Halley Diary — December 2010

31 December, 2010

The summer season at Halley is the busiest, most important time in the Halley V calendar. Whilst the science and maintenance activities continue all year round it is during the long, milder days of the Antarctic summer that the work necessary to sustain absolutely every endeavour throughout the long Antarctic winter is carried out. Building maintenance and modifications are carried out by the skilled tradesmen of the technical services team. This team also carries out the scheduled maintenance and installation tasks associated with the core station services: the generation of the electricity and heat, the plumbing infrastructure and the electrical services. Vehicles are maintained and serviced by the vehicle tech’s to ensure that the movement of personnel and goods can continue throughout the season without interruption. In amongst the seasonal ‘bread and butter’ work the Halley V BAS team also support the activities associated with the construction of the new Halley VI station. A happy team is a well fed team and the Halley chefs do an exceptional job in keeping our appetites satisfied. There are over 100 mouths to feed during this busy summer season. With so many mouths to feed the quality of their fare is beyond expectation.

The snow that accumulates during the winter affects everything. During the early summer months vehicles are dug out of their snowy graves and prepared for the summer season and the Halley VI construction activities. Buildings like the Laws accommodation platform and the Simpson science platform undergo ‘snow management’ that will ready them for another year’s snow accumulation. It is a yearly task for the Met people to raise some of the science experiments and this month saw a small team head over to the Halley VI site and raise the Z6 (that means Halley VI) Automatic Weather Station that had been diligently monitoring the weather through the long cold winter.

It would not be an atypical Antarctic day unless one was holding a high quality shovel or spade in their hands and was readying themselves for some higher quality snow digging action. A large dollop of digging is what it’s all about in the frozen continent. So grabbing their spades and volunteering their professional digging services for this trip were Halley Communications Managers Iain Sissons and Emma Philpot, Doctor Susan Woodward and my Meteorological colleague Richard Sands. Once ready we set off on the 16km trip to the Halley VI site. A journey that would take 45 bumpy minutes in a Sno-Cat.

We arrived at the Z6 AWS and were generally surprised that the system wasn’t buried deeper in the snow.

Richard set about downloading the AWS data and, with spades at the ready, the rest of us started digging some very big holes.

In fact two great big holes were necessary; the power system (consisting of a battery box that is charged from a solar panel) had to be raised as had the AWS system itself which consisted of the met instruments and the logging system. Fortunately for us the snow was of a powdery consistency with little ice present to slow us down. So the digging progressed smoothly and quickly. This was in stark contrast to the ice festival that was the raising of the A10 GPS experiment site that Richard and I helped to raise just a couple of weeks earlier.

The Z6 AWS was raised within about two hours and looked better for it. All ready for another year of silent weather logging.

Apart from the birds and the seals at the coast, Antarctica welcomes no other animal. There is no way to sustain life. It is a desert, essentially barren and lifeless. Mother Nature is fully in control here and she has decided to provide very little if anything tangible at all. Without external support and supplies, human beings would quickly perish. At the very least Halley V is dependant on food and fuel just to keep the station and it’s personnel going. To keep the whole station and science in tip top shape other supplies are necessary e.g. tools, equipment spares, vehicles, gases. The annual re-supply of Halley V is referred to as Relief. In addition, the parts and supplies required for the construction of the new Halley VI station would mean that the Relief operation of 2010 would be an intensive one.

RRS (Royal Research Ship) Ernest Shackleton departed from Immingham in the UK some months ago and travelled via Portsmouth and Cape Town to pick up more passengers and cargo. It was due to arrive at Halley in mid December but heavy sea ice provided difficult navigating conditions which eventually delayed the Shackleton’s arrival at Halley until December the 25th. Aye, that’s Christmas Day.

Heavy sea ice conditions have prevented the ship from reaching the Brunt Ice Shelf a number of times. The last time this occurred was in 2003. When the ship was unable to reach Halley supplies were subsequently flown in via the BAS Rothera station which resides on the Antarctic Peninsula. This supply line is limited and all but the heavier, awkwardly shaped items can be transported. Supplies are stocked such that a station can survive by missing one relief. If Halley misses two reliefs then the station will probably have to be mothballed and restocked from scratch. The best option for getting all the supplies and materials in to Halley V in one go is by ship.

RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived on Christmas afternoon and the first big job was to get the ship moored onto the sea ice at Creek 3. Sea ice can be very unstable and great attention was paid to Creek 3’s condition prior to the Shackleton arriving. Heavy vehicles and cargo would be traversing the sea ice for many days so the sea ice at Creek 3 really had to be up to the job. Peoples lives depended on it and the Creek was rigorously inspected by the Field Assistant department over many weeks.

During Relief all the BAS staff and some Morrisons construction are allocated their roles – the teams on the ship took care of getting the cargo off the Shackleton whilst the Halley V sea ice team got the cargo to the top of the ramp onto the Brunt. A vehicle mechanic support team was based here as well to enable a quick response to any vehicle breakdowns that could seriously hamper progress. The vehicle operators working on the Brunt delivered the cargo to the Halley V supply line where it was logged then either parked or distributed immediately. It was a twenty-four-hour operation with two shifts splitting the day evenly between them. Once the cargo was delivered the Shackleton would then receive Halley V’s outgoing, northbound cargo such as recyclable waste and items that were being returned to Cambridge depot for whatever reason.

I was selected to work on the depot line and the fuel dumps. The team assembled for fuel dump duties were Richard Sands (meteorologist), Mike Ramage (doctor) and Bryan Brock (vehicle operator). Morrisons Construction contractors Nigel Blenkharn and Al Geach were both kind enough to lend a hand too.

And so the relief of Halley V began……..

We were working days from 7.30am to 7.30pm and the important task on the first full day was getting the food into its appropriate storage. There was lots and lots of food. With over one hundred bellies to fill and the 2010/11 wintering team to cater for the shelves of the food stores were jam packed with all sorts of goodies. What we couldn’t fit into the stores was packed into large ISO containers which were then placed on the Halley V depot line. The food stock was never ending and the night shift took care of the rest. When we took over from them the next morning the night shift team had begun receiving and stacking the aviation fuel or Avtur into dumps. There were over 1,200 drums of Avtur being delivered with over 700 being dumped at Halley V and the rest being stored at the new Halley VI site.

Old BAS hand Nigel was living the dream and his goal was to break the 12 hour stacking record. Over 700 was the target on day two and we charged on with our mission. Delivery after delivery arrived with little pause between loads. This is a testament to the efficiency of the operation on the whole and to the dedication of the staff involved. By the end of day two we had stacked 726 drums of Avtur. The record had been broken. Nigel was happy and, well, I just wanted to go to bed. In what felt to me like Groundhog Day, we repeated the task at the Halley VI site the next day where we managed to move over 500 drums. No mean feat considering that the Halley VI site was 16km further on from Creek 3.

One thing that really helped move the relief process along was the fantastic weather we enjoyed from start to finish. I just couldn’t imagine what Relief would have been like in the midst of an Antarctic blow. The Relief of Halley V was completed with the final northbound load being delivered and loaded onto the Shackleton on New Year’s Eve. RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived one week late but departed one day early. Christmas and New Year were essentially cancelled but the job got done. I’ve never see such focussed dedication in people at a time of the year when one should be kicking back, relaxing and enjoying the Festive period.

The whole Relief exercise demonstrated to me that when there is an important job to be done at Halley the people on station all pull together, get their heads down and put their collective shoulders right into the job in hand.

Andy Dixon
December 2010