Why is Antarctica so Cold?

A very special treat now with a guest post on the climate of Antarctica from the resident Halley MetBabe (atmospheric scientist) Richard “Captain Awesome” Warren.

 

Just why is Antarctica SO cold?!

A common question to ask is “Why is Antarctica so cold, even so much colder than the Arctic? North Pole and South Pole should both be as cold as each other right?” Wrong!

To understand why Antarctica is so much colder, we need to first know why places are warm or cold in the first place.

Hottest and Coldest Places

Look at the image below. It is a map that shows the mean global temperature, with the equator drawn in the middle. Based on the fact that the sun warms the equator most and the poles the least, you would expect the equator to be warmest and the poles to be coldest. As you can see this is generally true, however, note exceptions to the rule. Canada, Greenland and North-eastern Russia are much colder than the ocean between them, and there is a very cold patch to the North-east of India. Antarctica too is exceedingly cold, whereas India itself, North Australia and parts of North Africa are even warmer than the equator.

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Atmospheric Circulation

2So what makes these places warmer or colder than they should be? There are many reasons, but the first thing to understand is how heat moves around the earth. If you stand next to something warm like a radiator, you’ll notice that you can feel the warmth much more by putting your hand above it, rather than below it. This is because warm air rises, and cold air sinks.

 

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If you warm air up it becomes less dense than the air around it, and this causes it to rise, exactly how a hot air balloon rises by trapping a balloon-full of hot, and therefore less dense, air. As air rises and moves away from the source of heat, it cools and becomes denser, and sinks. This circulation from a heat source is called convection. The picture of the radiator in the room is very simple but the principle is exactly the same with the Earth.

The equator is warmed by the sun; the air rises into the atmosphere and moves away from the equator. Here it cools, and descends back to ground level and makes its way back to the equator. The circulation is actually more complicated than this, but it gives you the basic idea of how air moves heat around the Earth.

Based on this, Antarctica should be as cold as the Arctic, as they are the same distance away from the radiator, or the heat source at the equator. As we know however, Antarctica is much colder. Now we’re going to have a quick look at other places that are different too, and once we understand why these differ, we will look at Antarctica again.

 

 

Land vs. Sea

So why are Russia, Canada and Greenland colder than the ocean between them?

Unfortunately, here it gets more complicated! There are other factors at work besides just the circulation in the atmosphere.

Land vs. Sea

  • Have you ever run a bath that was too hot, left it for a while to cool down, yet half an hour later the water is still really warm? Yet if you take a tray out of the oven, 10 minutes later it is cool enough to touch?
  • Water takes much longer to warm up than a solid. If you leave a pebble and a bowl of water in the sun for 1 hour, the pebble will be much warmer than the water.
  • Again, simple principle, but the same with Earth. An ocean will take much longer to warm up than the land, yet it remains warm for longer when the heat source is removed. Warm water in the ocean flows from the equator to the pole, similar to the air in the atmosphere. Whereas the air will be cold by the time it reaches the pole, the water will still be quite warm.
  • Therefore, large land masses such as Russia and Canada get VERY cold in winter when the sun disappears, but can actually be quite warm in summer when the sun warms them up.
  • In comparison, the UK is a small country surrounded by the ocean. Based on how far away from the equator it is, we could expect it to have a mean temperature of between 0 and -10oC, such as central Russia or Canada which are the same distance away. However, the ocean that surrounds the UK warms up slower than the land in summer which has a cooling effect, and cools down slower than the land in winter, having a warming effect. This gives the UK a fairly mild mean temperature of +10oC (thank goodness!). Central Canada and Russia are too far from the sea to feel this moderating effect, and therefore have much more extreme temperatures.

To demonstrate this point, let’s compare the winter temperatures of London and Calgary which are both at 51oN, i.e., the same distance from the equator. London, as I’m sure you know, sits on the Thames estuary where it meets the North Sea, which will be quite mild in winter. On the other hand, Calgary is 600 kilometres from the nearest ocean. The coldest ever recorded temperature in London is a chilly -10oC whereas in Calgary, the coldest temperature is a frost bitingly cold -45oC. Yes this  -45oC was a one off, but still the average low temperature for the winter months in Calgary is -12oC, meaning that on average, every December, January and February in Calgary gets colder than London has ever been.

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The works in reverse too, as shown with countries such as France on the right. The north coast is influenced by the next-door and quite mild North Sea, which also influences London. Compare this to the much warmer southern coast which is in contact with the Mediterranean Sea, a very warm body of water. Notice how quickly the average temperature changes when you move away from either coast.

The temperature difference of Calgary with London is partly due to proximity to the ocean, but there are other factors involved too. London is basically at sea level, whereas Calgary sits at 1100m. Looking at the map of France as well, those cold pockets in the south east stand out from the warm temperatures around them. You may have realised that these are the mountains of the Alps and the Massif Central. Let’s see how altitude can affect temperature.

 

Low vs. High

So, close to a warm ocean and close to the equator are the warmest places? Nope, not exactly. Don’t worry I haven’t lied; we just haven’t seen the whole picture yet. Meet Cotopaxi, not only less than one degree from the equator but also within sight of the warm central Pacific Ocean. It is however, covered in snow. How does this work then?

