Monday, 4 July 2011

We've had some intermittent problems with email in the last ten days or so, partly an antenna here that broke down, partly hardware problems with the servers in Italy.  I held off posting these until everything steadied out again, so there are a few entries  together.

3rd of July

At noon today I went out for a walk and found that I could see clearly all around.  There is quite a lot more light now than there was one week ago. The sky is still black overhead, with several stars  even in the dim light from the northern horizon, but walking was easy as the snow was well lit.  It gave me a big lift.  When I came back in I commented to everyone that I saw how much more light there was.  All the guys agree, and remarkably animatedly.  This matters.  The light's coming back.  In fact it's the biggest excitement I've seen in at a couple of months – slowly, the light's coming back.

In the evening in my room I realise that there is the unusual sound of gusting wind fretting around the base.  Definitely a weather change, the first in a few weeks now. And although it's a change for the worse, here where change happens so slowly that it has felt quite timeless in the last few weeks, a sudden change is very welcome.   I can't see out of my window to look at the weather, as over the last two months the inner layer of the outer window has steadily accumulated so much frost that now it is completely white, top to bottom, covered by a centimetre of it. (Even the inner, single glazed window has ice on the bottom, on the inside, despite the fact my room is perfectly warm.  I put a temperature gauge in between the two windows once, and it read -35.)

But I don't  have to open a door or a hatch to know that it's clear outside, as on the base intranet we have a feed from a laser system that assesses clarity of the atmosphere and it reads a clear sky.
So it's not a weather front, it seems, just a wind blowing through.  It's blowing at 10-12m/s – that's really strong for here.  It hasn't got above 5m/s in the last month.  The temperature is rising – maybe one of our warming events.

Domenico finds me at 2am because he wants to go out and film the weather, and I don't take much persuading to go along.  Outside as my night vision adjusts I can make out a  faint aurora – this one like a narrow knife of grey light lancing up to meet the Southern Cross overhead.  The gusts are very familiar, typical of the winds that blow through the Cairngorms and as I wander round with domenico, I'm  lost in memories of home.  His camera doesn't last very long. – I've found that below -60 the wind speed  is more important then the absolute temperature for how long a camera works.  For example at -70, in still air my camera can last 30-35 minutes before the LCD and the batteries freeze, but in a 6m/s wind it takes less than 10 minutes.

For me, however, well insulated in my suit, I find the cold creeps in more insidiously.  We are all affected differently by the dry and the cold, - Ilann has problems with the skin on the backs of his hands splitting, and for Paolo, it's his heels cracking -  For me, I figured out that it's referred pain from my gums and teeth.  Breathing the cold air hurts my teeth a little and they ache. And the ache spreads up the my cheeks.  When I breathe warm air again my mouth stops hurting, but the ache in my cheeks intensifies the next day and it literally feels like the cold of outside is in my skull, and there's nothing I can do to get it out. It passes in a day.  It's took quite a while to find a mask that'll let me breathe easily enough that I don't get breathless, but keeps the air I breathe warm enough that my teeth are OK.  Occasionally though, like tonight, it's not quite enough and I can feel that chill spreading into my head again.

We get back inside and have a look through the films sipping peppermint tea in the radio room.  I'm hot in my fleece clothes, and my socks are wet from standing on snow near the door.  The warming tea feels good.   We look over the meteo recordings with interest – the temperature is rising, up to -58 now, the humidity is rising, and the wind is gusting. 11m/s (about 22mph) is by far the strongest we've had in weeks .  All ingredients I would have said of a northerly blowing up from the sea.  But the wind direction is coming from 225 degrees – south west, from the centre of Antarctica.  We're puzzled by this.   Winds from the southwest are generally katabatics and therefore very cold and fairly constant.  We don't understand this at all.  Oh well, It Is  Antarctica.  But anyway I like the change.  Variety, however it comes, is good for one's spirit.

25th June

The midwinter festival is over and we're getting back to normal.  In many ways it felt very much like Christmas and, just like the all best Christmases, I'm so glad it's all over!

All the preparation, the parties, making presents, the disruption to work that nonetheless all had to be done – really I was exhausted by the end of it.  Because one week of testing astronomers essentially got split into two I spent the whole midwinter period – from one week before to one week after on nightshift.  It might seem strange to talk about nightshift when it's dark all the time but, it's pretty lonely working when most of the crew are asleep, and I definitely still get that 4am lethargy.

It turns out that in our crew we had some guys seriously into costume parties and so that came to define our winterover time – one night it was cavemen, another arabic, another scifi. Those who  had  time off came up with really superb costumes.  And each day the living room would be transformed into a cave, a tent, or a futuristic bar, all made out of whatever surplus materials could be found around the base.  The effort, and the results were just amazing – it was really well done and definitely good fun. 

