Monday, 5 June 2017

The Polar Night

Looking North at around midday, the sun no longer manages to break northern horizon.
When I arrived in Rothera back in early March it was light until about 9pm. Since then the days have been getting shorter, and the midday sun lower in the sky. In late May it got to the point that even at midday the sun failed to rise above the hills to the North. From then until sometime in mid to late July Rothera would see no direct sunlight. 
Fuchs house in the darkness. 18 or so hours of darkness a day just becomes normal. 
To mark the disappearance of the sun there is traditionally a little ceremony at Rothera. On Friday the 26th of May the flag that usually flutters on the hill above base was lowered. This is always done by the oldest person on base, which this year is Trev the chef. Around midday everybody gathered on the small hill behind base to where the flagpole stands. The wind was light  and the sky overcast and grey day, which added to the atmosphere of the occasion. The flag, by now pretty tattery after 10 months being battered by Antarctic storms and bleached by the intense UV of the summer sunshine, hung limply in the calm conditions.
Samways the station leader speaks.
Paul Samways, the station leader, said a few words about significance of the occasion and how privileged we are to be overwintering in Antarctica. Trev then stepped up, read a little poem that he had written about the occasion and then lowered the flag. This was followed by a shot of whiskey, a group photo and the rest off the day off. In six weeks of so, when the sun returns, the youngest person on base will raise a new flag. 
I am usually not really into flag ceremonies, they often feel a bit contrived to me. However, on this occasion, perhaps because it did represent something significant and also very apparent (the loss of direct sunlight), or perhaps just due to the dynamics of a small group on base, it did feel worthwhile. 
Trev the chef lowers the flag while everybody else looks on. 
The group photo after the flag lowering 
So far I have not found that 18 or so hours of darkness every day has had a negative effect on me. Rothera is only just South of the Antarctic circle, meaning that at even at mid winter there is a few hours of dusky daylight every day.  The fact there is some daylight each day combined with set work and meal times, certainly keeps my body happily ticking away with it's normal  24 hour cycle. The main downside of the darkness for myself is the fact that it limits opportunities to get out and do things at the weekend.
Weekend skiing and climbing is starting to get limited by the short daylight hours. Heading off on a skiing trip before dawn (I think this picture was taken around 10.30am)
The day after the flag down ceremony myself and Steve (one of the other field guides) had a day trip up one of  Stokes Peaks, which, with it's good views to the North was still just getting a little sunshine.  
One advantage of the darkness and lack of light pollution is the opportunity to see the Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights)

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Winter trips

The Camp at Trident on my first winter trip. On the left is my pyramid tent, the skidoos and sledge off to the left and toilet tent to the right. The  pyramid tent to the right belongs to Zac and Tom who were also camping there that week. 
There are five field guides at Rothera this winter, and part of our duties are to take the other seventeen others who are based here out on winter trips. These seventeen each get two winter trips, one pre mid winter, and one post mid winter. A winter trip usually involves one field guide and one other heading off on skidoo and camping on the ice  for four or five days. When out people tend to go skiing or mountaineering, or exploring crevasses.

Mucky the Plumber who I took out on my first trip near the top of one of the local mountains Biff .
These trips allow people to get out base, explore the local area, and have a bit of a break from their work. It is also very good training for us field guides as the equipment and techniques used are very similar to those used during the summer when looking after scientist when out in the deep field (and doing science is Antarctica is what BAS is all about). 
Full moon rising over the camp. This picture was taken on my third trip when we were the only team there. On that particular trip the the only clear weather we got was at night.
I had three pre-midwinter trips. In all three cases I ended up camping at a place called Trident East. On the first trip the weather was pretty good, but was a bit more mixed on the second trip, and very Scottish on the 3rd trip. However, I did managed to get some good mountaineering done, and had a good explore of the Stokes peaks. Having got comfortable with the the whole set up I am keen to get further afield on my second set of winter trips which start towards the end of July. 

