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…

 

emperor penguins

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…

 

emperor penguins

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!

 

 

 

Snow Tractors

I’ve made it my mission to start a certain percentage of my posts with variations on the theme of “been busy, been a while etc…”

This one, I’m not going to bother because you can probably guess that I’ve had a bit to do.

Apart from working to keep things warm, light and movable I’ve tried to get a bit of normality back. So trips to the gym on an evening are back – something which helps a lot in keeping a rhythm to your life and helps you sleep – which then helps getting your confused self out of bed in a morning. Your circadian rhythm can quickly get messed up if you let it.  This should get a bit easier now that the sun is back with us though (next post about that!). It’s not shining through the window when you open you eyes but we do at least have a difference between night and day now.

Few people asked me about the vehicles down here, so here are some photos of the various stuff we get around and about in. They are all female apparently. Not sure whether it’s a trade thing but I’ve never seen a transformer or a distribution board and wondered about its gender but the mechs down here consider everything with a moving part a She or Her, mostly quite affectionately.

These are a few of the vehicles we have at Halley, most are winterised because when the temps get really low not a lot will continue to work down here. The dozers, of which there are two, are the workhorses of the station and run pretty much all year re-fueling teh base, pushing snow into the melt tanks amongst other things. A lot of the vehicles are mostly for summer use only though a lot do come out early and late in winter when the temps are less hostile.

First up, the Nodwells or Noddys. Big, heavy tracked vehicles with a crane on the back. Great for drum raises

Nodwell crane

Antarctic nodwell crane

Antarctic nodwell crane

Next the John Deere Tractors. These do most of the donkey work during relief dragging sledges up and down from the ship to the base in summer.

Antarctic John Deere

Antarctic John Deere

Then the 360 excavator and the cherry picker used for digging and getting up to high stuff

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Now we have the Pisten Bullys. The pride of the Halley mech crew – they love a bit of sexy German engineering.

Antarctic pisten bully

Antarctic pisten bully

My personal favourite, bit of a pain to drive but looks pretty cool. the Snow Cat. All purpose vehicle when the temps are above -30. Drive down to the ship or windy bay and also good for moving stuff around base.

antarctica snow cat

antarctica snow cat

antarctica snow cat

And one with one of the dozers.

CAT Dozer

Some of the machines winterised on the vehicle line.

halley Antarctic vehicles

And some shots of the vehicles with their winter coats on

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I’ll post some more pictures with the smaller polar hero favourites – the Skidoos along with some sledge pics. I’ll write something fairly sharpish about Sun up too, it’s quiet a big date in the Antarctic calender after all.

 

 

 

The Big Power-Down…

I wasn’t going to say anything about this but now BAS has issued a press release I will write a little. The following is the statement released by BAS today.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is dealing with a serious operational incident at its Halley Research Station. On Wednesday 30 July 2014 a major technical issue resulted in the station losing its electrical and heating supply for 19 hours. All 13 station staff are safe and in good health. Our urgent priority is to ensure the continued safety and wellbeing of the wintering team. Power and some heating are back online, and some other essential services have been restored, but the staff are having to live and work in extremely difficult conditions. The station has had good satellite communications throughout the incident. Contingency plans for alternative accommodation on site are in place and ancillary buildings are being made ready in case of a further power-down. It is now clear that because of the nature of the incident, and the prolonged loss of power, the station cannot now return to normal operation in the short or medium term.Everyone at Halley and Cambridge is doing everything that can be done to ensure that the incident remains under control. All science, apart from meteorological observations essential for weather forecasting, has been stopped.

From here: British Antarctic Survey News

 

I don’t really want to add any detail about what has happened down here (it’s nowt exciting honest!) but would just like to reiterate that we are all healthy, in good spirits and are busy setting about getting, and keeping the station in as good an order as possible. No-one here on station is responsible for the technical issues we are having and we are all working extremely hard.

Tea making facilities are still going strong.

On a happier note, despite the difficulties I really am still loving the place. Having made mention of how Antarctica can take things to another level just when you think you have seen something truly beautiful, well, I’ll have to say it once again. To prove that every cloud has a silver lining Halley, during the time without any power, was the clearest I have ever seen. This, coinciding with the loss of the small amount of light pollution we have, made the night-sky of the power-down the most beautiful I have ever seen – or probably ever will. the whole galaxy in its majesty, brighter than ever – going outside was almost a religious experience!

Another fairly cool, but problematic at the time, event occurred around the time of us losing power – the coldest temperature ever recorded at Halley Bay of -55.4 degrees. Throwing a cup of boiling water into the air resulted in small explosion as the water instantly turned into a cloud of ice crystals. This obviously didn’t help us on station at the time but it was nice to see a record set!

In other news, the Sun is on its way back to us. On a cloudy day the sky is really lighting up as the light from the Sun, still far below the horizon, is reflected upwards. After what we are used to it seems like there is daylight for a few hours a day now – though I know it;s just a pale (or dark) imitation of the real thing. Next week we’ll see the real thing, and shortly after we’ll need shades on all the time whilst out and about. Then it won’t be long at all till the night-sky is just a memory!

I’ll try to post updates when I can but I may well be fairly busy for a while!

People falling past my window.

