Monday, August 14, 2006

Penguin Trip - Sun Up - Back on Nights

So as promised here are some pictures taken on my first penguin trip. This is one of the unique things that you get to see when you overwinter at Halley. The penguins in question are Emperor Penguins and there is a colony of them on the sea-ice at Windy cove. Windy Cove is approximately 20 km North West of Halley apparently the penguins like it because they come here every year when the sea-ice forms in March. Kirsty and I visited them at the end of April just before sun down (click here for blog entry) and we walked along the ice-shelf and saw the colony forming. There were all these penguins arriving on their belies and it was an awesome, if somewhat cold weekend.

So every year as it gets close to sun up you start to get a lot more light and the temperatures increase. At this point the Simon the GA gets all excited and starts to think about penguin trips. For these penguin trips you have to basically abseil down the ice cliff and onto the sea-ice. Once you have chilled out with these crazy animals you have to then jumar back up. You also have to be careful when walking on the sea-ice because if the wind changes it can break up easily. So Simon has been got us practicing our abseiling, jumaring and gave us a talk about how to survive on the sea-ice. He then had us practicing hauling ourselves out of an imaginary crack with an ice pick or warthogs and finally had us throwing hand lines to each other if the worst did happen and someone went through.

A week before sun up Simon and Andy (Metbabe) went out on skidoos to check out the cabooses at Creek 2 and Windy, and the access down to the sea-ice at Windy. It was a really cold clear day. So there was excellent visibility but it was freezing. At the time I was raising more turnbuckles on the Comms masts with Dave, the Comms Manager. At the time Simon had radioed base at 2pm to say that he and Andy were going down on to the sea-ice and that he would call back at 4pm when they got off the ice. We heard nothing. At 5pm John, the Base Commander, got concerned and started to get ready to a Search And Rescue (SAR). The plan was for Anto, the Vehicle Mech, and I were going to get our equipment and head out in a snocat to find out what had happened. It was sort of exciting to be on a SAR but at the same time a bit scary that something had happened. In the end, just before we were about to leave (6pm) we saw lights on the horizon. It took them an hour for them to arrive but we knew they were ok so we stood down the SAR. It turns out it was so cold that all the radio batteries failed. The GPS units got so cold that they didn't work. They tried to light the stoves in the caboose but couldn't get the paraffin to light. They decided to get back to base. Apart from that they had a successful trip and had found out that there was easy access to the sea-ice.

A few days later the first group of sightseers went down onto the sea ice and came back with fantastic tales about how difficult it was to get down and up and how amazing the birds were. A couple of days later the next group went down to see the penguins, this group came back with even taller tales of giant cracks in the ice and immense ice climbs. The last group was mine. Like on the winter trips you can all just leave base when you want. People with similar jobs have to cover each other and so can't leave the base at the same time.

So we got our equipment together (P-bags etc... for camping out) and loaded everything onto a sledge and jumped into the snocat. In my group were, Kirsty, Bob, Simon, Andy and Me. It took just over an hour to get there along the familiar drum line and windy caboose, with Bob driving (it was his birthday). We woke up, jumped out and immediately got into our harnesses and roped up as an alpine five and made our way along the ice shelf to the abseil point.

Our view of the Penguin Colony from the abseil point. This was at about 12 GMT two days before the official sun up (local noon is at 13:45 GMT) and you can already see that we have quite a bit of light. Posted by Picasa

It was pretty cold just getting here and once we got here we stood around and set up the equipment to get down to the ice.

Setting up our abseil anchors. You just get two stakes and push them into the snow. Its amazing how strong the anchors are and then at the end of the day you just bend down and pull them out. Posted by Picasa

You then have to stand around and freeze even more while each person clips onto the rope and abseils down. Really cold.

Kirsty starts her decent onto the sea ice. We are abseiling on a dynamic (stretchy) rope with no safety line. In order to make it safe we abseil with a french prussic below the abseil device so if you let go of the rope the prussic will catch you. Posted by Picasa

As Bob sets up for the abseil, Simon swings his arms around to keep warm. It was a cold day. Apart from the cold there are a lot of dangers going onto the sea ice. In the background you can see the ice-shelf, and the sea ice. Just at the bottom of the ice-shelf where it joins the sea ice there is a tide crack, this is caused by the differential movement of the two sheets of ice. The sea ice also can be blown around and breaks up easily. Its exciting going on it. Posted by Picasa

Finally its your turn and you realise why everyone seemed to take so long getting going. Because your hands are frozen its really difficult to get the figure of eight on the rope properly and you fingers have no feeling. Once you get going its wonderful and once you are leaning back on the rope you know everythings going to be ok. The abseil point was chosen as there was a nice bank of snow that had formed against the ice shelf. The only difficult bit was the lip at the top. Once you get on to the sea-ice proper you have to still go quite a distance to make sure that you have passed any dangerous tide cracks. You then unclip from the rope so that the next person can get down. Its amazing how much warmer it is once you are down on the sea ice.

