Sledge Victor Over and Out

Katie Joy | 21 Jan 2020

The last few days have been somewhat manic to say the least. A final search on the 17th Jan didn’t yield any more meteorites, though we finished off the southern ice field and could put the doos (skidoos) to bed.

End of season thumbs up selfie from the two remaining Sledge Victor field party members (Katie in the stormtrooper mask at left, Taff in his duck beak mask at right). [Credit: Katie Joy]

A weather window then opened up across the Ronne Ice Shelf meaning that a plane was quickly dispatched from Rothera to come out to our field site at Outer Recovery to collect fieldguide Taff and I. We had a busy day of packing up camp, building and finalising the depots to be left over the Antarctic winter, sorting out all the kit to be brought back to Rothera.

Evening sun at our field site just before we broke camp. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds forming in the area, indicative shearing winds. [Credit: Katie Joy]

The weather was quite changeable in the day, with at one point snow blowing across the ice surface under 25 knot winds (not ideal for landing a plane when you need to see the skiway contrast). However, the Otter landed at about 10 pm on the 18th Jan with pilot Ian and co-pilot Callam, uplifting us back west, where we had a late night camping out in a mountain tent on Berkner Island. The air was still, but cold with our hair freezing up turning us grey, and the surface was snowy and looking like a million sugar lumps. The next morning on the 19th we departed for Rothera via Fossil Bluff, landing around 7 pm.

Flying back over the Peninsula – mountain ranges emerge out of the ice. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Melt ponds forming as the sea ice melts near Fossil Bluff. [Credit: Katie Joy]

Everything was rapidly unloaded from the aircraft and shifted to various parts of the base to be organised — the meteorites to the freezer, the rubbish to the rubbish centre, our science cargo to its storage area be sorted, all the field gear to the Fuchs building (sorry guys for making it a mess). Utterly overwhelming to see so many people after the relative quietness and tranquillity of the field. Finding our rooms, quick shower, making it to the dining hall (just) for the end of service (lamb roast – amazing). I was scheduled on the Dash 7 flight north to Chile for 9 am the next morning on the 20th…  so had to run around to organise all of my personal kit separating it from the BAS borrowed field kit and making sure things were washed (sorry to my roommate Sarah who’s bedroom was suddenly inundated with stinking clothes and four bags of stuff tipped out on the floor – I hope the smell of kerosene and field grime is not lingering) and the science cargo to be shipped back north later this month, to be ready to leave. Ahhhhh… finally got a beer at the end of a long day. Then the next morning saying goodbye to people, heading north on the Dash, dinner in Punta, an early night and collection at 4 am today for the next flights back to the UK via Santiago and Sau Paulo.

Flying over the Andes on route out of Santiago airport. [Credit: Katie Joy]

So yes, its been a bit mad for the last few days and I am missing life of being at Outer Recovery whizzing around the ice spotting meteorites. Antarctica grabs you (well it has certainly has got to me) and doesn’t let you go — hopefully I will get a chance to come back someday to continue the search for more space rocks on the ice.

It has been amazing that in just two field seasons with such small teams we have collected over 100 surface stones for future scientific study by the cosmochemistry community and I am very proud of what we have achieved and look forward very much to finding out what types of meteorites we have collected. Over to the laboratory and curation team now for the next phase of the science story, and hopefully we can continue to source more funding and the support of BAS to get back out to the ice in the next few years to continue our scientific success.

Saying goodbye to our fieldsite. [Credit: Katie Joy]

More blogs posts to come when we have results in from the last season’s meteorite haul, and to update everyone on our science research paper outcomes.

Some thanks and shout outs from me at this stage:

  • The rest of the Sledge Victor Manchester fieldteam — Geoff, Wouter, and Romain who fought a determined fight with the metal detector panels, and found some great meteorites during surface search days. To the story of 118-218-119-119alpha.
  • Andy Smedley, our Man back in Manchester, who has been receiving our emails from the field to post the blog. [BTW – we named the 3rd blue detector panel sledge Sledge Smedley (mentioned in this previous blog) in his honour at not having him with us in Antarctica]. Whilst Sledge Smedley only had a few days out and about, he lived his life to the full bouncing around and at least still has an intact bottom.
  • The Twin Otter flight teams (Mark, Ian, Dutch, and Dave) and co-pilots from Rothera and Halley who have come out to visit us this season and help get us and plane fuel across the enormity of the continent. The Rothera field operations managers who work 3-d chess to try and get everyone in the right place on the right day working around the ever changeable weather. The Rothera science coordinator Maz who has been so brilliant in helping out with requests for boxes, getting our cargo together for shipment, and just being completely fab. Everyone at Rothera and Halley who works hard to just get stuff done.
  • And a special thanks to our wonderful team of field guides Julie, Taff and Rob who have kept us safe, organised camp, provided great chats and moral, and have helped us to find the meteorites we have collected. Thanks guys for putting up with us all for the different parts of the project you have worked on this year and last, its been a privilege to spend time with you.

… 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).

