Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Snow Pit Sampling

One part of my job is to go to the CASLab (Clean Air Lab) everyday to change a small filter (or at least one of the three of us do). This filter collects aerosols in the air (more specifically sea salt aerosols). The lab itself is situated upwind and far enough away that the bases air isn't sampled that often (generators, exhausts, dozers). There are a number of other instruments running all the time, so that the scientists back at Cambridge can have a good general picture of what's going on.

Kirsty digging the hole in her 'oil spill suit'. The CASLab is in the back and the 30meter mast to the right.

From the LoVol (Low volume) filters we can see what aerosols were in the air everyday and where the air came from (anemometers). Every two weeks we change a HiVol filter (High Volume) which measures for the same particles, just over a longer time period. All of these filters are sent back to Cambridge at the end of the year (where all of the BAS scientists live) for Ion Chromatography analysis.

The big problem with ice cores is that we don't know how the concentrations of aerosols and gasses found in the ice cores relate to what was actually in the air at a time.

This snowpit sampling links the HiVol and LoVol aerosol concentrations found on the filters to the concentrations of impurities preserved in the snow. This should help improve calibrations of ice core records.

So- now for the fun bit. First of all we had to dig a pit. A big pit. And we couldn't contaminate the snow pack or the composition of the snow, so we couldn't walk on the bit we were about to sample (it's important that no-one has ever walked on it) and we couldn't get chemicals or fuel or even breath on the snow wall!

Kirsty in mid swing.

Digging finished!!! Me showing that the hole was 1.5m deep. 1m square and on the left are the steps going down.

Kirsty and I in the hole. I'm actually standing on a lot of snow that I'd just pushed in with me running to be in the photo.

The first 20 pots in the snow wall. They're sampled every 2cm.

Once the pots are pushed in and the depths are measured we used clean spatulas to scrape away the snow around the pot, and then (somehow) get the clean untampered snow into the pot and put the untouched lid on.

Kirsty in all her clean outside lab gear in front of the first 20 samples.

We took 60 samples, which is a lot of faffing about with little pots trying to get them in little bags and not touch either the pot or the snow. As well as the yellow oil spill suits, we wore brand new thin gloves, cleaned our boots, wore facemasks and a multitude of various plastic gloves. Lets hope that all worked.

Me trying to warm up by wearing my big bear paws and jumping about.

So the whole operation took us the day (getting prepared for it and lots of time spent trying to get warm again). Another one in two months, yay for Science in an Antarctic Context!!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

BobNight and Women's Hour

Not the two most related subjects, but I've a wee bit to mention today.

Firstly it was Bob's (Generator Mechanic) birthday on the 7th. He had a great day at the Penguins (best birthday ever!) and we celebrated the next Saturday night by all dressing up as famous Bob's (without letting him know of course). It was great to see him trying to work out what was going on- to be fair, he did catch on pretty quickly. A good amount of imagination went into the costumes as well, and I believe a good night was had by all. Nic made a big buffet of finger food that was put out on the pool table, and I think we're still eating the leftovers.

Liz, Me, Kirsty and Jules in the Halley BobSleigh Team.

My name's Vicki, I mean Bob- I'm a boy. Honest.... what was that Alex? Give me a P, please.

Dave didn't bother to dress up- he just came as himself. Photo by Bob.

The 16 of Us... photo by Bob.

I think it was a few days before that Jules introduced a great drinking game to us. It was painfully funny and went on the theme of ... bob. "G'day Bob, say g'day to Bob, Bob" etc... not the best for those who have trouble pronouncing things...

Next we come on to Women's Hour. This is a show that's broadcast daily on BBC Radio 4 . Liz our carpenter spoke live on this morning's show (click for the links). Her, Alex Gaffakin (an ex met-babe ('99 & '00)) and Gemma Clarke (the last summer's Structural Engineer) spoke about how easy it is for women to live in the Antarctic.
I can see how for many people that have visited here in the past it seems strange that women do. Britain in general was very slow at letting women winter, the first at Halley was only 10 years ago. That was well after one of the German bases was wintered by an all female team (1991), proving once and for all that there's no need for women to rely on men. Saying that- I want to stress that not all women would be good winterers, just like not all men would be- but it's a mental thing rather than physical, and more about your attitude to solving a problem than actual physical strength. So the point is, women rock and are great to winter with.

