September – Behind the Scenes

30 September, 2006 Rothera


Hello to everyone from Rothera Antarctic Research Station and welcome to September’s Web Diary.

Have we got a corker of a diary this month for you all. In fact we have a double whammy. Two web diaries for the price of one. So to speak. First we take a behind the scenes peek at the work of the base’s technical services team, and a little later we will be hearing from Jade Berman our resident sponge expert about her scientific work so far this season. So, grab a nice hot cup of tea, sit back, relax and be prepared to be informed and entertained.

Working at a remote and isolated research station in Antarctica does mean that there are no fresh supplies or post for a few months but it also means that the base must supply its own utility services. It must be self-sufficient. Here at Rothera we generate our own electricity, make our own drinking water, and even have our own sewage treatment plant. The full cycle as it were. There are also the buildings around the station complex to maintain as well as the equipment inside them. And not forgetting all the machinery around base that needs to be looked after. Ski-doos, Gators, cranes, tractors, snow blowers and trailers. Because these things are in constant demand, the pieces of kit that does all this work must be maintained. And to keep it maintained the right technical skills must be available to perform this crucial task. Hence, the need for a technical services team. This years wintering team is made up of Jamie our generator mechanic, Kai as our plumber, Mark Saunders our builder carpenter, myself as the electrician with Tom Vintner and Mat as our two vehicle mechanics.

The generation of electricity is one of the most important functions on base. Most things are dependant on electricity to function. Pumps, lights, boilers, heating, cookers, fridges, computers, phones, internet, weather monitoring and scientific and medical equipment. There are three diesel generators on base. Each one is capable of carrying the full load of the base, which during the summer can reach up to 260 kilowatts. One generator is on load at any one time, the second on standby and the third is being serviced. Every 250 running hours or 10 days Jamie changes them over so that the one that was running can be serviced and checked. Marine Gas Oil (light diesel fuel) is stored in three bulk tanks in the fuel farm. Each of the tanks holds 230,000 litres. They supply the diesel needed to keep the generators and boilers around base functioning. Jamie also looks after two auxiliary generators over at the hangar, smaller generators that are used around base and in the field during the summer, the Bonner Lab fire pump, the dive compressors and the rescue-breathing compressor.

Water is another important ingredient for living at a remote Antarctic Base. Seawater is pumped out of nearby Ryder Bay from our own wet well and is magically turned into fresh drinking water by a process called Reverse Osmosis. This important job falls onto Kai’s shoulders. The water is then stored and used around base as and when it is required. About 24,000 litres of fresh drinking water can be stored on base. Seawater is also used in the Bonner Lab aquarium tanks and to flush the loos. Rothera also has its own sewage treatment plant. This processes and breaks down the waste from the buildings and treats it to a very high standard. Kai also looks after the numerous boilers around base, the buildings air handling units and all of the base’s water and plumbing needs.

Maintaining the buildings and furnishings falls to Mark. At its maximum, the base can accommodate up to 130 people. During the summer there is a high number of staff that transit through Rothera. Some stay for a day or two, some for a couple of weeks. Some longer. The base and its facilities are used to prepare their projects and gather equipment that has been stored here before heading out into the field. The same goes at the end of the summer too. Coming in from the field to Rothera and then heading back north again. As you can imagine, the buildings get a fair bit of wear and tear. Mark makes sure they are all fit for purpose, making repairs as needed and sprucing the place up with the odd coat of paint here and there. There are also special projects too. It seems there are always cupboards to build or shelves to fit somewhere on base.

There are upwards of 12 separate buildings on base with all of these have power with lights, sockets, fire alarms and specialised equipment in them. Everything from catering equipment to medical and scientific apparatus. And, as silly as it sounds in Antarctica, refrigeration. We rely on fresh food supplies stored at a constant temperature to keep us fed through the winter. Fridge systems are also used in the Bonner Lab aquarium and for other scientific and medical uses. Remembering that Rothera is an isolated base, we also need to be our own Fire and Rescue service. Everyone needs to be trained and competent in the use of fire extinguishers, and rescue breathing apparatus. We all must know what to do and how to react in the case of an emergency or a fire alarm. Running scenarios and Doc schools are the best way to put this training into practice. With mock emergencies that are run in conjunction with Lowri our base Doctor, to ensure they are as realistic and as safe as possible. My job as base electrician encompasses all these areas.

Even during the winter vehicles are in constant use around base. Ski-doos are used for winter trips and need to be in top working order before heading out. Like-wise when trips return, Ski-doos are maintained and repaired. A radio call can come at anytime from someone on base or in the field that needs advice or assistance with one of the vehicles. Tom Vintner and Mat provide this vital roadside breakdown service. They are also kept busy with the numerous other vehicles here at Rothera. Everything from snow blowers and bulldozers to Gators that are used around base during the summer as well as cranes, tractors, trailers, container moving equipment and front end loaders. All these and more are lovingly maintained by these guys. During the summer, there is equipment in the field that might need to be repaired as well. During the winter, there is the complete strip down and rebuild of equipment that will be used the following season at other bases like Halley.

Mid September bought some very unsettled weather for a couple of weeks. With high winds and quite a bit of snow around the buildings created some very large snowdrifts and wind tails. I was on nights for a week, and at times the landscape around base would change even over a couple of hours. When the winds died down, it was necessary to flatten the drifts with some of the larger machinery. September also means the start of snow clearing the runway and hanger apron ready for the first planes due next month bringing with them fresh vegetables and the long awaited mail from the outside world.