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A snow covered mountain seems like such an ordinary thing yet when you think about it, why are mountain tops cold enough to be covered in snow when the land around them is so      much warmer? It is due to something called the Lapse Rate.

 

 

Remember our friend convection? Well it happens all over the place; air doesn’t just rise at the equator. Quick recap on atmospheric convection:

12The rate at which the air cools is called the lapse rate. Generally, this is about 0.6oC per 100m. What that means, is that for every 100m higher you go, it will get 0.6oC colder. When you consider that Cotopaxi is almost 6000m high, that means the summit of the volcano is roughly 36oC colder than the air at sea level. Quite a change in temperature!

The most striking examples of this from the mean temperature map are the Himalayas, and the Andes mountain range which runs down the west coast of South America. Look back at the mean temperature map at the Himalayas and note how warm next-door neighbour India is, or look at the Andes, and note the warm ocean to the west, and very hot rainforests of Peru and Bolivia to the East.

Putting all this together, let’s consider what we have learnt so far:

  • It is warmer near the equator.
  • Coastal areas are influenced by the temperature of the nearby ocean.
  • Coastal areas have less extreme temperatures than continental areas.
  • The higher you are, the colder it is.

 

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The two plots above show the mean daily temperatures, and the topography of the United States of America. Compare the two, bearing in mind the lapse rate, and notice how the mid-western states are much colder than those around them. Conveniently, this is where the Rocky Mountain Range is located which has many peaks above 4000m. With a lapse rate of 0.6oC for every 100m, how much colder would it be at 4000m that at sea level?

Look even closer and you’ll notice that apart from the very north, almost all of the coldest mean daily temperatures occur where the large mountain ranges are located. Notice also the warm yellow strip poking north in California (south-western most state) that correlates to a deep valley running between two mountain ranges?

Last thing to spot, is that the south east has a warmer mean temperature than the south west. Yes the south east is generally lower than the south west, but there is something else going on here to. The south east coast is on the shore of the Caribbean; a warm shallow sea, compared to the cooler, deeper Pacific Ocean on the west coast. As we saw before, the sea can have a noticeable effect on the temperatures, especially in winter, when the land cools down quickly yet the sea remains warm. Therefore the winters in California get much colder than the winters in Florida, which has a warmer adjacent sea. There is another way in which the sea affects the land, which is the last thing we are going to have a look at.

That just about wraps up altitude, so the last thing to look at is humidity.

Dry vs. Wet

OK, so one last look at the annual mean temperature graph. Until now, we have gone on the assumption that the further you go from the equator, the colder it gets. The equator gets the most intense sun, and therefore should be warmer. Look at areas like the Sahara desert in North Africa and you’ll see there is actually a belt of the warmest mean annual temperatures in the world at 30oN and 30oS.

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The other figure shows the mean cloud cover, or how much of the sky is on average, covered by clouds. Look at the similarities, because they are striking.

Where are the hottest and coldest temperatures? North Africa, North Australia, Saudi Arabia are the hottest, Greenland and Antarctica are the coldest.

Where are the driest places? North Africa, North Australia, Saudi Arabia, central Greenland and Antarctica.

There is a remarkable correlation between cloud cover and mean annual temperature. To understand why, we need to recall the process of convection, and understand a new one called humidity.

Humidity refers to how much water the air is holding. The warmer the air is, the more water it can hold as invisible water vapour, and the colder the air is, the less water it can hold. When the air is “full” of water and cannot hold anymore, it is at 100% humidity, and known as “saturated”.

You will have noticed this in the past but maybe not known that humidity was to blame. Every time you breathe out, you breathe out water vapour. If you don’t believe me, breathe on a window and you’ll see water droplets form on the glass. Normally, you don’t notice this because the air is not saturated and the moisture in your breath stays as invisible water vapour. However when it is really cold outside, the air cannot hold very much water, i.e., it is nearly saturated or full of water. When you add more water vapour to the air, it condenses, and you can see the tiny water droplets hanging in the air.

The same happens in the atmosphere; as air rises from convection, it cools and suddenly cannot hold as much water vapour. Any excess water vapour then condenses to form clouds. The air above the clouds has therefore lost part of its water content, and is drier than before.

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Remember when I said that atmospheric circulation is actually more complicated? Well we’re going to understand a little more about it now, but don’t worry, we’re almost done!

True to convection, the equator being where the most intense solar heating occurs, this is the area where most air begins to rise into the atmosphere as you can see on the left. As it rises, it cools and cannot hold as much water vapour; hence it condenses and forms clouds. Remember the cloud picture from before? There is a nice strip across the equator of high percentage cloud cover to confirm this. Now this cloud has an interesting effect, as it actually cools the surface below, since it keeps it in shade. It feels hot though; that sort of horrible, sweaty, muggy heat that you associate with rainforests and tropical countries, which is due to the humid, saturated air that is very hot, and therefore is holding lots of water. The high water content is what makes it feel very muggy.