There's 5 of us this year, that's the most in Halley history. Me, Kirsty (Meteorologists), Vicki (Doctor), Nic (Chef) and Liz (Carpenter). Liz is more unusual than the rest of us, since she's a women in a male predominate occupation AND is in Antarctica. The most common jobs for women here are Scientists, and Doctors. Also, there's only two next year, and there's not likely to be many in '08 or '09 winters since it's a reduced compliment anyway (science is dropping down to an absolute minimum).

However, it really makes me laugh when 4 or 5 of us congregate in the kitchen looking for a good gossip. Liz is a brilliant pastry chef (she's had loads of practice this year) and Vicki often has fun making cakes or other desserts (how is it I'm not putting on weight?). I am a bit of a lover of things clean and tidy, and most of us have some sort of needlecraft on the go. So we're women who like to cook and clean. We live up to stereotypes but we also drive dozers, go ice-climbing, fly "death" kites, can dig for England and jack the hefty buildings. We totally rock.

Kirsty, Nicola, Vicki, Liz and Me at Club Nido in May.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sun Up

The sun has returned!!!
We had the ceremony on the 10th at 1400z, just after lunch. The youngest person on base, Kirsty (21) had the honour of raising a brand new Union Jack above the front door of the main building. We all stood outside to witness the event (Brian (who's on nights) even got up to watch). As usual there were many cameras flashing away and much heckling. Kirsty gave a very short speech which consisted of... 'no-one said I had to say a speech' and John filmed it.

Kirsty Raising the Flag - Photo by Jules

John's taking a lot of footage this year of everything from general base activities (Kirsty and Me on the dancemats) to once in a lifetime opportunities (going to see the Penguins). He's collecting the footage for the Natural History Museum's Antarctic Exhibition in London. It's strange to think that something I'm doing belongs in a Museum. Even the old weather data collection hardware and software (MAWSON) that I decommissioned last year's going to be in the exhibition.

John Filming the event for the Natural History Museum - Photo by Jules

We didn't actually see the sun that day. Fog came in quite quickly just before lunch (typical). We did however see it the next day. I'd just come back from the daily trip to the CASLab to change a filter (Clean Air Lab), had measured the new height of the Stevenson Screen and was coming up the stairs from collecting that weeks snow sample when I saw the shimmer of light on the horizon. I made a quick 'all stations' radio call- which no-one heard and went up to tell Andy and gaze at it for a little while. It's strange how uplifted a view of the sun can be- but it really is great. I didn't take any photos, but Anto, John and Mark were on a caboose moving and drum raising mission near the coast and I've managed to nick one of theirs.

The sun. It eventually got about half of the sphere above the horizon. Photo by Anto.

So that's it... the end of my second eternal winter. I really like the dark time inside the base getting to know each other, playing pool, watching a lot of films and just chatting. But equally I like the getting outside and doing things....

Previous knowledge of a winter is great when you know the best is yet to come.

Monday, August 07, 2006


The Penguin trips have begun- it's our first opportunity to leave base since the sun went down and so I haven't left the kilometre or so boundary since April 23rd when I went to windy to raise the drumline. It's a big event for everyone on base.
We're only doing day trips at the moment, at least until everyone gets to see them once, then I think the trips will last a little longer with an overnight stay at the handy caboose.

The view from the abseil point. It's about 20m down to the group of people at the bottom. It's a bit misty, but you can see the Emperor Penguin colony as the dark patch at about 11 o'clock.
Photo taken by Anto at the end of the day (15:30).

