Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Sundown, The Tunnels and Pee Funnels

As usual the blogging process for me is long. I think I posted these photos three weeks ago and I have only just got around to writing about it. In the last entry I described my trip to Windy caboose and I mentioned that the sun was leaving us, well the weekend after the trip to windy the base officially celebrated sundown. Sundown is the day that the sun officially sets and does not rise again until sun-up (sometime in August). You can't predict exactly when sundown or sun-up will be although you can calculate it pretty well. The problem is that atmospheric conditions lead to mirages and then you can sometimes see the sun when it has already set. The mirages are pretty cool and once or twice I have been skiing and the sun is setting and then it seems to rise again (because of the miraging) and then it sets again. There was a small debate as to when sundown actually was, its more complicated when you realise that we are on a moving ice-shelf (moving farther north all the time). In the end we found a definition here and we used a programme that used to generate sunset and sunrise times for one of the optical experiments to calculate the exact day (we actually used decided to say the sun was set when it was 1 degree below the horizon and got an accurate GPS reading of our current position). Having calculated the exact day when the sun was likely to have set for the last time it was decided that we would have the flag lowering on the closest sunday.

Liz the chippy lowers the flag at the sundown ceremony. Liz is oldest person on base and traditionally is the person who lowers the flag. The youngest person (Kirsty) gets to put the new flag back up in August. Our names were put into a hat to see who gets to keep the flag and it turned out to be Simon the GA who got it. Posted by Picasa

The rest of the base stand around while Liz gets the knots on the flag undone. Posted by Picasa

Later in the evening we have the BBQ. This is officially the coldest barbie I have ever been to. It was freezing. Posted by Picasa

It was a pretty chilly day that day. I remember because I went kite-skiing just before the flag lowering ceremony and had to wear bear paw mittens. I've also just had a quick look at the temperature data for that day and we were enjoying the BBQ in about -36 degrees C. Its a bit mad to have a BBQ in those temperatures but surprisingly the food was well cooked and tasted lovely.

Its a bit odd now that we never see the sun, its not that we have total darkness and everyday around midday it gets light in the north. On really cloudy days you can hardly see anything but on clear days you get a lovely red glow that grows slightly stronger, peaking around 1:30pm before it slowly gets darker again. The moonlight is pretty impressive as well when it is full and is more than enough to go skiing with.

On the work front, everything seems to be calming down and I have started to get to grips with all the bits and bobs of my job. One of the great things about this job is the varied jobs that you have to do. One of which was to help the genny mech Bob down in the tunnels again. We have two sets of tunnels here at Halley. One set, the Laws tunnels, joins the main Laws platform to the Simpson platform, the other, the Piggott tunnels just feed cables out from underneath the Piggott. In the Laws tunnels there is the Melt tank (this is just a big tank of warm water that we shovel snow into in order to make more water). The melt tank is actually heated using a heat exchanger and the exhaust gasses from the generators on the Laws platform. The tunnels aslo contain the flubbers (big rubber bags) which hold all the avtur (the same as Jet A1 which doesn't freeze at low temperature) that the generators run on. Around and under the flubbers are bunds, big tarpaulin pools which are meant to catch any spills that might happen. We were just securing the bunds a bit better. Whenever I go down there its just amazing how crazy it can be, you get amazing ice crystals. The best one I think is on a side tunnel between the melt tank and the main tunnels just under one of the lights, and must form because of the warmth of the melt tank and the light.

My face distorted through the best icicle in the laws tunnels. Posted by Picasa

Bob strokes the icicle. How on earth did such a clear phallic ice crystal form? Posted by Picasa

For information about the Halley building see hereThe force of the ice is also pretty amazing and in some of the older sections of tunnel the armco tunnels are getting crushed. In some places the steel is being ripped apart. Of course we monitor the deformations and temperatures all the time to make sure they don't get dangerous. You might also notice that we are wearing safety harnesses. On some of the access shafts you could potentially fall over 25m down so we clip onto runners that run a steel cable. There is also an emergency winch on the surface that can be used to winch people up, but it is manual and it wouldn't be nice to do if it was particularly cold.

