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
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.
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 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.
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.
Spending time at Rothera before we transfer out to the field has been great and given me a chance to see some of the local wildlife, see some spectacular scenery, and meet the great people to work hard to keep the station and field operations on the go. The next few blogs will hopefully give you some insights to what life is life at the research station. See Research Station Life post 1 for some background to the wildlife around the base.
Who works at Rothera research station?
It turns out a lot of people — some 125 or so at the moment — and they all do very different jobs. I have met a few scientists who are working on marine biology projects close to the station, many more are out in the field at the moment at their various different science field projects, but most of the people who are living and working at Rothera either are employed by the British Antarctic Survey directly to help run the station and support the science projects, or are employed by the contractor (BAM) who are building the new wharf area. At one of the many opportunities to eat or have a cup of tea, I have often ended up asking who I end up to what they do… so to give you a bit of a flavour of the many job roles:
chefs — these guys work really hard to feed everyone on site (did I mention the food is really great and I am enjoying it a bit too much to the point where I am not sure I will be able to fit into my thermals soon… Geoff who arrives next week needs to get ready to eat and drink tea, a lot of tea). They have a well stocked kitchen and pulled it out the bag yesterday for Christmas day serving up an amazing three course meal over two sittings.
vehicle mechanics — these guys keep all the amazing vehicles on site up and running (see the next post about this), and commission new kits that arrives – from snowmobiles to container vehicles there are is a lot of traffic around site, and we all wear florescent jackets to keep good visibility.
doctors — at the moment there are two doctors on site, and in the winter there is only one, although many of the station team are trained in advanced first aid. The doctors assess issues as they arise, keep the field medical kits well stocked and train field parties how to use them, and even have an X-ray machine on site to check for broken bones.
field guides — these guides help to keep the science and logistic field parties safe and assess surface travel across snow and ice to find safe routes. They come from a range of backgrounds — some are mountaineers, others have do outdoor training. Each field party team is assigned a field guide and many are off station at the moment in the field.
station managers — Rothera has local station managers to organise work around station, liaise back with Cambridge on operations, help plan field operations and flight plans for moving people between stations, and making sure that everyone on site has a bed and knows what job they are there to do.
construction team — Rothera station is undergoing a modernisation project at the moment and has about 40 extra people on site than is normal in the summer from the contractor contraction company. The current wharf will be demolished and a new one built over a period of two years meaning that there are crane experts, infrastructure engineers, demolition experts, heavy vehicle operators, quarrying experts, along with environmental protection and monitoring of the site.
Met Office weather team — the weather forecast team are seconded out from the Met Office and work to integrate daily weather reports for the flying crew and field teams to help keep operations safe.
This is to name but a few of the roles people do — there are the boat crew and pilots who get people around the continent safety, science lab management of the field projects and also the marine biology lab, plumbers and the mechanical team who keep the power generators running to make sure everyone on base is warm and has warm water, communications and radio operators to talk with the air crew and field parties, marine biologists who will dive and collect samples to monitor local ecosystem changes, others maintain the observation equipment around the station… the list goes on and I am still finding new people to talk with about what their job entails.
How can I work in Antarctica?
You can see what jobs they have at Rothera, and on the other UK Antarctic research stations and at BAS’s headquaters in Cambridge by looking at the BAS job vacancy page. At the time of posting this, they are looking for a mix of different people from boating officers who can take out dive crews into the bay, field guides who have mountaineering and guiding experience, planet mechanics, radio operators, electronic engineers, local support staff who help with a variety of different activities from waste management and cleaning through to cargo, marine biologists …. Some of these require specialist training, others require enthusiasm and the desire to work somewhere different. Some of the jobs are for the summer season (~October to May), some for both a summer and a winter (meaning you will live south for 18 months through the Antarctic night with a small team of people).
Or you can get lucky like we have been and get a science project funded to come to Antarctica for a short period of time to collect whatever data or samples, and/or make measurements that are needed to achieve their project goals.
The Dash 7 aircraft got us into Rothera research station at around 15:30 yesterday afternoon. It was a cloudy flight across the southern ocean – but when the clouds broke the sea below looked angry with white horses. Rothera is located on the south-eastern end of Adelaide island at Lat. 67°35’8″S, Long. 68°7’59″W — just off the Peninsula itself. The island is made up of several different volcanic sequences emplaced through the Jurassic (~150 million years ago) to the Eocene (about 50 million years ago) (the Point itself is gabbrodiorite for all you geologists — download a map here).
Coming into landing on the gravel runway we got a great view of the surrounding islands and the surrounding bay. The open water around the base is a surprise after visiting the US McMurdo base in the past when I was on ANSMET — there the sea is iced up until about late January or early February, so it is strange and exciting to see so many shades of blue as the ice bergs bob by around Adelaide island. Thanks to Andy and Al our pilots for the flight and explaining about the aircraft (it was built in 1988 and originally used at City Airport in London).
Rothera station is made up of several different buildings all built at different times, and Kat gave us a tour of the site this morning. The buildings serve different functions from science labs (including a great marine biology lab with examples of local sealife), the food galley, kitchens and recreation areas, accommodation blocks, waste disposal (including a large recycling centre), field guide equipment area (where you can find everything from tents to down jackets to ski equipment), the power station and water desalination plant, mech centre for vehicle maintenance… and numerous others that I haven’t been to yet. The Lost Meteorites project has been given our own lab to set up in and I have just been checking the meteorite collection kits and equipment which arrived on the JCR ship last week.
There are currently a lot of people on station than normal — about 125 or so, and more due in soon — this is because there is a new wharf construction project starting to accommodate BAS’s new David Attenborough research vessel and there are lots of contractors on site ready to start the build in the New Year. Those of us who arrived yesterday have been getting inducted (thanks to Jess the station manager for making us very welcome!), and have been learning about how to watch out for cold weather injuries, site dangers and aircraft risks. I have been given a room in Admiral’s house which is a cosy accommodation block and will be my base until we can get out to the field. Walking from there to the galley for lunch involves walking at a safe distance past a group of elephant seals that are currently occupying some of the bridgeways — all part of the local wildlife population along with Skuas and snow petrels that have been flying around.
Tomorrow I head out with Julie our field guide to do some in field training (how to put up the tents, stove training, field gear) and then it is Christmas — a time for everyone on station to relax for the day and enjoy the Christmas decorations that are up and about.