Summer Fun

Once the sun has returned to Halley, things start to get very busy again. All the outdoor work we have been saving up for when it is more appropriate weather outside for vehicles, etc., can begin, and the chance of incoming flights means more people on station. However, I’m going to skip the work part of summer until the next post, and show for now some of what we get up to in our spare time.

The big advantage of warmer weather and sun and access to vehicles is that we have much more opportunity to get off base. So of course, first on the agenda was another trip to the penguin colony.

It was very interesting to see the chicks again and see how much they had grown from our last visit a couple of months before. We ended up going back at the start of December, and found that the vast area sea ice seen previously had completely broken up and blown out. This was very different from last year, when the RSS Ernest Shackleton visited Windy Creek at Christmas time and found the sea ice intact. All that was left of the colony were a few penguins swimming, and a few chicks stranded on the cliff face. While the adults will not have been affected by this, it is likely that many chicks had not yet grown their full waterproof coat. Hopefully there were enough larger ice floes formed as the ice broke up.

As well as penguin trips, we also visited the coast to do a bit of ice climbing. We would set up anchors and ropes on the cliff tops, and then belay each other as we attempted to climb with crampons and ice axes. There were some more gentle routes for practice, but also a couple that awkward parts, a bit of an overhang, etc. It was pretty difficult and very tiring! On one trip, we also found an Adélie Penguin camping out in a cave under the cliff, clearly enjoying the rather nice views out to sea.

Trips of base take a lot of planning and preparation. We have to make sure we have enough emergency equipment and food for all those going, even though we only ever leave base when the weather looks good. We also have to make sure that there is enough Search and Rescue cover on base, and persuade a vehicle mechanic to get up very early to start a sno-cat for us. All this has to be done on Sunday, the one day off we get a week during summer, and so we were incredibly grateful to the Field Assistants and vehicle mechanics that made it possible.

Much of the time, we would have to entertain ourselves around base. In good weather, this was easy enough, with skiing, running, kiting and skijoring being our favourite activities. I did try kiting, but wasn’t particularly good. I’m not good enough on skis, and so mostly ended up being dragged around face down. Skijoring (being towed behind a skidoo), however, was easier to pick up and good practice. While I was still pretty unstable and liable to fall over for no reason, I did actually manage to land a quite few jumps on the huge (small) kicker we built. I was very proud.


Halley VI Tour

As I am now very close to having been here at Halley VI for a full year, I thought it was about time I gave a little bit of a ‘tour’ around the station. First off, below is an excellent map of the station that Christoph created from a satellite photo (which you can also see in extremely high resolution here). I also would like to credit James ‘Doc’ and Agnieszka (base commander) for lending me their fancy cameras and lenses so I can take these photos, as I have managed to damage my camera…
Halley VI Base MapAs you can see, the main base consists of 8 modules. B1 and B2 are the accommodation modules, containing 16 bedrooms, or ‘pit rooms’ as they are known. Each pit room sleeps two people, but it is only over summer that we need to share. B1 and B2 also house the shower rooms and a ‘quiet’ room/library. The accommodation modules were designed to help the winterers have a little bit of work/life separation when our places of work are just a few meters away. The small touches, such as having a carpet and a different colour scheme, work surprisingly well as there is a different feel inside these modules.

The C (for ‘Command’) module contains the communications office with its fancy radios and the like, the base commanders office, the doctor’s surgery, and the main entrance and boot room, where we keep all our outdoor kit.

Next along, we have the A module, apparently called the ‘Robert Falcon Scott’ module, although we don’t tend to give it its full title often. This is our main living area, including the kitchen and dining room, the bar/lounge area, and also a gym and TV room upstairs.

The E1 and E2 (‘Energy’) modules contain most of the services for the station, and are nearly mirror images of each other. Each has a generator room with two generators, and large fuel and water tanks. E1 also has the fire pump room, which would activate in the event of a fire and pump very high pressure water through sprinklers to create a fine mist in the location of the fire. E2 has a sewage treatment plant, which processes all our waste to leave just grey water which can safely be disposed of (dumped deep down in the ice). The two E modules are separated by a bridge which acts as a fire break. The idea is that one side of the base could burn down, and we could still live in the other. This might technically be possible, but I don’t imagine it would be much fun.