 

 

When the air that rose at the equator descends which is typically at 30oN and 30oS, as it has lost some of its water it is much drier, and therefore clouds are much less common in these areas. This allows the sun, although it is less intense than at the equator, to burn down without any clouds blocking it. Very hot, dry air at the ground without clouds above to provide much rain gives us deserts, and where are the biggest deserts? All 30oN or 30oS of the equator, where the hottest mean annual temperatures are.

If you look at the boundary of the Ferrel and Polar Cells in the picture above, you’ll see that there is another area of rising air which, if you follow the arrows, descends over the North and South Poles. Using what we know from the deserts nearer the equator about what happens when air descends, this is very dry air that is arriving at the poles. However rather than allowing the sun to burn down without any cloud blocking it, since the poles face away from the sun and therefore get very little sunlight anyway, it actually allows heat to escape. View clouds as like a moderator; when it is hot they cool things down by blocking direct sunlight, and when it is cold they keep the heat in like a blanket.

Think of a frosty winter morning. The sky is almost always clear right? If there were any clouds over head during the night, they keep the ground warm and frost doesn’t form. If there are no clouds overnight, heat from the ground can escape so that it is cold enough for frost.

On a global scale then, we have bands of relatively humid and cloudy weather where the air rises, and bands of very dry and cloudless weather where the air, having cooled so that it is denser than the air below, sinks back to surface level. Antarctica is located at the end of one of these “Polar Cells”, where the air is very dry.

Conclusion: Antarctica vs. The Arctic

So let’s review:

  • The further from the equator you go, the colder it gets.
  • The further from the ocean you go, the more extreme the temperatures get.
  • The higher you go, the colder it gets.
  • The drier it gets, the more extreme the temperatures get

Both the Arctic and the Antarctic experience large periods of the year when, due to the tilt of the Earth, they face away from the sun and experience total darkness for months. This is key, as both are as far as each other from the heat source at the equator, and receive the same amount of sunlight each year, which continent gets colder in its winter, and stays cold in summer?

 

Factor The Arctic The Antarctic Which is colder?
How far from the equator? Centred on the geographical North Pole, as far north as you can go Centred on the geographical South Pole, as far south as you can go Draw
Influence from land/sea? The Arctic is not land; it is floating ice on the Arctic Ocean which grows in winter and shrinks in summer. The ocean, although very cold, retains some heat without the sun in winter. Large continent with huge masses of ice on top of it. Has a coast but the centre of the continent is hundreds of miles from any ocean, especially as the sea ice in winter grows up to 400km away and doubles the size of the continent.. No additional warmth from the ocean, loses heat very quickly without the sun. Antarctica
What is the altitude? Virtually sea level, the sea ice doesn’t rise more than a few feet above sea level. Elevation at the North Pole is 2 metres of ice. On average, is the highest continent. Elevation at the South Pole is 3000m of solid vertical ice, sitting on bedrock 100m thick. Antarctica
How humid is it? Air typically descends and therefore is dry, although the surrounding Arctic Ocean does provide some moisture in the air. Air typically descends and therefore is dry. Due to the higher elevation and distance from ocean, this air is very dry indeed. Antarctica

 

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We know that Antarctica is the coldest continent, and hopefully now, we know why it is the coldest. For final confirmation, look at Greenland. Despite being in the Arctic Ocean and very far north, it has many of the characteristics of Antarctica such as it is ice on top of land not sea, and that the ice reaches a very high elevation.

As with everything in meteorology, there are always more factors to consider. For further influences on the temperatures or overall climate of Antarctica, consider looking up “The Albedo Effect”, and “The Polar Vortex”.

Winter Trips. The Sequel. Part Five.

Yes. Yes it is this Blue!

 

Didn’t bother with the symbol.

Yay, it’s the fifth and final part of my winter trip tale. Dragged it out a bit I suppose! As is traditional I’ll leave my favourite bit till last – though you may not agree (penguin chicks are hard to beat).

After a layup in the tent we awoke to a fairly reasonable day – not perfect by any means, with a cloudy sky and a touch of wind. But good enough to get out of bed and get outside. About a kilometre away from the tent heading down into one of the creeks was an ice cliff with a huge wind scoop in front, quite far back from the tide crack between sea ice and shelf.  This was a good spot for a bit of ice climbing.  It was also a perfect place to practice using our crampons and axes., climbing up the steep but not vertical walls of the wind scoop using the different techniques, with Al providing tips and instructions on the correct use. Some of these were pretty basic such as how to use the toes of the crampons to dig into the ice and how to descend back down again with your feet in different positions and angles to the ice. We also practiced fall arrest techniques using ice axes. It was a good place to get a feel for the ice itself – some of which is solid, some really brittle and the different methods you would use when dealing with each type – some will let you smash the axe or your crampons straight in and give a good solid hold, other bits will shatter and huge chunks will fall off and skitter downwards. We also used some ice screws, long threaded bits of steel that from anchors in the ice for you to rope on to.  After quite a while down in the wind scoop and on some of it’s gentle sides – where we learned loads, we set up the ropes and began climbing the cliff.  I mentioned it before after the last time I did a spot of ice climbing but you use muscles that don’t often get a workout. Your forearms quickly end up exhausted. This, coupled with the fact that your arms are always above your head (and heart), you are gripping the axes tightly and the extreme cold mean it can quickly become very difficult. The blood flow and circulation in your arms and hands is limited by all of the above factors.  About six feet away from the top and I could no longer feel my hands at all – which is a bit of a disadvantage when trying to hold your bodyweight on the handle of an axe. I did manage to get to the top though! Upon reaching the top Al asked how my arms were to which I replied “numb”.  His answer – “You’ll feel em in a minute”

