Wednesday, 30 November 2011


I sit on a two metre high ridge of snow out by the `Brain? experiment.
It is a cosmology experiment, a strange looking solar powered
structure measuring cosmic background radiation, and it was built on a
platform of snow to protect it from snowdrifts. To me, though, it?s
just a handy windbreak. It?s been windy, for quite some time now and
I couldn?t put off going out with the datalogger of my new project any
more. I needed to check the battery can cope with the cold. I watch
little whirls of spindrift playing back and forth at my feet. They?re
tiny, tiny tornadoes that get stirred up by windshear along the edges
of ridges. They pick up snow, giving them a physical shape. You see
them several metres high in mountains, this little one is barely ten
centimetres, wider than it is tall, sucking up snow in the centre and
throwing it out in whirling little arms. It?s remarkably long-lived,
dancing backwards and forwards along the edge of the ridge for several
seconds before dissipating, to be replaced by another.

There?s a very strong halo in the sky, if you can look out against the
driving snow. No sundogs today ? the particularly intense bubbles of
rainbow colour that often appear at three o?clock, and nine o?clock on
halo?s ring, each with a white horizontal line radiating away form the
halo, and the arc of colour and whiteness below it at six o?clock. I
wonder what it is that makes sundogs appear. Sometimes halos have
them, sometimes they don?t. It doesn?t seem to be related to the
altitude of the sun, or the strength of the halo. It?s an interesting
little mystery.

I lean back into a cushion of very soft snow that?s fallen out of the
wind and been trapped here here by vortexes around the Brain
structure. It makes itself into a chair for me, just like snow that
had fallen from the sky back home. It?s unusual for Concordia. All I
have to do out here is just be out here, for an hour, and then I can
go back and check the datalogger continued to record. It?s a rare
opportunity to just relax outside, and reflect a little.

The Italians are leaving tomorrow, probably.

It's been a long week, failures with the new project equipment means
I've been pulling long days trying to figure out how to get it working
reliably and I?ve not had any time to spend with the guys, much to my
disappointment. Andrea Ballarini, our chef left a week ago, he was
the first to go. He really wanted off, his mind concentrated on an
upcoming busy period for his restaurants.

And now the rest of them are due to go. They were due to leave a week
ago, their work here finished, to spend a few days off at MZS before
boarding their plane back to CHC. But we've had bad weather every
morning, clearing every evening, then recurring the following day. So
every afternoon a plane is planned, every evening it's cancelled
again. They've moped around the base visibly boiling with
frustration. And as we inched closer to the 28th, and the date of
their departure from Antarctica by C-130, their frustration started to
become tinged with worry they might miss their transport off the ice
altogether. But this evening a twin otter made it up, the headwind
so hard they had to fly without passengers or cargo to make it with
enough fuel to land safely. They?re leaving tomorrow at 0530.

You?d think we?d be sad they?re going. But for one thing, the
wintercrew really drifted apart with the arrival of the summer
campaign. I?ve had my head down, working hard on thie LTMS3 project
for a couple of weeks and I?ve hardly spent any time with them. Plus,
with so many more French and Italians on the base, the wintercrew just
doesn?t spend any time together any more - each tends to stick with
their own, really just because of language barriers. And in terms of
work, The team has disintegrated and been subsumed into a larger
whole. In many ways the winterover is already forgotten, it takes an
effort to remember we were once such a tight team of colleagues,
friends, crew. It?s remarkable how fast that happened. And for
another thing, with all the visible disappointment and worry of the
last week, I suppose I?m mostly glad for them that they are going to
get off after all.

I had a chat with the pilots over dinner. They?re contracted by the
Australian program, and they were the first of our two planes that
came through on a touch-and-go refuelling on the first of November.
But the French at DDU asked the Australians for some help because of
our transport problems and I guess the Australians owe the French a
few favours because these pilots were told to `do everything you can
to help them.? And they really did a lot.

These boys have pretty much seen and done it all, I guess. One of them
had worked for sixteen years solid in the arctic, landing on floating
ice. The other was the first to make a midwinter landing in
Antarctica, in the cold and dark and with no other aircraft in
support, at the south pole in 2001 to make a medical evacuation

The Astrolabe is still 200km off the coast of Antarctica. She never
made it in to DDU. She?s been there for weeks, encased in pack ice
several metres thick and 30km all round, being pushed backwards and
forwards as the pack drifts with the wind and tides. There?s open
water all round the floe she?s stuck in. But she is completely stuck.
They first flew out to the ship to deliver the helicopter?s needed
electronic components, by flying past the ship and pushing a crate out
the side door. Getting the helicopter flying again meant that the
Astrolabe was able to offload people and cargo again. A few days later
Paolo, Augusto and I sat in the radio room listening on the HF radio
to communication between the Astrolabe and these guys about 1300km
away, as they flew out and landed on the ice beside the ship. They
took off the ship?s remaining passengers and cargo. The guys tell me
though, that if a storm doesn?t break the pack, the Astrolabe could be
stuck for another ten days, two weeks maybe. My heart sinks when I
hear that ? it?s so going to screw up my schedule, one way or another.

