Halley Diary — January 2003

31 January, 2003 Halley

Gavin Francis (Base Doctor)

New Year, new Halley wintering team, and a lot of new faces at Halley (mine being one of them). Jon Seddon, 2002 AIS engineer, has handed over the web-site reins to me, and his explanations of html and hyperlinks have left me feeling a little dazed. For that reason this month’s web-page is going to be a bit experimental (!), but as of next month more and more of the winterers will be writing parts for it.

New Year’s Eve was a night to celebrate in more ways than one: the ‘relief’ of the ship had been successful enough that on New Year’s Eve we moved from 12 hour rotational shifts onto day shifts only, so no-one had to work through the night. We saw in the New Year out on the Laws platform, and managed to celebrate it twice; at GMT and at local time (GMT-3). For most it was still quite a novelty to be enjoying sunshine at midnight!

But after the party was over there was still a lot of relief to be done. The route from Halley down the 11km drum-line to the ship was becoming a motorway, with the enormous volume of cargo moving up and down it every day. Sometimes when at base it’s easy to be caught up in the immediate goings-on around you and you can forget just how remote this place really is. When you can see the base as a speck on the horizon from 11km away, and it takes you an hour to get to it while all the time it’s in full view, you have more of a perspective of how Halley really is just a dot on this landscape of ice.

Once relief was out of the way the ship started to prepare to leave for the Falklands. Back on the base we celebrated again (always an excuse for a party) with a barbecue – sub-zero barbecues being a long tradition at Halley. At one point I noticed that my beer was beginning to freeze – and those who are staying on for another winter, (Ben, Annette, Elaine and Mark Stewart) laughed ‘This is nothing! Usually you’ve got to keep your beer over the flames!’ Oh dear….

So with relief over we thought we would have a bit of a break – but no! This was time for the real summer work to start – and during the brief Halley summer season there’s always plenty to do. All of the platforms (The Simpson, Laws and the Piggott) have to be raised up on their legs, and then science and communications masts too. Then there’s the melt-tank tunnel which has to be brought back up to the snow-surface (into which is shoveled an amazing amount of snow every day – how could we ever use so much?!) fuel drums which have been buried under a year’s accumulation of snow to be dug out, and the CAS Lab (Clean Air Sector Laboratory) to be built. There’s plenty to do.

But Steve, the Base Commander, does give us some time off… Halley is a perfect place for Kite-skiing, and we have a few enthusiasts. Hundreds of miles of ice shelf to play with and when the wind’s right then some of the best kite-boarding to be had anywhere! The snow alongside the Laws platform was bulldozed flat in preparation for raising the legs, and coincidentally resulted in a perfect football pitch. It was a relief to have no back gardens to kick the ball into (nearest neighbours being 800 km away), but there were still a few groans to be heard as wayward kicks sent the ball up onto the Laws roof or underneath the platform itself.

And in between all of these activities there is even the odd opportunity to do some science. Atmospheric science is a major part of the scientific programme here at Halley.

I’ve been asked to write something about the science I’m doing down here at Halley this year to go next to a picture of a blimp. This blimp is about to be launched up to an altitude of 200-500m carrying a pump, a filter, a flow meter, a little logger and a ‘RuSonde’. The pump pulls air through the filter, at a flow rate measured by the flowmeter and recorded by the logger. The RuSonde measures the temperature, pressure, wind speed and direction, relative humidity and altitude every 10 seconds and sends the data back to a computer on the Simpson platform via radiowaves. By watching the trace on the screen as the blimp is released upwards (strongly attached to both an electric and manual winch), we can see how the air masses are changing with altitude. This helps us to understand the type of air mass being sampled by the filter that is also hanging off the blimp. Has the air come directly from the sea or the pole? Has it been near the surface or stayed in the free atmosphere for the last few days? Has it been circling Antarctica or been carried in from South America or possibly Africa? These are some of the questions we can answer using the blimp.

The biggest single event of the month for many of us was the trip down to the coast to see the Emperor Penguin colony. The chicks are fledging at the moment, and most of the adults are off at sea feeding. The chicks huddle in groups often with one or two adults (called, appropriately, “crèches”!) and are waiting for their mature feathers so that they too can go to sea to feed. Although the day was quite overcast we were treated to a halo around the sun. It took an hour and a half of bouncing along on the back of a German Sledge to get to “Windy Creek” where the colony is, and climbing down the edge of the ice cliffs into the colony was an experience that many of us felt very privileged to have.

Emperors incubate their eggs through the winter so that by the time the chicks are mature enough to go off to sea the sea-ice will have melted and broken up, so they won’t have far to go. It’s difficult to describe the sounds of the colony, the smells (!) and the feeling of sitting with these birds who seem totally unconcerned about being invaded. Back in the northern hemisphere we’re so used to having to sneak up on wildlife, it comes as a shock to be able to sit down calmly with the Penguins and find they don’t want to run away!

A mention should also be made of our ‘first foot’ visitors of the new year – some of our next-door neighbours came over from Neumayer Base 800km away to complete an aerial magnetometer study. Neumayer is a German research station which was built in order to allow snow to accumulate over it (in a similar way to the previous Halley station – Halley IV) and is now several metres underground. They stayed for a few days while completing their survey, enjoying our hospitality and the fact that we had light coming into the building through windows!

Our second set of visitors of the New Year arrived over the last few days – some Adelie Penguins, ever inquisitive, have waddled up the drum line from the coast to see what all the fuss is about. They’ve installed themselves behind one of the containers and seem in no particular hurry to leave. This would be alright if they were normal-sized Adelies, but we’re getting alarmed that with ones this size, if they gather in enough numbers we might need to take steps to defend ourselves!

Well… I suppose the light around here can play tricks on you. When Ed approached they seemed to shrink back down to normal size….

We’re half way through the summer season now, the RRS Ernest Shackleton is on her way back from the Falklands with more fuel, mail and fresh vegetables, and everyone is preparing for another ‘relief’. This time next month if all goes according to plan the ship will have left and ‘summer’ will have ended. It’ll just be the 15 of us until the planes come back in November.

Next month Pat McGoldrick, Winter Carpenter and Base Commander will be giving us his impressions of Halley. He was part of the team which wintered here for two years in 1990 and actually built Halley V, so can give us a perspective on how (and if) things have changed.

Happy New Year, and Lots of Love to everyone I know (you know who you are…)

(P.S.Thanks for the all the e-mail comments on the peroxide hair – don’t worry guys, I’ve shaved it all off!)