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!

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Cape Framnes

As well as installing new GPS receivers and seismometers, part of my role down here is to check on the health of other GPS receivers in the region. In particular, a GPS deployed a few years ago on Cape Framnes - around 75km from Cape Disappointment - needed an upgrade of the electronics board.

Although this site had been visited a few years previously, there was no way of knowing the current snow conditions, and as we circled above the outcrop on our first visit it was clear there were plenty of crevasses around. Our pilot, Alan, deftly landed the Twin Otter away from the cracks, but we were about 4km from the outcrop, and with time ticking on and gale force winds outside we knew we’d need to come back another day.

Photo: gratuitous penguin photo

On our second visit the conditions were probably actually pretty similar, and strong gusting winds made the final approach in the Twin Otter pretty exciting, but Al (different one) still landed us amazingly smoothly. Eager to get on, we enthusiastically jumped out of the plane, only to be faced with a strong, biting wind. I jumped back in and put another layer on!

With back-up from Sam and Al (yet another one), it took us about 90 mins to pull the kit down to the outcrop from the plane and get cracking with the work. I should say here that Sam did all the pulling, Al looked out for crevasses, and I mainly tried to stay upright on my skis. In unknown terrain like this you need to all be roped up as you ski along, and each person needs to have enough equipment on their harness – ice screws, karabiners, pulleys, jumars, slings, ice axe etc. – to be able to rescue one of the others if they fall in a crevasse. The rope-work is all fairly common sense, but crevasse rescue is the one thing I try to practice before every mountaineering trip since there is unlikely to be anyone around to help if your partner disappears into a hole.

Photo: Cape Framnes GPS receiver with solar panels in the background - the solar panels are the main power supply during summer months.

We made it safely to the outcrop, and servicing the equipment took around 90 minutes. Things weren't helped by strong gusting winds and cold fingers, but Al did a great job of securing things down so they didn’t blow away, and luckily Sam has amazing circulation, so he took on the more fiddly tasks as we changed over the electronics board. A quick satellite call confirmed that the site was up and running, and transmitting data to the outside world. Success!

Photo: The new electronics board, successfully installed and about to be locked in a weather-proof box to endure another winter.

We celebrated with a large bar of chocolate before starting the slog back to the plane, uphill, into a headwind…

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Into the field...

Cape Disappointment (65.535°S, 61.729°W) was the destination for my first task – installing a GPS receiver and a seismometer. The GPS receiver will measure the gradual deformation of the solid Earth as the Antarctic Ice Sheet shrinks (or grows), while the seismometer will record the arrival of seismic waves generated by earthquakes around the world. The data from both instruments will be used within the models that I work with in my ‘day job’ back in Durham.

It was a busy few days in the field as we had to set up camp for a team who will be staying at Cape Disappointment for a couple of weeks before starting on my install. This involved setting up and testing the HF radio, pitching some tents, and flagging out the 'runway' so that subsequent planes bringing in cargo could land as safely as possible. It was not a runway in the conventional sense; we simply marked out the tracks left by our Twin Otter in the snow.

Once all this was done it was time to check out the nearby outcrops to look for a suitable site for my instruments. The GPS receiver neeed to be attached to solid rock, while the seismometer neeed to be buried a couple of feet underground – finding somewhere to dig a hole was not too difficult as the outcrop mainly consisted of rubble, but finding some solid rock proved a little more difficult. I eventually found a decent site, but it wasn’t very close to the edge of the snow, so the evening was spent loading up ~330kg of equipment onto a sledge, dragging it about a kilometre to the outcrop, and then carry each of the items across the rubble to my chosen sites. Phew, hard work!

Photo: Kit for the GPS install - a challenging surface for carrying large, heavy items!

After a cosy night in a pyramid tent (the sleeping bag I am supplied with is amazing!) it was time to install the instruments. It was a long day, but we were blessed with light winds and bright sunshine so my fears of having to carry out some of the trickier tasks either wearing gloves or with cold hands were unfounded.

