Halley Diary — April 2003

30 April, 2003 Halley

By Paul Torode

April has been a very quiet month at Halley, characterised by a steady decrease in daylight hours as the winter approaches. For many of us wintering for the first time, the decline in daylight hours is proving to be an interesting and novel experience. For the last couple of weeks now, the sun has risen lethargically above the horizon around mid-morning, hanging low in the sky until mid afternoon before sinking languidly in an orange glow. The elongated shadows and superb contrast during these reduced daylight hours have had many of us reaching for our cameras. The sun will not rise above the horizon at all on 30 April, marking the start of three months of darkness.

It has become a lot colder this month too, with temperatures regularly dipping below -30 degrees Celsius. Any physical activity outside now results in clothing layered with frost, goggles frozen over, and even eyelashes that glue together. The Laws platform is periodically coated with a rather atmospheric layer of hoar frost, with the network of aerials and antennae taking on the appearance of dew-laden spider silk. Thankfully the low temperatures usually coincide with little wind, so work outside is rarely as unpleasant as might be imagined. The main inconvenience is often doing fiddly jobs with thick gloves on. The cold bites aggressively, and metal touched with bare hands burns with the sharpness and intensity of a naked flame. It’s amazing how quickly these temperatures become acceptable though. The temperature briefly rose to -20 degrees Celsius last week and it suddenly felt warm!

With the dark months looming, final preparations have been made to ‘winterise’ the station. Ben the vehicle mechanic has serviced the sno-cats and skidoos and parked them up on the container line, where they will spend the next six months. Graeme the generator mechanic has filled the huge bulk-fuel bladders, which reside twenty metres below the surface in the service tunnels. These supply the generators, which in turn provide all the electricity for the station. Everything outside has been tied down or packed away, leaving the station very different in appearance from the summer. It’s also become very quiet with only two skidoos left in service! Science work continues unabated, and will continue throughout the winter months.

The last of the five recreational pre-winter trips was completed on 2 April. The Base Commander Patrick and myself were able to reach one of the heavily crevassed areas of the ‘Hinge Zone’; an active area, which marks the boundary between the Antarctic landmass and the Brunt ice shelf. We abseiled two of the large crevasses, to view the stunning display of icicles and hoar frost that festoon the frozen walls.

The 50 metre ice cliffs provided an opportunity for some ice climbing in one of the chasms, and the 50 kilometre drive back was memorable, with the sun low in the sky, ringed by a circular rainbow and mock suns, or ‘sundogs’

An important part of station life is the opportunity to dress up and drink beer! April began with a themed ‘Bond Night’, when various characters from the films appeared for a sumptuous meal created by Craig the Chef.

After the meal preparation was over Craig reappeared – with a liberal smearing of white and black face paint he was now indiscernible from ‘Baron Samedi’ out of ‘Live or Let Die’. The evening brought together some world-class villains and secret service agents, but a truce was held long enough for a photograph to be taken and to watch the latest Bond film on DVD.

Don’t let it be said that these social events can’t be educational as well as entertaining. On Bank Holiday Monday a ‘University Challenge’ style quiz was held. Two teams battled it out in an atmosphere that could only be described as ‘tense’. The ‘Beakers’ and ‘Techs’ fielded questions from the inimitable ‘Bamber Paxman’, and the ‘Beakers’ soon held an impressive lead. Despite being a bit slow on the buzzers, the ‘Techs’ managed to close the gap substantially before being beaten on the last round of questions. With a final score of 260 to 245, the appreciative audience was held captivated to the last moment.

In time-honoured tradition, several methods of beating the winter blues are employed at Halley: examples of which have been displayed over the past couple of weeks. With a few bottles of peroxide and a little creativity, the station now boasts more ‘blondes’ than it had a month ago. A change of identity seems to brighten things up a bit, even if it is not always the intention! Tommo did get the originality award this month for his alternative barnet.

The station doctor Gavin, never one to pass up a challenge, picked up the gauntlet when a newspaper clipping came our way, faxed down from BAS HQ in Cambridge: A recent record has been set by two mountaineers for high altitude ironing, and Gavin felt he could set his own record for the ‘furthest south, extreme temperature ironing’. In temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius, the tenacious doctor made short work of a duvet cover outside the Laws platform, with power from a portable generator. He has no doubt assured himself entry into the record books.

When we sent the picture back to HQ they told us that we would be eligible to enter a prestigious competition of “Extreme Ironing”, apparently for those of you with the luxury of internet connections, there’s a whole website dedicated to this up-and-coming sport, at www.extremeironing.com, click on our entry for the competition below to read more.

Another notable event this month has been the long Easter weekend, where for many, there was an opportunity to relax after a very busy summer and equally frenetic pre- winter preparation. Sometimes Emperor Penguins abandon their eggs, and this one was discovered in the depths of the freezer – it had probably been picked up several seasons ago. In true Antarctic style even the easter eggs are enormous!

Other events to relax at the weekends; The Base Commander has ensured a full house each Sunday night from now on with the screening on DVD of the recent series, ‘24’. With twenty four, one hour episodes, the tension should build sufficiently to rival the excitement of ‘Who shot JR?’

The light at this time of the year is beautiful, and the Southern lights (aurora australis) are starting to appear with regularity now. The effect can be quite mesmerising. The sky is streaked in colour, which oscillates seductively in the night sky. These ephemeral waves of gases in the ionosphere are excited by incoming bombardments of the sun’s ‘solar wind’. The protective magnetism of the earth forms a deflective shield, which pushes these ionised particles to the two poles, and it is here that the auroras are concentrated. Different gases display differing colours when excited, and it’s possible to state which gas, at which level, is being affected by the ionisation. They are being studied here in great detail, but from a superficial point of view, just make for a stunning lightshow. The added bonus is the total lack of light pollution down here, which create the most vibrant night skies imaginable.

Hello to my family in Guernsey and Yorkshire, and to the chaps in the Lakes!