The camp at night with the pyramids glowing softly from the Tilly lamps which are used for heat and light. 

Some easy mountaineering on another of the local peaks; N2. The black dots in the background are the skidoos and sledge
On the first trip, the other two teams camping at Trident East popped round to out tent for whiskey fueled evening discussion. When they left they stole our cheese!

The Trident East campsite.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The Start of Winter

The winters watch the Shak as she departs. 
In a practical sense the 10th of April marked the start of winter at Rothera this year. This was not due to significant change in the weather, or in daylight hours. It was due to the departure of the ship, the Ernest Shackleton. The Shack, as it is colloquially know, is one of the two ships operated by BAS. It had been at Rothera for a few days, unloading food and equipment, and loading cargo to be taken back to the U.K. It would also take with it about two thirds of the population of Rothera.
The departure of the ship is a significant moment in the Rothera calendar. On the morning of the 10th everybody gathered at the,wharf, and said their goodbyes. Those who were leaving slowly filed onto the ship, and those of us who were staying stood and watched. As the ship slowly eased away from the wharf and accelerated away. We stood and watched until the ship was lost from sight among the distant bergs. The moment of calm that followed. In one step the  number of people on base dropped from 65, to the 22 of us who are wintering here. It will now be October before we see any new people. For me at least it was quite a profound moment.
Bradders waves the ship off with a flare.
After a few jobs tidying up the wharf, we retired to the nearby  Bonner lab for a drink of champagne (champagne that was suppose to be to celebrate the Halley move, but events there meant it was not required there) and a chat about some of the events of the upcoming winter. There are going to be some interesting things going on this winter, including something that will be a first for British people in Antarctica. I will write about these events as they happen. 

Since the ship left the atmosphere on the station has changed significantly. Work hours have reduced, and everything seems a lot more calmer and more relaxed. There has also been a lot more time to be able to get out for recreation, as well as the opportunity to get out boating and getting some training from the doctor. However, more about that in future posts. 
Group Photo 1. I was in charge of taking a group photo. However, on this attempt, much to everybody's amusement I did not quite make it back to the group in time.

Group Photo 2, I made it this time. 

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Journey South

Not much snow, but a pleasant day for avalanche forecasting in Glen Coe
I am aware that I have not posted much on my blog for a while. The reason for this is that I have not been up to very much that I have felt inspired to write about. My main activity for the past six months seem to have been working and DIY. The winter was a poor one and I only managed one winter route, and that was back in November. However, the lack of snow during January and February did not bother me nearly as much as it once would have done. The weather was often quite settled, and I had some lovely days pottering about in the sunshine for work. 

However, recently things have changed and I am currently writing this post from Rothera. Rothera is the largest of the British Antarctic bases and is located at about 67 degrees South on  Adelaide island just off the Antarctic peninsular. I will also be my home for the next 8 months or so. This will be right right through the Antarctic winter. I sure this experience will provide me with plenty to write about as well as some good pictures.  
My flatmate Andy organised a bit of a leaving party, people came round to eat cake and drink beer, it was good. 
The journey South started in early March. On Friday the 3rd of March I closed the front door of my
house in Fort William, passed the key onto a friend who will be moving into my room, and started driving East. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the hills looked great in recent layer of snow. I stopped, took a photo, but did not feel the FOMO, I would be seeing plenty of winter where I was going. 
The view from the plane of the very Southern tip of South America. Visible is the famous beagle passage, and just out of shot to the right is Cape Horn. 
I spent the weekend with my parents in Aviemore, and on the Sunday evening took the sleeper from there to London. I had never traveled on the sleeper before, and was suitably impressed. After a good night's sleep, I got off at Euston station around 8am. From there I made my way out to Heathrow, where I met up with another couple of BAS people heading South. Unfortunately our flight to Madrid was cancelled, and the airline seemed to have issues with our tickets. This took about 2 hours to sort out, and due to this and the plane we were eventually booked onto being late, we missed our connection at Madrid to Santiago. This meant we had 24 hours to wait in Madrid, but this was not too much of a problem, it was a pleasant city to wander around for a day.

