Halley Diary — January 2004

31 January, 2004

Apologies for the tardiness of this first diary installment of 2004. Life at Halley has been very hectic to say the least since RRS Ernest Shackleton arrived for first call just before Christmas. During the short summer season there have been a lot of technical support services staff on station and the following is a few words about what they get up to.

The Unsung Heroes of the Antarctic By Nathan Keen

An alarm clock peals and it is another day of research for the scientists on base at Halley. The rise from their comfortable beds, turn the light on in the warm room and then pad down to the washroom for a shower before tea and toast. After getting thick clothing on it is a quick walk to the skidoo, after starting on the first turn of a key it is a short whiz over to the science facilities and thus starts just another normal day.

This does not seem an unusual feat but these things are provided by a large team of engineers of varying trades who make this all possible. Behind the scenes we undertake a massive maintenance operation that ensures there is always electrical power, potable water and weatherproof buildings. This is provided, the majority of the time, but just a few individuals who winter alongside the scientists through the darkest months.

Ensuring a safe and habitable environment is no mean feat considering the setting. The temperature varies from zero to minus fifty degrees Centigrade; the snow surface rises by a metre each year and we are far far away from anything approaching civilization. If the technical facilities fail, people would be in dire peril! That is why we have such a dedicated, professional and hard working team plus every conceivable form of counter measure to ensure continued water, power and heat.

When the short summer season begins they are joined a further 25 or so who will perform new technical projects and some of the more time-consuming maintenance operations. We employ, on secondment from the RAF, mast erectors who raise all the aerials and science gathering masts throughout the area. A team of steel erectors undertake the strenuous task of raising all the buildings. This results in them being outside in all weathers and all season. Luckily they are very hard men who take the howling winds with a ribald joke and a cheery laugh.

The buildings are powered by Cummins generators that run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We have back up plant to allow for servicing and continued operations plus the engines are changed regularly for refurbishment. Heating of the buildings is mainly through waste heat from these generators. Electricians then monitor, test and ensure the power is distributed across the wide ranging site. Water is made available by digging snow into an underground melt tank and then pumping the potable water to the surface. Effluent is pumped away into an underground “onion”. This is a melted hole that naturally expands according to content and rarely freezes!

The buildings are constructed of a steel super-structure topped by mainly wooden buildings. The carpentry team are responsible that these buildings are weather secure and fit for habitation in this hostile environment.

We also support the science operation in a very direct way, providing a variety of services for them. These range from the mundane to the very unusual. This year we ran power cables five kilometres to a small mast that held a simple mirror. The mirror, which reflects a laser, is prone to frost thus needed power to a small heating element.

Science emanating from the CAS Lab (Clean Air Sector laboratory) required a wet chemistry facility this season. The Building Services team designed and constructed a room on an existing platform to provide this modern facility.

Due to the influx of so many technical staff over the summer season we are afforded our own basic but comfortable accommodation. This is the Drewry building where spirits are always high no matter the weather and the conversation always lively and full of merciless banter.

Good luck to them and we wish all the winterers a successful season and an enjoyable winter.

There has also been a lot of science going on as ever, the Caslab received an unfeasible number of boxes off the ship and there is now an impressive array of instruments and telescopes and tubes filling up every available space.

On the recreation side of life, the pool tournament was a great success with good numbers of entrants and close competition. It was eventually won in a tense final by Terry Pepper and Stuart McMillan (Shaggy) the summer chef.

Kite skiing has been really popular this year with five or six people going out at ever possible opportunity when the weather was good and the wind was right.

We’ve also had a day trip to the coast where there were Emperor Penguins, Crabeater seals, crevasses and ice cliffs to look at. All the new winterers have done their training to allow them to do co-pilot flights. This included a night in a tent for them which some enjoyed more than others. Some lucky winterers have had co-pilot flights to transport field parties, re-supply fuel dumps or take people to Rothera.

That’s about it for this month. February’s diary should be available in good time and if my HTML skills improve it should look a bit better too!

A big hello to all those at home who know me, I look forward to seeing you all again soon.