On midwinter day itself Andrea chef gave his best in the kitchen. He made a meal of I can't remember how many courses, all top quality,  mainly seafood culminating in lobster for the main course. Wines, Sanger Champagne, all very good.   It fell to me and Andrea station leader to decorate the living room.  Ilann had planned a murder mystery for the evening and in keeping with the story we did out the living room like a hotel dining room – drapes, curtains and soft lighting, we took all day and made it as plush as we could.  The murder mystery worked out really well.  Those who wanted to play it to the hilt could rush around between courses of the meal investigating, and those who weren't so enthusiastic only really had to answer questions and do little else.  So everyone got lifted out of themselves a bit and for a night conversation was completely different.  It was a great idea.

The technical crew made presents for each of us, of machine polished plate metal cut  in the shape of Antarctica, with the location of Concordia drilled into it, mounted on wood.  And I made a disc for each crewmember with all the interesting stuff from each individual's experimental data – EEG traces, polysomnography traces,  – as a thank you from ESA.  We printed the midwinter greetings cards we got from other Antarctic stations and put them up on the walls.

So there were decorations, cards, presents, great meals, parties.  Great fun and a big boost to the crew.  It did jolt us out of a bit of a rut I think.  Certainly the mood is higher since. 
But thank god I can relax now!  I know that it's still six weeks until we get the sun back and it's not possible that there's much more light now than there was a few days ago.  But I swear it's lighter out there.  I guess it's just optimism.

Most of the the crew are suffering from the lack of sunlight now.  Lack of sleep is the big thing.  Angelo can't sleep more than 2-3 hours at a time.  He wants to, he falls asleep easily, but wakes up too soon and simply can't go back to sleep again for hours.  So on my nightshift hours I have been finding him in the gym, or eating, at really odd hours.  And he looks like a zombie.  On the whole he sleeps when he can and fits his research work around that.  Three of the technical crew – Ale, David and Vivien are all running on 3-4 hours sleep a day.  They work regular hours and can't just take breaks when they want, and I have to say, they're looking pretty exhausted. Again, the same problem – simply waking up too soon.  It doesn't matter how hard they work. Others are living a bizarre, unnecessary  nightowl existence.  Others too, haven't changed their rhythms but are looking a lot less sharp than they did two months ago, and seem to be lacking their sense of humour.
Thankfully, I'm one of the fortunate few who seem to be  having no problems.  Except, that is, that I have to work with all these guys, so if their sleep/wake cycle is disintegrating then so too must mine for a few days.
Me, I can feel a restlessness and tension in my limbs, and a lethargy that I recognise all too well, as due to the lack of sun.  I know that sounds weird and I can't explain why it happens but it's a familiar feeling from previous winters.  I remember feeling it really badly last year up on Lewis.   Exercise, walking, stretching, relaxing – nothing relieves it for long.  Except the first time I feel the sun on my  face – and then it just evaporates, replaced with relief.

And when your sleep deteriorates, so too does your appetite.  Andrea chef  is expressing frustration because the amount of food eaten each day varies hugely and unpredictably, and he can't avoid wastage. 

However, at the end of each cycle of data collection each crewmember comes for a clinic checkup.  I'm glad to say that other than sleep, and some small creeping weight loss in about half, there doesn't seem to be any other problems.   The mood remains genial.

Six weeks to go, and counting.. 

A couple of nights ago I went out, just for a few moments for some fresh air, and I noticed that the stars all appeared green.  The next night I checked, and it was the same.  I asked the guys, no-one else has noticed the same thing.  I took my camera and used it to check for myself – Looking at the image back in the base the stars seemed their normal colours.  But the faint ones are definitely green to me.
I guess I've been living under artificial lights for quite a while now.

25th June
I've been meaning to write a post about the rest of the crew for months now, and now we have passed midwinter I've put away all my excuses and got on with it.   I've put them in order of the photographs down the sides of the midwinter greeting card I got posted before.  It starts at top right, with Domenico who in the picture is wearing the EEG cap used in my experiments, and goes clockwise from there.

Domenico.  He’s a scientist, Italian and about 32 years old.  He comes from Tivoli, and he's studying cosmology at a university in Rome.  His main work here is to get a project to detect cosmic background radiation up and running – it’s been here a couple of years I think but this is the first time it’s been run in the wintertime – and he got his arm twisted into doing some routine daily glaciology measurements which mean a daily 500m trek to one of the furthest scientific shelters.  It’s keeping him fit, that's for sure.  He’s definitely one of the creatives of the group, he’s a very keen photographer, and has held several exhibitions, both alone and with an art collective in Rome.  He's  planning to make a short film for McMurdo’s annual Antarctic  film festival.  He’s slowly building a plan and a crew to do it – I’ve been made a cameraman.  Up till now he’s been making really very good 48h film sequences of the sky.  He’s also one of the night-workers who I have to thank for my week of nights every so often.

