Sunday, 27 February 2011

Internet access.

We've been testing a continuous internet connection, powered by a new
parabolic antenna on the roof. It's temporary, it's going to go down
soon due to several technical and environmental issues, at least one
major problem being that the cold will freeze the electronics. So I
took the opportunity to post up some of my better photos below, and
here is a list of what they are:

Top. Domenico, as we make for a shelter a few days ago.
2. Me, contemplating going out in the storm
3. Feb 20th.
4. My camera, after taking photos for forty minutes outside. The
frost just sublimates straight off in minutes leaving no water behind.
5. Map
6. One of the many departures as the summer campaign ends.
7. My lab, on a tidy day.
8. Ilann wearing an EEG cap and thinking hard.
9. Domenico, patient as I work on getting good signals from the EEG cap.
10. The EPICA tunnel, where an ice coring rig drilled 3.2 km down
through the ice, extracting a core of the ice to be analysed for
atmospheric gases. The ice gave a year-by year account of
antarctica's atmosphere as far back as 800,000 years ago.
11. Ice crystal in the EPICA tunnel.
12. Air traffic control at McMurdo base. On skis so it can be moved as
the ice thins.
13. Eroded granite at Terra Nova bay. The landscape is covered in
sculpted rocks like this one.
14. My last climbing opportunity for the year.
15. Arrival of the Raid at Dome C.
16. My bedroom, more comfortable than anything the NHS has ever provided.
17. Twin otter taxiing across the ice of Terra Nova bay.
18. Saltire on the base.
19. Halo - a rainbow made by ice crystals instead of water droplets.
20. Modelling this season's EEG wear.
21. Mount Abbott, taken from a spur of the mountain. Cape Washington
and the Campbell glacier are on the upper left, Mount Melbourne, a
quiescent volcano, seems a bit hidden by the lenticular clouds. To the
far left is the browning glacier and further round out of view the
drogalski ice tongue. Many of these features were named for a party
of Robert Scott's first expedition, who were dropped off here to
search for a mountain pass into the interior and had to be abandoned
as a storm threatened the ship. The party later made it on foot to
the Ross ice shelf to rejoin the expedition. Amazing story.
22. Penguins at Terra Nova bay. I wrote about this couple in an earlier
post. The water in the picture was, two months before, the frozen
airstrip the planes landed on, as in the photo above.
23. The Skua, in Terra Nova Bay.
24. Last DC3 departing. Their lowest permissible operating
temperature is -54 degrees C. When they started their engines it was
-53.8. It took 45 minutes to get them up to temperature for
take-off. They don't normally smoke like that!
25. The winterover crew, our first meal after the last of the summer
crew departed.
26. Feb 8-9th.
27. Concordia base and astronomy sites panorama, february 8th.
28. Working on one of the remote solar powered seismo sensors, a long
and very very bumpy 4km flexmobile ride from the base.
Concordia station 75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E
Satellite uploads at: 02.30, 09.00 and 14.00 UTC
Local time UTC + 8

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Tuesday, 15 February 2011


(16th of february)

Technically twilight, I should say. The sun is below the horizon but
there is still colour in the sky, and all around. Starting with deep
blue snow and blending through reds and yellows on the horizon to
green and into a pale blue sky. The green isn?t very strong, but it?s
definitely there.

But of course, being Antarctica, it?s not normal twilight. It?s not
that pause between day and night. The sun has just dipped below the
horizon for an hour and a half, and will be back up soon as the
months-long daylight continues. We?re far enough away from the south
pole that we get a three month period when the sun sets and rises each
day between the three month-long day and the three month night. And
we just passed into that period now.
But it is twilight tonight, for sure.

It?s very still and very quiet, as you?d expect at one in the morning.
It?s -55 degrees C. There?s a DC3 aircraft parked outside the
window, and they are due to leave at 0400.
They will fly to Casey, to pick up a last transfer of personnel to
McMurdo, where planes are working round the clock to carry people back
to Australasia. After that, the crew will turn tail and fly straight
across the continent to Rothera, the British base, where the crew will
change their skis back to wheels, because their Antarctic contract is
finished. And then they fly their legendary plane over the Southern
Ocean to South America, up along the long spine of Chile, make a
couple of stops in the US and fly on home to Canada.

At Mario Zucchelli Station, most of the people I knew there have
already gone home, and the last five close-down crew will be picked up
by a Korean ship in a couple of days time and make their own
convoluted way home. They?ve already switched off their UHF radio, we
can?t talk to them any more. ?Bye folks, see you next year.

Most bases, like MZS, are run only in the summertime. Humans come;
strive, and depart, year after year, all round Antarctica in an annual
migration rivaling any in nature for it?s regularity and it?s
mysterious complexity. Now night is coming and it is time to leave.
Soon most of the coastal bases will fall silent and still. Soon after
that the land will be dark, and blasted by an unimaginably fierce
winter, and empty as the wildlife make their own retreats. Next
October,when the light returns, humans will return. All the machines
will roar into life again, the buildings will be warmed, and people
will roam around the nearby land in scientific pursuit. Helicopters,
ships, snowmobiles, jeeps, pisten bullys, and planes will zip in and
out, in and out, for another brief summer. I wonder what the wildlife
make of it all.

Here, in Concordia of course, and at DDU, McMurdo, Rothera, Amundsen,
Vostok and several others we stay. Rather than abandoned to freeze
these bases stay warm and lit, in a kind of hibernation maintained by
a skeleton crew. There will be no more planes, guests or radio
contacts. As the night, and winter ? that?s just different ways to say
the same thing here in Antarctica - close in it will not be possible
to travel to or from the base because it is simply too cold for
vehicles to function. When the summer campaign ends and the
winter-over begins, each base abruptly becomes insular and isolated,
self sufficient and very, very alone. If it wasn?t for Inmarsat and
Iridium, two satellites very low on the horizon through which we can
call home, we would be just as isolated as Shackleton a century ago.

The last of our summer crew departed a week ago. But we always knew
we would have a couple of planes come through in transit afterwards,
at least one carrying supplies of fresh food to last us as long as
possible. So, although we, the winterover crew, made our goodbyes as
though the winterover was starting, we all knew the isolation hadn?t
begun yet and to me, at least, it seemed a little anti-climactic.

The first couple of days after the summer crew left there was a little
nervous tension at meal times, largely because we hadn't all sat
together to eat since the pre-departure meeting in Paris. It's so much
easier, when you arrive here, to make friends amongst people speaking
your own language that it?s hard not to naturally gravitate towards
groups of your own nationality. So we were only together as a team
once a week at a Monday meeting I would call for my experiments.

So here we all were, struggling along in each other's languages across
the table, pretty much for for the first time since October. But,
after a few days we settled in. The quiet of the base felt more
comfortable. The slightly tense laughs became relaxed full laughs and
now it all seems perfectly OK. Our chef, Andrea has been so important
in helping the transition. He owns several restaurants in Italy, he?s
a great chef and knows how to make a good atmosphere. With his
guidance we?ve re-arranged the furniture in the dining room and the
living room to make a much more pleasant, less institutional
arrangement that suits us. The French and Italians know how to keep
an army happy ? even an army of 14: Hire a really good chef. And it
really works.

On February the 12th we had our first sunset. We all went out
together to see it and to take some group pictures, largely I think
because we all felt compelled to try do do something as a group rather
than because of everyone?s intrinsic interest in a sunset. And, the
sunset didn?t disappoint. With a northerly breeze we always get at
least some mist on the horizon and, that?s what we had, letting our
sunset blaze beautifully. There was no darkness ? the sun was only
gone forty minutes.. A wide, bright vertical beam of orange light
shone up from the horizon while the sun hid just below it.
We wandered in but, after a hot drink I wanted to get outside again.
I walked round taking some pictures of interesting silhouettes against
the orange sky. The Meteo equipment reported that the temperature with
windchill was -65degrees. It's OK, as long as you have the right
clothes you don't feel it. The gloves I had on were a bit thin. I felt
it. Without touching anything would be fine but, carrying a camera the
plastic just sucked the heat out of my hands. I would take a few
pictures and then have to pull my fingers out of the finger bits and
curl them up inside the palm of the glove to warm them again.
Eventually it got a bit much, but I didn't want to go inside before
the sun rose. I walked under the base and leaned up against one of the
legs to shelter from the wind The beam diffused out and soon after,
the first flat crescent of sun appeared on the horizon. It was getting
hard to see clearly through the little icicles sticking my eyelashes
together. But there was definitely a shimmer on the the horizon under
the sun. I'm not sure what it was, possibly just drifting snow in the
breeze I suppose, but it really looked like a heat shimmer.
And there it was, even more colourful than the sunset. The first
sunrise in two months, It was definitely worth the wait. For the next
three months we'll have a day-night cycle of sorts. I had a feeling of
contentedness that a little bit of normality might have crept into
this alien landscape, albeit temporarily.

0400, now just a couple of hours away. Summer will become winter. And
day will soon become night. Our winterover here begins in earnest
tonight with the departure of this, last, DC3.

I realise with a little smile, that I?m on the nightshift. I?ve taken
handover, it?s time to get on. Lots to do. I generally quite liked
nightshifts in the hospital. This?ll be alright too, I think.

Satellite uploads at: 00.00, 07.00 and 14.00 UTC - times may change soon
Concordia station 75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E

