Science at Halley Research Station

Katie Joy | 18 Dec 2019

We have written several posts about Halley research station, our home-from-home research base for the past two Antarctic field seasons — but what other science is being supported from Halley?

The station, located on the Brunt Ice Shelf at Lat. 75°34’5″S, Long. 25°30’30″W, has been occupied as a British base since 1957. The current version is called Halley VI and, with its futuristic space-station looking red and blue modules, is currently home to about 35 people in the summer who are supporting the station infrastructure and are assisting in the long-term science experiments running out of the station. Currently, because of potential issues surrounding the possible breakup of the Brunt Ice Shelf (see news stories here and here) the station is being operated in summer crew mode, and in the winter (from February onwards) all the staff leave Antarctica and return to the UK.

Current Science projects

Ozone hole monitoring: Measurements made at Halley that led to the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer in the 1980’s, leading to banning of CFC chemicals and international concern about the effects of ozone loss in the stratosphere (middle atmosphere). The equipment that made the discovery is still in use at Halley VI: called a Dobson spectrophotometer, is a device for measuring the amount of different wavelengths of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that reaches the ground (read more here) and used to determine ozone column density above our heads. Antarctica is a great place to make these measurements as there are few atmospheric pollutants which might absorb the specific wavelengths of light being measured. The station has a manual version of the spectrometer (see photo), a separate ozone monitoring station, and also recently has installed a computerised Dobson spectrometer that can run in automated mode through the Antarctic sunset and sunrise around winter when the base is without a crew. This automation has been made possible by the introduction of a micro-turbine energy generator, which ensures that this 60 year experiment can continue to run and collect data to ensure scientists with a continuous record of Antarctic ozone layer variation.

BAS’s James Byrne taking a Dobson solar measurement in the Halley science lab. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Katie attempting to take a Dobson measurement (and thus contributing to a 60 year science experiment!), under careful instruction from James. (NB I have my “doing-science-must-focus-so-I-don’t-screw-it-up” face on). [Credit: James Byrne]

Climate change monitoring, atmospheric and daily weather observations: Understanding how the climate is changing through time is a key science priority for the British Antarctic Survey. Every day the researchers here launch a weather balloon to measure the temperature of the atmospheric column, a record going back over 30 years which suggests that the atmosphere has been warming year on year up to 8 km in height above the ice surface. Scientists also measure the chemistry (trace gases and aerosol) of the Antarctic air using a special clean air sector laboratory (the lab is located in a position where aircraft cannot fly above it and no one can drive a mechanical vehicle like a skidoo in its vicinity — as such people Nordic ski or hike out to visit the site). Other atmospheric monitoring experiments to understand global high altitude wind (gravity wave) propagation, lightning strikes, and high altitude (87 km) temperature measurements all complete a suite of instruments that are setup or are being set up to run automated throughout the Antarctic summer and winter seasons to understand Earth’s atmosphere. In addition to these high altitude and long term climate records, daily weather (temperature, dewpoint, wind speed, cloud coverage, cloud type) is recorded and is also used for helping out logistical planning for aircraft movement around the area.

Space weather observations: Space weather is the term used when energetic particles ejected from the Sun interact with the Earth’s protective magnetic field (known as its magnetosphere). Often this interaction manifests itself as aurora at the northern and southern poles (also known as the southern and northern lights). An all-sky optical camera and, in the future, a new camera system will be able to monitor changes in local aurora conditions at Halley to determine the effects of ionisation in the upper atmosphere. This ionisation can also alter Earth’s magnetic field itself, and a series of magnetometers run at Halley to monitor these changes. Together this knowledge helps to understand the potential electromagnetic risks to orbiting satellites and on Earth electrical-based infrastructure, as well as helping unravel the fundamental science of how the Earth interacts with its space environment.

