Rothera Diary - July 2001

written by Pete Milner


The Sun Returns

With our limited access to email facilities I try and write regularly to friends at home and strangely I have completely forgotten to tell them that the sea around Rothera has started to freeze. Such a relatively normal event during an antarctic winter that it somehow seemed not to be worth noting. Only when you force yourself to remember that you are living in one of the more extraordinary parts of the earth, do you begin to appreciate what is actually happening around you.

The weather at the beginning of the month was still and calm producing conditions that for the first time this winter actually began to feel cold. It's the time of year when people can become complacent, used to nipping between buildings in just a thin fleece, weather conditions can catch you out. Now we have the coldest time so far this winter. We have experienced -30°C with wind chill. Time for us to keep warmer clothing to hand. We are adapting fast and now even think that -6°C is warm!

In the dinning room it is now pretty chilly and most parts of the main building feel cold. If this goes on we shall be eating in hats and coats. Back home I usually make do with a sandwich for lunch but here you need a hot meal in the middle of the day. In really cold conditions the quickest way to get warm is to eat a slab of butter (apparently). Even with our buildings designed for the antarctic we are not immune to cold weather problems. The sewerage system and the water supply in our accommodation block has frozen solid, requiring lots of hard work by Paul and Mike as they attempted to rectify the problem. In the end they had to cut extra panels in the floor to gain access to the pipes and then slowly defrost them. Thankfully we are now past that problem but the technical services lads spend many hours keeping the station running. Worst of all the drain pipe from the tea making boiler froze and we had to switch this essential service off for awhile.

The sea is freezing extensively now and the more experienced lads are up on the hill doing one of the regular ice observations to record the extent and condition of the sea ice. They have also been out testing the sea ice to our north, drilling and measuring it's thickness. So next time you are down by the sea, spare a thought for us. Our sea is full of icebergs and is slowly trying to freeze.

The very still conditions often result in cold, freezing, fog which produces beautiful hoar frost on every surface. Radio antennas always look great in these conditions. I have been reading "This Accursed Land" a description of the epic Mawson expedition and I thought you might like the following quote.

He says of the winds:

"The actual experience is something else. Picture drift that blocks out the world, that is hurled, actually screaming with energy, through space in a 100 mile an hour wind. When the temperature is below freezing. Those are the facts. But then shroud those infuriated elements with polar night and a plunge into such a black-white writhing storm is to stamp on the senses an indelible, awful impression seldom equalled in the whole gamut of natural experience".

The writer is Australian not British which accounts for the flowery language!


With the dining room still cold 'Buzz Lightyear' must have gone into hibernation as I have not seen him for awhile. The night watch rounds become a little more interesting in these conditions. When it was Will the boatman's turn he had to contend with extra hazards. In addition to the usual checks on our power generators, he has to check lots of dark rooms for any signs of fire. Mairi had arranged things so that the inflatable alien would swing down to appear in his face as he opened one of the doors in the lab. Very funny as it gave poor Will quite a shock!


I imagine that most of my readers have worked in an office at some stage and I also suspect that you must have seen those little signs people put on their desks saying "You Don't Have to Be Mad to Work Here But it Helps!" Often I think that for the British Antarctic Survey being completely mad is compulsory. So imagine the situation a few weeks ago, young, thin sea ice, recently formed, that is only just strong enough to hold your weight. You know the sort of stuff your mother warned you never to walk on. Here of course things are different.

Instead of sensibly ignoring thin ice, the Rothera winter team were actually really enthusiastic for a traditional thin ice race. The idea being that you put on a diver's dry suit, add fancy dress, and then race out on the ice. Obvious really!

I was duty cameraman and Dave Routledge (our sea ice travel expert, who said "No Way Am I Going Out There, Do I Look Stupid?" ) was the race starter. Of course for us nothing as ordinary as a whistle to start, here we fired off a parachute flare. There is in fact no chance of any of the rescue services spotting it.

Phil the diving officer had walked out to the other side of a lead (a crack in the ice) and the idea was to race around him and back. I am in a hut, in the antarctic, in winter with a group of people who are completely insane. Some had underpants pulled over diving suits, others joke wigs, Mairi had a cape, mask and super girl outfit. Jenny the doctor was dressed in teddy bear pyjamas over the diving suit. When she eventually returned to dry land they were frozen completely solid.