Lastly, the two H modules house all the science related things. There is an office in H1 where I work with the other science engineer, the meteorological scientist, and the data manager. Our electronics and mechanical labs are both in H2, and the panoramic window you can see above H2 is the ‘met observatory’, where all the weather observations and measurements are taken. We also take ozone measurements using a Dobson Spectrometer in the observatory; this is same type of instrument that first revealed the ozone hole back in 1985.

You can see some more, much better, photos of the base and the interior in this photoshoot. These were taken by a professional architecture photographer, and make the base look much fancier than mine do!

The next largest parts of the station are the garage and the Drewry. These are very similar building outside, but inside the garage has space for services the large vehicles we have on station, whereas the Drewry contains accommodation for a further 20 people during the summer. As you can see from the photo of the Drewry, a significant windscoop forms around it. Every year the building has to be moved out of its hole back onto the surface. This is done by winching them out with two bulldozers, which are anchored by two tractors and two Nodwell cranes. Another bulldozer pushes from the back.

Due to the very low temperatures over winter, most of the vehicles cannot be used. For much of the time, we only have one bulldozer available, and try to use it as little as possible. The rest of the vehicles are stored on the vehicle line, which is simply a few meter high mound built each summer. Even on top of this, the vehicles are still nearly getting buried by the time it is warm enough to take them to the garage and get them running again.The modules themselves also create a very large windtail, that has now become higher than the modules themselves. It is impressive to think that this has built up from almost perfectly flat at the end of last summer, and hard to imagine how even two PistenBullies and a number of bulldozers could ever make it reasonably flat again.
Further afield, we have all the science experiments in various ‘cabooses’ (yellow, refitted shipping containers). The CASLab (Clean Air Sector Laboratory) is sited to the south, well away from the station and in the middle of a no-vehicles zone. This monitors many particles and gasses in the very clean Antarctic air. The two radars I am looking after are to the south-west, with some very fancy electronics inside.
Finally, moving back inside briefly, below is a photo of the most important shelf on station. I am very blessed by and very grateful for all those who gave me cards and letters as I left for me to open and read throughout the year. They have been brilliantly encouraging (and often amusing) to read, and have become some of my most treasured possessions.Letters

The Rumples

With summer fast approaching, the time came for the second round of winter training trips. This time, Ian, Christoph and I headed to ‘The Rumples’. This is an area where the normally floating iceshelf has grounded on a high bit of the sea bed. This are gets stuck (or at least very slowed down), whilst the rest of the sheet wants to keep flowing at the normal rate of a few hundred meters per year. Huge pressure builds up, and the result is an area full of crevasses, creeks, wide chasms and jumbled ice blocks.

We were the first trip to go out after winter, and this was very much apparent in the weather. We were very fortunate to avoid the forecast high winds and snow that would have forced up to lie up in the tent for a couple of days, but it was very cold! The temperature didn’t get above -30°C until our last day out, with the average being around -35°C. For the first two nights, the temperature dropped to -40°C.

When we are in the tent in the morning and evening, we have the Tilly lamp and Primus stove to warm things up a bit. When it so cold outside, it doesn’t exactly get cosy, but it does get above 0°C. At night, we have to turn the lamp and stove off, so inside becomes the same temperature as outside. We stayed warm enough in our sleeping bags, but oddly we were all woken up at different times with really cold noses! Ian has a great technique for using one arm to light the stove and cook porridge so we can all stay in our sleeping bags until things have warmed up a touch. One problem was that condensation from our breath overnight would freeze onto our sleeping bags, and then when we got the temperature above freezing, it would make everything damp. The same happened with the walls of the tent, except here when it re-froze, we ended up with a 2-3mm layer of ice on the walls of our tent.

