Rothera Diary - August 2002

written by Felicity Aston

I went for a walk around the point after lunch. The sun only returned last month so it is still a surprise how bright the days are. I stood at the cross for a bit to take in the view across the sea ice. All the mountains to the south were miraged into huge morphed reflections in the sky. It is incredible how far we can see. To the south you can pick out the pink-tinged peaks of Alexander Island over 100 miles away and to the north the mountains of the peninsula seem to stretch on into infinity.

View from the Point View from the Point

Views from the Point

The cold clear silence of Antarctica was interrupted by the noisy roar and smoky fumes of an old base skidoo. I watched as Gary, one of the base mechanics came hurtling across the point towards me and screeched to a halt. 'What are you up too?' I asked in greeting. 'Oh, just testing the skidoos. I just fixed this one this morning.' Testing what, I thought, the speed of sound?! It seems that Matt and Gary enjoy trying to break the skidoos as much as they enjoy fixing them. Gary hurtled off again and I walked back to base. It was strangely quiet and as soon as I walked inside the main building I realized why. All the lights were off which meant there was no power. Three enormous generators supply all power on base but occasionally they falter leaving us with no power at all. Power is the only thing that protects us from the hostile Antarctic – without it we would struggle to survive here – so a power down is a serious problem. Luckily this time the problem was quickly sorted out and as I walked through the building the lights blinked on again. Unfortunately so did the fire alarm. I covered my ears as sirens echoed through the building. Reaching the main door, I met Pete the electrician shuffling in looking a bit haggard and very unimpressed – he's supposed to be on nights.

Pet the haggard electrician Mechanic at work

Left: Pete, the haggard electrician.

Right: Mechanic at work.

And so it is at Rothera. With just the 20 of us here to keep the base running, ready for all those returning in the summer, there is always some crisis to be dealt with. If it's not frozen pipes or flooded sewage tanks it's false alarms and broken machinery. However it is not just technical services that have all the drama. I am one of two meteorologists on base that are charged with looking after several experiments installed at Rothera. The most eventful of these has to be the upper air soundings. Three times a week we launch a balloon with a transmitter attached to it that measures temperature and humidity as it rises through the atmosphere. The balloons are enormous and it is the preparing of the balloon that causes all the trouble. Everything has gone wrong at one stage or another from losing control of the balloon while filling it with helium to launching the balloon without the transmitter attached to it! The helium to fill the huge balloons is kept in the hangar, as it is the only building with doors big enough for the balloons to fit through! The other day Tom and Rayner came along to help. We were all set to launch the balloon before we realized that the hanger doors were completely frozen shut. Despite desperate digging and adjustments we still could not get the doors to open more than an inch. The only door that would budge was a slim door at the side about a third of the size of the balloon. 'We can get it through here,' suggested Rayner. Tom and I looked from doorway to balloon, 'Don't be stupid, it won't fit.' Rayner remained optimistic, 'No way, come on.' We didn't have very many options so we gave it a go. Rayner walked through the doorway pulling the balloon behind him. It became wedged in the door like a cartoon elephant. Tom and I pushed from behind, expecting the stretchy balloon to explode any second. It must have looked ridiculous. Miraculously the balloon made it unharmed through the door. Once outside we launched the balloon and it got as high as 15 km above the ground before finally bursting.

Elsewhere on base the Marine team still manage to keep themselves busy despite the fact that we haven't seen open water for a long time. Phil the Dive officer explains:

The view from base over the last few months has been one of mostly white snow and ice. But just because you can't see water doesn't mean the diving stops. The marine team at Rothera dive throughout the year, come ice or water. The picture below shows me cutting dive holes through the sea ice using a chainsaw in temperatures of -20 degree Celsius. Cutting the hole is only half the story, keeping them open is a continual battle. We use wooden boards to insulate the holes from the air and regularly have to take a pickaxe to trim the edges of the holes before diving through into the dark icy waters below.

F ew bases on the continent dive regularly all the way through the winter months. But when air temperatures plummet to minus 30, being under the ice is often the most comfortable place to be. Here you are sheltered from the wind, in temperatures which hover around the freezing point of seawater (-1.86). It is not however uncommon to return to the surface with a numb face. This combination of a wet numb face and a stiff wind can quickly result in frost nip to exposed parts of your face.

Diving in an enclosed environment has its obvious dangers, but safe and sensible use of normal dive techniques make this form of diving immensely enjoyable. Divers have bored many of the bases personnel with stories of effects such as the 'sunbeams of Jesus' shinning down through the dive holes, strange stalactite formations of ice crystals and the feeling of diving below thick cumulus clouds in the areas where the underside of the sea ice is contoured and irregular.


