Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Dish-pig Dave

Today I was on Gash Duty. Gash (an old military term, I think) covers all the tedious housekeeping jobs that need doing, but no-one wants to do. A rota is used so everyone does their share, and rank doesn't bring privilege – everyone who goes South has to sign a clause saying they’ll do their bit. So I attacked toilets, did the washing, made the tea and tried to keep up with the never ending source of washing up from the kitchen. It's not too bad as there's loads of different people to chat with, including our German neighbours who've popped in for the night on their way home.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Primus Stove

To light a Primus, you first prime the cup with meths, which must burn to completion. Then you pump the plunger like mad and hope the meths provided enough heat to evaporate the avtur (paraffin) main fuel. Get it right and a welcoming blue flame roars. Get it wrong and a sooty fireball fills the tent!

Primus mode 1

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Primus mode 2

Field Training

Summer is a busy time for aircraft operations, there’s depots to be dug out of snow, instruments to be serviced and measurements to be made. As Bas doesn’t employ co-pilots, we get trained to take the right-hand seat of the Otter. The first part of co-pilot training is field survival, essential as the aircraft often have to land in unknown locations to sit out poor weather!

Sune, our field assistant, took us through the equipment we’ll depend on out on the ice. The pyramid tent, stoves and lanterns, a big ‘p-bag’ (Personal Bag) of sleeping bag and mattress and a box of ‘man-food’, labelled as such to distinguish it from the former Antarctic essential, dog-food. Down here we still use Primus stoves, identical in design to those used by Scott a hundred years ago. Despite advances in technology, the humble primus has proved itself reliable and indestructible

The pyramid tents also follow proven design, known to survive in 100knot gusts. As we pitched a pair on the boundary line, I smiled as I noticed they were made in Tonypandy, a part of the Rhondda I used to cover. Once the tents were up, we loaded the food and kitchen boxes inside and all piled in to tuck into a dinner of Man Food. The dehydrated rations are similar to army issue and tasted acceptable, a flavour that will no-doubt improve after a full day out.

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I slept well in the warm night (-6C). The Rab sleeping bag was twice the weight one would use for a British winter and the thick Thermarest and sheepskin kept out the cold from below. I can’t wait to get into the field.

More photos here.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Link to work pics

Here it is: Click

Play Time

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It’s not all hard work down here. Even after a 12 hour day, there’s still the energy for plenty of snow sports. Although Halley is flat, we get around the problem by propelling ourselves by either skidoo, or traction kite. Knowing nothing about kites, I bought a 10sqm job before leaving the UK. People said it would likely put me in traction, but, by starting in light winds I’m slowly getting the hang of it. I haven’t added the snowboard yet, as I need more practice behind the skidoo. Maybe next week…

Click here for fun.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

This is more like it...

Heading out to play

Two weeks in, time is flying. Things are pretty much as I expected – working flat out, 12 hour days to catch up with annual maintenance and to learn all we can off the out going staff, due to leave next month. My transferable skills and flexibility, crucial to the Antarctic (apparently), were tested the other morning by a leak of about 30 litres from our toilet. That dealt with, I attacked the workshop and prepared it for a Health and Safety inspection – I knew that time in the civil service would come in handy!

Just as things were getting a little familiar, it was time for field work. One experiment has a number of micro-barographs scattered away from the base to measure turbulence in the atmosphere. Every year these need rising to prevent burial, so armed with shovels and rope, Andy, Alex and I headed out on skidoos to find them. Leaving the perimeter, I opened up the ‘doo and grinned behind my goggles – this is what I saw in the brochure! Tracking confidently through broken snow, the ‘doo manualled large mounds smoothly and felt a lot like a downhill bike. After four months off the bike, it was good to be riding something again.

Arriving on the job, we dug down 2 metres and retrieved the electronics box before raising the mast to the snow surface and making it fast. After three hours toil we turned for home. Riding back into the low sun like Easy Rider on snow, I cursed the broken grip heaters as my fingers started to tingle. The kettle was calling.

(Photos to come)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Damn technology

A mixed blessing, this technology. The last post took 2 hours. 5 years ago, I'd have written a handful of letters twice a year and made an expensive trip to Jessops.

Introduction to work

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After three months travelling it struck me that I’m a third of the way through my BAS contract, and that you might be interested in what I’m actually doing down here! Globally important climate study is the short answer. The British Antarctic Survey produces the best quality data of all the countries operating on the continent with some sets running un-broken for over 50 years. These are Gucci numbers, and it’s my job to get them!