I got out of bed at 0430 the following day, as the plan was for the
plane to take off at 530. We waited for a weather update from another
twin otter making a trip to Midpoint It?s go. After all the waiting
and waiting, the guys were just glad to go, and we were just glad for

They are all smiles and jokes as they board the plane and get into the
eight or so seats fitted into place behind the cargo.
Domenico turns round in his seat and shouts `see you next winterover?
to me and Ilann, standing at the door. I give him the appropriate
torrent of abuse in reply.

Enjoy the sun, guys, and we?ll see you in June in Cologne, I hope.

Concordia station
75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E Local time UTC + 8

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Monday, 14 November 2011

New?Old friends

So our first arrivals got up here yesterday. Seven technical crew,
six Italians and one French. Four of them I knew from last year,
either working with them here, or having met them in Paris before
coming. And they brought lettuce, apples and oranges with them.

Straight away, the new arrivals have brought a cheerful busyness, and
as I thought would happen, all the niggles and frustrations of the
wintercrew have completely evaporated.

The base even seems sunnier! we're busy with new activity, and we?re
expecting a couple more planes tomorrow. The air even seems fresher
as more people go in and out of the station. The summer campaign is
going to get into full swing very fast from here.

Happy times.

Concordia station
75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E Local time UTC + 8

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Sunday, 13 November 2011

Last night of the winterover, we think.