The next day we got our flight to Santiago, and from there onto Punta Areanas near the Southern tip of South America. The next day the weather was good, and so BAS were able to fly us from Punta to Rothera, my home for the next 8 months. It will be interesting to see what those eight months brings. 

A penguin having a good scratch. I took this just round the corner from Rothera, and although it is may is not much to do with this post, everybody loves a good penguin picture, so I thought I would put it in. 

Monday, 7 November 2016

The enigmatic Aonach Beag snowpatch.

 Approaching Aoanch Beag. The old snowpatch can be seen down and left of the steeper cliffs.

 Iain at the top of the patch where it was over 3 meters deep. 

Myself standing below the patch. It was about 50m from where I am standing to the top right corner. 

With a lot of fresh snow having fallen in the Cairngorms over the past few days, and more forecast, particularly in the West over the next few days it looks like the lasting snows of the winter have arrived. Four snowpatches have survived the summer. These were the Sphinx and Pinnacle patches on Braeriach, the Observatory Gully patch on Ben Nevis, and the Aonach Beag patch. Back in the end of August I had been hopefully that the Point Five Gully patch on Ben Nevis would also survive, but a mild and wet September meant that was not to be. 
Last Saturday myself and Iain Cameron headed over to Aonach Beag to see how the patch there was doing.This was the first day out in potentially could be a very long winter for me.  I was quite impressed with the quantity of snow which remained. The patch was about 50 meters long, 25 meters wide, and around 3 meters deep at it's top edge. We estimated the mass of the patch to be of the order of 700 tonnes. This is, not unusually, the largest of the snow patches to have survived in Scotland this year. It as quite an enigma how this patch survives so well, as it sits at a relatively low altitude (just 920 meters). This is full 200 meters below the other patches that usually survive (The Braeriach patches are at around 1145m, and the Observatory Gully patch 1140m.). The answer is probably due to the combination of it's location (very sheltered with a large catchment area) and the fact this it sits on soil rather than rock, and so air and water don't get underneath to melt it out from below. 

P.S I have just noticed that Iain has had the same idea as me in writing about this patch, you can see his thoughts here.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Svalbard Science 2

Kronebreen and the head of  Kongsfjorden. 
I am just back from another trip to the British research base in Ny Alesund on Svalbard. As with when I was there in March, I was working as a field assistant for BAS. This time I was instructing on a polar fieldwork course for sixteen early career scientists who are involved, or are keen to be involved, in scientific polar field work.
The trip started with a few days in Maddingley Hall on the outskirts of Cambridge. Here the course participants had a number of lectures from people at BAS, and did a number of field work planning exercises. It was also an opportunity for them to tell us a little about their work. They came from a variety of backgrounds; glaciology, geology, marine biology, and climate modelling. It also gave me an opportunity to nip into BAS headquarters to catch up with various people, many of whom I had not seen since Rothera.
The Mellageret,  the Ny Alesund pub, and the world's most Northerly bar. It is only open on Thursday and Saturday nights, but does tend to provide a good if slightly random night out. 
After the Cambridge component, myself, three BAS scientists and half the students headed up to Svalbard. We flew to Longyearbyn which is the the capital of the island. We had booked a boat, with the original plan to head round to Ny Alesund that evening. However, the weather had been unsettled, and the seas were rough. The skipper of the boat decided it would be better to wait until the following day when hopefully the sea had settled down a bit. This meant a night in Longyearbyn. I had not been into Longyearbyn before, so it was quite a good opportunity to have a jaunt into the centre of town, and a wee look round the museum.
The next day the skipper let us know that the sea was still a bit lumpy, but he would like to give it a go. When we got out of the shelter of the fjord he proved not to be wrong. The further out we headed the bigger and bigger the seas got, and the wee boat (44ft long) started getting thrown around more and more. People started getting really thrown about inside, and inevitably getting sea sick, and the boat had to go slower and slower. I have to admit to not feeling the best but managed to keep my lunch down.
Ice on the beach. Pretty when washed up on a beach, but a another thing to be aware off when out at sea. 
Eventually after about two and half hours the skipper called it day and decided to turn round, our average speed had been around seven  knots, and at that rate it would have taken another 9 hours to get round to Ny Alesund (it is four hour trip in good weather). A couple of hours later we were back in Longyearbyn feeling slightly battered and queasy. However, it was quite a good lesson for the students, in the polar regions everything is so weather dependent, and the best laid plans can easily be scuppered by the weather.
Doing a bit of geology near be base of Austre Broggerbreen (the glacier which I was working on back in March)
After another night in Longyearbyn the plan was to try to make it to Ny Alesund by boat again the next after afternoon. It looked like being another morning of mooching about. Then a phone call letting us know there were enough seats on a flight to Ny Alesund for all of us if we could be at the airport in just over an hour.  After some rapid packing and rounding up of everybody, we made it for the half hour flight over to Ny Alesund. This was a lot more civilized than the previous days attempted journey. Another lesson of polar field work, it is very much hurry up and wait.

