Antarctica: The Waiting Game

By Dave Risk

Today’s helicopter trip out to our Dry Valley field sites got postponed at the last minute. There is a lot of hurry up and wait in field work like this. The weather doesn’t swing wildly, but the visibility is somewhat unpredictable as low clouds and gentle snowstorms move past. We have 2 hours until the next call.  So, to occupy myself for the next 2 hours, I thought it might be nice to describe Scott Base, which has been my living quarters for the past few days.

Scott Base is New Zealand’s home in the Antarctic, and is named after Robert Falcon Scott, leader of two British expeditions to the Ross Sea area. It sits on Ross Island, which is enveloped by the Ross Ice Sheet that flows off the continent and into the sea. Early huts used by Scott’s and Shackleton’s expeditions are still standing on the island. Shackleton was one of the competitors at the time to reach the south pole. Amundsen won, but Shackleton’s story is well known as his ship Endurance was trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed. He and many of his team survived by camping on the ice then rafting to land. In fact, a hut from one of his expeditions still stands across the hill from here, and apparently his last meal still sits on a plate on the table. This is a historic location. Many countries have bases in Antarctica. The massive American McMurdo Base is just around the corner, 3 km away. But, most are farther away, and scattered around the continent’s coast. Most I believe are accessed by boat, some for example from South America etc. Scott and McMurdo are very convenient as they’re in reach of NZ by air – barely. Many of the cargo aircraft that fly the route, like the Hercules, have about 10 hours of fuel onboard. The flight is nearly 8, so about halfway the pilot and ground crew must make the call whether the landing conditions on the ice shelf are suitable. If conditions look bad, the plane must turn around for New Zealand. Ships can come in very late in the season, as the ice breaks up a bit.  A 2 year old US Icebreaker is actually waiting out in the ice right now which will take some stuff out.  Other vessels will come in February with fuel and food for overwintering etc.

Basically, Scott Base is a modular, organic, growth of green buildings linked by long corridors. It sits on posts, as is normal in all permafrost environments. The idea is to protect the permafrost from thaw to maintain stability. Scott Base is primarily an operations staging facility, with no real science labs, and no real resident scientists. The scientists are transients. Most are doing work out on the ice, or in the Dry Valleys, or are here en route to meet up with ship x or y. The annual schedule is organized to avoid having too many people here at once.

In the winter, there is a skeleton staff that remains, basically to just keep things alive, and to prepare for the coming season. Surprisingly, they have a hard time identifying staff who are willing to overwinter for the relatively low salaries. I suggested they try recruiting in Canada! What Winnipeger wouldn’t rather be in Antarctica than at their boring desk all winter? It gets cold, but not as bad as one would think.  It usually hovers in the -30 to -40 range. The real stinging Antarctic temperatures occur on the ice sheet closer to the south pole (1500 km from here) which is both high elevation and of course in the epicentre of southern cold. For winter staff, often renovations are in the works, as they will be again this year.

Photos of overwintering parties line the corridor outside the canteen. The older photos are great, and hint at a Scott Base that would have been quite a bit different than today. In the late 1970s, Scott Base would have hit its second decade, but I suspect that operations would have been far smaller. In the old days, they used to use sledding teams, and often dogs and long beards were the flavour of the day in the photos. The use of dog teams lasted perhaps until the mid 1980s if my interpretation of the photos is any indicator. There are also some rather clever overwintering photos from the early 1990s when everyone was listening to too much “Wham” in the polar darkness.

Food is a big part of life here on Base.  The cook Tracy is fantastic, and every meal is like eating at a great restaurant. She is always running, as there are basically 5 meals a day, and most breads and pastries are cooked onsite. The mid-morning and mid-afternoon meals are just snacks, and the break itself is called “Smoko”, which is a holdover from blue collar NZ towns where the workers would get a smoke break. But, they likely wouldn’t get pastries, dips, and continual access to an industrial espresso maker. There is also a bar, called the Tatty Flag.

As for my science stuff, it’s ready to go. All the computer programs for our instrumentation are prepped, and I’m keen to see if our continuous measurements through the last 12 months have been successful. I’m a little nervous about it. Twelve months is a long time to leave an instrument without checking, and of course there’s the dark where we have nothing but batteries to sustain the station. But if it did work, we’ll have some great data on the gas dynamics of these soils, which record the “breathing” of both microbes and geochemical processes. Was there a microbial pulse this year as we had seen in another valley? Will our depth profiler measurements allow us to establish the depth at which these gases originated?

But for now, we are on standby, waiting another couple of hours to get word from the helicopter folks.

[Len and Maggie, from my team, waiting in the lounge for news about our heli flight]

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