No Photographs in that last post so here we go with a short post and some pictures from a while back.
On base we try to be ready for anything and everything, so training is a regular thing. We plan for many eventualities, amongst them are fuel and oil spill response – got to keep this wilderness pristine. Search and rescue, fire training with the breathing apparatus, alien-nazi invasion scenarios and emergency evacuation.
I forgot to take any pictures for most of them – during a lot I was struggling to drag on fire/oil/alien-nazi proof trousers but the emergency evac one was going on right outside my office window, after I’d done my escape. So we have some pictures of people hanging out of the A-module gym emergency escape hatch in a big yellow nappy.

emergency evac

going…

emergency evac

going…

emergency evac

going…

emergency evac

still going, couldnt see the landing.

And a last picture. On Midwinters day I won the raffle for the base flag, so here it is when it was still doing it’s job:

Union Flag Halley base

In a few more weeks the Sun will rise once more and Silver the Mechanic, as the youngest member of our team, will hoist a new un up the pole.

Alien-Nazis. Whenever I used to look on YouTube back home getting info about this place there would always be videos claiming to show spaceships or pyramids or hidden Nazi bases down here in the ice. There was one sent to me by a friend a while back of The German station Neumayer “shrouded in a dome of light!” which was actually just some lights switching on and over-exposing the night cam. The comments were nuts – “German base invaded by aliens” being about the best, what with it being YouTube. Unfortunately though, it was the work of a light switch and not aliens, whether of the shape-shifting, human-eating, non-corporeal or sexy variety not a one of em has popped in for a brew. The kettle’s always on too. Seriously, I know I’ve not seen the whole place but there really doesn’t seem to be any of them alien nazis down here. Sorry to kill any alien-nazi dreams there, whatever an alien nazi dream is.

Always pays to be prepared though I suppose.

Aw man, had a google for a picture of Neumayer and the top youtube post is “NIBIRU seen from Antacrtcia”! and “strange things happening in the sky at German base”. If any of you folks with reasonable net speeds out there find any good Halley alien stuff I’d be interested in seeing it! Bloody Germans having all the fun.

neumayer

Been a while, time for an update…

In the words of Doctor Nick: “Hi everybody!”

Been a bit quiet down Halley way since midwinter and hence- been a bit quiet on the blog writing front.

So, whats been happening down here then?

Well, not much is the simple answer. July down here is a little like January back home – or would be if January was permanently dark and going outside could kill you! The similarities are there though. The big celebration of the year is now just a happy memory and things are little low-key for a while. The weather has been a little harsh, so we’ve been stuck inside for quite a while and the sun is still some three weeks away from showing its face.

Now, I think it may have been obvious that I actually like the dark days and nights and I’ll happily enthuse about the joys of staring at the stars, but even there it’s been a poor do for the last month or so. In the periods where the wind has dropped to less than 20knt and the snow has eased up it has still often been cloudy and/or foggy. Whilst it’s a bit more extreme at -40degs it seems to me slightly akin to a miserable grey day back home. It’s just a bit “meh”. We’ve had plenty of days like that so not much opportunity to see the stars or auroras. When the wind gets up a bit then it’s a little more exciting. When it’s cold and clear the wind only needs to blow just a little and you feel like you might freeze mid-stride, so you have cover everything nice and tight (don’t want to go home without ears!). If its warmer but snowier you get the higher winds and staying on your feet or seeing more than a metre in front of you is a task in itself. The external doors at Halley are huge air tight spaceship-like doors and when you stand in the entrance looking out during a blow it’s like staring into some insane swirling vortex of nothingness. Step fully outside into it and it hurts!

So, July thus far has been quiet and it’s been one of the more difficult times I’ve had down here. It’s hard to explain but it’s like a kind of tiredness has hit you, nothing too big or drastic but it just seems like everything takes a bit more energy at the moment and it’s a touch easier to become irritable. Whether this is just down to the lack of daylight I’m not sure. You try to fight it by keeping a routine, resisting the temptation to sleep too much and to keep busy. That last one is none to difficult, this award-winning house doesn’t run itself after all! Plenty of work and a new routine in the gym (after the gruelling endurance challenge that was Race Antarctica – more on that later) and we all seem to be coping quite well – I don’t want to give the impression that we are all on the verge of becoming howling lunatics or anything, more just that it is noticeable that this is a bit harder than normal, a weird kind of lethargy.

I think the Americans have a good word for it – Toast (as in burnt out)  Marie, who has wintered at the Pole (and is now up in the Arctic) writes about it here:

Toast – AntarcticArctic.com

Here’s a taster: Toast, also known as “Polar T3 Syndrome” or “winter-over syndrome”, is a phenomenon that often presents itself in polar winter-overs. While it’s a popular joke and a common excuse it can ultimately become a serious issue. Someone who’s toast is burnt out – simply done.

It’s a great blog on life at the pole, well worth a read.

 

I hasten to point out that it’s not all doom and gloom down here, despite the lull in glorious sights and adventures it is, after all, quite a bit better than a nine to five job back home! It’s still a breathtakingly beautiful place despite its current appearance of absolute desolation. I think also, that perhaps one of the reasons it feels a bit greyer and duller is because we are all now beginning to look forward to the next few months and beyond. In around three weeks we will get to (briefly at first) feel the Sun on our faces again, we get to go down to Windy Bay and see the huge Emperor Penguin colony (and abseil down the ice cliffs to get to it). We have our second round of winter trips to look forward to and finally, although it’s a while away we get to see strange new people, outsiders coming in on the first planes in November (along with freshies!) after so many months of just the thirteen of us. And, though it seems far, far into the future right now there are thoughts of arriving home, seeing loved ones and dealing with the real world once again. So all in all a lot to look forward to during this quieter, more introspective month on base.

Seeing as that was a rambling post with no pictures or anything I promise to pull my finger out and write some more and post some more photos this week.