Andrea C.  He’s our station leader and base doctor.  He's from his beloved Bari in the South East of Italy, on the coast.  He trained there, right from the start of his university training until he finished speciality training in transplant surgery.  He's the most travelled person I've met, mostly in Asia and Africa but getting as a far as Brixton.  He's worked in Tanzania, Southern Egypt, Cameroon and Kenya in a variety of clinical settings but essentially doing both general and trauma surgery.  Doctors are notoriously under-utilised in Antarctica, as they can't generally have fixed research commitments in case a situation arises where they need to drop that for a medical case.  So he has a lot of time on his hands with very little to do.  But he handles that pretty well and is always in an affable mood – much better than I could, I really take my hat off to him.   He and I have worked together quite a bit, on medical cases and in teaching emergency skills to the crew.  It's really nice, I have to say, to have someone else here with medical knowledge even if just to swap stories occasionally.

Eric, 45 or so, is our veteran.  He's an astronomer but his work here is not looking at the stars,  instead he is doing field testing to check the quality of view of the sky here.  One of the key reasons for the existence of Concordia is the quality of the astronomy, and there is serious thought being given to building a large telescope here.  His work is assessing  the turbulence of the air with optical instruments as a preliminary to proposing the telescope design.  He's based in Nice, working at the University there, and has been coming out here every summer since 2002. He did a winterover in 2006.   I have asked him how this winterover compares to his last, but his feeling is that his opinion of the winterover changed really a lot through the year, and then as much again afterwards.  So all in all, he felt he couldn't compare.  I hope he wasn't just being nice!

Ilann  is twenty but if you met him you wouldn’t realise it – he seems much older and wiser,  and he's a very laid back guy.  He grew up in Indonesia, and moved in his teens back to his parent’s native France .  He's  a serious swimmer and before coming out here he broke into the top 300 in France, but decided not to pursue it professionally.  His brother is now competing nationally. Ilann still trains for a couple of hours a day in the gym every day though to keep his fitness up.  He carries out chemical experiments on the snow, spending about two hours a day out in the cold collecting samples, which actually is really tough going.  He speaks English superbly well, and Italian too, so he is a very handy  translator for the team.  He’s grown  the most impressive Heroic Era- style wide bushy beard here. And yes, in the photo he really is sitting in warm water outside  Concordia in probably minus 35 degrees – but that' s a post for another day.

Andrea B  is our chef.  He's in his forties, and the owner of four restaurants in his home town of Sestri Levante in Genoa province.   It's a tourist town by the sea in the North of Italy.  He got into the business by accident – he trained as a surveyor and on finishing his training wound up taking  temporary work in  hospitality  – I think running a nightclub.   When he opened his first restaurant he learned to cook from the chef they employed so Andrea could cover his days off.   He's done two summer campaigns at MZS and knew well all the crew I met when I spent my week there in January.  Each time he comes to Antarctica his wife and family look after the business – all his restaurants are within 70metres of each other.   I think we're lucky to have Andrea here, being a restauranteur rather than a chef it means he pays attention to  more than just the quality of the food he is cooking – he's made  a nice place to eat  in the living room rather than the very functional dining room.  He's very appreciative of the meals I've cooked on his days off and took a copy of the recipe for Cullen Skink and a couple of other things – I've yet to tell him I go them all sent to me from the BBC website!

Angelo runs the meteorology and atmospheric experiments here. He is 35 or so, and from Statte in the south east of Italy.  He's a post-doc working at the University of Bari on environmental engineering and GPS surveying.   He maintains shelters running atmospheric experiments looking at particulate concentrations and ozone. Every day at 7pm Angelo inflates a large balloon with helium, attaches a small pack of instruments that measures temperature, humidity and GPS positioning to infer wind speed, with a radio to transmit the data back,  and releases it.  The balloon transmits data back to the base up to about 15,000m.  


Djamel is our other astronomer in the crew.  He's 55 and was born and grew up in Algeria before moving to France in the early 80s.  He speaks French, Italian and English all fluently and so inevitably he's one of the people I know better here.  His work is running the ASTEP equipment – a telescope looking for planets outside the solar system.   It's his second time at Concordia too.  He's got a partner back home and two children, both studying at Universities.   He, like Eric is living a permanent nightshift here so generally we only see him at dinner time.

Fred is from Toulon in the south France and in his forties,  a retired naval ship’s engineer.  He carries the most responsible job on the base as he’s both chief engineer/technical manager here, and responsible personally for the running of the specially designed caterpillar engines – three of them, mounted on stands in the engine room we call centrale - that provide all our power and heat. His skills are in demand all over the base and out in all the scientific shelters too.   So some days when the workload is high he looks very tired, and he often has some work to do on days off.  When he’s in good form he has the most amazingly infectious, high pitched laugh.  So we all kind of share the highs and lows a bit with Fred, because when he's not laughing at mealtimes we all notice it, and when he is it is guaranteed to lift the mood and get everyone laughing too.  Thankfully he usually is.

