Friday, January 27, 2006

Many apologies for the lateness of this entry, it seems that every entry begins with an apology for not updating the blog. One of the reasons is that I am working 11 hr days and trying to fit in loads of recreation at the same time. You can fit loads of recreation in since we are still enjoying 24 daylight. Of course this leaves you pretty tired, so you don't feel like writing your blog at 12 pm when you return from kite skiing or skijouring or whatever. However this time I do have a legitimate reason for not writing this. The reason is the snow accumulation on the base that I have mentioned many times before forces you to raise everything. This raising includes the communications dish through which we get our internet and telephone service. This dish was raised just after the last entry (on the 16th) and when they turned the dish back on it couldn't find the satelite again. This was partly because the dish was set up slightly wrong and was looking in the wrong sector and partly because a few days later we had a massive blow. A blow is basically when the wind gets above about 25 knots, which makes working outside tricky.

Anyway we have been back on line for a few days and I am trying to make amends.

As promised in the last entry a piccy of me at Pirate Night. Posted by Picasa

See I have finally got around choosing some photos of Pirate Night. As you can see because we are stuck in a small community with not that much to do for recreation (apart from kiting, skijouring, abseiling etc...) we have to entertain ourselves by dressing up. We do have fun and do have alcohol. The alcohol is controlled however (2 small beers a night max and 4 on saturday (or a bottle of wine)). This is a good thing because of the dangers of falling asleep in the snow or other alcohol related injuries. However as you can see it doesn't take much to send me over the edge. Don't worry I haven't done anything embarrassing yet apart from dancing.

Scouse Pirate, Geoff Pirate and Ian Pirate. Posted by Picasa

The two on the outside are steelies (this means they are steel erectors/welders) and Geoff is the base general assistant. He's normally the Health and Safety person in Cambridge but every year they send one of the admin people from HQ to see what it is like on base.

Kirsty Pirate, Dave Pirate and Vicky Pirate Posted by Picasa

It seems like I haven't seen Dave for ages. He's actually back in Stanley seeing the dentist, so they can get you out of here in the summer. He cracked his tooth doing a fuel raise (as you guessed drums of fuel have to be dug out of the ground because of the snow accumulation). The tooth apparently has to be removed but he should be flying back to use within the next few weeks. Hopefully he will be bringing us goodies from the Falklands.

Pretty much immediately after the last entry I got to be co-pilot again. This was pretty cool because hardly anyone else has been flying and I had just come back from a flight. I think this is because I was qualified to help with the LPM/LPR (Low Powered Magnetometer and Low Power Riometer) stuff. So it must have been last saturday the weather got good for a trip to M83. As suggested by the name, M83 is a LPM site 83 degrees south. Only A84 is farther south of all the likely trips that I could go on so its quite cool to have got to do the most southerly. The flight there was a bit tricky because there was a lot of cloud which meant that we flew at 14 thousand feet. Normally you are required to have oxygen in a unpressurised plane above 10 thousand feet, but here the rules are laxer and BAS doesn't send people with weak hearts south. The flight was pretty good and we got some good views of the mountains. Miriam was in the back and because of the height she had a serious headache, which isn't good for 3 and a half hours. When we got close we couldn't actually see the LPM (see the last entry for what an LPM looks like). So in the end Ian decided to put the plane down as close to the GPS mark as possible and we would taxi to the site. It was a pretty heavy landing but to me it felt ok. Anyway we got to the sight and all we found was a couple of poles sticking out of the ground. We realised that the site must have been moved. So we rang around to try to get the position of the new site. Inspecting the plane however showed that the heavy landing had damaged the rear left ski.

The twin otter at M83. Its broken but you need to get closer to see it. Posted by Picasa

Close up of the broken ski. Posted by Picasa

This happened because the sastrugi was massive. Sastrugi, are small wind created snow dunes that make the snow surface bumpy. At M83 the sastrugi was about 3 foot high in places which is massive. It turns out that the bad sastrugi was the reason why they moved the original site. The sastrugi had actually damaged another plane in the same way. Suddenly we didn't know if we could get back. We refueled and Ian expertly took off again in really bad conditions. The trip back was uneventful. We saw more funny optical effects and I took a brief spell at the controls under Ian's watchful gaze. We landed back at Halley in what must have been 15 foot visability and nearly missed the end of the runway. I think Ian was concerned about the plane and just wanted to get it back so that they could get it fixed. The plane had to be flown to Rothera in order to be refitted, in fact they just swapped planes so that Halley wasn't left planeless.

