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Where we live

Antarctic Field Camp

What do you live in while you are there?

The Halley station (where I have "wintered" and now work in summer) is a number of buildings on legs.

The station gets one to two metres of snow a year, which never melts, and so we must raise up the station on its legs each year. When working away from the base, we live in Pyramid Tents, which are very strong, but there are not very many home comforts! Working from the tents takes some getting used to. The main lesson I learnt was to be very tidy, otherwise you loose socks, gloves, computers - and the small spanner used for the cooker!

Do you ever get bored?

No, not bored. Frustrated, when the weather is bad and you have to stay in your sleeping bag. Frustrated, when aircraft can't fly due to bad weather and your work is done and you want to get home. Never bored. It is too exciting an experience.

Was it difficult to adjust to normal temperature when you returned?

No, the physical side of adjusting is quite easy, especially as you return in the UK winter, when the Antarctic is in summer. The temperatures are not so different then. The things that you cannot get used to are:

 

Traffic going faster that 10 km per hour. Water from taps which you don't have to replace by digging snow Having a choice of 58 types of toothpaste in the supermarket People being thoughtless and selfish Pubs closing!

 

Where and how do you live?

There are 40 British staff working in the Antarctic in the winter and they are all on Antarctic bases or "research stations". We have three stations where staff spend the winter. Halley has 15 staff, Rothera has 22 staff and the small station on South Georgia in the sub-Antarctic has just 3 staff. These small communities have to provide all the resources: cooks, engineers, doctor, vehicle mechanics, builders and outdoor experts besides the scientists themselves. Both men and women are members of the base.

You live a communal life that becomes disturbed in the summer when another 150 or so staff visit the Antarctic for the summer. Then there is continual daylight and an urgency to get the jobs done while the weather is warm and the daylight long. This is the time for the field scientists to camp. You live for up to three months with one assistant, travelling across the ice and snow undertaking your specific scientific programme. You live on dehydrated food, dig snow for water, and are often marooned inside a pyramid tent waiting for the weather to improve. Outside work in whiteout (low cloud with fog, snow or rain) or in blizzard is very difficult and you just wait for a change in the weather. You are well clothed and should survive almost any emergency because of your training and equipment.

How do you build the houses you live in and what are they made from?

Houses are built on piles to keep the heat of the base away from the frozen ground or the ice they would otherwise be sitting on. Our Halley station is built on stilts and the building has to be jacked up each year to keep it at a fixed height above the ever-rising level of the snow. The buildings are made of good insulation to keep the cold out and the heat in. A range of materials are used, but predominantly we use wood. I have never seen a brick building or one with tiles - it is more than likely that tiles would blow away in the wind!

Some of the buildings are wholly constructed in the UK, then taken apart and re-assembled in the Antarctic by the same builders. The architectural skill is to have a design that allows fast erection in the Antarctic, so that the shell of the building is constructed in the short Antarctic summer and is weatherproof before the worst of the winter weather sets in.

Where do you get power from?

On our Antarctic stations we have our own diesel engine generators to provide the power for lighting, heating, electricity and either for melting snow or turning sea water into fresh water for cooking and drinking. We therefore have very large tanks of fuel on the stations. This is delivered by ship in 45-gallon drums or as a supply that is piped ashore.

When you are camping for the summer, as many of the geologists and glaciologists do, you carry on your sledge jerry cans of petrol (for small generators), paraffin(for the "Primus" stove and for lighting the tent by Tilly Lamp) and a petrol/oil mix (for the motorised vehicles we drive around in, commonly called skidoos). Some experiments we have devised for use at camp sites use solar panels or high energy batteries.

We have also constructed some totally automatic observatories measuring the weather and with the science to do with the aurora. These are visited once a year and run off solar panels and wind turbines. In the middle of the winter the power sometime fades until the sun returns in the spring.

Do you shave?

I was at a field camp for three weeks with one other person. I did not shave but in the end wished that I had, as shaving after three weeks was very difficult, especially on the ship (the sea was rough and I felt ill). The other chap had a beard so perhaps that is the best idea.

Did you have time for leisure, if so what did you do?

