Many thanks to Beth from class 6R at Nottingham Girl’s High School for sending in some great questions from her class and her teacher about the Antarctic meteorite field work we did this season to look for meteorites. I have tried to answer them below. Thanks for your interest Beth and your class, and hope that you get to visit and work in Antarctica some day in the future.
P. S. There are some amazing women working at the British Antarctic Survey that I got to meet – from being a pilot, to an aircraft engineer, to a field guide, to being a base commander in charge of the station, a chef, being in charge of science cargo logistics, or a communications expert – there are lots of jobs to be done working at the research bases, on one of the ships, or out in the remote field. You can also find out more about some of BAS’s polar women scientists and what they do here.
1) What is your actual job title?
My job title – that is complicated as I seem to have a few! My university (the University of Manchester) calls me a Royal Society University Research Fellow as am funded by an organisation in London called the Royal Society to do scientific research. I am also called a ‘Reader’ which is sort of like a university teacher who also does research (sadly I don’t do as much reading as I would like though so the job title is a bit odd!). I would also call myself a lunar scientist as I mostly study the Moon, and a meteoriticist as I study meteorites from outer space. It shows you can have a few job titles being a scientist and not really know which one fits best.
2)What sort/how many meteorites did you find?
On our field trip to Antarctica this year we think we have found at least 36 meteorites, which is a good number to find. We will double check this when we get all the rock samples back to Manchester later this summer and can start to analyse them and check what type of samples they are. From some initial tests that we do in the field when we collect them I think that most are likely to have come from different types asteroids – but you never know, and when we have checked them more carefully I hope we might have one from the Moon or Mars.
3) Did you stay in the building on skis or just work there?
When we first get to Antarctica we stay in buildings that look more like normal houses (called Rothera) and then we traveled onto the building with skies (called Halley). These are both permanent research bases that are run by the British Antarctic Survey.
At Rothera research station, which is located on the Antarctic peninsula, there are about 120-160 people living and working there in the summer months (in UK winter time) and in the Antarctic winter (in UK summer time) there is about 25 people living there. There are several buildings including accommodation blocks (we share rooms between two people), a lovely big building with a cafeteria, a library and a TV room, a building with offices for people to work on their science projects and to monitor the Antarctic weather, an aircraft hangar so they can maintain and repair the planes we use, and workspace for waste disposal and recycling and for vehicle repairs.
The station called Halley, which is the building with skies we visited, is a really cool looking structure – it is made up of several different modules that all have different functions – from a command centre and accommodation rooms, to a field work preparation zone, to an area with a table tennis area and some nice chairs to relax. The neat design is that when there is a lot of snow the whole structure can pick up its feet one by one and step itself up to a higher level to get out of the snow! It can also travel across the snow if it needs to, to move to a completely new area (it last did so in the year 2017). This year we worked in the building to prepare our field equipment, and to speak to the people who predicted the weather forecast so that we could leave to fly out to our field site.
4) What were the cabins like that you stayed in?
At Halley I stayed in a little cabin called a caboose – it was very cosy and warm and had four beds and a little table and chairs area. I was on the top bunk bed so had to climb up to get in and out which was quite interesting as I am not as good as climbing as I used to be!
When we were in the field doing our work to find meteorites we stayed in orange coloured tents with two people in a tent.
5) Where exactly in Antarctica were you? Did you get to the Pole?
We visited an area about 600 km or so from the coast, at an altitude of 1100 m above sea level. It was quite a flat region, but we could see mountain ranges around to give a sense of scale.
On this 2018-2019 field trip I did not get to visit the South Pole – it was about 900 km south of where we were staying. However, on the last trip to Antarctica I did when I was helping out an American meteorite research team, I was very lucky and did get to visit the South Pole for a few days, which was really cool. At the South Pole there are actually two poles there which is odd – one is the real South Pole geographic location site and the other one is the ceremonial one they have surrounding by flags for good photo opportunities. I made sure that I walked around both of them for good measure to say I have been there. Incidentally, in November later this year people will celebrate the 50th anniversary of when women visited the South Pole for the first time (you can read more about this here).
6) What was the temperature during the day/night?
