The cliffs of the Theron Mountains

Hi all, I thought I’d write a quick update on where we all are at the moment. Geoff, Wouter and field guide Rob have made it to our meteorite search site south of Halley, and have some of the kit with them. I am at Halley, where I should be joined by Katie later tonight (Monday) as she is flying from Rothera right now.

A few Twin Otter loads of fuel drums are still needed to be transported nearer to our field site before we can all head off there and start searching these lost meteorites!

And this morning I went on such a fuel trip with pilot Andy. We headed off from Halley toward the Theron Mountains, which are located at the northern end of the Transantarctic Mountains, north of the Shackelton Range (see map below).

TheronMap_Cropped
Location of the Theron Mountains [modified from Leat (2008) On the long-distance transport of Ferrar magmas, Geological Society, London, Special Publications 302, 45-61 ].

And after about an hour and a half flying, I finally got to see the the Theron Mountains.

20191209_113024_Small
Approaching the Theron Mountains [Credit: R. Tartese].
The cliffs of the Theron Mountains display sub-horizontal Jurassic (~180 million years old) basaltic lava flows, which are part of the Ferrar large igneous province, intruded into flat lying Permian (~250-300 million years old) continental sedimentary formations.

DSC01902_Small
Cliffs at the Theron Mountains, with patches of blue ice at the bottom [Credit: R. Tartese].
But flying the Twin Otter for a little while during the journey was surely the best bit of it all!

20191209_130207_Small

Halley views

9 Dec 2019
Digging out fuel en route to Halley. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Geoff taking his co-piloting duties seriously. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Flying over a colony of emperor penguins en route to Halley. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Halley VI research station. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
The Dobson spectrophotometer at Halley measuring ozone. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Half the team is at Halley

Romain Tartese | 6 Dec 2019

After a bit more than a week there, Geoff and I left Rothera yesterday after lunch to start making our journey down to the meteorite search area. We boarded the AZ Twin Otter aircraft with field guide Rob and mechanic Tom (who is going to Halley where he’ll spend the next year or so!), and pilots Dutch and Mark (always better with pilots!). Between Rothera and Halley, we made several stops on the way, notably needed to refuel the Twin Otter.

The views leaving Rothera and Adelaide Island behind were fantastic. A couple of hours after leaving Rothera we first stopped at Fossil Bluff for a quick refill. Landing at Fossil Bluff was truly fantastic as you follow spectacular cliffs all the way down – see photo below.

Spectacular layered cliffs on the way down to Fossil Bluff [Credit: R. Tartese].

We then stopped at Sky Blu, where the Twin Otter lands on a blue ice runway. It was actually my first steps on the Antarctic continent, since both Rothera and Fossil Bluff are on islands off the coast.

Happy chaps having just landed at Sky Blu [Credit: G. Evatt].

After landing, we were met by three BAS colleagues that are stationed at Sky Blu for a few days or weeks. Readers who followed the blog last season will probably remember that Sky Blu is where Geoff spent some time last summer trying to break the metal detector assembly we will be towing on the ice, and perfecting his ice coring skills. We had a great dinner (thanks guys!) and a good night of sleep in our cosy (and very orange) pyramid tent.

Midnight sun at Sky Blu – the Twin Otter can be seen on the far left [Credit: R. Tartese].

After breakfast this morning, the weather forecast over the Ronne Ice Shelf and onto Halley was promising, so we set off at around 0830 to finish our journey to Halley station. And we were once again greeted by fantastic views all the way. After just under 3 hours, we stopped at the Three Ronne Depot (TRD) on the edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf to top up the Twin tanks with about 800 litres of fuel! It involved a very limited amount of digging to access the barrels – and as suggested by the photo below it was very balmy!

Refuelling at the Three Ronne Depot [Credit: R. Tartese].

The final leg of our journey took us from the Ronne Ice Shelf to Halley VI station that sits on the Brunt Ice Shelf , flying over spectacular patches of open sea and broken sea-ice, and as a bonus over a large colony of emperor penguins!

The edge of the Ronne Ice Shelf, viewed from an altitude of 3000 m. [Credit: R. Tartese].

After a long day flying we arrived in Halley where we have just enjoyed a great fish and chips dinner. Plans for the coming days are fluid, but it seems one of us will head off to the mountains tomorrow if the weather is good to start shifting some fuel around. In the meantime, Wouter might hopefully make his way down to Halley with the first half of the kit, then followed by Katie with the rest of the kit. Stay tuned!

The main module at Halley VI station [Credit: R. Tartese]

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).