We spent our time exploring the features. We climbed down into a narrow chasm that opened up massively as we walked down it. At the end, the terrain suddenly went from extremely flat to a mass of broken, jumbled lumps of ice.On another day, we headed to the ‘rise’ of the rumples, an area where all the ice is pushed up above the normal level of the icesheet. This was particularly difficult going, the whole place was littered with crevasses of different sizes. Some were easy to spot and could be stepped over, some we found accidentally as a leg disappeared, and some were a lot wider, but seemed to have strong ice bridges we could use to cross them.We had hoped to use the last couple of days of our trip to go back to visit the penguins. Unfortunately, the day we packed up camp and headed to the colony, the clouds thickened and reduced the contrast. We couldn’t see any features on the ground, despite it being quite bumpy. By the time we have got half way (about 15km), we had rolled the sledges over 4 times, and were making slow progress. The weather was just getting worse, so we decided to head back, but not before a walk on the sea ice around a headland. The next two days brought the storm that had so kindly held off for us, so had we been out we would have been stuck all day in the tents anyway.

So all in all, we had another fantastic trip. It was made all the better by the knowledge that we were the first people to go anywhere but the edges of the rumples in a few years – made it feel like real exploring. It was another reminder of how blessed I am to be here and to have this job.

Windy Creek

Now that the sun has returned, it is a bit easier to do things outside. Top of our to-do list was visiting Windy Creek, where an Emperor penguin colony spends the winter. Windy Creek is about 35km from the base, so getting there requires skidoos but these are only usable above -35°C. We also needed the wind to be low as we would be going on to the sea ice. It is extremely unlikely the sea ice would break away so early after winter, but better to be safe.

The right weather came just before the bank holiday, so Ian (climbing/Antarctic expert) lead Christoph, Doc and myself off early in the morning. When we started, it was only just above -35. When you combine this with 30 knots of wind chill from driving the skidoos, it makes for a very cold journey. As you can see from Christoph posing with one of our Nansen sledges, we were very well dressed up.

Christoph by a Nansen Sledge as we set off

Christoph by a Nansen Sledge as we set off

For example, I was wearing; Thermal trousers, wool socks, thermal top, thin fleece, fleece salopettes, thick fleece, ventile salopettes, ventile ‘windy’ jacket, sportiva boots, down salopettes, down jacket, thin gloves, outer gloves, fleece buff, normal buff, wool hat, silk balaclava, neoprene skidoo mask, skidoo helmet, and a climbing harness. It takes a while to get dressed.

Actually, the temperature kept rising throughout the day to about -25°C when we got back. This was good while we were at the penguins, we could lounge around, take our time and our batteries would last more than 20 minutes, but we were sweating by the time we got home!

But enough of that, how about some photos of penguins?

The colony has already broken the tight huddle they would have stayed in all winter. You can also see a train of penguins coming round the headland, which are possibly still the females returning with some ‘fresh’ food for the chicks.

As soon as we arrived at the top of the cliffs, a stream of penguins started making its way over from the closest bunch, and very soon there were a few hundred at the base of the cliffs as a reception committee. It is amazing how curious and brave they are, even the ones with chicks. They have no hesitations approaching within just a few meters, especially if you sit or kneel down. If you move quickly, they will all scatter, only to return again as soon as they have regained their courage. The adolescents are particularly brave, and somewhat annoying – a pack will often follow you round getting in the way of all your photos of chicks!

The chicks are still far too small to leave the warmth of their parents feet, and most of the time they are hidden underneath. You can always tell which adults have chicks by how slowly and carefully they walk – the slightest bump becomes a major obstacle. It took some patience to see the chicks. Most of the time, you would here some cheeping, but couldn’t see the source before they were hidden away again. But I did manage to get some pictures…

We stayed at the colony for a couple of hours, mostly just to enjoy the time and take photographs. Part of the justification for the trip was also to collect samples for scientific analysis, to see how their diet has been this year and similar things. In such a large colony, there are quite a few chicks that don’t survive long. We collected a number of these, now a sad looking block of ice, to return to base for samples to be taken. Particularly sad were adults trying to encourage recently dead chicks back unto their feet. But for the most part, the colony is looking very healthy, although without doing a quick head count it is hard to tell how large it is this year.

