Rothera Research Station, November 1998
More dismal weather for us this month, though we're supposed to be approaching the height of summer. Just like Britain really!
What a busy month it has been here. If you remember in my previous letter I mentioned the iceberg making a bid for freedom from the Ronne Ice Shelf (with the German Filchner base and a BAS fuel depot atop)? Well, early November an attempt to rescue the depot was made. Three planes headed off on the journey South, only to be stopped at an interim depot by bad weather. Apparently it was quite cosy camping in the back of the aircraft in violent storm! When the skies finally cleared the planes took off to complete their mission. The trouble with anything left on the ice in these parts is that it rapidly becomes buried. So the Filchner party, armed with spades, got digging whilst the planes flew round the clock to ferry the fuel drums to a safe location. After three days of digging, all returned to Rothera, tired but happy, with mission accomplished.
Meanwhile, the base was getting fuller and fuller as the Dash-7 aircraft ferried people from Stanley in the Falkland Islands. At the end of the month the ship RRS James Clark Ross arrived . Rothera was soon awash with cargo from the ship, and the base is now up to full complement. And there are penguins too.
But why are we all here? Well, the simple answer is science! Each base has its own speciality, and Rothera's, traditionally, is to act as a base for science parties going into the field. The term "field" may conjure up images of green pastures, but in this part of the world is used to describe the remote locations (definitely grass free). More recently the Bonner laboratory has been built here, a centre for marine and terrestrial biology. This has brought large changes to the base. Now year-round science and diving takes place. The biologists have also increased the ratio of women to men considerably.
As most of the field parties were distributed to various outposts of the Antarctic this month, I thought I'd tell you what they are up to. All scientists out in the field are accompanied by at least one Field Assistant (FGA), someone with ice and mountaineering experience who acts as a guide and assistant to the scientist. The parties are put in by plane, and then travel using a vehicle called a skidoo, a sort of motorbike for ice. They tow sledges full of tents, fuel, scientific equipment and equipment for survival. The field parties are located within the Antarctic Peninsula and further afield.
The advice for any would-be explorers is that, if you want to go far South, you'd better be a geologist. For some reason, lost in the mists of time, the field parties have a call sign "Sledge". Sledge Kilo, consisting of Jez, the FGA and his scientist (or "beaker" as they are called in Antarctic slang) Mike have headed far South to a mountain range known as the Pensacolas, where they will be studying the rock structure of the area. At this location they're only 400 miles from the South Pole. A team of surveyors (called Sledge Lima, despite being planebound and hence having nothing to do with sledges) will also be heading to the same region to take aeromagnetic readings (this tells you what kind of rock is present). Under a different name, Sledge Delta, the aeromagnetic team are currently located at the Argentinian base, Marambio, conducting surveys of James Ross Island, at the north of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Sledge India, with the largest team BAS has assembled for a single field project, is located on Evans Ice Stream. Under the guidance of Dr Ed King, a team of eight scientists and field assistants are setting off controlled explosions to determine the geology beneath the ice. On Ronne Ice Shelf, another group of scientists (Sledge Juliet) are drilling right through the ice to establish the processes whereby the ice shelf melts or grows by supercooled ice in the sea water freezing to its base.
Sledge Hotel are located at the south of the Antarctic Peninsula, driving with skidoo and sledge along a long traverse, taking ten metre long ice cores to measure the snow accumulation. They will have covered 2000 km by the time their project is finished.
Further north, on Alexander Island, the terrestrial biologists (under the name Sledge Golf) have set up camp at a location called Mars Oasis, to carry out experiments at the site, which is rich in lichens, mosses and bacteria. All the while at Rothera the marine biologists are continuing with their year-round diving programme, looking at the multitude of creatures that live in the sea. A team of aerial photographers are also out in the planes surveying various locations for maps, and conducting a penguin census.
Just for your information, I gather that field parties of old were named more creatively. Reading the diaries from an old base called Fossil Bluff, they called one field party (towed by dogs then, not skidoos) ?Sledge Prune'!
Every night in the radio room, calls are made to each of these sledge parties to check all is well and to ask their intentions for the next day. It's a busy time for the radio operators, and they sometimes have to work through the night.
That's all from me. Until next month, when I'll talk about a subject close to my heart, food, bye for now.