Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Changing Skies

28th of march

We?ve got a high pressure, of 660 hPa, and the weather is behaving as
if it?s a low ?I don?t understand it, but I?m delighted. The sky is
covered by a thick blanket from east to west and the relative humidity
is up to 70% - which is lovely. The cracks in my lips and thumbs are
healing up, I can breathe easier and my sleep is better. Today for the
first time in ages I feel free of the permanent mental fuzziness I had
become used to. Climbing the stairs is easier, I feel more alert
than ever before, I can even taste my cup of tea better than usual.

It's because the wind has switched. Normally we get slow steady
katabatic winds that start out south-southwest of us, from Dome A.
It's a vertical kilometre higher there and 500km away, and the cold
dry air literally slides downhill to us, making a light, steady
breeze. (It keeps sliding downhill for another 3,200 vertical metres
and by the time it gets to the coast at DDU it can be so fast it's
impossible to stand in. A friend described having to crawl to
shelter, dodging whipping cables ends, when a bad katabatic wind hits).
But occasionally, like now, we get a northerly or westerly
blowing in, carrying moisture from the sea. It gusts and flutters
unmistakeably as a sea wind does, and it's much warmer, up to -40. I
celebrated by spending the whole afternoon out walking in the mild
conditions. I went out to the summer camp, and then beyond and
walked up and down the length of the airstrip. I realised it's a bit
of a novelty now to walk just for walking's sake. The recent drifts
have just about completely covered the tracks of the planes on the
runway, and the snow has been carved by the wind into shallow
ripples, deep sastrugi, and large, remarkably symmetrical, regular
rows of flat arch shapes, identical to shapes I last saw made by the
sea on a beach on the west coast of Lewis. The drifts can boom and
ring hollowly when you step on them. I come back past the ramp to
the EPICA tunnel entrance and I take a walk down to the snow drifted
door, just for something to do. I found a place I could climb out
the side on a series of drifted steps, and I realised how much I've
been missing a bit of interesting terrain and a climb. This little
taste of verticality felt so great I slid back down and did the
scramble again and again, revelling in the balancy moves, crumbling
kicked steps, precarious shelves and dodgy chipped out handholds.
It's nice when you're sure of a soft landing.

This last week I?ve been putting myself through my own experiments.
Apart from the biochemistry I doubt that my questionnaire and and
cognitive task data will be used by the researchers, because I know
too much, which influences how I respond. But that?s not the point.
Every six weeks I put each crew member through four quite tough days
and I think for morale it's quite important they see I go though it
too. When, at Alessandro?s birthday party I had to turn up with the
electrodes all over my head for the sleep study it got a huge cheer.
And for the ?big day? of testing, as we call it, I trained a couple of
the guys to take my blood, another to set up the EEG cap, and one to
do the lactate sampling and run the exercise test in the gym, I was
inundated with volunteers ? everyone wanted inflict a piece of the
pain! Everyone did their jobs perfectly, and I have one happy crew
mentally prepared to start the programme again next week. It turns
out plumbers make actually very good phlebotomists ? It makes sense
somehow, but who knew?!

4th of april.

One week later, I've started the second run of trials on the crew. I
rejiggged the running order to match up guys by their sleep/wake
habits, only to find that things were going to be even worse this time
around. The week before, the astronomers Djamel and Eric started
getting up at six at nigh, because the nighttime darkness is long
enough that they can do a good full day's work through the night, if
you see what I mean. So I realise that if I want to keep them in the
study I'm going to be on a one-in-six nightshift right through to mid
november. That's worse than Raigmore Hospital's rota. Actually the
workplan I made for the next four weeks looks remarkably like ERI's ED
rota, universally recognised as the worst rota in the world.... Well,
at least I'm not going to go soft in this job, Really, it's a good
thing. Medicine is tough and I would not like to get comfortable with
a 9-5 life because I would be afraid I would not want to go back, and
I love it too much to let that happen. I included Domenico the
cosmologist in the same week, he doesn't have to be up half of the
night, he just likes it better that way. Both Eric and Djamel were
great. I don't think they get much variety in life at the moment, and
liked having something different going on, and someone else to share a
meal with at four in the morning.

