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May - Winter begins

Rothera Diary, May 2004

After the swift departure of April, we felt that winter would take hold in a brusque manner, but apart from the rapidly shortening days, the weather has yet to take a firm grip upon the base, except for the exceptional bursts of rain and sleet that have turned large areas into an ice rink.

Making the most of the weather, has allowed people to get out and about on both recreational trips in the local area and training trips on the rest of the island. The changing days and weather has allowed for fantastic sunrises and sunsets, which are luckily for at a reasonable hour. About 10 o'clock in the morning!

Fin O'Sullivan


Antarctica on ice
By Hamish Campbell

Rothera Base is a diverse community. The 23 people living here this winter are from all walks of life and expertise. The vast spectrum of skills possessed by the Rotherite community provides a great opportunity for self-development, from chippying and met forecasting, to electronics and darts. Only last week the Doc gave us a few lessons in inserting cannulae, and Cyril the French Chef is holding language lessons with a bit of nouvelle cookery thrown in.

On base we have a number of Mountaineer specialists, or known under the less glamorous B.A.S. title of field general assistant (FGAs). These guys, or girls, job is to look after scientists and personnel when out in the field, and this includes recreational areas near the base. Even on their days off you're more likely to find them in some cold hazardous predicament than sipping tea on base. This does however provide for the rest of us, unskilled in such pursuits, a chance to get a feel for locations and situations we would otherwise find inaccessible. Over a few beers on a Saturday night in the bar Rob Jarvis, whose vocation is a mountain guide on Ben Nevis, offered me the chance to go out on an ice climb the next day. I work as a Marine Biologist here on base so am more typically under the ice rather than pinned to it at great elevation, but here was a chance to give it a try.

We left base about 11am to climb a peak close to base called Exhibition Buttress, the sun was coming up, it was -12°C and looking like another glorious Antarctic day. Exhibition Buttress is not so much a mountain standing only 200m above sea level but climbing the East face is not your average Sunday stroll necessitating ice axe and crampons. The first 30m ascent was relatively simple being covered with thick snow and of an elevation of approximately 70°. Rob ascended first putting in a few ice screws for security before I made my ascent. Perched on a few inches wide step cut into the blue ice surface an aerial view of Rothera station was well worth the climb. Above us a steep wall of blue glacier ice towered toward the summit, a tract of unknown for a first time ice climber. Rob was to climb first, putting in ice screws for safety on route and provide an anchor and belay for my ascent. We confirmed various signals Rob would use once secure on the summit. He started the ascent leaving me with the words of "don't put anything metal in your mouth it's -12°C". I waited about 20 minutes with only a few pangs of "what am I doing this for" before I got the OK to start climbing. I left the security of the ledge and hacked my way up the frozen face. As last man, I was required to remove the ice screws on route.

Rob Jarvis and Hamish ascending Exhibition Buttress

Above: Rob Jarvis and Hamish ascending Exhibition Buttress.

After taking out the first screw and as one hand was ardently gripping the axe, I instinctively held the screw momentarily in my mouth whilst accessing a clip on my harness. The previous wise words of an experienced ice climber were realised, and its removal took a reasonable chunk of skin from my tongue and lip. This is perhaps not pleasant at the best of times but when tacked into a few inches of ice 200m above the ground it is more than a mere inconvenience. A number of profanities later I continued the ascent to the summit, after all the only way was up. By the time I was 20 meters from the summit lactic acid was brimming in my forearms, and the whole episode was turning into some serious hard work. I made the summit and we continued the afternoon by climbing a number of other peaks along the ridge. Details of how the venture continued could fill this newsletter with quotations of Demi-God like rapture, but this was to be brief and the photos say it all. We left the ridge under an immense crimson sky like only Antarctic sun sets can provide, and headed back to base for a Sunday dinner with roasties and Yorkshire puddings, nice one!

I've been lucky enough to get in a few ice climbs since and really enjoy the sport, and wonder why I had never done it before? But then I wouldn't be getting the chance to discover it now. We aren't even half way through winter yet so there is plenty of time to try new hobbies. Perhaps I'll try tractor driving next.

