Hello from Outer Recovery!

Geoff Evatt | 19 Dec 2019

It has been a while since we gave an update on matters here, mainly because we have gone from prolonged inaction to lots of action. To recap, we (Wouter, Rob and I) were originally dropped in at the southern end of the Outer Recovery Ice Fields, but without skidoos.  This meant that any exploring was confined to a very short distance from the tent. And without a generator to charge our batteries, it meant occupying our time was slightly challenging. Once we had tested all we could with the science gear we had, we were left with no choice but to build an igloo (it is glorious). Adding to the amusement of matters is finding about one in ten of the dried food sachets gives instant food poisoning; when trapped in a three person tent this does add spice to life.

Then after a week, a couple of skidoos were brought out to us by pilots Dutch and Mark.  We were then free…. free to move to our intended camp location on a blue ice area in the middle latitudes of Outer Recovery.  Conscious of lots of crevasses, we slowly made our way there. It took two days to shift all of the science gear and camping stuff, but in so doing it allowed us to commence with the first stage of the project: testing the gear (yes, again). Without going into too many details yet, the electronic side of the system is not loving the conditions at present. The mechanical side is fairly relaxed and proving reliable enough. This means the next few days will be critical for us.

Field guide Rob tows the metal detector array across blue ice [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Yet during the first trials of our equipment on the blue ice field, Rob suddenly gave a yell: a large black lump some 100m away. Yes, he had spotted our first meteorite! A real whopper as well. And as the day went on we found more and more (all within a couple of hours search time). As it stands we appear to have found, we think, some 8 meteorites — and five of them are relatively sizeable. We were all extremely excited to have found them and to be off the mark: we will not be going home empty handed!

One of the first meteorite finds [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Off the mark. [Credit: Wouter van Verre]
Another! Rob Taylor with another ‘find’ from foot searching [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

As for everyone else? Well, it looks like we’re suddenly going to be all together tomorrow. The logistics behind this project have been huge (thank you all at BAS), and hopefully we’re near the end of the to’ing and fro’ing. All hands will then be focused on getting the camp fully set up, and then seeing what we can do with the detector system (our science tent will primarily be an electrical engineer workshop).

As for weather? Slightly mixed, but on the whole rather sunny. This certainly helped keep us sane during the close quarters camping. The temperatures are probably down towards –20ºC, although without any of us having a thermometer it’s a bit of a guess: when the nostril hairs freeze up (slightly) as you inhale, then you know it’s below –15.

We’ll be in touch again shortly with updates on sledge matters, and hopefully some more meteorite news.

In the meantime we will say goodbye to our field guide Rob Taylor, who Wouter and I have been fortunate to have look after us — especially his “Spamghetti” surprise dinner (can you guess the surprise?). Thank you Rob, you have been fantastic. He now heads back to Halley for a shower and some non freeze-dried food (he was only expecting to be out here a couple of nights) and gets swapped for field guide Taff.

Answering some questions from Hope Valley College

Geoff Evatt | 19 Dec 2019

Many thanks to the students at Hope Valley College for their questions about Antarctica and what it’s like living out there for our field work. Thanks for your interest!

Q1. What is it like to survive in such cold conditions?

A1. It does indeed feel like survival! After all there’s no chance of growing your own food here, and we have to melt ice to make drinking water. As such, when here in Antarctica we are, by necessity, reliant on technology from the warmer parts of the world: travel is generally by planes and skidoos, we wear several layers of clothing and very thick boots, food is freeze-dried food, and ice is melted by burning kerosene. Even going to the bathroom (in a very cold toilet tent) is a different process, as there are no bacteria to break the waste down. And so when camping out here on the ice sheet, some 800km from the nearest base, we are constantly taking advantage of the latest advancements from back home — including the Iridium satellite device that allows me to send this message. But the advantage of all this is that it allows us to do science in a very special place (when the weather is tolerable) — in this particular case, to look for meteorites.  Without these technologies and advancements we would not be able to survive here for long, it’s just too cold and lifeless for us to live without outside help.

Q2. Do you think that climate change is a problem in the Antarctic and if so, do you think it is a problem we need to address as a country?

A2. Yes, climate change is causing the ice sheet to loose mass at an increasing rate and become even less stable (meaning large amounts of ice break off from the continent and into the oceans). The upshot being increasing sea levels  which impacts upon people, towns, and cities elsewhere on earth, particularly in low lying countries. In addition, with larger amounts of fresh water leaving Antarctica and entering the salty oceans, it can make the oceans currents behave differently which can then cause even more heating of the Earth’s atmosphere, and thus even more melting of the ice sheet, and so the problem gets worse and worse. The cause of this is not Antarctica itself, but the level of carbon dioxide that we are all pumping into the atmosphere. Yet given the scale of the problem, it will be change at the national and international government level that is the strongest weapon we have to reduce the impact.  That all said, we don’t need to wait for politicians to get their act together: we can all do our bit, we can all plant trees, which are the ultimate weapon against climate change and help restore the natural world — how about planting some in your garden?