 

Feel em I did. From being held above me, working hard and freezing to the point of numbness your muscles then fill back up with blood, getting pumped up in the way muscles do after a hard workout. Let me tell you. This really hurts!  The hot aches or screaming barfies as they are known in North America (because they make you want to scream and barf at the same time) are a bit like when you are a kid and you’ve been playing out in the snow, making snowballs and then you come back inside and your fingers warm up too quickly giving you a painful pins and needles type of feeling. Well, like that but times a thousand. I was, a bit pathetically, on my knees at the top of the climb trying to “find a happy place” for about five minutes afterwards.

 

I didn’t take any photos of all this climbing malarkey because I was either having too much fun or  a hundred foot up an ice wall (or both). So you’ll just have to imagine that bit.

Once we’d packed up our gear though we decided to have another little jaunt out onto the sea ice and head off in a new direction to see what we could see. As I mentioned the weather wasn’t bad but it was really cloudy. The sun was attempting to shine through but it was really overcast. This made the whole place spectacular. Monumentally spectacular.  Everything you could see, from the cliffs to the ice to the cloudy sky was a shade of blue. A few people have said that the pictures I’ve posted don’t look real – well the ones I took here are even more so. I wish I could post up the high quality photos but the bandwidth just wont let me!

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

 

Yes. Yes it was this blue.

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

Travelling round this lot just takes your breath away. I got all excited about the sea ice as I travelled through on the ship coming down and I’ve been blown away by it’s other-worldliness  each and everytime I’ve been out for a look around but this is just something else.

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

I could try and explain how I was just walking around in a trance staring at all this but the words wouldnt do it justice – the pictures are better but they are still a long way from what it feels like to stand out on the sea looking at all this.

You can see the colour but it was o much more than the pictures show – like thye blueness was was coming from everywhere at once. Then you add the immense scale and the eerie scilence and words don’t stand a chance.

 

So loads more piccies then!

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

 

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

sea ice antarctica

In the words of Rutger Hauer “I’ve seen things you people wouldnt believe” Unlike the Blade Runner replicant though – I took pictures.

 

And lastly – just a little hint of penguin.

sea ice antarctica

 

Well, that was all about my latest excursion out into the great blue yonder!  I’ve been pretty lucky – the two pairs before us didnt really get much of a trip out to speak of and the two after me have only got a few days at windy caboose. Fingers crossed for the next lot. Hope they get to see what I’ve seen!

 

 

WTSQ.P4.

Winter Trip. The Sequel. Part Four. I’m going with initials in the title now, you know – to keep things fresh. Like N.K.O.T.B..  Next one’s just gonna be a symbol.

Anyway, back at the base camp it’s another fine morning. Not too bad temps and little wind with good sun and great contrast – just what’s needed to visit the Rumples.

The Rumples, or The McDonald Ice Rumples to give the area its correct name is a spot on the Brunt ice shelf where the shelf flows over a sea rise, grounding itself. This causes the surrounding floating ice to flow around it faster than the stuck ice in the middle. This causes all sorts of pressures and the ice ends up riddled with huge faults, tears and cracks in it. It creates spectacular features but also fairly treacherous ground.

Here are a few pictures from the air (not mine):

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

McDoMcDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

These are some old shots on the drive at base, not sure who took them and they seem to be taken some time apart from each other. You can see the ice pulling itself to pieces though. These are quite high altitude photos too it has to be pointed out – the area we are looking at is many miles across!

So. The Rumples. You need a good clear day to visit  because it’s easier to see the tell-tale signs of something not quite right below the surface! We skidooed in as far as we dared – and very carefully at that, with regular stops, inspecting the ice in front with a bog-chisel (big stick) and then proceeding slowly on. We got to the approximate location of last years camp and looked down a long canyon stretching towards the centre of the rumples. The plan was to find a likely spot and abseil down into this canyon and have a bit of an explore.  The first bad sign was the occasional deep sounding thump. It seemed to be the sound of cornices or overhangs just melting a touch in the bright sun and slumping down under there own weight.  We were now off the doos in a relatively safe place where we promptly roped up. We set off walking with  the rope kept very tight between us – to minimise any fall should one of us disappear downwards. Al knocked some anchors into the ice and set about trying to find a way down.

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

Al’s statements on the first slot he found started out like “hey this looks good” to “oh aye, this looks interesting” progressing to “it’s a bit gnarly mind” then to “bloody hell, we’re not getting down there”  I reckon a few more minutes and he might have been telling us to run for our lives!

We walked around and tried to find another entry point, Al looked at the various crevasses leading into the main one and again,  they all seemed to be in the range of proper gnarly to “we’ll die down here”.

It seems that, like Gatekeeper, there has been a huge amount of movement of the ice in a few short months. Flags and markers that had been left were now gone, ice features that were once there were now obliterated and crevasses had popped open in areas that were previously relatively stable.

