He may just be the only to person to ever visit from
the Halley Research
Station, Latitude 75°35' S, Longitude 26°39' W,
Brunt Ice Shelf, Coats Land, Antarctica.
That's right folks -
Antarctica. Below is his interview.
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
When it’s 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 -80°C.
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
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?
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:
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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