Brunt Ice Shelf movement: The ice under our feet at Halley is about 150 m thick. The station is slowly drifting towards the Weddell sea as the Ice Shelf propagates off the continent heading in a north-westerly direction. The Brunt Ice Shelf is continually in a cycle of growth and then break-up when large parts of the Ice Shelf edge carve and break off into the sea. At the moment there are two very large cracks opening up to the north (the Hallowe’en crack) and to the west (Chasm 1 crack) of the station. The development of these cracks and the movement of the Brunt Ice Shelf is being carefully monitored using high spatial resolution GPS stations and radar stations that are distributed around several sites on the Brunt. As and when, the Chasm 1 crack finally breaks the Ice Shelf in two, BAS will be a unique position to monitor the carving event and watch how the remaining Brunt Ice Shelf under Halley station responds to the change.

Brunt Ice Shelf showing locations of Halley VI base, Hallowe’en crack and Chasm I crack. [Credit: BAS]

I like to move it, move it…

Katie Joy | 15 Dec 2019

The last few days have been quite busy for everyone in the team with some key field movements happening.

On Friday (13th) Romain and fieldguide Taff were input to the last campsite we visited earlier in January 2019, and where our depot site was located. More from them in the next blog post… Their mission was to dig up the depot, get all the skidoos working, and start sending loads over to Geoff, Wouter and fieldguide Rob at the new camp site.

Geoff, Wouter and Rob meanwhile were sitting pretty at the Outer Recovery site waiting for the first loads of inputs to be delivered. Yesterday, two skidoos, sledges and rescue kits were delivered in by Twin Otter pilots Mark and Dutch, along with some much welcome snacks and baby wipes. They have journeyed over to collect the science kit that was dropped off, and have scouted a new potential camp site close to the icefields where we want to work. I think, after a week of sitting around building igloos, they are excited to start working.

The plan for the next few days (weather permitting) is to ensure that there is fuel at the local depot site, then get the rest of the kit over to Geoff and Wouter, and transport Taff and Romain over to Geoff. In the meantime I am sitting at Halley drinking a lot of tea and generally plumping up on all the amazing food watching remotely news on the guys work hard in the field. Hopefully I will fly out on the last load of science equipment to join everyone when they have the camp suitably set up for my arrival 😉

Halley modules looming out of the mist. [Credit: Katie Joy]

The weather has been pretty foggy here at Halley, giving the modules an eerie look like a spacestation on an alien world. The staff on site have been working hard to raise the buildings up out of the accumulated snow which was deposited in the Antarctic winter. The Brunt icesheet normally gets 1 to 2 metres of snow in the winder season, quickly burying the structures like the Drewry accommodation building photographed below. Over the coming weeks the modules themselves will be raised up so that they are rising over the surrounding area rather than looking like they are sitting on ground level.

Drewry building, currently sitting lower than the surrounding snow level which has accumulated over winter. The plan for tomorrow is to raise the structure up onto the surrounding surface. Image: KJoy.

Update from Halley

Katie Joy | 12 Dec 2019

I arrived at Halley Research Station two days ago (10th December), after a long day of flying from Rothera (~8 hours of flying with one stop on route at Sky Blu — thanks pilot Ian and co-pilot Tim). We journeyed out first over the Antarctic peninsula, with small mountain ranges popping out of the continental ice shelf, and then out over the Ronne Ice Shelf, which is a large flat expansive area of freshwater ice pouring off the continent into the Weddell sea. Lots and lots of flat white out of the window for several hours. Where the ice shelf finally meets the sea ice there is open ocean with many large freshwater icebergs bobbing around between still frozen sea ice floes. Some of the freshwater icebergs that have been liberated from the Ronne have amazing shapes — see this perfectly rectangular example in the photo. The ice floes, which melt and refreeze annually, are fractured and complex, looking as you fly over them like the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, with its chaotic terrains (when you are a planetary scientist you start spotting terrestrial analogues whenever you look out of the plane window). It was a beautiful flight.

