Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Happy New Year!

 (typed 9th January)

Apparently the guys who have been flying here for 11-12 years say that you get several good blue-sky years in a row, and then one where it is constantly cloudy and visibility is very frequently too bad to fly in. It turns out this is that year. We’ve had half and half blue skies and white skies all summer. It’s been averaging a balmy minus thirty. I couldn't believe my eyes when I stepped out of the base a week ago and there were fluffy cumulus clouds brushing the top of the american tower, against a thick white blanket covering the while sky higher up. And when the surprise wore off it was quite nice to see something different and at the same time very familiar.
For others though, it’s not nearly so welcome. The wind is messing up the OPALE group’s measurements of movements of gasses near the snow surface. The reflectance group need strong sunlight for their optical sensors, the astronomers can’t see a thing of course, and even the hygrometer of the BRAIN group is reading a non-value because the detector needs to be able to see the sunlight to measure the water vapour in the air! And the planes have been largely grounded, because no-one wants to try flying through white stuff trying to avoid hitting white stuff. We had the twin otter here for a week, stranded by the poor visibility either here, or at the Midpoint refueling stops, or at the destinations DDU and MZS. Every day the pilots pored over satellite images of the clouds over our sector identifying low clouds that would make landing risky.
Everyone agrees it’s unusual. I was standing with Igor, a Russian atmospheric physicist, today in the Caro shelter as he studied his instruments‘ measurements of ozone concentrations and temperature fluctuations. the ozone seems to have starting fluctuating it's atmospheric concentration rapidly and widely several hours before the recorded temperature started doing exactly the same thing. 'Such strange things happen at Dome C ' he says, shaking his head.
The festive season was a bit of a low key affair this year as the holiday days fell on Sundays, and we didn't have any extra time off. The chefs were the principal festival-makers and made a nice, very civilised time for us again. Did I mention this before? There is a Lonely Planet guide to Antarctica, I believe written by the pilots that visit so many bases. It rates Concordia as having the best food on the Continent. But the base has definitely been quieter this year than last year. For some reason there seems to be fewer people moving around outside, there are fewer parties- I don't think there has been a single one up at the summer camp free time tent. I guess when there is generally only sixty people around, individual personalities can really shape the group quite strongly. Christmas particularly was not much of an event for me. Vivien and Eric were due to fly out at 0300 on Christmas day so some of us waited up to say bye, and then the plane was delayed until 0600, and then cancelled. So I spent much of the rest of the day asleep! I did have present to open – a birthday present that had been stranded in DDU since the previous February, and had arrived a few days before Christmas.
New year brought an interesting little surprise - I was really pleased to discover a possible explanation for the green stars that I saw one evening in the winterover. I thought at the time it was due to eye adjustments because I lived under orange-ish tungsten lighting, but I could never explain why the greenishness didn't persist. I was chatting to a couple of the meteorologists over dinner one night and they asked me if I had seen any green clouds during the winterover. I hadn't mentioned the stars to anyone, I’d forgotten about it, really. They explained that nitric acid high in the atmosphere forms clouds that glow green. It seems that the green tint of the stars I saw was likely caused by just this phenomenon. It's fantastic to get such a bizarre explanation. 

For me, this last week has been very nice, as I get on top of readying everything for dispatch back to Europe. The LTMS gear has been working well, say about an 90% success rate but it’s starting to deteriorate again so I think it’s time to stop. I'm going to pack it up this week. IPEV’s logistics operation to transport everything back to the coast is a tightly controlled operation, and the technical office need quite a bit of detail about every box that I package, as it has to encompass space and temperature requirements for the raid, shipping information, environmental and customs information for landing the cases in Australia and something about planning their return to Europe, or wherever in the world the investigators await their precious samples.
It's now just fourteen days until I'm due to be leaving Antarctica on the Astrolabe from DDU, heading to Hobart. I've been here so long it's hard to imagine what it'll be like to be back in the normal world. There's going to be green, and lots of noise, fresh food, distances, and choice, variety, the prospect of getting home to family and friends. I'll be expected to pay for things and to not get involved in everything going on around me. Sounds weird, frankly. But I'm beginning to allow myself to look forward to it. There's always the logistic caveat that it could be hard to predict when I leave Concordia, as the need for good weather to be in alignment here, at the midway refueling stop d85, and DDU seems to be a tall order this year. Vivien was and Eric were due to be celebrating Christmas in Hobart, but sequential storms meant they actually celebrated New Year in a plane en route to the Antarctic coast, and finally made landfall in Australia on the third or so.
So, having a plan is great but I'm not holding my breath.

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