Now, I can’t really describe in words the sound millions of tonnes of ice makes as it moves or breaks but what I can tell you is that it is a noise that tightens sphincters. Something you feel rather than hear. The sound seem to come from everywhere at once and reverberates up through your feet. The whole area felt very dodgy!  Edging across the ice, putting one tentative cramponed boot in front of the other, expecting each step to open up an abyss beneath your feet.  Ok, I’m being a bit dramatic perhaps but it does get the heart going! We have trained in crevasse rescue, are roped and harnessed up nice and tight, have all the right gear to climb back out or rescue each other with us and of course Al is experienced and really knows his stuff but it’s a freaky place. The number of visible slots – just bits of the ice that look slightly different rather than visible open cracks, as well as the knowledge of the ones you can’t even see – it all certainly makes you focus on what you’re doing!  We never did find a way down unfortunately but it was good to visit and see even just a bit of the place. Not too many photos because my mind was on other things, but this one’s a good un!

McDonald Ice Rumples, Antarctica

We slowly got back to the doos and then rode out – though even this was a pain-staking experience with us having to do about-turns a number of time to avoid danger.  Even Al, who was obviously a bit more relaxed about things than me said the place was pretty hairy.

So back to base camp, still a nice night so I managed to get a nice picture of the sunset over they pyramid tent.

Sunset over Antarctic pyramid tent

The following day was a bit of a non-event. The weather turned and the wind speed increased leaving us with no choice but to ride things out inside the tent. Having a day holed up in a tent, reading, playing cards, chatting and drinking brews whilst the wind howls around outside is actually fairly nice. You’re away from base, you’ve been exerting yourself for a good few days now and you can actually get fairly snug despite the outside temps. Though on this it has to be said that this is not as straightforward as it could be. In Antarctica you are often having to make choices between two things – and normally one of these is temperature related. When walking around, or even more so riding around, you will have to make the decision of whether to  keep your face nice and warm or have nice clear vision. Wrap your head up too much and your goggles, helmet or specs will steam up and then freeze. Go for clear sight and your nose and eyes will go numb. Your extra thick down sleeping bag provides another one of these dilemmas. You can go for warmth, snuggle up deep down inside and be perfectly warm, but this results in your bag filling with the moisture from your breath and the inside of your bag feeling  about as comfortable to sleep in as a sauna. Or, you can elect to keep your face pointing out of the bag and it will be nice and dry. But your eyeballs will freeze. Decisions decisions. I tried to make a little tunnel out through the top of the bag but kept waking up every hour, sticking my head in and then swapping an hour later. This is only really a problem when it’s lower than -30c though. It’s  fine above that. Whilst on the subject of sleeping bags. Inside your bag is pretty much the only place in the tent where liquid will remain liquid. Anything, from water to contact lenses to camera batteries – anything that has to be kept even slightly warm needs to be in your bag with you. It does become a bit like sleeping in a cutlery draw. I tried getting some pictures of inside the tent but it’s a bit hard when the primus and tilley lamp are on as it quickly gets a bit foggy in there. Cool fact: our primus stoves are made by Optimus. Optimus Primus.

While I’m rambling on, please forgive any spelling mistakes or sentences that erm, don’t make sense. I write stuff out and then by the time I notice a mistake it takes about a day to re-load the page and correct it – so plenty get through!

 

No penguins in this post. Final one coming up next!

Winter Trip. The Sequel. Part Three.

Next installment!

After a night in the sweat-box Windy Caboose we had breakfast, tidied up and made plans for the day. John, my partner on this trip had missed his last one and still (after being south a few times)  had still not seen the Hinge zone on any of his trips.  Hinge zone it was then!

We set off on the long journey that would take us back up to the base and then beyond. The route from windy to base is a well-travelled one and we were riding the doos un-roped. Once past base and away southwards towards the continent we stopped, harnesses up and roped all our sledges and skidoos together. This form of travel is a lot less relaxed for a few reasons.

Firstly you need to concentrate a lot more – you don’t want the rope too slack or it will be pointless (if a skidoo fell through into a crevasse it would fall further, meaning more shock-loading) or it can get tangled up in the skidoo itself. Too taut a rope and you end up getting a tow from the doo in front – pulling all that extra weight will quickly damage it.  It’s a fine line between the two and you have to constantly match you speed to the doo in front, something that’s easy on a flat road, slightly harder on a sastrugi laden ice shelf.

The second reason this method of travel is not as relaxed is the actual reason we have to rope up – crevasses. Huge slots in the ice that can be covered over with just enough snow to be hidden, or be completely open yet still impossible to see until you’re right on top of them!

The first big feature you come to when travelling to the hinge zone is Gatekeeper. A known large crevasse  with a section in the middle that narrows and has a very large and stable snow bridge across. Well, that was the last description of gatekeeper from the last visit there about five months ago. Things change!

gatekeeper crevasse

We got within ten or twenty metres of where the crossing was, Al stopped and did a bit of a recce. I sat about twenty metres or so back and really couldn’t tell what he was looking at all.  He turned back with a funny look on his face, waving his arms…

 

 

I roped up and walked down towards whatever Al was looking at, tied to a skidoo.

gatekeeper crevasse

 

From the pic above you can tell that there’s not much to see right?

gatekeeper crevasse

This was the view once I looked in. The photo is deceptive – this thing was deep!  Also, the bottom is definitely not the bottom and could be just one of numerous false floors going down.

