Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The same, but different

I’ve been back in Rothera for two weeks now.
Some things are just the same, while others are very different...

The first thing that is the same is the fact that I’ve been (almost) continually busy ever since I arrived. The first few days were filled with refresher training sessions – first aid, working around planes, communication systems, how to give a weather observation, and various field techniques including crevasse rescue.
In the field you'll often be travelling on skis. Now, do they have size 4 boots...?

The next few days were spent locating all of my kit again, charging batteries, testing equipment, modifying some of the electrical systems, pre-building kit to save time in the field, mending a few bits and pieces, and training up the people who’ll be helping me with my instrument installs.

Testing a seismometer - one of the instruments I will install in the field
And then suddenly it was time to fly! But more of that next time…

Base life
Many things about life in Rothera are the same as my last visit:

It was great to be re-united with the winterers, and hear their stories of hardship and camaraderie. My delivery of climbing magazines from the last six months went down well the field guides, and we were treated to a live gig by the “winterer’s band” last weekend.

Reading material in the toilets - tractor-driving is an important skill here

It’s also exciting to return to a place where you’re so close to all the action. There is a runway right next to the accommodation block, and people head out to wave to the planes as they take off and land.

The beautiful Dash-7 landing at Rothera, just outside my office

The communications tower is visible from all over base and the comms team are constantly in touch with planes and field parties all over the continent. All around base there is the reassuring crackle of VHF radio as people ask permission to cross the runway or track down items or people. There is an aircraft hanger across the way; a generator shed that ensures constant power across the base; workshops for carpenters, electricians and plumbers; a lovely crew of chefs in the kitchen keeping us all fed; a boating shed; a recycling shed (very little ends up as normal ‘rubbish’); a sewage treatment plant; and a busy garage that keeps all the tractors, skidoos and other large machinery in working order.
Comms tower surrounded by 6-foot deep snow - care is needed not to walk off a small cliff!

By far the weirdest thing that is the same about Rothera is the smell! I’d not noticed it when I was here before, but each building has a particular smell. In fact, different parts of the some of the buildings have a distinctive smell that I instantly remembered as I walked along the various corridors. I guess you notice these things when you are otherwise just surrounded by rocks and ice.

Supermoon from Rothera

Things are different too:

I was previously here at the end of the summer, and to get between buildings you had to walk across an expanse of large cobbles. Not so in November! When I arrived everywhere was covered by several metres of squeaky snow, making the trek between buildings a very pleasant experience.
Accommodation block - the view isn't great out of some of the windows

However, the tractors have been hard at work, and in the last week that lovely snow has largely been bulldozed away. We’re not quite down to the cobbles yet, but with the increased number of people on base traipsing around, and warmer temperatures, the whole place is now covered by sheet ice. Eek!

Exposing those wretched cobbles!

The other thing that is different is the sea, or lack of it. Rather than being surrounded by open ocean dotted with icebergs, we’re surrounded by some pretty stubborn sea ice that is showing no sign of breaking up. We’re due to have a ship call in to re-supply the base in two weeks, but at the moment the ice extends around 30km to the south and 100km to the north! The boating crew are looking very bored, and it means no penguins so far this year.

Icebergs trapped in sea ice between Rothera and Porquoi Pas Island (20 km away)

So I was just getting into the swing of changing my shoes every time I entered a building, and dealing with the contrasting temperatures inside and outside, when we jumped on a plane and headed off to do some science. Unfortunately, this was the point at which the weather turned, and a day’s work turned into a long weekend away stranded many miles from anywhere…
Kit for the field - do I have everything I need?

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Ready to go!

Somehow I've made it through the last few weeks! I've had a lot of fun learning about ocean circulation and atmospheric chemistry with the undergrads, I've submitted a paper, contributed to a couple more, attended some really productive project meetings, enjoyed shaping the progress of PhD students old and new, hosted some great speakers at Durham, spent some time discussing how we can support our colleagues through the next REF exercise, sat on an interview panel, been patched up by my physio, survived the annual round of freshers' flu, tied up fieldwork odds and ends, got linux running on my laptop, and fielded those emails from all time zones that begin "if you have time before you go away...."

So as you can imagine, I'm looking forward to heading south - away from convenient internet and a packed diary. But this also means heading away from my friends and colleagues, who keep me smiling even when things get a little crazy. My husband, Duncan, has tidied up the chaos that I've left in my wake as I've rushed around these last few weeks, and I will miss his amazing ability to make me laugh every single day.

