[ I N D E X ]

August


By Steve Hinde (Field Assistant & Winter BC)

August has been a time of welcome environmental contrast. We started the month in winter darkness and ended it in bright sunshine with over ten hours of wonderful light each day. Our pasty faces are starting to tan and many of the team have been rummaging in bottom drawers to find the sun glasses that were put away in April.

At Augustís outset the glowing warm colours in our dull afternoon sky were briefly giving way to brighter light. The sun remained beyond our direct vision but at last it was bright enough to see clearly. Each day the brightness was with us for a few minutes longer and it was now time to get out and see what the winter weather had done to our surroundings.

Ben, Duncan and Kevan travelled west from the base following the drum line to Windy Cove, their transport was a comfortable and warm Sno Cat. The purpose of the journey was to see how the nesting emperor penguins had fared in the appalling winter weather. The news was very good, there were at least a couple of thousand birds huddled together on the sea ice. This was a very profitable trip for the base too, they were able to asses the access onto the sea ice and locate a second caboose (a hut on a sledge) so we could all enjoy trips to see this avian spectacle and have the comfort of staying in a warm hut.

The start of August was also time for us to visit some survey posts that lie in a rectangular array surrounding the base but at some fifteen kilometres distance. The Brunt Ice Shelf that we live on is a moving raft of ice always flowing away from the continent that lies to our south. Every three months a small team goes out and records the exact latitude and longitude of each post. This is accomplished using some clever GPS (Global Positioning System) equipment. Annette, Ben and Paul operated one of the loggers from a Sno Cat whilst Duncan and myself travelled with another using ski-doos. As time goes by scientists at BAS HQ use the data we collect to accurately record the direction and speed that the ice is moving at locations on the surface of the Shelf. The information we have gathered has shown that different points on the ice shelf are moving in different directions and at different speeds. In simple terms Halley Station is moving 60 metres west each month.

The Sno Cat during the GPS survey

Back on base weíd been trying to predict the date of the return of the sun. Various mathematical formulae were tried by the Simpson met team, I quizzed my GPS celestial memory and others read diaries from previous Halley winters. The resulting knowledge gained allowed us to confidently predict that the sun would first be seen on... well.. er.... anytime between the 10th and 23rd. The tenth was a convenient day on which to celebrate "sun up" it being a Saturday, a barbecue was arranged and all the necessary gear was amassed close to the Laws platform. Stuart prepared an excellent selection of food to be cooked over the burning embers. Saturday arrived and so did the wind, by lunchtime it was barely possible to see fifty metres in the blowing snow. The "sun up" barbecue became an indoor grill but was very tasty all the same.

Elaine raising the flag

On Monday 12th the wind eased and the sun's rays penetrated through a break in the thick stratos to reflect off the cloud base. We hastily arranged to raise the Union Jack, a brand new flag was brought out to replace the very battered and tired one that was lowered at "sun down" on April 27th. The BAS tradition is for the youngest person on the station to raise the flag at the sun's return. So Elaine was called upon to say a few words and hoist the flag into the dull sky. We eventually saw the sun directly for the first time at 13.50hrs on the 16th, it was only for a few minutes but was a most wonderful sight none the less.

With improved weather and already several hours of light it was time to get a group down to Windy Cove to enjoy a few nights away from base and to share the rare privilege of seeing a nesting colony of emperors. The first team away was Duncan, Mark Stewart, Lyndsey and Andy, they returned two days later with very big smiles on their faces. By the end of August everyone had been to see the birds at least once and many had paid a second visit.

The Windy Cove emperors are nesting on the frozen sea, actually on what is known as fast ice. Thatís ice that remains fast along the foot of the ice shelf coast and should only break away during the summer. We have to abseil down a rope to get down from the Brunt Ice Shelf and onto the fast ice. Thatís relatively simple to do once youíve learned the technique. Climbing back up the rope at the end of the day is more strenuous and really tests your ability to keep your hands warm when itís close to minus forty. The climb up is achieved using jumars, clamps that are fastened to your climbing harness and which you slide up the rope to hold your weight. A cam mechanism prevents you from sliding back down again.

A lone emperor penguin in front of the ice cliff
Penguins huddled together for warmth

We estimated the number of emperors with eggs to be close to five thousand but I must add that was not an accurate ornithological count. On the earlier trips we were seeing only males, most of which had been balancing an egg on their feet for almost sixty days. To see so many birds huddled together to keep warm is an amazing site. When I start to think about how theyíve survived the awful weather and temperatures down to minus fifty I find it almost beyond comprehension. I can only marvel at the tenacity of a species to find a niche in the polar environment and then exploit it to the full. By incubating their egg through the dark winter the penguins have avoided predators such as skuas which have to migrate north to avoid the cold. They have also given their chick the definite advantage of hatching as soon as the sun returns thus maximising the months of summer available for the parents to catch fish and feed their ever hungry offspring. Emperors can rear a chick every year, their smaller relatives the king penguins take almost eighteen months to raise a chick despite living in a much warmer environment.

By the third week of August the chicks had started to hatch and very soon the colony lost its peace and quiet as the proud parents became very vocal. The calling goes on through the night and from the comfort of our warm caboose it was a heartwarming sound to accompany a feint display of the aurora. Not too many days after the chicks started to hatch the females began to return from their winter fishing holiday. Processions of birds could be seen walking or tobogganing across the ice, always in single file as though playing follow the leader. The mums bring with them their chicks first meals of fish.

A female leaping from the water after feeding at sea
An emperor penguin

Whilst weíve been taking our turns to enjoy this wonder of nature Halley Research Station has been kept running smoothly by those left behind on base. People have been very busy doing their own job as well as covering for those away. Hence itís been a very busy month and one that seemed to pass in a flash.

The return of the sun has also enabled us to start work on outdoor tasks. Parties have been out and raised the drum lines that have drifted over during the winter. These lines are used to mark the safe routes of travel to places we visit regularly. Also out of doors the containers that we use to store our equipment have been pulled to the surface. Ben, Paul and Andy have been making the most of the hours of available light.

In the travel store Duncan and I are keenly anticipating the approaching summer science season. We shall be leaving the station and undertaking sledge journeys in regions rather more mountainous than the Brunt. Itíll be good to see some scenery with varying elevation, even the Netherlands are more mountainous than the Brunt! Preparation of all the field equipment is nearing completion and weíre carefully checking every item off against the allocation sheets of whatís required for each sledge party.

Iíll end by sending our warm greetings to all the people whoíll be coming to Halley V this coming summer. We know that your preparations have now begun, have a safe and enjoyable journey to Antarctica, we look forward to seeing you on the Brunt Ice Shelf.


Hello to David, Debbie, Robert and Matthew, hope you had a fantastic birthday Matthew.

Steve Hinde