Thursday, 21 February 2008

Last post?

I've been a bit remiss at keeping up with this lately. I can't claim being busy as an excuse - I've had sod all to do for the last month. The ozone monitors all went in smoothly, and with them installed my work was done. Maybe that's why - when there is little to do, there is little to write about.

Somehow I pass the time though. I'm quite happy to be paid 85 spondoolies a day Antarctic bonus on top of my science wage to mess around with my own website - which is what I would mostly be doing anyway back in Blighty. Midsummer Energy is pretty busy these days compared to this time last year, so there are often enquiries to answer. My office mate Rob is doing a sterling job looking after all the deliveries back in the UK. The Teal website is much prettier than it used to be (anyone want a 90 year-old quay punt? Anyone??? Special price, just for you...); and that still leaves time for playing with gimmicks like the CO2 counter. I really was bored that afternoon.

There are a few bits of base work to help with. There is always a share of melt-tank filling to do, and I've been helping with the packing up of the Clean Air Lab that I was involved in setting up a few years ago. It will be mothballed for the next two years until the new base opens. Helped a bit on the construction site for the new base too, lacing up the enormous tents that have been put over the structures to keep the winter weather off.

And that's just work hours. In the evenings there is pool to play, the perimeter to ski round (or run on an energetic day if the snow is hard enough); band practices to do (they were desperate for a bass guitarist and I was the nearest thing they could find); snow caves to dig. I'm not sure why we need a snow cave really. I think it's just a nice thing to have. I was hacking away cheerfully at the ice with the wintering GA when we worked out he was in the year above me at school. I wasn't suprised. I don't know what it was about Watsons that sends people so far away, but that's the third time I've bumped into a schoolmate down here.

Anyhow. A month ago time seemed to be passing ever so slowly. I don't know where it has all disappeared. Suddenly I have just 1 week left here, so seeing how good I've been at keeping up with this, don't expect to hear much more from me... though I might post a couple of pictures from South Africa if you are lucky.


Two things have changed since I was last at Halley. More vehicles, and more - and more - support staff. Perhaps too many of both? That's not entirely fair - there is no doubt that the enormous John Deere and Challenger tractors that have appeared make the job of hauling cargo up from the ship far easier. While a sno-cat struggles along with one sledge of cargo behind it, a Challenger trips along merrily with half a dozen (burning more than a gallon of fuel a mile as it does so, by the way).

However, in the old days everyone drove the sno-cats and helped with the cargo work - now we employ drivers, and extra mechanics. There would have been one vehicles manager, and outgoing and incoming wintering mechanics last time I was here. Now the little empire based at the garage runs well into double figures. They drive round in circles all day flattening snow to keep themselves busy.

We've got two doctors on base, whose combined official duties this year have been splinting a broken finger. We have three base GA's (that's BAS-slang for binmen) for an unfathomable reason, though there is little enough work for one. Waste handling in the winter is the doctor's job. We have three base commanders. It used to be the case that a winterer would be asked to do the winter BC duties on top of their normal job - now someone is employed specifically for the job. Vicky, the permanent BC, is kept busy enough (and she has an admin assistant to help her these days too), but there ain't a lot to keep the outgoing and incoming winter BC's busy.

The cooks have plenty to do. There are more mouths to feed after all. But where everyone used to take turns to help with gash - washing up - we now have three St Helenians to run around after us. They're nice blokes, but is it progress to have someone else do your laundry for you?

We even have a dedicated science manager these days, though there is little science left to manage.

It's all a big vicious circle. Except it's not vicious really, it's just a bit daft. We've got newer, bigger tractors to make things more efficient; so we need drivers to drive them, mechanics to mend them, managers to manage the drivers and mechanics, managers to manage the managers, chefs to fry their chips, domestic helpers to do their laundry, comms managers to give them internet access; doctors to splint their fingers; we need to build a bigger, better base to house them and employ plumbers and electricians and generator mechanics to look after all the plant. But do we do any more science? I think not.


I've got a rabbit on my head; I've got leather gloves, fleece, jacket, padded overalls, rigger boots, and a headover pulled up over my ears. Only the very tip of my nose sticks out below my goggles. It's just reached 40 knots. The pressure is 965mBar, but it's expected to drop a fair bit yet before this blow bottoms out. We've been lucky with the weather so far this year, but it's turned against us now.