Rectangular berg. [Credit: Katie Joy]

I joined up with Romain at Halley who has been based here since last Friday (6th December). We have spent the last couple of days working with fieldguide Taff and the pilots to figure out how to order the Twin Otter plane loads to send out into the field. There are a lot of logistics needed to get us and the metal detection kit to join up with Geoff and Wouter, and also ensure that there is enough aviation fuel at a depot site so that the planes can stay fueled up and flying (with contingency in case the weather changes). Its a bit like a space mission planning exercise — bartering which of the field equipment and people are the most important to get out first in case we have a major weather delay changing the schedule further on. When you only have so much weight you can put onto an aircraft with a round trip of x number of km… what do you take in which order?! Whilst we wait to get out and about we have also been helping out around base, and enjoying some of the local evening entertainment including playing pool and table tennis, and last night I gave a science talk to share whats going on with the project with all the people working on station who have been supporting the project. We are really grateful to the team at Halley who have been hosting us in this amazing research station.

Ice floes, a terrestrial analogue for Europa’s chaotic terrains? [Credit: Katie Joy]

Life Around Rothera

Katie Joy | 5 Dec 2019

Rothera Research Station is located on a small peninsula called Rothera Point, protruding from Adelaide Island into Lauberf fjord. Walking around the point is a favourite evening pastime — it takes about an hour to do a circuit and return to the base, longer if you are wildlife spotting.

The view from the point into the fjord is stunning — at the moment the sea to the north is ice locked and icebergs (tens of metres in size) are released every so often, bobbing towards to the south into the open water of Marguerite Bay. Small floes drift around on the open water and cling to the shoreline when the wind is up. Since we have been here the sea has varied from angry, stormy and choppy, with small white horses whipping around, to flat and calm and totally clear producing amazing reflections from the ‘bergs (we could see several metres down to the sea floor, though apparently it won’t stay like this for long as the plankton will be blooming soon, reducing the visibility). Across the bay is a snow capped mountain range including Cape Sáenz, which is the southernmost point of the Arrowsmith Peninsula.

View from Rothera Point looking northeast towards Arrowsmith Peninsula. [Credit: Katie Joy]

We attended a wildlife briefing the other night to familiarise ourselves with the different types of animals we might see: the staff at Rothera are recording which species are spotted as part of a long-term monitoring programme.

There are numerous mammals in the area including a number of seal species: we often see both noisy elephant seals that live around base (occasionally visiting us to see what we are up to — see the post from a couple of days ago when one was hanging out next to our metal detector array in the cargo yard), and the smaller Weddell seal. There are small gangs of Adelie penguins, which are utterly comical and cute as they run along flapping their wings, and their heads down. The airborne bird life is spectacular, with Antarctic terns, Antarctic shags, snow petrel, Wilson’s storm petrel, Skuas, and Kelp Gulls. Sometimes in the austral summer orcas (also known as killer whales), humpback whales and minke whales frequent the bay. Hopefully when we come back through Rothera in mid-January we might spot these ocean dwellers.

Elephant seals disguised as rocks. These are all juveniles, although are pretty enormous beasts at a couple of metres in length. [Credit: Katie Joy]
A particularly happy looking elephant seal. [Credit: Katie Joy]
A Weddell seal, a smaller variety than the elephant seal, with a distinctive mottle patterned back. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Everyone’s favourite — an Adelie penguin hanging out on the edge of the sea ice. [Credit: Katie Joy]
The Antarctic shag in flight (not a flying penguin!). [Credit: Katie Joy]
Kelp Gulls on Rothera Point. [Credit: Katie Joy]

Note that all the photos above were taken with a zoom lens — we keep a healthy distance from the wildlife so as not to disturb them.

The training programme

Wouter van Werre | 5 Dec 2019

Before we can go searching for the meteorites, we have had to complete an extensive training program. For Romain and myself it was a very packed schedule, as we had to start from scratch. Katie and Geoff, on the other hand, had already taken some of these modules last year so they did not have to repeat all of them. The training program covers everything from how to be safe on the base, to how to record meteorological observations in the field to pass onto the weather forecasters at Rothera. Due to the poor weather the final module was delayed by a few days, but on Monday we were finally able to complete the program.

