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!

bit more Aurora…

The night sky is disappearing fast. Yesterday was the spring equinox, meaning we have officialy have twelve hours of Sun and twelve hours of night. In reality though; the light is there for quite a while before and after the Sun is above the horizon. This means my chances of getting out and getting great pictures of the night sky are dwindling fast – probably only this week left as the Sun relentlessly gets higher in the sky, on its way to being a permanent fixture in around a month and a half.
There was a big aurora last week – which I slept through! I did catch a few more later in the week though. Got a few pictures but the light show was quite small – just a vague bit of green with a hint of purple.

aurora over halley antarctica

Next a view looking straight up at the Southern Cross or Crux constellation. The second one is done with a faster exposure, you can see the four stars forming an upside down crucifix in the centre of the picture. There are two bright stars to the right of it, the one furthest right is our nearest steallar neighbour Alpha Centauri, around five light-years away from our solar system. (roughly I think – can’t check right now). It’s actually three stars together in one system. one larger, brighter star, one smaller and a third, more recently discovered dwarf star (again – I think! Go check this out and feel free to correct me – plus, its interesting!)

aurora over halley antarctica

aurora over halley antarctica

Next is a picture from a bit back – it’s a bit smudgy because it was quite windy out and hence the camera was wobbly but there’s a cool green goblin head up the sky.

A happy goblin, smiling away.

aurora over halley antarctica

Domestic Bliss…..

When we’re not enduring hostile weather, climbing ice cliffs, trekking across a vast white wilderness and other polar hero stuff (and working too obviously) we find other, less taxing things to do in our spare time.

Monday nights are a highlight of the week for a few of us because that’s the night we get hold of a copy of Great British Bake Off. Sounds nuts but Halley can’t get enough of it. Anyway, this weekend Kev comms, Paul the genny mech and Doc James had a bash at some of last week’s European cake efforts. Swedish princess cake and the other layered one that I can’t remember the name of. Under the watchful eye of Gerrard the chef they created these amazing things! I reckon they were better than the ones on the telly!

great british bake off antarctica

great british bake off antarctica

great british bake off antarctica

Kev and Paul made the Princess cake and James (above) made the layered sugary architectural monster

great british bake off antarctica

great british bake off antarctica

great british bake off antarctica

How Good are they?!! Tasted great too, though I did kind of ruin myself a little bit by eating my recommended yearly amount of cake in about half an hour.

Now I haven’t done any of the baking but, adding to the creative vibes I’ve been knitting.

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Yeah. That’s right. I’m showing off my knitting. Would have done more but we started to run out of wool. As well as knitting hats for four others I taught two more of the Halley crew how to knit. It just doesn’t get any crazier. I believe Black Sabbath used to do similar things on their tour bus.

 

 

Are you ready?

Last post was about the Girton conference attended by next years BAS newcomers. It reminded me of this video that was shown to us last year:

 

 

 

 

Pretty cool eh? Got us all raring to get South anyway.

The Beginning. Girton College. For another set of ice lovers.

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It’s a year ago since I began my contract with BAS, going down to Girton College in Cambridge and being like an excited 9 year old, learning more about where I was off to and who with, wandering around staring at peoples badges and seeing who’s who, where they are off to and whether they are summer or winter crew.

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If any of this year’s folk are reading I hope you have a great time – especially the Halley winterers obviously!

Enjoy the Ceilidh – go on have a dance! Don’t get anything sensitive caught in your climbing harness and remember your ABC’s.

Hope it’s nice and sunny for the field training too!

 

The Sun Came Back to Halley!

Yeah, I know, this happened ages ago but better late than never eh?

After just over three months of darkness the sun came back to our part of Antarctica. We didn’t really get the chance to properly celebrate what is quite an important date in the antarctic winterers calender and is also a really nice day – there’s something primitive inside that reacts well to the Sun coming back. We were, unfortunately, a bit busy to give the day it’s full dues. We did stick to most of the traditions though.

When the Sun fell below the horizon earlier this year Nick, the oldest member of the team, lowered the flag (which is now mine!)  flying above the base. With the arrival of the Sun again it was the job of Silver as the youngest of our crew to raise a new flag. Before raising it he gave a great speech, which got some good laughs, we then had a toast and officially welcomed the Sun back to us.

