from the winter gets sent back from Halley and is loaded into the holds. All the time we're also shuttling five tonne tanks of Avtur back and forth to top up the bulk fuel storage containers at Halley. Eventually the Shackleton is done and, just when we thought it might be safe to have a day off, another ship appears. The Amderma (or MOTHERSHIP) has been specially chartered to bring in the bits of the new Halley base, imaginatively titled "Halley VI". Unloading this took a long time as there was so much stuff. Worst of all, only a couple of BAS people had been on board the Amderma, so from our vantage point on the ice all we saw was a stream of cargo appearing from her hold, with no idea of when it might all finish. [ Amderma moored up by the ice ] [ Halley VI module frame unloading ] Sometimes we had to wait a while before a load was ready to come out of the hold of the Amderma, so Tom, the cadet, and I, filled the time by building a passable igloo to shelter in. Should I ever find myself in need of an emergency shelter in snowy climes I will do my utmost to have a tent with me but, should that fail, and if I have three hours to spare, I could now just about manage to create a structure that doesn't fall down straight away. [ Amderma disappears in rubbish weather ] [ Constructing the igloo ] [ Tom leaves the finished igloo ] In between all this work happening Christmas day passed without really being noticed and New Year's Day crept up on us. Even though I'd just finished a long shift working outside I decided to celebrate by going ice climbing on the edge of the shelf with one of the GAs. We went out just after nine in the evening and came in as the night cargo shift were eating their lunch a bit after one. Ice climbing for me is one of those things I only enjoy once I've finished, as the process of heaving yourself up a flaky shear face is distinctly painful. Still, I think [...]

Preparing for Relief

Mon, 07 Jan 2008 23:00:00 GMT

Before we unloaded our ships (and before I flew to the Theron Range) we had to do some work to prepare a route from the ocean to the shelf. This year we were lucky as most but not all of the fast ice had blown away, leaving a strip about a kilometer wide hugging the cliffs along the coast of Halley. The ice had been there for two years, so was super-thick, and there was already the start of a good ramp which we could use to get vehicles on and off the ice.

The vehicles team spent a few days bulldozing the snow on the ramp into something a little less steep, and groomed the route between Halley and the ramp with a heavy contraption that compacts the snow to make a better driving surface. My contribution came a little later as I used a portable radar to profile the ice and snow underneath the route to ensure that there were no huge holes waiting to swallow up our precious cargo.

The radar works by firing bursts of energy down into the snow then listening for echoes to bounce back. We get echoes where the structure of the snow changes. Either from snow to ice, or, more worryingly, from snow to air (a crevasse!). Burried barrels show up very well and the level at which the sea soaks into the ice shelf produces a strong response as compacted snow and salty slush are very different from one another.

Luckily we only found holes where we expected them, and those were burried deeply under a few meters of snow, so the load of any passing vehicles would be spread far enough that there was no danger of collapse. As I was due to spend the next few weeks driving up and down the ramp, this was good news...

[ Emperor on the ice ]

[ The ramp from the ice edge ]

[ Wind blown folds of snow ]

[ Mel and Ben help me GPR the ramp ]

As well as work profiling the ramp, I also inspected the sea ice for cracks, but found that the GPR got too confused and couldn't be used to tell the different between cracks and places where lumps of ice had been gathered on top of the sea ice but beneath the layer of snow covering it. In the end we resorted to the tried and tested method of digging a few holes. After digging through two meters of soft but solid snow we reached a thin layer of salty water mixed with snow crystals, beneath this was solid grey ice that extended deeper than we could drill, and probably for five or so meters beneath sea level. Strong enough to support the odd 18 tonne crane, anyway.