Going outside is entertaining. The buildings are about 500m apart. Visibility is about a 10th of that. A few steps struggling into the wind and the accomodation building is lost in the driving snow behind. All about is white; even without snow plastered across your goggles it's impossible to make out any features on the ground. Stagger across the sastrugi, tripping on the windtails that form behind any obstruction. There is nothing in your world except the handline beside you.

Head down, plod on. Surely the science platform must be close? Peering ahead there is nothing. Until, suddenly, it looms, only a few steps away. Up the steps and into the warm, only the swaying of the building and a tingly nose to remind you of the blizzard outside.

All lots of fun. Though I'll be sleeping in the lounge tonight. The 'Annex'- the shipping containers that have been put up as temporary accomodation for the excess people on base this season - has drifted in. Might be possible to get in with a bit of digging, but it'll just have drifted in again in the morning. If they had been clever they would have made the doors open inwards - at least then you could dig your way out.

Friday, 15 February 2008

CO2 ticker test

Did you know that the current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is about loading... parts per million?

(From a little bit of javascript that I put together in a bored moment. Get your own at the CO2 ticker page).

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Relief pics

A few shots of 'relief' - unloading stores from the ships and carting them inland to the base. We usually have to deal with just the BAS ship, the Shackleton (the red one in the pics), but because the new base is under construction this year we've got the considerably bigger 'Amderma' too.

Cargo is unloaded onto the sea ice, which is frozen seawater, and only a couple of metres thick. It's not unknown for vehicles to disappear through the ice - so only relatively lightweight sno-cats are used. A ramp is bulldozed to allow the cargo to be pulled up to the much thicker ice shelf. From there the big Challenger tractors drag everything up to the base.

At the base the cargo is dumped in lines (currently about a mile long) perpendicular to the wind direction. Anything left downwind of another box would soon disappear in a snowdrift.

We've been lucky with relief this year, with only a short section of sea ice to work, an easy ramp and a short traverse of the shelf ice. It's not unusual to have to sledge all the cargo 60km from the nearest suitable site for the ship to moor.

Halley pics

A few pics around the base - click on the thumbnails for bigger pics.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Mini ozone holes

You might wonder why I'm down here. Well, I'm just taking the air really. It's nice air here, very fresh, and rather bracing at times. It's got to be good for you.

Down here though, we are as far from big cities as it's possible to get, and so for a few years BAS has been studying what the atmosphere is like in non-polluted areas. Last time I was here we were setting up a clean air laboratory a kilometre away from the rest of the base where it wouldn't be affected by the generators and vehicles. 6 years on, I'm back to find that it's full of machines that go whirrrrr and buzz, and measure all sorts of exciting things like OH, BrO, HOx and Nox. And ozone.

Stop right there. I know what what you're thinking. Ozone holes, CFC's all that rubbish..... well, forget it. OK, yeah, Halley is the place where they discovered the hole in the ozone layer, but I know nothing about it. It's all 20 miles above our heads. It certainly goes over my head anyway.

Ozone down here at the surface is much more interesing anyway. And it does some odd things too. Shortly after the sun comes up after the dark Antarctic winter, the concentrations go haywire. One day we'll have otherwise normal value of about 20-30 ppb, the next all the ozone will suddenly vanish. A few days later, its suddenly there again.

For a while no-one knew what caused these mini-ozone holes, but we now suspect it's bromine given off from salty ice crystals - frost flowers - that grow on the surface of new sea ice. The bromine breaks down in sunlight into individual atoms that can destroy ozone - in pretty much exactly the same way that chlorine from CFC's breaks down the ozone in the ozone layer.

That's what I reckon anyway. To be honest, no-one is really quite sure, and that's why we've had this little project funded. How big are these depletion events? How far inland do they go? Well, hopefully we're about to find out. BAS has built a set of ten little autonomous instruments for me to deploy out in the snow. I build 'em and shove 'em in the snow; next year someone else comes along, digs 'em up, and we've got as much information as we like about the extent and timing of the events.

That at least is the theory. If we get a whole year's data from all 10 instruments I'll eat my woolly hat.