Apr – Winter Trips

30 April, 2005 Rothera

Rothera Diary, April 2005

April has been our first full month of winter since our summer colleagues left for the year. Traditional April Fool japes were skipped as we were still recovering from the catalogue left by those who departed on the ship. Elusive alarm clocks were finally tracked down in light fittings, shorts retrieved from inflated weather balloons and the skidoo removed from our sewing loft in the sledge store.

It’s been a busy month with winter trips continuing and the usual surly winter weather catching some sledge parties in poor conditions for the full six days or longer while others were blessed with clear polar air to reach their destinations. Glen, Andy P. and Andy L. spent a sensible time on Lagoon Island with home comforts of the hut there. Kirk and Andy W had an excellent 3 day spell of weather allowing them to climb all three Mt. Reeves summits with views over the whole of Adelaide Island.

Ed and Dan also reached the top and managed to ski and board down before bad weather kept them in their tent for the next seven days, much to Dan’s dismay. The week before Kat and myself had sat in snow and cloud at the base of the hill for several days only to finally pack up and come home when the weather cleared. Other trips saw Simon and Mike manfully manhauling their way across the Wright Peninsula, setting a very respectable distance of 26km on one day with an ascent of Mount Gwendoline included. Trips to Carvajal, an abandoned Chilean Base at the southern end of Adelaide Island formerly owned by BAS, proved an atmospheric destination with lots of wildlife including some very bad smelling elephant seals. Jo, myself, Kirk, Matt, Andy L and Paul were all fortunate enough to reach Carvajal for varying lengths of stay.

Leaving base for a week at a time allows a fresh perspective each time on return. The showers are always hotter than you remember and the beer colder. We returned from the first winter trip to news that crunchy nut cornflakes were under lock and key for winter rationing, the bar was no longer as the renovation work had begun and chickenfish remained a mystery that was perhaps better left undiscovered after a cursory web search. World news was that the pope has died, Charles and Camilla married, war in Iraq and politics in Britain but it all seems a long way off.

Days are now shorter, temperatures lower, snowfall heavier and most of the wildlife has bade us farewell for warmer climes. Adelie penguins have moulted and departed looking dapper. Fur seals who previously camped on the runway like scruffy but amiable protesters have all gone. Skuas have all left their nests on the Point and there’s not much chance of seeing a Shag until the start of next summer. Hardy snow petrels remain and provide occasional sightings in the hills or over the open water. Sea ice is proving capricious and after what seemed a promising start to the month, open water is again around us. There is now a good covering of snow around base and there’s many a shovel at the ready to dig out doorways and anything else left out in the snow. We have now stored our wheeled vehicles for the winter and are using skidoos for travel.

The winter period is much more communal than the hectic summer season and Rothera life now resembles what I can best describe as a combination of the ‘Waltons’ and the ‘Discovery Channel’. There is many a John Boy moment when all 21 of us are gathered round our communal table. Issy continues to make excellent food with limited ingredients, fresh carrots have run out but we’re not exactly roughing it. Volunteers on cook days set a hard act to follow by those of us less culinary gifted and my name is still conspicuously absent from the rota. Meanwhile the winter science programme continues undaunted by lower temperatures and increased darkness and continues to deliver world class research. Meteorology, Upper Atmospheric Studies, Terrestial Biology, Marine Biology and the Dive Programme all continue over the winter period along with the essential base duties. Andy Mac the generator dude keeps us in power, Mike the plumber produces our freshwater (and the task of least envy) disposes it at the other end, while Paul and Gary manage to keep on top of repairing skidoos which winter trippers manage to break, ably assisted by Field Assistants.

People often ask how we spend our leisure time down here and don’t manage to get bored without the usual trappings of our modern day media saturated lifestyles. Winter activites of skiing, snowboarding, and climbing aside there seems to be too many activities and too little time to fit them in. Circuits are held in the gym twice a week by aspiring PTI Matt with Yoga and Pilates to follow. Photography is ever popular and those not wholly converted to digital media develop their own prints in the darkroom. A Pin Hole camera has been made by Glen and Jules with some excellent first results. Resurrection of the night sky camera ‘Celestron’ is also now complete and we look forward to seeing the results of its star gazing. The Green Room, our musical venue, is busy with the current musicians and those learning instruments to join the band. Movie nights twice a week on our big screen are ever popular showing as diverse a taste in cinema as everything else by those on base. The library still provides a quiet haven, not to mention the approach of the Polar Ping Pong Challenge.