 

gatekeeper crevasse

This is the view straight across, I couldn’t see any of this  from less than ten metres away! The far crevasse is where the bridge used to be. This has now slumped in as the gap widened. Another slot has opened up in front leaving an island in the centre. The whole thing is a good fifty metres wide!

gatekeeper crevasse

Above is the view to the right.

gatekeeper crevasse

And to the left!

 

The photos just don’t look that impressive compared to the real thing. This whole feature was stretching out for kilometres making it virtually impassable.

Late last year Al had been down with one of the previous years wintering crew and abseiled down in to Gatekeeper. They had thrown in eighty metres of rope and still not even been able to see any bottom!

So sadly the Hinge was not to be for John. The whole area will have to be looked at in the summer and a new route found to get to the hinge.

We turned around (very carefully!) and set off back down towards the coast. Time was moving on and we decided to get back down to the creeks area, set up a base camp and venture out from there to other destinations.

Setting up camp takes a few hours and this then left us a bit of time to once again venture out onto the sea ice.

antarctic sea ice

antarctic sea ice

antarctic sea ice

A small crevasse from the side (still big enough for a human to disappear and die in mind you).  Small cracks can quickly turn into something the size of a valley given the forces that are acting on the ice – moving along at a rate of four hundred metres a year, with trillions of tonnes pushing it.

 

antarctic sea ice

All this ice will of course break off when it reaches the calving face and any weakness or lines of stress in the ice will be right where it breaks. Sometimes this will lead to icebergs as big as small countries breaking off in one go – something that could well have left the old Halley V base floating away on a berg if a known fault line had actually split (this is one of the reasons BAS needed a new Halley). In other cases the ice might just get to the front and just break apart in small pieces and drop down on to the sea ice like a landslip or rockfall. Of course when I say small you have to bear in mind that some of the “little” blocks of ice that fall off will weigh thousands of tonnes!

antarctic sea ice

 

antarctic sea ice

The shelf ice breaking off in winter will fall down onto the sea ice. Some of the huge falls will then smash into the sea ice, either causing it to break and then reform or send out shock waves across it making huge cracks – like someone hitting safety glass with a hammer.

antarctic sea ice

These cracks can be pretty big too. They can pull apart and re-freeze like this. Or, the ice can be smashed back together again Leaving great chunks sticking up.

antarctic sea ice

 

Some of the ice though looks more like volcanic rock and seems to flow  rather than fall into the sea ice.

antarctic sea ice

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Some areas look like they’ve been whipped up like ice cream.

antarctic sea ice

or been chipped away an shaped with a giant chisel or adze.

antarctic sea ice

 

Then there’s the merangue-like over-hangs (overhangues?) Some of these are thirty metres tall – made of just blown snow and ice sticking together. Sticking out quite a way from the cliff tops these must end up weight huge amounts, some of them actually look impossible – like that are defying gravity. ALthough they look quite fluffly when your trying to get through one from below when climbing, or trying to break one from above looking for a place to abseil they actually seem more like concrete!

antarctic sea ice

antarctic sea ice

And lastly of course…. more of the locals.

antarctic sea ice

 

 

 

After a trip out eastwards on the sea ice we still had explore the west. And also fancied a trip to the Rumples!

That’s all coming up next in the winter trip sequel!!

 

Winter Trip. The Sequel. Part Two.

The second part of my recent excursion continues with a new partner on the trip – John, the Base Commander, with Doc staying home to keep an eye on his patient.

With reasonable weather (-30C  and 5 knt wind) we decided to pay a visit to Windy Bay, home of the enormous Emperor colony – which, by now, we hoped should have lots of penguin toddlers running round.

As I mentioned previously this post contains pictures that are unashamedly right off the cuteness scale. What can you do though – they’re baby penguins!

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The chicks are now much bigger than they were when last I visited, and a great deal more mobile too. When I was last here all the young birds were safely tucked up under their parents and would have struggled to survive if fully exposed to the elements. Now they are roaming free across the ice, playing with their mates or trying alternately either to get away from or get back to either of their parents.

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

The chicks, depending on how old or brave they are can be seen staying quite close to their mum or dad, gathering in small crèches near to their parents or simply buggering off to explore.

emperor penguin chicks

The more adventurous groups were really wandering off out of it. Some of the chicks may well be left all on their own as both parents go out to fish at once – staggered rather than together but still bringing in more food for their increasingly hungry offspring. This means that whilst some of the chicks seem happy as Larry to wander round exploring till the folks get back, others, often the younger and smaller ones, seem to spend most of their time trying to find a parent. These young chicks will walk around introducing themselves to almost every adult they meet. They will chirp loudly for food or in a lot of cases just make a dive under the feet.

emperor penguin chicks

This is quite tiring when you only have little legs so you also see quite a lot who seem to have decided that the best thing to do is just to stay where you are and have a kip.

