Halley Diary — January 2011

31 January, 2011 Halley

Happy New Year from Halley base Antarctica!

As 2011 was rung in, I was ‘fresh off the boat’ (RRS Ernest Shackleton) having sailed from the UK eight weeks previously. In my super shiny new insulated boiler suit and toasty Mukluk clad feet I stepped onto the Laws Platform at 8pm GMT on 31st December 2010 and my 15 month term as base doctor began. That is one new year I will not forget in a hurry.

With the unloading of cargo from the ship completed, the base was a hive of activity with folk finding storage space for all the supplies and rootling through the incoming cargo line for long awaited bits and pieces. Only 12 months isolated on an ice shelf can generate the level of excitement I have seen in reaction to the likes of apples, two month old newspapers and a dremel (I am not yet sure what this is).

I have seen so many photographs of this part of the world but it is not possible to get a feel for the vastness of the sky and ice all around with anything but your eyes. I could see the base from the coast (12kms away) but gauging distances is impossible because there are no points of reference. Penguins have the same problem when they mistake fuel drums for fellow birds and only realise they’re mistaken when close up. The collection of buildings which make up Halley base looked like a lego town for about half an hour before I could make out people and vehicles on the drive in.

Temperatures around base are a balmy −0.5 to −5 degrees Celcius but any wind and the subjective temperature can drop to −10 to −15. Indeed it is much warmer than many parts of Britain right now. Being the new girl in town and having recently sailed through the tropics, I have not yet adapted to the temperatures and require more high visibility insulated layers than most. My appetite however, has adapted admirably and become even more voracious than usual; certainly a sound route to acquiring more insulation. I have taken the base meal rota; designed to sustain the large labouring workforce, into my stride (and stomach). An average day consists of a breakfast of cereal, morning smoko of bacon/sausage sandwiches, lunch of spaghetti and salad (now the freshies are in off the ship), afternoon smoko of coffee and cake and an evening meal of curry or other such hearty dish. Needless to say the four chefs are working extremely hard and I am a great fan of their work.

As I step outside the Laws front door of a morning, I am met by the extraordinary site that is the Halley VI construction site. Over the next few weeks the new modules will be towed on their skis over to their new site 16km further South onto the ice shelf. The Brunt Ice shelf is a dynamic stretch of flowing glaciers. History and glacial modelling suggests it will reduce in size dramatically in the near future (near in geological terms that is). The location has been chosen to be outside the area of ice which is most likely to detach and make a break for the warmer North. Should this happen sooner than expected, I suppose we may get to the Falklands in time for the Stanley marathon, so I have started training just in case. For now, work is continuing inside the modules to ready them for accommodating a wintering team as early as next year.

The Laws building itself, at an impressive 20 years old is also requiring its fair share of attention from the plumbers, electricians and generator mechanics to prepare it for another winter in such a tough environment. The vehicles operators have removed a cheeky mound of snow which tried to bury the south east corner. The new generator has been housed (and named Jenna for reasons Frank, our Genny mech, is keeping to himself). Pipework is to be replaced and due to the high rate of snow accumulation, the once impressive flight of steps has been replaced by a ramp!

For the 11 of us who are about to overwinter, we need to be prepared for operating in this unusual environment and undertook training in field survival skills which saw us erecting pup tents, pyramid tents, lighting primus stoves, travelling across crevassed territory, familiarising ourselves with VHF radios and ‘rescuing’ ourselves and each other from crevasses.

But it is not all work! Oh no, for recreation in these parts there have been a steady stream of folk running and skiing around the 5km perimeter of base. Kirk and Ian, our resident Field Assistants, have been running ice climbing trips at the cliffs which form where the ice shelf meets the sea ice. Pool and chess tournaments have started up and the lounge is standing space only during key matches.

The sun has not set down here since October but it is starting to dip towards the horizon in the evenings. Winter is slowly on the approach.

Jenny Hine
Wintering Doctor