Halley Diary — March 2007

31 March, 2007 Halley

March is an underrated time of year at Halley, falling in the Antarctic Autumn, a season sandwiched between the hustle and bustle of summer and the stunning auroras of winter. Indeed, so much is written about ‘the big two’ that the casual reader would be forgiven for thinking Halley goes from 24hour daylight to permanent darkness in a matter of days. Even the Antarctic ‘spring’ gets good press, being the time of year when sea-ice melts and critical ozone studies can be made, but poor old Autumn just gets forgotten about. So, in the concluding month of the 6-Nations Championship, as a Welsh rugby fan, I find myself championing the underdog once again!

So, what has Autumn got to offer? Well, for a start we have the return of nights, bringing with them some superb sunsets and excellent light for photographers. Without the sun’s warmth for the whole day, we are now seeing temperatures hover in the mid –20C’s, compared with about –10C at the start of the month. Bizarrely, even we newcomers are adjusting to the climate and other than covering up faces and noses, we haven’t been donning any more clothes than before.

Once dressed up, there’s been a lot of work to do outside. On the Laws platform James has been kept busy surveying and levelling the 20 legs. Moving on to the garage, Matt has been working hard keeping the field skidoos in action, despite the best efforts of unfortunate riders and rock hard sastrugi. Heading south to the Drewery, the technical services team have finished both winterising the building and expanding its accommodation to make room for the Halley VI team next summer. Carpenter James Morrison said “we’ve converted the old summer offices into deluxe en-suite accommodation for four people, giving more space to Drewery residents than ever before. It was a tough project, but I’m delighted with the results”.

Only a short ski away, the Piggott platform remains a total mystery, as I’ve still not been there. Chatting over lunch, Alex and Jules said the season was progressing well, with annual tasks such as raising the riometer completed ahead of schedule. They were also giving a lot of attention to brand new radar experiments, fine tuning receivers to detect atmospheric conditions in the mesosphere, 80Kms above our heads on the edge of space.

Continuing along the perimeter into the clean air sector, the CASLab has kept Neil busy with a suite of new experiments, measuring atmospheric gases, light absorption and low-level ozone to name but a few. Working in collaboration with the Georgia Institute of Technology, this is the CASLab’s last season before Halley V is decommissioned, so there’s a lot to be done. Behind the Lab, a 30m high mast holds Halley’s most important suit of instruments – lower boundary layer profiling anemometers. Over half the base regularly studies these instruments and the pressure was really on me when they failed.

Our journey concludes at the most action-packed platform, the Simpson. With fewer hours of sunlight, ozone observations have reduced leaving us more time for outdoor work that must be completed before winter sets in. Kirsty, Tamsin and I have taken advantage of good weather and raised all four micro-barograph, converting one particularly large hole into an Ice Bar where we held my birthday party! Tamsin has been busy processing the vast amount of meteorological data the many instruments collect. Speaking from her hammock, Ms Gray said “this March has been an interesting month – it was significantly sunnier than last year, but also a lot colder with much higher windspeeds. The strongest gust recorded was 65 knots!” Meanwhile, Tom has been busy in the workshop modifying his Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and preparing for further test flights.

We’ve all been getting better acquainted with the weather, whether we wish to or not, as March is also the main month of field trips – a pre-winter holiday for all Halley residents. BAS is almost unique among Antarctic operators in encouraging recreational travel, but the benefits to the organisation are most worthwhile. A huge array of travel and survival skills are taught on these trips, meaning more people are available to work at field sites when the summer season comes.

Four sledge parties have visited the Hinge Zone, the area of twisted and crevassed ice formed where the continental ice leaves terra firma and starts floating on the Weddell Sea. Alex, Sune, Tom and I formed sledge Bravo, taking a spectacular 60km skidoo ride to camp at “Stoney Berg” – An iceberg covered in Antarctic bedrock, jutting out of the horizon. For the first two days, the weather treated us to proper Antarctic conditions, minus 20 degrees Celsius and 25 knot winds, which made travelling impossible. I could make the conditions sound highly heroic, but thanks to the solid tents and scorching hot tilley lamp, the overall situation was far more comfortable than a wet weekend’s camping in the UK!

Once the storm blew itself out, I opened the tent door to be greeted by the stunning beauty of the Polar Plateau, a few kilometres to our south. We took full advantage of the good weather, practicing crevasse rescue techniques before heading out to explore a new ravine.

Every Antarctic operation is governed by the weather, and despite a number of forecast models, no-one really knows what’s coming next. Sledge Alpha were kept tent-bound for several days, sitting out a proper howling blizzard with gale force winds. Sledge Charlie found similar conditions to ourselves, but bad weather forced a belated departure of sledge Delta. In the end, all parties ventured out onto the ice, returning to Halley with big grins and tall tales.

So, in conclusion, it’s been a fantastic month for both work and play. Most outdoor jobs are now completed, ahead of the winter weather. We’ve enjoyed kiting against sunning sunsets and have had amazing times out in the field. Far from being an also-ran, March was a runaway success.

Written by David Vaynor Evans