Antarctic Life

A frozen outlook on life on the ice

Winter Trip

Halley VI, Brunt Ice Shelf, Antarctica 75°36'36"S 26°16'14"W

Temperature: -29.9°C

Wind Speed: 5 kts ESE

It has been quite some time since my last post and things are looking a little different around Halley these days. Gone are the 24 hours of daylight, replaced by a mere 6 and it is rapidly dwindling - in less a week there will be no more sun for the foreseeable future.

The days have been getting gradually colder too whilst the warmer days are met with an unbearable wind. The average temperature hovers around -30°C now, but when the wind picks up, it almost invariably comes from the East, bringing a rise in the temperature, sometimes to around -5°C or thereabouts. The change can be very dramatic, with winds rising from near zero to upwards of 30 or 40 knots, bringing with it a temperature rise of twenty degrees, sometimes in a matter of a few hours. To date the highest wind speed recorded on base has been around 55 knots, with 70 knot gusts. At these wind speeds, the entire modules begin to shake and rattle, it almost feels like we are at sea (which strictly speaking we are). I alluded to how this felt on twitter when I mentioned it was very much like a scene from the film "The Martian" starring Matt Damon - except that instead of the red martian dust, we had crystal-white snow and that we were all safely accounted for and still on base, and we definitely have a lot more disco music on station!

Entrance to the ScoopThe entrance to Aladdin's Scoop

We all get the opportunity to spend a week off station, taking it in turns of two or three throughout the transition from summer to winter and vice-versa. My opportunity was last which meant that we would likely experience the coldest and most unpredictable weather, fortunately we get two opportunities to go out, one in the beginning of winter and once at the end - those who are last to go out for the first round are last for the second round, thereby getting to experience warmer weather the second time around.

Myself, Ricardo the radio engineer and Mat our field guide ventured out a week or so ago only to be met with potentially poor visibility and high winds on the forecast (unfortunately the forecasts can be quite prone to inaccuracy at times due to the lack of weather stations around Antarctica compared to the massive numbers elsewhere around the world). Our original plan was to explore the hinge zone where the continental iceshelf breaks off into the sea, forming icebergs which then join together to form the Brunt Ice Shelf - which is rather unique in it's formation and topography, I will discuss this further in another post. Each of the five groups of winter trips had previously explored this region, and we were to be no different. The change in weather conditions forced us to change our plan - the first day and night we spent in the perimeter caboose (around 1.5km from the modules, sitting about 500m outside of the base perimeter).

The day was spent in relatively decent visibility and relatively low wind speeds, waiting for the predicted storm to hit. The conditions were relatively palatial, essentially a storage container on top a sledge. We were treated to a stove which raised the temperature inside to a pleasant near room temperature. The predicted storm hit rather suddenly at around 10pm and from the sounds of it, it was a rather rough night outside - I was glad to be spending it within the confines of the caboose!

The next morning we awoke and found that the sledges had formed rather large wind-tails behind them, remarkably so given that there was only around 10 hours of wind for them to form. Once we were ready, we readied our skidoos, attached the sledges and headed back to base to wait out the remainder of the storm.

The following morning we set out at around 10am to travel to the coast to Windy Bay. The most magnificent sunrise I have ever witnessed accompanied us for the entire one and a half hour journey. Sadly I have no pictures of this, in part due to us travelling, in part because sometimes, no matter what kit or how skilled you are, a photograph just wouldn't do it justice.

Upon our arrival to Windy Bay, we were greeted by the harsh call of thousands of Emperor penguins - a truly remarkable sight.

Emperor PenguinsThe Emperor colony at Windy Bay

Digs were much the same as back at the perimeter caboose, only this time we had neighbours, noisy ones at that!

After we had unpacked all the kit we needed and made a quick cup of tea and fed ourselves we ventured down towards the penguins.

The last time I visited Windy there were still the remaining chicks who were too underdeveloped to survive on the ice cliffs, with the sea ice having completely disappeared. On this occasion however, gone was the vast expanse of open water, replaced by fast ice as far as the eye could see, and on it, black smears of hundreds, if not thousands of birds. Being relatively early in the season, there were still birds returning to the colony from the sea, others were huddled in groups, rotating around every so often in order to try to stay warm.

The birds were noticeably different from those which we had spotted on our journey down on the ship - they were considerably fatter, having gorged themselves for the impending winter and fast.

Although we are allowed to approach the birds to within 5 meters, on this occasion we were only able to descend down on ropes from the top of the cliffs and hang a few meters above the ice (which was still slushy at the edge meaning we were unable to travel across it, despite it being most likely thick enough to easily support our weight a few meters from the coast line). Whilst dangling over the edge I was able to fire off a few shots only for me to realise afterwards that I had forgotten to change the settings from the previous time I had used it, resulting in completely overexposed photos! Fortunately I was able to get some shots from the top of the cliffs (around 25-30 meters high). I will have to wait to get some decent shots of the colony once the ice is old enough to reliably traverse.

