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.