The first trip was on the 1st of the month. Simon and Andy took skidoos and 1 nansen sledge between them and followed the creek 2 drumline to the caboose to see how well everything had survived the winter. Then they drove cross country to windy caboose, found a suitable abseil point, drilled the seaice to check it's thickness, checked out the penguin colony and then doo-ed back along the windy drumline (past tence, third person 'to doo'? weeent?).
Everything was set for the first big trip on Thursday. Nic, Vicki, Dave, Brian, Alex, Anto and Simon drove off in K23 in the morning and came back with huge grins, plenty of photos and looking quietly exhausted by dinner time.

My turn next. Liz, Chris, John, Mark and I were the tourists with Anto and Simon as the guides (Anto to look after the vehicle, sledge, caboose and drumline, and Simon to look after us and anything to do with ropes or ice). We were ready by 9am and had to wait for an hour or so while the snocat warmed up... no problem since it still wasn't light enough to drive anyway.

The Snocat and sledge all packed and ready to go to a day at the seaside (10:30).

After leaving at about 10:30 we had about 1 hour of bumpy driving to windy caboose. From there we set up putting on our harnesses, all the gear we'd need to get up and down the cliff, all our cameras, extra warm clothing, extra food and hot water. It was a 20 minute roped up walk to the edge of the ice shelf. It took another hour (really didn't feel like that long) to set up the ropes, and for the 7 of us to abseil down. I've done this sort of thing quite a few times now and really enjoy it. It's amazing how long everything takes though.

Me at the bottom of the abseil. Photo by Anto.

Once we were all present and correct on the sea ice we had another 20minute walk to get to the colony. It was a spectacular walk seeing the new seaice for the first time since it formed months ago. It's a lot bumpier than I'd seen it before with a lot more evidence of movement while it was forming. We even found an obvious tide crack by the colony which moved while we were there. Also in the distance, and always getting closer were moving living things that weren't any of the 15 other winterers. It's just us and the emperors over winter.
We really are in a desolate place.

Simon and Mark have a final look at the colony before we head back to the ice shelf (15:00). The tide-crack had just made a bit of a bang, you can also tell it's active by the marks the Penguins make- and they haven't crossed the line.

Watching the Emperors is fascinating. None of the eggs have hatched yet. We couldn't hear or see any chicks. I was shown a few unhatched eggs by the penguins who were more interested in how it was coming along than bothered by me. Standing downwind of the colony I found the smell a bit unbearable, so I just moved around quickly. They did their great walking in a spiral thing when the wind picked up a little. It reminded me about how different the colony acts and re-acts throughout the year. I've seen them in October and they're a lot more spread out and full of life. They didn't mind us being there one bit- almost engulfed us as part of the group. Then in January they were all over the place. There were a lot more of them (or at least it seemed that way), since there were males, females and the chicks and were all over the sea ice. It was much harder to get close to them then aswell (or maybe I didn't have the knack then since it was in my first summer).

Mark and Liz on the other side of the colony. The ice shelf is behind them. The colony was spread into two thin groups with a few walking between the two. The group's outline roughly followed the topography of the cliffs beside them.

They aren't threatened or scared of us (they would be if you hurled yourself into the colony, but we didn't try that). A lot of the penguins without eggs were curious of us, they would come up to us (just out of arms reach) if you sat still enough. I can't imagine they've got much else to do round there- especially if they've lost their egg. If there was an easy ramp up the ice shelf a few would probably find their way to the base, following the drumline 'oh, there's another penguin, I'll go and say hello... oh, it's just a drum, oh.. over there, there's another penguin. I'll go and say hello' etc....
Some curious Emperors with no eggs to look after. The left of the photo is blurred because the colony was moving around in a circle.

As someone said while you're sitting there you expect David Attenborough's voice to start off beside you. It is amazing and we're so lucky to get the chance to visit the colony, I absolutely love it. Just as we were leaving some mist moved in. That with perfect light, an amazing purple hue beginning around the sky... well- it's indescribable.

The whole day took a lot of energy (most of mine went because I was so excited) and time. We only ended up having about an hour and a half on the ice, and it felt more like 10 minutes. I can't wait to do it again.

A photo of the group of us from Windy Caboose. Photo by Anto.