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

β€” 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

β€” 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 β€” 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 β€” 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 SΓ‘enz, 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 β€” 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 β€” 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 β€” we keep a healthy distance from the wildlife so as not to disturb them.

The training programme

β€” 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 β€” 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

β€” 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 β€” 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 β€” 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) β€” 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 –20ΒΊC, 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]