Raynor, Tom and Felicity - Dressed for the race! Jen and Mairi - Mad!
Raynor, Tom, Felicity, Jen and Mairi ready for the race!
Click to enlarge

Obviously light people with big feet have the best chance, but I think everybody fell through the ice eventually. Those who had remained on the surface soon found that a larger person would be jumping up and down nearby.

The Thin Ice Race in progress
The Thin Ice Race
Click to enlarge

Everybody came back safe, laughing and nobody seemed to care who won. What a crazy day.


By comparison the local wildlife is considerably more sensible. For me it was very much a special event when I had my first sighting of that great antarctic predator, the Leopard Seal. It was seen on the sea ice in south cove. At about 6 or 7 feet long it is only a baby, but even so very impressive. The adults can grow up to 14 feet in length. Unlike other seals around here it is a real killer of large animals and the divers are very wary of them. They have a mouth like the grin of that Batman character "The Joker". This one was close enough for us to take some photos, which I hope come out. I threw a snowball at it which resulted in it opening its mouth to show rows of razor sharp backward pointing teeth. They are strong enough to thrash an adult seal or large penguin to death. As the divers now have to cut holes in the sea ice with chain saws to enter the water, they are being extra careful. Seals tend to think that dive holes are just nicely prepared breathing holes and so save themselves some effort. The divers cut two holes so if a seal uses one then they can escape from the other.


Diving forms a serious part of the operations at Rothera Station. This month Phil the diving officer has described their work

"A large part of the scientific work done at Rothera is related to the marine environment. This is in no small part due to the simple fact that while above the sea Adelaide Island is lacking life, below it is positively teaming. Ranging from large predatory leopard seals, to planktonic organisms and of course krill - the corner stone for life in these frigid waters. The colours and textures below sea level are breathtaking when compared to the stark beauty on the ice and land above. As the station diving officer it is my job to help the two marine scientists with their research projects. This can involve helping Dave Bowden tow his plankton net, or competing with Rayner in our monthly collections for Laternula, Nemetene Worms and Star fish to name but a few.

As a team we dive whenever the weather and conditions allow us, though every fourth day is a day of rest from diving. Presently it has been rare for us to have four good diving days in a row due to the varying ice and weather conditions. As I'm sure you can appreciate diving in the Antarctic winter can often bring you close to icebergs and even overhead sea ice. The latter we cut through with chainsaws to gain access to the waters below and then through these holes we plop. Diving under ice can often be pretty dark and looking up to the surface from a 20 meter net tow the outline of the dive hole often appears like the moon on a starless night. Ice bergs have become a dirty word to Dave Bowden, as although diving within sight of a berg is a highlight of our work, these same bergs have been responsible for smashing, crushing and destroying parts of his settlement plate experiment.

Jenny and Phil ready to dive Will in charge of safety
Jenny (left) and Phil prepare to dive whilst Will is in charge of the safety rope
Click to enlarge

The diving set up at Rothera is one of the few on the entire continent; it is certainly one of the best equipped. We dive with pony cylinders, and use neoprene drysuits. Surprisingly I've been much colder diving in other warmer parts of the world than here, where you often start and finish your dive through 'slush puppy' like ice crystals and the inside of your mask is more likely to freeze than to fog up. Back in the dive store we are kitted out with a dive chamber in which we run regular exercises. But perhaps one of the greatest assets is the view from the dive office window looking out over South Cove with ice cliffs reaching down to the sea and mountains looming over the dark waters of Ryder Bay."

In addition to a full science diving program Phil has managed to introduce other qualified divers to the undersea world. Jenny describes her first dive under the ice.

"I finally got to experience one of my ultimate dreams: to dive under the sea ice! It was such a magnificent experience. It was -20 'C outside, and we had to get into the water through a hole cut in the ice which is about 25 cm thick. The dive team had even made a chair by the side of the hole out of the blocks of ice cut from the hole - a great treat for the dive watch team who stay on the surface out in the cold holding on to the rope attached to the divers. This is a reassuring requirement of diving under the ice, since there's only one way out and you want to be sure to find it! It was a whole new world under the ice, with a great deal of wildlife including jellyfish, sea lemons and limpets. Amphipods (tiny black shrimp like creatures) were in their thousands along the underside of the ice and would swarm about you if you disturbed them. Also trapped under the ice was our exhaled air which forms a smooth mirror, looking very much like mercury as it coalesces into larger bubbles, one of which we could even breathe from ourselves! Other things to try out included walking upside down on the ice, which is harder than it sounds when you're in a dry suit. It was great to see the ice stretch away into the distance though, hanging there upside down. There were a few bergy bits (small bits of iceberg) that were trapped in the ice, which we explored. One had a head-sized hole tunnelling all the way through the blue ice. There were large plates of sea ice that had become trapped under the ice, but were easily moved about and piled on top of each other, and all sorts of interesting phenomena resulting from the unique characteristics of sea ice. The half-hour went by far too quickly and it was already time to get out and warmed up, but it was an experience I'll never forget."

