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]

Life at Rothera research station

Romain Tartese | 02 Dec 2019

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The Bransfield House, where we have our office set up [Credit: R. Tartese]

We’ve now been at Rothera for almost a week, so I thought I’d update readers on what life at an Antarctica research station is like. Most people on base work from 0830 until 1800, and so do we. At the moment there are more than 100 people living on base, doing all sorts of jobs such as electricians, carpenters, electrical engineers, weather forecast, mechanics, divers, field guides, pilots, scientists, doctors, etc.

Geoff, Wouter and myself are sharing four people bedrooms that contain two bunk beds, whilst Katie has been provided with a luxury 2 people bedroom with en-suite bathroom. Life here revolves around aircraft taking off and landing, and meal times. It’s been cloudy for the past few days, so aircraft activity has been reduced dramatically — on the other hand, eating is going well! We tend to go for breakfast 1 at around 0730. I wrote breakfast 1 because at 1030, it’s smoko time, which consists of a second breakfast / early lunch with bacon, sausages, soup, etc. Lunch is at 1300, there is another tea break at 1630, and dinner is at 1900. The food is awesome, big thanks to the chefs for keeping everybody well fed and happy.

In between the various bits of training we’ve had to do (see Wouter upcoming post on this), we have also started putting together the whole metal detection systems that we will be dragging on the blue ice fields in the coming weeks.

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During free time, people enjoy doing all sorts of activities, from reading, watching movies or playing board games, to going out for a walk around the point or skiing down the ramp above the base.

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The Ramp, above Rothera, which acts as the local ski slope [Credit: R. Tartese]

 

 

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!

Arrival at Rothera

Katie Joy | 27 Nov 2019

The four person team all successfully arrived yesterday in Rothera, the British Antarctic Survey’s largest research station. We flew in with other summer visitors on the Dash 7 aircraft, a flight of about 4.5 hours from Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile. The flight over the Southern Ocean was pretty cloudy, but we got a good view of the bay surrounding Adelaide island, where Rothera is based. We could spot elephant seals lounging on the icebergs and sea ice below. After some arrival briefings, we found our rooms and met up with our field guide, Taff, who will be leading our fieldwork. 

The view east from Rothera Point towards Lauberf Fjord [Credit: Katie Joy]

We have spent much of today training — from how to take meteorological observations to help the pilots understand field cloud and visibility conditions (note this is meteorology, that is what the weather is doing, not meteoritics, the study of meteorites!), through to how to take care of ourselves in the cold, and safety around aircraft. Wouter and Romain have undertaken an introduction to fieldwork and are camping out tonight on the slopes above the base to test their putting-up-a-tent skills and, for them, to get their first experience of remote fieldwork food (more from them tomorrow). The weather today is stunning — the temperature is just below zero, the sky is blue and the wind is low, so hopefully they should have a peaceful first night out. In the meantime, Geoff and I have been meeting with the field ops managers to discuss the plan for getting us, and all of our kit (we have a lot of it), out to the field. It’s a complex task for the team here to plan how to deploy aircraft in changeable weather situations for us and other field teams operating in the remote field this season. We have started unpacking the cargo boxes we sent down earlier in the summer to check the condition of the metal detector equipment. The plan for the next couple of days is to get everything tested, both the electronics for the detection system and the towing apparatus for dragging the detector panels over the ice, pack it all up again, and prepare our cargo manifest to help plan the field transfer.

Geoff checks the cargo has arrived safely [Credit: Katie Joy]