Halley Diary — August 2007

31 August, 2007

August already. How time flies. With the coming of the summer light, many of the yearly jobs can now be undertaken, jobs which have been caused by the relentless Antarctic winds, freezing temperatures and drifting snow, during the darkness of the winter months. In particular, the moving of the container line, out of their snug snow drifts. A line of 23 shipping containers, all storing supplies for base survival. Armed with a couple of Bulldozers, a 50 kilo towing chain, fitted with twist locks and some helpful (hardcore) volunteers, we were well equipped for some “brute force” shifting of the containers.

At last, the beginning of August enabled you to run outside without a head torch, and seeing the sastrugi before you fall over it.

With a glimmer of light in the distance, and the sun still a few degrees below the horizon, the inevitable “Sun up”, was once again on its way, to signal the end of the dark Antarctic winter and the start of another Antarctic summer. So what better way to celebrate, with a Hawaiian theme cocktail night. Although some were celebrating more than others, as Jules nursed his broken Fibula, (ankle), when he fell foul of bad wind and kiting play.

This was as good as it got on Friday 10th August 07, the first sun rise after winter, at 13.40. A small fraction of the sun’s disc looming menacingly on the horizon, before tiring and setting for another night at 14.30, an hour later. It was as if it was all too much of an effort, the sun didn’t want to overdose us on its rays just yet, it didn’t feel ready to blanket our landscape with a full on disc. But rest assured, with an average of 20 minutes extra each day, 24 hour daylight, wouldn’t be too far away.

As the Halley flag came down for the start of the Sun’s cycle — setting below the horizon and staying there for our 100 day long Sun-deprived winter on the 2nd May. It was once again time for the tradition for Jim, the youngest member on base, to raise the flag in celebration of the long awaited “Sun Up”. (Friday 10th August.)

To mark the occasion of Sun Up, I thought I’d try my hand at another BBQ. but this time one of the coldest I think many of us will ever experience at minus 44 Degs C.

The calmness of Sun Up was short lived. The clouds gathered and lingered the very next day. The winds changed and grew in pace and the drifting, blowing snow pummelled you like the grains of sand in a sand storm. Another blow and possibly the glimpse of a “White Out”. The visibility was scarce, every other step your feet would disappear in the howling blowing snow engulfing them – this was the weather NOT to be caught out in, any disorientation could lead you in any opposite direction, away from the safety of base.

August would prove to be quite a busy month birthday-wise, with the celebrations of Kirsty, myself and Alex. Although not a bad thing by any means it just means most of the Saturday’s in August are related to parties chosen by the birthday people.

The first of which was Kirsty’s “Action Hero Party” on the 11th August.

Kirsty’s birthday saw the game “Cereal Killer” come into play. “How low can you go”, in order to pick a cereal box up off the floor, that gets shorter and shorter, inch by inch, with both feet staying firmly on the ground and without any use of your hands, and nothing else touching the floor.

However, during the flow of the evening, it would seem “Harrison Ford” was getting too rowdy for “Lara Croft”, although she proved to be able to take care of herself!

But just to make sure the Gladiator, “Aurelius Maximus”, proved his worth, with the sharp point of his sword.

As it was my Birthday the next day, which coincided with my day off, and considering it was my 30th, I thought, how else could I spend my landmark Birthday – by sleeping rough, outside, on the Antarctic ice shelf itself. So on the eve of my birthday, with the weather closing in for another night of howling winds, and the thought of our warm pit rooms all too close for comfort, we prepared our “Bivvy Sacks” in the Laws corridor, along with warm refreshments of tea flasks and chocolate, and not forgetting the all important thermals!

Preparing our Bivvy bags, consisted of a foam sleeping mat, inflating mattress, sheepskin rug, fire proof outer bag, which your feather down sleeping bag fits into and a Bivvy bag, which is a breathable bag with a zip at the top which all of the above slides into, not forgetting me – cosy?

A German tradition, as instructed by Tom, our German UAV scientist, is the sweeping of rubbish outside the Town Hall when you reach 30 and are still not married. You must continue sweeping until a kiss from a virgin releases you. Since we haven’t got a Town Hall here, Tom threw all manner of shredded paper in the corridor and made me sweep it up with a nail brush attached to a broom stick.

With a pub crawl planned for the Saturday night of my birthday, I thought it’d be quite fun to dig a real snow cave, in the Drewery snowdrifts and use it as one of the stops for the pub crawl. I managed to collar Dean the Comms Manager, (who rarely gets out much, due to work commitments) and on Friday afternoon we started the mammoth dig. It soon became apparent we should have started it weeks ago, but hey, hindsight is a great thing. Knowing what a huge task we’d both taken on, and considering I was popping to and fro from the kitchen, (to cook lunch and diner), we thought we’d enlisted the help of Richard, another free soul for the day. With the three of us happily digging away on and off from Friday afternoon till Saturday early evening, and stopping only to go back to work or for food. We eventually managed to finish what we started, and managed to keep it a secret from the others, which made the excitement all the more rewarding when they peered round the corner on the last pub stop to see a candlelit cave. Big enough that you could walk around fully upright in, with no neck crouching, shelves for beers and a window for passers by and a centre pillar, featuring some dainty candle light but more importantly as an element of safety to the structure.

Dean, at the Drewery snowdrift, approximately 12ft high. The site of the mammoth dig.