Simon makes his way down the ice-shelf as you can see Simon our guide chose the easiest slope to get up and down to the sea ice. Posted by Picasa

Once everyone was down we made our way to the colony itself. This is about 500m from the abseil point. On the sea ice you don't rope up but rather stick close together and have easy access to throw lines. If you actually went through it would be absolutely freezing so we also carried a whole rucksack full of spare clothes.

As we got closer to the colony we passed a few cracks in the ice that had refrozen but weren't that dangerous, Simon was checking them with his bog chisel. We got the colony itself and after a briefing from Simon just wandered about taking photos. My camera decided to take a few photos and then packed up. This must have been from the cold. Later it suddenly started working again, really odd. Anyway this is one of the reasons I came to Halley and I was finally here among the craziest creatures on the planet.

The penguins doing their stuff on the sea ice. The snow underfoot is browny-yellowy and is stained with Penguin guano. Posted by Picasa

The penguins are very curious and will come to within arms length and then stop. At the beginning it seemed that they really liked Bob. Posted by Picasa

Most of these emperors are males and haven't eaten for 3 months. They weigh about 20kg now and have lost about 10kg since the beginning of winter. To me they look extremely healthy. Most of the chicks have hatched but are hiding on their fathers legs. The females are starting to arrive and they swap roles so that the fathers can go and get some food. Posted by Picasa

A few more curious chaps. The more curious ones are usually the males that didn't find mates or who discarded eggs (we saw a few of these). Posted by Picasa

After about an hour we started to get cold and the temperature started to drop, so we decided to head back. Essentially we just followed the reverse procedure.

Me just before I climbed back up to the ice-shelf. The moustache keeps you warm but it gets frozen and then sticks to your balaclava. Photo courtesy of Kirsty. Posted by Picasa

Instead of abseiling, we had to Jumar back up. In fact the slope wasn't that steep so you could just kick your boots hard into the snow and walk up. The jumar was just to prevent you falling back down if you did fall. Simon went up first and then Bob and I went up. We then roped up and headed straight to the snocat in order to get it heated up. We loaded up and collapsed back in the vehicle. We then tried to eat frozen sandwiches washed down with warm ribena. All in all a pretty amazing trip. Hopefully I will get to go on a some more and hopefully will see some chicks.
The last thing we did see before we left windy caboose was a faintly miraged sun. This was two days before the official sun up date.

Two days later we had our official sun up ceremony, this was to greet the returning sun. Having not seen the sun for 100 days, its something we have been looking forward to.

Everyone standing around watching the Sun-up flag raising ceremony. Posted by Picasa

Kirsty being the youngest on base raised the flag. She did a very good job. Posted by Picasa

Kirsty ties off the flag and there it shall remain until next sundown. Posted by Picasa

Having done the job so well the local media (John the WBC) flock to get Kirsty's story. Posted by Picasa

The Piggott platform just after the sun up ceremony. Posted by Picasa

The Laws building looks better with the flag flying. Posted by Picasa

As you can see from the picture it was a fairly overcast day with a lot of cloud in the north so we didn't actually get to see the sun on that day. I also went on nights immediately after the sun up day so I didn't get to see the sun for another week.

Nights is fine. There seems to be more and more interesting cooking going on during nights. So far I seem to be cooking new cakes every night. Donuts, croissants and bread which are all easier than I originally thought. I've also been more efficient in my night cleaning so I've had more time to watch the films in the Halley video library.

Hopefully I will get some photos of the sun in my next entry.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Cabaret, Super Hero night, Still alive after Midwinter -its also getting lighter - AIS explanation

The rest of midwinter was just as tiring as the first half but instead of making presents there was frantic preparations for cabaret night and the photo competition.