The force of the ice is impressive. Here it has crushed a massive wooden beam as though it was a match stick. Posted by Picasa

The tunnel between the laws and the simpson is really long (about 290m) long. The heating pipes for the simpson run to and from the laws and apparently are really efficient only losing about 8 degrees on the journey. Posted by Picasa

So thats what has been happening. In fact since I posted these photos we've had a few more parties and we are really leading up to mid-winter which is on the 21st of June. Its not long now and then the days will get lighter and lighter and before we know it it will be summer again. At mid-winter there is a big celebration on par with christmas back at home. One of the main things to do before then is build our mid winter presents. I can tell you now that I haven't made much progress so I better get down to building.

One of the things I was going to mention was the antarctic treaty this was a treaty signed by all the countries that had interests in the antarctic, it basically sets the antarctic aside as a place for scientific studys that can't be exploited by mining etc... It also says stuff like, no persons in a military capacity allowed, no foreign (to antarctica) animals allowed (this is why there are no Dogs anymore) and finally it tell you what you are allowed to leave behind. Basically you are not allowed to leave anything behind, so if you build something down here you have to remove it that is unless it is buried. All waste has to be removed except human waste. On the main platform our waste gets flushed and dumped into the ice and forms a big onion under the building. On the other platforms they found that the loos blocked up too much because they weren't used enough. So they found a solution.

The Piggott toilet. Note the chimney, this is a rocket bog, tradename "Incinolet", and it turns all your waste into ash and gas. We also have the urinal which is just discharged into an "onion" under the ice. Posted by Picasa

Anyway I just thought you might be interested. Another thing I have been doing slowly when I have time is to build my sno-blizzard. Hopefully I will have it running around outside soon and will have some photos of it.

Running in the Sno Blizzard. How cool is this radio controlled vehicle with its 11cc engine. It needs 10 tanks of fuel to run in and I'm on tank number 8 now. Posted by Picasa
Someone requested a picture of a pee funnel, these are used by the ladies on base on winter trips or trips to cabooses since its too cold outside to expose yourself for too long. Anyway here it is.

Errgh!! As requested a picture of a pee funnel. This seriously grossed me out when I took it. I think the Doc also thinks I am a bit wierd for asking to take a photo of one. Posted by Picasa

Our health is pretty good. I mean we were all given thorough medicals before we came down and then inoculated against every known disease because we might pick up on the way down. We also have a doctor, Vicki, to look after 16 of us I think that is a pretty good ratio. Most of the time she has little to do since we don't injure ourselves much. She also looks after the waste management with help from the winter BC. She is also carrying out a study into the use of light boxes. We have these light boxes (see picture half way down this entry) which are supposed to help us synchronise our circadian rythms and combat SAD.

The actiwatch. This measures our activity and the light that we are exposed to. Posted by Picasa

She uses these actiwatches, pee samples every month, sleep diaries and questionnaires she is trying to work out whether white or blue light bulbs are better for us. In the next entry I will hopefully have some more details about this.

I have also noticed that my blog has become a blog of note on the blogger front page which is cool. There seem to be a lot of questions about stuff and hopefully I will answer them in the next entry. Hoepfully that will be soon.

Windy Weekend and Final Sun-pillars

I don't really want to appologise again for taking so long writing this entry, but once again I find myself doing so. Its been about two weeks since I posted the photos from this little trip and it took me two weeks to post the photos. It takes me ages to post and I think it is taking longer and longer maybe its the lack of light. We also have just come out of a comms black out so we haven't had the internet for three days. There was nothing wrong with the system here, but they were upgrading some equipment in Cambridge back in the UK. Our comms is routed through a satelite and then connected to the world in Cambridge. If anything happens there then we are affected too although we still have the iridium phones and HF radio. Anyway time to tell you what it was like at Windy.

