Saturday, 26 April 2008

Only 105 days 'til the next sunrise. And, oh yes...Aurora yay

In the gloom of the late evening, the external lights of the Laws platform barely penetrate 20metres through the thick blizzard of blowing snow. The whole building shakes and sways in the wind, standing proud on it's 20 legs, akin to a gesture of defiance to the hard winds which buffet it.

Inside, in the warm and relative safety, 11 people take shelter from the harsh Antarctic blow. The long flourescent lit hallway runnng the length of the building is devoid of people, and many of the rooms either side of it are dark and uninhabited. It is as if the building is deserted. The only evidence suggesting the contrary are the sounds eminating from the lounge...

To an outside observer,
permeating through the howling winds from this lonesome building on an Antarctic ice shelf one would hear the sounds of whoops of joy, screams of passion, and groans of disdain.

What sordid group activity could possibly be going on in the lounge?
Had the group dynamics of a small isolated team living in close proximity to one another degenerated into a kind of orgy-fest?

The answer to this burning question will have to come later.

Wednesday 2nd April & Sunday 6th April 2008
More Met Phenomena

9th April 2008
The First Aurora

It was only very faint, and it was short-lived, but Halley saw the first visible aurora of 2008. Save for Dean, it was the first experience of such a thing for many of us. And it was a beautiful sight.

Joe came rushing down the corridor excitedly screeching that there was an aurora outside. As soon as Joe had made his announcment in the lounge/bar there was a momentary pause and then suddenly everyone leapt up and the base was alive with commotion. People scrambling over each other in the boot room to get kitted up in outdoor gear. People raiding the dark room for spare camera tripods. People fighting to get out of the door onto the open platform. It was close to all civility being lost.

The external lights were extinguished plunging everything into darkness. Soon our eyes had adjusted to the low light and then...

...suddenly there it was.

In the distance to the south was a faint arc of a green-ish hue. Slowly the hue could be seen to move, dancing subtly.

I was witnessing my first aurora.

It was short lived and had all but disappeared within 30 minutes.

Seeing that aurora was in itself justification for uprooting my comfortable life in the UK to work in Antarctica for 18months. And I was pleased that I had several more months of more intense auroras to come.

Saturday 12th April 2008
Casino Royale

Another Saturday and another opportunity to have a theme and dress up for no other reason than being fun. The theme for this weekend...James Bond Casino Royale.

It was Paddy's suggestion. And everyone put in an effort. Even Paddy who was busy cooking a predominently Russian style meal managed to find time to get dressed up. The dinner table was set out with betting chips strewn over it and laminated playing cards acting as coasters.

The lounge/bar was decorated as a casino theme to continue with the theme after dinner.

We had all kinds of fancy dress, from Joe being commando Bond to Lance being a Bond-girl. We had evil henchmen in the form of Les, Odd-Job (or was it Random Task) in the form of Paddy, Pussy Galore in the form of Ags (who employed a good use of lateral thinking for the costume), Dean came as Q and Bryan came as a gun-weilding bad-guy. I was running out of ideas and ended up coming as my own made-up bad-guy....a smooth one-eyed Spanish-Mexican gambler complete with pencil moustache and a guitar as my secret weapon (I would kill people with the tunes I played on it).

A few friendly, non-competitive games of blackjack and poker were played as the evening entertainment.

20th April to 28th April 2008
The life consuming world of "Rezy"

The week began with a beautiful full moon on Sunday 20th. A slight mist had caused the light from the moon to produce a subtle halo. I tried and tried to capture it in it's full splendeur, but only to get the result you see below.

So, what had happened to the residents of Halley during the blow of the week of the 20th to 28th? What was causing the cries of joy, screams of passion, and groans disdain?
Was it an orgy?

The answer is no.

For instead, a new addiction had taken over the lives of this group in the form of a video game. Resident Evil on the Nintendo Wii had ensnared and consumed the lives of a certain few of us in the group.