While I'm away I'll make new friends, and catch up with old friends who have been overwintering at Rothera. It's difficult to step into another community, especially when the work I'll be carrying out can be stressful at times, but I know from last year that Rothera is a special community that instantly makes you feel at home.

My final important achievement this week has been to get my two piece of hold luggage under 23kg. Now I just need to get them safely to Newcastle - Heathrow - Madrid - Santiago - Punta Arenas, and eventually Rothera. I can't wait to step off the last plane into a biting cold wind...

Tuesday, 4 October 2016


There’s less than a month to go before I head back south to Antarctica and everything is …well ... nearly ready. It’s a little more complicated than just packing my warmest clothes and jumping on a plane, so here’s a run-down of what I’ve been up to preparing for this field season.

The instruments I installed last season have been sitting out the Antarctic winter. We expect there to be some interruption to the measurements since our main power source is solar, but now the sun has risen again everything should have powered up and we should be recording data again ...although, in reality, we have no idea whether anything is working!

At the moment our instruments aren’t transmitting data to the outside world, and chatting to BAS staff last season it became apparent that this puts a big strain on their resources. These sort of instruments currently needed to be visited every year to check everything is working. But if everything is fine they could just be left to record data for a couple of years without going through the hassle of trying to get a plane out to these remote locations (although I suspect the pilots secretly enjoy the challenge!).

So over the past few months I’ve been liaising with other scientists who run remote instruments, including my colleagues on the UKANET project, to find a solution. We’ve managed to pull together just enough in the budget to purchase five XI-202's - clever little yellow boxes that can be programmed to send updates via satellite, letting us know that everything is working as we expect.

This isn’t the end of the story though. Ideally we’d like to install slightly more sophisticated (and hence more expensive) systems that won't just transmit 'state of health' messages, but also all the raw data straight to our computers back at home, thus removing the need to ever visit the sites again… well so long as the electronics and power supplies survive the Antarctic weather. Watch this space!

New toys
A box full of instruments and cables arrived in Durham a few weeks ago, and with the help of the patient folk at UNAVCO I’ve been trying to work out how everything fits together. I think I’ve got everything sussed...

let's just get everything out...

and this should go in here...

or maybe...erm...

...perhaps it goes in here?

I wonder what the instructions actually say?

ah! It goes in here :-)

The next step is to make sure all our paperwork is sorted so we make it smoothly through customs on the journey south. Some of the equipment we’ll be installing this season has already been shipped direct from Australia to Chile, although apparently some of it ended up in Belgium!! Why is nothing ever simple?

There won’t be much time spent dreaming of penguins and snow over the next few weeks as the undergrads are back in town and somehow all my teaching has to be packed in before I leave. But with the crack across Larsen C having grown significantly over the austral winter it's even more important to get the final few instruments installed and recording the background rate of land uplift before this ice shelf potentially goes the same way as Larsen B.

To help get a better handle on the changes that are happening in the Antarctic Peninsula I’ll be accompanied by Antarctic addict Mike Bentley, who will be piecing together the glacial history of the region. This will be his 12th(?) trip to Antarctica, so I’m sure everything will go smoothly…

Thanks as ever to everyone who has provided training, equipment, advice, and funds. This project is led by Matt King and funded by the Australian Research Council, with logistical support from the British Antarctic Survey.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

10 things...

I’m now back in the UK, with drizzle outside my office window rather than sparkling snow and comical penguins. Having been away for a month there is plenty to keep me busy back in the Geography Department at Durham University, but the memories of Antarctica will take a long time to fade. Here are a few things that I will particularly miss…

