Halley Diary — November 2003

30 November, 2003

Summer has arrived! by Gavin Francis, Base Doctor

Summer has arrived!

There has been a lot going on in November. The post-winter field trips all returned, the sea-ice is breaking up, and there have been plenty of seals and penguins to see down at the coast. Also, the first planes of the summer touched down on our ski-way. We hadn’t seen any new faces since last February, and they brought bags of mail and some boxes of fruit and fresh vegetables!

It is impossible to describe the sensation of eating a tomato, a bit of lettuce or a fresh pear after all those months without them. It might sound ridiculous, but I was convinced that all the fruit they’d brought us had somehow been enhanced! I don’t remember a little bit of tomato having quite so much taste crammed into it…

But I’m getting carried away with myself, the fruit didn’t arrive until the end of the month. At the beginning of November we were still finishing off the field trips.

Quite a few of the field trips have gone out to the McDonald Ice Rumples, an area at the coast to the north east of the base which has been torn into a series of crevasses and creeks by the twisting of the Brunt Ice Shelf.This picture is taken from the sea-ice among the Rumples, and shows an iceberg locked into the ice. A V-shaped cavern can be seen in the side of it, where the berg has broken away exposing a crevasse inside.

The crevasse stretched a couple of hundred metres into the heart of the iceberg itself, with walls of glassy smooth ice as hard as granite. Climbing into the tunnel was like walking down into the Pyramids, but instead of darkness everything glowed with a soft blue light. The light which reaches the centre of an iceberg is filtered of all reds and greens. It’s very silent in there, but there’s the slightly unsettling knowledge that soon it’ll be breaking out and the whole berg, crevasse and all, will roll out to sea and melt.

It was almost impossible to climb up the walls inside the crevasse because the ice was so hard. With the aid of crampons we could get part of the way up inside it, but ice-axes would not take hold.

When down at the coast it was possible to stand out along the sea-ice edge and see the penguins jumping out onto the ice. They circulate in the lead along the shoreline looking to see that it’s safe to approach, and then shoot out of the water as fast as they can in case there are leopard seals hiding in wait for them just under the edge. When they’ve decided to go back into the water again they gather in large groups waiting for a brave individual to jump in first. In the photo here to the right they are all peering over the edge, waiting for the first penguin to make a dash for it. Soon after the photo was taken one jumped in, and the rest followed in a frenzy of pushing and splashing water. (Apologies for the lo-tech black and white pictures, I’m yet to join the twenty-first century and get a digital camera.)

They had reason to be careful, because there are a few leopard seals around along the coast at this time of year. Mark Stewart and I came across one lying asleep right in the middle of the penguin colony. The penguins gave it a wide berth, as did we.

The good weather has meant that we’ve been out and about around base too. Although the Brunt Ice Shelf is almost totally flat, we can still go out skiing and snowboarding. The only difference is that we have to get a vehicle instead of gravity to push us! Ben has been taking a break from getting all the vehicles ready for summer with some snowboarding behind a sno-cat.

On the whole the last month has seen the temperatures here soaring up to minus ten or even higher. There have even been one or two days when the snow on the platform has started to melt. On one of them Tommo and Toddy took the opportunity to relax on the platform. It’s a novelty to be able to sit still outside without starting to feel your hands and feet going numb!

November has also been the last kite-flying campaign of the winter. The Meteorology team on the Simpson Platform have been sending up kites to study the ‘boundary layer’ of air a few hundred metres above our heads. This means sending kites up and down for five days, with a 48 hour continous period where they work shifts to keep flying it day and night.

Just before the first planes arrived Craig cooked us all a Christmas dinner. This was because the ship is due in for relief around Christmas, and everything will be quite hectic on base by then. For some of us it was the fourth Christmas dinner in the last twelve months, the others being on the ship on its way to Halley, on the base when we arrived, and at Midwinter (when we played Christmas music and gave presents anyway!)

You can never have too many Christmases in one year, in fact I think we should have a Christmas morning every day. I don’t think Craig would be too happy about that though.

