July – Return of the sun

30 July, 2004

Rothera Diary, July 2004

By Steve Hinde

July on an Antarctic research station can be a strange time. June is our month for anticipating and celebrating mid winter, just as December is the month of Christmas back in the UK. Everyone is kept busy making presents and completing their personal preparations and then finally there is that week of fun to enjoy. Come July the festivities have been and gone leaving a vacuum in our lives. The return of the aircraft is still almost four months away, we have plenty of work to do but the social calendar can look a bit empty. Fortunately mother nature provides us with plenty of opportunities for recreation and wonderment.

The start of July was notable for the continuing presence of sea ice in Marguerite Bay, the sea had started to freeze in mid June. For most of us the chance to walk on the sea isn’t going to happen again in our lives so there’s a keenness to get out and experience it. However before we rush out we have to make sure everything is as safe as it can possibly be. After an indoor sea ice awareness talk by the winter BC we sent out small parties armed with an ice drill. Their task was to bore small holes through the ice at regular distances along prescribed routes and to poke a measuring stick through the to record the ice thickness. Ten centimetres ice depth can be enough to bear the weight of Mr or Mrs Average but we look for at least twenty centimetres as we’ve been feasting on Cyrils superb cuisine for many months now.

The ice around the Rothera Point shoreline had been drilled giving encouraging thickness of over twenty five centimetres. On the 2nd Toddy (Paul Torode), Dougal, Tim and Andy P (Porte) drilled the route north for three and a half kilometres to MacKay Point. They recorded ice almost thirty centimetres thick all along the route.

With these assurances we were able to get people out onto the tested ice to see our local environment from a totally different perspective. It’s surprising how little a distance you have to walk away from the station before it’s insignificance in the overall landscape becomes very apparent.

On a Saturday morning I enjoyed a walk around the outside of Rothera Point accompanied by Phil, John R (Riseborough) and Anto. Although the surface of Marguerite Bay had gone solid the sea level was still going up and down with the tidal influence of the moon. So to get off the shore and onto the ice we stepped over a tide crack that results from this twice daily rise and fall. The ice surface contained a history of the sea state and weather as freeze progressed. Smooth areas had formed in very calm weather when the water was still, these would be fantastic to skate on but we don’t have any skates. Ridges of rafted ice indicate where the ice had previously been broken by the wind and pushed into ridges as one layer of ice slid over another. Other rough areas had formed whilst the sea already contained lumps of ice that had drifted on the currents. We ended our excursion with a visit to Cheshire Island a very small rocky outcrop only twenty metres offshore whose isolation is more usually ensured by our inability to cross the channel of cold water that separates it from East Beach.

At times we put our sea ice travel on hold whilst warm and windy weather systems passed through. During one such spell the ice to our south was pushed away creating a lead of open water. This was soon occupied by scores of fur and crabeater seals that appeared to be pleased that they longer had to wriggle through restrictive holes to get into the water for their daily meals. We were also fortunate to see a family pod of minke whales feeding along the ice edge.

One of the advantages of spending a winter in a small community is being able to pick up some new skills from your companions. One such very useful skill is plumbing. Andy Silvester, Rothera’s “diamond geezer” and mechanical services technician has been teaching those interested the basics of installing and maintaining domestic water systems, everything from changing tap washers and soldering pipes to installing radiators.

In the garage there’s been the chance to work with Iain and Paul (Booth) our mechanics. They’ve been busy repairing the ski-doos we use on base during the winter each one gets a full overhaul and paint job. Amongst others Kat, Andy Wilson, Phil Harding, John Riseborough and Jools have been helping out, removing and rebuilding engines, repairing gearboxes, sorting out damaged drive tracks and lovingly painting the fibreglass fairing.

John Riseborough our carpenter has continued to run Monday “chippy shop” evenings where an enthusiastic group have been fashioning wood into a variety of useful items. With John providing the know-how we’ve been able to try our hand at work we might otherwise have considered beyond our ability. Picture frames, scale models of sledges and coffee tables are amongst the items slowly taking shape.

By mid month the sun was starting to throw ever brightening rays up on the northern horizon. Soon we could expect its reappearance in our mid day sky. The 22nd of July would be the likely day of the return. As the month progressed we were treated to the beautiful spectacle of the high mountain summits glowing pink as they caught their first direct rays. With each passing day the rays were striking lower down the slopes.

Also at this time of year the first ultra violet radiation from the sun hits the cold high atmosphere at southerly latitudes triggering the start of the annual ozone hole cycle. One of the chemical reactions involved in this chain of events leads to the appearance of polar stratospheric clouds also known more simply as nacreous clouds. These curious iridescent high altitude clouds are wonderful to see in the morning sky but are unfortunately harbingers of the fact we shall soon have to cover our faces with thick sun cream and remember where we put our sun glasses way back in early May. As the name nacreous suggests these clouds have a mother of pearl appearance though the less romantic have been known to describe them as oil slicks in the sky. An explanation of why we see this phenomena above Rothera is given by Adam Thornhill (one of our meteorology team) in the May 2004 diary.

The 22nd was both a happy and a sad day. All of the team assembled up on the hill at the flagpole to witness the return of the sun. Right on cue the sun made a brief appearance rising above the northern horizon but within minutes disappearing behind the mountain chain known as the Stokes Peaks. The brightness of the rays brought a cheer to the heart. However there was another reason for our gathering, the 22nd was also the anniversary of the death of marine biologist Kirsty Brown who would have been in our winter team. Andy Miller read a poem he’d written celebrating “Bang’s” high energy life and love of fun and also the joy of having known her.

Dear Kirsty Brown,

We stand here thinking of you.

Your laughter your smile and things you do.

You being doused in the sink was a common occurrence

though the perpetrators, you made sure got their comeuppance.

On this day we should not frown.

Somebody hopefully will act the clown.

That we can certainly guarantee.

Once the drinks get flowing later on…

we will just have to wait and see.

Your energy and drive are to what we aspire.

Our thoughts and memories of you will never retire.

And here is a message from the Rothera gang.

You will never be forgotten and we love you Bang.

To mark the return of the sun a brand new flag was hoist to the top of the pole by Graeme and Andy Porte. Then as a mark of our respect for Kirsty it was lowered to half mast and left fluttering on the breeze.

July had started with fairly calm weather but it finished with a succession of storms that have continued into August. Sadly the windy weather was responsible for breaking up the sea ice and our thoughts about travel had to return to the land. By the 20th the daylight had increased to around seven hours so we started our second round of winter training trips. We undertake these to consolidate our skills in sledge travel and camping and also to give people a short break from their work and life on the station. Unfortunately the continuing windy weather prevented the parties from getting too far but people did make the most of short weather windows to get out in the Rothera local area. Paul Booth and Toddy were able to get out and enjoy a traverse along a section of Reptile Ridge. Kat and Tim were a little luckier and found a few less windy days in their allocated time for ascents of a peak called Stork and also of Trident and Orca. It’s sometimes a puzzle how Antarctic geographical features get their names. Orca is shaped like a whales fin and Trident has three summits so they’re self explanatory but what about Stork? You certainly won’t find any of those long necked birds with stout beaks on this continent. Apparently a survey marker post that once decorated the mountain summit took the silhouette of a Stork when seen from certain angles!

That’s all for the month of July. To David, Debbie, Robert and Matthew I’m looking forward to seeing you all at Christmas. Matthew have a fantastic birthday on the 31st.

Steve Hinde

Rothera Winter Base Commander