Once at Ny Alesund the rest of the day was taken up with rifle courses and information about how the station operated. The following day the students started working on two science projects.
The aim of the first project was to investigate a local glacier (Midtre Lovenbreen) using various techniques. This involved using a dual frequency GPS to map the snout of the glacier and compare the results with a similar survey carried out by the students on this course last year. Rather depressingly in the last year the glacier had retreated on average 15-20 meters. It also involved surveying the lower 2 km of the glacier using ground penetrating radar. This gave a depth profile of the glacier (around 150 metres for much of its length) as well showing various interesting internal structures.
Doing a radar survey of Midtre Lovenbreen. The transmitter is located in the rear sledge, and the receiver in the forward sledge. 
The second project was a marine biology one.  The students headed out in the local fjord in boats doing various plankton trawls, sediment grabs and temperature and salinity profiles. The aim 
of this was to try and build up an understanding of  the food web which exists with in the fjord, and understand how this changes with depth and proximity to Kronebreen, the huge glacier which flows into the head of the fjord. Essentially there is less life the deeper you go, and less life up toward the head of the fjord where the water is colder and fresher.
Some little creatures dredge out of the fjord
which marine biologists knew lots about. 
A few days later the boat arrived to deliver the second group of students. The first group then left on the boat. The weather was pretty settled by this point, and the sea was calm. It sounded a very different boating experience to the one we had endured a few days earlier. The second group continued to work on the projects started by the first group. Although none of the science will be published, it was interesting to see the results that could be found after just a few days.
A  young arctic fox checking out one of our rucsacs.
After about a week at Ny Alesund, it was time for myself and the other staff on the course to leave with the second group of students on the boat. However, by this time the weather had started to change again for the worse. It was decided to bring the departure time from Ny Alesund forward four hours from 9 am to 5 am. As predicted it was quite rough on the way back round to Longyearbyn (although not as rough as when we had turned back a few days before), and it was fortunate that we had allowed a fair bit of extra time as the normally 4 hour journey took over 7 hours. I admit I am perhaps on the best sailor, and spent three or four hours curled up on floor of the boat feeling terrible. Fortunately we made it in time to managed catch our flight out of Longyearbyn despite this it looking slightly dubious for while.

Some of the larger local wildlife. A walrus sleeping on the beach.

Overall it was a good trip. I love the wildlife, and landscape and people that you get up in the polar regions. It was also good to work with a group of enthusiastic scientist from a variety of disciplines. In retrospect I even appreciate my arctic sea sick experience.  However, in the future however terrible a days field work I am having, should it be forecasting avalanches on Ben Nevis in the lashing rain, or after numerous days in lie up in a BAS pyramid tent, I now know it could be worse, I could be feeling deathly sea sick in a small boat bobbing around the arctic ocean.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Snowpatch time again.