By far the dominating feature of the base landscape this winter has been the frame of the new building due for completion this coming summer season. Locally known as the climbing frame, this is to be the first of several phases of the Rothera refurbishment program. It is aimed at upgrading and replacing the buildings and facilities on Base and has been designed to best serve the future needs of the staff posted here during the coming summer and winter seasons. This first stage will be a new kitchen, dining room and recreational areas.

Living and wintering at Rothera also means there is a fair chance of having a birthday on base. Four lucky people, this month, have felt the thrill of enjoying their own special day in these very unique surroundings. Mat was out on his post winter trip for his birthday. Agnieszka received an extra special birthday treat when a lone juvenile male Emperor Penguin decided to pop in for a visit. Jamie too had a double celebration. Not only was it his birthday this month, but back in the UK, his son Finnley enjoyed his own 1st birthday. Jamie spent his birthday cooking and even helped make his own cake while Lowri had a low-key affair gently easing into her 30th year.

Post mid-winter trips continued this month with Bernard and Mark S heading over the sea ice to Lagoon for the day having a wonderful afternoon BBQ off base with Kirk and Bruce also attending. While Richard Hall, Tom S, Mark M and Riet headed over to the other side of the island for a spot of climbing and skiing. Tim and Soup headed that way too managing a little skiing when the weather closed in and they became tent Sudoku experts instead. Helen spent some of her winter trip building an igloo with Tom M and then spending a night in it with Agniezka. Everything was going well until a very rare easterly wind swept snow in through the entrance. Laying on three inches of snow proved difficult and made for a rather uncomfortable nights sleep.

One of the great benefits of wintering at Rothera would be having the chance to get up close to some of the local wildlife in their own surroundings. This month has seen the return of some of the seals ready for the birth of their pups.

Part of the tradition for the winterers on base is to pose for the official Winter Photo. Everyone gets a copy as a keepsake and a framed photo is placed in the bar along with the rest of the collection of winter photos that stretches back to 1969. Tom M scouted out a suitable location and with military style precision managed the seemingly impossible task of arranging for 21 people to be in the same place at the same time. The day and light was perfect and the result speaks for itself.

Working and living at Rothera over the winter has certainly been an exceptional experience. Everyone here will take away with them fond memories of the people and the place. All the winterers here have made their own individual contribution, but the success of any Antarctic winter can only be attributed to the base personnel working as a team. And 2006 has been no exception.

A quick Kia Ora E Haeri Mai to Family in Aotearoa. Robyn, Mike, Ken and Delwyne. Hi to friends in the UK. Jennifer, Terry, Eileen, Jill and big licks to Casey. Not forgetting Smudge and Fudge and here’s hoping you’ll be settled into your new home soon.

Also a fond farewell and very best wishes to Rothera colleague Rod Strachan and his wife Kat starting their new life in New Zealand.

Before I hand over to Jade, I’d like to thank you for reading and hope it has given you some insight into the work that goes on around base behind the scenes.

My name is Jade, and my job is to be the Marine Biologist. When I am not out enjoying the amazing opportunities down here I study the many different varieties of sponges.

Sponges are animals that normally live attached to the seabed, rocks or other animals or seaweed. However, some of my sponges (Dendrilla the spiky sponge) have spawned this month so I have lots of tiny yellow blobs (sponge larvae) swimming around looking for a place to settle.

It is brilliant to be able to work on larval sponges as I know exactly how old they are and which sponge they are from so I can follow how quickly they settle and grow and look at the differences between sponges. The oldest animal on Earth is thought to be an Antarctic Glass Sponge, which are thought to get to up to 10,000 years old!!!!

My main work down here is looking into which sponges live here, how they live and where they live. I find out which sponges are here by their colour and shape but also by what there skeletons look like, which are made up of lots of tiny glass spikes called spicules. I look at how they live by measuring how much oxygen they breathe and what they excrete. I study where they live by the divers bringing me back samples from different dive locations, studying photos of different areas and depths of the seabed.

We also use the ROV which is a remotely operated vehicle, like the one they used to film inside the Titanic. Our ROV can’t go quite that deep however it gives us a glimpse of life under the Antarctic ice.

September has kept all of us scientists busy down the Bonner, especially as time is running out before the summer contingent fly in needing space in labs and tanks in the aquarium, not to mention dive and boat time.

Helen the marine assistant has been taking advantage of the good weather to get out on the sea ice and carry out her CTDs (See July Diary) and has also managed to catch some Brittle stars in one of the many traps she has been testing.

Dickie the terrestrial biologist has turned the Bentham back on and it is measuring the thickness of ozone layer. The hole which has been over us all winter has closed up, however the layer of Ozone is still very thin so we all have to be very careful with lots of suntan cream at the moment, even when it isn’t sunny! Another side of his job is keeping count of the birds and seals. Some of the Weddell seals are pupping at the moment and there are a few quite close to base on the sea ice.

Well that’s it from me, all my love to mum, dad, Adam, Tas, and the rest of my family and friends wherever you are. Time is flying so not that long before I get back and catch up with you. Thanks for reading.

Best fishes,