Sunday, 9 December 2007

South again

Hello - it's taken me a while to get round to it, but seeing as I've found myself back in the snowy wastes of the Brunt Ice Shelf, and can't be bothered keeping in touch with everyone individually, here's my latest blog.

I'm back at Halley, where I saw in the Millenium. No, that's not quite true. I'm back at Halley, but I'm a couple of miles from where I saw in the Millenium. Halley is moving slowly to the West, and we wake up in the mornings with our feet at the longitude our heads were occupying when we drifted off. That's the trouble with building a reasearch base on a floating ice shelf - it doesn't stay still. Not that it makes much difference to everyday life here, but every so often a bit of the ice shelf breaks off and floats away. One day, the bit that Halley is on will break off too.

We might have another 10 years before it goes. Or we might have 1 year. It could even break off tomorrow. Or perhaps it broke off yesterday and none of us have noticed yet? I'm looking out the window but it's rather hard to tell. Are we attached to the rest of the continent still or are we floating around on a giant iceberg?

It probably hasn't happened yet, but one day it will. That's why the powers that be have decided it's time for a new Halley. Halley VI (yes, we have got through 5 already) will be bigger and better than any previous incarnation, and more importantly built a few miles further to the East. And this one won't just be built on jackable legs, like the current Halley, which prevents it being buried alive (which was the fate suffered by Halley's I to IV). Halley VI will have legs with skies on them so they can tow the base to safety next time the edge of the ice shelf gets alarmingly close. I imagine Halley VII will have wings as well. Halley VIII will have.... well there probably won't be any ice left to build a Halley VIII on, we'll have melted it all by then.

But back to the present. They are starting to build Halley VI this year. As I write, two ships are steaming here laden with steelwork, plenty of insulation, and a motley gang of builders on special cold-allowance and overtime rates. It's quite an expensive business building a new research base, and if you don't get your sums right at the beginning - and BAS didn't - it costs more than you bargained for. £38 million at the last count. That's a lot of money. It has to come from somewhere, and it would be nice to pretend it was purelt for scientific research that the Government has coughed up all the money, but of course they are really doing it because this is the Edge of the Empire; British Antarctic Territory; the last little bit coloured pink on the maps that adorn the walls of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We have to maintain our Presence, and if we spend more more money on building here than the Chileans and Argentinians do, we might have more claim to this slice of the Antarctic pie. Their maps aren't coloured pink you see, they reckon this part of the world belongs to them.

BAS has had to tighten its belt though. In order to cut costs, they've decided to abolish science down here. Just for a year or two. No, of course I jest, we haven't abolished science down here. This is a research base, silly, and what would be the point of a research base without researchers? We've just trimmed it a little, from the eight scientists who were here last winter, to, ummm, one for next winter. But it's OK - to make sure he's able to work efficiently he'll have a chef to boil his egg in the morning and tuck a napkin under his chin, a couple of mechanics and maintenance men to keep his skidoo running and the lights burning through the long dark winter, a doctor to cut his toenails and mop his fevered brow and a base commander to keep them all in order.

Do I sound cynical? Heaven forbid. At least we're still allowed to do a little more science in the summer. And that's what I meant to be doing; measuring ozone or something of that sort.

It's a weighty responsibility. Will I ever get my temperamental machines to work? Will I crack under the pressure?

What will the ozone tell us anyway? Are we all doomed?

Stay tuned. I'll keep you informed.

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