This little tunnel within the Observatory Gully snowpatch had melted out from below. This was probably due to air movement. 
The Point Five Gully tunnel during the Ben Nevis Survey. This is formed by the stream flowing down Point Five Gully and under the snowpatch melting it from below.  
Alison Austin doing some science in the impressive Tower Cleft during the Ben Nevis survey. Probably a nicer place to be in winter than in summer.   
Still plenty of depth in the Observatory Gully patch. 
Saturday the 20th of August was the 9th annual Scottish snowpatch survey. Various people were out and about scanning the hills to see how much snow remains.  I joined Iain, Mark and Ben to see how things were looking on Ben Nevis. Iain has recently become a bit of a TV star with his interest in snow.

I had also been up that way a week or so earlier when working on the Ben Nevis survey as part of my work for the John Muir Trust. The Ben Nevis survey is a botanical and geological survey of Ben Nevis where mountaineers helped geologists and botanists into various places on the North Face which are not very easy to get to. I did three days on the survey in some fairly sub-optimal weather conditions, and visited some fairly dank and loose places to which I suspect I will never return to in summer conditions.

A relatively warm May and June, followed by a wet July and early August meant that there is a fair bit less snow on the hills now than there was at this time last year. However last year was quite exceptional, and compared to many years this year is not looking too bad. For example the Zero Gully patch which survived last year, was small when we passed it on the 20th However, some years it has not been there at all for the snowpatch survey. There was also a noticeable difference in size of the Observatory Gully patch between my visits on the 11th;and the 20th. I suspect this might be a reflection on how wet it had been between my two visits. 

Another view of the Observatory Gully Patch. Interestingly the wall in the foreground  is absent of the ablation hollows which  you usually see in such locations. I am not sure why this is. 
Iain taking pictures of the Point Five Gully patch. It was all looking a bit unstable, so we didn't actually go any further under the tunnel.  The boundary between last years snow and older multi year snow can be seen just above Iain's head. The snow tunnel here hard enlarged significantly, and was looking a lot less stable that 9 days earlier when I had visited it on the Ben Nevis survey. 
At the end of last autumn there was a significant amount of very hard, dense, icy snow remaining at the base of Point Five Gully and in particular in Observatory Gully. This meant that although last winter was not exceptional in terms of snow build up in these locations, they had a significant head start.  Despite the significant melting between my two visits, I would say that the Observatory Gully patch in particular was looking was looking very healthy, and point five was looking okay. In places the boundary between the last winter’s snow and the old hard icy multi-year snow was very evident.

One thing that was very noticeable about both the Observatory Gully and Point Five patches is how much melting had occurred from below due to water and air. This is due to these patches sitting on scree which allows the air start circulating underneath, and lots of running water coming down the gullies and flowing below the patches. This is in contrast to other long laying patches such as Aoanch Beag (the lowest lying regularly surviving snow patch) and Britain’s most permanent snow patch, the Sphinx Patch over in the Cairngorms. These patches lie in sunken hollows, and sit on soil rather than on rock so air and water do not get underneath them, so they only melt from the top. This means that they don’t melt as quickly, but on the other hand you don’t see the create the impressive tunnels and shapes that are shown in the photos here.  

After descending from Observatory Gully, Iain and the others continued round to Aonach Mor and Aonach Beag to have a look at the snow patches there. I had to head down to start getting organised for another trip up to Svalbard, which I am sure I will write about in due course.

From what I saw last on the Ben Nevis, and from Iain’s pictures for the rest of his trip my predictions of the West coast snow patches are as follows; Observatory Gully will definitely survive, Aonach Beag is highly likely and Point Five likely to survive. I don't think however, that the other remaining Lochaber patches will make it.  I will let you know how accurate these predictions are in a few months time.....
Heading home! It will be interesting to see how much of this snow remains when next season  lasting snow arrives in October or November.