1. Getting my hands dirty
For most of my working life my toolkit has consisted of a pen, paper, and lots of computers. As I headed into the field with essentially a 300kg meccano kit and lots of tools that I didn’t even know the name of, memories of playing with technic lego and building 3D models came flooding back from my childhood. It was great to get back to basics, and feel the satisfaction of building something where my tools were drills, spanners and a voltmeter rather than pen and paper. I think my proudest achievement of the trip was learning to solder.
not my usual set of tools
Even a mathematician can spot that this rock should not be here
2. Flying
Flying will never be the same after sitting in the cockpit of a Twin Otter and having the pilot explain what all the dials and switches are for; watching clouds silently weave around inaccessible peaks; enjoying the ride as we bounce our way home through bad weather; and trying to recall the physics that explains how we are somehow able to magically float across the sky in a lump of metal.
yes, we should probably turn left soon...
coming into land
How much kit can you fit in a Twin Otter?
3. Wildlife
Penguins are very cool. I am not cool when watching penguins. I still get excited at even a couple of Adelie penguins dozing by the runway. One evening I spent so long standing watching the penguins round the back of the point that I didn’t notice a pincer movement being set in motion: The cries of the penguins on land attracted a group who had been hanging out on an iceberg. Suddenly a gaggle of penguins shot out of the water and onto the snow next to me. I was surrounded!
Penguin pow-wow - spotted from the bar at Rothera
4. The view from my office
One sunny afternoon in my office in Old Bransfield House, I was gazing up at the rocky buttress at the top of the snow ramp, looking for inspiration on my latest paper, when a Basler suddenly purred its way down the runway not 100m from where I sat. You don’t get that in Durham. I may have let out a whoop of excitement.
evening clouds over Jenny Island
end of the day 
Rothera sunset 
5. Fuchs House
Even in the most miserable weather, as you climb up the steep steps and push open the door of Fuchs House a warm glow envelops you as you enter a world of sledges, skis, climbing equipment, tents, stoves, sleeping bags, and lots of books. It was here that we practiced crevasse rescue on ropes hanging from the loft whilst trying not to land on the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government or the Director of BAS; I learnt how to adjust ski bindings; and it was the starting point for all forays into the surrounding hills.
Mushroom Buttress: we climbed the inviting crack centre of shot
6. Outside the flagline
Inside the flagline is good. A peaceful few hours spent gliding round the plateau on cross country skis is a good way to unwind from a day of work. But a better way is to find a Field Guide and head outside the flagline and into Stork Bowl to sample some powder! Or skidoo up to Mushroom Buttress to sneak in a two-pitch rock route before dinner. Surely this much fun shouldn’t be allowed on a school night?
Stork bowl powder 
sunset as I skied around the flagline
7. Waste
Now I'm back in the UK it is strange not to have to think about which recycling bin to throw my rubbish in, or question whether I should even be throwing the item away - could it be used for something else? Do I really need the light on? Do I really need a shower today?! People are very careful about energy use in Rothera, hopefully Britain will catch up one day!

I don't have any photos of  rubbish (although I have many rubbish photos), so here is some cool crevassing 
8. Music
At the opposite end of the 'rubbish' spectrum is music! Whilst I was in Antarctica the musical skills of the residents of Rothera were on display at ‘Acoustic Night’ and during the Burns’ night ceilidh (a chaotic affair, at least on the dancing side…). For a small community (~80 people) the array of talent was impressive, and as people performed cool covers of old favourites and songs they’d written themselves I resolved to step outside my comfort zone of classical music in the future. Although, I don’t think I will ever master the skill of performing the Indiana Jones theme tune just by blowing into my hands…
I also don't have photos of music, so here is some more scenery: looking along Reptile Ridge back towards Rothera - can you spot the skidoo? 
9. Equality
Although we were a little slow to get in on the act (women roughly came in as the dogs went out in the mid-90’s) there is now a good mix of men and women at Rothera, and there is no pigeon-holing of what task you should be taking on based on your gender. While I was south there were women working in the communications tower, taking charge of science cargo, running the marine lab, running the diving program, providing the weather forecasts, and flying planes, as well as carrying out research into anything from oceanography to atmospheric physics. Indeed, the current director of the British Antarctic Survey is a woman. However, my own bid for equality was not completely successful, and it quickly became apparent that pulling a heavy sledge uphill through soft snow is best left to the boys if you want to make it back to the plane any time soon.
Stunning ridge lines 
Mysterious mountains in the mist
Clouds cascading off the Antarctic Peninsula plateau
Weather in the mountains
Untouched (?) rock
10. People
The thing I will miss most about Antarctica is the people, their attitude towards life, and their attitude towards each other. Rothera is almost self-sufficient (completely so in winter), and this is reflected in the way people look out for each other, and in the roles that they adopt. With a small community you don’t hear people saying ‘oh, that’s someone else’s job’; everyone mucks in, and they develop a keen sense of spotting a problem and doing something about it. I am hoping that some of this will have rubbed off on me and that my time at Rothera has made me a slightly better person.
Cape Disappointment team: (L-R) Chucky, Erin, me, Ted, Chris
A final thank you
As well as sending a huge thank you to all the folk down at Rothera and back at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, I am also grateful to: Matt King for getting this project off the ground and then suggesting I should be the person that heads to the other end of the world for a month; Anya Reading and the UNAVCO boys for training me to install GPS receivers and seismometers; Mike Bentley for advice and enthusiasm on all things Antarctic; and Duncan for all his support (and for feeding the cat while I was away).

time to head home...

