Tuesday, January 6, 2009

First day at Scott Base

Thankfully I woke up this morning and it was still beautiful blue sky! After breakfast Renee and I changed out of our normal attire worn around base, and dressed up as Antarctic action figures again. We were heading up to Crater Hill with Johno, project manager for New Zealand’s southernmost wind farm. This was to be our sneak preview of what the upcoming days of work will hold. (It was great just to get outside too!)

Crater Hill lies directly behind Scott Base and McMurdo Station and is around 10 minutes drive away. We were there to check out the site of the three wind turbines Antarctica New Zealand and Meridian Energy are constructing to generate power for both Scott Base and McMurdo Station. Our role is to undertake an environmental monitoring project of the activity at the site. At present, only the turbine foundations have been put in. The towers and turbines will be erected in the next austral summer and will be commissioned the year after (see links for information on Meridian Energy's website).

So we’ll have an office with a view! Prior to getting stuck into the work however, we will have to undergo Antarctic Field Training (AFT). AFT helps you adapt to Antarctic conditions and operate safely in them. The training includes a combination of snowcraft, survival methods, Antarctic camping, glacier travel, GPS, special information about the Dry Valleys, and vehicles depending on the needs of your field party.

We had an AFT briefing this morning from Heidi, a Field Instructor on base. She covered many key points about keeping safe in Antarctica, but a couple in particular have stuck in my mind. The first was to do with natural instinct. Basically you can’t trust it down here. This land is so different from any environment our natural instinct has been learnt in, it just doesn’t hold up. I guess over a number of seasons your instincts may be appropriately shifted. However, from what I gather, every season is different, you never know what Antarctica is going to throw at you! This all adds to the charm of the continent according to a few base staff and scientists I have been chatting with, ‘…that is why I love this place’ said Blake, a field coordinator/camp manager.

Blake is (hopefully) heading out to the Darwin Glacier to set up a field camp site tomorrow, but it is all dependent on the weather. I think anyone else in a similar job in New Zealand would be at the end of their tether! I feel like everyone here either has, or has been forced to develop, a laid back demeanor and even temperament. Dr. Ken Ryan, one of the scientists I worked with during my last adventure to Antarctica, said you always have to be prepared to ‘hurry up and wait’ in Antarctica. I think that sums it up nicely. Make sure you can be ready at a drop of a hat, but be patient too. This explains why even though we are in peak season and everyone is stretched and working incredibly hard, the base staff maintain amazing morale and composure.

The second point of Heidi’s that stuck in my head was ‘teamwork’. Teamwork is one of Antarctica New Zealand’s quoted core values and you definitely see it continuously around base amongst everyone, whether they be staff or scientists. You also see it on a much larger scale amongst bases and nations. In AFT, teamwork is signaled as being important for survival. It is vital we continuously check each other for cold weather injuries as you cannot always feel when you have frost nip, or frost bite. An individuals' thought processes can easily become wayward down here, mainly due to dehydration (it is the driest continent), but also hypothermia - you have to look out for each other. This is definitely where I feel the culture of teamwork and cooperation stems from. The environment gives you no other option, you could not go it alone. This culture has also been written into the Antarctic Treaty, to which every nation in Antarctica adheres (see my next post for more).

I’m looking out the window and it’s snowing! What was dark gravel on the ground has become a white fluffy carpet over the last half hour. This is the first snow I’ve witnessed in Antarctica. It’s actually quite a rare event. I’ve heard snow only occurs when it is warm and humid, otherwise the moisture just falls as ice crystals. Most of what covers the ground and looks like snow in Antarctica, is not fresh snow, but is snow drift carried from elsewhere. Although it is beautiful right now, I hope that it stops falling for those people on base who are looking to fly into the Dry Valleys tommorrow. They need good visibility to fly, and many of them work on lichens and mosses that are hard enough to see on bare ground, let alone snow covered ground!

I’m pretty far from everywhere really! In the background past the laboratory on the coast, you can just make out the shadows on the ice. This is actually crumpled ice, or pressure ridges, caused by the ice shelf pushing into sea ice

A snippet of the goings-on at Scott Base and McMurdo Station, from the Scott Base noticeboard

Snow outside Scott Base. I’m looking out of the corridor leading to Q-hut (an accommodation block) toward the flagpole (middle), the Scott base ‘distances’ sign (right), the RO water intake (takes in water to be desalinated for drinking) and a lab for keeping Antarctic fish (left). The lounge (far left) is Scott Base’s newest addition and a really great spot for watching the snow

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