It's quite extraordinary how a video game could capture the passion of so many people and compell them to play from early evening until 0100 or 0130 in the morning. A core group of 7 people would sit down ech day after dinner to watch and/or assist in the zombie bashing.
The game is so consuming that all observers would be shouting assistance to the person playing the game. People would whoop when a puzzle was solved, scream when a monster jumps out of nowhere, and groan when another life was lost. And on this went, all of Sunday 20th and every evening of the following week. By the end of the following Sunday we had managed to rack up 24 solid hours of playing time on this one game. 24 hours out of 144. That's almost 13% of the the week spent sat in front of the big screen shouting at monsters on a video game. Bonkers.

And now it is complete we're all suffering from a feeling of loss and emptyness. We are also feeling very cheated. The ending was a complete anti-climax. We had fought through villages, fortesses and islands over-run by possessed zombie-like people. We had rescued the girl after killing 900 monsters (ourselves having died 70 times in the process). In the end, as we floated on a jet-ski basked in the golds and reds of sunset, the girl offered herself to our character...


Oh, how we men booed and bayed as the end credits came up.
Booed and bayed I tell you!

The week of Rezy also brought us several chores, activities and celebrations to remind us that there is also life outside of the world of computerised zombies and sexually confused heroes.

The 21st April was Laws scrubout day. A day for everyone to get down and dirty and give the entire base a damn good cleaning out, doing the stuff that gets missed in the weekly gash chores.
Ags and I got busy with the walls and the stores in the utility room, Paddy commanded a crew for the kitchen, Dean and Joe blitzed the lounge. Everywhere throughout the Laws was the satisfying stench of chemical cleaning agents and sweating armpits. By the end of the day the entire place was spotless. Dinner was served and then we settled down for some zombie/monster bashing.

The 23rd April was the beginning of another few days of a blow. It was also St. Georges day. Paddy agreed to cook up a traditionally English dinner for the evening. But that was as far as the celebrations went due to crappy weather and being mid-week. We soon lifted our spirits by settling down for some zombie/monster bashing. I suppose the blood bath of cutting down the maurauding undead with shotguns and rescuing the presidential daughters can be tenuously related to the legend of St. George slaying the dragon and rescuing the girl.

The evening of Saturday 26th April was a surprise to us all. We all went to bed on Friday night (at different times of course!) to find a balloon attached to our bedroom doors with an invitation to the dining room at 1930 on Saturday. What could this mystery be?

Something secret was going on all afternoon and nobody was allowed in the room. Then, at 1930 the door was opened to reveal the dining room decced out into a party venue, complete with decorations, buffet and cheesey music. Everyone even had a party bag with treats and toys in them.

Oh, how I was excited. Cheesey parties are the times when I shine, revealing my amazing dance routines and oh, oh, oh....the prospect of getting the ol' patented Leg Guitar out!

But it wasn't to be.
False alarm. The party was shorted lived and soon people retired to the lounge/bar and chilled out. A few of us kept the party going by playing some games. But alas, the opportunity for the leg guitar had passed.

A slight aurora was showing itself in the south sky that evening, but it was only subtle.

Thursday 1st May 2008

Now that Halley is fully into winter mode of operation, there is a more generally relaxed and chilled out atmosphere on station. It is easy to lose oneself and spend hours playing video games as you do not get the guilty feeling that time has been wasted. We do still have our 0900 - 1730 jobs to do Monday to Friday, but even work days are relaxed.

Back in Beakerville I continue to monitor the weather, launch the daily weather balloon, take air samples, sample precipitation snowmelt, look after the science data loggers, maintain the science equipment, manage the data, write reports, conduct ozone layer measurements, record weather statistics, and live the daily annoyance of being referred to as a scientist by my fellow winterers!

As the season progresses, the amount of daylight experienced each day gets shorter and shorter as the earth's orbit round the sun gradually points the southern tip of the planet away from the sun effect of the tilt of the earth's axis.

The 1st of May (according to my predictions) was to see the sun
dip below the horizon for the last sunset of the winter (known as "sundown"). The Halley tradition is to celebrate sundown by having the oldest member on base lower the union flag which flies proudly above the Laws building.

The flag is raffled off during the mid-winter celebrations in June. A new flag is not raised until Sun-up when the sun peaks it's disk above the horizon again in August. This ceremony is performed by the youngest member on base.

So, at 1317hrs (again according to my calculations) ex-army tank driver Lance lowered the flag after making a fantastic speech.

