Rothera Diary: October 1998

written by Alison George

All change at Rothera


October 1998

Hello All

Life at Rothera gets turned on its head in October. The base is dragged out of its seven months of isolation, and is transformed into an Antarctic mini version of Heathrow. After seven months of the same familiar faces, suddenly there are arrivals and departures. Instead of skidoos and sledges skidding down the ramp after winter trips, now planes buzz in and out. Where previously the furthest journey was on Adelaide Island (the island where Rothera is located) now base personnel are scattered the length of the Antarctic Peninsula. And the winter sports stadium becomes an aircraft hangar!

At the start of the month the BAS Twin Otter planes were already on their long flight South, a journey that takes them from the UK, over to Iceland, then all the way down the Americas. They have to travel in short hops as they are such small planes. As if on cue, the weather at Rothera decided to misbehave. Great volumes of snow fell and each journey outside was met with a smack in the face of wet snow. Whilst most of us were busy scrubbing out the base in preparation for the summer season, the mechanics were attempting the never-ending task of clearing the runway of snow with bulldozers. No sooner had they cleared it, when it snowed again.

The first arrivals at Rothera this month were Weddell seal pups. Those familiar with our sister base Bird Island (which is crammed full of wildlife) will not be impressed with our grand total of two pups, but it caused quite a stir here, I can tell you. The pups, with their huge appealing eyes, must have been the world's most photographed seal pups, and blossomed to fat blobs in a remarkably short time. The cuteness of these pups hides the fact that they are tough creatures - the firstborn pup, skinny and tiny, happily slept through a violent storm on its first night in the world.

Rothera was soon looking sparkly clean after a week of hard toil. A T-party was held to celebrate the end of winter and scrubout. Not a civilised affair of tea-drinking, but a fancy dress night in which guests were invited to dress up in a costume beginning with T. It never ceases to amaze me out here, with limited resources, what costumes people manage to invent for such occasions. Party-goers arrived as a trifle, trainspotter and Tutankhamen to name but a few, the bravest participant being Steve, who arrived wearing little more than a coating of treacle!

The next night, supposedly the last night of winter, was an altogether more sophisticated affair. Mark P the chef produced a wonderful six course banquet, and all present dug deep into their cupboards to find their best outfits, long forgotten since midwinter. The winter photo was officially unveiled, beautifully mounted in a sledge-runner frame. The walls of Rothera are adorned with photos of the previous wintering crews, so our picture was added to the collection. A sweepstake was organised to guess exactly when the planes were going to arrive. Flying in the Antarctic is very different experience from the commercial flights back home. The severity of the weather means that delays of up to two weeks can occur. Reflect on this next time you are delayed for a few hours at Heathrow! Eyebrows were raised at Tulky's suggestion of seven days time. Little did we know! There then followed a bizarre week. Each morning the Meteorologists (Mark J and Rich) faxed weather maps to the BAS aeroplanes, waiting in Punta Arenas, Southern Chile. And each day the weather was too bad for the journey to Rothera to be made. It was a limbo-land, half way between summer and winter.

Maybe I ought to explain more about Antarctic seasons. As far as I can tell, the Antarctic does not have autumns and springs, just summer and winter. There are (obviously) no cues such as the flowering of daffodils or the falling of autumn leaves, although, like the rest of the world, summer is lighter and warmer. The dates of these seasons are not fixed. Summer starts when the first new people arrive on base, and winter is the time of isolation after the last ship leaves at the end of summer. However, a radio conversation with our nearest neighbours, the Argentinian station San Martin, had to be cut short recently because it was interrupting their First Day of Spring party. They obviously do things differently in their part of the Antarctic. Either that, or they use any excuse for a party!

Whilst checking a satellite weather image, Mark J noticed a that very significant departure had taken place. A section of the Ronne Ice Shelf the size of Norfolk had parted company from the rest of the ice and appeared to have the German summer-only base Filchner on top of it. Luckily this base is unoccupied.

Finally, a whole week after our "last supper" of winter, Giles landed his Twin Otter on the runway, closely followed by the three other planes. The winter was officially over. It was very much like welcoming back old friends, most of the Air Unit (pilots and mechanics) having been at Rothera last summer too. In fact, it was alarmingly like they'd never actually been away! The dining room was an interesting sight after the planes had been unloaded, with winterers sitting absorbed with mail in one hand, apples in the other.

Rothera was then rapidly transformed from a sleepy little place to a hive of Air Unit activity. The weather, in an attempt to impress the newcomers, was uncharacteristically fine, with blue skies and sun gleaming off the snowy peaks. I was the Nightwatch person, (patrolling the base at night to check that all is safe and secure) and witnessed some astounding sunrises. A pink glow on the top of the mountains flooded down until the surrounds were bathed in a pink light. It never completely got dark. There was always a light glow to the South. Before long we'll be experiencing twenty four hour daylight.

Preparations were underway for the forthcoming science projects. Fossil Bluff, the hut on Alexander Island, and "Sky-Blu", the blue ice runway were opened up. Remote automatic weather stations were serviced. A hut was erected at Mars Oasis, a biology field site, and kit for field parties was depoted. The Ronne Ice Shelf was surveyed to assess the situation, confirming what the satellite had shown - a BAS fuel depot and the German summer-only Filchner station had indeed made a break for independence atop a rather large iceberg. A rescue mission is being put into action.

Next to arrive was our old friend George. If you remember, George is a bird of a breed called skuas, and the nearest thing to a base pet. The sight of him sitting at the front door is probably more familiar to most visitors than that of the surrounding mountains. Presumably he navigated his way back from whichever sunny climes he's been holidaying in by an ever-stronger smell of sausages. His wife Mildred has yet to join him. Soon the skies will be filled with skuas once again, and no journey round Rothera Point will be safe from being dive-bombed by these birds. Skuas have a taste for Snow Petrels, so soon the pretty "Snowies" that have patrolled the Rothera airways all winter will not be seen. In fact, you could almost define the summer and winter seasons by which of these two birds is resident at Rothera.

George probably overtook another migrant en route South, the BAS Dash-7 aircraft. Despite being delayed in Tenerife (what a convenient place to wait four days for a spare part, don't you think?!) and in the Falklands (by bad weather), the Dash-7 finally arrived carrying with it more old friends, more mail and more fresh food. I cannot describe the luxury of crunchy apples, lettuce and onions that do not come in dehydrated form.

Until next month

Alison George

Alison George, Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica