Sunday, 26 February 2017

In the name of science

Installing GPS and seismic instruments in Antarctica involves quite a lot of work.

First, you need to get together all the kit you will need: the instruments themselves, the power supplies for the instruments, the tools to install the instruments, the sledges to drag the kit across the ice, the mountaineering equipment to keep you safe as you drag the kit across the ice, plus a field guide, a plane, a pilot, and perhaps a spare pair of hands.

Organised chaos: loading the Twin Otter
Once you’ve found all of this, you need to weigh the kit (so the pilot knows how much fuel to put in the plane), estimate how long the work will take, and get ~350kg of odd-shaped items organized into a sensible number of sensible-shaped items so they can easily be loaded onto a plane.

For a standard install I got it down to around 20 items, ranging from a fierce-looking 5kg pick-axe to a large, unwieldy 45kg metal frame (which holds the solar panels), plus a large assortment of  durable boxes (cardboard and snow don’t mix) and lumps of metal. As the plane is loaded I can be seen carefully ticking off the items - my biggest nightmare was that I’d forget a crucial tool or instrument component.

Napping on P-bags during the flight
Along with all of this each person is responsible for bringing their own spare clothes, food, first aid and suncream for the day, as well as ensuring that their ‘P-bag’ is on the plane. Your P-bag contains your sleeping bag. Actually, it contains the fluffiest sleeping bag in the world, plus a karrimat, a thermarest, a sheepskin rug, a sleeping bag liner, and another rug-like layer that doubles as a pillow. The whole lot is bundled up into a large canvas bag that is very comfortable to lie on if you fancy a nap during the plane journey.

What I did not pack was a toothbrush.

Or anything to read.

On 11th November 2016 a chilled-out team of two scientists, two field guides, an engineer and a pilot loaded up a British Antarctic Survey (BAS) Twin Otter aircraft and flew ~170 miles from Rothera to a small rocky outcrop at the top of Leppard Glacier, near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, and just 40 miles from the Larsen C ice shelf. It was a little chilly at our landing site, partly because we were at ~1700m altitude and, well, partly because we were in Antarctica. But spirits were high as we unloaded the plane and began to drag the kit up to the outcrop that we’d spotted from the air.

An easy stroll to the outcrop - you can see the plane down on the ice
Hard at work installing the GPS equipment
It was a perfect outcrop. We quickly located a solid piece of rock for the GPS instrument – when you are trying to measure land movement of a few millimetres a year, it is no good placing the GPS on a pile of rubble – a were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves as we set about the final few tasks associated with the installation of this precision instrument after a swift three hours (this is good).

The radio crackled. Mark, the pilot, relayed information from the team who had headed up a mountain a few miles away looking for geological evidence of how the ice sheet has been thinning over time. They’d spotted some cloud drifting in and were heading back.

Mark heading back to the plane in the fog
Things happened quickly in the next hour. As Mike and Tom headed back from the mountain they were swiftly pursued by the cloud, and as we aborted our attempts to get the electronic components of the GPS up and running we scrambled back to the plane, which although only 500m away, was rapidly disappearing.

Too late.

The fog enveloped us and visibility dropped to 50m. Well, it might have been 50m; it’s hard to tell when everything around you is white.

It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon on Friday. After tensely waiting in the plane for a couple of hours, poised to take off if the visibility cleared, we conceded that it was time for a brew. The temperature had dropped to minus 20 outside, and it was getting chilly sitting inside a cocoon of metal, so we dug a stove out of the tail of the plane and began melting snow. I decided not to point out to the others that I knew the chefs were cooking pizza back at base.

Time for a brew - thanks Al!
Updates from the meteorological team in Rothera suggested that a break in the clouds might be heading our way. So after tucking into a rehydrated meal the decision was made to keep watch for a gap in the clouds through the night. This isn’t as hard as it sounds as it doesn’t actually get dark; ‘night’ just refers to a time when it is a bit colder. Well quite a lot colder.

Camping next to the plane

Three of us piled out of the plane to put up a tent and snuggle into cozy sleeping bags, while the other three found themselves a space on the floor of the plane. Now, I love camping in Antarctica, and actually enjoyed a toasty night’s sleep, but apparently it was a less pleasant experience sitting silently in the cockpit of the plane for several hours, peering through ice-covered windows, looking for a gap in the clouds...

It was day two, and from this point I can’t be sure of the precise order of events, but I think you’ll see why. The strange thing about being stuck in the middle of nowhere is that you don’t know how long you’ll be there. There’s a certain hope that pervades for a while, an assumption that you must get out sometime that day. This lasts throughout the morning as you feast on a cup of tea and some broken biscuits liberally smeared with tinned butter, awaiting the next weather update from Rothera, but it fades in the evening as your feet and hands go numb with cold and you resign yourself to another dehydrated evening meal.
Mmm, breakfast
Good spirits in the back of the plane (L-R): me, Mike, Octavian, Tom, Mark in the background and Al behind the camera

Mark, our pilot, keeping warm
The worst thing was having nothing to do. No book, no pack of cards, no music. I’d brought some knitting, which hopefully didn’t drive the others too mad(?), and one person did have a kindle on board, but we managed not to fall out over the pursuit of reading matter (and I suspect the batteries didn’t fare that well anyway). Octavian did pounce on the opportunity to read the handbook listing the rules and regulations for flying an aircraft in Antarctica, and good humour was maintained by discussing who we would eat first if we ran out of food, and seeing who could hold out the longest to go to the toilet. In fact, one of the things that struck me throughout our extended mini-break was the fact that no-one got cross. It is not easy to spend four days stuck in a small, cold plane with people you don’t know that well and not get a little tetchy, and in particular our pilot Mark was incredibly patient, especially given that we’d forced him to miss Sunday brunch.

Daily entertainment involved heading outside for an hour or two to dig the plane out of the snow that the wind repeatedly packed around the skis, and on the third day we were very excited to see the shadow of the wing on the snow outside! A shadow means sun, and indeed, peering upwards the sky certainly seemed to be tinged with blue, but gazing horizontally we were still only greeted with fog. We were surrounded by ridges of mountains, and since the pilots rely primarily on visibility rather than instruments for navigation, we needed the fog to shift before we could head anywhere.

Mark clearing snow from the top of the plane

By day four we had run out of chocolate, and optimism was wearing thin by the early afternoon. Al headed outside without explanation, and we wondered if we’d missed him saying ‘I may be some time’, but then we spotted him doing some headstands in the snow. This seemed to bring the luck we’d been missing.

The butter was getting low...

The view out the window on day 4 - is this a good sign?
A little later one of the other BAS planes made a detour to check out our location and there followed a cheery radio conversation along the lines of:

Them: We can see you, the cloud isn’t very thick.

Us: We can see you too, we just can’t see sideways!

But soon afterwards the outcrop where we’d been installing the GPS three days earlier came into view, and then the mountain beyond, and suddenly it looked like we might make it home that day after all. After another flurry of digging, we secured the cargo and all eyes were on Mark. Ok, he nodded, this could be it. There followed an unbearable half hour where the fog drifted in and out, never quite lifting, never quite giving us a clear view… and then we were airborne.

Out of the cloud at last!
It’s amazing how quickly you return to normality. As we landed at Rothera we were greeted by a few more folk than usual at the hangar, but the main task was to unload our cargo, stow it in the right container, and get the plane prepared for another day’s work. Delivering science in these extreme circumstances is all in a day’s work (or four) for the team at Rothera. They are not only some of the most skilled people in the world at their job, but they’ll also keep you alive in the process.

I headed over to the Operations Manager: “Now about that unfinished GPS installation…”

Rothera. Home.