We will not see the sun again until mid-August.
We all definitely now feel that winter at Halley is in full swing.

The celevrations continued with a BBQ outside.

Later in the evening we were treated to the most spectacular aurora display to date. It covered almost 1/2 the celestial dome.

The Antarctic Monkey joined me to witness the show.

...and so do I.
(well, it's got to be done)

And that's it for another month or so.
It's getting more and more difficult to talk about every day base life as activities are very sporadic and low key now that it is winter. So please bare with me if I now talk about mundane things like playing computer games rather than exciting things like flying aeroplanes.

Note: If anybody wishes copy any of the photos above and use them for their own purposes please get in touch and let me know, or at the very least acknowledge me in their use. Thanks.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

4-nights, 3-men, 1-tent...a sitcom in the making?

I don't know what our fellow winterers must have thought occured during the few days myself, Rich and Joe were living in close proximity to one another in a small tent in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Antarctica. But, upon our return, the outburst by myself when walking into the dining room for lunch that "I feel like a new man", and the appearance of a blemish on Joe's neck which suspiciously looked like a lovebite, certainly fuelled people's imaginations.

Yes, indeed there were three men spending the majority of their time stuck in a tent due to bad weather. The risk of boredom being very real in such situations may lead people to think that we may have "entertained" ourselves (for "entertained", read "big gay three-man gangbang") but this was certainly not the case.

When walking into the dining room I was in fact referring to the euphoric feeling following a nice hot shower after spending 4 nights without such facilities, and Joe's unfortunate lovebite was the result of mild frostnip from the skidoo journey home.

More later.

Saturday 15th March 2008 Cambridge Science Festival Live Link-Up

The atmospheric chemistry group at BAS participated in the week long Cambridge wide science festival organised by the Cambridge University departments. The BAS exhibition included a pyramid tent, various Antarctic clothing for people to try out, a reconstruction of one of the 10 low-level ozone monitoring sites deployed from Halley by Andy Rankin during the summer, various BAS scientists and an exhibit where people can talk (through the power of modern technology)
live face-to-face with a real Antarctic

I was linked via webcam and VOIP to a computer terminal in the exhibition room, and the display was projected onto a screen. The idea was for people to just come up and have a chat to me about life and science here at Halley. I was on a wireless link with the laptop, so I was free to walk around the Simpson building showing different bits of science and give live views of activities going on outside, such as base commander Ags making snow angels in the soft snow we had the night previously.

The exhibition lasted all day, and the main purpose was as an educational tool for the various children walking around. They were each given a question sheet to answer by finding out the information by asking me.
I was ill prepared.
Although I had received a copy of the types of questions that would be given out, I hadn't done my research. I was soon finding myself being asked questions to which I could not answer, such as "how big is the ozone hole over Antarctica?" (particularly embarrassing as I am the guy who does all the ozone hole monitoring here), or "how old is the oldest ice-core"?

My guesstimates were quite accurate (being mulitple choice questions), but not brilliant. Luckily for me the exhibit stand was overseen by the lovely Rebecca to assist/chaperone the whole thing. She saved my skin serveral times, thank you Rebecca. :o)

I had an amazingly fun day, and I like to hope I have provided inspiration for all those scores of children I spoke to. They did all seem generally interested in what I had to say, some even lucky enough to witness a snow angel being made live 14,000miles away.

Sunday 16th March - Thursday 20th March 2008
Winter Trip - Sledge Echo

The following day I was off on me holidays. 5-days camping Antarctic style in the Hinge Zone with the aim of exploring ice-caves, climbing ice-cliffs and abseilling into crevasses.

Myself, Joe (who's original trip got cancelled in the summer due to a 4-day blow) and GA Rich all packed up, kitted up and headed off on skidoos towing sledges to the Hinge Zone.

Each skidoo/sledge combo had to be linked to the skidoo/sledge combo in front in case any one of us happens to fall into a crevasse. So we made a nice long train approx 150m long. Each person was also clipped into the system via a harness so that if a skidoo did drop into a crevasse, the rider would not fall to his doom by falling off the skidoo itself.