Social occasions revolve around the weekend though a few birthdays this month have attracted mid-week celebration. With the bar undergoing renovation by Glen and Andy P. our temporary bar is now sharing our dining room space for that continental (polar) cafe bar atmosphere. This month we were also treated to ‘Sloppy Jo’s Cocktail Lounge’ in a specially prepared venue complete with palm tree, parrot and many a loud shirt. It was a memorable night for some, thanks to Jo and Dan. The following week an Eastern European Night hosted by Issy, Agnieszka and Jules boasted an impressive display of food.

The food, authentic decorations, toasts and folk dress all made an excellent evening. We really were spoilt for choice as you can see from the following menu.

  • Barszcz with Caraway Seed Bread
  • Goulash, Schnitzel, Bigos, Pierogi, Bratwurst & Saurkraut, Frickedellen, Potato Dumplings, Steamed Vegetables
  • Poppyseed Cake, Stollen, Faworki, Apfelkuchen, Coffee

Month by month the winter diary will cover the ongoing science programme and for now Met and Upper Atmospherics get the glory. Light or dark, clear or snowing, calm or blowing a gale, our intrepid Met team continue their work. Jules or Ags release a helium filled met balloon at 0830 four days a week to coincide with other launches around the continent. These provide temperature and pressure profiles up to heights of ten kilometres which are sent to the UK Met Office for input into global weather forecasting models. Meteorological Observations are taken five times a day at three hour intervals keeping records of temperature, humidity, wind strength and direction, cloud amount and height. These observations provide comprehensive records giving trends and comparisons to previous years. Three times a day contact is made on HF radio, our standard communications down here, with our ‘neighbours’ at the Ukranian Base Vernadsky 200 miles North of Rothera. Their Met information is collected and passed on and gives Jules a chance to practice his Ukranian.

Precipitation samples, in the form of snow, are collected and sent to the UK for contamination analysis. Although Antarctica is often described as a white desert due to the low levels of snowfall for the size of the landmass, we get our fair share of snowfall here on the coast as weather systems collect moisture as they pass over the ocean on their way towards us. Snow accumulation rates are measured, we average one metre per year after it has consolidated.

Upper Atmospheric studies comprise more acronyms than a military briefing but here goes. The GATF project (Geospace Atmospheric Transfer Functions) studies gravity waves in the mesosphere ninety kilometres high. The full effects of gravity waves are still unknown but they can affect orbiting satellites which much of our modern communications rely on. Gravity waves can be seen on the image from an Air Glow Imager which measures light emitted from gaseous layers in the upper atmosphere below.

The BOMEM (Michelson Interferometer) measures light produced by gaseous layers in the atmosphere and calculates temperature profiles from the light intensity. Other Interferometers around the globe take similar measurements and are compared for the global representation. Atmospheric winds produced by gravity waves can be detected by a Medium Frequency Radar while the VLF Doppler, a Low Frequency Receiver, detects changes in geomagnetic energy caused by solar activity and tropical thunderstorms.

Perhaps the most striking results for the layman are produced by the Meteor Radar which detects thousands of meteors entering our atmosphere per day and deduces upper atmospheric temperatures and winds by measuring the density of the meteor’s tail. The following image displays the number of meteors detected directly above us. Albeit many are no larger than a grain of sand, it can be surprising to learn what we are blissfully unaware of.

Due to the low levels of light pollution and clear air our location is ideal for witnessing meteor storms, in fact I thought I saw two shooting stars and wished upon them. But they were only satellites, it’s wrong to wish on space hardware.

So that’s it for April, all in all an excellent start to the Winter for all of us lucky enough to be here. Hello to everyone at home, Ireland, Scotland, Alabama, enjoying the joys of spring, sitting in the garden and drinking G&Ts.

Rob Smith