Thursday, 8 December 2016

Day Seven: Wednesday 7 December

Real science!

Today was set aside for visiting one of the teams working out in the field this season. Scott Base is the hub for all science activities, but for many of the teams it is the place that they leave from and come back to, and it takes a lot of organisation to get that to happen.

Just as the food and all other supplies for Scott Base have to be carefully planned, ordered and sent down by air or sea – which means you feel guilty leaving even a mouthful of food because you know what it has taken to get it to your plate - so the science teams have to plan in detail what they need and how to get it to Antarctica. And because of the extreme conditions, things don’t always go as smoothly. Equipment breaks down, or doesn’t work the way people thought it would, or lots of other unexpected events can happen – like equipment not arriving on time - to hold up the work, and living and working conditions are often challenging as well.

The team from K001 (each science team or event has a number, even mine – I’m K136) took me out with them on a day trip to the site.There were seven of us, so we took five in a Hagglund and the other two rode on skidoos. They left after us and I tried to get a photo of them zooming past halfway there, but they were too fast!

This team is led by David Prior from the Dept of Geology, University of Otago. They’re trying out a new way of taking ice samples from a hole in the ice shelf, and they’re also hoping to freeze seismometers into the ice shelf to listen for sound waves and ice quakes. This is a test of technologies for a bigger programme in the 2017-2018 summer season, and it’s connected with bigger issues of ice flow towards the ocean, ice shelf collapse and global warming.

We passed the site of our AFT camp and continued across the ice shelf. This is the way to Cape Crozier, which three members of Scott’s team travelled to in the middle of winter to try and collect emperor penguin eggs. One of them, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, wrote about their horrendous trip in a book called The worst journey in the world.

Our hour-long drive was much more straightforward, and even the AFT camp site didn’t look so alarming. In fact I realise now that I spent the first few days feeling completely overwhelmed and intimated by the environment, but I’m proud to say that I went on my first solo walk later today.

The camp is built around tents and linked containers for living, eating and sleeping spaces, with the drill site off to the side. It's all by itself in the middle of the ice shelf, surrounded by vast expanses of unbroken snow, overlooked by Mt Erebus and Mt Terror.

Cosy camp kitchen!

The view from the camp toilet!
The on-site team members welcomed us with cups of tea and even toasted our sandwiches for us (we’d made lunch before leaving Scott Base). They talked about how the project was going and the problems they’d come up against, and gave us a tour of the drill site. 

It was really interesting to see how things don’t always go to plan, or work out perfectly first time, and part of the process is figuring out what to do next. What makes that specially difficult, and often very frustrating, down in Antarctica is that everyone knows what an expensive and time-consuming process it has been to get things to that stage, and they also know that they only have a limited time available when they can be out in the field doing this work.

We got back to Scott Base at about 5pm, and spent a few more minutes de-kitting, getting back into ordinary clothes and putting gear away. At quarter to six, I was supposed to be meeting the American group who were coming over for dinner, including their writer in residence, Maris Wicks. But just before that, I found out that our bag drop for the next day’s flight was at 6.45pm, and I hadn’t even started packing. So I managed a quick chat with the American group, then 15 mins of crazy throw-everything-in packing before hauling all my stuff to the bar for weighing (this means weighing the check in luggage, which is taken away and disappears  and weighing your carry-on luggage and yourself.) Luckily the American group were still finishing dinner so I could join them after that. It’s so nice to have made a link between the US writers and artists programme and our NZ one.

Later that evening, at about 10pm, I went out to the pressure ridges by myself, and everything went fine, even if I did have a bit of trouble working the radio. But Jim who was on the late shift on comms obviously knew it was me calling in, and patiently waited til I got it right! The seals were blobbing out as usual and some of the Scott Base crew were out kite surfing. It was a lovely evening.

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