Cutting a dive-hole Rayner carries out some world class science and product placement in the dive store The divers return

left: Cutting a dive hole.

center: Rayner carries out some world class science and product placement in the dive store.

right: The divers returning to the surface.

The divers often need volunteers from base to help them supervise the dives. While the two divers are enjoying the magnificent sights of the under-ice world, the poor old supervisors are standing in the cold waiting for them to return. It's an unpleasant job so Phil has had to come up with more and more ingenious ways to persuade people to volunteer! Jon the boatman is his most regular victim as he explains:


Unfortunately they do not mix well and since the beginning of the winter after only a short period of work with the American science research program the sea has been frozen solid stopping all boating. This for a boatman is not so good, but knowing that it was always a possibility during an Antarctic winter I've been making the best of the situation. Before I came here I fielded many questions on what I thought I was going to do if the sea did freeze, hibernation and cyrogenesis were both put forward as alternatives by a number of friends; who thought that I could be woken up or thawed out when the sea returned! Fortunately I've been able to keep working and have been involved in a whole number of different roles which has made my time so far at Rothera quite unique and extremely diverse.

The dive program has not been stopped by anything so trivial as a frozen sea, and consequently most of my time has been spent working as a dive supervisor. Much of this work involves standing around holes in the ice, kitting up the divers, tending a dive line and ensuring that when they return to the surface they are whisked back to the warmth and comfort of the base. The reality is often the opposite, in that the warmest place to be when it's minus 20 and blowing 15 knots is 18 metres down under the ice doing the dive! Phil the dive officers usual comment on reaching the surface after a dive is to ask me “Are you cold?” this is usually followed by myself and the assistant (a lucky selected base member… all of whom take turns for the experience…it's so popular), instructing the divers to get out of the water pronto and stop messing around as we both feel like our feet have turned to ice! In any one week the marine team aims for 4-5 dives, this ensures that a variety of projects are kept up to date but again plans are often changed by the weather and more recently extremes of temperature. A massive incentive for myself is the occasional dive at some of the local sites, it's been great to see what they get up to down there and has also given me an idea of the diversity of life that's around these waters….a fantastic experience I won't forget.

Regular CTD (Conductivity / temperature / depth) recordings are taken on a weekly basis and as this work is on the sea ice, drilling or cutting holes, I'm often involved in ensuring that this piece of science is completed each week. With such cold temperatures the holes that are cut for diving / fish traps / CTD casts are constantly requiring re-opening or enlarging. This task is done with either small handsaws or the much larger and effective chainsaw we have on base. After a recent cold spell with very little blown snow to provide much needed insulation over the dive hole wooden boards, all 5 holes needed to be re-cut and cleared. This task took myself and Rayner a full day and has recently become a regular daily activity for both myself and Phil as the ice increases in thickness by the day. Maintaining the fleet of boats has also kept me busy along with helping to develop other aspects of the boating department and marine team resources. Simple tasks can often take a lot longer when the inside temperature of the boatshed is often the same as outside!
So in general, never a dull moment, I'm always outside, the work is physical which justifies eating the fantastic grub Mick serves up, and since coming here I've never known a time when I've had nothing to do. I'm now looking forward to the summer and the thought of taking to the water to resume my role as the boatman at Rothera. Can't wait!!


Jon, Phil and Rayner after a dive Rayner supervising a dive CTD

left: Jon, Phil and Rayner after a dive

center: Rayner supervising a dive

right: CTD

Aside from all the work August saw us celebrating two birthdays – which at Rothera are always marked by something of a celebration and never allowed to pass unnoticed.

Gary Wilson's birthday was on the sixth. Unfortunately Gary was away on his winter trip for the big day and it was thus celebrated by those on base who marked it with a rousing chorus of happy birthday transmitted over the airwaves to him in his tent down by the unoccupied Argentinean base Carvajal at the southern tip of the Island. We raised our glasses and thought what a shame it was that Gary couldn't be with us on his birthday. It only later emerged that he took his dinner suit with him all the way across the island and on the evening of the sixth he (wearing tuxedo) and Carolyn (suitably attired in an elegant gown) received our greetings over the airwaves and went on to celebrate his birthday at the old base with Champagne. Done in style.
On the fifteenth it came round to my birthday and one I shall never forget. The usual traditional things like a card and a cake of course. Then in the evening it was perfectly still and we ventured out on the ice to one of the dive holes, which was lit by torches from below. A complete birthday party out on the sea ice organized by the marine team. It was a spectacular setting with gently falling snow and pale blue light from under the ice. The occasional parachute flares lit the whole scene like daylight and raised choruses of “oohs” and “ahhhs” just as if we'd had fireworks. Phil's recipe for mulled wine went down a treat.