05 January 2007

I-TASC expedition 2006/2007

Well! The storm… the storm… according to the old hands it was just a baby, but it’s the biggest storm I have experienced. The constant wind speed peaked at about 53 knots with the highest gust being 60 knots (118 km/hr). It was amazing how the storm entered and left. At the beginning (4 days ago), there was an effect like dry ice. Wispy lines of white smoke gliding effortlessly along the slopes of our Nunatak. The lines of smoke increased in density and speed as the day grew until it took on the appearance of a mass migration of ghosts fleeing from something we knew was coming towards us but we didn’t fully comprehend. Then we started losing visibility, the smoke became a dense fog. It appeared to be still in the air, and it was only by looking down at the rocks immediately near us that you could see the cloud of granular ice speeding past. Still, on the second day, you could see radio antenna emerging from the fog. It was only on the third day that the whiteness became complete, meaning that you couldn’t see anything. It was on this day that we put on our winter clothes and went outside for a beer. Why not.


Then we were housebound for another day and finally the storm started clearing. Yesterday, the winds were high but there was cloudy blue sky and today we have a contrast between the blue-on-blue sky above and the beautiful white continent. So marked is the contrast, it has a weird psychological acclimatising effect. Only 5 days ago I would not have ventured outside without my protective clothing. I then weathered the storm from _inside_ the warm building, but now I somehow sensed the warming contrast between the storm and the blue sky day and ventured outside on the roof in my pyjamas (albeit NZ merino jammies). I didn’t feel the cold at all and enjoyed the heat of the sun for half an hour or so. The mind is a mysterious thing.

Throughout the storm, I checked every few hours how my antenna (newly mounted on the roof) was going. There is a plastic bubble on top of the roof, like an upturned fish bowl, and you can stick your head into it from the top floor and see what’s happening outside. It is quite fantastic to have your head in a 50-knot storm but be warm and safe; you feel somehow involved but disconnected at the same time, like some kind of weird storm tourist.


The antenna was going well in the early stages of the storm but on the third day, I could see that the top of the antenna looked twice as wide as the bottom. It appeared to me (the antenna is about 15 metres from the bowl and you can’t see it clearly in the storm), that something had ripped off the top of the antenna or that it had split. Tom checked it and suggested it was just that the top was vibrating a lot and the bottom was not as that was where it was mounted. I wasn’t convinced, and finally today I could check it. What it actually was, was the top of the antenna had a thick coating of ice on the windward side. Ice is a hardy beast, and it had clung to the antenna and built up to an inch thickness even though the antenna was vibrating in the gale. Incredible. Also, the antenna is 100% OK which was a relief to me. I am glad I ignored the geeky antenna guy’s advice and purchased a high wind antenna which isn’t really supposed to be used for FM, instead of a more power-efficient FM antenna. The result is that the transmitter heats up a little more than if it was feeding a more suitable FM antenna (and the range is a little less) but the FM antenna wouldn’t have lasted 1 hour in this last storm.

Just two days ago I had talked to one of the scientists about ice and antennas, as it happens. There is an array here that measures the thickness of the ionosphere. The field of the antenna is about the size of a tennis court. The spacing of the short antenna is about the same as the poles that are used for growing grapes, and they are also connected by wires to each other for stability, giving the appearance of a desolate vineyard. One of the scientists explained to me the plans for protecting the antenna. If they have time before a storm comes, they bulldoze banks of ‘snow’ (it’s not really snow, just granular ice) on the same side of antenna field as the storm is coming from. The storm then blows the ice onto the antenna field. When the storm clears, the ice warms, melts a little, and freezes as one big block. The frequencies that the antenna operate at are not affected by the layer of ice and so the intention is to cover the entire array under one big block of ice.

So, now we are getting on with business as usual. People seemed quite cheered by the clearing of the storm and many went outside as soon as they could. The station is pushing ahead, mostly under the fine steering hand of First Born. I am helping out as much as I can but I think 1st enjoys it and he wants to set up a small station in Alex (where he lives, near Johannesburg), so it’s good he learns as much as he can about it while he can. So I have been concentrating on some techy stuff, formatting machines for the use of the AWS and the station, making cables, testing the compression on the radio etc etc. It doesn’t seem a lot but somehow these things have consumed me for the last 4 days.

The showers have been off for the last two days, and the laundry has been closed for four days because the storm doesn’t allow people to walk the 100 metres to the ice smelter (where we convert ice to water for the base). My roommate Remmy… ah my roommate Remmy, what a guy!… well, I was cleaning the bathroom with him yesterday on skivvy duty and he went to get a bucket of water from the laundry to mop the floor. He came back quite bewildered as the laundry was locked. I suggested it was because we weren’t allowed to use the laundry. “What?!” proclaimed the bewildered Remmy, “That can’t be, I just did my laundry last night!”…he also had no idea of the ban on showers… quite amazing somehow that Remmy had missed the half-dozen in-house PA announcements (which can be heard in every room) stating that showers and laundry were off limits. It’s as if he had just walked in this morning from the outside world to give us a hand… you gotta love the guy.

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