Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

I miss you and I hope you have a great night.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Boxing Day Outing
In the run up to Chritsmas and even on Christmas day itself it was all hands on deck to unload all the cargo (food, fuel and supplies) to keep the base running for the next year. When the rush finally subsided I sneaked away to the coast to visit the big red Santa ship which had also served as my taxi south the previuos year.
Here she is, moored up against the sea ice about a kilometre from the ice cliffs that mark the edge of the ice shelf I live on. Although the sea ice is 3m thick and thought to be capable of supporting weights of at least 6 tonnes the scramble nets hang down the sides incase the ice starts to break out with people working on it.
In the morning just before I arrived ship side they nearly had to make a swift departure as a large ice floe loomed ominously near to the hull. This one is nothing in comparison but still pretty: above you can see it floating towards the bow and below you can see that most of it lurks beneath the waves.
Looking at it from a distance it looks almost as if there are oil slicks all around. In face the calm, shiny patches are not pollution but areas of 'grease ice' where the sea surface is just beginning to freeze. It goes through several stagges as ice crystals starts to cover the surface on swirling patches which grow eventually into 'pancake ice'. The changes are visible from minute to minute.
Here I am about to head out for a boxing day stroll along the foot of the ice cliffs.

By the way, some parts of Christmas are just the same down here. For instance the ship arrived bearing bucket loads of maltesers so I have been stuffing my face with chocolate just like I would do back home at this time of year.
Also, we had a very white Christmas with beautiful giant flakes of snow.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ship's here at last...more photos soon

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Up up and away!!!

In spite of the recent invasions of outsiders it only felt like winter had truly come to an end at Halley when the first member of the winter team, field assistant Sune, set off for pastures new at the end of November.

I was overjoyed when I was asked to go with him, as co-pilot for the return flight. Not only did it mean I would be flying in a ski plane, exciting enough in itself, but the journey included visits to other Antarctic stations and, best of all, my first views of mountains and rocks and generally large amounts of colours other than white in a long long while.

Here's a fleeting glimpse, soon to be updated with a bit more explanation and some more pretty pics (sorry about the shocking lack of posting of late, the 12 hour shifts of summer eat into time for doing things other than work!)

First stop Neumayer, Halley's neighbouring German research station. The whole base is underground. Below you can see the very kind base commander giving me a guided tour, more photos to follow.

Below, our first landing in the mountains. First you trail the skis to check for crevasses and take off again. Then you land exactly on the tracks. Looking back, the tracks come from nowhere and then disappear again. Landing here gave me one of the most wonderful feelings of true isolation I've ever experienced.

Ok, so I got a bit excited about the mountains...

We landed here and slept overnight in the plane. Above you can see a depot of food and fuel to resupply Sune and the geologist he'll be guiding early in the new year.


South African Sanae Station from the air. We could see you waving but I' m not sure whether you could see us waving back!

Many thanks to staff at Neumayer and Troll stations for your wonderful hospitality.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Most of the Halley vehicle fleet is now back in action after its long winter slumber. It means we can do lots more outdoor stuff and we get to ride around and have fun, like me here attaching cables to the building from the basket of a crane.

Photo by Vicky Auld, Halley Base Commander.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

New Arrivals

Fresh faces, fruit, veg, salad and mail have arrived at last

Thank you so much for the letters, postcards and packages.

I was cooking yesterday and the smell of a fresh cucumber overwhelmed me. Some of my fellow winterers hadn't seen a banana for 2 years so that caused quite a stir. Tonight for dinner we had boiled potatoes, carrots and leeks, all done 'al dente' so we could apprieciate that crisp fresh feel.
Even more exciting, yesterday I had salad for lunch: crunchly lettuce and juicy tomatoes. Mmmmmm.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Heat Wave!

What a difference a day makes...

Last Tuesday morning it was -36 degrees, the kind of temperature I've acclimatised to over the winter. I've learnt (sometimes the hard way) not to do certain things - like touch metal with bare skin for example!

But how things can change, and fast... By Wednesday afternoon it was a scorching -3! Thats 33 degrees change in as many hours.

It didn't take long for a group to gather outside: celebrating in shorts and T-shirts, running around wildly touching things with gloveless hands -ok, maybe that was just me- and squishing snowballs to find, amazingly, that they stick together (usually the snow is too dry and powdery).
All outside doors were propped wide open to usher in that summer feeling.

Of course, it didn't last. It's back to -28 as I write. It did give us a taste of what's to come in the sunny months ahead where our noses will be released from their balaclavas to enjoy that Antarctic air.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Since my last visit, the chicks have grown into chubby little balls of fluff scurrying about on their own, falling over, rolling in the snow, and lapping up the attention of every adult penguin in sight.

Feed me!

My field guide taught me that you can tell what a penguin's been eating by the colour of its poo. Red for krill, white for fish and green if its hungry (bile). So it looks like the doting parent above has recently enjoyed a krill feast.

Oi, what you looking at??!