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

Apart from the quite high chance of dying of exposure the chicks are pretty safe from predation at this time of year. They do, however need to watch out for the occasional abduction. Parents of chicks that did not survive will often try to adopt other youngsters that cross their paths. Hopefully this has positive outcomes with abandoned or lost chicks surviving due to the help of an adoptive parent. This behaviour can also end up causing fights though- one of the very few even slightly aggressive displays I’ve seen is below.  The penguin on the right has grabbed the chick and is trying to stop it from running away. The penguin on the left is apparently the parent and is keen to get its young un back home.

A bit of a squabble ensues (yeah, squabble is about as violent as it gets – though they both seemed very determined) before lefty penguin wins out and the chick scampers back under its belly flap. The loser then shrugged his or her shoulders and wandered off – perhaps to find another chick.

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

Whilst the parents obviously protect, search for and find (an impressive feat in itself) their own young, the whole colony does seem to have quite a community vibe going on with large nurseries being watched over by a few adults, chicks swapping between different adults and a general looking out for each other kind of attitude (I know I’m anthropomorphising a little bit here but hey – I’m a Sparky not a Zoologist so I’m allowed to).  This isn’t really surprising I suppose for a creature that so often is dependent on the warmth and support of its neighbour in order to survive.

That’s not to say that it’s a little anarcho- socialist paradise. Danger of death is still ever-present. Testament to the harshness of the environment are the large areas of the colony that are littered with perfectly preserved frozen corpses. I’ll spare you the photos of those. There are lots and lots of eggs everywhere too.

emperor penguin eggs

The eggs are really quite big, between the size of an avocado and a mango with what feels like a very thick shell.

With no predators or scavengers able to really access this colony until later on in the year when seals or sea birds such as Skuas make it back and with no decomposition due to the low temperatures quite often  in some places there can be  a lot of dead chicks and eggs. The huddles tend to move around and the areas they leave can be a bit like graveyards. Nature is harsh and no more so than down here, even without anything trying to bite you.

Aside from the risk of either freezing or starving to death the sea ice and the ice shelf themselves can be a bit of a nightmare for the colony. Last year the sea ice broke out early leaving most, if not all of the chicks to die without their adult coats or sea ice to stand on. A few were left clinging to accessible areas of the shelf but not many. I did get a few pictures of those that were left last year when I arrived on the ship.

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Then you see things like this, the “over-hang of Damocles”. Perched above a large area of oblivious birds.

emperor penguin

Poor buggers!

You can’t be sad for too long about such things though – not sure who said it, and I’m paraphrasing here, but “you can’t stay angry or sad when looking at a penguin”  Can’t really argue with that can you?  So here’s a lot of photos of some chicks looking cute and staring at me funny.  If they weren’t so chilled out they could probably take over the internet from cats I reckon.

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

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emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

Favourite photo – “what the hell are you lookin at?”

emperor penguin chicks

Again, I’m anthropomorphising but that little fella above wandering past John is definitely making aeroplane noises right?

Once more I’m left feeling lucky to see such things!

The climb back up the cliffs was, once again, emotional! Jumaring up a rope padded up with insulating down clothing (a number of layers) and huge gloves, sweating despite having freezing hands and fingers – it really takes it out of you. Still it felt quite a bit easier this time, regardless though, it’s always worth the pain getting back up to get down in the first place.

Windy Bay, being an area of scientific interest has its own caboose stationed about a kilometre away from the edge of the shelf. For those of you that don’t know a caboose down here (as opposed to a train caboose) is kind of a little shack or shipping container built on legs. They are dotted around the site at Halley, housing various science experiments away from the base and they can also be dragged further afield, mounted on a sledge, to provide a more permanent shelter than a tent. They can be dragged down to the sea ice at relief to provide a refuge or left at places of interest like Windy.

So we were saved the chore of erecting the tent for another night, instead electing to stay where we were and avail ourselves of the relative luxury of the caboose. The windy caboose is basically a container with two windows, some bunks and a kerosene fuelled burner. We had a pleasant evening playing cards, drinking tea and swapping stories. I was woken in the middle of the night drenched in sweat though – the caboose can get up to a balmy 20 odd degrees C with the heat on and the only kit we had such as sleeping bags were rated to -50. That’s a big old difference! Still, soak up the heat while you can.

Last photo of this post (lots more to come) of the mornings view looking back up towards base. Windy Bay is a around 40 kilometres away and under normal circumstances the base would be impossible to see – it would be below the curvature of the Earth. But with a bit of atmospheric magic you can see the base appear as a mirage on the horizon!

halley base

Pretty cool eh?

More to come soon, ice, ropes and even a few more penguins!

Winter Trip. The Sequel. Part One.

Last week it was my turn to head back out into the field on my winter trip. Winter trips are one of the great privileges of working for BAS. They provide valuable training in the techniques used whilst living, travelling and working out in the field and at the same time give us a chance to get away from base. From my point of view though, they are the chance to get out into the wild and see Antarctica in all its glory. It’s sometimes very easy to forget just where you are living. Often the weather can be so extreme that you are stuck inside or that busy with work that you focus entirely on it. Once out into the field though, travelling through the craziest landscapes on the planet, sleeping in a tent in temperatures about five times lower than that of your freezer back home and doing the sort of things you might see in an energy drink commercial then you start to realise, once again, just how few people get to see this place. Lots of people are now visiting the continent and its surrounding ocean, mainly on the peninsula, in the short summer months  but I think more people have been to the top of Mount Everest than have over wintered in Antarctica – and fewer still have the chance to be actually out in the wild in winter. Whilst travelling across the sea ice, which reached its maximum extent over the last few weeks, Al, the base field GA commented that the two of us could well be the most isolated people on the planet at that moment in time. This may or may not be true but I’d bet we were up there!