Halley Pub Crawl, 18th August 2007. The venues, in order of safety first:

  • The Codis Dome, which houses our satellite and our link to the rest of the world, and me sipping some hot gluhvein.
  • Caslab – Simpson –
  • The “Pleasure” Haven, used to house the Blimp.
  • Drewry Ice Cave –

With the return of the light and good weather towards the end of the month, came the increase in workload for some. As the long awaited light provided the opportunity for Jim to level the Laws legs. Which requires a substantial amount of jacking up or down, depending on which way the level is required, 10 jacks equals 1mm.

Sune, the Field GA, was also kept particularly busy in August, with the hauling up of sledges from the container line back to the Laws, in order to carry out routine maintenance prior to our 2nd winter trip.

One of the major tasks for August, with the coming of the sun light, was the assembly of the weather haven, which houses the blimp. The Blimp is an airship style balloon equipped with weather instruments for recording, temperature, pressure, humidity, wind direction and wind speed. It’s then filled with Helium, and raised to a height of approx. 400 metres up into the atmosphere. The blimp also records additional data of ozone depletion at different levels within the atmosphere, which occurs when the sun hits newly formed sea ice.

It would appear the August light and good weather, give or take a few frigid days, would be the start of the Precious Bay recce’s, and a chance for Tom and Neil to install some ozone experiments there. Precious Bay is a site where Polynyas occur. Polynyas are large areas of open water surrounded by sea ice that are found in the same region year after year, created by upwellings in ocean currents, making the sea more salty. It is also a sweet spot for “frost Flowers” to grow, a tiny microscopic chemical called Bromine being blown in from the sea onto the frozen ice, and over time attaching themselves to each other forming flower like formations. These “Frost Flowers”, react like free radicals in the atmosphere in the new Spring light, which cannot happen without the catalyst of sun light. One of the instruments being used is a Spectrometer, which collects data on what series of reactive chemicals are causing possible ozone depletion. The experiment equipment will be powered by batteries, which in turn are being charged by both solar panels and wind power.

The end of August soon came around, along with Alex’s 27th birthday, with a party theme associated with “The Rocky Halley Picture Show”, taking place the weekend before and some very suspect wardrobe ideas.

The opportunity arose right at the end of August for a recce trip out to Windy Caboose approx. 20km away from base. A trip designed to flag a safe route down from the ice cliff onto the sea ice and also to dig out the Caboose, in readiness for the much anticipated look at the Emperor Penguin colony. Most of the empty drums along the route were buried, and those visible were as flush with the ice as man hole covers. One of many drum raising jobs, required to help map out, various places around Halley. The caboose is there as a shelter just in case bad weather hindered any return back to base, and is fully stocked with dried food and a stove for survival in the field.

With 2 anchors hammered into the ice, and a Shunt attached to our harnesses which was clipped into the anchored rope, we each set off, one at a time down the ice cliff onto the sea ice. A Shunt is a device which requires manual pressure in the form of a lever, to release rope, thus making you able to travel both upwards or downwards along the rope. By the time all three of us had traversed onto the sea ice, we were already being greeted by inquisitive Emperors, that had travelled 1.5 km away from the colony to perform, one of the most incredible and rare photographic sessions on earth. It suddenly dawned on me, staring into the dark eyes of these creatures, that this was the first living thing I’d seen for approximately 5 months, other than my fellow base members. And I was looking into the eyes of a living creature strong and tough enough to survive and endure every hostile weather, that Antarctica had to offer, with no food, no shelter, just the pure natural instinct to keep huddled together in order to survive. Here I was wrapped up in the best Antarctic clothing man had to offer, comfortable, just as long as I kept moving, certainly not if I just kept still.

The Emperor penguin is the tallest and heaviest of all living Penguin species. It is endemic to Antarctica, and is the only penguin species that breeds during the Antarctic winter, when the temperature can get as low as -40 degs C. Adult Emperors average 1.3 m in height and can weigh between 20 and 45 kg, making the Emperor penguin the 5th heaviest existing bird. Emperors start courtship in March or April, and are monogamous towards each other, in staying faithful to their mate during each breeding year. Despite their efforts for the same partners the following year, most simply cannot find each other and so choose another mate. In May or June, the female penguin lays a single 450 gram egg, in which she transfers to the male, who incubates the egg in a pouch for approx 65 days consecutively without any food, surviving on fat reserves and spending the majority of the time sleeping to conserve energy. The awkward transfer of the egg, can mean many couples drop the egg in the process, when this happens, the chick inside is immediately lost as the egg cannot withstand the low temperatures on the ice shelf. After approx 2 months of feeding at sea the females make their way back to the colony, where the chick is again transferred back to the mother, before the males leave for a few weeks of feeding. Each trip becomes shorter than before, due to the melting sea ice in the warmer summer temperatures, gradually decreasing the distance between the breeding colony and the open sea. Which is why the Emperors travel and breed so far inland, as any shorter distance travelled to breed would result in the sea ice melting, still with Emperor chicks on it, too young to take to the icy Antarctic waters. Eventually, all adolescent chicks and parents return to the sea and spend the rest of the summer feeding there, and at the end of the summer the whole cycle is repeated, for all those penguins of breeding age, while the younger ones stay at the sea edge.

August statistics:

  • Max Temp. -13.4 degs C on 28th
  • Min Temp. -44.4 degs C on 10th
  • Max Gust 64.3 Knots

I hope you enjoyed the August diary, thanks for reading!