Theron Mountains

Fri, 04 Jan 2008 23:00:00 GMT

Along with the radars, thermometers and twirly wind measuring devices that live at the base all year, Halley is also used to support experiments scattered over the sector of Antarctica between us and the Pole. Magnetic and weather measurements are made by automated stations that need to be serviced during the summer. To reach these remote outposts airplanes have to burn a lot of fuel, so we also maintain a few depots of barrels to allow longer flights, and to allow flights with less weight in the airplane. These depots are nothing more than a bunch of drums left on the snow and a GPS position, so each year someone has to go out to check they haven't moved and dig them back up onto the surface. On what I thought would be my last day at Halley I was grabbed at breakfast and told to have a shovel ready at the skiway in thirty minutes. Packing that, and some lunch and coffee, I headed out for a little adventure in our big red taxi. Actually quite small by the standards of, say, a DC3 or the monster Hercules transports the USAP use, our Twin Otters are closer to being a transit van with wings bolted on, but they can land anywhere, and usually only need about a hundred meters of clear ground to do so, so we like them. While we call these "co-pilot" flights, I'm not really there to fly, but to be an extra person in the event of some problem with the aircraft as camping in the Antarctic on your own is a somewhat foolish thing to be doing. Also, no one wants to dig holes by themselves. Despite my mostly advisory role, I do get to sit next to the pilot and this time, after take off at least, I got to fly the plane. It's tricky to both maintain altitude and direction against wind drift, and still harder not to fall asleep with the gentle rocking of the machine and the heat of the sun through the scratched cockpit glass. Close by Halley during our ascent there are lots of features in the ice as it falls off the continent, so it's easy to gain a feel of motion and to place myself in the space above the ground. Further out there's nothing but ice forever, with a milky blur at its edge smudging the brilliant white snow into the deep blue sky, so even the horizon is hard to hold, and I have a go at instrument flying to keep us on course. [ Antarctica gives you wings ] [ Approaching the Theron range ] [ Avtur for the depot ] I managed to not do too badly, after an hour of nothing much, we first spot a dirty blue bump on the horizon, still over a hundred and fifty miles before the GPS position of the depot (ok, so I had a GPS to tell me where to go, this isn't cheating anymore), this slowly expands over the next hour of flying and resolves into a line of black dots, stretches along the horizon as black smears then balloons into hard hills, like the jawbone and teeth of some enormous predator, tearing a shred out of the edge of space. Closer still I start to descend (you do this by turning the engines off, almost) and the range reveals layer upon layer of multicoloured rocks, stacked perfectly level, running from one peak of the range to the next, lines laid down in an ancient era alternate ordered stripes with the chaos of ice falls filling the valleys. Towering buttresses wear skirts of scree, each holding the same angles and lines, like architecture, making the whole look like some crumbling cathedral. I hand back over to Mark, the real pilot, and he lands beneath the mountains by our barrels and we step out and dig for a bit, swinging our pickaxe in the sun, stopping between barrels to admire the view. After an hour or so we're done and stop for a picnic with the most breathtaking view in the world. The range is small, with only a handful of peaks, but we can see every outcrop. The scale though is immense, nothing else can distract from the simple forms on display, no views off down valleys beneath us, no foothills rolling of into the distance, no dark ranges to draw the eye. Somehow this sums up the Antarctic: it isolates things, peo[...]


Sat, 22 Dec 2007 23:00:00 GMT

I've had my last few days at Halley, which were pretty busy with packing, preparation for relief, and a cheeky flight to the Therons, possibly the most beautiful mountains in the world. I've moved onto the Shackleton now where I'll be living for the duration of the Halley relief (about a week) and the Halley VI cargo input (another two or three weeks) then sailing away to Cape Town. I'll write up the interesting stuff later, but for now an arty shot of the ship, and a warning that my email address at Halley won't work very well anymore, so people should send things to my usual address.

[ Shackleton Bridge ]

Snow Sampling

Fri, 14 Dec 2007 23:00:00 GMT

Well, the ceaseless winds and endless nights of white did, in the end, relent. After a week of having to find work to do indoors but having lots of work to do outdoors I get to feeling very cooped up indeed. Cooped up to the point that I volunteer to dig the melt tank, or go for a ski in a 30 knot blizzard with just enough visibility to see two or three drums of the perimeter ahead. In winds like that you can't really ski, as any glide instantly gets knocked back by a gust, but it's nicer to walk with sticks on my feet over the soft heaps of fresh snow than wade through them in my mukluk boots.