Monday, 29 February 2016

Rothera life

Rothera from the ramp
Whilst all my ‘work’ down here takes place in remote locations, accessed by plane and ski, most of my time in Antarctica has been spent at Rothera, so here’s a quick run-down of life on the British base.

First things first: Food. I lived off ‘man-food’ (apparently named to distinguish it from ‘dog-food’…) for a couple of days whilst carrying out the installs at Cape Disappointment, but have mostly been fuelled the excellent food prepared by the three chefs here in Rothera. Not only is the food excellent, but there is plenty of it once you count breakfast, morning ‘smoko’, lunch, afternoon ‘smoko’, and dinner. Also impressive is the fact that not much goes to waste – every few days a dish appears which suspiciously seems to incorporate leftovers from recent meals, still very tasty though!

Seal relaxing close to base
Dash-7 and Twin Otter in the hangar
Waste: As I previously found at McMurdo, all waste at Rothera is sorted into paper, cardboard, metal, plastic etc., and recycled wherever possible. There is an array of bins in all the main buildings and it is your job to sort all of your rubbish into the right bins. Items are also recycled on a more informal basis – a bewildering array of clothing and other items can be found on the ‘sledge of dreams’ which is located in the communal area of one of the accommodation buildings; if you’ve finished with something, why not see if it can be of use to someone else?

Sno-cat up near the caboose
Accommodation: I am lucky enough to be staying in ‘Admirals’ (named after one of the old dog sled teams; these had to be disbanded in 1994 as a revision to the Antarctic Treaty decreed that non-native species could not be brought into Antarctica). The rooms are cosy and modern, comprising a bunk-bed, desk space, generous cupboard space, and a shared bathroom. One thing that I’d been told was that “everything is supplied in Rothera”. Indeed, in the storeroom along the corridor there were rows and rows of shampoo bottles, toilet rolls, soap, toothpaste etc. Some people will be here for up to two and a half years, so it makes packing a lot easier if you don’t need to start calculating how many bottles of shampoo you need…

Penguins pulling some shapes around the point
Malcy heading for the steep section of Gosmark's Gully
Communication: The most efficient way to ensure the smooth running of a base of 80-100 people is to use VHF radios. I don’t carry one of these as standard, but most people involved in the day-to-day running of Rothera do so it’s easy to keep track of what is going on. The constant background chat on channel 1 keeps me in the loop of what is going on as people request permission to cross the runway, confirm that a boating trip has returned, track down the doctor, or let everyone know that a plane is on the way in. Another great eye-opener involves listening to the communication between the pilots and Rothera whilst co-piloting on a Twin Otter. It reminds me of the ‘rules’ we have when rock climbing; to keep information succinct and to use standard phrases so that there is no room for mis-interpretation if the line is bad (or in the case of rock climbing, if there is a howling gale and your partner is out of sight!).

Recreation: One of the pleasantest surprises at Rothera is the freedom that we have to explore the area surrounding the base. Everyone has a ‘tag’ which indicates their location in one of four designated areas around the base – crucial information when trying to account for everyone during a muster situation (which happened twice while I was there). If I want to walk round the point, ski on the ramp, or ski round the flagline (a ~14km cross-country loop on the glacier opposite) then I can just move my tag to the appropriate zone, log my intentions in a book, and head on out (perhaps grabbing a pair of skis from Fuchs House and a radio from NBH). Heading outside the ‘flagline’ requires tracking down a field guide who is willing to accompany you on your adventures, but I quickly made it known I was up for such action and have squeezed in several post-work trips for climbing on Mushroom Buttress or ski-ing in Stork Bowl.