Halley base, named after the same astronomer as ‘Halley’s Comet’, primarily studies atmospheric science, although geological and glaciological work is also undertaken. Thanks to the recent ITV reports from our sister station at Rothera, pretty much everyone will have heard of our work. The two headline generators are ‘the hole in the ozone layer’ and ‘global warming’. The Hole was discovered by BAS scientists in 1985 and published to and accepted by the global academic community in less than two years. Governments immediately took note and the use of CFCs (hole-causing chemicals found in aerosols and refrigerators) was banned by the end of the decade. Politically, that’s fast. Data is also used by the academic community to develop global models of the Earth System in order to improve our total understanding of the planet.

In a typical day at work, I cover the meteorological side of this well publicised work. Based on the Simpson platform along with Kirsty, Tamsin and Andy, we monitor weather and ozone around the clock. Outside the platform are a number of masts holding advanced instruments to record meteorological parameters, but the weather is a fickle thing and we still have to add human-value by identifying cloud types and defining visibility and contrast. When all is working, it’s a routine job requiring an eye for detail. When it goes wrong, my engineering background is required to get the kit up and running as soon as possible.

One instrument that doesn’t go wrong is the Dobson Mass Spectrometer. This cast-iron device was first introduced in the Halley of 1955 and has successfully measured ozone density in the upper atmosphere ever since, adding significant credibility to BAS’s results. Ozone absorbs UV light, that’s why without it we get sunburnt. So by inverting that logical and measuring UV, we can derive ozone levels. The Dobson contains a number of prisms that select three pairs of UV light frequencies that ozone is known to absorb. These are typically measured every three hours and to start with I needed the practice, my Cambridge training coming back like the recollection of embarrassing dancing on a drunken night out.

More details coming soon…

Monday, January 15, 2007

Welcome to Halley

The first thing that struck me about Halley was the scale – the site is much bigger than I thought, at over 2km across, although this is totally dwarfed by the vast expanse of the ice shelf. The site comprises a number of buildings. Each with its own purpose: Laws, the main accommodation; Drewery, summer accommodation; Piggott, upper atmospheric science; and Simpson, the meteorological lab where I work. There are also small cabooses running other experiments, a garage and the Clear Air Science (CAS) lab, over a mile from the main site.


The Laws Building - main accommodation

Arriving at the laws, we were greeted by base commander, Pat. As the whole place looks like a moon base from a Roger Moore Bond film, I was a little disappointed when he didn’t spin round on his chair and say “Mr Evans, I’ve been expecting you…” However, I was delighted to find Laws has lived up to its reputation as 'a 1980's bachelor pad', complete with pool table, bar and dedicated music and film computer in the lounge. There's also a gym, library and dark-room.
I'd heard lots of bad things about the place, but given the depths of accommodation I've stooped to in the past, it's perfectly fine.


Skidoo riders with Simpson Platform in the background

We get about on Skidoos or by cross-country skis. Travel is severely restricted by snow, cloud and poor contrast. The concept of ‘Contrast’ was something I had confused with ‘visibility’ in the past, as I’ve always encountered one with the other when skiing in poor weather. Now I understand: Visibility is how far one can see, contrast is the level of detail. The difference was made perfectly clear the other day, when although the horizon was visible, I skied into an invisible snowdrift and fell over!

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The Main Strip

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Relief photos

Click here for some photos of relief. Make reading the below three posts a lot better!

On to Halley...

Relief over, it was time to make our way to Halley base, some 60km inland. A number of options face the polar traveller for this journey: The noisy and slow Snowcat. The fast but nauseating Caterpillar tractor. The Twin Otter aircraft - I got lucky and slung my bags on the back of the sledge bound for the ski-way.

Gleaming red in the sunshine, Ice Cold Katie looked far more appealing than on our last meeting. As Neil, Tom and I climbed aboard I remembered an aviator friend’s description of the Otter as “a flying Transit Van” as there’s not a lot inside. Ian took off smoothly and headed out over the sea to give us a spectacular fair-well to the Shackleton before heading inland to the ruptured and crevassed Rumples area, formed where the whole Brunt ice shelf rides up over an underwater ridge. The light was perfect and the three of us alternated between clicking our cameras and gazing in awe.