One comes to say hello. They seem to be just as interested in us as we are in them. In fact, one day when we were abseiling down an ice cliff near the colony a long line of curious penguins could be seen extending all the way towards us!

My new feathered friends

Penguins galore!

Inside a crevass at the edge of the ice shelf

Exploring on the sea ice.

All in all, a fairly extraordinary holiday.

Cheers to Dean, who took half these photos.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Don't forget the sunscreen...

I'm off on my holidays on Friday, hooray! Alongside my thermals, woolly hat and 5 season sleeping bag, I'll be packing my sunnies and plenty of factor 50. Sounds like a strange combination? Not in during the Antarctic ozone hole season...

Before I give anything away, why not test your ozone hole knowledge -

True or False:

1. The ozone hole is open all year round

2. Ozone absorbs harmful UV radiation from the sun

3. The ozone hole is the same everywhere on earth

4. The ozone hole was discovered here at Halley

5. One of the discoverers earned a Blue Peter badge for his efforts

6. The ozone hole is caused by global warming

7. The ozone hole will probably get better

8. The ozone hole affects everyone

9. Penguins get sucked into space through the ozone hole

10. It is possible to get sun burnt up your nose

So how did you do?


1. False. It opens up every southern spring, towards the end August after the sun has returned to the high latitudes. It peaks in October then fades away during late November or early December. There is good reason for this timing. Ozone destruction requires 3 things:


It has to be really cold because the chemical reactions that destroy ozone take place on ice clouds high up in the atmosphere that only form in temperatures below - 75 deg C. The ozone destroying reactions involve chlorine and also require sunlight to start them off. So ozone destruction starts as soon as the sun returns to the Antarctic in August (at Halley) and carries on until sometime in October it gets too warm for the ice clouds to form. The hole doesn't disappear immediately but instead hangs around until ozone from other regions of the world start to fill in the gap at the start of the southern summer.

2. True. The ozone layer protects us from some of the sun's most harmful radiation by absorbing it before it reaches us. The ozone hole is a bit of a problem for those of us underneath it allows more than double the normal amount of UV radiation to reach us. UV radiation is pretty nasty stuff, causing sunburn, eye damage and skin cancer. That's why I have to smother myself in sunscreen till I look like a yeti when I'm out and about.

. Here's a satellite picture of the ozone hole a week ago, approaching its peak (the blacks, purples and darker blues show areas of serious ozone depletion). It stretches over most of Antarctica and sometimes as far as the tip of South America. Antarctica is ideal territory for ozone holes as it's cold and isolated. During winter and spring winds high up in the atmosphere circle around Antarctica cutting it off from the rest of the world and stopping any high ozone air from filling the hole. There is a much weaker and less well defined hole over the Arctic during their spring, but the Arctic is neither as cold nor as isolated so mostly it's a southern hemisphere thing.
4. True indeed, back in 1985.

5. True! Jon Shanklin, still in charge of ozone measurements at Halley and hence my boss is the proud owner of a well deserved Blue Peter Badge.

6. False.
The cause of the ozone hole is completely separate from climate change or global warming. CFCs that used to be in refrigerators and aerosols are thought to be the biggest culprits.

7. True.
But it's gonna take a while. Latest predictions are that it won't have recovered fully until at least 2070. Even though the release of CFCs has slowed down dramatically following the Montreal Protocol, they hang around in the atmosphere for a long time. CFCs are not very reactive (ironically, that's why no one thought they could do any harm at first) which means they're tough to get rid of, so we just have to be patient.

8. True. Each year in December, ozone from the rest of the world starts to fill the hole. At the minute, ozone is being destroyed much faster than new ozone is being made, so the amount of ozone everywhere on the planet is down by at least 10-15%. Doesn't sound like that much but it means a big increase in the risk of skin cancer pretty much everywhere. The ozone layer also plays an important role in global climate and the full implications of the hole are not yet fully understood.

9. ? A proper scientist would probably say something like "contrary to popular belief, penguins are not sucked out into space through the ozone hole," but how do they know? Science has taught me that when penguins are sucked into space they explode (because of the vacuum). So who's to say that all this dark matter cosmologists have been looking for is not made up of fragments of exploded penguin. Sounds at least as feasible as the average scientific theory to me

10. True. Here in Antarctica (or anywhere else where it's snowy) the sun is reflected back up at you from the snow surface. That means you get almost twice as much sun as normal = sunburn in some very strange places like up your nose and the roof of your mouth (especially if you visit the penguins and you can't stop mouthing the words 'they're so cute').

8-10 You may even be in with a chance of qualifying for your very own blue peter badge one day.
4-7 Nice try but no cigar
0-3 You are in danger of being sucked out of the ozone hole along with the penguins.

One more thing... I've started writing for a blog on the website of a brand new American TV show called 'WIRED Science'.
I'll be writing lots more about Antarctic science so it's well worth a look.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Base Life

In the spring we all get to go on holiday: 10 days out camping and exploring. Ice climbing, abseiling, delving deep into crevasses, penguin watching or just sitting in a tent drinking tea and trying not to freeze in a storm. The first trip has now set off and is enjoying some gorgeous weather albeit in temperature of -35.

