Rothera Diary — July 2009

31 July, 2009

Water, ice and steam

It’s 10pm Friday 31st July. Mug of coffee in hand, I am awaiting the return of James and Jonny with a bundle of newspapers for the papier mache. Prop construction for the second 48 hour Antarctic film festival has begun, and whilst the rest of base thrashes out a storyline, the three of us have been tasked with getting creative.

Sitting quietly in the garage office perusing through a folder on my laptop, usefully labelled ‘photos to sort’ (more common down here than you might think!!!), it occurs to me that July has felt longer than any other since I arrived on base last November — but as with every other, has also flown by… I wonder if this might be because I knew that this month’s diary entry would be mine to write and so took note of everything going on around base. However, as I suspect might be more accurate, as with returning from a long holiday, getting back into the swing of things after the excitement of midwinter has been a bit of an effort.

Either way, for those personnel, me included, experiencing their 1st winter in Antarctica, July has been a month of firsts. So, grab a cup of tea, sit back, and I shall do my best to narrate the events of the past 31 days.

Hi, my name is Matthew von Tersch — known to the rest of base as MVT — and all going well, I will be the Bonner Laboratory manager at Rothera until March 2011.

As a relatively new position, management of the Bonner having been previously split between the marine and terrestrial assistants, my role is to oversee the laboratory and facilities on a day-to-day basis, and to ensure that science can continue safely and efficiently all year round. Obviously, as with the majority of personnel on base — summer is the busiest time of year, as scientists from a variety of disciplines come south. However, winter does not mean a six month holiday. Far from it, much of the time is spent undertaking tasks that simply cannot be completed during the summer. This might include yearly maintenance, stock check, following up requests for the up and coming season, and ensuring health and safety is up to date.

Whilst the majority of the work areas become ‘winterised’ for the season, science continues uninterrupted. I have spent the final days of this month calibrating the spectroradiometer, a piece of equipment that enables measurement of incoming light and calculation of ozone depth.

Given the nickname ‘the beast’, it requires three days of intensive measurement and adjustment… and a lot of patience!!!!! Some members of base did start to question if the container I was keen to spend so much time in housed something more exciting… Unfortunately, those who visited were left sorely disappointed!!!

Other members of the Bonner team too have been working hard on their science. Mel, our resident marine biologist has continued her respirometry experiments, her hands immersed in seawater that barely sits above freezing for seemingly hours on end. Terri, the marine assistant, has spent much of this month hoping but often thwarted by the changing seascape of Ryder Bay, to get out in the boats to carry out CTD sampling. However — as you will read, this is not all doom and gloom…

As temperatures in the UK have risen, so the temperature here has fallen. Living on the Antarctic Peninsula, or the so called ‘banana belt’ of the Antarctic, it isn’t very often that we record temperatures lower than Halley, our sister continental station. This month however recorded our lowest temperature so far — a chilly −24°C. Incidentally — this was lower that that at Halley — if only for a day!!!

The combination of low temperatures and still days has meant that for the first time this year fast ice has formed. Defined as sea ice that is anchored (held fast) to the land, fast ice means sea ice travel, the opportunity for which was not to be missed. ‘Here today, gone tomorrow’ — a perfect phrase to describe the solid sea state that now lay around Rothera.

Before we could venture out onto the ice — a bit of theoretical and practical training was required. Sea ice is notoriously dangerous, a sudden change in the weather potentially stranding travellers on an ice flow making a break for the open ocean — a memorial on Rothera point a poignant reminder. A huge amount of work on the part of the field assistants goes into making this a safe pastime, ranging from reviewing historical ice data through to measuring ice thickness. Luckily — I was with one of the first parties to venture out onto the ice, measuring the ice thickness along a 3km transect between Hanger Cove and Mackay Point to the north of base.

Led by James our fearless GA, wearing ‘immersion suits’, skis, and harnesses with a selection of jingly janglies (ice screws, warthogs, ice axe, throw line), myself, Shaun and Johnny ventured out onto the ice. As well as making a hole every 500m or so with a petrol driven drill and measuring the ice depth with a modified ski pole — it was also a chance to put into practice what we had learnt in the ‘classroom’. This included how to test ‘tide cracks’ before crossing them, paying attention to tide marks around an iceberg, and how to tell if there was open water nearby, indicated by both changes in horizontal contrast and presence of wildlife. Excellent sea ice meant that we reached our destination in 2hrs, and had time for a quick cup of tea and a chocolate bar before it was time to head home. Meandering between towering icebergs, knowing that all that lies between you and ∼100m of freezing seawater is a foot of ice is both an exhilarating and surreal experience — something I look forward to repeating again.

Elsewhere on base — the presence of sea ice does mean a slight deviation from normal operating proceedures!! The boats, not being renowned for being particularly good on ice, have been given some time off — replaced by a skidoo and sledge.