The weather was amazing the next day and I went cross-country skiing in the morning and skijouring in the evening. The photos below are pictures in the evening.

Anto looking good infront of the Laws platform. Posted by Picasa

Anto takes the jump. Posted by Picasa

Kirsty takes the jump. Posted by Picasa

Me learning to snowboard. I'm think I am ok. I also think I will get a board as it is so much fun. Posted by Picasa

Me pointing out the mirages on the horizon. Posted by Picasa

The next day was also gorgeous, but I was stuck indoors as I was on gash. As I explained on the ship, when you are on gash you have to do all the cleaning. The difference here is that you are on your own and you have to remain on the Laws platform. For some people this is like a day off work but for me I felt massively couped up. The internet was also down so I couldn't escape. I think cabin fever may be a problem for me. At least I know what to expect now and I think it might be different when there is the internet and the weather is not so good.

We then had the long blow, and nothing much has happened. We have been mainly working indoors. For me this has been designing and making some electronics to do with the AIS radar. I will explain some the different radars and the science soon. I can do this because we have recently given a talk to the rest of base explaining what we do.

The blow is over. The internet is back and I have also had a haircut. This happened after a game of pool with Craig, one of the old winterers. He said he was having a haircut that evening and that he was having a Mohawk. I didn't believe him and he said I should have one. I then said that I would have one if he did. He then had one and so did I . It turns out that he normally has a Mohawk and thought it was really funny that I only agree to one if he did. I think it looks ok.

My new mohawk hair. Posted by Picasa

Now that the internet is back I will update more often.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Piggott platform rises - pirate night - A84 what a trip - More skijouring

Its been a long six days since my last entry. I guess it is a good time to take stock of what has been happening, as it is nearly three weeks since we have arrived. I actually feels as thought we have been here for about 5 weeks according to Anto and me but not according to Kirsty (who correctly thinks we have been here for 3). I think it is because of the long hours, the fact that the base is very small so you get to know the place very quickly and because there is so much happening. I hope that this 5 week feeling is not going to make the two years feel like three and I suspect that when things calm down the winter will pass very quickly.

As I mentioned in the last post, the buildings have to be jacked because of the snow accumulation. Last week the jacking took place on my platform (the Piggott). Essentially you put a powered jack on each of the legs and jack it up. Each year the platforms have to be jacked about 1.5 meters because of the accumulation. The jacks only move about 30 cm so the jacks have to be raised and the process takes a while. For the Piggott this took a whole day. Through out this time people had watch the progress.
Raising the piggot. Posted by Picasa

There are also many cables going into the ground feeding electricity and data to and from the experiments, and people have to watch that they don't snag. Of course there is also the pipe taking waste from the urinal and the sink. We don't have a toilet as such but what they call a rocket bog. You poo onto a specially designed paper pouch and when you are done to press a button and the pouch gets dropped into a pan and burn until there is only ash which is then put in the trash compactor. I haven't used it yet, but will tell you when I do. Anyway this raising took place middle of last week as the weather improved enough for them to work. It was still pretty miserable but the wind died to less than 20 knots.

The final raised position, you can tell by the height of the steel legs against the roof of the building. Posted by Picasa

As the weather improved the mast erectors also were able to get going on raising the SHARE radar. This involves removing the antennae off of 16 masts, adding new sections to the masts and then reattaching the antennae. Once again this is all due to the snow accumulation problem. My main responsibility is the AIS radar but as the SHARE people were a bit short handed I was roped in. This is actually a lot of fun and you get to put a harness on and climb up high masts. Once they have done the SHARE mast raise they will go on and do mine. The SHARE has 16 short masts all about 10m high whereas the AIS has two massive 45m monsters. Most of my time has been taken up with this SHARE raise this week which is good fun.

