Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Midwinter's almost here

Written 18.3.11

June 21st, the winter solstice. It?s been celebrated in Antarctica
for over a century. To the the couple of thousand or so people living
here in Antarctica it?s as important to us as Christmas is back home,
to bring festival colour to the winter darkness. The bases around the
continent will take a few days off, have some parties and we all
exchange greetings ?cards? (PDFs, jpegs, every base makes a picture of
themselves or the base with a message to wish well ) with the other
bases. There has been a lot of reflection in the greetings this year
as it is 100 years since Amundsen and Scott?s parties both celebrated
the midwinter before making their journeys to the Pole.
Here in comfortable Concordia, by stark contrast, we have some parties
and games planned spread over the week, from murder mystery and
costume parties, and minitournaments of the games like tennis, pool,
chess and so on. They guys have been showing really great
imagination, and it has been a lot of fun so far. Bad luck for me
I?m going to have to work pretty much as normal, as the schedule to
get all the experiments done by the end of the winterover is too tight
for a break, but I?ve worked my diary and I can get a couple of days
free on midwinter itself and the day after. Actually I really don?t
mind, it?s due to the many delays we had starting up, and I had such
a great experience through the summer campaign that I certainly would
not exchange any of those days for a day off now.
We have been in darkness for a long time now ? seven weeks since the
sun set, but it?s far from total darkness. For a couple of hours each
day there is a strong orange glow on the horizon to the north as the
sun, 8 degrees below the horizon, still sends us some colour, if not
enough light to see by. And we find now that the moon periodically
stay s in the sky continuously for about a week at a time. Then it?s
orbit will wane down and eventually it disappears completely, then
returns again. One of the photos I posted below is of the moon
circling above the horizon for 24 hours. That was in May and this
last week the moon has been again in the sky all week. It will start
to dip below the horizon again from today.
And I realise a funny thing, that the moon is lowest at around noon.
That means from tomorrow it?ll be high in the sky at night and below
the horizon at midday. So on Midwinter?s day, the darkest time of the
darkest day will actually be around noon. It seems fitting in this
place where the only recognisable constellation is upside down, the
sun revolves round the wrong way, compasses point up, and South is

We used to see auroras when I was growing up in the North of Scotland,
always to the north, and fairly low on the horizon, and as they crept
closer they seemed taller. So, I had the idea that an aurora was a
mass of light that spread down from the north.
But here we?re seeing then pretty frequently, and so close, and I
realise that idea was wrong. A few weeks ago I was awake at five,
and I heard odd booming noises that seemed to vibrate through the
base. I got up and went outside to investigate. Nothing was wrong,
so it was most likely snow settling causing the noise. I was
satisfied all was OK, and headed back toward the door
But, eerie in the silence and stillness, high in the sky almost
directly above me in the sky was an aurora. Very clear with crisp
edges at top and bottom, it was a single rippled strip of light,
very much like an immensely long, unbroken curtain hanging hanging
high in the sky, running east to west absolutely straight. Whilst it
was the most sharply defined aurora I?d ever seen, it wasn?t the
most intense, and so it was grey. It was immensely long, stretching
towards both horizons. But the intensity grew and after a few
minutes minutes there were three or four new, short curtains of green
light arching over the base. They never last long, this one had
completely faded within ten later.
The next aurora was june 5th, and completely different. This aurora
seemed more like rows of green and violet columns soaring up into
the sky, appearing only to fade as they towered so high they faded
from sight. It was running south east to north west, and lying off
to the east of us. In the space of about ten minutes three parallel
lines of columns swept over the base, without changing their
orientation. The impression was of a moving ?front.? But it meant
that the base for a few minutes was surrounded, all round, by
columns of light soaring up into the sky and leaving only a circle of
black sky overhead. And then they continued their sweep to the west.
And once it had moved to the east of us it stopped, and formed into
a single very strong curtain-like aurora pointing north west. I found
it to be pointing directly at Orion.
Now we see them frequently enough that they don't cause nearly so
much excitement anymore, but I will look every time I'm out to see if
there is one. They are without doubt the most beautiful sight our
world has.

It's been a month I know since I last posted a diary entry. The
darkness and the work I do both have conspired to sap the energy and
particularly the organisation to write anything. I've been noting
scraps of entries to post but I never get around to finishing off and
sending them. A run of ESA's experiments lasts four weeks. The
first week I am on a nightshift schedule, and not seeing the majority
of the crew much really does have an effect despite the fact that
there's no light/dark cycle to say what should be normal. Or maybe
hormone rhythms just don't change that quickly. I still have that
very groggy four o'clock feeling that I always have had on nights.
Then for the next three weeks I'm back on days, but the nature of the
experiments, and the disintegrating and shifting sleep/wake cycles
of the guys I test means that my days' sleep is broken into three
short episodes, and I never feel fully awake enough to get on with
finishing a post. And at the end of four weeks of that I'm generally
so worn out that it takes a week to get back to anything like normal

But life here is actually going pretty well. The mood is generally
very good on the base. Sure there have been a few fall-outs but
everyone is very restrained when it occurs, and it has never lasted
long. More importantly, it has never been at all disruptive to the
function of the crew. The conversation has been getting a bit
duller, and the table quieter, I noticed recently. Not down as such,
I'd say more like beginning to get stuck in a rut. But the upcoming
Midwinter has been a very important shot in the arm. There's been a
lot of planning and preparation, that has lifted our spirits quite a
I have to remind myself to get out of the base. For work I only
need go out once a week or so to put my samples into a storage
container outside. More frequently I'm out to help someone else or to
take a photograph. But the other night I, the astronomers, and
Domenico got out to mount a new hygrometer on top of one of the
astroconcordia platforms. The only challenge was untangling a power
cable. Just a normal kind of tangle from it being coiled up and
uncoiled wrongly, but with heavy gloves, torches and reduced
visibility of our masks, it took three of us, ten minutes with serious
discussion and co-operation to get it sorted out. After that in the
moonlight I took a stroll to the summer camp by myself. It was really
still, and so I took the opportunity in the relative warmth. The
tents and radio base, dark and abandoned to the cold seemed quite far
away from the base. I think I noted before how one's horizons shrink
a bit in the face of the challenges here. Well, they're still
shrinking. Seven weeks 'til the sun comes back. Halfway there.

Over the last month or so I've managed to get up a few photos below.
They hopefully should be:
Our midwinter's greeting card, sent to all the other Antarctic bases.
I took the central photo on the roof of the quiet tower a few nights
before. We had to stay absolutely still for 30 seconds facing an
intense -87 degrees C windchill breeze. Easy it was not.

Complete lunar eclipse, on the 16th of June ? the moon is red, not
black, as the earth's atmosphere acts as a lens bending sunlight round
to light the moon. It is in front of the milky way's core. A small
aurora shone up to the north

Auroras ? May 29th over the base, and June 5th looking away from the
base toward a mast called the American Tower. Orion, upside down, in
the bottom right hand side. A little light spread from the sun below
the horizon gave the sky it's colour, although to the eye it wasn't as
strong as this.

Moon with a halo.

The moon, in our sky for 24hours a day. ?Read? it right to left. There
is still a hint of light refracting round the atmosphere and giving a
midday glow. That?s why the midday pictures were blue. The weather
through the day was pretty bad with lots of cloud, loss of visibility,
stinging -85 windchill. At night the cloud thinned but didn?t
disappear altogether, and so a halo formed, and that?s what makes the
arcs below the moon.

Noon, the first day the sun didn?t rise

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