Most of the time in the daytime it was between about -5 degrees centigrade and -10 degrees centigrade, but a few times it got as chilly as -20 C. What made it worse was when the wind blew, and it felt a lot colder with ‘wind chill’ than the thermometer told us. At night when we were there it never really got dark, but it did get a few degrees colder as the light levels dropped.
You have to make sure that you are wearing enough layers in these temperatures to work for a long period of time – when I went out I had five pairs of trousers on (thermals, thick thermals, a fleece layer, thin down trousers, and thick salopettes), on my feet were very thick boots that had a protective plastic sole and a removable insulated liner, and on top I wore a vest, a thermal layer, a thick thermal layer, a thin down jacket, an insulated layer, a thick jumper and a big protective out layer), and I wore a face mask to protect my face from the wind and cold! I looked a bit like the Michelin man, but it kept me warm.
7) How close did you get to the penguins?
I got about 5 to 20 m away from the penguins. You cant get too close as you don’t want to disturb the penguins and we want them to stay relaxed in their home environment. Once I saw three penguins going for a walk along the plane runway which was pretty funny, although they loved across pretty quickly as I think they are used to aircraft traffic coming through!
8) Do you know what breed of penguins they were?
The penguins I saw were called Adele penguins – they are very cute at about 60 cm in height and are one of seven types that occur in Antarctica. I normally saw them in pairs, or in a group of three sitting alongside the coastline. Every time I saw one I still got excited – it doesn’t really ever get boring to spot one 🙂
After 11 days in the tent at the end of our season Julie and I arrived back at Halley this afternoon (via a great stop en route close to the mountains). It is so warm here compared to our field camp — it feels like the tropics. Captain Vicky, our Twin Otter pilot, has done an amazing job of making use of weather windows to get us home and to a very much needed warm shower. We will start to wing our way west to Rothera in the next day or so, and then onwards to the UK.
Mike Rose, who has been helping Geoff with the panel setup at Sky Blu is also at Halley and we have had a quick catch up about that part of the project. We also have caught up with the team here who have been doing our nightly scheduled chats (thanks very much Sarah, Alan, Barney and Rich — it has been really good to talk each evening through the season) and those who have helped co-pilot our flights all season (thanks Josh and Tom for doing the last two). We have even had time to do a bit of washing and drink a few more cups of tea before the bag repacking starts all over again. Pizza for lunch was amazing.
I am looking
forward to having a proper bed for the night, although will miss both the quiet
and the loud of being in the field.
We are waiting for a break in the weather for pilot Vicky to come from Halley research station to bring in a plane load of equipment to be depoted for next season, and then make another flight to pick us up and take us back to Halley to start our journey home. It has been cloudy and snowy the last couple of days – down to –18 ºC yesterday with 5 to 10 knot winds, we have had a couple of inches or snow that has drifted to be 6 inches or so in some places, and at night it has been below zero in the tent with our water bottles freezing up. The weather is forecast to continue to be cloudy and snowy with some occasional cloud breaks for the next couple of days, and we are not sure when the surface contrast will be good enough for the plane to get in. We are waiting for satellite pictures and are doing local weather observations to help planning.
In celebration of Burns night, we listened in via radio to Halley’s folk night the other night where staff on station came together to play music they have written and covers of bands. Thanks guys for helping us listen in, we are sad not to have been able to join in person and enjoy the music and haggis. We sent over a meteorite search themed prose that James (thanks for stepping up!) read out for us – inspired by the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet:
Meteorite, meteorite wherefore art thou meteorite, Do not hide in the ice and refuse thy seekers, Come to the surface and be collected by giant tweezers And you’ll no longer be a forgotten rock. Tis but a hard landing that is the enemy, Thou art a hunter, but a scientist also. What’s a meteorite? It’s not granite nor sandstone, Nor basalt nor limestone nor any other rock belonging to earth. Oh be not a meteorite wrong. What is a meteorite? That which has a fusion crusted by any other appearance would not be as sweet. So a meteorite core is full of surprises With crystals, chondrules, and clasts a plenty. Meteorite doff thy hiding place and for the sake of science, show us thy secrets. And give all thy self.