The good weather was essential for one job we'd had lined up for a while, digging and sampling the snow that had fallen at Halley over the last year or so. Every couple of months one of these holes has been dug by the met team, and I helped them out for the final hole of the year. It's important for ice core scientists to understand how snow that falls is transformed into snow that gets squeezed into ice and so into ice cores. As it settles on the ground various gases, salts and dust particles are trapped in the gaps between the snow flakes. After a while chemical reactions might cause changes in these gases. Eventually, after enough snow has fallen, the trapped gases form bubbles in ice cores or dissolve into the ice. As we know the current conditions at Halley through measurements of atmospheric gases by the CASLab, we have a chance to follow the processes that occur in the snow as it compacts.

Halley gets a lot more snow than the places where most ice cores are taken from. We have something like a meter a year, while many ice core locations only get a couple of centimeters, but the general principles will be the same. Understanding the snow at Halley will help us calibrate ice cores elsewhere in Antarctica, and so make deductions about previous climates with confidence.

To do this, of course, you need some snow. More than that, you need some snow that hasn't been contaminated by anything that wasn't there when it fell. We get this by maintaining a clean air sector which is isolated from the rest of the base and so less likely to be polluted by vehicle emmisions. When we dig the hole we take a huge amount of care to keep our equipment and ourselves from getting anything into the samples. First we wear barrier suits, face masks, and four layers of plastic gloves. Second we clean everything: shovels, saws and boots all get wiped down with isopropanol in a clean cupboard. Finally, we try not to sneeze while we're digging.

[ Suiting up for science ]

Having dug a hole a couple of meters down, we carefully prepare one wall, then push small ultra clean sample vials into the snow every two centimeters. These trap the snow at that layer, then get sealed with caps, put in a sealed bag, then put into another sealed bag. All along we take great care not to get any flakes of snow into the sample that shouldn't be in it. Eventually these samples will get shipped (still frozen) back to the UK where they will be analysed by BAS chemists.

[ Tamsin takes the 10cm sample ]

[ I end up doing the ones at the bottom of the hole ]

Taking the samples is a bit of a faff (opening plastic ziplock bags with plastic gloves is painfully frustrating), and it takes the best part of a day, but as my job mostly features computers and complicated electronics that blast invisible waves at elemental particles hovering somewhere at the edge of space it's satisfying to do something a little more tangible from time to time.

Ceaseless Winds

Tue, 11 Dec 2007 23:00:00 GMT

Well, first of all, dinner went well. Thirty three people were fed and even the yorkshire puddings rose at the right time, even if one or two rose to an unseemly size and tried to escape to a different shelf of the oven. I was certainly glad to get it over with, and a little disappointed to find that I wasn't even vaguely hungry at dinner time. If nothing else I now know I can fall back to cooking pub lunches. After the stress of the cooking, came some relaxation. Soft snow lay on the ground and filled in the gaps between the bumps and ridges. Skidoos were started, ropes attached, skis secured and helmets hoisted onto heads. Skijoering is back for the summer and the gradient-starved residents of Halley get a chance to carve tight turns in fresh powder, and feel the speed of the skis on the snow. We get it a bit with the kites, and I think I've pushed faster with a kite than I like to go behind skidoo, but the different direction of the force lets me ski more like skiing. It does quickly drain the strength from my legs and arms, and after a couple of turns around I need to stop for a rest, if I've not flipped over and skidded into a pile of arms and legs and snow first. When we're not getting towed we can instead enjoy the thrilling experience of photographing the action one handed while trying not to be thrown from the weaving bucking back of the machine. [ Tamsin Skijoers like a deamon ] More and more people pile into the station. They're here to work, but Z or Dead, the band I've been pretending to play in all winter, is here to entertain them. As we expect the pace of work to pick up next week (from the 12 hours shifts were working now...) we thought we'd throw a party and took over the garage for our final farewell concert. After three albums (Frosty Reception, The Road to Rehab, AEP: All of the Paperwork none of the Pension) which were popular with the critics (Q: Without a doubt the second loudest band in Antarctica) and loved by the public (...better than the band at Rothera) we decided that setting the controls for the middle of the road had run its course and will each set off on a solo journey to rediscover the true African roots that underlie the subtle tones of sleazy 80s big-hair power ballards. The garage worked well as a venue as it let everyone who wasn't into noise get some sleep, and added an interesting industrial ambience to the procedings. DJ Tom played us in with a bout of German Techno and literally one person danced like nobody was watching as we launched into the touching and tender Canadian folk classic "Run to You". Yes, we rocked. Oh! Boy! Did we rock. [ Tom opens ] [ Z or Dead play the Garage ] [ ZStock Flyer ] (Art by Dave and Joe.) We've around sixty people here now, so we've got a whole lot done, except that now the wind has risen and left sixty people kicking their heels waiting for a chance to use a crane or knock over some snow with a bulldozer. In some ways the winds we're having are helpful as they'll be breaking up the coastal ice near Halley, making it less likely that the Shackleton will get stuck in a lump of the stuff like it did last year. Beyond getting in the way of work, it's main bad side is that it might blow away too much of the sea ice. Ideally there'll be a fringe a couple of kilometers thick left clinging to the ice cliffs, as none of the usual ice harbours are large enough to fit the Anderma, which will be offloading Halley VI once it arrives. Everyone here is waiting nervously for the weather to settle and hoping that the plan we had last week might still work next week. [ Skidoos parked in Ceaseless Winds ] [ Endless Snow blows over sledges ] [ White ] We're not just worried about the ice near the station though, there's quite a lot of it still bobbing around in the sea around the continent and, compared with previous years, quite a lot of the stuff that might have melted or brok[...]