Back at Rothera and heading towards home

Katie Joy | 06 Feb 2019

A quick update to say that we arrived safely back at Rothera Research Station around 9 pm last night. Vicky put in an amazing effort to get us back from Halley on the Twin Otter all in one day with bad weather swirling around. Goodbye to Halley and the fab team of people who are working really hard there to wrap up the end of their season of work. Thanks so much to all for making our field season a success and for your hospitality looking after us so well.

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Goodbye to Halley research station — now raised up on its legs higher than when we came through just before New Year.

The views on route as we winged our way west were amazing out of the window (when I wasn’t snoozing) and we got a great view of the mountains close to Fossil Bluff through the mist and also saw a glory in the mist layer (see photo and caption for more). On flights like this, you realise how big Antarctica is and how flat and white and expansive most of the landscape is — just miles and miles of sastrugi-covered snow surfaces, with the occasional crevasse or rocky nunatak to break the horizon.

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Stunning mountain tops on route with long shadows as the austral summer comes to an end and some twilight starts to return
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Fully circular “rainbow” seen from the plane in the mist layer — more properly called a Glory

Rothera has changed somewhat since we were last here, with the new wharf works ongoing, but there are a few seals swimming around in the bay. Today has been a day of sorting out shipping and items to get back home before I am due to fly back tomorrow on the Dash 7 back to Punta and then onto the UK over the weekend.

Towards to the field… via Sky Blu and Halley research station

Katie Joy | 30 Dec 2018

We are nearly in the field and hope to reach our first field locality tomorrow if the weather is ok. Hopefully next time I send a blog it will be via a satellite phone directly from our field camp — but let’s not get too carried away as everything is adaptable in Antarctica…

We left Rothera three days ago on one of BAS’s twin otter planes. These lightweight hardy twin prop planes have both wheels and skis meaning that they can land at remote snow and ice runways. We knew that to make the trip from Rothera to Halley research station it would require two, possibly three refuels and we headed south first towards Fossil Bluff field site to the south of Rothera via some spectacular views of sedimentary cliffs and debris flows cascading down their steep flanks.

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Cliffs near Fossil Bluff field site — spectacular humbug-like interbedded sedimentary layers cross cut by debris flows.

After a quick refuel we ventured on to Sky Blu which is a blue icefield at about 1200 m above sea level and on the day was fairly warm at around –2°C. Sky Blu will be Geoff and Mike’s field site when they come down south to Antarctica in a couple of weeks. I had a very quick look along some rocks close to the runway area, didn’t spot any meteorites, but many of the local rocks have clearly sunken into the ice (known as a cryoconite hole), suggesting relatively warm local melt conditions.

There are three staff stationed at the runway, meeting field parties as they come through, refueling planes, and maintaining the field camp in the summer months. We had anticipated flying on from Sky Blu, but the weather at Halley (still some 5–6 hours flight away) closed in and was misty. We stayed the night at Sky Blu and had a great dinner and sat up chatting in the mess tent.

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GPS tracks of our aerial traverse route. Day 1 travel is shown in yellow and day 2 in light blue.
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Our all female flight across the continent. From left – Julie our field guide, Jen the flight engineer, Vicky our fab pilot and me.
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Loading up the Twin Otter at the our stop at BAS’s Sky Blu ice runway
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Cryoconite hole filled with water and with large (terrestrial magmatic) rock inside that has melted and sunk down into the blue ice

The next day brought better weather news and we headed off from Sky Blu around 9 am, taking a refuelling break at a site on the Ronne Iceshelf and then onto Halley research station, reaching here around 5 pm. The weather at Halley is cooler than at Rothera – currently at –5°C, with windchill it is around –10°C — but in the sun it doesn’t feel bad at all.

Halley station is actually number 6 in a series of BAS stations located in the area. The current incarnation is a spectacular space-station like series of interconnected modules that are on skis and that can be jacked up each year to rise up from the accumulating snow (there was a BBC Horizon show about the station in 2017 you can catch up on and if you want to take a 360 tour inside the station visit here).  The station currently is only a summer lived in station — it used to be all year around, but a spectacular fracture (nicknamed the Hallowe’en crack) opened up about 5 km from the station, and for safety the station is only occupied at the moment in the summer months — there are currently about 38 people on base. Halley serves as an atmospheric observation science centre, including ozone measurements and a lightning detector network, and also is at the heart of space weather (interaction of the solar wind with our magnetosphere and upper atmosphere) observations. The engineers are currently working on developing a new automation system to try and run some of the experiments through next year’s winter months.

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Halley research station site as seen during our landing. The modular base is located to the left of the frame with the large red central block. Other buildings including our accommodation block and the garage are located to the right.
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Halley modules up close.

The staff here have been amazing working hard to prepare our snowmobiles and field equipment – thanks to Richard for the tour of site, and to the engineers explaining the experiments they are working on. Whilst being at Halley we have been checking over our field kit to make sure it is all in good order and is weighed correctly for the flights, and working with Vicky our BAS pilot to prepare put in and collection sites for the field, using high-res imagery to try and find a range of places to be dropped off. We think it will take three flights of about 3 hours each way to get us and our two skidoos and sledges and kit to the field. Fingers crossed the skies will be clear tomorrow and we get out to some blue icefields to the south of the Shackleton mountain range to start our field campaign.