Hamish at the summit of Exhibition Buttress with Rothera Station below

Above: Hamish at the summit of Exhibition Buttress with Rothera Station below.


Winter Trip 2004 - Sledges Kilo and Lima
By Cyril Millet

Field assistants: Tim Burton & Dougal Ranford
Happy tourists: Andy Porte & Cyril Millet

Our heroes left Rothera on a sunny day, their hearts filled with hope and their stomachs thirsty for adventure. Riding across the Peninsula at more than 15 km/h on their hell's roaring machines, they eat the road like leathered bikers heading to Mexico. Realistically, the destination was not as such, no strippers, no alcohol, no fire shooting and no drugs. Carvajal, a ghost station abandoned between a glacier and an ocean, was only occupied by a colony of seals, rather unwelcoming I have to say.

Once the 800 kgs of equipment where unloaded, our 4 chaps realised their expedition was only going to last one day. However, that detail did not stop the boys from messing up the place, a whole troop of the French foreign legion couldn't have done any worse. Never mind, every one is settled and happy now, carrying on with each other's occupations. Tim is outside taking some pictures, Dougal is setting up the radio, Andy is rolling tobacco and Cyril smoking it.

Hurrah! The radio is working. Damn! Phil has nothing intelligent to say. Slightly disappointed, they decided to go out and try to make communication with the locals, mission failed, every single furry is burping and roaring, in the hope that this will be enough to drive the intruders away.

Cyril with The Myth in the background

Above: Cyril with The Myth in the background.

That was without counting on Tim, who's favourite hobby is to produce biological unthinkable noises and unbearable smells. His passion has just increased watching the elephant seals. These enormous blobs of fat lying on the beach seem to amaze our young field assistant. He will spend hours trying to master their tremendous stinky gas expelling.

As frustration builds up, Tim will finally give up, knowing that he will never reach the skills of those giant marine mammals. But still, he has other plans for discomforting his roommates. Through walking and exercising without washing at any point, he will manage to build up intolerable nauseous body smells, which no human been has ever dare reached before. Not satisfied with this achievement, he will keep on checking the level of emanation by sticking his nose under his armpit every 5 minutes. This action will have the result of disgusting his companions for good.

Cyril meets the Elephant seals

Above: Cyril meets the Elephant seals.


Thanks Cyril for sharing Tim's delight in his bodily functions!! I've managed to be on night watch during this month, and it has been very peaceful wandering around the base in the silent stillness, with a feel of some of the solitude that we live in. However it's nice to get a glimpse of the sun now and again so I've been staying up to watch the sunrise occasionally, which is now happening about 1030 am. On one of the mornings I was surprised to see it getting much lighter at just after 9 am. I checked outside and a fantastic display of colours awaited me in the sky, even though all around was dark still. To the north, the sky was lit by a shining cloud, which looked as if it were shimmering loads of different colours at once.


Nacreous Clouds
By Adam Thornhill. (Meteorologist)

"Nacreous" Clouds, also known as "Mother of Pearl" Clouds or "PSC's" (Polar Stratospheric Clouds), are very bright and colourful clouds. They exist in the Stratosphere, at a height of 18 to 20 Km, which means that they exist in the second layer of our atmosphere. They are very rarely seen compared to the average Tropospheric clouds that are unfortunately around most of the time. These "normal" clouds are much closer to the Earths Surface than the Nacreous clouds. Due to their height, they are illuminated while the sun is still far below the horizon, so they are the only bright objects in the sky. This makes for a beautiful Sunrise.

Nacreous cloud to the North-west of Rothera

Above: Nacreous cloud to the North-west of Rothera.

Nacreous clouds are formed by Stratospheric temperatures decreasing below -80°C. There is almost no water vapour in the atmosphere that high up, but due to mountains and other high topography some water does get transported up to those heights. Some say Commercial jets are increasing the amount of water vapour and Nitrous Oxide in our Stratosphere, but we do not yet know whether this is a significant enough increase.

In the atmosphere, the colder a parcel of air gets, the less water it can hold, so when the air temperature drops to -80°C, the small amount of water vapour in the Stratosphere, condenses out into water droplets. This water is allowed to stay as a liquid due to an atmospheric phenomenon known Super Cooled Water. This water does however freeze, and Nacreous clouds are therefore made up of very fine ice crystals made from Water and Nitric Acid. These crystals refract light, causing the observer to see various bright colours, giving the impression a Pearl like surface.