Romain already described our overnight stay just outside the base, but I thought it would be interesting to explain the different training modules we had to take since our arrival.

One of the first modules we all have to take is about aircraft safety. While the Rothera Research Station is the place where we all live and work, it is also an active airfield with the runway in the middle of the base.
Therefore we all have to be aware of the procedures for crossing the runway, how to approach the aircraft when they are on the apron (taxiway area) and how to communicate with the pilots. Afterwards we also learnt what to expect when we will be flown into field by Twin Otter aircraft.

The IT/communications team gave us a brief overview of the available IT resources, such as public computers and phone booths, as well as how to get access to the internet on personal laptops. They also introduced us to the VHF radio equipment and protocols that are in place for communications around the base.

One of the field guides walked us through all the clothing that BAS has issued to us, how the different layers work together and how to stay warm in the polar environment. All the different activities that are undertaken by the people here on base, as well as those in the field, require very different clothing systems. While we covered this before during our pre-deployment training with BAS in Cambridge, this served as a very useful reminder

Later on in the week we also went through the field medical box with one of the doctors on the station, walking us through all the medical kit available to us and how we can make best use of it.

Some of the modules, such as skidoo training and gator training are very hands-on. The gator training covers the use of the small wheeled vehicles, called gators, which are used to move around the base. By now the snow has been cleared from all the main paths around base, making these gators the perfect vehicle for moving around goods. Outside of the base there is still plenty of snow, which requires the use of the skidoos. During the skidoo training module the vehicle technicians took a group of us out on the skidoos and into the local travel area. Here we learnt how to safely operate the skidoos, particularly on slopes, where you have to be careful not to “roll the ‘doo”. They also showed us the outline of the local travel area, which is where people can move around safely on their own. This area is clearly delineated using flags and drums. We were also taught how to do the pre-start checks and basic maintenance tasks on the skidoos, which was particularly useful for us, as we will have to do these on our own when we go out into the field to look for meteorites.

One of the more surprising modules we had to take was the meteorological observations module. All field parties have to be able to record the current weather conditions and transmit these back to Rothera, especially when the aircraft are due to land at the campsite. Together with the forecasts that are generated by the forecasters on base these can be used to make decisions about the aircraft movements. We covered the basics of estimating the wind direction and velocity, the amount of cloud cover, cloud types and cloud height, as well as visibility and contrast. All these observations have to be transmitted hourly if there are any planned aircraft operations in the area.
This was a very interesting module for me, as I had no prior experience with taking structured weather observations (and I never knew there were so many different types of clouds!).

Far and away the largest group of training modules we had to take are the field modules (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). These cover all the skills required to live in a field camp and safely move across the Antarctic terrain. For example, field module 1 covers the basics of how to use the Primus stoves and Tilley lamps and how to set up a 2-person mountain tent. The camping trip Romain wrote about earlier is part of field module 2, where you go out in a small group a few kilometres outside of the Rothera base. When we were on the hillside we were taught how to put up a pyramid tent, where to put the crates with cooking equipment and food, where to put the stove and Tilley lamp and how to arrange your sleeping area. We then had to cook some food (by melting some snow first!) and we stayed the night. It is amazing to realise that the pyramid tents, the Tilley lamps, and primus stoves are all the same design as those used by the likes of Scott and Shackleton.

Geoff and Katie joined us for the field modules 3 and 4 which cover basic mountaineering and crevasse rescue skills. We practised walking with crampons, climbing up and down steep snow-covered slopes, and walking on ice. We also had to practice being roped up to another member of our group, how to arrest a fall if the person you’re roped up with falls into a crevasse, and how to anchor the rope into the ground. We did all of this outside on one of the hills just next to the base. We then went inside to practice other crevasse rescue skills such as abseiling down into the crevasse, jumaring back up the rope, and how to set up a five-to-one pulley system to lift someone out. While I found this module very interesting, and I really enjoyed the ropework and the abseiling, I do hope we never have to use these skills!