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Friday, 11 February 2011

Tomorrow it all changes

Back to DC
I had a private plane back up to Concordia ? I suppose the only time
in my life a company is going to arrange a plane just for me! Of
course once it was planned the twin otter got absolutely loaded with
freight and I found myself in the seat at the back with a wall of
every kind of box and container between me and the flight crew.
Dustin leans in the cabin door and gives a full safety briefing,
refreshingly brief ? ?door, other door, seatbelt, here?s a bottle of
water for you.? I?m grinning from ear to ear as he shuts the door from
the outside. I like flying with these guys. Apparently he grew up on
a ranch in Canada, and can lasso a skua from twenty yards (gently).The
takeoff from enigma lake was breathtaking. We took off towards
the ocean and climbed slowly parallel to the shore along a wall of
cliffs rising out of the sea. And then turned towards the interior,
skimming very low over the clifftops. Then, still slowly climbing we
crossed a kilometre wide glacier flowing through the valley behind. I
could see through the opposite window that it was making its way
toward the ocean where it met others to form ice a wide ice shelf.
Over it and then the higher, 2,500m steep mountains that buttress the
vast, high, flat sea of ice behind. And there, just right there, is
where Antarctica is at its most spectacular and unique. Vast cliffs
on one side and a smooth flat sea of ice lapping at the level of the
peaks on the other. And just behind that dam you can see occasional
fins of rock, inconsequential little crests alone in flat ice
stretching unchanged to the horizon, the only signs of a buried
mountain chain twice the size of anything in Scotland. In breaks
between the wall of cliffs, glaciers from that ice sea pour steeply
down, cracked into staircases of crevasses, tributaries to the
kilometres wide indolent rivers of ice winding between the mountain
Once it?s left behind there is only flat ice for thousands of Kilometres.
North and south gets a bit confusing here. As an aside, Dome C sits
almost directly between the magnetic south pole (near Dumond
D?Urville) just off the coast, and the geographical south pole (Where
the American?s have Amundssen base). Which means that from DC you
would follow a compass north to go, in fact, south. To be honest I
couldn?t work out in my head which direction we travel in to go from
MZS to Concordia. And I was really trying.Middle station was the
same, certainly the bleakest place you?ll find
a pisten bully in the entire world. I wandered round taking bleak
photos until Erik waves me to say they?ve finished refuelling the
plane. And then, two hours later, I was back.The weather had
caused huge frustration here. The Astrolabe had docked
at Dumond D?Urville, waited, and then had had no choice but to leave.
But several scientists from Concordia could not get there for their
return to Tasmania because of the same bad weather that had grounded
us in MZS. And because the berths are calculated so tightly, several
scientists in DDU were told they had to leave their projects a month
early. If the berths went unfilled this rotation, there wouldn?t
enough capacity to take everyone off in the next. Can you imagine the
frustration and disappointment there? But hey, TIA. What else could
we do?

In French that means, amongst other things, ?daring, bold?. And it
certainly is that.It?s a convoy of massive, specialised Cat tractors,
and I would gues sabout
ten or eleven people that make the 1000km journey from DDU to
Concordia in -40 temperatures, from sea level to 3,200 above. And
they drag 200 tonnes of supplies in containers on skis. Really, the
same containers you see on the roads pulled by articulated lorries.
On skis! It?s a superb sight as they crawl over the horizon. There
are fuel tanks on skis, an accommodation block on skis, a crane on a
flatbed on skis, and container after container after container.
I get a lift on a skidoo driven by David, a Frenchman, and we, along
with several other skidoos, zoom off to greet the convoy when we see
it appear on the horizon.It?s taken me a couple of days to recover
from my return to high altitude. No headaches or vomiting this time,
but I feel the same complete exhaustion for a couple of days. The raid
arrives the day I start to feel better. And thank goodness I do because we are
seriously going to work hard!The Raid has brought all the food and
fuel we will need for a whole year ? not just the winterover but also
next summer?s campaign. And,
joy, it?s brought the aluminium cases full of personal things I gave
to a freight company in Glasgow in October. IPEV's
organisational prowess is just beyond any superlative I have to offer.
I find a couple of the unloading team lifting them into the base,
and I just can?t believe my eyes. All I can think of is...a proper
towel, after two months of that travel fleecy thing, a proper towel!
Happy days.Well, temporarily. It?s the job of the hivernauts, us fourteen
winterover crew, to unload all the food. Everyone is working at a
furious pace as the Raid will depart just three days after arriving.
It takes two and a half days and, I have to say, was really good for
the winterover team. For me, I?ve hardly spoken to some of the guys
on the team ? the ones who speak very little English and attempts to
make any but the most simplest conversations end awkwardly, and it?s
good to work with them again where language doesn't matter so much.
The base?s numbers swell to eighty or so with the Raid?s crew. The
place is buzzing again. Especially as the raid crew are so pleased to
have reached an outpost of civilisation. It's really fun.A couple of days
after that, though, the delayed scientists leave.
And the base gets noticeably quieter. A day later, the Raid departs.
And then, two days ago the Italian technical crew left. The numbers
have gone down to about thirty. In the space of less than a week the
summer campaign has abruptly come to an end. And the mood amongst us
winteroverers is changed too, as you might expect. Much more
serious, our eyes fixed on the challenge ahead.And tomorrow, a plane
will come to collect the French technical crew,
the last of the summer crew, and we fourteen will be the team again
that we prepared to be, months ago, in Paris. Tonight, though, there?s
a party in the workshop. Lets forget the future for a couple of

Something more. It?s one in the morning, and I?ve been looking out of
my window. The snow is purple. Except to the north where the sun is
just hovering over the horizon. The snow?s orange over there.
I?ve never, never seen anything like this.--

Satellite uploads at: 00.00, 09.00 and 14.00 UTC
Concordia station 75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E
This message was sent using IMP, the Internet Messaging Program.