Halley views

9 Dec 2019
Digging out fuel en route to Halley. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Geoff taking his co-piloting duties seriously. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Flying over a colony of emperor penguins en route to Halley. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
Halley VI research station. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]
The Dobson spectrophotometer at Halley measuring ozone. [Credit: Geoff Evatt]

Life Around Rothera

Katie Joy | 5 Dec 2019

Rothera Research Station is located on a small peninsula called Rothera Point, protruding from Adelaide Island into Lauberf fjord. Walking around the point is a favourite evening pastime — it takes about an hour to do a circuit and return to the base, longer if you are wildlife spotting.

The view from the point into the fjord is stunning — at the moment the sea to the north is ice locked and icebergs (tens of metres in size) are released every so often, bobbing towards to the south into the open water of Marguerite Bay. Small floes drift around on the open water and cling to the shoreline when the wind is up. Since we have been here the sea has varied from angry, stormy and choppy, with small white horses whipping around, to flat and calm and totally clear producing amazing reflections from the ‘bergs (we could see several metres down to the sea floor, though apparently it won’t stay like this for long as the plankton will be blooming soon, reducing the visibility). Across the bay is a snow capped mountain range including Cape Sáenz, which is the southernmost point of the Arrowsmith Peninsula.

View from Rothera Point looking northeast towards Arrowsmith Peninsula. [Credit: Katie Joy]

We attended a wildlife briefing the other night to familiarise ourselves with the different types of animals we might see: the staff at Rothera are recording which species are spotted as part of a long-term monitoring programme.

There are numerous mammals in the area including a number of seal species: we often see both noisy elephant seals that live around base (occasionally visiting us to see what we are up to — see the post from a couple of days ago when one was hanging out next to our metal detector array in the cargo yard), and the smaller Weddell seal. There are small gangs of Adelie penguins, which are utterly comical and cute as they run along flapping their wings, and their heads down. The airborne bird life is spectacular, with Antarctic terns, Antarctic shags, snow petrel, Wilson’s storm petrel, Skuas, and Kelp Gulls. Sometimes in the austral summer orcas (also known as killer whales), humpback whales and minke whales frequent the bay. Hopefully when we come back through Rothera in mid-January we might spot these ocean dwellers.

Elephant seals disguised as rocks. These are all juveniles, although are pretty enormous beasts at a couple of metres in length. [Credit: Katie Joy]
A particularly happy looking elephant seal. [Credit: Katie Joy]
A Weddell seal, a smaller variety than the elephant seal, with a distinctive mottle patterned back. [Credit: Katie Joy]
Everyone’s favourite — an Adelie penguin hanging out on the edge of the sea ice. [Credit: Katie Joy]
The Antarctic shag in flight (not a flying penguin!). [Credit: Katie Joy]
Kelp Gulls on Rothera Point. [Credit: Katie Joy]

Note that all the photos above were taken with a zoom lens — we keep a healthy distance from the wildlife so as not to disturb them.

Answering some questions from Beth

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.

Best wishes,

Katie

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.

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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.

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One of the meteorites we collected on our expedition sitting in the snow. The rock is about 20 cm long. We know it is a meteorite as it has a black coloured exterior and we can see structures inside that look different from Earth rocks (Image: K. Joy).

 

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.

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Buildings and runway at the British Antarctic Survey’s Rothera research station (Image: K. Joy)

 

  • 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.

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Colourful red and blue modules at Halley research station – you enter through an airlock like heavy door which makes you think you are entering a space station (Image: K. Joy).

 

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.

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Little cabins called cabooses that are used for extra accommodation at Halley research station.

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Our field tent home and camping equipment (Image: K. Joy)

 

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.

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The mountain range look close, but they were about 70 km away (Image: K. Joy).

  • 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).

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Katie at the geographical South Pole back in in January 2013 when she was a team member of the American Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program (Image: KJoy/ANSMET)

 

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.

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Katie wearing lots of warm layers, gloves and her protective facemask, with a meteorite on the ice (Image: K. Joy)

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!

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Penguins having a walk at Rothera (Image: K. Joy)

 

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 🙂

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    Adele penguins close to Rothera (Image K. Joy).