Snow stake crevasse rescue training. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Learning how to hack up a hill wearing crampons. Not Katie’s favourite part of the trip. [Credit: Wouter van Verre]
Geoff learning the ropes in rescue training. [Credit: Katie Joy]

The final training module took all four of us back outside again, this time to practice linked travel on a skidoo. With linked travel a pair of skidoos and a pair of sledges are connected by a heavy rope. This way, if one skidoo does fall into a crevasse, the other skidoo will arrest the fall. Each skidoo has a rescue sack on the back with the gear required for a crevasse rescue, which we practiced in the earlier modules. The first sledge contains all the necessities to make a base camp (known as a full ‘unit’), while the rear sledge contains a half ‘unit’, from which we can make an emergency camp.
It takes a bit of practice to keep the skidoos synchronised so that the rope is just slack, but not so slack that the rear skidoo drives over the top of the rope.

Geoff and Romain learning how to drive in linked travel with two sledges. [Credit: Katie Joy]

This is an overview of the type of training a field party might receive before heading out into the continent. There are, naturally, many other training courses available as well for those who do other jobs on station.
For example, anyone who expects to launch and retrieve boats into the sea has to learn how to drive the tractors and operate the cranes.

All in all it has been a busy week and full of training and testing our science equipment. The training courses have been very useful and definitely add a bit of confidence before going into the field.

Many thanks to all the people on station who have helped us prepare during the past week and a half!

… and the first part of the team are heading out …

5 Dec 2019

Geoff and Romain are currently on a plane with field guide Rob starting their journey to the field… the plan (as always with Antarctic fieldwork) is complicated and they will now be transiting to the Outer Recovery ice fields, first, via Sky Blu field station (where Geoff visited last year), and then, by way of BAS’s Halley research station (where Katie visited last year).

The preliminary plan at the moment is that Wouter will fly out next with a lot of our science kit, and Katie will go on a final plane load, and we will reunite with field guide Taff at the field site. More updates when the next one of us catches a plane! For now happy flying to Geoff and Romain — the weather is stunning today so they should get a good view out of the window.

Twin Otter taxiing down the Rothera runway. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Team meteorite about to head to the field. From left: Katie and Wouter (still in Rothera), field guide Rob, Geoff and Romain (both en route to the field) and co-pilot Tom (who is Halley bound).

Rushing around getting busy

Katie Joy | 5 Dec 2019

For the past few days we have all been busy testing the metal detection equipment, trouble shooting some issues with the system, and getting all the science equipment packed up and ready to go to the field.

There is a lot of gear needed for the metal detection part of the project — a single detector set up includes:

  • a skidoo mounted with a display box to signal when the metal detector has a response (see picture below)
  • a pulling rig
  • two solar panels coupled to two large batteries powering the communication electronic control box (all mounted on a bright blue sledge)
  • a boom rig
  • snow bashers, to flatten a path
  • five metal detector panels with embedded coils and their control system boxes
Metal detection assembly. [Credit: Katie Joy]

All of this is lashed together with various ropes so that it works as a single system, and includes many metres of electrical cables and network cables (in the photo above you can see what a right old mess this is before Romain neatly bundled them together to to help the rebuild when we’re in the field). We have assembled the two separate panel array systems in the cargo yard at Rothera to check that the mechanical setup is complete before we head to the field (i.e. do we have all the right screws and bolts and are not missing anything vital…).

For the past few days our resident electronic engineer Wouter has also been working hard to iron out a few issues with the electronic systems — a lot of head scratching to get to the root of the glitches, but thanks to his hard work (and thanks to Liam and John as well back in Manchester for assistance in trouble shooting, and the Rothera Comms team for their advice and loaning of switch boxes) all the control boxes are now behaving the same way as when we last ran the system in the UK (see here) — and they are now ready to deploy to the field.

Wouter working his magic in the lab at Rothera. [Credit: Katie Joy]

After several days of testing, we then finally boxed everything up into our transport cargo boxes so that they can be loaded onto the aircraft to travel our field site.

