30 June, 2011 Rothera
Spending June in the Antarctic gives you time to think a little. Darkness, blizzards and the all important task of polishing my midwinter’s present often left me cooped up inside, wondering just how much things have changed down here. It sometimes feels like we live in a land frozen in time. Midwinter celebrations took place in Scott’s hut 100 years ago much as they do today. Whilst it’s a privilege to take part in traditions with such historic origins, here more than anywhere I’ve ever been it’s the people that make the place so really no two years can be the same. Then there’s the changing landscape. And the fact that it was a good bit chillier down here back in Scott’s day.
As a meteorologist, my job is all about measuring change. The climate’s changing faster here than just about anywhere on the planet. That said, the day to day work has hardly changed, and many of my routine tasks would be familiar to the very first Antarctic winterers. Things like launching weather balloons, recording cloud cover and taking daily temperature readings at the Stevenson screen. The job I look forward to most each week is a trip up the hill and out of sight of base, to a weather station a few kilometres away. It’s a good excuse to step outside the small (but perfectly formed) world I live in just to see a slightly different view, or the same view from a new perspective.
As I typed up June’s meteorological summary into my month report one statistic struck me more than most… total hours of sun: 0.0. The high wind speeds, low temperatures and wildly changing pressure values all fit with my memory of the month gone by but it certainly wasn’t dark the whole time. When the sun vanishes beneath our horizon, its light doesn’t disappear, it just changes. The colours multiply, changing by the minute. Features that you never normally notice, curls in the clouds and cracks in the ice, light up magically, bringing the landscape to life.
It just looks oily when the sea starts to freeze, smooth and shiny, like a multicoloured mirror that flexes with the swell. Then, as the ice gets thick enough to crack into pieces, it starts to look more like a crinkled sheet of cling film. Thin fingers float up on top of one another splitting into smaller and smaller fragments. The best bit is the pancakes. When the ice is a few centimetres thick, it forms into circles about the size of a large frying pan. They bash against one another and rise up at the edges so they look like bobbing stepping stones. Perhaps a penguin could get away with picking a path through these floating delights but the ice has to get a lot thicker before it’s safe to for us to venture out onto.
Lucky for me and marine assistant Simon, we were in a boat the day the sea started to freeze at Rothera this year so we had a front row seat. With ice no thicker than the bobbing pancakes I described, we had no problem creeping through to the site of Simon’s weekly oceanographic measurements.
The field assistants have a constant reminder of their history. Their winter weeks are spent stitching tents, lashing sledges, and servicing stoves that have barely changed since Captain Scott set out. One foggy Thursday morning in June though, they set about practising a task that I’ve seen no mention of in Scott’s diaries — how to rescue a snowmobile from a crevasse.
It’s a tense moment, but one of the best of the winter I reckon: the exchange of midwinter presents. Finally finding out who made what for whom. I love watching everyone’s faces as the fruits of their labours are unveiled. I got so involved in making my present that I’d almost forgotten I would be receiving one as well. I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve seen people in the past make beautiful picture frames out of old wooden Nansen sledges and I’ve always been envious. This year I got my very own frame with a gorgeous pop art style sketch of the view from my bedroom window.
Tom made a snowboard, also out of an old Nansen sledge. An ambitious project I thought when he first confessed the idea to me several months back, but he pulled it off in style:
Instead of being made from a sledge, Terri’s present was made to look like a sledge and was perfect in every detail. She was chuffed to bits. Good work Malcolm.
Expressions changed from pleasure to pain (and back again) a couple of days later as we burned off some of the calories from our delicious midwinter’s feast in the highly competitive midwinter’s Olympics.
Since my first Antarctic winter four years ago I’ve changed, the people have changed and the place has changed but my love for the place hasn’t changed one little bit. I’m just glad to be here.
Thanks to all my fellow winterers for a fantastic midwinter week and especially to Lorna the chef for a fabulous and cheesetastic meal.