Rothera Diary: November 1999

written by Gerard Baker

Field operations and the long wait for RRS James Clark Ross


November 1999

Dear All

Nothing happened in November - in fact, nothing happened again and again - to such an extent that in the end something did happen. Read the following to see how and why this makes sense.

November began (in fact the day before the month officially began) with the arrival of the base summer management team - full of enthusiasm - and why not? They arrived on the first Dash-7 aircraft flight of the season, delayed for a few days - but then again that is usual at this early stage of the summer as the weather takes some time to settle after the winds of Spring - much the same as it does at home. Little were we, at that stage, to know that the whole month would be marked by delay and frustration.

I mentioned in October that RRS James Clark Ross would be arriving this month - in fact we were almost due to see it arrive early - and as the sea ice had looked ?good' in October - there ought not to have been too much trouble for it to get in. WRONG. Due on October 17 - we are still waiting for it.

In some ways that is no bad thing - certainly in some ways not having the ship in so early has meant that those of us who are at Rothera have had the chance to get to know one another fairly well and so there is a really good atmosphere on the station. That is not necessarily a surprise - but back in the winter one of the things on my mind was whether there would be a good or not so good atmosphere here over the summer - and as there is so far - I am glad.

In fact, so many have been the delays of the month of November that it is hard to know where to begin - but suffice is it so say that we have broken a few records - with the longest delay in the Dash-7 aircraft leaving Port Stanley to fly to Rothera and the longest delay for RRS James Clark Ross coming in for its first visit of the season. Of course - the ship does not visit here for the sake of it - it brings both people - science crew, builders, and suchlike - and equipment and stores. Our fresh food for the season is on the ship - and already getting past its best no doubt.

Still, we will not go hungry and after all, it is quite a lot of fun this waiting. Each day we are able to harass the field operations staff about what they have done to the ship/planes - some of us are beginning to wonder if the ship exists at all....

Apart from all of the hassle of wondering if the ship will or will not get here each day, we have day-to-day life to keep us amused. For me - well, the kitchen is no longer my own, as I have Keith the new chef to help me with things there. This has meant several changes - not only in my working day - but also in the way that I look at the way I work. As I am no longer working every mealtime I have had some time to catch up with all of the mail replies that I owe friends and family - hoping as ever to get some to them in time for Christmas. Which, as I write, is only three or four weeks away now. I made the Christmas cakes last week - made too long in advance here they dry out, even in tins. Soon they will be enveloped in a very thick layer of marzipan and iced suitably.

There will be many opportunities for people to get into the Christmas spirit before the event - as I will be holding a few Christmas baking sessions - getting the puddings and mince pies made. Chris, one of our mechanics will be knocking up a batch of pork pies - which will be a fair treat. I will admit that, at the end of the month, I do not have any inclination that Christmas is around the corner - were it not for my calendar screaming out the forthcoming dates, I would probably have forgotten about it all. There is no build up here, you see. No piped carol music in shops - no shops come to think of it - and no mince pie smells around every street corner as there is at home. Is it my imagination or do supermarkets blow mince pie essence into their car parks at this time of year? - sniff and see the next time you do the weekly shop and think about it!

So - there is plenty to keep me out of mischief at the moment. As far as the rest of the base is concerned, there is a never ending list of jobs - ship or no. There is always fuel to be deposited in one of a dozen fuel depots, training for newcomers to be undertaken, field parties of scientists and their guides to be deployed. Taking charge of much of this is the base Field Operations Manager - FOM for short. We have two of these at the moment as our outgoing FOM - Tudor Morgan (yes, he is Welsh) is handing over the job to our incoming FOM - Rod Arnold, (who is not Welsh at all). Rod is an ?old hand' around the British Antarctic Survey, having worked first as a biologist, then managed part of the stores at HQ - before taking on this particular job. In fact, he has been ?South' many times - often to Signy Island, where he wintered, but also to summer-only camps on South Georgia, and was here at Rothera last year as one of our base assistants, managing waste. So - a talented guy, but also one of the most enthusiastic people for the Antarctic, and Antarctic Science.

Earlier today I dropped into his, for once quiet, office to catch a few words with the old chap. Field Operations is essentially - to me at least - an enabling job. It is all about getting people and their supplies where they need to be with the minimum amount of fuss, ensuring along the way that the maximum amount of science is accomplished. Sounds easy? No, not to me either. I asked him first of all, why he had been attracted to the FOM job - ?hands on everything' was the response. Not surprisingly, he has to be at the centre of the action - he went on to say that, as a former scientist, he is glad to be able to make things happen for the scientists that come here. ?Good planning will be positive' - a wise man indeed.