Christoph and I will be back to visit the penguins in just a couple of weeks as part of our second winter training trip. It will be interesting to see the chicks at different stages of development, and I will probably post some photos as they get larger. You can’t have too many penguin photos!

The second half of winter

As the sun started to get closer to the horizon, we were treated to a few hours of sunset (or sunrise?) each day. Depending on the weather, it was either very dark and cloudy outside, or there were spectacular skies – hence this post being filled with so many sunset and silhouette photos, there wasn’t much else to photograph!

The weather has been relatively poor for most of winter, with many very cloudy and windy days. We did not reach -50 degrees Celsius this year (our minimum was only -48, or -62 with wind chill), but we had a recent Halley record of 70 knot winds, with gusts up to about 85 knots. When the winds are high, the base rocks about, and travel is restricted. We cannot cross the bridge, as even in 35 knots it is hard to keep your footing; we nearly lost our generator mechanic when he had to cross to check on a generator alarm and a particularly strong gust caught him! In more gentle winds, the blowing and drifting snow can be quite pretty.

As we got closer to the return of the sun, the weather improved somewhat, with more frequent clear days. This gives us a wonderful view of the stars and Milky Way, and we have seen some bigger auroras. We have missed out on some of the best due to cloud cover, frustratingly knowing they are happening from the science equipment but being unable to see them. But the ones we have seen have still being very impressive and beautiful, so no complaints!

When the sky is clear, this almost invariable means it is very cold. Taking photos outside in these conditions is hard on cameras, with my camera batteries usually lasting just a few minutes. Eyes can also start freezing shut when you blink, too.

Soon enough, the constant dark was ending. It was very surprising how quickly the light came back even before the sun was close to rising. For the first time we could see the size of the snow hills formed behind the base, which are now almost at the height of the roofs.

The sun actually rose above the horizon on the 11th August, but we were in the middle of a blow and couldn’t see it at all. On the 14th, the skies cleared and we watched the sun rise for the first time in 108 days. We had the traditional flag raising ceremony, where the youngest person on base runs up a new flag which remains until the sun goes down. Unfortunately, this year that was me, and I had to give a speech. Fortunately, it was -46 with windchill, and so I could make it very brief! I had to uncover my mouth to speak and got a little bit of frost nip for my troubles.

I have been surprised what a difference the sun has made. I wasn’t particularly missing it and was enjoying the constant darkness, but once it was visible again I realised how nice it is to see it, and to see everything lit by it. The mood on base has definitely lifted a little, and we have a good few months ahead of us as the second round of winter trips are soon to start.

The first half of winter

On the 30th April, the sun was above the horizon for the last time for around 100 days. We had a little celebration, with a speech from Ian (our oldest winterer) as he lowered the remains of the flag, and some quickly thickening Champagne.

As the sun got lower and lower in the proceeding weeks, we were treated to days of beautiful sunsets and glowing skies. Now, we are in the middle of the winter, with 24hrs of darkness. We celebrated mid-winters day on the 21st June, consuming a huge amount of excellent food (about 20 courses throughout the day) and exchanging gifts we had spent the first half of winter making. The quality of these gifts was outstanding, including a handmade pocket knife, a clock engraved with a map of Antarctica which also shows the position of the sun, and a wood model of the main module containing two shot glasses turned on the lathe.

This last weekend we celebrated Ian’s birthday with a BBQ in the garage and a skidoo trial course. This was a lot of fun, and involved more rolling of skidoos than seemed safe. We also had some drinks in the snow cave we dug, about 3 meters below the surface.