Sunrise Antarctica

Sunrise Antarctica

flag raise antarctica

flag raise antarctica

flag raise antarctica

So then, for those that don’t know, why does the Sun come and go for us down here? Well, it’s the same reason we have seasons. The difference between winter and summer is not caused by us being closer or further away from the Sun, but, instead , is caused by the fact that the Earth is tilted. The Earth spins on an axis – like a spinning top, but like a spinning top tilting slightly to one side (by 23.5 degrees to be precise). This tilt means that when the Earth is on one side of the Sun the bottom of the planet will be pointing away and the top of the planet will be pointing towards the Sun – this would be summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere. When the Earth is at the opposite side of the Sun this will be reversed and it will be summer in the South, Winter in the North.

Here’s a rubbishy drawing I did on paint that shows it a bit better!

sun

When the South is pointing away from the Sun, the most Southerly parts of the planet (like Antarctica) will not receive any light from the Sun at (and the opposite in the North)

This is one of the reasons why it’s so cold down here and so cold right up in the North of the planet in the Arctic. There a lot’s of other reasons too – and more reasons why it is particularly frozen in the South. I’m going to persuade Richard, our MetBabe to do a post about it!

 

Penguins. Thousands of em!

The weather has been pretty good for the past week or so – in fact it was unseasonably warm at one point with the temperature soaring up to -8 degrees C.  Might not sound too warm but the week before it was in the -50’s.  The temps have settled a bit around -30 now and although -30 is cold, having come through much worse over the winter it feels quite nice out, kind of like a brisk spring day! The Sun’s getting higher in the sky too and a few days ago the sunglasses came out for the first time since winter began. Summer’s a coming!

Because of this, and because everyone has been working fairly hard the team have been taking the chance to get off base, three at a time, riding down to the large emperor penguin colony down at Windy Bay. Windy is about fifty kilometres away from base, where the sea would normally be.  The journey down is done on skidoo. Because of a recent blow (bit of high wind) the route was fairly smooth with the sastrugi that bounces you all over the place flattened out a bit. The morning we set off though was a foggy one for the first twenty km so, for a large part of the journey we could have been flying. Zero contrast and limited visibility meant that you couldn’t see the ground you were riding on and could just about see the lights on the doo in front. No sky, no ground and no horizon with no features anywhere, it was a pretty weird journey. If a canyon opened up in the ice you wouldn’t have had a clue, in fact you could have ridden into one and you’d only know by the change in the engine sound! (till you landed)

Anyway, despite that it was  fairly straight forward trip, the route down to Windy is a fairly well-travelled one, passing a few weather stations and the old Halley 5 site. A couple of hours and we reached the old caboose, sitting about a kilometre from the edge of the ice shelf. As we took off our helmets and turned off the doo engines we could already hear the sound of the colony in the distance down below. The combined sound of thousands  of penguins was oddly like someone trying to start a car on a cold morning, though as you got closer it became more distinct and you could even make out the odd high-pitched tweet of the chicks. Harnessed up we walked down to the edge and the abseiled off the cliff and down to the sea ice about a hundred feet below. Nice and easy to get down, zipping down the rope, but an absolute nightmare climbing back up, I’m still aching now! Umpteen layers of clothing, heavily insulated boots, a fully laden climbing harness and a full rucksack all make for an interesting ascent. Made me feel old anyway!

That said, the climb back up could have been many times worse and it would have still been worth it. A visit to see the emperors is something that only a tiny fraction of people will ever get to do, to see them in winter when the chicks are still small and newly hatched is something even fewer will ever have the opportunity to witness.

Emperors are the largest of all the penguin species and whilst they are regal (as the name suggests) in comparison to the smaller and more flighty penguins they are still really friendly and full of character. They are one of the few animals left on the planet not to have developed a fear of humans and their curiosity means they’ll happily come over and investigate anything that interests them. As we were abseiling down the ice shelf a line began to form, coming out from the main huddle, as  more and more interested penguins noticed us. By the time I had touched down a small group had waddled over to check us out. Every now and again a braver soul would venture further forward and then the rest would follow, edging closer.  We are there as observers only, trying not to interfere and keeping a good distance away from the birds. They, however have their own ideas about that. The best position to be in is knelt down – that way you don’t spook or startle any of them, making slow movements and backing off if they get too close. As it happens though, the penguins will often come closer to you faster than you can get away. Apparently the only thing that will really frighten them off is if you lie down on the ice – giving them the impression of something seal-like, with leopard seals their only real predator on land. We obviously did’nt do that of course!