Observations of Nacreous Clouds are increasing. This may be due to Observers now looking for them but may mainly be due to Global Warming. As everyone knows, 'The Green House Effect' is warming the lower layers of our atmosphere, called the Troposphere. What people are not usually aware of is that this effect is also cooling the second layer of our atmosphere, the Stratosphere. The increase in Stratospheric cooling is causing more areas to drop below the significant -80°C mark, so more Nacreous clouds are evolving.

This observed increase in PSC's has a very significant importance in Ozone Destruction. Nacreous clouds are very important in the process of Ozone depletion. The chemical reactions that attribute to the destruction of Ozone in Polar latitudes, start with the conversion of Halogen compounds (Chlorine and Bromine) into less stable forms. These are then broken down even more by the return of the daylight in the Polar Spring into Ozone reacting compounds. For this to happen, these compounds need to go through what is known as a 'Heterogeneous Reaction', i.e. a reaction involving another substance. The PSC particles are believed to support such reactions.

So therefore, the more Nacreous clouds there are forming in the Polar Regions of the Stratosphere, the more these reactions can take place on their surface. This shows that not only the release of Ozone destructing Chemicals can damage our Ozone layer, but Global warming /cooling is also having an effect.


A Walk Round the Point in May
By A.J. Miller

It is seven below freezing and there is persistent biting wind blowing from the South. The afternoon light is beautiful. Pinks and vibrant azure blues are splashed against the skies' canvass. The sun's rays are but a memory now, since the jagged white Stork mountain ridge keeps them at bay.

Ice has been forming on the sea lately. The early stages of ice formation allows interesting patterns to be seen where the wave action allows smaller flat pieces of frozen ice to push together forming a patchwork effect. This is known as pancake ice.

Around 50 Dominican Gulls take off from the ice in North Cove and noisily screech whilst rising in the air. Some of them fly close enough for me to see their plumage in detail. Approximately half of these birds are still in their first year and as a result have not acquired their striking dark grey and white adult plumage.

Walking along the North Cove, it is already evident that I will need my notebook to count the number of Fur Seals. I have already counted a hundred of these beasts as I carefully pick my route between them and head up to the most northeasterly point of the Rothera Peninsula. Care is required when manoeuvring between these seals because they stand their ground and will occasionally lunge at a passer by. Grunting back at them and knocking rocks together usually stops them in their tracks. The fur seal is an annual visitor to Rothera and they start arriving in March and leave in early June.

The Fur Seal as the name suggests have a distinctive fur coat. This is predominantly dark brown, however statistics dictate that the more Fur Seals you see, the more likely you will come across a white morph Furry. These have honey-blonde fur due to a genetic anomaly and stand out from the rest of the pack. So its not surprising then that on this occasion I should come across a blonde Furry accompanying several of his companions on an outcrop of rock.

Most of the Furrys look well fed. In fact I would go as far as to say obese. We can assume then, that there has been no shortage of food this season. Indeed, there was a very large phytoplankton bloom during our Austral summer so I would expect that our furry friends have been dining on vast amounts of krill during their time here at Rothera.

I walk amongst more Fur Seals on East Beach and then stop to witness the behaviour of two Elephant Seals. They are juvenile males, yet are still 3m long and weigh in at more than a tonne each. These sumo wrestlers of the seal world trumpet from their inflated nostrils and rear up, slamming into their opponents. This is but a mere rehearsal for the real thing when a dominant male will have to fight off the young pretenders vouching for his title of Beachmaster and his harem of lady Elephant Seals. It is still an impressive sight though.

Bergs in the bay Fur seals
Elephant seals fighting

Above: Bergs in the bay, and albino fur seal and two male fur seals fighting.

Onward down the beach I go and then I make an acquaintance with a King Penguin. They do seem quite regal and nonchalant. He is not threatened by my presence at all as I start taking photographs. I do get close, although not that close because that elegant, slender and sharp beak could probably do some damage.