Landing at Halley International, we were greeted by Doctor Richard, moonlighting as airport manager, and sped across the ice up to base… Posted by Picasa

Playing on the ice

Propper Antarctica!

In spite of the gruelling work, a few of us found the energy to take a trip up to a nearby ice feature. An up-turned berg, trapped in the ice-shelf glinted in the low sun with spectacular wind scoops and cornices to add to the effect. Antarctica really blows the mind! Descriptions of snow such as ‘icing sugar’ and ‘diamond dust’ suddenly made sense and patterns from the low sun on the wind-blown surface snaked to the horizon like a frozen sea. Sitting down to take it all in, I wondered how Fids in Bas’s surveying heyday must have felt when dumped on the ice with one colleague, 18 dogs, a blank map and the instructions “fill that in, we’ll pick you up in three months”?!

Chris on the ice

Pondering done, I returned to the base of the berg where Toddy (GA) and Chris (Ship’s
2nd Mate) had a top-rope rigged on an appealingly steep section of ice. Toddy offered me a go, but as he didn’t have crampons in my size, I was left to tackle the crag with a pair of axes and my large Mukluk snow-boots. Not revealing my miss-spent undergraduate days dangling off crags of Snowdonia, I bet a round of drinks the Mukluks would get me to the top. I got to the bulge easily enough, thrashed at the lip and fell into my harness. After a couple more failed lunges, I scooped out a large enough hold for my left foot and with furious hacking and grunting I was over the top! A hard won beer always tastes best.

The Mukluks winning me a beer


Work started the moment the mooring lines were secure. For seven days, scientists, managers and doctors forgot their respective professions, donned overalls and together with the crew moved 500 tonnes of cargo the 60km up to base. Split into two teams, we all worked 12hour shifts with plenty of banter as to which had moved the most. My first role was driver’s mate, loading cargo from ship-side to the sledge and then onto the aircraft at the ski-way a few kilometres away.

One night, well into our 13th hour of work, we took a sledge of frozen food up to the ski-way in poor weather conditions. A 25 knot wind and heavily overcast sky forced us to huddle behind a wall of food boxes and wait for the aircraft to appear. Just when we began to think the flight was off, Ice Cold Katy droned out of the gloom. Approaching in poor contrast and a cross-wind, Ian circled just once and made a perfect landing – even the RAF boys were impressed.

Later in the week, I moved into the ship’s hold to load cargo onto the crane. The worst aspect of this was the thousand 200litre fuel drums: heavy, awkward and prone to trap fingers. We all feared mangled hands and recurring nightmares, but were kept going by Davey’s terrible jokes – even at the end of a knackering shift the jolly sailor could raise a smile. This was dangerous work, but thanks to clear instructions from the crew and the sturdy nature of the Fids, the whole job passed without a single injury. Posted by Picasa

Monday, January 01, 2007

Welcome to Antarctica!

It's taken over a week to sneak, hop and bash our way through the ice, but thanks to the Captain and crew’s patients and perseverance, we finally docked at 17:00 yesterday. For the next week or so, we will remain fastened to the edge of the ice shelf, working round the clock in 12 hour shifts to move 500 tons of cargo up to the base, some 60km away. We started work after dinner, un-lashing the vehicles on deck, finishing up in time to have a drink in the bar. The new-year was greeted in a traditional ship’s fashion with the oldest member of crew ringing out the year on the ship’s bell and the youngest ringing it in.

This morning brought perfectly clear weather allowing senior staff from Halley to fly down for hand-over meetings. Others will follow in Snow-cats and we will start loading cargo after lunch. I'll be working as a cargo-hand and driver's mate, loading seldges and moving them away from the ship to a rendez-vous point. After a long period of not doing much, I'm looking forwards to getting started.

The voyage has taken nine weeks, to the day, and it's been an incredible experience. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of it, especially the interesting people with fascinating tales. It’s been a relaxed environment, but also a strict one. The Captain is always addressed as ‘Captain’ and we are bound by contract, and law, to follow orders. But, as the Shackleton is a Norwegian built ship, her design doesn’t follow the outmoded British ‘class’ system of a different deck for officers, supernumeries and ratings. Everyone sits down for the same meal in the same mess and enjoys a drink in the same bar. If Blair really wants a ‘respect agenda’ for the country’s troubled youth, he could do a lot worse than take a look to sea.

Things will be flat-out for the next week or so, so until the next bit – Happy New Year!

Photos of N9 Posted by Picasa