Dale (glosrfc)

Say hi to Dale everyone:

He may just be the only to person to ever visit from the Halley Research Station, Latitude 7535' S, Longitude 2639' W, Brunt Ice Shelf, Coats Land, Antarctica. That's right folks - Antarctica. Below is his interview.

What makes you motivated to wake up daily and go to work?

That's an easy question to answer. Every day brings a completely different landscape. Even when the day is dark, the sky is constantly changing colour - pink one day, purple on another, orange the next. And you never get tired of being woken in the middle of the night to witness the aurora, or Southern Lights. When the aurora vanishes, you're left with a solid mass of stars in the sky, unsullied by any light pollution.

When its light, the entire landscape changes from day to day, or even hourly as the 200 mph katabatic winds (high density air that travels downhill) continuously reshape the snow and ice:

[ a video showing the katabatic winds in action ]

What is a typical day at work like?

There really is no such thing as a "typical" day as activities are very much dependent on the seasons, available light, weather conditions, number of personnel on the base, safety considerations, etc.

However, most days follow a similar pattern of timings, subject to where you're physically situated on the ice, and the type of job you're employed to do. So in the winter, when you have 24-hours of darkness outside, the first thing you might do is to sit in front of a very strong, and extremely bright, light as part of an experiment designed to increase your melatin levels.

Once you've had half an hour of this, you'd then take an abbreviated shower, for reasons I'll come on to later. This is followed by the first part of dressing yourself in the first few layers of clothing, which usually consists of your knitted socks, boot liners, mukluk boots, t-shirt, thermal vest, woolen shirt, thermal long-johns, and a pair of moleskin trousers.

Next up is breakfast which you'll usually make yourself and then you'll put the second half of your clothing on - a woolen fleece, windproof jacket, quilted parka, over-trousers, balaclava, head-over, fur hat, crampons, goggles, glacier glasses, woolen inner gloves, fleece inner mittens, bear paw liners, and finally your bear paw gloves. Over all of this, you'll then slip into a skidoo suit. You take a deep breath and then open the external door.

The meteorologists will waddle off to their laboratories where they'll do the first weather observation at 9am. These are repeated every three hours although there will be a change of shift at 3pm. In the remaining time they'll undertake their specific experiments which usually includes releasing a number of weather balloons during the course of the day. Others will tend their own experiments, such as recording ozone levels, taking air and snow samples to monitor possible changes in greenhouse gases, recording wave activity in the magnetosphere, and the various biodiversity experiments.

Logistical staff might go and tend to the vehicles, fix radio's and electrical circuits, or undertake repairs to various facilities on the site. At some point during the day, you might be tasked with joining the dig team. This is a couple of hours digging snow which is transported to the melt-down hut so it can be converted into water, hence why showers are kept as short as possible. Another task that you might have to perform is to realign all of the external guide ropes that criss-cross the base. As these are vital for safety - being tethered to them prevents you wandering off across the ice shelf during a blizzard - they are usually checked on a daily basis to make sure they haven't snapped, been blown away, or simply buried under the accumulation of snow and ice over night.

Another major activity is the period called summer relief which takes place in Jan/Feb. Essentially this is when everything we use during the next year - food, clothing, fuel, equipment, etc., has to be unloaded from the supply ship and then transported back to the base. Everyone gets involved in this, including the new arrivals, on 24-hour shifts because we can't run the risk of the supply ship having to leave because of poor weather conditions, or because the ice shelf starts breaking up. Once all the new stuff is safely stored at the base, everyone then lends a hand transporting all of the waste that's accumulated over the past year back to the ship. The Antarctic Treaty states that the environment must be left as pristine as we found it so every scrap of waste has to be physically removed.

Everyone also has to help out with raising the accommodation. So much snow falls that the buildings we use would be crushed completely within a few years. So, once a year, each building has to be jacked up on telescopic legs to keep it clear of the ice and snow. Then every building has to be towed to a new location on the ice otherwise, as the ice shelf flows towards the sea, we might wake one morning to find ourselves, or even worse the beer supply portakabin, floating around on the Southern Ocean.

During the calmer months, i.e. when the temperature is only a few degrees below zero and the days become longer, you might go on some external exploration activities. This usually involves trekking or skiing some distance from the base where you'll do things like glacier-climbing, skiing, learning to set up and operate shortwave radios, building igloo's, survival courses, and so on. You might also get the chance to go up in one of the De Havilland Twin Otter planes to undertake geological, geophysical, or meteorological surveying.

If weather conditions are suitable, then I might take a skidoo down to the Emperor colony which is about 16km away. This isn't a daily activity as the monitoring is all done remotely by special PC's, but you do get the chance to get up real close to some birds and, while there, check the condition of the computer batteries and other equipment.

Evenings back at base are usually themed - beach parties are quite popular, for some masochistic reason - and there's usually a communal video night. On other evenings you might listen to, or read, a book or people will spend a few hours on their own hobbies. There are also competitions, such as darts matches, against the other Antarctic bases which are played over the radio.

