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Archive for the 'Climate & weather' Category

The ever-present Mount Erebus

Nicola, Friday, July 30th, 2010

Temperature: -25°C
Wind speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -40°C
Moonrise: above horizon
Moonset: above horizon

Where ever you are on Ross Island you are always aware of the active volcano Mount Erebus sitting on the skyline topped by a plume of smoke. Erebus, and Mount Terror, the extinct volcano next to it, were named after the ships of Captain James Clark Ross, the first explorer to sail into McMurdo Sound in 1841.

Erebus veiled in cloud in April with the plume of fumes above the crater © AHT / N Dunn

Erebus veiled in cloud in April with the plume of fumes above the crater © AHT / N Dunn

From Scott Base Erebus looks serene, as if you could stroll up to the summit in an afternoon, but it’s actually 20 miles away and its slopes covered with crevasses and hazardous ice fields. Men from Shackleton’s 1907-09 expedition were the first to climb Erebus in 1908, taking 5 days. Now the crater is reached during the summer season by helicopter, which takes scientists up to carry out research on volcanic activity, the lava lake and the toxic fumes - carbon dioxide, chlorine and sulphur dioxide that it pumps out.

Orographic clouds circling the cone of Mount Erebus © AHT / N Dunn

The effects of Erebus on the local weather patterns were a constant source of interest for Dr Simpson, the meteorologist on Captain Scott’s 1910 Expedition. Here orographic clouds circle the cone. © AHT / N Dunn

Erebus is constantly changing, reflecting the weather and seasons. As the sun disappeared we saw it silhouetted against a sky turning from blue to pink to rich red and finally filled with stars and auroras. But over the last week the sky behind Erebus has gradually been lightening and a faint apricot glow now indicates that with Midwinter over we are heading back towards the first sun-rise on 19th August.

The sun below the horizon is beginning to lighten the sky behind Erebus © AHT / N Dunn

The sun below the horizon is beginning to lighten the sky behind Erebus © AHT / N Dunn

A stretch of the legs

Nicola, Monday, July 19th, 2010

Temperature: -23.3°C
Wind speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -35°C
Moonrise: 1.15pm
Moonset: 5.36pm

At midday Bobbie and I meet at the back door dressed in hats, face masks and goggles. Turning on our head torches and radioing through our intentions, we head out for our daily walk along the snow-covered path which climbs up the hill at the back of Scott Base.

Scott Base from the top of the hill in late April, with the path winding down the slope © AHT / N Dunn

Scott Base from the top of the hill in late April, with the path winding down the slope © AHT / N Dunn

A century ago Captain Scott advocated the physical and mental benefits of regular outdoor exercise during the dark winter months, encouraging the men to take some form after lunch. In his diary he wrote ‘the majority of people seem anxious to get exercise, but one or two like the fire better’. In particular it was difficult to get the photographer Ponting out of the hut and Atkinson ‘only managed by dragging him out to his own work, digging holes in the ice’.

Nicola at the top of the hill in June with Scott Base in the background © Steven Sun / ANTNZ

Nicola at the top of the hill in June with Scott Base in the background © Steven Sun / ANTNZ

We started our walks at the beginning of winter as a way of getting some fresh air and to experience the changes in the landscape over the months. And we’ve certainly seen some changes. From the top of the hill the base was first surrounded by pink ice, then gradually the lights began to go on and sometimes it would fade in the blowing snow.

A moonlit Scott Base in June © N Dunn / AHT

A moonlit Scott Base in June © N Dunn / AHT

Several times the weather has been too bad to go out, and on occasions the dark and the sound of the wind have been less than appealing, but once out we always return reinvigorated.

A trip to Pegasus

Jane, Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Temperature: -20.6°C
Wind speed: 45 knots
Temp with wind chill: -55°C
Moonrise: Below horizon
Moonset: Below horizon

We are immersed in a Condition 1* storm today. The wind is howling and the building is shaking. We are confined to Base because of the extreme cold and lack of visibility.

In 1970 similar weather caused a US Navy plane to make an emergency landing. The weather came in from the south, just like today, and the pilots could not make out the runway on the Ross Ice Shelf because of zero visibility. They were beyond the point at which they could turn around or find an alternative landing place. All 80 passengers were uninjured but the plane was badly damaged.

Last Sunday the weather was much better; -25°C and just 10 knots of wind. A group of us drove out to see the plane which has since given its name to the Pegasus Air Field.

Group photo on the tail of the Pegasus.  From left to right: Alf, Bobbie, Georgina, Jane. Front: Hayden, Steven © Steven Sun

Group photo on the tail of the Pegasus. From left to right: Alf, Bobbie, Georgina, Jane. Front: Hayden, Steven © Steven Sun

Steven, Jane and the graffiti on the plane © Steven Sun

Steven, Jane and the graffiti on the plane © Steven Sun

Playing with long exposures on the camera in front of the plane © Steven Sun

Playing with long exposures on the camera in front of the plane © Steven Sun

In keeping with ensuring the continent is kept as pristine as possible, the plane is to be removed this year and work has already begun to collect the debris around it.