Stand up slowly and they’ll back off a bit and then you can walk slowly off.  The main huddle of penguins is made up of penguins keeping their chicks warm, balancing them on their feet and enveloping them under  their belly in a brood pouch, warm due to fat and incredibly dense feathers. At this stage the chicks would only last seconds if they lost the protection of their parent and would quickly freeze. As they get older they will develop dense, downy feathers and will be able to run round in groups. The emperor penguins life is one of impressive endurance and hardship. The female will lay one egg early in winter and then, depleted of her energy reserves set off back across the expanse of the increasing sea ice to fish. The male will take the egg from her and balance it on his feet, covering it with his belly. This is quite a tricky manoeuvre and many eggs are lost, if the egg rolls and touches the ice or spends too much time in the frigid air the egg will quickly die. The male will then spend the next two months in the harshest of conditions with -6oC temps and 100knt winds, unable to feed and losing up to half his bodyweight, taking care of the egg. The females will then come back, after walking hundreds of miles across the ice, bringing back fresh food for the newly hatched chicks. The male will then make the journey out to sea to feed before coming back and swapping again.  When the young are a little bit older and have a protective layer of feathers they will run round together in small gangs of delinquents or huddle together when the weather is bad – leaving both parents free to head off to feed before coming back with squid, krill and fish for their hungry and fast growing offspring.

emperor penguinsA line coming out from the main group to investigate the strange creatures coming down the cliffs…

 

emperor penguinsthey were keen to greet us but this one seemed to want to say hello to my backpack, staring at it for ages…

emperor penguinsthere’s always an adventurous one that will hurry ahead to see what’s going on….

 

emperor penguinsbefore the rest waddle over…

 

emperor penguinsthen they’ll loudly say hello and show off a bit….

 

emperor penguinssome have a look and then go for a walk….

 

emperor penguinssome will just stare intently at you until they get bored or you slowly back off and then move away

 

emperor penguinsthen they look all surprised as you stand up

 

emperor penguins

emperor penguins

The outer groups of penguins are either juveniles or individuals that have either not mated or lost their chicks or eggs and with nothing better to do will investigate anything that takes their interest. A little out of curiosity or maybe, it seems, to protect the main group with their young, they follow you around keeping themselves between you and the main huddle, getting closer and closer.

 

emperor penguinsThey come out of the guano covered ice to the fresher snow and roll around, rubbing themselves on the ice or each other.

 

emperor penguinsThis one seemed to be burying his head in the snow….

 

emperor penguinsbefore it became obvious he was busy eating it.

 

emperor penguinsThe main group is made up of many thousands of penguins…

 

emperor penguinsevery now and again there will be a little bit of friction between birds but on the whole they seem to really un-territorial and friendly with each other.

 

emperor penguinsHidden under the belly flap of the birds in the centre are the chicks keeping out of the winter cold…

 

emperor penguinsI had to keep an eye out for the tell-tale sign of one bending down to tend to the baby…

 

emperor penguinsand then you can see the chick poking its head out…

 

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emperor penguins

emperor penguinsit will then tweet loudly for food…

 

emperor penguinsor just say hello to its friend…

 

emperor penguinsor even just have a good stretch and a look around…

 

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emperor penguinsif it’s lucky it will get a meal from its parent. Emperors are quite mammalian in some respects, unique amongst birds the males will feed their young a milky substance high in fat and protein if the female has not returned with food yet. They are also quite marsupial-like,  in the way the keep the chick and egg in a pouch.

emperor penguinsIf the chick is unlucky it might just get a quick preening from its parent, something they don’t seem to happy about!

 

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emperor penguins

Cute as they are now, they get cuter. Hopefully I’ll get to go back down in a few months and see them all looking like small bags of fur, being boisterous, noisy and as inquisitive as the older birds.

Aww, penguins. you’ve got to love em. Cute as cute can be. These birds though are amongst the most hardcore animals on the planet. Everything they do is a real fight, right from the star of their lives. Emperor eggs are really thick and hatching can take up to three days, exhausting the poor chick. Then, for the adults, the longs months without food, the cold and wind, the staggering distances walked by an animal not really designed for walking. They are also at risk of the unpredictable nature of the climate down here, last year, for example, the sea ice broke out early wiping out a large percentage of that years chicks – any who were not fortunate enough to have moulted and grown their ocean-going plumage were lost.

They really are incredibly tough, and, as I mentioned quite regal – with their distinctive plumage. But, despite that, at times it felt like being surrounded by curious children. They really are amazing animals. I’m chuffed to have been able to go, another one of those days that is worth the whole time me being down here!