Do you feel your current job will be relevant in 5 years? Why?

Yes. It's important that we gather as much long-term data about the environment as we can. This data also has to be strictly quality-controlled - you can't just scoop up a bit of snow that's lying around. You have to dig a trench around the sample so that it doesn't become contaminated by your boots or clothing, and then dig down to reach it. Then it has to be inserted into a sterilised container and recorded. Any samples that are taken must also be continuous. It's no good taking samples for a few weeks, and then not bothering because you think they're all the same snow. The sample you don't bother taking might just be the sample which radically alters the climate model that scientists back in the UK are basing their current theories about the Earth on. So the job will remain relevant for a long time to come, the question really is who (or what, given the rapid advance in technology) will be collecting the data. At the end of the day, there are very few substitutes for someone with a shovel, a test-tube, and a clipboard.

What new technologies are you using and why?

There are a number of problems with monitoring Emperor penguins that are being tackled with new technology. Some of the colonies number tens of thousands of birds so a physical count of each bird isn't possible. Unfortunately, the best time to take a sample count coincides with the most difficult times to access them. By the time you can reach them, most of the penguins will already have migrated to the sea. When a sample count is performed, this data has to be extrapolated by the number of penguin colonies we believe to exist but we aren't entirely sure how many there actually are on the continent - after all, most of it is still unexplored. Some of these numbers date back to the earliest days of polar exploration which is most probably out of date, or wildly inaccurate.

So we've turned to satellite imagery to track down all of the colonies. That has introduced a few new problems. Penguins are white which means that they can't be easily seen from space with existing camera resolutions. Also, ice formed on land can easily be discoloured by impurities. Fortunately, Emperors only breed on sea ice which is free from these impurities and they produce an impurity all of their own - penguin poop! By tracking the location of this fishy guano, we've discovered that there are four colonies we've never known about before, and that six of the colonies we thought we knew about have now moved to different parts of the continent. Now that we know the location of the colonies, we can start to develop higher resolution satellite cameras which will be able to see individual penguins so that we can count the numbers more effectively.

Another technology we've developed involve low power magnetometers. A magnetometer measures fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field. The reason they're used on Antarctica is because the lines of magnetic field travel parallel to the earth, but they ground at either pole - in the same way that iron fillings are attracted to the poles on a bar magnet. Magnetometers detect the magnetic field in 3D which means that it allows us to map changes in "space weather" or geospace. Just as we predict earth-based weather by measuring changes in air pressure, we can detect and predict changes that might be caused by cosmic rays produced by solar flares and so assist in the protection of spacecraft which cost millions of dollars. The prediction of "space weather" also assists the telecommunication and power industries in preventing transmission failures and blackouts so it's vital work.

The bad news is that Antarctica is a harsh environment for electronic equipment. A normal PC, left in sub-zero temperatures, will probably fail within a matter of minutes. And that's assuming that you have a convenient power socket to plug it in to. To counter this, we've developed a computer which uses less than 0.5 watts and which has software which can turn itself on, take a measurement in less than a minute, store the data on a flash drive, and then turn the entire computer off. Because the magnetometers are situated in extremely remote locations, they can only be serviced once a year and so we employ a combination of solar panels and batteries to provide the power. During the summer, the solar panels operate the computer and charge the batteries. During the winter, when the sun isn't visible, they rely on battery power alone. So far, they've operated completely unattended for more than 400 days in temperatures that have dropped to -80C.

Other new technologies include miniature data-loggers that are smaller than a thumbnail. These can be attached to migrating birds and can operate for many decades. The data-loggers contain a timer, a light sensor, and firmware, which automatically records changes in light levels. When the bird is recaptured perhaps as much as 20 years later, it's possible to determine the precise latitude and longitude from these light measurements and so calculate where the bird has been.

What is your favourite font?

No real surprise here - it has to be Chauncy Snowman!

If you were given the chance to meet one person, past or present, who would it be and why?

I'd like to ask Pierre de Fermat whether he really did have a "truly marvelous proof" to his theorem that an + bn = cn has no solutions where n is an integer greater than 2. Or was he simply making it up?

( source )

If you had to be a dinosaur, which one would you want to be?

I suppose a Glacialisaurus would be most appropriate, given that it was discovered in Antarctica. This was a sauropodomorph, or long-necked plant-eater, that measured about 25 feet in length and weighed around 6 tons:

( source )

Alternatively, I could be an Archaeopty-ipod. This small dinosaur developed tiny ear buds, wire-like structures, and a unique method of storing digital information millions of years before its time. Unfortunately, its own time was also relatively brief, as entire herds of Archaeopty-ipods were obliviously trampled to death due to their inability to hear a Glacialisaurus coming.

I hope you all enjoyed this series of questions and answers, and thanks to glosrfc for answering them. To ask more follow-up questions, post them in the Interview - Glosrfc forum thread.

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I like to talk a lot - A WHOLE LOT. When I'm not talking, I've been known to write the occasional English word. You can learn more about me by going here.

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