Sunday, 15 May 2011

The first day the sun didn't rise.

It's May 5th. A gloomy day, a quarter to twelve noon. A little cloud
to the southeast on the horizon, otherwise the sky is a clear
grey-blue all around. There's nobody moving around the base. There is
a little breeze, so weak it's only noticeable because the windchill
takes the temperature down to -87 degrees C. The generator noise
seems very quiet - maybe because I'm downwind of the base - and David
isn't using Concordia's specially built Caterpillar tractor today.
With my hood up and my back to the wind it seems very still. One of
the guys - I can't recognise who, fully suited up - passes off in the
distance as he walks back to the base from one of the scientific
shelters. He waves but he doesn't come over to chat and I don't blame
him. It really is cold now. But silent, peaceful. I like this. I
mean Kingussie, on the edge of the Monadliath mountains, is quiet but
you still have a persistent hum from the A9 road. You have to walk
half a day into the mountains to find this kind of peace. Where the
only break in the stillness is the flutter of your own hood in the
wind. I like stillness such as this and I could stay all day
immersing myself in it, but within twenty minutes the cold drives me
back to to the base

Today is the first day the sun didn't rise. As I stand here, half way
along the path to the glacio shelter, looking back on towards the
astro telescopes and the base itself, the sun is at it's peak, but it
remains below the horizon. There was a little uncertainty when it
would happen. I suppose the sun has been geometrically below the
horizon for a couple of days but the image of the sun has still risen,
thanks to the refraction of light around the atmosphere. Astronomers
have programs to calculate the movements in the sky of everything and
although they take refraction into account I understand that it's a
little imprecise as the weather plays a part. The astronomers thought
yesterday would be the last sunrise, and the cosmologist thought it
would be today. Looks like the astro program was right. I came out
to take a photograph to mark the occasion, but it's going to be an
unusually gloomy, empty looking photo of the base.

I return to the base and climb the ten metre aluminium stairs up to
the entrance to the base stiffly. I've been out for twenty minutes or
so and I'm cold to the bone. My elbow, that odd cold injury I picked
up on the flight from MZS, aches. My soft rubber soled boots have
almost completely solidified which actually was a big help in the soft
snowdrifts I walked over. You have to get used to walking in 'bunny
boots,' as some call the big, tall, soft rubber Sorel boots we wear
here. The soles in the summertime, say down to -50 degrees C are very
soft, there's no support and so you slip easily climbing stairs and
walking over soft snow. It takes some getting used to. But at a snow
temp of -70, those soles are now much more solid and it's so much
easier to walk again, and climbing the steps especially becomes more
natural. The thick rubber keeps my feet warm no matter what I do. But,
my hands aren't doing so well, the gloves can't keep my hands warm
when I handle anything, and the cold of the camera body sucks the
warmth right out even though I've tried plastering it in layers of
duck tape. In the last couple of weeks, for the first time the
attrition of the Antarctic cold has been getting to my hands and
driving me back inside even before the batteries of my camera freeze.

I go in the main entrance, which is half way down the connecting
corridor between the two towers and strip off my outdoor gear as fast
as I can, I need heat on my hands quickly. Quick inspection ? no
white patches to indicate frostbite, thankfully. Those years I spent
deliberately adapting my hands to the cold to help with my climbing
are paying off in a way I never expected. Frank Sinatra music comes
down the corridor from the workshop, which is at the base of the noisy
tower just a few metres down this corridor. I can hear Alessandro and
someone else, maybe Vivien, singing cheerfully along as one of them
bangs a hammer on something, ringing, over and over again.
Other than that, the base is very quiet. No-one is moving around. I
head the other way, back up to my lab at the top of the the quiet
tower. Unusually, I find that the doors of the labs and radio room are
all shut. Everyone is up and working, but the floor is silent.

We're a pretty sociable, cohesive bunch and the word from Europe is
that we're doing pretty well, the first crew in a while to have had no
major fall-outs in the first three months! This quiet seems odd. The
first sunset we marked with a pretty fun, impromptu party. This time
everyone, including me, seems in a much more withdrawn, reflective
mood. At lunchtime, when everyone gathers, no-one even mentions this
special day. We've seen so many remarkable things, and we've been
aware of this remarkable day coming for so long, that it doesn't get
remarked on. But the quiet mood tells me everyone feels the change
quite acutely.

The light has faded completely by 3pm. It was a strange day, a
quality of greyish light I've never really seen before.

I have to admit I do wonder if these continental guys really know what
is coming, what it's going to be like to be without any daylight at
all for six weeks. Last year I did a week on call then straight into a
week of nights right through the christmas period up on the Isle of
Lewis, almost 60 degrees north. I think in that whole fortnight I saw
sunlight once through a window. I know what it's like to genuinely
thirst for sunlight. Perpetual darkness can really churn the soul in
just the same way that the cold here seeps in, and it causes a
strange, tense restlessness. Sleep, too is not normal. Awake is less
awake than normal, and sleep is less restoring. The days lose
structure without it's normal divisions and that, too, seems to bear
some kind of inexplicable cost. And I spent many childhood years at
the same latitude on the East coast, I'm as built as any European can
be for such protracted darkness.

Eric, one of the astronomers here, knows. He's done a winterover here
before a few years back. and I've noticed that talk of pacing
himself, of deliberately choosing his way of living, of concious
self-care is creeping frequently into his everyday conversation. It
tells me that it's on his mind too. I've started composing myself.
It's twelve weeks. And counting. From today. Of concentrating on
self care, on mental steadiness, of very careful self regulation. And
having a plan to see the time through. Identifying milestones that'll
help count off the days, and pick goals that will count as
achievements. And, seeing as I know, keeping an eye out for the rest
of the crew too, to make sure they're OK.
This is the tough bit. But every one of us is here for the many
challenges of Antarctica. So many adventures rolled up into one. I
lack the words to say really what an amazing, fabulous place it is.

Lots of people have asked about the photo of the base and milky way,
posted below. So I thought I'd put up an explanation.

The milky way looks very different because it's a panorama made by
joining two photos, each taken using a fisheye lens. The lens squeezes
a 180-degree view into a standard format photo. One photo was taken
looking straight at the base, and the other looking directly up at the
sky. That gives a 90 degree overlap, which can be joined up with some
software. That's why the galaxy seems flat and a lot smaller in the
photo when really it arches all the way over the sky. The top part of
the photo is actually showing the sky directly overhead. If you look
about 1/3 down the photo and 1/5 in from the left, there is a discrete
dark patch - it's a gas cloud between us and the arm of the milky way
- and to the left of it four bright stars make a kite shape with the
long axis at about 40 degrees to the horizontal. That's the Southern
Cross, a constellation that marks South, as important to the first
sailors to come here as the Pole star is in the North, and it's
directly overhead here as we are so close to the south pole. The band
of colour above the horizon, about twice the height of the base is
caused by the base's emissions reflecting the base's light. Two white
smudges near the top of the photo are the Magellan clouds.

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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