The frustration here has been getting pretty palpable. It?s causing
lots of minor, needless aggravation between the crew. It?s now a week
since the winterover was scheduled to end, but there is no relief yet.
With our planes still stuck at Rothera, the Australians were ready to
lend us one of their twin otters. In fact Bob, our first visitor, was
going to fly back to us on Saturday to refuel and then go down to MZS
to pick up our people and bring them up today. Bad weather at Casey
scuppered that plan, and in fact the plan was abandoned. But earlier
today we got confirmation that our planes have crossed the continent
and are at McMurdo, ready to go to MZS and come up to us tomorrow.
The meteo looks good. So, we think this time it really should work.
However, there is a fair amount of scepticism amongst everyone and
there is no feeling of celebration amongst the crew. We had our ?last
winterover dinner? a few days ago, accepting the fact that, that
actual night would certainly not be the end, but we were unlikely to
get enough notice to put on a proper ?last dinner? when they did
eventually come.
So we?ll believe it when we see the plane pull up on the taxiway, and
not before.So now that it probably is the end of hte winterover, it all feels
very anticlimactic and not knowing what else to do, I wandered
outside. I thought I might try sitting outside for once to write a
blog entry (pencil and paper, of course) in the sunshine.
Polystyrene, I'd like to say, is great stuff. It?s minus 40, and I
pulled a couple of sheets out of a frozen scientific container, one
to sit on and one to prop against the leg of the base so I could lean
against it and shelter from the breeze. And it?s keeping me really
warm. It?s so nice to be able to sit in the sun for a while, even if
I do have goggles and a face mask on. The humidity is a very pleasant
60 percent out here (inside the base it?s around 7 percent and I live
with a perpetually dry mouth). It?s quiet, and comfortable.
Looking round the disc-like, sea-like horizon I can see lots
of scientific shelters from here ? Fisica, Caro, Glacio 600m away in
front of me, to the left the horizon broken by the snowdrifts that
have completely submerged the Seismo and Magnetic shelters. From this
angle they look much like a wave rolling in from the south and about
to break. To my right and about 250m away the spiderlike
Astroconcordia platforms, and then further to the right and just
behind centrale the sixteen containers adapted to be diesel fuel tanks
that have supplied our engines all year. The life blood of the
station. And us, I guess. There?s enough left to keep us going all
the way into early February, but our next delivery is due in a couple
of weeks.
The strange thing is that the base and its surroundings seem
so different in the light, and with the snow around it having been
flattened by machines, that in some ways it seems like the winterover
must have happened in a different place entirely.I wanted to sit here and reflect a bit on the winterover, but as I sit
and think I realise it?ll take a bit longer to sort it all out. One
thing is for sure, it?s been pretty straightforward when all said and
done. No mechanical problems, we?ve been safe as houses. And only
minor interpersonal problems, looking back. I think we?ve had a
particularly professionally-minded crew. And I?ve liked this kind of
work, being part of a small, very interdependent team where you have
much more varied responsibilities than one would in any normal job,
and where there?s no-one else that can do your work for you.
We?ve done our jobs, and we?ve got base ready for a busy
summer campaign. And the guys are all ready to go home; everyone has a
travel plan now. In fact the first of the crew to leave is due to be
going in a couple of days, most will be gone in three weeks.I think about the fact that in the last eleven months I?ve never
walked further than 1km away from home. In the last nine months I?ve
spoken to just  twenty-three different people.And I?m struck by a stark memory,
maybe because I?m looking at the
Astro platforms. One night, just after midwinter I think. We had
been in hard darkness for at least five weeks. Domenico needed help to
fit some heavyish equipment on a telescope mount up on one of the
Astro platforms. So Eric, Djamel and I came to help. It was about
10pm, it was a still night, the temperature somewhere between -70 and
-75 degrees C. There was a high, full moon and his device was
designed to use the moonlight to measure humidity in the atmosphere.
It was the first time in weeks I could see my footing. I dragged a
sledge with all the equipment out there, then because I was too
breathless to do more, Djamel carried the instrument up a ladder and
we got it up on the mount. There was a simple little power cable
tangle but it took three of us five or six minutes to undo it because
of the dark, the restricted vision in our masks, clumsy gloves, and
the frozen cable unwilling to unbend from its coils.Then the other three went to the shelter to install a computer and
wire up the electronics, and I wasn't needed any more so I made my way
back to the base. No longer intent on the work, it occurred to me
that this was the strongest light we?d see until the sun came back in
several weeks. So I took a walk, all the way up to the far end of the
summer camp, enjoying negotiating the deep snowdrifts I found up
there. Walking between lifeless, dark abandoned huts and tents, it
seemed so like a different world ? the almost agonisingly long
darkness, the odd surface at once crisp and soft, coloured a uniform
deep dark grey and sparkling in the moonlight, even the thin
atmosphere I breathed seeming alien.I tried to make my routine, half-hourly, radio call to the base but I
found my radio's battery had been depleted by the cold, and because I
hadn?t planned the walk I had not brought a spare. I realised I was
totally alone. Out of contact and without company, I was alone in a
way I had not been since perhaps November the year before. I was aware
it was a risk being out here without a working radio but I was
surprised to find I felt a deep, contented, sense of freedom because
of it. Of the whole winterover, it was the only time I felt really,
truly relaxed.Total silence and stillness. Even the snow wasn't making any of its
booming or cracking noises. The only sounds were my loud footsteps.
The dark snow, stretching in frozen waves as far as the eye could see,
the sky black and featureless. All starlight swamped by the light of
the moon.
And the sight, unique and fantastic, as I looked back over
the camp?s snowdrifted domes and buildings, antennae and equipment,
and over haphazard striped vehicle tracks in the snow, at bright,
white, distant Concordia. Hi-tech and robustly safe in this fierce
environment. It?s lights warm, white and orange, shining out and down
making a bright halo on the snow all around the base.I was deeply conscious I needed to be careful out here. But at the
same time one of the very few times in a lifetime I was completely
contented to be where I was. Soon, though, the cold started to spread
into my arms and legs, seeping into my suit as if it were a living
thing invading through its weak points. The escapable but fatal
threat forced me back, reluctantly, to the lights. But that was a
magical time.
It genuinely seemed like I was on another world. And I loved it.Back to now, sitting out on the foot of the base in the sun. I?ll
have to go in; my hands are starting to chill because I?m holding the
paper and pencil. My project?s finished, the winterover is finished.
Of the ninety day summer campaign, I?ll be here for seventy days of
it, waiting for my successor to arrive. I?ve got a plan to try to get
another ESA project working. But honestly, I don?t know what?ll
happen next. I?m looking forward to it, though.
The one thing I can be sure of, it?s going to be really sunny. And
I'm so looking forward to that.

Concordia station
75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E Local time UTC + 8
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Saturday, 12 November 2011

Weekly report

Tomorrow, my weekly scientific report is going to say simply this-


Project Cognipole/ESCOM (1305 Pattyn)

Project essentially completed. A few final measurements this week.

Long Term Medical Survey (Bachelard, Angerer)

final questionnaires this monday
no further routine medical examinations are planned


Happy days...

Concordia station
75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E Local time UTC + 8

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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Waiting, waiting...

It?s a long time, nine months, a winterover. But definitely the
perception of the time passed varies. In the last week of a cycle of
data collection, I?m tired and it feels like it?s been forever. One
week of good sleep later and it can feel like it's been hardly any
time at all. But that?s nothing like now. BUt right now, time seems
to be passing particularly slowly, and the winterover just feels

It?s because the summer crew are late, and we don?t know how long they
will be. And yesterday, the day the first plane was planned to
arrive, all our normal communication lines went down, and information
was very hard to get. MZS?s HF radio developed a fault and we
couldn?t speak to them. Email had been down the last 24h ?we?ve
still never figured out what it is that affects it - We knew that the
crew in Christchurch were delayed getting to Antarctica, finally in
desperation for news, Paolo phoned ENEA in Italy.