Also we would like to thank vehicle mech Jack for sending us his own meteorite inspired poem:
Searching for the smallest trace Of rocks that fell from space But you knew where to go And under the snow You would find them all over the place
Hopefully the next blog will be from Halley as I am not sure how many more updates from the field can involve the words tent day, cloudy and snowy… In the meantime, we are sitting tight keeping warm with lots of hot drinks and food and are doing a lot of reading and watching some TV series and dreaming of when we will able to have a hot shower. The biggest worry is that we have only three teas bags left… 😦
Arriving back in the UK, here’s some final thoughts on this year’s field season – plus a peaceful soundscape from the Antarctic peninsula. Recorded with binaural headphones / microphones, I encourage you to find a quiet room to get the best listening experience.
Two days ago we managed to get out and about over to one of the icefields we had visited before (our big blue ice wave area) to finish off exploring a couple of places. We set off just as it was getting cloudy following our previous traverse route. Upon arrival the contrast was pretty low, which on the blue ice surface is pretty good for spotting dark coloured objects. We drove around and managed to find two small meteorites — one on the open ice and one along the firn edge. We also found a route into a nice new area of ice we hadn’t been to before which had some large sediment bands snaking across the surface where we could see up to mm sized particles of dust trapped within the ice. We have seen lots of sediment bands before in places we have driven — some are very obvious brown coloured like moats 50 cm to 1 m wide, others are much more subtle changes where the blue ice suddenly turns a bit brown for a few tens of metres and then back to clear and blue (these wide bands are also easy to see on satellite photos).
However, by early afternoon some snow showers were threatening and we headed back to camp. By the time we arrived home the air felt pretty damp, it had started snowing, and it was –13 °C air temperature — inside the tent was –2 °C. The snow showers really set in, although the wind has completely dropped off (it is strange to see our flags around camp hanging down rather than flapping around), and we spent yesterday in the tent.
With so much snow and little wind it has really settled on the icefields by now covering up the surface. It looks like as soon as the clouds lift and we get some good surface contrast we will be heading back to Halley with our 36 meteorites secured for the season, feeling pretty good that we have explored some blue ice new areas and have some great — and hopefully of diverse types — samples to be studied, and their origins unlocked.
Before we go there is work to be done and we have been out with the shovel and ice chopper for the past couple of hours digging to try and loosen a few bumps in our skiway and to dig out the tent from some of the snow drifts that have formed. A lot of Antarctic field work is digging snow, moving stuff from one place to another (and sometimes back again), and watching the weather… Julie has been working with the field teams at Halley and Rothera to prepare for bringing some more kit into the field for our next season — it will be depoted for the winter so that we are ready to go next time we come down with the detector panel array.
In the meantime, it is just a case of hurrying up and waiting for the clouds to clear — we can see a break on the horizon to the northwest and until it clears near us we will be having some more tent days drinking hot chocolate and watching a couple of movies.
We had a full tent day yesterday — it was gusting 25 to 30 knots and the snow was a blowing along the ground creating some nice drifts behind the tent. The noise was pretty loud, both the wind rushing around the tent and snow pelting against the side. We spent much of the day reading, playing suduko and staring up at our boots hanging at the top of the tent as they danced around as the tent shook in the wind.
The one upside of a tent day is that we have longer to prepare meals, and Julie cooked us some pan bread which we enjoyed with a baked Camembert for dinner. Normally for dinner we have the rehydrated ‘man food’ meals – which I mentioned in an earlier post. They are not bad actually with flavours ranging from sweet and sour chicken to chicken tikka and chicken korma, chilli con carne, lasagne , salmon flavoured with dill and mash potato, and Mediterranean pasta. We have worked our way around all the flavours twice now I think, so a break for something a bit different is pretty welcome.
The winds stayed high over night, finally dropping off by about 10 am this morning to the point where snow was no longer blowing and it was good enough contrast to go out and search. We visited a new icefield we haven’t been to before and revisited a couple of others — the advantage of a couple of days of high winds is that it has swept away a lot of the recent surface snow. We managed to find one meteorite this afternoon of a nice size and rather lozenge shaped, about half buried into the ice, which required a bit of ‘negotiating’ to get out. Only one ‘find’ after quite a bit of driving, so hopefully we will have the good weather for another full day out and about and we can find some more. The count is now at 34.