Having said that, he hates ?being locked in an office' which he is for many hours of each day, whereas his previous science jobs here have meant solitary science projects out in the middle of nowhere. Literally. So this is quite a shock I think. But, he is ?getting used to it' and ?although the priorities never change, something as simple as the weather will affect very dramatically how you are able to carry those priorities out'. Yes, quite.

How has it been taking over from the previous manager, I wondered? ?Tudor is superb in efficiency' ( Rod then spends 15 minutes showing me how efficient Tudor is in putting a footnote at the bottom of each document he produces so he can easily find it again. I get bored and move on.) - he is ?desperate to get out and do something - visit some fuel depots maybe'. Hmm - I think that he needs a little more imagination, maybe a trip to the South Pole with a personal caterer. I'll suggest that another day. Meanwhile - he is really only ?hoping for a successful season with the scientists being happy with their support'. Fair enough - and I am sure that they will be, as both he and Tudor are very able people. He did say that he had once worked out the amount of time he had been ?South' as a percentage of the total time he had known, and being married to his wife Helen. ?It was some horrendous figure' from which I took to mean it was too long away, but as he ended ?working for BAS is my ideal'. What more can you say?

For the rest of the summer, Rod and his support team of weather forecasters, radio operators, pilots and mechanics, will be busy getting scientists out to where they can do their science. I will be writing a bit about each field party next month - when they have all got out there and had the chance to do some science in fact.

Finally, at the end of the month, one of the Field Parties did get out, in the guise of Sledge India comprising Dave Vaughan, Chandrika Nath, and Emmanuel Le Meur under the guidance of Field GA, Steve Hinde who has just completed his first winter. They were flown down to the Rutford Ice Stream at the end of the month on a dingle day with the Vinson Massif ( Antarctica's highest peak ) visible in the distance, I am told. It is a place of immense scale and beauty, having been there two years ago I am able to testify to that personally. Another thing I could tell you first hand is that it is VERY cold - only 700 miles from the South Pole itself. The ins and outs of inputting a field parties are unbelievably complicated, believe me, but I shall try to explain.

Imagine, therefore that you are a scientist, wanting to work in the Antarctic - perhaps to see if you can find evidence that this was once a warm continent. You might want to see if you can find fossil evidence of trees, ferns perhaps, or animals that are know to have lived in warm climates.

For arguments sake, lets also assume that you already work for the British Antarctic Survey, and have access to their equipment, field planning, and funding from one of their various science divisions. You will need to know where to look for your fossils, obviously. That means finding a map which shows where the limited amount of rock down here is. So - the Mapping and Geographic Information Centre of the British Antarctic Survey would come in handy there.

You would need to look into the archives to check past Geology reports to see if there are any reports of fossil presence in the areas you can get access to. Then you would have to decide what kind of sampling you were going to undertake - how would you collect the rocks - hammer and chisel or drill - do you have the right equipment and the expertise to use it? You will need to organise your field party and logistics with the field operations people - in order to confirm that your plans are feasible - as they will need to get you to where you want to go to complete your science. They will also be able to sort you out with food, clothing, fuel, tents and such and also mountain guides to get you about the place safely.

All of that will have to happen before you even think of leaving the UK - as your time in Antarctica may be very limited - maybe only ten weeks maximum for you to find, and collect all of your work. Once you are here at Rothera, you will be almost ready to go - your field assistant may have been preparing your sledge units, camping gear and vehicles for weeks over the winter - so the last minute preparations on the base ought just to include getting your safety training done - so you are able to look after yourself and others whilst you are working outdoors, and weighing and packing up all of your kit. The Twin Otters can only take so much payload - so you will need to prioritise what you take first, as you may need more than one plane load. Obviously this will need to be what you need in the immediate sense to survive - the science kit normally follows. Some field parties take tonnes of stuff - you might only need a hammer and chisel - smaller the better as you have to carry it with you! Once you are all set to go, the Air Unit will do their best to get you out there to do your science.

The weather here is notoriously bad at the beginning of the summer, so much so that you might be delayed for days if not weeks. If there are only two of you and your kit is minimal, you might get away with one or two plain loads of baggage. If your project is large, ten or more Twin Otter loads may be what it takes to get you into place for your season. So - you are finally at your spot - all you have to do now is survive and get through the next few weeks with the only other person you'll have to speak to for a long time. Enjoy!

The sun is high in the sky for most of the day and night now. Going to bed with the sun streaming through the window is very bizarre though perhaps not less weird than not having the sun at all, I think. The peace, quiet and dark of winter have gone for good for me - and the bustle and noise of the summer are with us big style. The warmer weather and company of old friends has its advantages though - I fell asleep on the east beach of Rothera Point the other day and was very cosy. Talking over old times with friends is a joy I had not realised I had missed.

Next month I will be full of Christmas chocolate, puddings and Millennium fun and games, so hope that you will tune in again then.

Best wishes, Gerard Baker, Rothera.

Gerard Baker, Rothera research station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica