Extreme Cold, Extreme South, Extreme Science

30 June, 2009 Halley

As I take off from the ice runway at the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley base, situated on the Brunt Ice Shelf (75°34′S 26°34′W), I finally realise I am living and working at the extreme of human endurance. I am in one of the Survey’s De Havilland Twin Otters, known as Victor Papa Foxtrot Bravo Bravo (or VP-FBB), heading to the remote automatic weather station known affectionately as Baldrick, located at 83°South.

The weather station is hundreds of miles from the nearest living thing (human or otherwise) in the middle of the most inhospitable environment on the planet. My life is entirely in the hands of the pilot Mark; fortunately they are very skilled hands.

The three and a half hour flight quite literally flies by. I might normally be the meteorologist, but whilst flying I am the co-pilot as well; numbers dictate that multi-tasking is a way of life down south.

The landscape is spectacular, mile after mile of pristine white snow, never touched by a human, or any other living thing for that matter, punctuated just occasionally by mountains surging up from it, as if from nowhere. The Shackleton range is stunning as we fly over it that day. Landing on the Antarctic plateau is an exhilarating affair — no nice strip of concrete here, just bumpy, lumpy and, hopefully, crevasse free snow.

Baldrick, the weather station we are visiting, provides vital information for climatologists studying global climate change and meteorologists modelling the earth’s weather, thus enabling more accurate weather forecasting around the globe. Antarctica might be a long way from New York, London or Tokyo, but in terms of climate and weather they are next-door neighbours, and what happens at one has a direct affect on the other. Research all over the whole globe is needed if we are to truly understand and combat the dangers of global warming.

Unfortunately, the pressure sensor is faulty, hence this visit. I need to replace it and generally service the station for the forthcoming Antarctic winter, when it will be pitch black, −60°C and with wind speeds over 50 knots.

On landing, the pilot and I reverse roles; now we are doing the science I am in charge and Mark helps me, which he is more than happy to do. Changing the sensor should be easy, but at −25°C, with a 30-knot wind, nothing is easy. Fingers freeze, stop working and become exceptionally painful. We are also at about 3000 feet, so the air is thinner than back at our sea level base; in such conditions anything manual takes some effort. This makes fitting the extra 45 kilogramme battery box, to ensure there is enough power to last the dark months, when the solar panel is out of action, exceptionally hard work.

My work done, Mark is once again in charge. We need to refuel the plane. The Survey has fuel dumps at known locations around the plateau; the Twin Otters are fantastic planes for the Antarctic but do not hold unlimited amounts of fuel, so, to ensure we have enough to return, we fill up with a couple of barrels of avtur (aviation fuel) from the dump. Again, this is hard physical work at this altitude. And if my hands felt cold before they are now freezing, as even a drop of avtur on your gloves wicks the remaining heat away instantly.

Finally we are done and warming up in the cockpit before taking off for Halley and a nice warm meal. To get your hands warm you wave them around, getting the blood flow back to revive them. This is the single most painful thing I have ever known; I am close to tears, but after five or ten minutes they slowly begin to improve, and I do mean slowly.

The trip is a great success. Baldrick is happily sending pressure information (and all the other weather data) back to the base via satellite before we even get to Halley. This makes the long hard day and the frozen fingers all worthwhile; we have done our little bit to help progress climate science, a very satisfying feeling.

If only my middle finger would get its feeling back. Everyone told me it might take a couple of weeks to recover from the cold, three months later I’m still waiting…

Giles Finch