First run in Stork Bowl powder

Tag board in New Bransfield House
Generosity: The last thing to note about base life is the incredible generosity and good-spirit there is between everyone on base. This became apparent at my very first meal as the person next to me gathered up all the empty plates on the table and took them to the hatch for washing up. Turns out this is standard behaviour, along with helping the person on gash to carry bins to the span (I still have no idea who to thank for the several bins that moved without me seeing them!), chalking up a round for everyone in the bar (anything you ‘spend’ in Rothera is automatically debited to your bank account once a month), and generally helping out whenever you spot that someone needs a hand with something. It’s interesting that no-one is ever told to behave in this way; it just rubs off as each new influx of people arrives on base.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Work and play

It’s been a busy week, but a good mix of both work and play. Last Sunday was a no fly day, but the weather was stunning, so I tracked down some of the field guides at breakfast and it didn’t take much to persuade them to head out climbing on an outcrop just opposite Rothera. You may be picturing an epic adventure of hardship and cold hands, but we were in the sun on a windless day, and I was way warmer than I have been on many a British crag…

Monday was back to work, but of a different kind; I was on ‘gash’. There are a host of wonderful people here whose job it is to do the cooking, sort the rubbish, mend anything that breaks etc., but each day they also have someone assigned to 'gash', and this person helps out with odd jobs that need doing. So my morning was spent emptying the different bins (everything is carefully sorted into paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, metal etc.) into the relevant containers in the recycling shed, cleaning the toilets, and hovering the accommodation block. I then reported to the kitchen and spent the rest of the day washing up – for about 6 hours! This is actually my favourite household task, so I enjoyed trying to keep on top of the endless supply of pots and pans that headed my way, and chatting with the chefs as the recounted stories of cooking in a host of exotic locations.

Pulling the kit down to the outcrop - thanks boys! (photo: Ian Potten)
The rest of the week passed in a blur as I got the chance to head into the field again, first to install a GPS and seismometer on Wednesday, and then to service another GPS on Thursday. This sort of work is a funny mixture of waiting, followed by frantic activity: on Wednesday we were on standby all morning waiting to see if the weather would improve. Loitering around, the boys somehow managed to squeeze in three meals by 11am, but then suddenly we were off!

We called Max on the radio and got him to head to the science building with a tractor and trailer so I could load up all my kit. I ticked off the 20 separate cargo items that we needed – all crucial – then we jumped in the trailer and headed over to the hanger where we somehow crammed an awful lot of stuff into the back of a Twin Otter.

co-pilot Pippa
It was my job to make the call of exactly where we would install the instruments, which meant jumping in the front seat of the plane, and chatting with pilot Ian as we hopped over the mountains and then dropped down to circle the nunatak that we’d chosen from looking at satellite photos. After a few passes to get a close look at the rock and snow conditions we settled on a site and Ian swooped through a col, pulled a sharp left, and deftly landed the plane in a flurry of snow only a hundred metres from the outcrop. Amazing skill!

Yes, we are heading straight for a mountain...

Solar panel powering the GPS receiver (photo: Al Docherty)
We had a lot of work to get through, and there was a chance that the plane would head home and leave two of us in the field if it looked there was more than a day’s work, but the guys were amazing – Ian the pilot, Al the field guide, and Lewis the chef (who had a day off, so came along to provide crucial extra manpower) – and we were done in 8 hours from landing to take off. Wearily heading into the dining room at around 10pm I was greeted by two grinning people who asked if I would be up for heading straight out again the next morning…

Preparing to install the GPS monument (photo: Ian Potten)
Hard at work installing a seismometer (photo: Ian Potten)
A fun day off for Lewis the chef! (photo: Ian Potten)

Ali Rose in the middle of nowhere: Robertson Island
Thursday caught me out as the waiting was in the middle of the day rather than at the start. We got the nod to fly first thing and so Sam, Ali and I scrambled some kit together and were airborne with pilot Al soon after 9am, heading for Robertson Island. The work didn’t take too long, and after a quick explore of the headland we were back in the plane, tucking into sandwiches and ready to head home. However, the weather had closed in at Rothera so we had to sit it out.
In the plane.
In the middle of nowhere.

The moonscape at Robertson Island
I took the opportunity to nap on the pile of sleeping bags in the back of the plane (always carried, in case you get stuck out overnight or longer), then since the weather at Rothera was not improving we hopped over to Cape Disappointment for a cup of tea with the field team who were still camped there. Just as it was looking like we might be staying out for the night, a flurry of radio conversations suggested that visibility at Rothera was improving, so pilot Al made the call to see if he could get us home. We cruised up to 14,000ft to avoid the worst of the weather (the cabin is not pressurized) and were rewarded with a break in the clouds as we descended into Rothera to be greeted by the hangar crew.

The fact that we got all this work done in two days, skipping around the Antarctic Peninsula between patches of bad weather, and still making it home for tea, shows what an amazing operation BAS run down here - thanks everyone!