Penetrating the depths while photographing penguins

Sun, 25 Nov 2007 23:00:00 GMT

One of the enjoyable aspects of the UAV project is that we must fly the instruments over the sea ice. It happens that we do this at a location which is close to a colony of many thousands of penguins. We don't actually fly over the birds, of course, but once we've drained every battery we can't fly the plane any more and might as well head onto the sea ice to see the Emperors.

The access to the ice is simple, one covered crevasse to cross at the edge of the shelf and a steep but walkable slope to thump down. We tie onto a rope just in case but don't expect to need it. The penguins first notice us as we set up the anchors, and a few leave the closest group to investigate. We quickly head down to the ice, our boots passing through the soft surface of the slope and bed down in the older, harder snow just below, like walking down a spongy staircase flowing with a thick layer of mist.

The penguins are spread out, with groups formed for two miles or so along the cliffs. In the distance the odd bird can be seen walking on its own. A steady traffic of adults and chicks crosses from clump to clump. The chicks are large enough to live out by themselves but still need to be fed by their parents as they cannot enter the ocean until they've shed their downy feathers and replaced them with the shinier swimming feathers of the adults.

The chicks and adults are incredibly friendly. They eye you up as you approach, and get a bit bothered if you walk too close, but if I set myself down at the edge of a cluster and wait for half an hour the more curious will waddle or slide over and eye me up before nonchalantly turning their backs and walking off again.

[ Many chicks and adult emperors ]

[ A posing emperor puffs out his chest ]

[ A chick hides behind an adult ]

[ Chick comes out ]

[ Chick tap-dancing ]

[ Chick asking for a feed ]

[ Emperor penguin stares me out ]

[ Emperor chick doing yoga ]

[ Chick asks for food ]

[ Emperor check gets fed ]

[ Fluffy down on an emperor chick ]

[ Me and a friend, a GPR sledge in the distance ]