In the meantime, life on base carried on as normal:

Richard's 30th made me feel somewhat at home with a London party. See how many of the costumes you can guess.
(Answers: Mark as Elephant and Castle, Jules as Barking (barking mad by the look of it), Richard, birthday boy, as Tower Hill, Neil as Piccadilly Circus, Brian as Greenford, Andy as Paddington, Dean as Shepherd's Bush, Kirsty as Caledonian, Me as St James' Park and Jim as Blackfriars)

Jules stuggles through the deep powder on his crutches (he broke his leg kite-skiing).

Neil posing as Atlas at his Toga party this Saturday.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Global Warming?

No, I'm not really suggesting that global warming is a myth. In fact, the Antarctic Peninsula, where the other British base, Rothera, is situated, is the fastest warming place on the planet: 3 degrees over the past 50 years. That's why us hardcore Antarctic heroes at Halley call it the Rothera Riviera. Over there, ice shelves* that have been stable for thousands of years are breaking up, clearing the path for glaciers to flow into the sea. Warmer temperatures mean more melting on the surface of glaciers and this water flows through cracks to the base of the glacier where it acts as a lubricant, speeding up the flow. The sea is warming up too, melting the ice where it meets the sea and reducing sea ice. Soon there will be palm trees and everything. Book your winter-sun get-away to the Peninsula before it's too late!

*Ice shelves, like the one I live on, are massive sheets of thick, floating ice that's still attached to the land. In some places they act like giant plugs, preventing huge glaciers and ice streams from flowing out into the sea. Until global warming causes them to break up that is... maybe that houseboat isn't such a bad idea after all.

Anyway, here at Halley it's still pretty chilly. If you're interested in just how cold it's been this year, take a look at this temperature graph from the day I arrived here:
(you'll have to click on it to get a proper look)

You can see that I had a nice gentle introduction to this less than hospitable continent with temperatures at the start of the year not far below zero (I think there was one day when it was colder back home!). However, for the past six months or so -30 has been pretty normal and -40 has been a regular visitor. So far this is one of the 5 coldest of the past 50 years

I'm actually quite glad it's cold here this year. The colder it is, the less it snows. That means less digging to find stuff that was on the surface a few months back (and theres enough of that already, believe me)! Cold air holds less moisture which means less precipitation . That explains why Antarctica, a place which holds 90% of the world's fresh water, is technically a desert: it's too cold to snow much! The only reason we've got so much of the stuff is because it's too cold for it to melt either, so it builds up year after year.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Rise and Fall of the Blimp

Until recently, blimp flights had been going full steam ahead at Halley. We even went out one Saturday night as surface level ozone values plummeted. Above you can see Dean getting ready for launch and below I'm manning the winch.

Easy does it. I let out the lines at a nice steady speed, with only the occasional moment of confusion (the motor we use to power the winch was designed for drilling ice cores so up is down and down is up). Little did I know that it would be the final flight for this beloved blimp. May she rest in peace (or should I say pieces).

Three days later, 48 hours into a relentless spring blizzard, I battled my way towards the weather haven that houses the blimp only to find it making a bid for freedom. The giant tent is shaped like an aircraft hangar and by the time I found it the windward door had blown open creating a giant wind sock. Both sides were lifting several feet into the air, struggling to free themselves from their guy lines. It was a fairly awesome sight; for a moment I gazed on somewhat clueless as to how we were going to tame the savage beast.

Thankfully, base members came running out left, right and centre in response to my distress call. Fourth year winterer (as close to native as they come) Andy came to the rescue, rigging up an elaborate system of pulleys and anchors that eventually brought the situation under control. It took ten of us wrestling in white out conditions for over an hour but eventually the weather haven was saved.

Sadly the same cannot be said for the blimp. It was torn to shreads by the relentless thrashing of the tent in the wind. Once the storm had calmed and we realised the poor blimp was beyond repair, Kirsty and I decided to make the best of a bad situation (luckily we have a replacement so the science can keep going).

Here you can see us surveying the damage:

Later that evening we invited the base out to say farewell and enjoy a drink in the belly of the blimp:

Monday, September 10, 2007

Our Neighbours

On Sunday I saw another living being other than the 18 people on base. Actually I saw lots of them. And they were beautiful. And adorable. And breathtaking. And incredible.

It made me very happy:

I nearly cried when I saw my first chick!

Where the ice shelf we live on meets the sea ice that stretches out as far as the eye can see tower 30m high jagged ice cliffs (we didn't have to abseil it as there was a ramp further along).

Dinner time:

This made me very sad. I'd seen March of the penguins and I knew that not all of the chicks survive but the 5 or 6 dead babies littered around the edge of the huddle still brought a tear to my eye. Having experienced the conditions that our neighbours are exposed to, and without shelter, I'm amazed so many of them get through it!

The guard penguins around the edge of the colony keep a careful eye on us intruders.

Huddling together for warmth