Rothera Diary — July 2011

31 July, 2011

Cold and Icy

I am sitting in my office in The Bonner Laboratory looking out over the frozen sea towards the snowy mountains and remembering why it was such an easy decision to stay and do a third winter. July for me is one of my favourite months of the Antarctic winter for a few reasons; the sun returns to base which really lifts spirits, the temperatures drop cold enough for the window to the main building to frost over and the sea freezes making us no longer feel like an island and opening up opportunities for sea ice travel and ice diving. If you look back over past diary entries you will see I wrote the August Diary for winter 2009 when I was in my first winter as Marine Assistant. Now, in my third winter working as the Marine Biologist, my love for the work and the place is still as strong as ever. Many people ask me how I could stay here in Antarctica for such a long period of time but I can’t understand how anyone would not want to spend so much time in this amazing place. Three years ago when I arrived at Rothera, I was walking from the accommodation building down to the Laboaratory on a gorgeous day and I thought to myself I don’t know how I will ever want to leave. Even to this day I am still experiencing and seeing new things and this winter I managed with the help of my GA Tom Weston to climb the second highest mountain on the island; Mount Bouvier where we had the most amazing view at the summit.

My job as the Marine Biologist involves running many different experiments to try and understand how temperature change will affect the benthic marine invertebrates of Antarctica. From Tamsin’s June Diary entry as the Meteorologist, she explains how the the climate here on the Western Antarctic peninsula is changing faster then anywhere on the planet. Over the last 100 years the sea temperature has increased by 1 degree and it is predicted to increase by another degree over the next 50 years. For the marine animals which live within such a small temperature gradient of −1.8 degrees in the winter to 2 degrees in the summer this increase in temperature could be fatal. Warming is also causing the break up of many ice shelves producing a larger number of icebergs which move around scouring the sea bed and destroying the marine life which inhabits it. I work within a large team of people trying to understand the effect warming will have on the marine ecology in Antarctica. On Station I am part of the marine team which is made up of 4 people; myself, Simon Reeves who is the Marine Assistant, Dave Smyth who is the diving officer and Dave Hunt the boating officer.

During July the temperatures dropped below −20 helping the sea to freeze. The 20 of us on base prefer the cold days as usually the low temperatures mean no wind and clear skies. During the clear nights we get some amazing skies where the Milky Way is very obvious and occasionally when the moon is out there is even enough light for some night skiing. When the winds are strong the temperature is normally warmer however it feels bitterly cold with the wind chill and it makes walking up to lunch from the lab a real effort.

Every winter is very different in terms of weather. 2010 saw lots of snow and we spent every morning digging out doors and windows to the buildings but this winter we have been lucky and I am yet to dig out my bedroom or office window. On the 20th of July the 20 of us walked up to the flag pole to raise the British flag in recognition of the sun coming back to the base which for us is a special moment and really lifts your spirits. Rothera is lucky in that we never experience the 24 hours of darkness like a lot of the other Antarctic bases as we still have 3 hours of twilight between 11am and 2pm in which we can carry out our outdoor work such as diving.

During July we had a long period of cold calm conditions in which the sea froze and stayed frozen long enough for it to be 20cm thick (the required thickness by BAS for us to test the ice with skis on). Then starts a long process by the field GAs of testing the sea ice to make sure it is safe for all on base to enjoy. The Field Assistants will head out onto the sea ice wearing boat suits (in case the ice breaks) and skis and they drill the sea ice at intervals to measure it and ensure it is always a minimum of 20cm thick. Once the ice has been deemed thick enough for skis they can then start training base members in sea ice travel and rescue skills should anything go wrong. During the training everyone gets to jump into an ice hole and try to climb out using the skills taught. I usually find that it is during these moments that the dive team normally earns a higher level of respect once everyone appreciates just how cold the water is.

The sea ice coming in also means it’s time to let the boats rest for a short while and the Marine team takes to the ice to cut dive holes using a chainsaw. It is definitely a team effort with one person dressed in chainsaw protective clothing and the other three of us marking out on the ice where we want to cut the dive holes before screwing in ice screws to assist in lifting the ice out once it has been cut. We cut two dive holes about 10m apart as our dive holes also act as good breathing holes for Crabeater and Weddell seals and they can get upset if you try and use their breathing hole to exit the water. What still amazes me even now is when the air temperature is −20 degrees and the sea temperature is only −1.8 degrees steam rises out of the dive holes and it looks like I am about to get into a bath. Sitting on the side of the dive hole getting my kit on ready for the dive it all looks very dark down there. However, as you go under and your eyes adjust, the visibility can be exceptional and you can watch your bubbles moving beneath the ice.

We travel to the dive holes by skidoo with a sledge specifically for all our dive gear and seats for the tender and dive supervisor. Ice diving also gives other base members a chance to get involved in the diving and anyone is welcome to come out on the sea ice and tend the rope which is attached to the two divers.

During July we also have an Antarctic tradition which is the 48 hour Antarctic Film Festival. It is organised and run each year by McMurdo station (one of the large American bases) and the idea is that Antarctic bases all make a 5 minute film containing 5 elements and this year they were:

The sound of a tap drippingA T-shirt with a chocolate bar on itThe saying “which I imbibed rapaciously”A sawPopeye the sailor manOur base had great fun getting together to design a story based around these elements and then spent the Saturday filming the scenes. We are lucky to have a very talented Electronics Engineer who spent the whole of Saturday night editing the footage (laughing a lot) and put our film together The Inglorious BASturds.

Watch The Inglorious BASturds on YouTube

Ok, so part of the reason I chose to write the July diary is that on the 30th of July it is my birthday and as my base members know I am rather a fan of birthdays. This year was my 3rd Antarctic birthday. My first was a 70’s party theme, the second was a blonde party theme and then this year I chose funky colours as the theme. There was a slight difference with this year’s birthday in that the Carpenter Gav stole my day by having his birthday on the same day but we will let him off as it meant two birthday cakes and he let me choose the theme for the party. A quality I like most about living and working on a small Antarctic base is that people are always so willing to help each other out whether it is DJ-ing in the bar, decorating the bar, making cakes or cocktails and even tidying up the mess after the party is over.

July comes to an end and we realize it is only 8 weeks left till we see our first ski plane, new faces and get some fresh fruit and vegetables but for the moment we are truly lucky to be living and working in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Terri Souster

Marine Biologist