Halley Diary — May 2008

30 May, 2008

The darkness cometh…

Darkness came slowly, creeping up on us through April like a tiger stalking its prey. Then, ominously, the morning glow through the dining room windows is marching northwards in great daily bounds, each day dawning later, darker, dimmer. How does the sky blend so subtly through so many colours? It is like watching magic: it doesn’t matter how many times it is photographed and how much the pictures are tinkered with one still can’t work out exactly how it was conjured.

The date of the final sunset of the summer was a bit of a debate. It is important though. Halley tradition dictates that the eldest in the team lowers the base flag on the day the sun goes down. You try working out exactly when that is supposed to be. It really is not that simple. Even if you get it right, then the shimmering mirages we get down here are sure to reflect the sun back above the horizon again. So, at the appointed hour the flag came down, lowered from its position above the Laws by Lance. Then, a few days later – and in that typical Antarctic manner – the sun confusingly rose ‘downwards’ (a reflection off a mirage layer) before setting ‘upwards’ back into the mirage. Of course, whether Dave got the exact time of the last sunset right will continue to be a matter of debate.

Enough of this poetic stuff though. What have we been doing this month? Well, quite a lot of counting, which really is not very exciting, especially down the container lines where you toes get so cold so you can’t use them anymore. As a break from indenting I managed to get an invite on to the refuelling team and headed off down the tunnels. Most of Halley’s fuel is stored in a row bulk transit tanks on heavy sledges. From there it is pumped down into the flubbers down in the basement. Flubber, I thought, was some kind of gloopy gungey stuff from some film or other, but hey, I am only a humble field assistant so I try not to ask too many questions of the technical team in case they look at me funny.

Halley, if you hadn’t worked it out before now, is a group of separate platforms raised on stilts above the snow to minimise the snow accumulation. However, there has to be some link between the platforms to supply electricity, water, etc. and when Halley V was built these connections lay almost on the surface but now they are around 30m down, (somewhere around the high tide mark).

It turns out that flubbers are just giant water beds. Well, avtur beds. Quite why we need giant rubber mattresses underground I am still not entirely sure but it seems to work. So the fuel gets pumped out of the transit tanks and into the flubber. From the flubber it is pumped into a small storage tank on the Laws Platform where Bryan feeds it to the generators to keep the lights on.

I sprung into action at the flubber filling stage getting the arduous task of watching the rubber bed fill up and making sure it doesn’t go pop, or just leak. However, it did get me my first proper tour of the Laws-Simpson basement and an excuse to take lots more photographs. Disappointingly, no sign of the wine cellar though.

Not long after getting back to the surface Joe decided it was time for the big move. All that weight of ice on top of the tunnels is not doing them much good and they are slowly starting to sag under the pressure. The melt tank control panel was mounted onto a particularly buckley bit and so it was time for a move. I got roped in to help lift the big box into its new position: up one floor and right a bit. No pictures unfortunately because I was so busy holding onto ropes.

The technical boys have also been busy tinkering with the generators this month. Making them nice and shiny and ensuring they run with as little noise as possible seems to be the focus of their ambition. Needless to say Scott’s been guaranteed to be busy in the garage and Lance will be happily out making the snow smooth after every blow long before the dawn.

You won’t be the least bit surprised to read that Paddy has been ensuring that we have a good selection of different social nights, particularly at weekends. He is on a bit of a high at the moment of course, having thrashed the rest of us resoundingly at darts for the last three months and beaten Bryan in the darts final to ensure that he hold the undefeated champion of 2008 prize. He has been spending a lot of time in the gym too which is not helping him fulfil the classical darts champion image.

The social calendar this month has seen the sundown barbeque in which the cooking is all done outside at -30°C and then everyone runs back inside to eat – such is tradition.

Les’s birthday: “A Night at the Beach”, saw some of the most outrageous shirts ever to reach this far south. Some of them should have been used as oil rags for a bit to tone them down slightly. They made up for the lack of sunlight though.

Joe proposed a Mexican night and in typical fashion Paddy rose to the challenge. Zorro turned up along with some country yokels and there was the traditional beating of the chocolate filled bull. Maybe we should all have had skidoo helmets on to ensure safety as the poor innocent bull was swung at by blindfolded and disorientated team members all trying to rescue its contents.

Alla fine del mese abbiamo fatto una cena italiana. With real pasta, once Paddy had convinced his students that pasta making really was not that difficult.

Meanwhile the weather was doing its best to be unpleasant. The platform sways rhythmically as the wind rages outside and then, every so often, it will do an odd little wobble that is quite disconcerting. However, whatever the weather, life and science must go on. Filling the melt tank in a blow is refreshing. The snow adept at finding any chink in the insulating armour and very generous at filling pockets with snow. Cold fingers and too many gloves mean that it is easy to drop things and Les and Bryan have been fishing shovels out of the melt tank this month too. Still keeps them in a job.

Joe has also organised the monthly fire drill to keep us on our toes. Still it doesn’t matter how many times we practice, if the lights go out and the sirens go off it is all quite brain numbing; it’s difficult not to feel a bit like a startled rabbit. Fire drill training involves checking out the source of the alarm, accounting for all the team and getting the a Breathing Apparatus team together if someone is thought to be missing.

At the start of May we even had some glorious nights, with no wind and lots of stars. The Milky Way sprawled across the heavens, the Magellanic Clouds clustered close by and of course the green gleam of auroral fire flickered across the skies. Nothing is quite like it. If you are planning to winter at Halley the aurora is certainly a prime photographer’s target. Get yourself as fast a camera as you can with as wide a lens as you can get hold of and you’ll be happy. This winter we’ve been shooting with a 15mm on a full frame camera and a 10mm on a 24mm standard sensor. A stout tripod and a release cable all help.

Meanwhile it turns out that I used to be a hamster. Or maybe a guinea pig? Sleeping is no longer quite as straightforward as it should be. Hannah delivered a lecture on our sleep cycles and it is becoming increasingly clear that I must have a 26 hour internal cycle. All my photographs are sorted out, and my winter present is…

…in progress.

Richard Burt
Field Assistant and DWBC