Windy caboose is a very small caravan on skis about 30 km to the north-west (I think) close to the sea at Windy Creek. Its a place where you can go for the weekend and get off base. It does involve a load of organising though as you have to travel with enough equipment to keep you alive for 20 days if you get stuck on the way (thats a half unit see halfway down here for what a half unit is). Kirsty and I decided to try and go ages and ages ago but only got the opportunity that weekend. So on the thursday we started to get everything together. First of all we had to dig out a skidoo that was completely buried and then start it, and drive it into the garage where it defrosted over night. The second skidoo was already snow free and being stored in a container on the container line. All we had to do with that one was get it out on the next morning. Thursday night was also the night to get all the food together and pack our personal stuff. Friday arrived and the first bit of the morning was spent getting everything together and getting the sledges and skidoos to the laws building. The last few items included our P-bags (massive bags of bedding including a sheep skin, thermo rest, insulating mat, a really warm sleeping bag, a fluffy sleeping bag liner a canvass sleeping bag outer and an emergency two man bivvy bag) and rescue sacks (these have the ropes and climbing equipment for rescues, wandering about in crevassed areas, and abseiling down to the sea ice etc...). At about 11 am we were just about ready and we went to back to check on the scientific equipment on our platforms. We had lunch and then packed the sledges. Packing takes ages and we only got going at about 3pm this was only one hour late. It was important to leave early because sundown was officially at 4.30 in the afternoon.

Bob shot of Kirsty and I before we set off for Windy caboose. Posted by Picasa

So we set off at a good pace with me leading, the temperature was about -30 degrees centigrade and dropping and driving in these temperatures is pretty bad. We were driving Alpine 2 skidoos made by Bombardier and the most comfortable way to ride them was to kneel on the seat or just stand up, unfortunately this means you are more exposed to the wind and get tired. Luckily the grips and thumb throttle are heated so your hands don't completely fall off. The snow was lovely and fluffy so it wasn't too bumpy but it slowed down the sledges.

We stopped when we were nearly at the caboose to take a few pictures. The dots on the left of the skidoo are drums, as the whole route to Windy is along a drum line. The big dot straight ahead of the skidoo is the caboose itself. My skidoo is pulling the half-unit Nansen sledge. Posted by Picasa

As you can see we were driving Alpine 2 skidoos which have a bad reputation. Kirsty was pulling a box sledge with all our stuff in with her skidoo. These skidoos were not as comfortable or as fast as the Alpine 3 skidoos we used on the winter trips but they did the job and started easily below -30 degree C. Posted by Picasa

We got to the caboose and immediately lit the "Refleks" stove (this is an amazing stove that runs on paraffin) which heats the caboose very efficiently. We then unpacked the sledges and tarped up the doos, this took another hour and by this time is was very cold and dark. We lit the tilley and primus and proceeded to cook dinner. Getting the stoves going at these temperatures is difficult as the meths which you use to heat preheat doesn't really want to light. Once the caboose started warming up it was easy. I think the first night we ate soup followed by instant "man food", I had bean cassarole and kirsty had her usual chill con carne. The man food rehydrated food is pretty good. We went to sleep early and slept for hours, amazing. Once the stove had heated up the caboose we had to turn it right down to pilot otherwise we would have been roasted, even then you had to occasionally open the door to let in the cold and cool the place down. The loo at the caboose is a red flag to the west of the caboose (the prevailing wind here is from the east). That night it was fantastic you could just see a faint aurora to the south and you could also hear this amazing cackling sound. Like geese or some alien birds. It very unnerving whilst you are trying to have a pee without getting too much too cold.

The next day we woke up at about 11 in the morning, there was the usual arguement as to who should get up and light the stoves and get some hot water going. We had a leisurely lunch and then noticed it was getting late. We went out and got the rescue sacks out and got the ropes and harnesses so that we could rope up and get a look at the penguins.

