Rothera Diary — May 2009

30 May, 2009

Say Goodbye to the Sun

Welcome everyone to the month of May at Rothera Research Station.

My name is Andy Webster and I am the Communications Manager here on station. We employ virtually the whole spectrum of communications equipment down here, from High Frequency radio through to satellite phones and computer networks. Over the summer, all this links the bases, field parties, ships and aircraft together allowing BAS to perform its crucial science mission all over the world’s most hostile continent. Rothera is a vital hub in this operation and it’s my job to look after all the communications and computing equipment on station that allows this to happen. I also print out the newspaper every morning.

Looking back, the month of May has had rather a lot of stuff packed into it — it’s quite a task but I shall do my best to give you a glimpse into our lives as we descend into winter…

Early May saw the last two sets of the winter trips out across Adelaide Island making the most of the sun while she still graced us with her rays. There was a rapidly diminishing amount of daylight to work with and we didn’t see the fine spell of weather that some of the earlier trips enjoyed. Despite this, plenty of essential winter training was accomplished, mountains were climbed, crevasses explored and lie-up was limited to just a few days for each field party. Other than the continuous melting of snow, my spell in the tent with Ian was mainly centred on a rather dubious game of scrabble where we discovered (or at least began to suspect) yet another of the ‘leaving gifts’ left for us by the departing personnel back in March — over the course of the game it became clear that there was a seriously less-than-optimal distribution of letters amongst the set… Preparedness is the name of the game however and Ian had left nothing to chance in packing for the hostile conditions of Antarctica. The spare scrabble letter set was quickly located, disaster averted and the rescue party stood down.

We’ve seen some magnificent sights in the sky this month. This month has been a real treat for the photographers on base as the numerous colourful sunrises are conveniently timed around our mid-morning tea break (smoko). The most remarkable display I can recall this month is probably this fine halo created around the sun one morning, just after smoko. Halos are formed much like rainbows but, instead of rain, the light from the Sun is refracted through ice crystals in the very high cirrus clouds that you can see in the photograph.

The sky’s beauty hasn’t been limited to the few hours of daylight either. A week of particularly calm weather also gave us a clear night and Mike and I grabbed the opportunity to try our hand at some night photography. Far away from the bright lights of the rest of the world, we can look up to the night sky unhindered by light pollution — a sky full of stars that cannot be seen from our native Northern Hemisphere. Our own lights have relatively little effect and after walking just 100 yards away from base the Milky Way can clearly be seen above us. Moving further up the hill and over to the other side of the Point allows your eyes to better adjust to the darkness and, out of the wind, the only sounds are of the water lapping against the rocky shore below.

Capturing images of this magical scene is somewhat less than straightforward however and Mike and I proceeded to experiment with various camera settings, calculating the exposures required to produce satisfactory ‘star trail’ pictures and also trying to capture still shots of the fascinating sky above us without incurring too much noise from high sensitivity settings. Star trail photos depict the movement of the night sky as the Earth revolves around its axis and involve leaving the camera’s shutter open for long periods of time to allow the stars’ movement to become apparent. Such long periods of time in fact that, after two and a half hours on the hill, we walked back down to base with just a handful of photos but a good feeling of having made the most of the unusually clear night — time for a well-deserved cup of tea… We were rewarded with some moderately good results for our first go and much was learnt along the way. Now if only the sky would clear again!

It’s not all fun and games down here — work on base continues apace despite the diminishing daylight hours. Now that the first round of winter training trips is complete, the field assistants are busy with the annual servicing of the camping and survival gear, the mechanics are ensuring the vehicles and generators are in top condition, boating and diving operations continue despite the varying difficulties of constantly changing ice conditions and I’ve been fixing computers, tweaking radios and, most importantly, printing that newspaper every morning.

Despite the comfortable facilities at Rothera, it must never be forgotten that we are in a very remote part of the world as, as such, are our own emergency services. May has seen “Doc School” master classes from our physician on common mountain injuries and refresher training on Breathing Apparatus (BA). This month’s BA training was enhanced by a blind ‘search and recover’ exercise through a dark room with our visors smoked out by tracing paper. The object of the exercise is to familiarise us all with the technique of moving safely as a pair through zero visibility — not getting disorientated, locating and recovering a casualty and getting out are the primary objectives. The secondary objectives of general amusement watching your colleagues do the ‘BA shuffle’ around a room filled with obstacles in the dark were also achieved.

I’m afraid to say fancy-dress reared its ugly head again this month and sent the station complement into overdrive with preparations for “Heroes and Villains” night. Obviously the theme struck a chord as it was by far the best turned out set of fancy dress the station has seen so far this year. All stops were pulled out to imitate our idols from the worlds of myth, legend, comic books and movies and it was commented afterwards how everyone’s fancy dress showed more than just a passing reflection on their personalities. Well, I’m not quite sure where the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man fits in with that but I’ll go along with it…

Finally, May saw the Sun set on Rothera for the next couple of months. Winter is truly upon us now and we watched the sun sink lower and lower in the sky each day until finally she dipped below the mountains to the north on the 19th and hasn’t been seen since. She won’t shine her warming rays on Rothera again until late July and the thoughts of those on base are now firmly fixed on next month’s mid-winter festivities. The carpenter’s workshop is filled every night with people beavering away on their secret winter present assignments and our requests for the special BBC World Service mid-winter broadcast have been sent in — make sure you listen out next month!

So, there you have the month of May at Rothera. I hope my brief account has been interesting and, as you all enjoy the start of summer and prepare to light the BBQs, perhaps you might spare a thought in our direction as those of us on the southernmost continent head further into winter…