As explained before somewhere in this blog (I think), the Hinge Zone is where the Brunt Ice Shelf is fed from the Antarctic headland. Therefore, it is adorned with natural features where the ice shelf buckles and bends as it flows over the rocks below. This creates lots of brilliant features for us to climb around, and plenty of hidden crevasses to avoid also.

And so we headed off on our skidoos. The temperatures were about -20C, and so it was wise to wrap up properly if riding on a skidoo. This meant donning the special gortex face masks we get issued with. They keep the windchill of your face...and they also make you look like a gimp. Again, another unhealthy image to associate with three men about to head off to go camping together!

Rich has a beard.

When you have a beard and you breath in -20C, your breath condenses onto your beard and freezes instantly.

Rich breathed a lot during the 2 hour journey to the Hinge Zone. Thus, he had a lot of ice on his beard as a result. A lot of ice which was sticking his gimp mask onto his beard.
The facemask Rich wears just happens to look like a cricket batsman's box!

When he finally ripped off his mask, it was probably the most disgusting thing I have ever seen. For in this instance, it looked like a cricket box with a good set of curly pubic hair stuck around the rim!

Have you ever laughed and gagged at the same time?!
I have!

We set up camp, pitching up the 3-man pyramid tent, the HF radio, setting out the inside and outside supplies. And finally, most important...pitched the poo tent. It is a converted pup tent with the floor cut out. A hole is dug in the snow, with a ledge in the middle and a deeper hole on the other side for the crap and the tent is pitched over it. A wooden seat with a hole is the added for the finishing touches. And presto, a toilet in the field in Antarctica, complete with shelter and a seat. It is luxury compared to the alternative.

Mind you, the deep hole end was facing the wind and so a nice breeze would get in under the canvass to blow down between your cheecks when using the toilet tent, so one had to be quick when doing ones business. And it was imperative to restrict ones trips to as few as possible, i.e. building up the bowel pressure somewhat during the day and releasing it in one go!

Anyway. I digress.

Unfortunately the weather wasn't the best it could have been. It was cloudy the majority of the time and the wind picked up now and again. These conditions affect visibility and contrast and so it would be silly to go out in crevasse fields in conditions like that. We did get a good couple of 1/2 days out though, and got in a few trips climbing and skidooing around the large chasms.

We had one complete lay-up day in the tent, but it wasn't too bad. I was totally chilled out, reading a book, in a nice warm tent, with the wind whistling outside buffeting the tent, the primus stove soporiffically lulling me to sleep. I was so relaxed. And then it would be ruined by the need to nip outside to the pee flag of the poo tent.

The pyramid tents are quite efficient. Although it would be -20C outside, in the morning the temperature inside the tent would be a mere -9C!!! It quite an experience to wake up in the morning with ice all over your sleeping bag where you've been breathing.

Conversation was never lacking in the tent, with Joe routinely reminding Rich and I how "regular" he was prior to visiting the other tent, and coming out with classic quotes such as "ooh, I need a p*** do you need a hand Rich" or "I really could do with a McDonalds".

The other good day we had out, we walked to what is known as Stony Berg.
I had no idea why it was called Stony Berg, but it all came apparent later on. It's got stones in it!

Stony Berg is unique. The Brunt Ice Shelf is exactly what it is...a shelf of ice.
But, within all of this ice there happens to be just this one special feature. The aeon slow churning of the ice as it slides off the Antarctic mainland has obviously caused some rocks to be dragged with it. And years and years later, the rocks have been spat out on top.

After being here for 4 months and seeing nothing but snow and ice, it was quite surreal to actually see some real rocks. I was quite outstanded. And to think that for millions of years these rocks have been covered by thick ice until they were disturbed by the flow of the ice, eventually rising to the top of the very ice that had incarcerated them all that time. And here they were, silently sitting on top, the only visible rocks for miles and miles to be seen, waiting for residents of Halley station to stumble upon them several years ago.

On the Thursday it was time to pack up camp and head home. We had heard on the radio sched the night before that the weather was going to turn nasty.
We returned home on Thurday with a westerley wind coming from our left. And that is how Joe got the lovebite on the left of his neck.

