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.
Today has been a busy day for the team here in Svalbard. We were accompanied by Henry Burgess from the NERC Arctic Office as we spent out first day in the field setting up the test site for the next few days of testing. The test area is approximately six times larger than the one we used when we were here last year; this time we have an overall track length of around 200m, and a width which is capable of accommodating three panels.
We have placed 20 dummy meteorites at seven different depths throughout the test area, which is sufficient for testing one detector. As the trial continues, we will place a further 19 which will allow us to test all three. Each pair of flags/poles in the image below represents target locations, which have all been carefully positioned and buried (some requiring quite a lot of excavation!) It was slow going, and hard work, but thankfully here on Svalbard there is always a very nice view waiting when we get the chance to look up and enjoy it.
Tomorrow morning we will be getting the equipment outside for the first time. We will be accompanied by the team from BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, who are here to find out about NERC, BAS, and the UK’s involvement in Arctic research; including the Lost Meteorites of Antarctica. We plan to test a single detector, with the main aim of determining the sensitivity of the detector to the dummy meteorites, characterising the vibration associated with dragging the detector system, and testing of the user interface.
Tomorrow evening we expect to be joined by our University of Manchester colleague, and Lost Meteorites PI, Geoff Evatt. Sadly for him, if all goes to plan he will arrive to find us having completed a full set of measurements and facing a day indoors processing all the data. As the week progresses there will be plenty more work to do as we tweak the system and scale up to the three detectors that we have with us.
On day two of our time here in Ny-Alesund we have been making good progress. Much of the morning was taken up with further administration, covering both firearms training and coordination of the testing plans and media coverage of the activities taking place here at the NERC base. We did get time to conduct a small amount of testing or the response of two of our three metal detectors with meteorite surrogates, and the initial results were looking promising. We also undertook a significant amount of indoor vibration testing, which the system dealt with better than we had expected; this produced so much banging and crashing that the BBC Radio 4 Today team became curious of what was going on and stopped by for a brief interview.
When we resumed testing in the afternoon we experienced some difficulties in integrating the three detectors. It took a few hours but we managed to make the necessary software tweaks to get the hardware to behave properly. As we reach the end of the day we are at the stage where all three detectors are operational, and we have some initial configuration for outdoor testing of the system.
Tomorrow morning (Sunday) we intend to go out into the field to set up the test site, and all being well (after some further minor tweaks tomorrow afternoon) we should be heading out for some initial detector testing on Monday morning.
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.