Diving under the ice Emerging after the dive
Diving under the ice and ermerging after the dive
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Jenny and I have been spending a week working through mid-winter dental checks for the crew. With a healthy team not much needs doing, just a check up, scrape and polish and fluoride treatment. Next Jenny will do my check and then the fun starts as I will have to do the same for her.

Our diet is pretty good and dental hygiene excellent. However I'm fairly sure that it was not always the case in the past. We have now run out of fresh fruit and vegetables plus we are completely out of dried peas now except for the sledging rations. This has started me thinking about what people used to eat in the past whilst on antarctic expeditions. Here is another quote from "This Accursed Land":

"Mawson was bent over the primus, and the hissing blue flame lit the ice hole with a warm look of cosiness and added to the fragrance of the traditional sledger's 'Hoosh' - a mixture, boiled in melted snow, of pemmican (dried beef, heavily laced with powdered fat) enriched with a knob of butter, and thickened with dry biscuits which were beaten to crumbs with a geologist's hammer."

Honestly who could want for any more? Hunting through the cook books in the kitchen I came across the following recipes:-

Obviously these dishes are now the stuff of legend, not reality as the British Antarctic Survey does not have to rely on the indigenous wildlife for food!


One of my colleagues, Andy, has been practising traditional methods of polar travel. Now we have the luxury of motorised skidoos and as unfortunately the dogs have gone the only alternative is man power. Filling small sledges called Pulks with equipment Andy, Raynor, Tom and Phil set off to haul the loads up to the caboose. Here is a picture of Andy who actually seems to be enjoying the exercise.

Andy hauling a sledge

Andy hauling a Pulk up to the caboose
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We can now see icebergs further south being lit by the orange glow of a low sun. The higher mountains also have the same glow but for longer. I went out climbing on Reptile Ridge with Jenny. Roped up we climbed a small snow gully to the ridge and then down a snow slope the other side. There was a large crevasse blocking our route north along the ridge, so I turned south and started to probe with my ice axe to try and find a safe place to cross. We walked along the edge of a snow ridge that had really steep sides. On the top of a crag called Expedition Buttress we looked north and saw the sun! Its brief appearance above the west end of Stokes peaks is welcome. After all that excitement it was down the snow slopes to the south and back home to thaw out our clothing and a well earned cup of tea.

The weather was cloudy for the next few days, but then one afternoon it started to burn off and I could actually see the sun through the cloud. You will just have no idea how important that view is. I could see the whole round disk, absolutely amazing! You don't notice the sun going, but by god you notice it's return!

I saw the sun while out driving on my skidoo. At the far end of the local travel area I could see all the way north to Stokes Peaks, bitter cold in the clear sky, but it was amazing to see the sun again. Last time it was just a glimpse, now it is the real thing. A beautiful afternoon looking across a fiord full of mist with icebergs and Rothera station slowly appearing. The mountains across the water were lit up and a classic temperature inversion was starting. Sunlit peaks, misty castles of ice, frozen sea and a small collection of buildings, just the best view in the world. I used a whole film, but as I only had my compact camera I'm not sure of the results, anyway I doubt they could ever do it justice.

We celebrated the return of the sun with a BBQ outside the vehicle garage. Jon, Chris, Steve and Tom organised the cooking and we enjoyed an unusual BBQ in the dark, in blowing snow and below zero temperatures. Cooking outside in the garden on an English summer afternoon will never be quite the same again. There was also a sweepstake to guess when the sun is first spotted, cleverly won by Ian Martin.

Winter expeditions have started again and I am due out with Tom Corbett. Our plan is to leave on Sunday, drive through McCallums pass then camp on the other side. From there I will head north for a day travelling into an area I have not been to before. Odd to be looking forward to a expedition which will entail crossing crevasses and camping in bitter cold, with the prospect of waking in the morning with the whole of the inside of the tent frosty with ice. Anyway wish me luck.

Cheers
Pete