Monday, 6 December 2010

Diamond Dust and other weather

The weather here at Halley is a constant surprise.  We get a weekly weather forecast, but it changes from moment to moment.and often the only way to check what the weather is doing is the old fashioned way - you look out of the window.

Today the wind is blowing at around 20 knots.  This kind of wind speed will pick up lying snow and blow it around to just above head height, reducing visibility and creating unexpected obstacles where there were none before.  The vehicle guys are kept busy on Snow Management and if you venture outside you keep an eye on where you are going.

Last week we had a weather phenomenon called Diamond Dust, or, more prosaically, clear air precipitation.  The sun shines brilliantly down, there is not a cloud in the sky, the snow on the ground glitters like a mad thing - and so does the air.  Everywhere you look you see the air sparkling and flashing with tiny pieces of light; it is the most amazing thing you have ever seen.

The picture above has managed to capture a flavour of this beautiful effect - apologies for the subject matter, although these are truly unique Antarctic oil drums - you can see the sparkle and glitter of the snow and the air.

Sadly we don't get diamond dust every day, but on sunny days the snow gleams and sparkles for miles and on cloudy days you can get what is called low contrast.  This is where the snow stretches all around, a flat, featureless field of white.  You stare at it in vain, knowing it rises and falls in humps and bumps ahead of you but completely unable to see it, even when you are right on top of it.  The sky changes colour too, when there are clouds they reflect the sea on the horizon and look a dark, forbidding bluey grey compared to the whiteness of the cloud above the snow.  If there are no clouds the sky is pale blue along the horizon, darkening to a bright, intense blue above. 

I see something different every day and each day brings something new to wonder at.  Last night I watched from the window as the wind increased in strength and sent plumes of snow snaking across the surface, hugging the contours as they went.  This morning I gazed out of my window to a changed landscape where the winds had increased during the night and blown the snow around, altering the way things had looked the evening before.  This afternoon will probably be different again.

There is a saying here - if you don't like the weather at Halley, wait five minutes.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Early Days

Me - at Sanae the South African base during my 5 day journey to Halley

I have been here at Halley for just over a week now and I feel that I am settling in. Apart from one day of reasonaly high winds (22 knots), the weather has been glorious, bright, crisp and cold.  I walk around the perimeter almost every day and when the sun shines on the snow it glitters insanely, it's like walking in a Christmas card made by a kid using a whole pot of glitter.

The views here are quite spectacular.  We can often see mirages of the ice cliffs and when the sky is cloudy the horizon looks dark and forbidding, not with storm clouds but because the blue of the sea is reflecting onto the clouds above.  The landscape is totally flat and seems to go on forever.  On sunny days you can see the way the wind has sculpted the snow into amazing shapes, like sand at the beach, on cloudier days the contrast is low which means all you can see is a flat field of white.  Walking around on low contrast days requires concentration - you often cannot see a hump, hole or ridge until you are right on it, driving around in a skidoo is even more perilous in these conditions.

Just after I arrived two of the main buildings here were moved to their summer positions.  The prevailing wind is from the East here and during the winter any static objects get huge 'wind tails' around them, the Drewry summer accommodation and the garage both sat in deep holes, surrounded by high mounds of snow that tailed off on either side.  If they were left like this then they would eventually be buried, so each year they are laboriously hauled out of their holes by at least six bulldozers and relocated onto specially prepared mounds of snow.  The whole operation is fascinating to watch, and to be a part of.  People are needed inside the buildings to stop things falling over and generally flying around, hard hats a necessity for this job!

A rest in the moving process - I've managed to capture my reflection too

These photographs were taken during the move of the summer accommodation.  There were several pauses in the process, to adjust the winches, move the vehicles etc.  The move took most of the morning and went very smoothly. This is a big two storey building and watching it being towed along was pretty awesome.  It took six bulldozers - two shoving from behind and four pulling from in front.

The garage was the next building to be moved - I don't have any pics of that moving because I was one of the inside crew.  We had to make sure that nothing fell over or went flying around inside.  I had never been inside a moving building before, it was quite an experience.  Both buildings are now in their summer positions and are set up for the season. 

