Halley Diary — May 2007

31 May, 2007

May be the month of Pirates. No wait, not pirates, I mean Sundown. Or is it Ninjas? I’m going to go with Sundown.

A setting Sun, to most people wont have a massive impact on their daily lives, after all it happens every day right? Well not in the exotic, exciting, exhilarating and other words beginning with E world of Antarctica! Nothings ever normal down here, from simple things like swimming on snow to digging upwards, but the most alarming of unnatural things however has to be the day and night cycles, or as we like to call them; Summer and Winter. I know you’re confused already, but don’t worry, your friendly comms manager had extensive training in this area, so I will endeavour to explain it all.

It’s simple really. We’re blessed with Sunshine for 105 days, which involves getting an unwanted suntan around the face (panda eyes!), we then have a period of sunrises and sunsets (which sees everyone rushing outside to capture the spectacular skies) and we’re then subjected to night, which lasts for 105 days.

We celebrate the last moments of the sun with the lowering of the Union Flag, which usually resides over our home for 9 months of the year. The most wise and experienced (read: oldest) person on base gets the honour of making a brief speech and climbing onto the roof to lower the flag, this year it was our base commander, Pete. Our evening meal is included with the celebration, and you haven’t had a BBQ until you’ve had one in -25 temperatures with a backdrop of a setting sun that wont be seen for over three months.

We lose an hour of daylight every 3 days during May, and it soon reaches a point where the days get darker and darker, and eventually becomes perma-twilight. You do get to see the southern sky in all its glory during the day however, and the stars shine brightly in the pitch black sky. Occasionally, the Sun reminds us that it’s still the boss of our solar system and fires a few high energy particles our way, and we get to view the Aurora Australis, dazzling us with a show of fantastic light way up in the atmosphere.

Apart from the usual birthday celebrations (Happy Birthday Brian, 21 again!) people have been mostly toiling away on their mid-winter presents. It’s comforting to know that even though you miss Christmas, you’re compensated by having the mid-winter celebrations on June 21st. This involves a weeks worth of fun activities on base, a mid-winter broadcast by the BBC with messages from loved ones, a huge meal which will take Ant a week to prepare, but most of all we all receive gifts from each other! These are painstakingly built over the months prior to mid-winter, and the effort involved is staggering. Some people started back in February, and they’re still not finished.

The base has been noticeably quieter over the last few weeks, I’m not sure I’ll get used to a busy base again.

Being on the frontier of World Science means a lot to most people on base. Ozone observations normally come to an end once the sun disappears, but the ever hard working met team have been successful with ozone observations by using the Moon instead of the Sun. May also saw an addition to the varied science projects on base, with Richard, our plucky base doctor getting 12 lucky volunteers involved with behavioural studies also. The current study investigates the body clock and the ‘circadian rhythm’, and which factors determine the melatonin levels and associated sleep patterns, alertness and concentration. We collect and sample urine, we take tests to determine our alertness and cognitive ability and sit in front of very bright lights for an hour every morning for two weeks at a time. We also wear devices on our wrists that records relative activity levels, which coupled with the tests should help determine how the lack of sunlight affects the human body.

I don’t think there’s anything worse than waking up at 8:30am on a Sunday morning knowing you have to sit in front of a bright light for an hour …

May is also a month of indents and maintenance. I’ve been hammering away at my stock levels and seeing which parts I need to replace for next year, how many VHF radios I’ll need for the 110+ people on base for summer, and of course making sure I have enough computers, mice, toners and a myriad of other comms-equipment that’ll be needed.

Despite what you might think, temperatures below -40 offer quite a few exciting opportunities. A favourite of mine is throwing boiling water into the air, and seeing the water instantly turn into a miniature cloud in front of your eyes with a loud hiss and crack.

Another favourite activity is illustrated below. Those with long hair dip their heads in a bucket of warm water, then dangle their head upside down for about 20 seconds. Upon straightening up again, the hair is frozen in place, and stands on end as if gravity were reversed. The ice soon melts once inside, and the hair returns to its usual floppy (and sometimes messy!) arrangement.