Comings and goings

December 25th, 2005

A lot has happened since I last wrote – I’ve been very busy indeed and haven’t had a chance to sit down and write. I’d no sooner got the smell of Avtur (aviation fuel) out of my clothes than Andy and Owen, two of my colleagues on the Comms team, were sent down to Sky Blu to man the depot there. This left just three of us (myself plus Mark and Pete) to cover all the flying and field party scheds, so we’ve been working pretty hard.
We’ve had a lot of people come and go through the station in the last fortnight – we started with a team of four pilots from the German antarctic research programme, who arrived from Punta Arenas in their Dornier 228 aircraft. The Dornier is a bit bigger than our Twin Otters, and slightly faster, but it requires a much longer runway. In fact, it needed almost the entire runway before it was airborne, which is distinctly nervewracking! They stayed for one night and then flew on to Halley – from there they transfer to Neumayer, the German base in Dronning Maud Land.
We also had two of our Otters make the long flight to Halley – one went to stay for the duration of their season (until the end of February) and the other returned a few days later, via Berkner Island and Sky Blu, bringing back a few staff who needed to make a quick exit and a whole pile of parcels to be sent back to the UK.
After that, everyone’s mind was on the imminent arrival of the James Clark Ross, bringing food and cargo for the station. It got very close to Rothera but then became stuck in the ice near the southern end of Adelaide Island. I was lucky enough to go out on an Ice Observation flight in the Dash-7: this involved flying a number of low passes over the ship and surrounding sea to try and find breaks in the ice and was very exciting! However, all looked black the following day when it became clear that ship was not making any progress and eventually the captain decided to turn around and look for another route. 24 hours later, though, the ship had slunk through between the areas of hard ice and was steaming across Margerite Bay towards Rothera. Thus began the Relief of Rothera – the process of unloading all the cargo for the coming year. In fact, the JCR was supposed to go out and do a small science cruise in Ryder Bay, but the ice conditions prevented this from going ahead – so we had our full relief a little earlier than anticipated. It really was a case for everyone to muck in and shift the cargo and pack it away. Most days a party of up to 30 Rotherans would be called down to the food bays to stow away all the boxes and tins of food that the ship had brought – human chains of people shifting endless tins of mushrooms will be one of my memories of Rothera!
Around the same time as the ship arrived, the Dash-7 went north to Stanley with a few people whose work was already completed, and took more people out to meet HMS Endurance and prepare for fieldwork on the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula. It returned in the middle of relief – the base suddenly seemed full of people and the queue for dinner stretched right across the dining room and onto the stairs. Then, just as suddenly as it had arrived, the JCR sailed off into the not-sunset leaving us piles of stuff to sort out. We’ve also welcomed the rest of the new winterers and a few more summer staff to the base – they’re all getting used to life on land again after up to three weeks at sea!