All in all, it was a fantastic week. It was fun to get out and about away from base, and live life in a tent in Antarctica. Not many people will ever get to do that in their lifetimes. People would in fact probably pay tens of thousands of pounds for a holiday like that. Me...I get paid to have a holiday like that.

I am also
proud to say that I survived eating out of the manfood box a packet of freeze dried macaroni cheese which was dated mid-1995!

Friday 21st March 2008
Winter BBQ

Back home and straight into some proper self-made winter entertainment.
a BBQ in -19C!

-19C has become quite a balmy temperature for us of late. Whenever the communal weather display in the dining room shows anything above -20C we see it as being quite a warm day.
It just so happens that it turned out to be a warm evening for the planned BBQ on this particular Friday.

Paddy excelled himself by proving a brilliant meat-tastic spread of BBQ steak, sausages and burgers, jacket potatoes and salad (of the salad we had remaining from the shipment in January)! It was all finished off with some lovely freshly made toffee apples for pudding.

The BBQ was splendid, and although I got some photos, none of them does it any justice and so I am not going to even bother put any on this blog.

The same evening was a chance to take a group photo of the wintering team. Not in any way our official winter photo mind, but rather one to send to our neighbours...the Germans at Neumayer (800km or so away) who had kindly emailed us wishing us a successful winter, complete with attached picture of their team. I see that they have a metbabe also...a proper female one at that too!

And then we went indoors into the warm to continue the evening's entertainment, which absurdly ended up being a gaming-fest of mastermind, pool, darts and battleships. Oh how we live it up here on a Friday evening.

Saturday 29th March 2008
80's Theme Night

Oh yes...this was it. A chance to fulfill one of my life long dreams and have a totally 80's themed evening, complete with dressing up!

Ags turned the lounge into an 80's themed restaurant (deliciously named "Simply Irresistable") and I was to be her waiter. A waiter is in no way like a butler, so I was excused to be a bit slack in my approach to serving the tables.

The restaurant came complete with video screen displaying 80's pop videos, and plenty of 80's style posters. There was even on the wall an "employee of the month" award. Coincidently, I happened to be the employee of the year, (probably something to do with the fact that I made the award myself).

Everyone made an effort and dressed up. I took hardly any pictures all evening so I cannot show you the wonderful costumes we had. I came as a New Romantic, we also had a punk rock chick, John McEnroe, The Karate Kid, some eccentric entrepreneur (or it could have been Scott just being his usual self), what I can best describe as an 80s rock singer, and an 80s disco king.

After dinner, we partied the night away to 80s classic after 80s classic. And you've got to admit, there were plenty of classics from that decade, huh???

Sunday 30th March 2008
The end of the 1st month of Winter

And thus proves that, with a lot of hard work and team spirit, Halley station can be run with a skeleton crew of just 11 people.

That is, of course, until I have to step into the role as Sunday cook! As was the case on Sunday 30th March.

Even the chef needs 2 days off during his week, and so we all take it in turns to cover those days and cook for the rest of the base. And it was soon my turn. Little did they know what they had let themselves in for!

But, it turned out alright in the end, and everyone survived my lamb hotpot. The only thing that didn't survive was my ill-fated attempt to make honey pudding. Well, it was edible. It just didn't turn out to be how Linda McCartney told me it should look.

The Melt-Tank

The following week I was on melt-tank duty with Bryan and Hannah.
Melt-tank duty is another responsibility shared amongst us.

Our water supply comes from the snow that surrounds us. In order to get it from the snow surface into our pipes we have to dig it and chuck it down a chute. The chute feeds the Laws melt-tank which is now under 18 years of accumulated snow (some 30m below the surface). The melt-tank melts it, and the melt water is pumped up into a day tank on the Laws platform where it is filtered and treated with UV light en-route.

Digging for the melt-tank each takes a team of 3 people 30 mins to fill to the appropriate level. And this has got to be done in all weather. Luckily, this last particular week I was on MT duty was good for weather. The time previously was during a good blow.

And that concludes the activites during the remainder of March.
What wonders willl April bring the team at Halley? Only time will tell. But a heads up from the chief scientist at Halley (the only scientist), yours truly: April 30th brings sundown, the final sunset at Halley for 3 months. The dreaded 24 hour darkness is nigh.