The last couple of months have had some of the worst weather recorded here for a while. We had hurricane force winds on two occasions, and in June alone there was roughly 30 cm of snow accumulation, and much higher around buildings and structures. As the winds pick up, it becomes much harder to get out and about, for work or for leisure. Part of my responsibilities are the Optical Caboose (a caboose is simply a shipping container fitted out to contain experiments, or sometimes for accommodation) and the SuperDARN and MF radars, all of which are around 1 km from the station. On a clear day, it is easy to ski or walk to these, but when the wind picks up, blowing snow significantly reduces visibility. Below is a picture of the base taken from near the Optical Caboose, on a day with quite light blowing snow. When the wind increases to 30 kts (above which we tend to avoid travelling outside unless absolutely necessary), the same picture would show just a few of the flags. Now it is fully dark, you can see even less.

These flag lines mark routes to and between cabooses so that we can find our way there and back when the visibility is poor. Even this becomes difficult at times. In the worst weather I have been out in, it was rare to be able to see even to the next flag, only 10-15 meters away. Often I had to set out to where I knew the next flag should be, making sure I didn’t lose sight of the flag I left before I caught sight of the one I was headed too. Losing the flag line and getting disorientated would be pretty serious, so it was an interesting trip round the cabooses.

Base in blowing snow

Base in blowing snow

As I mentioned before, buildings and structures cause a much faster build up of snow than occurs in open spaces. In the two pictures below, you can see a little how much is building up around the station. These were taken over a month ago, and after such high accumulation in June, the mounds in front and behind the station are far higher. The area under the base is kept clear by the shape of the modules, which cause wind to accelerate under it and clear away fresh snow.

The last couple of months have been exceptionally stormy and cloudy, with seemingly very few days with clear skies. However, we have seen one or two auroras, of varying strength. Below are pictures of the best one I have seen yet, although by Halley standards we can still hope for much more impressive ones in the second half of winter.

Winter Trip

Campsite in the Hinge Zone

Campsite in the Hinge Zone

At the start and end of the winter, when the weather is not too cold, we all get to go out on Winter Trips. This is partly in lieu of holiday, but mostly to train us in how to survive in the field; how to stay safe, how to rescue people out of crevasses, how to cook man-food, and so on. This allows us to be sent out to remote places to look after experiments or support scientists who need to do research out in the field.

Ian, our Field Assistant (an expert in all things outdoors and Antarctic), takes us out in pairs for 5 days of camping and exploring. I went with Christoph Larndorfer, the other engineer, and for this trip we went to the Hinge Zone. This is the place where the floating Brunt Ice Shelf meets the continent, resulting in lots of nice features, such as hills/bergs, chasms and crevasses.

As you can see from the picture of our campsite (above), we stay in a Pyramid tent, also known as a Scott tent because they are based on the design used by Scott, with surprisingly few modifications. All our cooking was done on a Primus stove, and we spent a significant amount of time melting snow for drinking and rehydrating food with. With the stove and a Tilly lamp going, it can get nice and warm in the tent, but when these are turned off at night, it gets cold. Despite having the warmest weather of all the trips, even on ours the temperature at night got below -20 ° C inside the tent.

As always, we carry everything on two Nansen sledges (also a traditional design – almost entirely wood and rope). We take enough stuff to be able to survive comfortably for over a month, just in case we are caught in bad weather and cannot return to base.

The first stop on our trip was a place called Aladdin’s Cave. There is not much of a cave anymore, but it was still a good spot for exploring.

Another day, we visited Stony Berg, so-called because it has some gravel and actual stones dotted over it – a very rare sight around here! They would have been stuck in the bottom of the berg, and at some point the berg will have rolled over due to the movement of the ice, exposing the stones. We also spent a day skidooing as far south as we could get – easier said than done due to the network of crevasses, bergs and cliffs. As everything is white, it is hard to pick a route even on the brightest of days.

We ‘found’ many little crevasses like the one above when skiing around, mostly when our ski poles disappeared down, they were usually indistinguishable for solid ground. For the most part, they were narrow and only around one meter deep. This is why skis were so handy, on foot one leg would disappear. This was not dangerous, but you could quickly run out of clean underwear. Of course, there are some bigger crevasses…