So the weekend comes around and our one day of freedom from the 11hour days arrives. This weekend there was a pirate themed disco, I think inspired by Peggy's (Alex's) broken leg. So we therefore all got dressed up as pirates. I will try to post some photos of that party soon, but is very difficult to choose them as they are so embarrassing. I got terribly drunk, something I didn't think was possible because you are only allowed a bottle of wine. I must have drunk more. Hopefully I didn't make a fool of myself.

The next day (Sunday) is a day off for everyone, well that is unless you are me and are lucky enough to get a co-pilot trip somewhere. Normally the plane will also have a day off, but because of all the bad weather, they were flying. At ten whilst lying in pain in my bed from the pirate night before (still will a dirty moustach drawn on my face) I was woken up by the BC (Base Commander) with the words, "A84 thirty minutes". So in 30 mins I had to get up get some warm clothes, have breakfast, make lunch and get to skiway. Thankfully the doctor was on hand to give me some paracetamol. A84 is an automatic logging site close to 84 degrees south which is 360 nautical miles from the pole (I think). This is closer to the pole than I am to halley which is at 75 degrees south. It is also probably the farthest south I shall every go. I just wish my head wasn't hurting and that I wasn't missing out on the fun that everyone else was probably having on a sunday.

Leaving Halley for A84, airborne for the first time. Posted by Picasa

The plane was a twin otter. A twin turbo prop about 30 years old. They don't make these planes anymore and they are really tough. They travel at about 120 knots and it took us more that 4 hours to reach A84. It such a long way that we took fuel in the back on the outward journey. Because the planes are so good and that they don't make them anymore they rebuild them when they crash. In fact Victor-Bravo-Bravo, the one that I was in had been flipped and was totally burnt out a few years ago, I will try to find some pictures to post. At the wheel was Ian.

Ian the pilot at the controls. Posted by Picasa

On the way there, I slept most of the way in the back. We arrived and it was a beautiful day. The outside temperature was -16 degrees and there was 20 knot wind. I quickly did my job, which was to service the LPM and LPR that was there. The LPM or Low Powered Magnetometer is shown below. Essentially is measures the changes in the magnetic field.

Me servicing the LPM at A84, you can just see the plane in the distance. Posted by Picasa

This is important because the sun and earth interact and the suns magnetic field wobbles, this in turn affects the earths magnetic field and sometimes results in aurora. Other times it causes satelites to fail. If anyone has watched "The Core" they will know how important the earth's magnetic field is. The LPRs are Low Powered Riometers, these look at background radio noise (from distant galaxies) and uses this signal (which is affected by the atmosphere) and satelite data (which isn't) to work out what is happening in the atmosphere. I carried out the servicing which is essentially just to swap the loggers, thereby getting last years data and the hardware, and putting in brand new stuff. I did this with DJ one of my bosses. After that we helped Jacko the mast erector demolish a 15m mast. We then spent another hour digging up rubbish from the site (old equipment) and loaded the plane up to the gunnels. I then got to be co-pilot on the way back.

I got to fly the plane for about one hour and a half. There are very few features on the Antarctic plateau which makes flying difficult as you don't know where to aim. You do have a compass and GPS though. One of the really amazing things are the mountains. We saw both the Therons (named after the ship that dropped in the wintering forward team) and the Shackletons (both ranges named by Vivian Fuchs in the great transantarctic expedition (Fuchs and Hillary)). I know you won't understand this and I hardly do but it is amazing to see the ground. All we get to see here is snow and ice and anything that is not white is amazing.

The Shackletons poking their heads above the surface. Posted by Picasa

We aslo got amazing views of the ice shelf that we live on and from the plane I can understand why is weak and threatening to break up.

The Brunt ice shelf with strange wobbly streaks of stato cumulus, code 5 apparently according to Frances. Posted by Picasa

Halley base as we approach finals. The bottom of all the buildings are in fog. The time is 15 mins past midnight and Ian plonked us back on the ground very smoothly. Posted by Picasa

Having left at about 11am and returned at 12.15 in the morning on my day off it was tiring but fun. I didn't even get a day back although I was allowed a lie in. The weather has also got very good so I have taken every opportunity to go skijouring. I have also been kiting, just learning how to control a 9.5 sq m traction kite. When I get good enough at kiting and snow boarding I will combine the two.