What?s happening? Are they coming soon?
Not yet.

The Twin Otters that will be working for our program are stuck at
Rothera, on the other side of Antarctica, bad weather preventing them
from getting over. They can?t even get to the Pole. The earliest
they can get to MZS and then up here is Saturday they think. The
waiting is starting to really get to some of us. For me, the thought
that maybe one day soon I might actually get something fresh to eat is
starting to get really distracting... The first of the summer
campaign personnel, on the other hand, are at MZS presumably
thoroughly enjoying it as I did last year.

The Astrolabe is not getting on much better. We hear that she?s
stuck in pack ice 200km from DDU, and she can?t get further on. And
to make matters worse, she might have to turn around and go back to
Hobart without putting in to DDU. She has a helicopter on board
that?s necessary to offload the cargo, and it?s developed a fault,
something big, something they don?t routinely carry spares for.
There?s some discussion about whether an airdrop could be arranged to
deliver the necessary parts to her where she is, out in the ice. If
not, it?s back to Hobart. Once she can get out of the pack, that is.
Fred tells me R0 (R zero, the first rotation she makes from Hobart to
DDU and back) each year is often beset with problems in the pack.
She?s not built for ice breaking, as she needs the flat hull for
manoevering in the islands and icebergs at DDU. So when the pack ice
is thick there?s nothing to do but wait. Storms are handy ? the waves
break up the ice and then with the helicopter to guide the vessel,
she can find a way through the fragments. No luck this time, it seems.

I have to admit thought in terms of my work here things couldn't be
going better. The delay means I'll get all the crew through the
final cycle of testing before the winterover ends, and make good on
all the delays we had at the start of the winterover. And we could
get our first plane on the day I finish the project. Funny how things
work out...

Concordia station
75°06'06''S - 123°23'43''E Local time UTC + 8

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Thursday, 3 November 2011

The end of our isolation

Two Twin Otter planes made the trip from the Pole, in the end. Laden
with equipment and headed for the Australian Casey station, they crossed
Antarctica entirely, having made the long journey down from Canada,
stopping at Rothera to swap wheels for skis and then crossed the whole
continent from West to East, stopping first at the Pole then briefly
with us, on their way to the opposite coast and Casey station.

It was wonderful to hear for the first time a distant burr of the plane
on approach. It was such a familiar, but forgotten sound. And it meant
so, so much - a feeling of connection to the rest of the world at last.
I wasn't at the base for the arrival of the first plane and I didn't
meet that crew but I was back in time, twenty minutes later, when Bob
and Perry landed in the second plane. It was -45 degrees, right on the
minimum temperature to start a twin otter's engines, so neither plane
switched off fully. In fact Bob turned circles on the taxiway for ten
minutes waiting for the first plane to finish refuelling and clear the
station, keeping the engine temperature up.

The first twin otter taxied off just as I got back. Bob pulled up to
refuel and he and Perry jumped out of the plane and started hugging
anyone near them. It was a really nice gesture. I mean, it's nothing to
them to arrive here, this is just one more stop on their journey. But
they know how much of a big thing it is for us to see them. They took
twenty minutes to refuel, the pilots hanging around chatting to us as
Fred, Alessandro and Vivien ran the refuelling rig. Then when the
process was done, they took a packed lunchbag from Andrea chef and got
moving straight away.

I had walked up to the summer camp, lining up to take a picture of them
taxiing away. They taxied past me on their way to the airstrip, and I
gave a wave goodbye. And two minutes later I was standing right in the
open, in the middle of the main strip there when the distant plane took
off heading north, angling steeply up and then it looped back, dropped
right down and came low heading straight for us, to buzz the base.

It was a fantastic sight. The plane flew right over my head, seemingly
just above mast height, massive vapour trails pouring off the engines
and, I was wooping at the top of my voice and punching the air as they
zoomed right over me, past the base and headed toward the horizon. They
were completely gone in just a few moments, fat trails lingering in the
air behind them.

So that's it folks. It was a very brief meeting, but it means everything.
We're open for business.

To all the summer crew people on their way to us - whether right now
you're waiting at DDU watching icebergs drift by, or you're on
L'Astrolabe as it negotiates it's way through pack ice, or still in
Christchurch enjoying the summer sun, or just arrived to help open MZS,
in Hobart overseeing logistics, at McMurdo just killing time, on a 747
en route from Europe, or still at home preparing - we're looking forward
to seeing you all real soon.

Pictures below -

Midnight, 21^st October
The last sunset of 2011 31^st October.
The first plane arriving on the 2^nd of November