Rothera Diary — November 2009

30 November, 2009 Rothera

A Glimpse of Life on the Outside

At the time of volunteering to write this month’s entry for the Rothera Diary, I had no reason to suspect that I might spend a considerable portion of the month away from the island which has been my home for the past eleven months. The reason for my unexpected departure from Antarctica though, shall be revealed in due course.

Firstly, let me introduce myself. My name is Mike Shortt. I am an electronic technician maintaining the long term physical science experiments at Rothera. The instruments and associated PCs continuously record data to our science servers which then transfer this data via satellite to Cambridge. My job is to ensure the instruments are properly maintained and the data keeps flowing to the scientists at BAS.

My other role is as part of the met team. Now that aircraft and field operations are in progress, weather reporting and forecasting takes on a ‘front line’ role. To cover the extra responsibilities, the winter met team of myself and Celine was boosted in October by Tamsin, the science coordinator, and Tony the Met Office forecaster. Apart from hourly meteorological observations and met balloons launches four times a week, the timely delivery of met data including satellite pictures becomes top priority.

The end of October/start of November marked the first deployment of scientists into the field. Each flight requires the assistance of a member of base as a co-pilot. This is the chance for the winterers to get away from Adelaide Island for their first time in seven months. I managed to get a place on one of the first flights to help ferry ‘Sledge Golf’ to the Larsen Ice Shelf.

For the majority of our time during winter we are confined to a very small area of the island, and perhaps without realising it, get used to viewing it from the small point of land jutting into Ryder bay called Rothera Point. It is a strange feeling to get up in an aircraft and see the area we live in from a completely different perspective. It suddenly reminded me what an amazing location Rothera is in and how privileged I have been to have the chance to spend a year of my life here.

It was a glorious sunny and calm day on the Antarctic Peninsula, and I spotted their camp as a speck in a large valley flanked by towering mountains on either side (see photo 3). After landing and unloading the final load of snow mobile and supplies we shook hands with Dave Routledge and Mike Flowerdew and returned to Rothera. They’ll spend the next six weeks doing field science on the Larsen Ice Shelf, with their only contact with anyone else being a daily radio call, or ‘sched’, with Rothera.

The following week I had some field work of my own to do in a similar area. The installation of eight GPS units in a row down the Flask Glacier. These transmit their positions via satellite back to the scientists who will be able to plot the movement of this particular glacier as it feeds into the Larsen Ice Shelf.

We were aware that the Flask Glacier was heavily crevassed, so Tom, a field assistant also came along to ensure our safety when out on the ice. As each GPS location was approximately 8km apart, Steve King, our pilot had to land and take off at each location. With a large amount of crevasses, some very difficult to spot, we were glad to have someone of Steve’s experience at the controls of the aircraft.

We needed a cloud free day, to ensure there was enough contrast at ground level to spot the tell-tale slumps of snow indicating buried crevasses. Eventually the day came when our forecaster predicted good weather and the satellite pictures confirmed that it was good for an attempt, so we headed out. The technique for landing on glaciers requires several fly overs to check for an area with level snow which is free from any signs of crevassing. The ice flows a bit like a river, moving faster in some locations than others, so with experience, even with deep snow cover it is possible to predict which areas are more prone to crevassing than others. Once a suitable location is spotted, the aircraft touches down without coming to a stop and takes off again. This trails the aircraft skis along the snow. The pilot can then fly past the area where he has just trailed his skis to judge the snow condition and spot any crevasses that may have opened up. If everything still looks good then the pilot will land on the area he has just tested. We managed to get seven out of the eight locations installed. Unfortunately the final one proved impossible to land anywhere within 10km of the proposed site.

One of the interesting things about working in Antarctica is the frequent international collaboration on science and logistics. This month saw our first official delegation of visitors. The international visitors from Canada and Korea were on base to look at our facilities, understand how we do field science and logistics, and discuss future co-operation.

Other visitors included a Sky News team on a two week visit. They were interviewing scientists and gathering footage to put together several reports prior to the UN climate conference in Copenhagen this December. They were entertained to a band night in the lounge on their final evening on base.

During the second week of the month, like a bolt from the blue, I was struck down with the most painful toothache imaginable. Matt, the base doctor, decided to send me north on the next Dash 7 air bridge flight to Stanley in the Falkland Islands where I could receive specialist dental treatment.

I flew out of Antarctica with a mix of emotions — pain, trepidation and excitement. Leaving my familiar friends and frozen home of the last year to enter the alien world of strangers, money, cars, shops, bars, greenery, sheep and rain! The rumours were that it was scary out there, but this being the rural backwater of Stanley, I managed to hold myself together.

The dentist saw me at 5pm on a Sunday evening and had me all fixed up in just over an hour. The cause of the pain had been an abscess and the fix involved some root canal work which could not have been carried out on base. I just thanked my luck that it had not happened during the winter when it would not have been possible to leave Rothera for treatment.

This being the height of the field season, field parties were already deployed on the Antarctic Peninsula. The forward logistics facilities of Fossil Bluff and Sky Blu were just being opened in preparation for the deep field parties to start deployment. This meant that the Dash 7 flight back to Rothera was full of cargo and personnel and was unable to take me back on the return trip. So I was assigned a cabin on the BAS ship, James Clarke Ross (JCR), for a 10 day science cruise — across the Drake Passage then south to Rothera to unload a year’s supply of cargo for the base.

Together with the scientists, the new team of Rothera winterers were on board including the new wintering met team of Rebecca and my replacement John. Having travelled south on the JCR last year, I knew exactly what lay ahead. It was interesting to see a new group of people going through the same new experiences and emotions. The anticipation of going into the unknown, talk of sea sickness, everyone running outside with excitement to see their first iceberg, first whale, first penguin, and their first sight of Rothera.

Once the science in the Drake Passage was finished we headed down the Peninsula to Port Lockroy. This is Base ‘A’, the original British Base of the Falkland Island Dependency Survey, which later became the British Antarctic Survey. It was established in 1943 as part of Operation Tabarin to report any activity of enemy naval assets. It is now a museum run by the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust for passing cruise ships. We had to deliver two containers of building materials for their Nissen Hut reconstruction project. Unfortunately, as Port Lockroy sits on an island in shallow water with no vehicles on the base meant everything had to be done by ‘Fid power’. The container was brought in on a small tender and a line of 34 Fids passed the goods up the chain from the rocks to the storage point on the small island. It took us all day to carry ashore the timber, corrugated iron, windows, steel beams and sacks of cement mix.

After the hard day’s work everyone relaxed for the scenic evening’s cruise as we passed through the tranquil waters of the narrow Lemaire Channel, gliding slowly past towering cliffs and icebergs on either side of the ship, and watching the sun set far to the South.

With a short stop at the Ukranian base of Vernadsky (former UK base of Faraday) we proceeded on our way through a small amount of pack ice around the west coast of Adelaide Island and into Marguerite Bay. There we were greeted to a fly past by two BAS twin otters returning from the field. Eventually the wharf at Rothera came into view and the sight of people gathered on top of the Point eagerly awaiting the arrival of new base members and new supplies. It was good to be home again.

It’s gone full circle now, the new wintering team is in Rothera, relief has been done and training of the new team begins. Things feel like they are drawing to a close. While the summer has only just started it’s much shorter than the winter and I’ll be leaving Antarctica again in three months time. Only this time, I’ll be leaving for good.

Mike Shortt