Q3. How do you cope with 24 hour a day sunlight?

A3. It’s hard! Our body clocks are messed up by it. The sun is always high in the sky, making it very hard to sleep. And sleeping in a tent means we can’t escape it by pulling the curtains. The best we have are eye masks, which aren’t too comfortable.

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]

Update from 218

Romain Tartese | 18 Dec 2019

Hi there, a few words from 218 — which is the British Antarctic Survey name for the depot site where we have been with Taff for a few days now. A few flights are still needed to bring south some more fuel and finish moving us and some kit to 119 — the site where the boys are about 100 km East, and where we want to deploy the metal detector arrays (in addition to flying Katie down from Halley). I have heard that they have found a few meteorites on the surface there yesterday — well done guys!

Weather has been mostly sunny at 218 except on Monday, so we have been exploring the surroundings a bit with Taff, going back to some ice fields Katie and Julie reconned last year. We believe we have found a few small meteorites, in the ice field closest to where we are camping. 🙂 Unfortunately we had snow a couple of nights ago, so the blue ice fields we drove to yesterday were covered by a fine layer of snow, making spotting meteorites impossible. But nevermind, driving around this amazing landscape was fabulous!

Short break for weather observations. [Credit: R. Tartese]

Life is good at the depot site!

Romain Tartese | 14 Dec 2019

Hi there,

Quick update from the field, or rather the spot where Katie and Julie ended last season meteorite trip. Taff and myself flew from Halley yesterday morning to the depot site, via this year’s meteorite search site. After having dropped some cargo close to where we are going to search for the lost meteorites, pilots Dutch and Mark dropped us at last year’s depot site. There we dug out everything that Julie and Katie left behind, so that we can ferry all of this to the new site about 100 km west. We got a first load, including a skidoo (which is interesting to try to fit on a Twin Otter), shipped to this year’s site last night, and Dutch and Mark came back this morning to load a second cargo. I believe the guys that have been in the field at the new site for a week now were pretty pleased to see an aircraft stop by!

Digging last year’s depot [Credit: R. Tartese]. [Note from Katie: the green objects are two skidoos covered by tarpaulins]

This afternoon after having finished setting up the camp and digging everything out, we went out for a little bimble with Taff to the closest blue icefield just underneath the nunatak that pop out on the horizon. And it was simply gorgeous, it’s hard to describe how surreal this place is! We may be on our own for a few days now before we can finish transferring all the stuff to the new site, because the weather, which has been very good so far, is meant to turn cloudy and foggy. Let’s hope it’s not too bad and we can still explore the area around us. Hopefully in a few days we’ll have all our kit and ourselves at the new site, and Katie sent over from Halley, so that we can start searching for the buried meteorites!

Camp set up at last year’s depot [Credit: R. Tartese]

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]

Out at Outer Recovery

Geoff Evatt | 10 Dec 2019

Hello from Outer Recovery, where Wouter, Rob, and I are currently in a Scott tent (a pyramid-shaped tent, with just enough room for three people and a stove). Rob and I were the first people here, having been flow in by BAS pilots Mark and Dutch — thank you guys. Flying here from Halley gave us a good view of the Outer Recovery ice fields, and they were spectacular,  if a little brief, as we were running low on fuel and landed pretty sharpish. The wind was strong when we exited the plane and checked for crevasses, making us feel rather chilled. BUT once the tent was up and we got warmer clothes on, we felt much better. We even had chance to take in the vast polar plateau that surrounded us,  stretching for hundreds of kilometres all around, with only one small ice rise to vary the scene. Yet no sooner had we taken it in, Wouter was flown in along with half of our equipment. He joined us in our tent, probably somewhat disappointed as when  he set off he thought he was flying to the luxury of Halley rather than the horror of sharing a small tent with two other stinky guys. On the plus side Rob has been keeping us topped up with food and drink (freeze-dried curry and tea).

Cosy sleeping arrangements. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

After all the excitement of getting here we slept for hours, despite the high elevation of the sun (we are at 81.5 degrees south!). News then came in that we might be here for a few days whilst the non-trivial logistics behind getting the rest of the equipment plus Romain and Katie here, went underway. To make the most of the time, and a lull in the wind, we assembled a sledge system and powered it up…….. and it worked. It worked pretty well. Admittedly this is with it not being towed, but it passed the first test with (anticipated) relief.

Another night in the tent went by fine, seeing us drift into 12 hour sleeps! (Something in the tea no doubt). That said, before bed I read Hemmingway’s The Snows of Kilamanjaro, which whilst superb, may not have been the best read for here just before bed (can one easily get gangrene in Antarctica?).

The camp under overcast skies, waiting for the rest of the team. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Further updates this morning suggest that we might start seeing planes bringing equipment in from tomorrow, which would see us well on track (big thanks to everyone at BAS for helping sort out these non-trivial logistics, much appreciated). In the meantime we drink tea, take very short walks, and admire the bleak beauty of Outer Recovery.

The cliffs of the Theron Mountains

Romain Tartese | 9 Dec 2019

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).

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.

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.

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!