My days are spent in a room that is the gym in the winter.  The view from the window is outstanding and changes every day.  I often go out for a walk around the base perimeter - 5k trudging through the snow, it is hard going at times and certainly builds up your stamina.  So far I haven't managed to get my time below 1 hour and twenty five minutes, but I am working on it.

 Part of my 5k perimeter walk, the scenery stretches on for miles and when I stop walking it is very, very quiet.
 My office - I'm getting used to it.

This week I am on melt tank duty.  The melt tank has to be filled with snow every morning and evening or we don't have any water.  As a shovel novice I am finding it very hard work, although I am more worried about chucking the shovel down the hole and into the tank than I am about the amount of snow I am shovelling.  I don't have any photos of me shovelling snow, but as soon as I do I will post them.

In my first week I have had a birthday, been on Gash (setting out and clearing up after meals), walked the permiter five or six times, dug snow for the melt tank and done lots of spreadsheets.

I'm having the time of my life.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Delays, bad weather and a grand tour

This has been an epic journey.  I started out on 6th November, flying from Terminal 5 at Heathrow, arriving at Cape Town on the Sunday morning.  Three days of briefings, polar clothing issues and sightseeing later, I took off from Cape Town International on board a Russian cargo plane.  This was the start of the real adventure, Table Mountain and the V&A waterfront were a great experience but the ride in the cargo plane was a whole new level.

The flight from Cape Town to the Russian airhead at Novo, Antarctica, was around five hours.  During the last hour we all had to get into our polar gear for the landing, and that was where the fun began.  The plane was extremely well heated, and with around eighty five people on board, plus all their gear, we could only change by standing on our seats.  Unfortunately I have no pictures of the utter chaos, getting into several layers of clothing, hats, gloves, socks and thick boots is no easy task when you have plenty of room but standing on a small airline seat – well, it is something that will stick in my memory forever.

We disembarked onto a blue ice runway at Novo, into temperatures of -13 and wind speeds of around fifteen knots.  This was a shock after the heat of Cape Town in summer, and five hours on an overheated plane.  Collecting our gear together we went to the mess tent and had a welcome cup of coffee and breakfast.  It was only then I discovered that the toilet facilities were a short, slippery walk away through the wind and ice. 

Wrap up to get there, slip on the metal steps, unwrap to go, wrap up to get back, not slipping on the steps this time, making it safely back to the tent, deciding not to have another coffee just yet.

The weather at Halley, our final destination, was not good so we were transferred to the visitor centre at the main Novo base, a twenty minute bone shaking ride across the glacier.  The main base is built on rock at the edge of the glacier, which hangs over all the buildings in a perpetual frozen wave of ice.  The rocks are shattered and broken, huge, large, medium, small and dust, and it looks like the surface of Mars.  Water is taken from a frozen lake and the sea ice is a short walk away up and over the Mars like landscape.  Facilities were comfortable and we were made very welcome by Nadia and her father Vladimir.

After two days at Novo we went back across the glacier to the airhead (I was lucky enough to be driven in a Toyota Hi Lux with massive tires, bouncing and sliding across the ice) and boarded a Basler to fly to Halley.  Unfortunately the weather again deteriorated while we were in the air and the plane had to divert to the South African base at Sanae.  Here we were made very welcome by the guys, who fed and watered us to within an inch of our lives.  After a comfortable night at Sanae we waved goodbye and set off once again for Halley.

This time we arrived. We had been travelling for a week.

Once I have settled in and got my head around my new job, I will give you some details on life on the ice.  It’s been fun so far.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Night Before

Packing and getting ready to go.

I'm not worried about the journey, only that I will forget something vital - there are no shops down the road for me to pick up anything I might have forgotten.

We take off tomorrow from Heathrow, heading for Cape Town on the first leg of a long, long journey.  Three days or so in the heat of a South African summer before I end up in the chill of Antarctica.

My adventure is about to begin.