The photo competition run by Anto over midwinter. Really amazing photos, which took ages to vote for. Posted by Picasa

The photo competition was hotly contested there were five categories: People, Environment, Wildlife, Abstract and Bob (pictures people had taken of themselves). Everyone entered at least one photo and most people entered one for every category. Since we have all done pretty much the same things we all had very similar photos so judging was harder than expected. I got second prize in the people competition with a picture of Jacko the RAF mast officer taken at the top of the 45 m masts. All the photos were great and all of them are going to be made into a collage.

The next big event was the cabaret. As usual with these sorts of things there are the people who can play instruments and sing and do everything and then there are the rest of us who just have to make fools of ourselves. Most acts were put together on the last day but the seemed to work.
It was a great night and inspired the formation of the Halley band which now meets on friday evenings (because all other evenings are taken up with other things).

One of the highlights of the cabaret was Liz cutting Andy in half. Liz couldn't help laughing hysterically the whole time which just so funny. Posted by Picasa

Bob, Liz and Chris start the meaning of life song just before Brian walks in. Really really good. Posted by Picasa

The Samba band runs through its paces, so much fun. Posted by Picasa

The cabaret was just about the last thing that happened at midwinter and I think most people were fairly glad to get back to the normal routine of work after a week of lazing about and getting fat, you have to draw parallels with christmas again. Apparently the danger after midwinter is that you get depressed because its still dark and you don't have anything to look forward to for a month or two. I didn't find this at all mainly because I was incredibly busy. I know that I have kept on saying that I would have more time after midwinter to keep the blog up-to-date and that I would have more time to do my stuff but that doesn't seem to have happened.

One thing I mentioned last time was the fact that we have had unusually high snow accumulation this year (maybe a consequence of global warming). This has mean that we have had to raise equipment out of the snow. I have more to do than most people because I am the winter mast officer which means I am in charge of making sure all the masts are nice and straight and not over tensioned etc... One of the jobs that I have spent a lot of time doing is raising turnbuckles. Turnbuckles are the attachments that have a right handed thread at one end and a left handed thread a the other and are used to tension stays. I have done quite a lot of this with Dave the Comm's manager since the Comms masts seem to be buried more and he has catalogued the process in his blog here. I like to think that he was taking photos while I was doing all the work but thats not true. I have probably raised about 30 stays so far and have about 10 more to do. My main responsibility, the AIS radar, has been behaving itself so I have started some winter projects. These are some programming to extend the AIS radar's range and some hardware design to make a cloudmonitor. It keeps me busy when the weather isn't very nice outside.

After two weeks of recovering from midwinter and digging in the snow we had a Super Hero's night. We preceeded this by watching the Incredibles in the afternoon.

Halley super heros. from left to right: Dave as Super Calf, Brian as Super Mario, Vicky as Electra, Nicola as Popeye, Kirsty as Haribo Girl, Fran as Caslab Girl, Liz as Super Gash, Mark as the Incredible Hulk, Alex as Batman, Andy as Bicycle Repair Man, John as Zorro, Simon as Thor. In the front we have Chris as Spider Man, Bob as Fat Man and me tucked in behind Chris as Kite Boy (special power making lots of wind). Posted by Picasa

Mark was a bit too scary, and I think the showers are still a bit green. Posted by Picasa

The night was really good fun. After dinner the main corridor was cleared of dangerous items and a few people had a go at bar-room-bungie. Here you put a harness on and attach a bungie to you back. You then run down the corridor as far as you can until you are suddenly pulled back by the bungie. At this moment you slam you hand down and stick a postit to the ground marking how far you got. This happened a few times until unfortunately the attachment between the bungie and the harness snapped and the bungie flew down the corridor and hit Bob on the leg. Luckily he wasn't too badly hurt but he was in pain. That put a bit of a dampener on the evening but it was still a good night.

The sun is slowly returning as expected after midwinter, so the base is getting ready for the post-winter trips that start at the beginning of September and last 10 days. On this trip we get to choose where we go. We seem to be sticking to the same teams which makes sense. The ones who went first (us) will go first so we had it the warmest last time and this time will have it the coldest. I think we are planning on exploring the rumples a bit. Before those trips we are going to have some penguin trips to the local emporer penguin colony at Windy Cove. Kirsty and I saw them from the top of the cliffs before midwinter here. This time we will be going in larger groups with Simon the GA and will abseil down to the sea-ice and I am told that the penguins come up to within a metre or so of you. It should be awesome. Once we are on the sea ice we have to get off it by jumarring back up. In anticipation of this we have been abseiling and jumarring back up off the Simpson platform.

