Halley Diary — July 2003

31 July, 2003 Halley

By Annette Faux, Meteorologist

This month for all of us wintering in the Antarctic has been overshadowed by the tragedy at Rothera. Our thoughts have been very much with the family of Kirsty Brown and with all our colleagues at Rothera.

For all of us at Halley there has been plenty to keep us busy. July has been an action packed month with four birthdays to celebrate, another spell of gorgeous weather causing the temperature to plummet once more into the -50’s, a practice tunnel rescue and a trip to the coast to see the nearby Emperor penguin colony.

The 10th of July saw a double celebration with both Gav, the Doc, and Graeme, the gennie mech, enjoying joint birthday celebrations. Russ decided to submit to the urge to enter his second childhood on the 20th by having a childrens party for his birthday complete with jelly and ice-cream, party hats and childrens games such as pass the parcel and musical chairs. Saturday the 26th was Monty Python night for Stuarts birthday with several folk dressing up for the occasion and a few excellent funny walks thrown in for good measure.

We’ve had some gorgeous weather here this month too. Near the start of the month, the sky cleared completely of cloud and it was like living on Mars for a week or two. The sun still won’t rise above the horizon for another couple of weeks but when the sky is clear, it casts enough light to make everything glow pink, orange, red and purple from about mid morning till mid afternoon. The colours make the pit room windows of the Laws look like they’re aflame and BART (the met teams balloon launching shed) radiates an unearthly pinky/orange glow. The snow turns orange and the sky looks purple. We had a deep orange, half moon rising behind the Simpson platform which slowly faded to a wonderful gold colour before finally settling on silver about midway through the month and really made for a stunning sight.

It beacame even more picturesque a few nights later when the wind picked up a little and the snow started to drift. The sky was still clear but the wind was up around 20 knots and it was one of those times that makes you really wish you had a camcorder. It was one of those amazing scenes that you know you’ll never be able to get the sight and sound of on a still picture. The drift was flowing along the snow surface like ripples on a pond and made the bottom of the Laws legs disappear into haze. You could hear it as it snaked along, backlit in orange by the sky and contrasting with the bright white rime being lit up by the light on the Laws steps. The melt tank looked like it should have been part of an old technicolour film set as the bright white light was on and if you stood by the Simpson handline all you could see was this amazingly white, spot lit area on a back drop of bright red sky. A truly stunning sight.

All the calm weather also lead us into two days worth of constant -52C when we had to have extra heaters on all over the Laws in an attempt to combat the cold. Many folk wereheard to mutter “well, I streaked in -50 last month so I think I’ll give it a miss this time around!”. Ice began to creep up the windows as the air condensed and froze when it hit the cold window panes and several people resorted to using two duvets at night. We didn’t quite manage to break the all time lowest temperature at Halley this time around, however we were satisfied with the knowledge that we did manage to get the coldest June ever on record this year.

We were required to test our problem solving skills near the end of the month with a practice tunnel rescue. Everyone on base had a job to do as Gav, the base doc, was kept on his toes as we had to stretcher out our victim (oh sorry, meant casualty) the 15 or so metres from down by the Laws fuel flubber in the tunnels to the foot of the ladder leading to the surface. It was a true test of our stretcher manoevering abilities in order to get our casualty out and around the narrowing and shrinking tunnels and buckling corners of the old melt tank without injuring him further! Tommo, the hapless casualty, was pulled and pushed every which way inorder to negotiate some of the more tricky areas. A dummy was used for the haul up to the surface, but then Tommo jumped back in for the last leg of the journey from the top of the melt tank shaft, up the Laws steps and into the surgery. Gav then directed as various folk attached heart rate monitors, took notes and checked blood pressures. From start to finish the rescue took just over one hour and we were all very grateful to sit down for a nice cup of tea afterwards!

The best part of the month for me was our day trip to the coast to visit the emperor penguin colony at Windy, one of the nearby creeks. After a fortifying breakfast of bacon butties and coffee, we drove down in style and comfort in the back of a snocat to a caboose that’s kept by the creek. From the caboose, it’s a short trek to cliff top, then a quick abseil down to the sea ice where thousands of emperor penguins come each year to breed. Already, many have eggs, the males keeping them safe and warm by balancing them on their feet to keep them off the ice and covering them with a flap of skin whilst the females go off to feed. It will be another month or so before they start to hatch when, hopefully, we’ll be able to go down again to see the chicks. Happily we were lucky with the weather and there was plenty of opportunity to take photo’s of the penguins all huddled together for warmth against a backdrop of orange and pink sky before the wind picked up a little and we decided to head back to the warmth of the snowcat. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as quick and easy getting back up the cliff as it is coming down, so although we abseiled down with our rucksacks on our backs, they were all hauled up separately as we jumared slowly back up. It’s very down heartening though when you get overtaken by your rack sack half way up! Once we were all at the top, it was another short trek back to the snowcat then mum and dad (Craig and Gav) drove back, whilst the kids (myself, Ben, Stuart, Mark M, Rob and Toddy) all fell asleep in the back after a very pleasant day out.

Although we’re only just coming out of winter, we’re already starting to think about organising our post winter trips and how those of us who are leaving at the end of this season are going to get home. Personally, it really doesn’t feel like I’ve been here for 2 years. The time has absolutely flown by and I’m really going to miss the amazingly cold and clear winter nights we get when the aurora weaves and flows across the black velvet sky. I think there is something very unique and special about wintering, and I’m very glad I had the chance to see and experience it all twice.

Love to all at home