The fun will be rebuilding the rig and system when it is –20ºC, and then calibrating it for an ice surface rather than rock. Hopefully we have made our lives easier by labelling each component so that it will be a case of following the here’s-one-we-built-earlier approach to assembling the array.

The indicator box that flashes when we detect a signal from a metal-rich object in the ice. We will also be wearing an ear piece that will make a ‘ping’ noise to indicate that we have struck lucky. [Credit: Katie Joy]

What we are up to in Antarctica…

Katie Joy | 30 Nov 2019

If you have been following the blog for a while then hopefully you will have seen the growth of our Lost Meteorites of Antarctica project from its infancy through to having a team of four people deployed to search for meteorites in Antarctica. If you are new to the blog (welcome!) you can read down the a couple of posts ago to see Geoff’s overview of the season’s plans and how we got here for some background…

The Lost Meteorites project team 2019-2020 season: from left Katie, Romain, Geoff and Wouter rubbing the Magellen’s foot in Punta Areas for good fortune in fair weather!

The Lost Meteorites of Antarctica project is an interdisciplinary science investigation bringing together mathematicians, electronic engineers, cold weather specialist engineers and meteoriticists (scientists who study meteorite samples), working with a large team of amazing people at the British Antarctic Survey to help support us and deploy us out to our field site. You can find out more about the team here. Currently four of us (Geoff, Katie, Wouter and Romain) are based at Rothera Research Station, the British Antarctic Survey’s largest crewed station in Antarctica getting prepared to get out to our field site (more about life on the station in the next couple of posts).

You can find out more about the science of what we are up to by heading over to the Science tab and about the science of meteorites here (what do we hope to find from all the rocks we collect?). Having already recovered tens of meteorites (we estimate 36 at this stage*) from the surface of the ice last field season, the challenge is on to collect more this time around as well as trying to locate iron-rich meteorites that are buried within the ice.

Location of Rothera Research Station in relation to the South American peninsula and Punta Areas in Chile; our departure city.

Thanks to those at Rothera who are taking good care of us — from the chefs who are cooking plentiful amazing meals, to our field guides Taff and Rob who have been helping get our kit together and train us for what to expect, the doctors training us in field medical techniques, the field and science operation leads Al and Maz who are working hard to put together the logistics to get us out to the field and are drawing on the skills of weather observation and forecast teams to help understand when the weather is a go for launch…

We likely have about another week or so here on station to get our metal detection system checked out and to finish off our training before we transfer out to the field (although as always, with Antarctica field campaigns, anything is controlled by the weather, so we will wait and see what happens…).

** more on what we found last season later on… Our team back in the UK are working hard to prepare and classify the samples as the team down here are working on finding them more rocks to play with!

Night out

Romain Tartese | 28 Nov 2019

Hello world, it’s Romain here, from Rothera! As Katie mentioned in her blog post yesterday, we were lucky to spend the night out last night with Wouter, our guide Rob, and a couple of other people. And it was stunning! The weather has been amazing over the past few days, and the views from the ‘campsite’ are well worth it. Driving up the hill, it started with great views down toward Rothera, as you can see in the photo below.

View toward Rothera on the way up to the ‘campsite’ [Credit: R. Tartese]

Rob then taught us how to put up a pyramid tent, which is the tent that will keep us warm when out in the field in a few days. It was fairly straightforward to set up, but of course the weather might not be so kind next time we’ll have to put it up. Once set up we got to realise what we really signed up for (i.e. 5-6 weeks living in a tent…), and I’ve got to say these tents are pretty comfortable for 2 people.

Wouter paying close attention to Rob’s instructions [Credit: R. Tartese]

All in all we had great fun and a great night of sleep, in fact a bit too warm in these very thick sleeping bags and such a mild weather. More fun today, with some exciting skidoo training. Now back to put all our kit together! I’ll leave you with a few photos from the ‘campsite’ 🙂

View from last night campsite [Credit: R. Tartese]
Tent with a view! [Credit: R. Tartese]