Skijouring. Posted by Picasa
Oh yeah a plane arrived from Rothera and on it there was post. I got a letter from Rachel, which makes her the bestest person in the world. Everyone else is encouraged to write to me otherwise I won't write to them. You can find the address here.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Shelf ice - Snow - Skijouring - Sex

So another week has started and its still all go down here on the Brunt ice shelf. I should remind people who email me to see if I have made landfall, that in fact Halley is on an Ice shelf. This means that there is actually sea below the ice (approx 200m thick). The whole ice shelf is sliding off the continent and the base is moving at about 500m a year northwards and is predicted to break off in the next 5-10 years. The snow is also accumulating which means that the buildings are build on legs that have to be jacked up every year. The accumulation of snow is slightly more complicated in that if you put a great big building on the surface you get a wind tail. That is just behind the building you dump snow which results in the formation of a small hill.

Underneath the building you get less snow and you get a wind scoop (misnomer). This results in the legs of a building being forced in as the snow builds up on either side. So not only do the building get jacked, but occassionally they have to cut the leg of at snow level and straighten it out and weld it back. This all takes time and can't be done if the wind is too high.

After the last entry (friday) it started to snow and the wind increased. This has been both good and bad. It is bad because vital work can't be done. Oh yeah we work our 11 hour day on saturdays as well (have I said that before?). So saturday wasn't amazingly productive for most people and for me it was just slightly trickier to walk to the Piggot platform and the AIS radar.

All the snow was good however for skijouring. This involves getting some normal skis as opposed to x-country skis and a very fast skidoo. You then get a bit of rope and get the someone to drive the skidoo around very fast. So on sunday (our only day off) I went skijouring. This was after a samba practice where we started to learn some new tunes. The skijouring is pretty amazing and really good fun. I used some ski-mountaineering skis and we (Andy, Kirsty and I) got hold of the vehicle mechanics skidoo. This was a polaris which I think is capable of about 65 mph but I couldn't tell because the speedo was broken. Anyway the mechanics also made a jump and it was so much fun Kirsty and I decided to stay out and miss dinner because of this. I got pretty good by the end and could ski alongside the skidoo and take the jump without falling over. When you did fall over, and I did a few times you just land in wonderful powder. I will definetly do this whenever the weather is better.

Apart from that there has not been too much excitement. This week I am on melt-tank duty in the mornings. The melt-tank does what it says. It melts the snow (clean snow from a clean snow area) which we then eat and wash in etc... This has to be filled up in the morning and evening. I am on the morning team which consists of Brian, Bob, Jeff and me and it took us about 20 mins this morning to dig enough snow. If you look at the last entry you can see the photo I took from the melt tank looking up. The melt tank originally was built on the surface but was allowed to bury under the accumulated snow. Now the tank is about 30m below the surface. So snow has to be shovelled down a chute into the tank. This chute can get blocked easily so when you have dunk snow in you have to listen very carefully to make sure that it isn't blocked. There is a distinctive double bounce (there's a kink in the chute) and splash. When the tank is full a red light comes on to tell the shovellers to stop.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Arrival at Halley - Day off - X-country Skiing - Alex breaks his leg Continued.

Proof that I have finally arrived. The Laws Building is in the background. There are also masts behind me which are for the HF radio which is used for communications with field parties. Posted by Picasa

Once again, I have to appologise for not updating the blog earlier. I should explain that I didn't update the blog after I arrived since I was a bit tired from doing 12 hr shifts. Now we are only working from 8am to 7pm which is nearly as bad. The work is also quite physical and just moving around in the ice/snow is difficult. We do have skidoos for when we have to carry stuff but the base is actually quite small and it is usually less than a ten minute walk anywhere.

