Hello and welcome (back?) to our Lost Meteorites of
Antarctica blog. After 7 years in the making, we are now set for the grand
finale of the project! Yes, on Sunday our team departs for Antarctica in the
search of subsurface iron meteorites. In theory, we reach the continent on
Tuesday. We are not expected back until the end of January 2020.
The field team is comprised of Katie and Romain (meteoriticists), Wouter (engineer), Taff (field guide) and myself (head of chainsawing?). Of course this leaves a much larger team back in the UK who will continue to support us. It is our intention to supply almost daily updates of the project and life in the Antarctic, via this blog. Please feel free to submit questions and we shall endeavour to answer and queries people might have.
As it stands, we’ll have a week in Rothera (the British Antarctic Survey’s main base) to check all of our equipment is in order, repack bags and conduct some final field training. After that we cross the continent to the “Outer Recovery Ice Fields”, where Katie and Julie (our field guide) visited last January to collect the UK’s first haul of meteorites. In so doing Katie and Julie were the first people ever to visit the spot — meaning we got to officially name the place (another first for the project). This project has been a blast all the way, with so much enjoyable help from so many people (thank you everyone). As planned, we have also unearthed some truly interesting and useful science, much of which we’ll explain in upcoming posts. In the mean-time, wish us well, and we look forward to supplying you with tales of scientific adventure from farthest South!
It’s been a bit quiet on the blog over the summer, but behind the scenes preparations are well and truly underway for the upcoming field season. We’re all working towards a shipping date at the end of the August so that the equipment can be in Antarctica for November. The metal detecting electronics have been revised, curation kit assembled, risk assessments completed, packing is imminent and we’ve been going through a final couple of rounds of field testing.
The field site we use in the Peak District is close to a pleasant, but relatively unknown, town called Whaley Bridge. Unknown, that is, until the other week, when for a few days it become national headline news. As residents were evacuated due to the threat of the potential collapse of the Toddbrook Reservoir dam, the town was shut down while emergency repairs were carried out. This led to the rather surreal experience of carrying out field work as a Chinook helicopter passed back and forth dropping aggregate and sand bags to stabilise the dam.
Considering that a couple of the project team members houses are directly downstream and right next to the river, our field site provided a useful vantage point to find out whether their houses would be inundated!
Hello, and hopefully soon, goodbye, from Svalbard. I say this as our return flight back to Longyearbyen has just been cancelled due to the gale-force blizzard going on outside the door… (If we fly tomorrow instead, then things should still be OK for returning to the UK — apologies if any of my lectures are missed as a consequence!).
Anyhow, we’ve had an excellent trip, and been looked after brilliantly by the base manager Nick (thank you!). The present weather aside, we’ve had an fantastic run of things, where we’ve been out conducting field trials for 8 days solid with our metal detector array. Only on the last afternoon did the the storm start to come in, just whilst we were clearing the test site up, which added a thrill to things. I think we’re now in agreement that the system will likely detect 100 gram iron meteorites down to 20 cm in real-time, and finding smaller and/or deeper objects will require post-processing back in the tents after a day’s searching (in so doing, we won’t be distracted by the system constantly pinging due to background noise, and we’ll only get off the skidoos to investigate the largest signals). Should we locate iron meteorites much larger than 100 grams, then we’ll also find them in real-time at much deeper depths. This is all testament to our engineers Liam, Wouter and John, who have designed, built, and tinkered with the system over the past couple of years, and who are likewise trapped with me in the Arctic base.
As you will see from the images, the bitter cold we’ve had for most of the trip has been tempered by the stunning conditions. And the northern lights we saw two nights ago really capped the trip off well. As for wildlife, then only reindeer and seals this year, with no polar bears for distraction. That said, having the BBC’s Today Programme up here acted to keep us continually interested in what was going on around us, and many thanks to them for putting together their news-piece on our project, which can be listened to here:
Liam and I were particularly pleased about this, as it’s not often two New Mills residents feature so prominently on the news! And in case you are interested, my project colleagues back in the UK, Andy and Dave, plus myself, set four of the Arctic-themed “Puzzles for Today” this week, which can be found here (puzzle numbers 434-437):
It’s strange to think that the next time the system will be used in the cold will be down in Antarctica, where discussions as to exactly where we head to, and how much area we’re likely to search, are now well underway. In the mean-time, further equipment tinkering and engineering will commence back in Manchester, where the big deadline for shipping things South is mid-August.
All-in-all, we now have
the two key components of the project together: we know where on the continent
to search, and we have built the equipment capable of detecting englacial iron
meteorites. The proof of whether they are actually lost within the ice, will
now be in the pudding!
Good evening from 79º North (more informally: that’s very far North). It’s freezing. Proper freezing: –20ºC air temperature, plus a hint of moist wind, and with a sun barely popping over the surrounding mountain tops. And just before I left the house to fly here (whilst doing my last-second packing), I realised that I had left most of my thermal clothes on a washing line down in Antarctica in January……..
Anyhow, things are progressing here in somewhat a slightly unusual manner. This is because we have a team from the BBC working from here as well (for the Today programme on Radio 4), who are darting around compiling stories about research and life conducted up here. And also because there is a team from the UK Research Councils who are also darting around, making sure the BBC people don’t slip up — in both senses. It’s great and fascinating to have the BBC guys here, who have shown genuine interest in matters, and we’re utterly impressed by how hard they work. As we await for the programme’s live broadcast tomorrow morning, where some tedious Brexit story will likely supplant our (we like to think) far more interesting meteorite story, we do have the consolation prize that we’ve set the last two Puzzles for Today on their programme.
As for the meteorite project: things are going rather well (I say this even as John, Liam and Wouter stand 2m away from me studying a severely broken metal detector). This is because we’re getting excellent and repeatable results from our main metal detector, where we’re ‘seeing’ objects being detected in real time at the depths we hope to find the meteorites, across a range of skidoo speeds. The one big caveat however is that ‘down’ South we’ll be searching over solid glacial ice, whereas ‘up’ North we’re testing over soft fresh snow. The former has the potential to give more vibrations to the system than the snow, and, if not accounted for, has the potential to swamp meteorite signals.
As for the wildlife? There’s a couple of Svalbard reindeer hanging around the camp, but the Arctic foxes from last year seem to have moved on. Maybe this will change shortly, as sunlight is increasing by almost 25 minutes a day at the moment!
We’ll be back in touch with the latest Brexit, I mean
meteorite, update, later in the week.
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… 😦