I drove us home in the Hagglund - my first time driving one. I switched the lights off to see if I could drive in whiteout conditions using just the satellite navigation. Unfortunately, despite the ice shelf being a big, open, flat area, we thought it best to switch the lights back on!

*Condition 1 is defined as visibility less that 30m or sustained winds over 100 km/h or windchill lower than minus 73°C.

Taking the waters – Antarctic style

Nicola, Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Temperature: -31°C
Wind speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -45°C
Sunrise: none
Sunset: none

I’m always surprised at the similarities between our Antarctic lives and the experiences of the men on the expeditions 100 years ago. But the day after Midwinter with the temperature at -25°C we took part in a Scott Base tradition for which there seems to be no comparison – the polar plunge.

Mechanic Lex begins to cut the polar plunge hole with a chain saw © Matt Morley

Mechanic Lex begins to cut the polar plunge hole with a chain saw © Matt Morley

This is when we cut a hole in the sea ice, put on safety harnesses and take it in turns to jump into the icy 1.7°C waters of the Ross Sea. As I plunged through the floating slush of ice and saw the dark blue-green waters around me, the cold instantly numbed my skin and fingers, and I forgot how to breathe. For a split second there was a wonderfully thrilling feeling of being in the unknown … and so I did it again!

'Super Science Man', Science Technician Steven Sun, prepares for his polar plunge © Don Duke/USAP

‘Super Science Man’, Science Technician Steven Sun, prepares for his polar plunge © Don Duke/USAP

Bobbie takes the plunge whilst Tom holds her harness © Don Duke/USAP

Bobbie takes the plunge whilst Tom holds her harness © Don Duke/USAP

Followed up with saunas and hot showers we shared video clips of our plunges – some did it wearing just shoes, some in fancy dress or bikinis; some made a big splash and others dipped a toe in the water then elegantly slid in without getting their hair wet!

Later I remembered that the only time the members of the expeditions had dipped into the water was by accident, putting a leg through the tide-crack, or falling through thin broken sea ice, some never to be seen again.

Why do we do it? Maybe it’s because we all appreciate experiencing the extremes of the Antarctic environment - provided there’s a warm sauna to run to afterwards!

Drilling for ice!

George, Monday, July 5th, 2010

Temperature: -31°C
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: approximately -45°C
Moonrise: n/a
Moonset: n/a

Yesterday I had a very special day. A four man team from the American Antarctic Research Station McMurdo and New Zealand’s Scott Base were going on a scientific field trip in a five-seater Hagglund vehicle – a Swedish-built snow tank. They offered the remaining seat to the Antarctic Heritage Trust as the trip aimed to reach Captain Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. After drawing names from a hat, I found myself lucky enough to be packing my ECWs (extreme cold weather gear).

From left to right: Steven, Science technician; Georgina, AHT conservator; Matt, carpenter; John, the man with the drill from McMurdo; Tom, Field Support and Base Manager © S. Sun/Antarctica New Zealand

From left to right: Steven, Science technician; Georgina, AHT conservator; Matt, carpenter; John, the man with the drill from McMurdo; Tom, Field Support and Base Manager © S. Sun/Antarctica New Zealand

We travelled out across the ice field, an area of the frozen Ross Sea, winding our way carefully along a marked route using GPS, avoiding known areas of thin ice and tide-cracks. The weather began to deteriorate, and as the wind whipped up flurries of ice and snow around our vehicle we lost visibility.

Contacting the weather people at McMurdo via radio, the forecast was grim, and so we decided against pushing on to Cape Evans, instead setting up the scientific recording equipment where we were. Two test holes were drilled, showing the ice to be a suitable 1.5m thick and then we erected a probe to measure the rate and extent of the growing sea ice which will stay in place for a year.

The newly-erected probe, set up to measure growth of sea-ice over a year.  The black box is a recording device. © S. Sun/Antarctica New Zealand

The newly-erected probe, set up to measure growth of sea-ice over a year. The black box is a recording device. © S. Sun/Antarctica New Zealand

But the weather here is fickle and instead of the predicted blizzard, the wind died down as soon as we began work and everything became perfectly still. It was quite extraordinary being in such an expanse of moonlit ice, and after so many months in the comfort of Scott Base, it impressed on me again what an eerily beautiful and quite desolate place Antarctica can be.

Panoramic view with Mt Erebus and Hagglund © Tom Arnold/Antarctica New Zealand

Panoramic view with Mt Erebus and Hagglund © Tom Arnold/Antarctica New Zealand

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