Transport to and from the dive site in Hanger Cove during the winter is only one piece of the puzzle, accessing the water turned out to be another ball game in itself.

In order to get in, dive under the ice, and out of the water again, you need a hole, and quite a large one at that. As it turned out, two holes in the ice are required, and this involved quite a large team effort, and of course a film crew!! Mainly from a safety point of view, two dive holes means that as well as having one to provide primary access into and out of the water, the other provides a secondary exit should the first become compromised. It is not unusual for a seal take a liking to the breathing hole provided in the ice for free!!!.

The ice being some 50cm in places meant that conventional hand saws were just not up to the job — instead replaced by a chainsaw with a rather fearsome looking 2 foot bar. Once the holes had been cut, the blocks of ice weighing in excess of 15kg were then removed using ice screws, rope and brute force.

So with holes cut, it was time for both Terri and Mel to experience their first dives under the ice. Despite freezing water temperatures of −1.6°C, the divers stay warm with the use of thermals, and drysuits. Full face masks help protect them from the cold, but also allow communication between both the divers and the support crew.

Since I am aware that Terri will be writing the August Diary, I will not steal her thunder, and I am sure she will do a much better job of describing what its like to dive under the ice than me!! Needless to say, from what I have seen at the surface, the sea looks like a warmer place to be than staying on the surface some days. It is not unusual to see steam rising from the dive hole as air temperatures at least this month have been 18 degrees centigrade colder than the sea.

The 23rd of July saw the long anticipated return of the sun. Her absence from our skies has not meant total darkness and work at Rothera has continued under an ethereal predawn light, albeit for a few hours a day around lunchtime. There was certainly a renewed sense of energy around the base, surprisingly noticeable to many who thought they had not been affected by its departure in late May. Only briefly viewed as the finest of golden slithers, it was good to see the sun poke her head between the Stokes Peaks to the North of base.

In line with tradition, and taking advantage of some good weather, the majority of base made their way up to the point to see Celine, our resident meteorologist and youngest on base, raise the Union Jack.

To say life at Rothera is all work and no play would be a blatant lie!!! The month of July has been no different with many activities continuing in the evenings. Jonny has continued his ‘doo’ school lessons on a Tuesday — although Danny (boatman) and Andy (comms manager) have now started their photography school as well, which has been very popular as one might expect. Doc school too has continued with lectures on hypothermia and cold injuries, particularly important as we head into what is generally the coldest time of the season.

Toward the end of this month, those interested also attended the dive related doc school, which paid particular attention to ‘decompression’ type injuries and the use of the hyperbaric chamber, one of only two in Antarctica.

This was followed by a ‘training’ dive inside the chamber itself to a depth of 21m by those who had passed a dive medical. It allowed those of us trained as medical assistants a useful insight into what it would be like inside the chamber should the worst happen. Two words — hot and claustrophobic — still that is probably not the first thing on your mind if you were unlucky enough to be suffering from a bend!!!

Three people on base celebrated another year on planet Earth. Marty our plumber, Terri who passed a quarter of a century and Andy who celebrated his 30th in style at the beginning of the month taking full advantage of the igloo (sorry — ugloo, see previous diary entry) up on the point. Full marks to Riet and co workers for what can only be described as an interesting design, but one that safely accommodated two thirds of base for a bit of a knees up.

Filming too continued this month, for the epic that is ‘Anne’ — a once simple idea for a thriller film from Matt Doc, that with the help of Kirk, and now much of base — looks like it could be a full length feature film.

I have somehow managed to move from a part with no lines to the dizzy heights of antihero (or that’s at least how I have read the script). Let’s hope my acting skills are up to the job!!!

Talking of films — Jonny and James have now returned with the newspapers. Time to get creative for the film festival!!

…Sometime later, much later.

Okay — my typing skills are nowhere near speedy enough to have typed all of this in the time it has taken for the newspaper to arrive — so with a little bit of artistic license, and the fact that it is only a little way into August, it is time for me to wrap up this month’s entry. However before I go — thought you might be interested to see what a pile of newspaper from circa 1988, an old meteorological balloon and plain flour can be used for!!!

Can you tell what it is yet??? If you have no idea — I am sure the August entry will be enlightening, and no doubt entertaining. Don’t forget to check out Kirk Watson’s video blog for a visual feast of life on base here at Rothera.

I hope that you enjoyed reading the diary entry for July, and keep checking back for more entries from fellow base members in the coming months. Just like to take a quick opportunity to say hello to loved ones, family and friends back home — hope you are all well and look forward to seeing you Spring-ish 2011 — but I am sure I will catch up with you before then… probably.

I am now off to bed.

Matthew von Tersch