So we roped up as an alpine pair for the first time on our own. Normally we have someone who knows what they are doing telling us what to do. Kirsty stands beside the caboose all ready to head out. Posted by Picasa

Having roped up, Kirsty was still pretty scared of forgetting what to do if I fell in a crevass (to be honest I was a little bit worried about her as well) so we practiced the z-pulley rescue. This involves stopping the person falling, putting in some snow stakes and constucting a pulley system from four pulleys and your jumars so that you can easily haul them out of a crevass. Once we had done this we set off towards the coast.

With the sun setting we set out off drum line following a flagged line towards the wierd cackling sound towards the coast. Posted by Picasa

After a while we reach the cliff edge. The sea-ice has formed properly and we can see the source of the sound. A massive brown mass of penguins. Posted by Picasa

Zooming in a bit you can start to see the different huddles that have formed. Some loners still stand about on their own. Posted by Picasa

Zooming right in. Its pretty amazing to see this and something you only get to experience by wintering at somewhere like Halley. Posted by Picasa

It is normally possible to abseil down to the sea ice and get right up the penguins. Apparently you don't have to try to get close to them, all you do is stay still and they waddle up to you because they are very curious. We couldn't do this because the our field guide Simon hadn't yet checked the old abseil point or the sea-ice. Hopefully after sun-up we will get another trip to windy and will see the baby emperor penguins close up. Of course once you have abseiled down to the sea-ice you have to climb back up, which might be tricky.

As you can see it wasn't the clearest day with poor visability, the sun was also disappearing fast so we reluctantly returned. It was also really cold and when we got back to Halley we found out that it had reached about -37 degrees that afternoon.

Who needs mascara. After the trip to penguins my eyelashes were like this. Posted by Picasa

That evening after deroping and enjoying another rehydrated meal. We watched "The day after tomorrow" on my laptop.

We also experimented with baking in the caboose. We took croissant mixture with us and made croissants. We then made an oven out of two pots and some bits of metal and a lid. It took about 20 mins to bake two croissants on the primus. Absolutely fantastic straight away with butter and golden syrup. Yum. Posted by Picasa

The next morning it was really cold inside the caboose. The refleks had run out of fuel during the night and it was horrible. I am sorry to say but I was too much of a girl to get out of bed. Kirsty actually got out, lit the stoves and refueled the refleks while I cowered in bed. We had a good breakfast/lunch of left over croissants and sausages. It was a fantastically clear day and we had hoped to get back to the penguins but we quickly realised that we wouldn't have time. Everything in Antarctica takes ages. I then unwrapped the doos, started them up which was a lot easier than expected (we had heard some horror stories about the year before when they couldn't start some of the doos miles from home and had to be rescued). I then went on a little trip to retreive some jerry cans of paraffin a few miles back towards Halley. Kirsty was packing up the caboose. I then refuelled the doos (I had to mix in 2 stroke oil into jerrys of neat petrol except at below -30 the oil was like toothpaste) and we packed up the sledges. By 3pm (only two hours late) we were ready to leave, sun down that day was predicted to be at 3:45pm so it was important to be getting back with sunlight. We drove back faster than we had travelled out. The beautiful weather also produced some crazy mirages as we travelled back. Once we were back on base we had to put everything back and so we didn't really stop unloading, refueling etc... until 6:30 and we joined the rest of the base for dinner.

The next weekend was "sundown", this is when the sun officially sets and doesn't rise the next day or the day after or the day after, in fact it next rises around August the 10th. It still gets light its just that you don't see the sun. You get a sort of dawn that turns immediately into a dusk around lunchtime. The sun was disappearing faster for the next week so every opportunity was taken to get out and about x-country skiing or kiting. You also appreciate the sun and the lovely sunset colours you get.

The sun is disappearing, this was taken at about 3pm. Kirsty demonstrates how to x country ski. Rime deposited on the masts and stays makes them stand out. Posted by Picasa

Sun pillar taken from the Piggott platform. Liz the chippy drags a polk sledge and bumps into Dave the Comms manager, as he comes from the tunnels, in the foreground. The buildings from left to right are: the Laws building, Bart the balloon launching hut and on the right the Simpson platform. Posted by Picasa