Craig also had a Pizza night where all meal requests had to be phoned to the Kitchen – actually going in there to speak to him wasn’t allowed! It had its advantages though, because he personally delivered each of them, complete with moped helmet and soggy cardoboard boxes…

On November 21st the first planes arrived. It was the two German Dornier planes on their way to Neumayer base eight hundred kilometres away. After nine months with totally clear skies it was strange to see the two planes buzzing towards us. They arrived from Rothera base bringing some oranges, lemons, a pineapple and three sacks of mail. They stayed as our guests for a couple of days while waiting for the weather over Neumayer base to clear. This month we also heard from our closest neighbours at Belgrano II base a few hundred kilometres to the west. We weren’t sure if they had been there all winter, then out of the blue they sent us an invitation to come and visit them! We told them we’d be delighted, if only we had a Sea King helicopter….. Their base is surrounded by crevasses and it’s impossible to land a plane or drive there.

On Sunday the 23rd there was a solar eclipse – the first one ever to be witnessed in Antarctica. We have had 24 hour sunlight for several weeks now, so although the eclipse was in the middle of the night we could all see it easily. At its fullest extent it was an 88% eclipse.

We set up a pair of binoculars on a stand to watch the sun reflected onto a card. We also watched it by using welding masks, and by looking through the blackest sections of old X-rays we have here in the surgery! It’s not often that you can see a solar eclipse and have a tutorial on the anatomy of the bones of the hand and ankle at the same time.

And then on Friday the 28th November the Twin Otters of the British Antarctic Survey made it to Halley. The winter is now officially over, and from now on the base will just be getting busier and busier.

The planes brought Steve Brown, our new Base Commander, Neil Cobbett who oversees science on the Piggott Platform, Mark Ryan, Summer Communications manager, Martin Bell, Summer Vehicles manager, Kathy Hayes, a glaciologist who studies the changes in the Brunt Ice Shelf itself, Richard Flower, a meteorologist from Rothera, Gaz Wardle, the planes’ mechanic, and three pilots: Lez Kitson, Bryan O’Driscoll, and Greg Marks. Our population has been boosted from 14 to 24!

Steve Brown is the new permanent Base Commander of Halley Research Station. He has taken over from Steve Marshall who now works for Rothera. Steve has taken over the responsibility of managing the base from Patrick McGoldrick who has been in charge for the winter.

Some medical research has shown that spending a winter in Antarctica can reduce the strength of the immune system. It’s common for people to catch colds and ‘flu from incoming personnel. The BAS Medical Unit arranged this year for all the winterers to be immunised against one of the strains of ‘flu because of the high incidence of it back in the UK at the moment. A package of the vaccines came in on the Twin Otter flight. We’ve had an assembly line of people queuing up to get their vaccinations. It must be the busiest I’ve been for months….

Well, that’s it for this month. Over December we will be starting the summer work, and Mark Maltby will write the next installment of the diary. The RRS Ernest Shackleton is expected on Christmas Eve. My replacement, Frank Swinton, will be arriving with it and so I’ll be leaving to head north again. Halley has been an absolutely amazing place to live, and I’d like to thank all of my fellow winterers for making 2003 such a special year. Sometimes it can feel very isolated here and we were all glad to see new faces and receive mail, but I’m very aware of just how privileged we have all been to live in such a unique place. Thanks also to friends and family who have kept me in touch with the ‘real’ world, particularly through the months of darkness when the isolation can feel most acute.

But the feeling of being the only people for hundreds and hundreds of miles, of watching the auroras in the three-month darkness, of the immense space and the purity of the air, of walking out at noon under a sky filled with stars, of living and working together in such a tiny community, these are just a few examples of the experiences that I am very grateful for. Halley is a harsh place to be at times, but sometimes it feels like the most beautiful place in the world.

Lez, Bryan and Gaz will be flying out to Novolazarevskaya, a Russian base, in the next few days to help the German Antarctic Programme with flying cargo out to an ice drilling station much further south. We’re all about to get a lot busier too with work around the base. We have to move the Drewry building and the Garage as they are starting to be surrounded by the drift which has accumulated over the year. There is generally between one and two metres of drift accumulation around Halley every year, but in some places there is more. In March of this year I built an igloo which has since been buried in drift. Recently I went to find it and dig it out again. It was totally lost, but the place had been marked by flags to stop us walking into it in days of poor contrast (when it’s overcast here the whole world just turns white and there are no shadows, no definition, no horizon and no distance perspective.) The picture on the left is how it was in March, and the picture on the right is looking down on me standing inside it. The metres of snow accumulation hadn’t damaged it at all, and the whole of the inside surface had become coated with ice crystals.

I don’t know if I fancied sleeping in it again, though.

With lots of Love to Edinburgh and Carnock, London and Beirut, and everyone out there who’s travelling in new places.