The following Sunday I try the same walk again. Things are different
now. The wind has switched back to south easterly, dry katabatics and
the sky is clear. The temperature is -67 and with the steady slight
breeze the windchill is -87 centigrade. I only get as far as the end
of the summer camp and I can't go any further. My goggles have
frozen, and the ice is absolutely welded to the inside of the lens ? I
just can't scrape it off. Without the goggles, the cold really hurts
my face. I abandon any thought about a nice walk and hurry back to
the base. Turns out eyelashes really are amazing things though ? my
eyes are fine and warm. I only run into a problem when I close my
right eye to look through the viewfinder of my camera. The lashes
instantly freeze together and stick it shut for several minutes. So
I make half of the walk back to base one-eyed. It happens all the
time when I'm out with my camera.

'm just peeling all the layers off, in the entrance corridor of the
base when Domenico appears, all suited up. He's heading out to the
glacio shelter. But, it's 1700 and sunset is soon. Now that the cold
is getting serious, for safety we only go out in pairs after dark So
if he goes alone now he'll not get all his work done before he has to
return, but he hadn't found a volunteer to go along. So I offer go.
He'll owe me a couple of drinks when we get to Hobart for this,
that's for sure... I wear two balaclavas this time. Much better.
It's darkening and cooling more as we trudge out. Talking gets
really exhausting when you have to breathe through two layers of
fleece, so we don't speak much. The snow is cooling hard and as it
does it's contracting. Long cracks are everywhere. To my surprise,
my footstep causes the snow to fissure, with a sound, almost a
clanging echoing noise, that was like a boot-step on a steel bridge.

The stars are out, beautiful and strong, and the milky way, brighter
and clearer than I ever imagined it could be. We easily find the
Southern Cross, the Magellan clouds, and then to my total, total
surprise, Domenico points out an upside down Orion. Upside down and
only two thirds visible, but unmistakeable.
And although I didn't say anything, I was really moved to see it. All
my life I've looked out for Orion, especially when I'm somewhere new.
It's reliable presence makes me feel linked me to other times, other
places that I have looked up it ? in all the places I have ever lived
and travelled it is constant and dependable. So many places, so many
adventures, a flood of memories in an instant. I feel a sense of
dislocation, I wasn't really aware I felt until now, fall away a bit.
This alien landscape, unfamiiliar sky, unpredictable weather, even the
sun goes round the wrong way here, I can't tell the time or anything
by the sky here and I realised I feel keenly disorientated. But here
for the first time, is something recognisable, something permanent
and predictable. To see it here brought genuinely a sense of relief.
I'm going to keep a frequent look out for Orion from now on, that's

Direction finding is an interesting problem here. Paolo and I ran
into difficulties trying to determine precisely where north is a few
days ago, for a project he is doing making a sundial on an inflatable
globe for schools. No problem I thought, I'll get out the needle
compass I handily brought along. But, you know how diagrams of the
magnetic field of the Earth show the flow as vertical at the poles?
It turns out my compass needle wouldn't point any particular way
except up. Up at an angle of twenty degrees I would guess, and
swivelled crazily back and forwards. GPS? You have to be moving to
determine a direction with GPS, and it's accuracy is limited, really,
for this kind of purpose. And you have to be outside. Taking an
inflatable globe through an abrupt temperature difference of 90
degrees centigrade with you. It cooled, deflated to a quarter of
it's size, then hardened and cracked, all in the space of about five
minutes. Woops. We had a spare, but how to find north from inside
the base? When our modern equipment couldn't do the job, we fell back
on eighteenth century methods. Get out a watch, wait until midday ? a
chart will tell you exactly when if you're not standing on a meridian
of longitude - and at that time sun is directly in the north. Then
every hour after equals fifteen degrees off. At night? Get your
friendly astronomer to help with the star charts. James Cook
pioneered these methods in 1773 when he sailed the first expedition
ever to cross the Antarctic polar circle.

Funnily enough just a few days before, Fred, our chief engineer with
twenty years seagoing experience, had to rush out of his room in the
evening when a technical alarm sounded, suggesting the generators
needed a bit of attention. I met him in the corridor as he walked
back to his room, and he was telling me how much the station runs just
like a ship.

Too right, Fred.

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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