The light is slowly returning. Sun-up is due on the 10th of August. We have already started kiting again, which was awesome as usual, but I haven't got any photos because I have been too busy kiting. I did get this photo of the memorial (to those who have died at Halley) when I went searching for it after reports that it had disappeared in the snow. The little blip on the left on the horizon is Wonky Caboose. Posted by Picasa

It getting light enough to kite as well, so now half the people on base are watching the wind speed for that perfect wind. Even though it is getting light its still pretty cold. Although it hasn't got below -50 degrees C (it hit about -48 degrees before midwinter) its sometimes below -40. When it started to approach -40 again about a week ago, Kirsty and Vicky ran outside with damp hair and let it freeze with their heads hanging down. That didn't work so well so they go a tub of warmish water and dunked their hair in it and then let it freeze (about 40 seconds) and then stood up.

Kirsty shows off her frozen hair. How cool is that. Photo courtesy of Dave Posted by Picasa

Vicky's wild woman impression. Photo courtesy of Dave Posted by Picasa

Another job we have been doing is helping build a Nansen sledge these are usually made by Snowsled, but we made ours out of spare bits.

Liz, me and Nicola working on the Nansen sledge, in the garage, that the whole base helped build out of spares. Its pretty amazing that we use these sledges made of ash, lashed together with leather and twine. So we had to learn to square lash and fettle all these wooden bits to make a fully working sledge. Photo courtesy of AntoPosted by Picasa

We've also had the return of the aurorae. Now for the science bit well and a bit to explain what I do. You might have gathered that I am the AIS (Advanced Ionospheric Sounder) engineer. The AIS is a radar that bounces low-medium (0.1-30MHz) radio waves of the ionosphere. The ionosphere is a charged region of the atmosphere (between about 100km and 800km up). These ions, charged particles, are created mainly by intense ultra-violet light and at low altitudes would just recombine with an oppositely charged particle. At high altitudes there aren't enought atoms or ions to do this so there is this charged region just sitting there. Radio waves bounce (actually they refract since the charge density changes with altitude) off the ions but the altitude that they do this depends on the frequency of the radio waves. So the AIS in it most basic sounding mode just sends pulse trains up at different frequencies and from this you get a picture of the ionosphere.

What is the point of all this?

Its all to do with space weather and how the Sun interacts with the Earth. The Sun is constantly sending out streams of particles which fly off and hit the Earth, or they would but the Earth's electromagnetic field protects us by deflecting these particles. The magnetic field is itself deflected out behind the earth into a long tail. Occasionally you get a coronal mass ejection where you get a flare on the sun and loads a particles are flung out of the sun. The Earth's electromagnetic field gets hit pretty hard and wobbles. Consequences of this are that satelites get knocked out and I think the North American electricity grid was knocked out by a big flare. Another consequence is that the charged particles get tunnelled by the magnetic field lines and dumped into the polar regions and you get aurora. The ionosphere gets affected by all this. You can see that if the magnetic field is fluctuating then the charged ionosphere is going to move about. The AIS is build here because Halley is near the auroral zone and it is one way of working out how the Sun affects us.

Anyway we had some aurorae. Now auroral activity is linked to the activity of the sun. The activity of the sun can be measured by looking at the number of sun spots on the sun's surface. The sun spots go through an 11 year cycle and from solar maximum to solar minimum and back to maximum. The last solar maximum was in the year 2000 so this year should be a solar minimum year. So we don't expect that many aurora. We have only seen about 3 good ones. The main problem being that you have to have good weather at the same time. There have been quite a few times when we can see on the magnetometers that there is something spectacular going on with the magnetic field but haven't been able to see anything because there is a blow on at the same time. And then there is the moon, incredibly bright to our sun deprived eyes. I could go on ...

It amazing when it is clear.

The Halley sign post, with a faint aurora in the background. Posted by Picasa

A slightly more impressive aurora taken from the Laws looking towards the Piggott. Posted by Picasa

My most recent "hair" picture. I'm trying to take a picture of myself in the same place everyday and will hopefully make a movie of my hair growing. I do look a bit disgusting. Posted by Picasa

Hopefully next entry will be soon and include photos from our first penguin trips down onto the sea-ice.