The caboose at the end of the Milky WayThe Windy Caboose looking back toward the continent

That night we treated ourselves to some fillet steak, bacon and smash (instant mashed potatoes), some board games and then an early night in preparation for the day ahead. Prior to bed however, I was able to venture outside to experience some rather chilly temperatures, but fortunately no real wind to speak of. I was rewarded with the clearest sky I have ever seen and a small streak of aurora.

The next morning we were to finally venture to towards the hinge zone via base. We set off in the dark and were again treated to a spectacular sunrise but increasingly cold conditions. On our arrival at camp we had to dig out space for our tent, assemble it, and unpack all of the kit into the tent (stove, lamps, food etc.). I also had to set up the HF radio assembly, pointing it towards base and ensuring that it was roughly calibrated (the length of aerial is very sensitive) - checking this however was an issue as the screen was unusable as it had completely frozen and wouldn't display anything! Once everything was in it's place, it was time to cover the skidoos to ensure that they would be relatively easy to recover should there be a blow overnight.

A well-deserved cup of tea and some lunch was in order after all of that before a bit of exploring in an area formerly known for a feature called Aladdin's Cave - a feature now no longer present.

The entire surrounding area has been forged out of a wind scoop, the ice having been carved away over many years, leaving large swathes of exposed blue ice. Blue ice is extremely hard ice which lacks air bubbles, resulting in much denser ice compared to normal and as a result is blue due to absorption of other colours in the spectrum.

I probably use this term far too often but Aladdin's Scoop (which it shall be henceforth named) is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, the photographs certainly do not do it full justice and is definitely something to be seen to be believed. Once we had crossed this huge wind scoop, we roped up and began to explore the huge crevassed area above it. Sadly, one of the crevasses which had been explored on previous trips had partially filled in, and therefore we were unable to explore it as fully as others had been, but we were still able to descend into it and travel a small way along it.

The colour inside is phenomenal, a really deep shade of blue, with some (individual) ice crystals as large as a finger!

Once we had climbed back out, the light was beginning to fade, and it marked our time to return back to camp for dinner. By the time we had stopped and were safely inside the tent the perceptive temperature had plummeted. Despite being a relatively constant -34°C or so, it felt considerably colder and was a real struggle to do anything outside of our sleeping bags (still fully clothed). I forced myself to take off my outer layers before spending about 30 minutes outside taking photographs of the tent, moon and spectacular aurora. Whilst outside I was actually relatively warm, however on my return to the tent the cold soon set back in. Overnight was exceptionally cold, with a thick layer of ice forming inside the tent, over our sleeping bags and anything else that happened to be not inside our sleeping bags.

AuroraAurora above - the single light source stove lamp

Batteries take a massive punishment in these kinds of temperatures, for instance my Kindle battery showed empty when I first tried to power it on (once it was warmed sufficiently that the screen wasn't frozen), however once given 20 minutes inside my sleeping bag, it resumed showing full battery again. The cold played massive havoc on my camera too, everything was stiff and sluggish with atrocious battery life (the camera will normally take between 1000-1500 shots on a full charge), I was lucky to get 30 shots off before it was completely dead causing me to have to keep swapping batteries between the inside of my down jacket and the camera.

The following day, once we had mustered up enough energy to get out of our cold (but not freezing) sleeping bags into the freezing tent and put more clothes on, and have some breakfast it was time to start breaking camp.

This was the warmest point of the day, actively sweating (not a good thing in -34°C!). We weren't the only ones feeling the cold however, our skidoos needed a helping hand to start the flywheels, however once running they were purring beautifully. We were once again ready to travel.

The final day of our trip would take us to Stoney Berg, an area with actual rocks! This would not normally be the highlight of any given week, but Antarctica does strange things to people! This was the first time I had touched a rock in about 5 months and was quite a special moment which was rather strange and unexpected! It was also refreshing over the past few days to see rolling planes where the various buckles in the ice shelf resulted in small hills. The journey was again truly spectacular, however it was about to come to an end, and although a fantastic experience, it was exceptionally cold and the thought of going back to base where we would be nice and warm was a very pleasant thought indeed!

Stoney BergGiant wind scoop at Stoney Berg

The return skidoo journey was unsurprisingly a bone-chilling experience, mainly because despite my best efforts there was a tiny area of skin that was exposed to the wind, which was 10 knots plus whatever speed we were doing on the skidoos. This meant the windchill was roughly -58°C or thereabouts (in reality it doesn't quite work out like that here in Antarctica but it is a ballpark figure).

Between me desperately trying to rid my goggles/helmet facemask of ice and trying to cover that one little area of my cheek that was exposed I had little time to concentrate on the main task of driving! Being linked up, we had to ensure that we kept a constant distance to the sledge in front. If one of us were to fall into a crevasse the rope linking us needs to be semi-taught in order to catch the fall as best as possible and avoid others falling in.

I began to relax a little when I could see the base looming in the horizon. The journey had taken a fair bit out of me, mostly due to the terrible sleep the night before, and was glad to be nearly home. However, a final curve ball was thrown when about half a kilometer from base one of the sledges overturned forcing us to dig out one corner in order to tip it back over again.

I was definitely ready for a nice warm cup of tea and a thaw out!