As with anything and everything down here excursions are subject to the whims of the weather. We head out in threes for a week or so at a time. The trips are planned so that those who go first on the first round of trips at the end of summer, when they have the best chance of nicest weather, will then go first again at the beginning of winter – when the chances are higher that they may have harsher conditions.  this hopefully spread out the chances of everyone getting a chance to get out over the year. Last time I managed to get away for almost a full week and had an amazing time – though it was incredibly cold (to the pre-winter me, I’m a bit hardier now, post winter). Those that went after me last time out were not so lucky, having either a truncated stay out or not really getting away at all. This time out Mike and Octavian went first and suffered a week sat in base with the wind howling around us, unable to get out. The next pair, Kev and Rich, did manage to get off base but were caboose bound for a good few days in bad weather. As my time approached I looked at the forecast with disappointment as heavy winds were predicted. The day before the trip though the forecast changed to a more positive one and James, the base Doc and I got ready to head out with Al. Things didn’t quite work out as straightforward as that though with James having to stay on base for medical reasons – someone else’s, not his.  So for the first day me and Al decided to have a short trip out down to creek three. The creeks are a feature down at the coast nearest Halley. The ice Shelf moves out onto the sea after flowing off the continent and is stretched, squashed and bent out of shape in various different places. One of those places is the Rumples – a sea mount on which the ice shelf is grounded – leaving the non-grounded ice to flow around it, this causes huge pressures and changes the flat ice shelf further down the coast into an undulating rollercoaster of peaks and troughs. These peaks and troughs will then become headlands and creeks as they break off at the ice edge.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

Because of this the creeks are often one of the best places to get down onto the sea ice and are often used for relief – depending on the thickness of the sea ice. The creek three area has been used for relief a number of times and this year again had a nice ramp down onto the sea ice, no climbing required – though we were fully roped up and very carefully across the transition for shelf to sea ice, watching out for tide cracks caused by the rising and falling of the sea ice against the heavier, more immovable shelf.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

Once down onto the ice you are surrounded by weirdness. Blue and white are the only colours to be seen and the landscape everywhere is of a grand scale, from the towering cliffs and headlands to the seemingly endless expanse of the sea ice itself.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

The sea ice itself is far from flat.  As it forms it breaks apart and then comes together again and reforms, pushing large pieces up into the air as the ice crushes back together with enough force to smash the hull of many a ship. These chunks of ice can weigh many tens of tonnes and form a large part fo the bizarre landscape we travelled across.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

 

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

The ice cliffs of the ice shelf jut out onto the sea ice, splintering and cracking and finally calving off small, large and monumental sized chunks of themselves into the sea – or on to it at this time of year.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

Other-worldly looking chunks of blue ice scatter the whole place, as they stand up above the sea ice the wind further adds to their strangeness, either adding tails and mounds nearby or scooping out channels or moats around them.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf, emporer penguin

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf, emporer penguin

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf, emporer penguin

A trip to the Antarctic seaside wouldn’t be complete without bumping into a few of these chaps. As ever they were inquisitive and wandered right over as soon as they saw us. Returning from a fishing expedition that may have been hundreds of kilometres away  to bring food home for the kids they seemed chuffed to bits to see us. We had to walk off and get away from them eventually before they forgot entirely that they had mouths to feed.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf, emporer penguin

This wind formation on one of the cliffs reminded me of the Simbas Dad in the Lion King.

antarctic sea ice and ice shelf

From the other side though it’s a bit more melted Homer Simpson.

 

After this all too brief wander out we headed back to base to see how things were. The bonus of this day trip in the field was a night in a nice warm bed and a kitchen cooked meal, luxuries we would forego over the next week.

Next up is Part 2 “The Return to Windy”.  I warn you though, the next post might just take youwell over your recommended amount of cuteness for the entire year!

 

Small Frosty Stuff

I won’t waffle too much, just post a few pictures of frost and snow flakes.  The frost here can be deeper than snow back home given a good length of time with low wind. As well as snow falling or blowing and adding to the mass of the ice, the shelf actually grow upwards itself – frost grows on every surface and is then covered by snow, blown away to land somewhere else or just keeps on building up.

Get up close and you can see the frosty, fractal-like Christmas trees twinkling in the light.

Anyway, I suppose this is me trying to be arty, just wish I had a proper macro lense!

 

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frost

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I was particularly chuffed to see perfect snow-flakes. We get plenty of snow in the North of England but it’s more likely to be like fluffy white cornflakes as opposed to the classic star-like snow flakes you see on Christmas cards. Some of the pics are frost that has then been snowed on – leaving little snowflakes wedged in like tiny little ninja stars have been thrown into it!