[I N D E X]
Blizzard: An Antarctic blizzard is a high southerly wind generally accompanied by clouds of drifting snow, partly falling from above, partly picked up from the surface. In the daylight of the summer a tent cannot be seen a few yards off: in the darkness of winter it is easy to be lost within a few feet of a hut. There is no doubt that a blizzard has a bewildering and numbing effect upon the brain of anyone exposed to it. From "The Worst Journey in the World", Apsley Cherry-Garrard 1922.
Blowing snow and drift have been the prominent features of the weather at seventy-six degrees south this month as spring has brought unsettled conditions to our part of the Antarctic. On blizzard-like days, the contrast is extremely poor on the ice surface and it is easy to trip over our feet as deceptive lumps of ice play havoc with our depth perception. Near white-out conditions are an accepted fact of life as visibility can drop to next to nothing. We step out onto our doorstep with every inch of skin covered and can barely make out what is ten paces ahead as the snow covers our footprints the moment we make them. At its worst, the blowing snow is horizontal and whips past us like a sandblaster. It sure does make our small world seem even smaller when the horizon is obliterated for days on end. Ten days was the longest stretch of continuous thirty knot winds with gusts up to fifty knots (55 miles per hour); not enough to blow any of us off our feet but enough to remind us to respect the force of the elements. Our local temperatures have been a little erratic as well, oscillating between minus eleven and minus forty-two degrees Celsius. Minus eleven degrees feels almost tropical these days.
Our main accomodation platform is a most unique structure, lifted five metres off the ground by twenty heavy steel beams. In strong winds the whole building sways,and there is no escape on any part of the building. I would lie in my bed at night and listen to the wind howling outside. Suspended book shelves rock to and fro, and hanging objects swing like pendulums. It's a little like being in a low-Richter-scale earthquake, only what is under us is not earth, but a slowly moving ice shelf. We venture outside only when we need to and other than that we are confined indoors. It's a little frustrating at times as outdoor work has to be put off and field parties are thwarted in their travelling. Their confinement is in an even smaller area - that of a pyramid tent, where it is not possible to stand upright with thick canvas being the only buffer against the strength of the wind.
Cabin fever is mentioned now and then as there is nowhere else to go and not much to see nor do outside. Shovelling snow or going for a short walk provides some respite. Shovelling snow is a never-ending task; the prevailing easterly wind covers everything with a solid dump of snow. It seems somewhat futile as what we have dug becomes covered within minutes but it's a good activity for fresh air. Over the past few months we have received small news segments about the Big Brother show on the internet. Their living conditions sounded slightly similar to ours. It doesn't sound like a bad way to earn £70 000 although that's only speculation on my part as I doubt many of us could stand to have the company of closed circuit television cameras. Having fifteen flat-mates living and working in each others' pockets is not easy all the time. Inevitably, it's always the small things that get on people's nerves, exacerbated when sixteen people are cooped indoors. Our moods can oscillate with the weather at times. Retaining a sense of humour and a sense of perspective keeps our human relationships in balance and we all remain vaguely sane.
Clear sunny days this month are memorable as there
have been so few of them. After a period of prolonged wind the change in tempo
is a little surprising. The building stops shaking and all is calm. It seems
eerily quiet outside and the sun shines through the clouds with monochrome
giving way to vivid colour. Weather dictates our lives down here and controls
our movements so it is quite a boon to be able to get away from the station and
down to the coast when the conditions are right. A few of us managed to ski down
onto the sea ice on a fine day recently. The ice was so smooth as the contours
of sastrugi have been filled in by blowing snow. The ice cliffs looked as
imposing as ever, towering above the sea ice. A few emperor penguins were
tobogganing about, moving more quickly than we did. Halley has a 360 degree
panorama of flat horizon so days like this provide a revitalising change in
visual stimulus and remind me what an incredible and truly remote place
Antarctica is. The only sounds we could hear were the breeze, the call of
penguins and of skis scraping along ice.
Walking on sea ice at the coast
Work and science have continued uneventfully this
month. Breaks of fine weather have allowed us to carry out outdoor tasks that
have been waiting for months. The warmer temperatures have seen our mobile crane
come out of hibernation to lift heavy items around the station. Bulldozers
have been used to pull forward a long line of heavy containers which house the
majority of our extra equipment and have been partially buried in accumulating
drift over the winter. A major achievement has been the raising of two
hundred fuel drums from ice-encrusted depots under the ice, a gruelling job that
involved everyone available to work. Outdoor work will increase greatly in the
next few months as we prepare the station for the arrival of the planes and
ultimately RRS Ernest Shackleton, due in December. The prospect of
fresh fruit and post are good points of discussion and something to look forward
Fuel depots at Halley. This picture was taken earlier in the year. By the time these are drums are raised next year the top row of drums will be almost buried.
Finally a word about Nansen...
I recently read Farthest North, published in 1898 by Fridjolf Nansen, a Norwegian polar explorer. He is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of sledging and we use his legacy of Nansen sledges here at Halley. His account of his sledging journeys in the Arctic Circle chronicled the daily struggles of existence, amidst broken sea ice and polar bears. Nansen and his sledging companion decided to winter at the latitude of eighty-one degrees north. During the winter months he wrote: I had hoped to get much done this winter, work up my observations and write some of the account of our journey but very little was done...altogether these surroundings did not predispose one to work. The brain worked dully and I never felt inclined to write anything...The entries in my journal for this time are exceedingly meagre; there are sometimes weeks when there is nothing but the most necessary meteorological observations with remarks. The chief reason for this is that our life was so monotonous that there was nothing to write about. The same thoughts came and went day after day; there was no more variety in them than in our conversation. The very emptiness of the journal really gives the best representation of our life during the nine months we lived there.
Although our conditions at Halley are not comparable to Nansen's epic
winter, his descriptions are interesting to read. Polar dwellers have long
described the effects of darkness and climatic conditions on the mind.
Personally I find the blizzards the most difficult of days; waiting for the wind
to stop and to be outside without being pummelled by the elements. Such is the
unpredictable nature of the weather at present. The pattern of day and
night has been as normal as it will get here with the passing of the spring
equinox this month. Now the days will become lighter until the last sunset in