As I explained earlier. The base has this sort of tardis thingy going on. Its fairly large on the inside but from the outside it looks tiny. Because of the flatness of the ice you can see the base from miles away (see last entry) and from a distance the base looks pretty big. Howevery when you get closer it becomes smaller. So when we finally arrived at the base, my immediate thoughts were that the place looked a bit industrial and the accomodation reminded me of a youth hostel. I also found out that I had drawn the short straw and been given the room with Dan the chippie from last year, who is well known as the loudest snorer. I mean you can hear this guy from miles away and the whole bed shakes. Everyone I met on the base tried to show me to what they thought was a spare room (it was actually taken by Nicky the Chef- {begin rant} which means that there are three girls in single rooms - I mean what gives them the right to privacy bla bla $%£& them damn them to klfds {end rant}) for me to sleep in. As it turns out I have got hold of some amazing ear plugs and can sleep really well - the guy next door can't and is having trouble because of Dan's snoring.

Another view of the base. Photo taken from about 500m away from the Laws at Wonky caboose close to where we camped out for co-pilot training As you can see everything is now very small and close together. Posted by Picasa

After a day off after relief we had the weekend and new year. On the day off, I slept in for a while and then tried to go x-country skiing. This is a lot harder than you think because the skis are thinner than normal, have very little in the way of an edge so you end up sliding laterally and are not clipped in at the heel so you have to balence on the balls of you feet. I went around the perimeter (5km) and only fell over twice, once right in front of everyone. I also put my head around the door of my new office.

The office on the Piggot platform. Its pretty normal. My desk is the one of the left. The white thing on the left of the computer is a light box, that is used in winter to give us an endorphin kick and stop SAD. Posted by Picasa

The next day I did very similar things and went around the perimeter again on the x-country skis this time only falling over once but this time a bit worse than before. It was new year but it felt very difficult. At about 9pm local time when it was turning 12 in the UK there was a massive queue for the two outside phone lines so for the first time in many years I didn't phone anyone. To celebrate here we had a curry night and then ended up playing in the Salsa band in front of everyone which was surprisingly well received considering the amount of noise we made (the building nearly fell apart and an air vent fell off the roof and hit the Kev the old chef).

The day after new year, I went skiing again, this time with Kirsty. We got about half way around the perimeter before I remembered that there was a football match going on. This was on a specially prepared groomed snow pitch. As we arrived at the base to remove our skis we noticed Vicky the doc getting ready to go out. She had been called to the pitch as someone was injured. By the time we got to the pitch Alex was being transported back to the Laws Building on the back of a skidoo. It turns out that he has broken his ankle and will be in a plaster and out of action for 6 weeks.

Alex and I do a bit of team bonding. This was on Signy about a month ago. Posted by Picasa

As you can see a normal healthy person. I get to drive him around on a skidoo to take him between the platforms. The broken ankle thing is really annoying for Alex as he was supposed to go out to one of the automatic logging stations further south. So he misses out on co-pilot training, getting a flight closer to the pole and seeing antarctica from the air. Very annoying.

Alex just before Vicky the Doc changes his first plaster. Posted by Picasa

Which brings me neatly to Co-pilot training. When you get flown around you have to do co-pilot training. This is because the weather here is so variable and although you might be able to take off and reach you destination you might not be able to return. If this happens you have to know how to pitch a tent and live out on the snow. You always carry 20 days of food for everyone in case you get stuck. Last year Bryn (the old AIS engineer (my job)) got stuck out for 11 days. Your other job as co-pilot might be to fly the plane for a while when the pilot is having a rest, oh and you have to give a weather report back to base. We (the electronics chaps) are on the top of the list for flights so had our co-pilot training first.

Chris and I get ready for bed. As you can see the tent door is firmly open. The tin shack in the background is Wonky caboose which has a few beds inside. You can use this when you feel like getting away from the base. Posted by Picasa

Bryn (the guy I am taking over from) working on one of the AIS receiver pre-amplifiers. In the background you can see the two 45 m masts that hold the log periodic transmitting antenna. Posted by Picasa

Looking up from the bottom of the Melt-Tank access shaft. the little square is the trap-door onto the surface. Posted by Picasa