This is quite an unusual occurrence. King's don't usually come down this far south, although this foraging penguin had obviously other ideas. I start the climb to the furthest South end of the Point. It is a steep incline over sharp boulders and freshly sculptured snow drifts. The Southerly wind howls around the ice cliffs creating an updraft. This is where I see three different types of Petrel continually spiral and glide with effortless grace. A Snow Petrel mimics the flight path of a Southern Giant Petrel (SGP).

King penguin

Above: King Penguin at Rothera.

The Snow Petrel is tiny and has pure white plumage. The black dots of its eyes, its black beak and the hint of its black feet tucked in under its belly are all you can pick out as it flies in front of the glacier underneath Reptile Ridge. In total contrast is the SGP, it has a mottled plumage with a huge 2m wingspan and a very large horn coloured beak with greenish tip and prominent single nostril. It has the reputation as being the vulture of the Antarctic. Its unique evolved nasal protuberance enables it to smell carrion several miles away. The third petrel involved in this aerial ballet is The Cape Petrel or Cape Pigeon as it is also known. They are larger than the Snow Petrel and have a fabulous two-tone plumage. Their upper side has a chequerboard pattern, which distinguishes it from the Antarctic Petrel.

Finally, before heading back down to the base, I pull out my binoculars and scan Ryder Bay and Laubeuf Fjord. The views up here from the Cross are always amazing and constantly changing. The Antarctic glow illuminates the far off mountain ranges like pink sentinels awaiting the encroachment of the winter sea ice.

View from Rothera

Above: View from Rothera.

Weird optical illusions cause far off icebergs to eerily float above the horizon and I home in on two Minke whales coming up for a breather after a deep dive in Ryder Bay. Well, better get on with work. Hold on a minute, this is work! Many colleagues and myself regularly record the local wildlife, which can be a useful ecological indicator. We may be able to detect short-term and long-term trends such as monitoring the increasing numbers of fur seals and on a broader scale perhaps witnessing global temperature effects on wildlife on The Peninsula. Still, I think defrosting the icicles on my beard and a hot drink will go down well.


Birthdays

As well as enjoying the wonderful location and spectacular wildlife around the point and the rest of the island, a number of the boys have had birthdays this month. Andy Wilson, the boatman, reached the grand age 37 and this was celebrated as should befit a mariner, by being soaked wet in the bar by the rest of the base. John Riseborough and Adam Thornhill decided to celebrate in a different way.

John decided to organise a pool competition for the Saturday night immediately prior to his birthday. With entries for the singles and doubles from everybody on base the competition hotted up. John was amongst the favourites as was the highly fancied Jools 'The Janitor' Klepacki, with his patented broom/pool cue. In the doubles, a much more open competition, there was no clear favourite prior to the beginning of the contest.

In the doubles John Withers and Andy Miller triumphed in the final, partly due to disharmony in the opposition of John Riseborough and Rob Jarvis. An easy final pot went astray leaving a sitter for the marine team duo. In the singles competition, the final was between Jools and Adam Thornhill. Somehow Jools managed to scrape himself back into the competition with a wildcard spot, after an initial knock out in the early rounds.

A tense final battle of a number of frames saw the game shift to and fro from the experience of the wily janitor, to the youthful zeal of the youngster. After a couple of near disastrous shots, Jools managed to scrape victory from the jaws of defeat, with a flourish worthy of a true champion The proud winner of the 2004 Rothera pool championship received his handcrafted prize, fittingly made by John, our chippy.

John and Andy celebrate Jools in the final

Above: John and Andy celecrate and Jools suffers a setback on the road to victory.

Adam Thornhill had decided on a different theme for his birthday celebrations. He plumped for an 'A' theme night, where you had to come dressed as something beginning with the letter A. Improvisation is the name of the game when it comes to designing costumes for the fancy dress night. A number of us dressed up as Arabs, an angel or two, and even Annie Lennox. Prize of the night must be a joint winner. Paul Booth, one of vehicle mechs, came as an albino Orang-utan and Dan Smale came as an astronaut. Remarkable, as he had only finished his winter trip that afternoon!

Paul and Dan get dressed up

Above: Paul and Dan get dressed up.