Sat, 24 Nov 2007 23:00:00 GMT

It's been eventful at Halley this month. Fresh people and fresh food arrived on the 1st of November. According to tradition the Enterprise Air Basler arrived in the early hours of the morning, so that tired passengers and pilots were met by tired but enthusiastic winterers. Unusually, the plane left some BAS people here, so we've entered a weird sort of half summer. It's good having a few more people around, although they made the mistake of arriving just as our chef was off on his winter trip, so spent their first few days at Halley being fed by volunteer cooks. All the eating was good, though, and every meal was improved by the addition of crunchy lettuce, wet slices of cucumber and crisp apples. We even had a fresh bottle of ketchup (we ran out a couple of months back) which was almost as popular as the produce. [ Halley winterers wait for fresh faces ] [ Basler (DC3) landing at Halley ] A new month meant there were a whole new set of experiments to turn off and pack up. The magnetometers (very accurate electronic compasses) and rhiometers (noise antennas that listen to the background emisions of the galaxy and see how the changes in ionosphere absorb the signal) have been pulled up out of their tunnel, and the science alarm has finally been turned off and thrown into the recycling bin. A happy day for me, as it's woken me up more times than I care to remember. It's still an odd feeling emptying my offices and labs, and the place looks a little sad without its beeping and humming instruments. [ My office empties ] [ The VLF lab is emptied ] As we approach December we start to think about relief, especially as we're hoping to have a ship at Halley half way through the month. Recently we've enjoyed some windy weather which, when it broke, revealed the happy sight of fluffy clouds on the northern horizon. These clouds are formed by strong convection of moist air, which down here means that there must be some open water lying around. The strong winds have probably pushed the sea ice away from the Stancombe-Wills ice tongue to our west and left the sea clear for a short while to heat the air and belch out steam from its surface. Last year the Shackleton was delayed by thick old ice around the edge of the Stamcombe-Wills, so this early breakout is a good sign for the summer season. The sea will freeze back over quickly, but not nearly as thickly as before. [ Fluffy clouds, probably from broken up sea ice ] Aside from packing, at which I am now very good indeed, I've been assisting with our programme of UAV flying. We've recently taken the tiny plane away from the base to the caboose at Windy Bay and have sent it on a number of flights over the shelf and sea ice. To get the maximum number of flights in we've been forced to spend a night or two out at the caboose, during which Tom has taught the UAV team a number of very odd German card games which involve a lot of counting and having cards in the wrong order. We've even been able to squeeze in a trip to the penguins and a GPR survey of the route down onto the sea ice, about which I shall write in a day or two. Expect cute chicks. [ Sno-cat kitted up to travel, with sun pillar ] [ Slumming it for science ] [ Tom prepares the UAV for a flight ] [ UAV landing on the shelf ice ] Yesterday we were called back from the caboose as the next lot of incoming people were due later that day. We've now got about four million people on the station, and the Laws building has pretty much everyone sharing rooms. Some of the fresh lot are here to start their winters, and it's been good fun getting to know them, and showing them around the place, then hiding from time to time when the crowds get a little too busy for me. I've also been put on Sunday cook for tomorrow, so somehow have to feed the army that has arrived. Let's hope they all like eatin[...]

The sun is getting his hat on

Mon, 29 Oct 2007 23:00:00 GMT

Time marches on at Halley, winds thump through the station, the sky clears and the sun emerges. I've just done my last stretch of night watch, which at the moment isn't really about darkness. The sun has one or two trips below the horizon to complete before we're into the full swing of summer. It's very odd, though, still, being the only one awake, feeling tired, and seeing so much daylight flooding the white world outside.

I used my time well, unpacking the remnants of the food from the last summer, perfecting the art of making pizzas, doing a bit of woodwork, and generally mulling over the shape of the future. As long as you can avoid feeling lonely nightwatch is something of a holiday, a relaxing break from the normal routine and for me a chance to chill out before launching into the hectic last few months of packing up and shipping out.

The weather feels like it's broken now, with long spells of sunny days drifting around the minus fifteen or minus ten mark. It's warm enough to head out in shorts, or to take long afternoon skis to the far flung landmarks of the base. While a trip to a pair of barrels four kilometers away might not sound very interesting, it isn't. But it is a little bit different to a trip around a ring of drums that are only a kilometer from anything, and that's really the thing that matters, an injection of variety and a slightly different view of everything. In fact, my last long ski was on a day with heavy miraging, when layers in the lower atmosphere bend light that skims the snow, which contrived to hide the base from view, making for a very erie experience until I headed a little closer and instead saw everything stretched to four times its proper height.

[ Curly wurly clouds over the riometers ]

The weather was so good, one day, that everyone but the gash person managed to find something to be getting on with, treating us to the unusual sight of a nearly empty signing out board...

[ Everyone out ]

[ Almost but not quite entirely unlike night ]

The almost but not quite setting sun casts a wonderful quality of light outside. The snow burns with orange edges and throws hard shadows against the warm wood of the buildings.

[ Drill and shadow ]

[ Glacier outside my office ]

[ Glacier in the window ]

We're expecting the first load of Other People in the next week, along with Fresh Food and, if we're lucky, New Jokes. Everyone is very excited about the prospect of a Stranger to talk to, even if it does mean we have to tidy away all the mess we've accumulated over the winter...