Sky Blu and the Rutford Ice Stream

December 9th, 2005

I’ve been away for a few days – two days, to be precise, although it felt like a lot longer. I’ve accrued a fair number of air miles and seen a lot of interesting places. After several days standing around waiting for aircraft to be workable and the weather to be suitable, we left early on Sunday morning – pilot Doug, myself, and Kat, one of our terrestrial biologists. We headed initially for Mars Oasis, which is 200 or so miles away to the south of Rothera, on Alexander Island. Mars is the site of a number of long-term studies into Antarctic vegetation (mostly moss and lichen) and we flew in under the low cloud and dropped Kat off, collecting her colleague Kevin by way of exchange. A short flight from Mars is Fossil Bluff, where we refuelled the plane and dropped off Kevin to catch a connecting plane back to Rothera. Fossil Bluff is an old wintering station which is now occupied by two staff from Rothera during the summer and is used as a refuelling station for the Twin Otter aircraft. Doug and I then flew south to Sky Blu, another refuelling stop, which is named for its incredible natural runway, formed from a sheet of blue ice. It’s as flat as a skating rink and just as slippery. Astonishingly, we can land our large Dash-7 aircraft here (on wheels – it doesn’t have skis like the Otters) although Doug is quoted as saying that landing the Dash at Sky Blu is “like a one legged man wrestling an alligator on a skating rink”!
It was good to meet up with Bruce, Alex and Roger, who’ve been at Sky Blu for several weeks now, all except Alex sporting beards and smelling strongly of Avtur, the sweet-smelling aviation fuel that they spend a lot of time pumping into aircraft. After a quick cup of tea in the little fibreglass hut they call home, Doug headed out with Hilmar, one of the glaciologists, who’d arrived that morning on another aircraft. They spent the afternoon and evening flying around the Rutford Ice Stream setting up GPS stations to monitor its movement. The Rutford is one of the big ice streams that drains the Antarctic continent of ice and snow – it’s one of the fastest glaciers on the continent and can move up to a metre a day. Consequently it’s of great interest to our beakers, and we have three field parties doing science there this year. I spent the afternoon at Sky Blu helping out with odd jobs and cooking dinner from an assortment of tinned and dried foods over the Primus stove in the hut. Doug returned around midnight, bringing with him Tom, who he’d collected from Hilmar’s camp when he’d dropped Hilmar off – are you following all this? Sky Blu, being 74 degrees south or so, doesn’t even have any semblance of a sunset even at midnight, so it felt very strange going to bed in the hut in full sunlight.
The following day came (it didn’t dawn – the sun hadn’t set) and I headed out again, this time to take Alex and Roger down to the RABID depot. RABID is short for Rutford Area Base of Ice Drilling, and it was a major field camp during the last few years, where ice cores were drilled into the glacier. Now it’s just a vast depot of fuel and scientific gear, and every year some people get sent to dig it out of the snow and make it secure for the following season. We flew down to the Rutford, where the landscape becomes completely flat except for the Ellsworth Mountains, which look like they’ve been whipped up from Christmas cake icing – all white and lumpy – and which include Mount Vinson, the highest in Antarctica. The plane landed, we unloaded all their equipment, checked that the radio worked, and then flew off back to Sky Blu, leaving Alex and Roger to set up camp. After refuelling, it was time to load the plane with some drums of petrol and boxes of food and fly off to another part of the Rutford to put in a depot for one of the field parties who’ll be travelling across the glacier. This was a four hour round trip! Then we went on back to Rothera via Fossil Bluff. By the end of the 48 hours I was stiff, tired, smelled of Avtur and wondering how the pilots do it every day! But it was good fun and I would do it all again…

Sky Blu and the Rutford video

December 9th, 2005

I’ve made a short video of Sky Blu and the Rutford – enjoy it!

Sky Blu and the Rutford

Stormy weather

December 2nd, 2005

A sudden change in the weather has hit Rothera and our surrounding remote stations and field parties – we had 24 hours of high winds with blowing, drifting and falling snow, which is giving the base an altogether more wintry look. A lot of the snowdrifts that had been cleared away have now started to reform, but the biggest change is that the sea ice has started to break up and a lot of it has blown away from the base. This is good news for us, as it means that we will soon be able to launch boats and start the marine science season in earnest. It also means that the James Clark Ross, which is making its way towards us with its precious cargo of new equipment, food and beer, not to mention a whole load of summer and winter staff, should have no difficulty in getting into the base when it arrives in about two weeks’ time. You can follow the JCR as it makes its journey from Stanley down to Rothera.

Before the weather changed we managed to get some concreting done. We’re erecting a new mast for communication with remote field parties, and so we took advantage of a few sunny days to get the foundations put in. Now, my only previous experience of laying concrete was putting down a foundation for a greenhouse in my parents’ garden, and it was incredibly hard work and involved moving what seemed like tonnes of stuff in a small wheelbarrow. Here we were laying a lot more, and doing so on top of a rocky peninsula in the Antarctic. The job began with Andy and Pat drilling holes in the rock with a pneumatic drill – these took steel reinforcing bars that would strengthen the concrete. This was very hard work and involved much cursing when the drill became trapped in the rock by dust and shrapnel. Glen the Carpenter built and fittted the wooden shuttering to shape the concrete and then we were ready to mix and pour. Favours were called in, and on a bright sunny morning I turned up on site to find that concreting was already in full swing (I’d had some indoor duties to do immediately after breakfast) – but every labour-saving device was employed to make it a much easier job than at home! Firstly, an industrial concrete-mixer has a hydraulic scoop for the aggregate and cement – so you can load the scoop conveniently at ground level and then tip it all into the mixing drum by just pulling on the lever. Having mixed the stuff, we then employed the Nodwell to deliver it to the pour site. The “Noddy” is like a small lorry on tracks with a small crane mounted on the back. Being painted bright red and moving in the slightly awkward way that tracked vehicles do, it looks like something out of Bob the Builder! However, the Noddy has a hopper attachment for moving concrete – so Pat could park it next to the mixer where we tipped up to 1.5 tonnes of concrete into the hopper, then drive up to the pour site and hoist the hopper up over the shuttering. Pulling on the rope releases the concrete – much easier than using a wheelbarrow!