We were at the camp site for three weeks and in the end only had one day where we did our own thing. On this day the weather was great - a clear sky and lots of sun, so we went for a long walk to another bay and counted fur seals. The beaches around this bay had thousands of seals so it took all day to count them.

We also lost some work days as the weather was too bad to venture out of the tent. During these days we read lots of books and drank lots of tea to keep warm.

Is it difficult living there and how did you survive in a tent for four months?

Yes, living in a field camp is difficult in some ways. It's quite a challenge - you have to get on with the person you share your tent with!. And you have to live off dried food; you can't get nice food like fresh fruit and vegetables! There are no toilets, bathrooms or running water! But the tents, although they are very cramped, are actually quite comfortable and cosy by the time you have snuggled into your sleeping bag. I was very glad to get back and sleep in a proper bed at the end of four months though!

Is it difficult living there and how did you survive in a tent for four months?

Not very difficult. Most of my work is based from Halley, a comfortable research station with central heating and a chef (both good things) but which is a very busy place, especially in summer. Working from a tent is a very welcome break, it is quiet, and peaceful, and you can concentrate on the science. Living is not much harder than camping in the UK, in many ways easier, the tents are much larger for a start.

What is it like to stay in your camp for months at a time?

When I was down South in December I stayed on South Georgia for three weeks. I was camping in a very remote place. There were only two of us and we lived in a small tent. Some days the weather was so bad we could not do any work but had to stay in the tent. During these times we read a lot of books. We had no electricity, only a small camping stove. To keep warm we drank lots of tea. The bay we were camping in had lots of seals living on the beaches, they were breeding at this time of year. With all the seals it was very noisy at the camp. The worst part was the food, no fresh food but only dried camping type food, but we survived and it was great fun.

What do you do with all your rubbish in the camp? Do you have to bring it all back with you?

Yes, all the rubbish has to be brought back, usually it is placed in different coloured bags for different types of rubbish. When we left the camp it was not possible to tell we had been there.

What do you do in the evening when you stop working?

We always have a big dinner with everyone on base. We take turns cooking this, and there are 8-10 of us there all working on different things (I work on the seals, others work on the penguins and albatrosses). We watch movies after dinner on some nights, often write e-mail home, or play cards or other games.

Did you have a brilliant time in the Antarctic?

Yes, I did have a brilliant time in Antarctica ! There are all sorts of tests you can carry out on the ice. Some people bring samples of ice back to Cambridge and carry out tests here, to find out what the ice, and the air bubbles trapped in it, are made of. By doing this they can discover how the climate thousands of years ago was different to how it is today.

But I was doing different sorts of tests - Antarctica is a continent, so most of the ice over Antarctica is actually resting on land - it's only around the coast that the ice is floating on water. We wanted to find out about the ground underneath the ice. We did this by setting off explosives and measuring the echoes, or the "shock waves" that you get when the sound made by the explosives bounces off the ground underneath the ice. We found out that in places where the ice moves fast, there is a layer of mud underneath the ice, making it slip! In other places where the ice moves very slowly, the ice is frozen to the ground underneath it.

How do you keep warm at night when you are camping?

In our camp, we sleep in sleeping bags on inflatable mattresses called thermorests, with a sheepskin over the top to keep extra warm. But it still takes a while to get warm when you get into bed at night!

How do you keep your feet warm?

When I was working on the ice, I had to wear special boots called "mukluks" to keep my feet warm. They had thick rubber soles and three layers of woolly lining.

What was the coldest day you have had in Antarctica?

My own experience was in 1991, on a calm August day outside our Halley Station. Some colleagues and I were driving a Sno-cat back from the coast (about 16 km away from the base), when the station meteorologist called on the radio to say we had a new record for the base, as -51.2° Celsius. So of course we all got out of the Sno-cat for a walk.

At Halley, the winter temperatures range from -20°C down to the lower -40°s (Celsius) but the climate is such that the winds are always much stronger when it is -20°C, and we only get -40°s when the wind is almost still. So it's about the same "wind chill" all the time.

Do you live in an igloo?

No. We have very good tents that are made of cotton and can withstand very strong winds.