Vivien is our plumber.  Back in France he  maintains and controls clean water systems in large plants such as factories, swimming pools and apartment blocks.  Here, he's the guy who manages our water recycling unit.    He's had a constant battle to keep it running as one of the membranes seems to been damaged – we have to be extremely careful what chemical products the membranes can and can't be exposed to, and it looks like at some time one was damaged quite badly by some unknown, unauthorised chemical.  So it takes a lot of maintenance and at times it has reduced Vivien to complete frustration.  He comes from the French Alps, near to Meribel in the Savoie region, where he lived on a farm that keeps Highland cows imported from Scotland!  ('Why?' 'because they're nice') Before he trained as a plumber he was a professional freeride skier – they compete by descending steep off piste slopes full of cliffs, and worked on the lifts in Val d'Isere.   He was the first I trained how to take blood from me so I could put myself through all the ESA experiments.  He got interested in all things  medical from this, and is part of our rescue team, and assisted Andrea recently when we did a mock appendicectomy  exercise (I was doing the 'anaesthetic' bit.) 

Paolo. Our radio ops guy, and informatics specialist.  His office is the radio room at the top of the third floor, which is strewn with computer parts, electronic repair equipment,  cabling, server stacks, technical manuals, radio gear, and empty packets of biscuits.   There is a large screen on the wall above the satellite phones, showing the status of all the power supply and intranet links to remote systems in all the scientific shelters around the base, and a significant part of his life is fixing problems that arise with these links.    As soon as one link goes red on the screen, life for Paolo gets complicated.   As the radio room also has the best antenna for receiving communications from our handhelds, he is first line to keep a radio watch, and if he’s not able to someone else has to cover for him in the radio room.  He carries a handheld radio 24 hours a day in case of problems.   He also deals with all our communications by satellite too, and spends many hours connecting and reconnecting by the various semi-stable links we have to get our email downloaded.  He’s 27 or so, and from a town called Bassano in Italy.  He was meant to be on last year's team but broke his leg  by coming off a motorbike just before travelling out and had to postpone it. Definitely  DC6's loss and our gain, I think.

David – the base mechanic. 38 years old, and  by far our best Sunday chef!  He's from Beziers, near Montpellier in the South of France.  He's a mechanic there in a repair garage, and has a special interest in motorbikes, both fixing and riding.  None of which explains his great cooking, especially desserts, cakes, and baking which are genuinely outstanding.  He says he just picked it up by watching others.  Through the winterover he works with Fred to repair and maintain the machines, is a general handyman around the base, and he is the only one who can drive the “chargeuse” the Caterpillar tractor, able to operate in -70 degrees C, that is our workhorse around the base. It's used to scoop up clean snow to melt for drinking water.   He's mulling plans  to work for an international clean water charity, on the drilling equipment to create new wells, when he's finished his winterover.  Before coming back to do another winterover, crazy man!

Alessandro, Ally for short, is  35, and  lives in a little town called Campolongo sul’ Brenta, near Bassano in the north east of Italy.  He's a seriously active, wiry guy – at home skiing, motocross, volunteering for ambulance duty with the red cross, and building a house by himself up in the hills behind his town especially to hold parties in.   Here, he never seems to run out of energy or work to do.  He spent a summer campaign at Mario Zucchelli base the year before coming here.   He’s our electrotechnician, looking after the electrical systems and, with Paolo the electronics on the base.  Today they spent the day on the roof of the noisy tower working on a fault that’s developed in one of our antennas.  He's a really enthusiastic guy and very hard working – funny, loud and in the time that he's been here his English has gone from practically zero to better than many of the crew's.

Pascal, in his fifties, is our oldest and wisest of the crew.  He comes from Nancy in the North East of France.  He has a wife and two teenage children there.   Pascal works for the CNRS – Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientific – a huge institute of around 33,000 staff.  His speciality is electronics and instrumentation design and construction for geological research.  Here, he is applying his skills to the geophysics experiments installed by CNRS – seismology, magnetism, and atmospheric research including ozone levels and humidity, and so he is another that spends hours each day at, and hiking between, various scientific shelters.    The bane of Pascal's life here is an experiment that works by a laser being shone from one shelter to another.  But the shelters have been here so long the snow has built up around them, and they are literally half buried.   Whenever a wind blows now snowdrifts block the path of the beam and he, and whoever he can enlist to help, spend hours digging out a channel for the beam.  He's  keen photographer and physically pretty tough too, and whenever something interesting is happening in the sky, Pascal is out there.

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