Photo: Levelling the GPS monument in warm, sunny weather.

There was plenty to do, from manual tasks like drilling bolt holes so that the equipment can be secured to the rock, to more fiddly tasks like wiring up the instruments and checking they were successfully collecting data. I’d made myself a checklist of everything to be done, which ran to ~150 individual tasks (‘tighten bolts on X’, ‘plug Y into Z’ etc.). Most of the steps are common sense, but I didn’t want to risk missing one out as we won’t know whether the instruments have worked successfully until we return to service them next year.

Photo: (left) GPS antenna with a stunning view across Larsen Bay. (right) Carefully placing the seismometer into its hole.

It was a long and tiring day, but as we completed the final few tasks it ticked over into my birthday, and I was rewarded with a stunning sunset across Larsen Bay. A pretty special way to celebrate my birthday!

Photo: A peaceful end to a busy day.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Return to Antarctica

Just over a week and a half ago I stepped onto a Dash 7 at Punta Arenas airport and headed south for Antarctica again. This time my destination was Rothera Research Station, a field base operated by the British Antarctic Survey. Life since then has been hectic and exciting…

Photo: A rather wonky photo of Rothera. Aircraft hanger bottom left, field ops tower in the middle (orange), attached to Old Bransfield House (where I'm based for work), Admirals House (accommodation) overlooking the runway, and New Bransfield House (dining room, library, communal space etc.) to the left.

The first priority on arriving in Antarctica is to ensure that we are safe operating in this alien environment, so the first four days were a whirlwind of training, interspersed with trying to locate all my scientific equipment. The group I arrived with (a US team consisting of Erin Pettit, Ted Scambos and Chris Carr - here to study Scar Inlet Ice Shelf) had also all worked in Antarctica before so a lot of the training could be tailored to account for this, but there are lots of little things that are different between here and McMurdo, and it is always fun to practice crevasse rescue!!

Photo: Field training - our beautiful and cosy pyramid tent.

We were efficiently and entertainingly trained in station communications, first aid in the field, driving trucks and skidoos, flying in Twin Otters, and carrying out meteorological observations, along with all the skills you need to live out in the middle of nowhere on an ice sheet. You have to learn quickly, as you’ll be using all these skills for real very quickly. As an example, the Twin Otter pilots need to know the weather conditions anywhere they want to land a plane, so if you’re somewhere remote waiting for an Otter you’ll need to call up Rothera on the radio and deliver hourly reports on your local wind speed, wind direction, visibility, and cloud levels. Get it wrong, and your plane may not be able to get to you…

With training (just about) complete it was time to head into the field. My role while I'm down here is to install GPS receivers and seismometers at a number of locations along the Antarctic Peninsula. I’ll say a little more about the science elsewhere, but for now I’ll give you a flavour of why I’ve only just round to writing a blog post!

Before heading to the field I needed to locate around 40 different cargo items, shipped from three 
different continents. I had to work out what they all were and how they fitted together (I’d never seen the majority of the kit before), upgrade some of the software, carry out a test-build of the systems to check everything worked, pre-build some of the bulkier items (e.g. a large metal frame to which some of the equipment is attached), track down spurious locally-sourced items (e.g. kit to guy down the equipment so that it survives the legendary Antarctic weather), work out which pieces had to fly out for the first batch of fieldwork, weigh all the kit (not helped when I broke the scales…), and get it packed efficiently for flying. Phew.

Photo: Chris with some of the chaos in our office - this office had been completely bare 12 hours earlier!

I’m still not sure how I managed everything in time, and am completely indebted to various people who showed me where things were/mended things I broke/helped build and carry things/and answered my frequent questions about circuit boards, batteries and toolkits. Somehow everything was just about ready in time, and we headed for Cape Disappointment, which was far from disappointing…

(to be continued)